Nationals Arm Race

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

Nats run themselves out of the home opener

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Desmond's ill-timed steal affects home opener.  Photo Drew Kinback/Natsnq.com

Desmond’s ill-timed steal affects home opener. Photo Drew Kinback/Natsnq.com

I like Matt Williams.  I thought he was the obvious choice for manager of this team, and I thought he made a great change of pace from Davey Johnson‘s laissez-faire approach.

But, man, I’m seeing some warning signs thus far through four games in some of his decisions.   Base running and lineup construction specifically.

The Nats made not one, not two, but THREE critical base-running errors in Friday’s home opener 2-1 loss to Atlanta.  Lets see if we can correctly second-guess these moves:

1. Gee, I wonder what would happen if I sent a guy with 20 speed (Adam LaRoche) home when a guy with an 80 arm (Andrelton Simmons) is getting ready to make the relay?    Oh, you think the 20-runner gets thrown out by 15 feet?  Check.  This isn’t on Williams of course … but if he holds LaRoche the team has 2nd and 3rd with one out (run expectancy: 1.44) versus just Zimmerman on third with two outs (RE: .385).  That’s huge.  If LaRoche stays put the team is almost guaranteed a run and perhaps more (a single scores two).  What happens?  Bryce Harper strikes out to end the inning.

2. One on, one out, and Harper gets thrown out trying to steal second on such an obvious steal attempt that the Braves pitched out and one of the lesser defensive catchers in the game (Evan Gattis) had Harper so dead to rights that he stopped running to second.  He was out by 20 feet.   This wouldn’t have led to much of anything likely .. but come on.  Maybe Harper gets to third on Ian Desmond‘s subsequent single up the middle.

3. The most egregious, the most obvious bone-headed running error though was the one that changed the game most.  After Desmond’s ground rule double (an opinion here: why was this call missed in the first place?  Every frigging little leaguer in the country knows the universal thing to do when a ball gets stuck in the fence; you raise your hands and its an automatic ground rule double.  Have MLB umpires just forgotten this?  Why did we need a 5-minute replay, arguments from both managers and a complete waste of time to determine this??), Desmond INEXPLICABLY tried to steal third and was again thrown out by 15 feet.   Why would you possibly try to steal third there?   You’re on second base with none out; RE of 1.1.  Your hitters have three shots to get a single to drive you in from there.

This steal completely changed the course of the game; instead of having a guy on second with none out, who you could bunt to third with Lobaton and then sac fly with Nate McCloud and voila; game tied.  Nope; instead Lobaton walks, McClouth feebly flies out (also removing the starter Jordan Zimmermann in the process) and opportunity wasted.

Just dumb, all around.

One last thing: why the F is Harper batting 6th??   He’s got the most power on the team, in arguably.  He’s one of the better hitters on the team.  The 6-hole bats approximately 30 times less per season than each subsequent position above it.  It just doesn’t make sense to be batting him behind guys who hit .220 last year.  I just don’t get it, and i’m not the only one out there who’s noticing this as well.  There’s a ton of science behind lineup construction that goes against conventional thinking, and hitting Harper 6th just invites criticism needlessly.  Hit the guy 4th and leave him there.

I won’t bother to comment on Harper taking strike-3 down the frigging middle of the plate in the 8th; that was pretty inexplicable to me too.  And I’ll give Williams a pass for yanking the effective Zimmermann after just 81 pitches; he was sick yesterday and the Desmond CS basically forced the move.

Nats have to play smarter.

Grr.  Great day at the ballpark wasted.

14 Responses to 'Nats run themselves out of the home opener'

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  1. Of course, a lot of that “science” about lineup construction also indicates that it ultimately makes. Very little difference. Certainly yesterday Harper came up with runners on multiple times. He just didn’t produce.

    John C.

    5 Apr 14 at 12:27 pm

  2. Agree on the questions about Williams, but the bottom of the 8th was the most troubling – first and second, no outs, and 4,5,6 coming up. What was the WE of that? How can they get 3 strike outs against the 3rd or 4th best bullpen option?

    The other thing that I have noticed from MW is a great reluctance to bring in Soriano in a non save situation. It worked out fine, so it’s getting little attention, but bringing in Barrett in the bottom of the 9th on opening day – the guy’s first ever big league appearance, in a tie game on Opening Day, when Soriano had warmed up already – just seemed odd. Imagine that Barrett gives up a run and we lose? How much flack would Williams have gotten?

    If you are right that the difference between 2nd and 6th over the course of a whole season is about 100 PAs, then I think Rizzo has to step in and say something.

    Wally

    5 Apr 14 at 12:39 pm

  3. Wally, Soriano’s one appearance was in a non-save situation – I’m not sure how you are extrapolating a “great reluctance to bring in Soriano in a non save situation” out of that.

    How can they get three K’s against a bullpen guy? Hell, Ryan Mattheus got three outs on two pitches against perhaps the best hitting club in baseball. It happens.

    So far Harper has batted 5th, 6th, 2nd and 6th, so it’s not as if he has a consistent spot in the order. I also don’t regard Harper as easily the best hitter on this team. Werth was better last year, and the gap between Harper and Zimmerman isn’t as great as you might think. Rendon is also blistering the ball and his batted ball profile last year shows why he was widely regarded as the top bat in his draft class. Harper has potential, sure, and was hellacious for a month last April. But he was up and down after that, had an OK-but-not-great Spring Training and has easily been the worst hitter in the lineup since the season started (yeah, yeah, SSS). And that’s not even counting the TOOTBLANs. The point is that so far this season hitting Harper down the order has, if anything, helped the team. Let Harper grow into his potential, and don’t assume it from the get-go.

    If you’re going to get hung up about the team whiffing three times with RISP yesterday, at least enjoy that the team is #1 in the league in SLG and OPS The team OPS+ is 137, for cryin’ out loud! Both the good and the bad are ridiculously SSS, but one at least is cheerful. When your pitchers are OPS+ing 91, you know you’re living right.

    John C.

    5 Apr 14 at 2:53 pm

  4. And Harper is hitting second tonight against his old friend Teheran. So can we just stop obsessing about it now, plz?

    John C.

    5 Apr 14 at 5:37 pm

  5. I agree Todd. I’ve been hearing all about manufacturing runs all winter, but there has been no small ball. I just watched a Span steal his first base in the first inning and then nobody moved him over between Harper and Werth. Fortunately ALR hit a homeriun, but that was Davey ball.

    So far the hats seem confused about this “aggressiveness” and so am I.

    MW seems to be overthinking things like the lineup and it’s just going to keep the batters unsettled. How much different can the numbers be to justify bouncing guys around so much?

    On the other hand, I do like the defensive shifts.

    Andrew R

    5 Apr 14 at 7:37 pm

  6. John C – I don’t feel like I am obsessing, but with a new manager, I also don’t feel like it is too soon to make observations. A lot of us are trying to figure out what he’ll be like. On Soriano, of course with the sample size so small, it is just a hunch on my part. But that Met game was interesting. He had Sori and Barrett warming up in the top of the 9th, and when we didn’t score, he brought in Barrett. Pretty sure it would have been Sori if we had scored, but of course I don’t know that. Then in the top of the 10th, he had Sori and Blevins warming up, and when we scored 4 (non save), he brought in Blevins. Once again, it is impossible to know what is actually going on in his mind, but it looks like he was waiting for a save opportunity. Also, he didn’t use Sori down 1 yesterday, when there was no chance of a save again. Time will tell, but it does seem like he goes along with the traditional thinking on closers. (I consider Sori’s appearance in the last Met game just a reason to give him work because he hadn’t pitched). But what is really nuts is that I think Sori is probably the 4th best guy in the pen, so I am glad that he isn’t overusing him, I am just making an observation because I think MW views him as the closer.

    As for Harper, I don’t who is the best hitter. Werth was better last year, but Harper projects to be the best hitter on all of the projection systems that I can see (which may not be worth much). But it doesn’t seem like he is 6th best. I hope that Williams isn’t trying to play hunches too much. If he is, then I think the fact that it has worked out so far, which you correctly pointed out, may actually be a negative in the long run if it makes him keep juggling it based on a feeling.

    Nice to see Stras back to 96 tonight. Hopefully we can put that one to rest.

    Wally

    5 Apr 14 at 8:08 pm

  7. John C: read Schoenfield’s article; it makes the case better than I could that based on advanced stats from 2013 Harper is the best or 2nd best on the team and should NEVER be batting 6th.

    Todd Boss

    6 Apr 14 at 8:09 am

  8. I read Schoenfield’s article. The caveat that makes all of this a tempest in a teapot is the following:

    “But they [lineups] are a little important, even if the gains from a statistically optimal lineup are small.”

    So right up front, Schoenfield concedes that the gains are small. Add in the fact that all the projections are based on 2013, and Williams has not only been watching Harper in the first five games, he’s been watching him in Spring Training, interacting with him in the dugout and the clubhouse, and seeing not only that his at bats are poor right now, but Harper’s level of frustration. You can’t ignore that stuff just because you can’t quantify it, particularly when the stuff that you are attempting to quantify statistically do not have much of an impact.

    John C.

    6 Apr 14 at 1:46 pm

  9. The differences are small across an entire season; my criticism was in a specific game. Absolutely having a better hitter batting 6th or 7th (like Desmond) versus guys who struggled last year comparatively (Span, LaRoche in particular) affects at the game level.

    I think my larger point is this: lineup construction theory is not BS. There’s pretty inarguable science behind it. And so far Williams has basically shown himself to be a complete traditionalist. Even in Sunday’s game … suddenly Frandsend is batting second?? As anyone can attest, the #2 hitter is the MOST important lineup position and Williams sticks a guy who’s been riding the pine all year there.

    Todd Boss

    7 Apr 14 at 8:27 am

  10. Wally … of course MW was hesitant to bring Sori into non-save situations:
    1. In the past, it seems like he prefers not to be used as such (as hasn’t done particularly well when non-save)
    2. MW indicated that he was getting over cold symptoms
    3. Most importantly, he has a vesting clause in his contract that guarantees him another $14M for 2015 based on the number of games finished (note: “finished”, not “saved”). Until they are completely confident he isn’t declining, I’m sure they don’t want it to vest based on non-save games. (It seems to be a longshot at this point, but I don’t think anyone has clarified whether it includes post-season games finished, so it might be potentially easier to reach than some perceive).

    DaveB

    7 Apr 14 at 8:27 am

  11. …. and another concerning trend in Williams, to go along with his lineup decisions thus far. Is he a slave to the save statistic? So far it seems kinda so; Soriano was warming up side-by-side with another reliever at one point (can’t remember which game) but the offense scored, putting it out of a save situation … and Soriano sat.

    Now, is there a more nefarious reason for a move like that? As DaveB alludes to … the whole “number of games finished” vesting clause may be in play here. But that’s awfully sh*tty to Soriano, if his manager has had ownership talking in his ear about managing Soriano’s workload so that his option doesn’t vest. Don’t get me wrong; I hated the Soriano deal when they signed it, hated the loss of draft pick, hate the money owed to him, hate the fact that the Nats bullpen was 19th or so in effectiveness but is the 2nd most expensive pen in all of baseball (only behind the profligate Dodgers), hate teh fact that he’s just a medicore reliever at this point but is being paid like a 3rd starter, and especially hate the fact that he has this rather easily-attainable vesting option for next year, a year where this team needs (needs!) to rid itself of the overpaid underperforming veteran presence. So i’m not defending these moves .. just realizing that it’s crummy for Soriano if this entire year is going to be about saving his 2015 option.

    Todd Boss

    7 Apr 14 at 8:41 am

  12. DaveB/Todd – I get all that (and Todd, the game you are thinking of was opening day @ NYM, which I described above).

    I realize that this allegiance to traditional closer usage makes MW in line with most other managers. I was just hoping that he would be more forward-thinking, and use his best relievers in the highest leverage situations. But I do not like it when a player’s personal preferences are so pronounced that you can’t use him outside of his preferred role without him pouting. No one should be bigger than team needs.

    As for Sori’s option, I see no way that he reaches it. He has never finished that many games in his career, and he is the oldest (and arguably the poorest stuff) of his career. If he is on pace for it, they’ll do something to avoid it (although I hadn’t thought about the playoff games; good point). As I said earlier, I see Sori as the 3rd or 4th best reliever on the team, and think it is more likely that he loses the closer’s job than reaches 62 games. But I’d still like to see MW use who he thinks are the best relievers in the highest leverage situations.

    Wally

    7 Apr 14 at 10:28 am

  13. Although I’m not a Soriano fan at all, I’d be completely OK if he finished the 62 games and vested the option, simply because it’s hard to see how he could manage to do that without (1) pitching extremely effectively; (2) staying healthy; and (3) the Nats winning 100+ games.

    Nats win over 100 games? Yeah, that’s a trade that I would happily make for one more year of untucking and fan whining.

    John C.

    7 Apr 14 at 1:11 pm

  14. Soriano and vesting option: “No way he reaches it?” Last year he finished 58 … that’s awwwwful close. Add in four additional save chances and we’re in trouble. He had 49 Save Opportunities last year, blowing 6 of them. By way of comparison:
    - Kimbrel finished 60 games in 2014 but lead the league in GF a couple years ago with 64.
    - 2013 AL league leader Jim Johnson finished 63 and had 50 saves.

    Clearly this vesting line had some meaning: the league leader in Games Finished last year was 63 and 64, with a couple of 70 games finished outliers recently but normally the league leader is right in thast area.

    I think the problem is that “games finished” isn’t that great of a marker. NL lead by Steve Cishek last year; not exactly one of the top 5 closers in the game. Its just such an odd stat to base vesting on.

    Todd Boss

    7 Apr 14 at 4:24 pm

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