Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Nationals 2013 post-mortem

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This may be the last time i use Haren's picture in a Nats uniform on this blog.  Photo via Zimbio.com

This may be the last time I use Haren’s picture in a Nats uniform on this blog. Photo via Zimbio.com

They say success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.  Well, here’s a whole slew of orphan-causing problems that befell this team this year.  I started this post months ago, when the team sputtered in July and suddenly sat at 54-60.  None of these bullet points are surprises.  Maybe I forgot some key points; feel free to tack ‘em on.   This is a cathartic, washing my hands of the 2013 season, where so many things conspired to go wrongly.

  1. Davey Johnson, for continued pitching/bullpen mismanagement episode after episode, for seemingly losing the clubhouse (see below), for sticking with severely under-performing players (Espinosa, Haren especially) far, far too long, for failing to react to repeated beanings of his best player, and for generally looking old, tired and out-matched this year at press conference after press conference.  This team needs a new voice, a disciplinarian who will command more respect than what Johnson was commanding from this team.  My vote is for Matt Williams.
  2. Injuries.  Every team has injuries; I’m not going to write some simplistic statement that says “well if we had So-and-So healthy all year we’d have won the division.”   Look at St. Louis: they’re missing Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia basically all year and still won the best division in the game.  I think the issue most people will have with the Nats is the way their players’ injuries were handled.  Bryce Harper missed the whole month of June after several wall collisions finally caught up to him and he was clearly in pain the rest of the season.  Did the team not allow him to get healthy at the end of April?  Meanwhile you have to take serious issue with either the team, Danny Espinosa or both over the handling of his injuries.  What good did it do anyone to allow Espinosa to try to play through the significant shoulder injury he apparently has?  Why has he STILL not had the surgery done to fix it?  It sounds to me like there’s some serious stubbornness on both sides of this fence.  Ross Detwiler looked to be on the verge of a breakout season in 2012 … and now he’s back to being the broken down starter he’s mostly been during his time here.  In his 6 pro seasons he’s not pitched full seasons in 3 of them.   This isn’t necessarily on the team .. but I will ask this: at what point do you go into a season counting on Detwiler to break down instead of the reverse?  It goes to proper roster planning (also mentioned later on).
  3. Bench production, for regressing so far past the mean from last year’s over production.  Did you know that Steve Lombardozzi got more than 300 plate appearances this year with this slash line: .255/.276/.337?  I know you need backup utility infielders, but man, that’s a huge 68 OPS+ hole getting a ton of ABs.  Our opening-day bench of Lombardozzi/Moore/Bernadina/Tracy posted these OPS+ figures in 2012: 82/123/111/111.  In 2013?  69/66/43/55.  Wow.  That’s just a startling drop-off in production.  To add insult to injury Kurt Suzuki‘s OPS+ went from a respectable 95 last year to 64 this year.  Basically every pinch hitting spot or guy off the bench covering for a starter turned into an 0-4 outing.  We know that at least 3 of these 5 bench guys are gone; who will replace them?
  4. Dan Haren.  $13M for one of the worst starters in the game, even given his little August rebound.  The team finished 4 games out of the wild card, 10 games back of Atlanta.   In Dan Haren’s 30 starts, the Nats went 11-19.  In every other pitcher’s starts, the team went 75-57.   That’s a .568 winning percentage, which equates to 92 wins.  Even a #5 starter who gave the team a 50/50 chance of winning on any given sunday would have basically put the team into the WC game.  Haren was just a really really poor FA acquisition who contributed a huge part to the downfall of the team.  I wonder at this point if the Nats didn’t fail to do the proper medical due diligence on Haren; there was a reason the proposed trade to the Cubs fell through and there was a reason the Angels did not give him a qualifying offer.  I fully admit: I was completely on board with the signing, thinking we were getting the pre 2012 Haren.  Wrong; something clearly changed for him after the 2011 season and I wonder how much longer he can stay in the league after his last two seasons.  I’m sure he’ll get another one-year deal for 2014 based on his stronger finish, but another 5+ ERA season may finish him.
  5. Offense in general: The team scored 656 runs on the year.  That’s down fully 75 runs from last year, when they were 10th in the league in scoring.  Had they produced like they did last year in 2013 (about 10th in the league in runs scored and other key indicators),  they’d have scored around 700 runs, probably good for at least 10 more wins (under the rough estimate that it takes about 4 “extra” runs per win).  With 10 more wins … they’re winning the division again (since some of those added wins come at the hands of Atlanta).
  6. Hitting in the Clutch: Ask any sabre-nerd and they’ll tell you that “clutch” doesn’t exist and that all aspects of batting (good or bad) with RISP is merely coincidence (this came up again recently with David Ortiz’ game-changing NLCS homer).  I don’t entirely buy it. I think hitting with runners on base is a skill that can be practiced and honed.  I think there’s importance to driving runners in when you have the opportunity.  I think a batter with a runner on third and less than one out can absolutely look for a ball that he can hit into the air, thus driving in the run.  Anyway: let’s look at how well the Nats offense hit in the clutch this season (see this team-stats split link at tFangraphs).  The Nats team batting average with runners on base is ranked 19th in the league; its wRC+ as a team 17th.  However, change “runners on base” to “high leverage” in the Fangraphs split and you get this: Nats were 29th in high leverage batting average, 28th in wRC+. That’s right: almost dead last in the league in high-leverage hitting for the year.  When they came to bat in situations that mattered, they were one of the worst teams in the league.  Any way you slice it … that’s not “clutch.”
  7. Clubhouse Issues: I know that many readers here get irritated with presumptions of “chemistry” issues, writing comments about how we have no idea what really goes on in the clubhouse.  Fair enough; we don’t need to rehash the argument.  Absent any proof, I believe something might have been amiss.  Reporters have noted the losses of free-spirit Morse and the level headed DeRosa.  The Soriano acquisition brought a known surly loner with behavior problems into a tight knit bullpen and resulted in the chain reaction demotion of two guys (Storen and Clippard) who didn’t necessarily deserve to be demoted.  I believe Harper was fed up with Johnson’s message and was caught on camera more than once clearly ignoring or showing disdain to something he was being told.  To say nothing of the ridiculousness of Harper getting hit over and over without any of his teammates getting his back.   Can a new manager fix this?  Probably.  Can a leadership void fix this?  Definitely.  Perhaps with Jayson Werth‘s great season he can step up in the clubhouse and be the voice of reason moreso than it seems he has been before (either because he was struggling on the field or collapsing under the weight of his contract).
  8. Rizzo’s mis-management of the 2013 roster: Rizzo just had to have his speedy leadoff/centerfielder, and Span underperformed when it counted (I’m on record stating over and over that the team is wasting Harper’s defensive capabilities in left and blocking a power-hitter acquisition by sticking with Span in center.  But what’s done is done).  The opening day roster had no left handed specialists, a move that I quasi-defended at the time but which turned out to be disastrous.  We relied on a MLFA (and frankly, we over-relied an incredibly short sample size) for the long man (Duke) and he failed. We had absolutely no starting pitching depth in the high Minors and got rather lucky that Taylor Jordan materialized out of the thin air of high-A and Tanner Roark suddenly added 5 mph to his fastball and turned into an effective MLB hurler.  We had a $120M payroll but were depending on bargain basement acquisitions in key roles.  That just has to change for 2014.  Don’t go looking to save pennies on the proverbial dollar by non-tendering useful guys (as they did with Tom Gorzelanny last year); do the right thing and lock these guys up.  You had enough to waste $30M on Soriano but couldn’t find the scratch to keep around half of 2012’s bullpen?
  9. Pressure. this team had no pressure last year, and all of the pressure this year.  Nearly every baseball pundit with a blog, microphone or column picked them to win the division (me included), and lots picked them to win 100+ games (me included).  Look at how awfully they fared this year against the NL playoff bound teams:
  • Stl: 0-6, scoring just 8 runs in 6 games.
  • LA Dodgers: 1-5
  • Atlanta: 6-13.  Outscored 73-49
  • Pittsburgh: 3-4
  • Cincinnati: 4-3 but outscored 36-27 thanks to a 15-0 spanking the 2nd week of the season.

When the chips were down, they folded.  Especially against Atlanta, who pushed the team around, continually threw at us, and we had no reaction (that is until Strasburg suddenly had a fit of wildness which some will argue was less about standing up for his players and more about being off that day).   I lay this at the manager’s feet again.  Atlanta has proved time and again (and again) that they’re capable of acting like bullies when it comes to “unwritten rules” of the game, and Johnson let this go unchecked far too long.  A new manager with some balls will put an end to this nonesense, fast.  Sorry to sound crude, but it is what it is.  Johnson had no balls and made his entire team look weak in the face of the Braves.

Yes its great the team had a run in August and September.  What does it really mean?  Their schedule was cake in August and then filled with teams with AAA callups in September.  Who is the real Denard Span?  The guy who hit .235 in the middle of the summer or the guy who hit .303 in September?  Can Werth keep this kind of production up in the face of father time in 2014?  Can LaRoche return his OPS to something better than what a middling 2nd baseman can produce?  Can Harper stop running into walls and stay on the field?

I think the scarier part for Nats fans is the fact that this team is basically going to be the exact same team next year. Nearly every position player, likely the entire rotation (simply replace Haren with a healthy Detwiler), most all of the bullpen. There’s not a lot of holes here, not a lot of wiggle room.   Unless there’s a major trade on the horizon that drastically reshapes the roster, this is your team in 2014.  Can they turn it around and make up the 14 games they declined in the win column?

In summary; which of the above points IS the real issue behind 2013’s disaster?  And how do you fix it?  Because if you don’t address it, then 2014 is going to be the same story.

 

7 Responses to 'Nationals 2013 post-mortem'

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  1. Baseball is a very difficult sport to predict, and I am of the opinion that most narrative constructs (“chemistry”, etc) are simply the well-established human trait of finding a pattern in the midst of random events. But I certainly agree that rehashing that is all pretty pointless.

    After 2012, most people were completely on board with this roster, which essentially repeated in 2013. I believe the changes, Haren for EJax and the LHP in the bullpen, were pretty minor. The production of Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez was missed, but they were respectively injured and ineffective this year. Gorzelanny was a useful garbage time innings eater in 2012, and moved all the way up to “OK” (3-6, 3.90 ERA, 1.266 WHIP) this year. Retaining him over Duke would have been better, but not a season changer. Morse was both injured AND ineffective this season, and while DeRosa had a bit of a bounce-back season his production in 2012 was so bad that Rizzo would have been mocked mercilessly for retaining him over going with the kids. Hindsight.

    Last year after the season was all sunshine and roses; 98 wins will do that. For perspective, this year’s much-criticized team finished tied (with the 1969 Senators) for the second best record in DC baseball since WWII. But as 2012 was the best season since the 1933 team went 99-53-1, our expectations were quite rightly higher.

    Put all that together and, with a couple of tweaks, I’m perfectly happy with the Nationals going forward with this roster. Werth will almost certainly regress, but the Nationals have good reason to believe that they will get better seasons from several other players due to recovery from injury (Ramos, Zimmerman), gaining of experience (Harper and Rendon particularly, but also Lombardozzi and Moore) or regression to career norms (Hairston and ALR – I don’t expect ALR to repeat 2012 or 2013, but my expectation for him would be to postively regress to something just under his career averages). Pitching is basically fine (more below) and I think defensively the club will also be fine with improved health (3b, c) and experience (2b) allowing an already above average unit (#11 of 30 in defensive efficiency in 2013) to return to the level of the very good/excellent unit of 2012 (#5 of 30).

    Certainly some tweaks are inevitable. Offensively Denard Span is the wild card, which is why OF depth is essential. Hairston and Moore are platoon options only, and Moore will have to continue to improve defensively to be a part of that conversation. I would bring in an additional LHRP to compete with Cedeno and Krol for a LOOGY role, and I vote for retaining both Storen and Clippard.* Stammen and Soriano will also be there, with the long guy being the first loser of the rotation competition. As for the rotation, the first three are obviously set. I would bring in another arm (Josh Johnson? – he could be had very cheaply, and his peripherals were much better than his traditional stats) to compete with Detwiler, Jordan, Roark and Karns for the #4-5 slots. The expectation is that Detwiler and New Guy fill out the rotation, while the first loser of the competion becomes the long guy/spot starter in the bullpen. The other two go to AAA for rotation depth, which is already better than the rotation depth they had last year (Yunesky Maya? Chris Young?). With more pitchers moving up in the system (Solis, Cole), I actually feel better about the rotation going into 2014 than I did going into 2013.

    *I would move Storen or Clippard as part of a package to get a true OF with thump, or as part of a Gio-like trade. If the David Price market floats back to the Nationals they could get involved, but I have enough concerns about him that I wouldn’t be in the “at any Price!” camp for him.

    John C.

    16 Oct 13 at 1:27 pm

  2. Sorry for the tl;dr post – it got away from me. Bottom line on the proposed causes from the OP:

    1. Davey didn’t have a good season, but he wasn’t a disaster. He certainly wasn’t the #1 cause of the team falling short of expectations. Which also means that a new manager isn’t going to solve all their problems. If you’re a “chemistry” fan beware of “disciplinarian” managers – they can lose the clubhouse and create poison for their team. Bobby Valentine, anyone?
    2. Injuries. Everyone hates them, no one knows what to do about them.
    3. Bench production. This drove me nuts. If they were resting people, suddenly it was like 2009 again with four guys hitting under the Mendoza line in the lineup. Blech. This combined with injuries is my #1 culprit for their struggles this year (if you have bench woes, injuries really, really hurt).
    Oh, skipping a bit –
    6. Clutch hitting as a team (if it exists) is very difficult to sustain or repeat. The O’s were fabulous in the clutch in 2012, added Manny Machado for a full year and … sucked in 2013. With better health (and, more importantly, better hitters – see previous post) I expect that relaxing will help a lot. But if they hit better in the “clutch,” it could easily just be random variation.
    8. There WERE problems with the roster last year; Rizzo acknowledged the mistake not having a LHRP (but part of the problem was being outbid for guys they tried for, like J.P. Howell). I’d love to see them pick up Erik O’Flaherty as he comes off TJ surgery, but with Cedeno and Krol they’re already better off there than they were most of last year. As noted above, rotation depth will be better, too. Heck, I forgot to mention Ross Ohlendorf as a guy the team can retain and stash in the ‘pen or AAA, which means that the first three guys in the Syracuse rotation could well be Jordan, Roark and Karns – all young pitchers with a taste of major league experience.

    John C.

    16 Oct 13 at 1:41 pm

  3. Agree on Johnson; a Hall of Fame manager who managed 1 season too long.
    Why on earth has Espinosa NOT had his surgery yet? Why don’t we know why?

    Mark L

    16 Oct 13 at 2:03 pm

  4. My list of reasons:
    (1) the offense
    (2) failure to address the injury to Harper. In April, he looked like he was going to have a Trout season, then the injury happened and the Nats never took the time to let it heal properly. Could have been a huge difference
    (3) Rizzo’s roster management was poor, both going into the season and then by not making adjustments.
    (4) Falloff by the ‘Big 3′ SPs. They were down about 3 WAR from 2012. Still good numbers, but the roster was constructed for them to dominate and they didn’t really do it.
    (5) the defense seemed bad all year.

    The big questions for 2014 are: do you really believe Jordan and Roark will maintain their 2013 levels? Can you just project Ramos’ rate stats out over 600 PAs? Will ALR really return close to career averages? Can Rendon add 100 pts of OPS?

    My take: there is as much negative regression possible in the lineup as positive, and it would be a mistake to go into 2014 with essentially the same roster. Span and Zim, for instance, look ok number wise primarily because of a hot 6 weeks. They could easily be sliding. I’d like to see a bold move or two, and I really would like Rizzo to be prepared to make some real in season moves. The clock is ticking.

    Wally

    16 Oct 13 at 3:06 pm

  5. It seems obvious that the key to a successful 2014 will be in how well Rizzo handles the offseason and the new manager (Williams? yes, please) changes the tone in the clubhouse. A couple of seemingly minor but canny moves combined with an energized team truly motivated to play and get in other teams’ faces when necessary could surprise everyone ala the Red Sox this year. And the Nats are not even close to being is as deep a hole as Boston seemed to be after last year.

    bdrube

    16 Oct 13 at 11:25 pm

  6. One reason that the Red Sox were in such a deep hole before this season was that they hired the fiery, hard charging Bobby Valentine as an antidote to a perceived country club atmosphere under Terry Francona. So beware of fiery disciplinarians, they can really lose a clubhouse.

    Given Matt Williams’ extensive history with steroids, HGH and other PEDs (any google search will provide a lot of particulars), I would also be concerned about the message that hiring him would send in terms of the organization’s stance on PEDs.

    John C.

    17 Oct 13 at 1:41 pm

  7. Haren was probably the biggest issue with the team in my eyes. Both because performance wise and the front office’s insistance on running him out there. As stated if you replace him with a league average pitcher the team probably wins 4-5 more games. This puts them right there in the wild card race and right at 90 wins. Nobody would be complaining about a 90 win season.

    The other thing that really hurt us was Davey’s roster management. Refusing to bench Espinosa earlier in the year, his poor bullpen management and his refusal to bat Span 8th while he was struggling all had very negative effects on the season.

    The team could handle hiding one defensive standout who was league average with the bat in the 8th spot in the lineup but for some reason Davey continued to run Span out there in the leadoff spot where league average doesn’t cut it, getting him the most at bats every game despite his struggles. In the 8th hole he would have gotten 1 less at bat per game more than likely and that could have gone to someone else.

    Giving Espinosa so many at bats was just dumb. He was awful at the end of ’12 and he was awful the entire month of April. That should have been enough to realize he couldn’t play through it. Adam LaRoche tried a similar approach in 2011 and he shut it down in early May once he realized he was hurting the team. Espinosa is too stubborn for his own good and cost himself millions of dollars by putting the surgery off.

    The bullpen was poorly managed a lot of the year too which cost us several runs.

    Yes I know the offense was below average this year and that didn’t help but by taking a guy with a .315 OBP out of the leadoff spot for someone else and removing the black hole that was Espinosa a month earlier would have helped. An extra month of Rendon and his slightly above average offense would have been welcome early in the season.

    Having a true lefty in the bullpen also would have been good. JP Howell signed for a pretty low contract and so did Mike Gonzalez. If the team could add Soriano they had the money to grab one of those guys.

    pdowdy83

    18 Oct 13 at 9:37 am

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