Nationals Arm Race

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

Archive for the ‘jonathan papelbon’ tag

Its make or break time; even more so than a week ago.

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A week ago, at the beginning of this west coast trip, I thought the team might end up going 2-5 between LA and SF.  They faced two good teams on the road against good pitching.

I was wrong.  They went 1-6.  What a Disaster.  Scherzer and Gonzalez both laid massive eggs in games where the Nats held a rare and clear SP advantage (over Vogelsong and Cain respectively) and the team squandered games where the offense uncharacteristically scored more than 1 run (5 and 6 respectively in consecutive losses).  It was no surprise they got shut out by Kershaw, Greinke and Bumgarner … but they had no excuse to lose to these other stiffs.

Amazingly, we’re mid-August and this team has gone 10 and 20 since the all-star break.  10 and 20.  Yes they’ve faced some tough pitching, but a playoff team should at least go .500 against a good team throwing good arms.  This team has not; it has completely folded.

Dave Cameron at fangraphs.com summed up things a lot better than I could.  He has a table of 2014 and 2015 WAR figures that’s pretty amazing.  He also has the playoff odds for both Washington and New York and what they’ve done over the past few weeks and that’s pretty amazing too.

The Nats are 58-59.  Amazingly despite a 6 game losing streak the Mets also fell on their faces this weekend and the Nats didn’t lose much ground in the race.  But they’re 4.5 back with 6 weeks to go and need to step it up.

They now have 6 straight games against two bad teams (Colorado and Milwaukee).   Can they salvage their season and actually win some of these games?

What is wrong with this team?  Is it just everyone unluckily under performing all at once?  Is it the Manager?  Is it the frigging Papelbon trade? I don’ t mean to find some “arbitrary endpoints” but consider:

  • Nats Record before Papelbon trade: 52-46
  • Nats Record since: 6-13
  • Storen’s ERA before the trade: 1.73 in 36 1/3 innings
  • Storen’s ERA since: 10.38 in 8 2/3rds innings.
  • Papelbon’s entire contribution since arriving: 5 IP in 5 games, 2 saves.

Could just be a coincidence.  Demoting a popular, home grown player who was having a great season with a blow-hard attitude guy couldn’t possibly be a reason for a team that has shown itself to be mentally fragile in the past to shut it down, right?

 

West Coast Trip 2015: its crunch time for this team

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I'll take about 10 more of those starts, Stephen, Thank you.  Photo via centerfieldgate.com

I’ll take about 10 more of those starts, Stephen, Thank you. Photo via centerfieldgate.com

I wrote earlier about the ridiculous slate of starters this team had to face coming out of the All Star break.  They went 6-10 in that stretch, an admirable record considering the opposition.  That took the team to a relatively “easy” looking home-stand against two also-rans (Arizona and Colorado) who were sellers at the trade deadline.  The Nats have practically their whole offense back, augmented the bullpen with Jonathan Papelbon, and got their 2nd “Ace” back in Stephen Strasburg.  They have no more excuses; its time to take control of the division from the suddenly energized Mets.

But, instead of rolling to a 5-2 or a 6-1 home stand … the team scuffled to a 3-4 record, with Drew Storen blowing two games single-handedly, Doug Fister blowing a start against an opposing pitcher with about 5 minutes of service time, and one game that the bullpen so badly bungled that Tyler Moore was on the mound at the end.

Not good.

The team now sits at 57-53 (just an 84 win pace) and is a game and a half back of the Mets.  And they now hit the road for a crucial, difficult 10-game west coast swing.  Three games in LA, four in SF and then 3 more against the Colorado team that embarrassed them at home.  This while the Mets play 7 straight in New York (albeit against the same Rockies who I thought were patsies and then against a Pirates team that just battered the Dodgers’ starters in Pittsburgh).

Lets take a quick look at the projected starter match-ups against the Dodgers and Giants.  Because, lets face it, those are the two series that could be pretty telling:

Nats SP Projected Opposing SP
Gonzalez Anderson
Ross Kershaw
Zimmermann Greinke
Strasburg Vogelsong
Scherzer Cain
Gonzalez Peavy
Ross Bumgarner

Daunting.  Are the Nats in danger of being outright swept in Los Angeles?   I think so.  They then move up the coast but face a SF team that plays a lot better at home than on the road, despite what looks to me like a SP advantage for the Nats.  I don’t really trust Gio Gonzalez anymore in big games, and certainly not on the road (where he has a 4.80 ERA this year, versus 2.60 at home).   Joe Ross has a grand total of 7 starts in the majors and he’ll be given the rather daunting task of facing two of the best pitchers in the game back to back in Kershaw and Bumgarner.  Tough.

Here’s the problem.  I can easily see this team going 2-5 in these games.  What happens if the Mets keep winning?

This season is more and more reminding me of 2013.  Tons of expectations, and tons of under performance all year, leading to a mid 80s win season but no playoffs.  If this team returns home a week from now and is at .500 (a very distinct possibility), is it finally time to worry?

Ross over Fister; best pitching move Williams has made all year (and a bit of ranting)

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Ross deservedly keeps his rotation spot.  Photo Getty Images via federalbaseball.com

Ross deservedly keeps his rotation spot. Photo Getty Images via federalbaseball.com

After his second questionable starting pitcher yank in as many nights, 2014 Manager of the Year Matt Williams made perhaps his best pitching change of the season.  Instead of favoring his veteran Doug Fister like everyone thought he would based on past experiences with player management, he went with a rookie and announced (as first reported by Mark Zuckerman last night) that Joe Ross would keep his rotation spot, sending Fister to the bullpen.

First; some stuff I’ve wanted to get off my chest on Williams’ handling of the pitching staff as of late:

There’s already been enough kvetching about his yanking Gio Gonzalez the previous night; though my readers cannot see this “proof,” as soon as the pitching change occurred I texted a friend saying (in effect) this was going to backfire.  Pulling Gonzalez made zero sense: If you’re going to yank your starter so quickly in the 6th, why let him frigging *bat* in the bottom of the 5th??  Gonzalez was only on 95 pitches; professional, veteran starters can throw at least 105-110 pitches before showing any wear, and studies show that you’re not really in “danger” of causing subsequent regression until you hit 120.  And the most egregious issue: Gonzalez was set to face not 1-2-3 but 6-7-8 in the Arizona order.  To this observer, it was classic over-thinking/over-managing that resulted in a blown lead, a blown game and an embarrassing 9th where a position player had to throw for just the second time in the Nats tenure in Washington.

So, what did 2014 Manager of the Year Matt Williams learn from the 8/5/15 experience??  Absolutely nothing.  Ross was on even fewer pitches last night (89), was absolutely handling the weakened Arizona lineup (they sat two of their best  hitters to give them a day off), and Ross was set to face … wait for it … 6-7-8 in the order.  Yet another “shut down” reliever comes in and gives up a ton of runs … and it looked like yet another game would be lost.  Only the heroics of Matt Thornton (waiver claim) and eventually in the 8th Clint Robinson‘s 3-run homer (minor league free agent) saved the game for this under performing $160M payroll “win now” team.

Starters are starters because, by and large, THEY ARE BETTER PITCHERS THAN RELIEVERS.  If relievers were better, they’d be frigging starters!  Williams needs to STOP yanking effective starting pitchers unless it makes sense.  This dates back to his most egregious yank, that of Jordan Zimmermann last year in the NLDS.

Anyway.  Back to the Fister/Ross decision.  Here’s my quick thoughts:

  • Props to Fister for taking the demotion like a pro.  If it were me, i’d have gone with some BS “soft tissue” D/L stint.  That was a gutsy move for a guy facing free agency this coming off-season.  Maybe he and his agent talked it through and decided it would be less damaging to be demoted to the pen than take a D/L stint and have the league think you’re fighting injuries in your walk year.
  • Despite the above complaints, which are the latest in a series of complaints about our “paint by the numbers” manager and his handling of the pitching staff that has been exposed recently by his lack of use of Storen or Papelbon in the Mets series (and then his subsequent use of Storen in a 5-0 laugher one day later), Williams absolutely made the right move here.  Its a performance game, the team is struggling, and Fister was the low-man on the totem pole in terms of production (the team is just 5-10 in his 15 starts).  Cynical view; was this Mike Rizzo telling Williams what to do or was it Williams begrudgingly realizing that Ross was giving his team the best chance to win?
  • We talked before about how it might have been premature to give Ross a 2016 rotation spot based on short sample sizes; no longer.  Ross is your #4 starter next year as we speak and the rest of the potentials are chasing #5 down in Viera next spring.  And that’s assuming the team doesn’t make a trade or sign a FA or (could it happen?) resign Jordan Zimmermann.
  • There goes any thought of giving Fister a Q.O. this off-season.  He’s gone from something like a 4yr/$55M deal to looking for a pillow contract with some lesser team willing to give him a rotation spot in just 4 short months.
  • How long before the Nats shut Ross down?  He threw right around 120 innings in both 2013 and 2014.  So far this year he’s at 76 in the minors and 45 in the majors for a total of 121, basically matching his career high.   Increasing his workload by 20% means he’s only got another 4 starts in him; is this just a temporary rotation assignment?  Or is the team thinking he can increase his workload considerably this year?  There’s 55 games left, which is 11 turns through the rotation; do you think he’ll be allowed to throw 11 more starts?  That’d put his innings somewhere in the 175-180 range, a huge increase year over year.  Honestly, I think Fister will regain the rotation spot in a month’s time or so as the team shuts down Ross for the season.

Interesting day in Natstown, though, nonetheless.

Written by Todd Boss

August 7th, 2015 at 10:02 am

Papelbon for Pivetta: good trade, bad karma?

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Hopefully, this won't be what we remember him for.  Photo via majorleagueaholes.com (yes its a site)

Hopefully, this won’t be what we remember him for. Photo via majorleagueaholes.com (yes its a site)

So, by now we’ve all heard the news.  The Nats acquired disgruntled Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon for 2013 4th rounder Nick Pivetta, newly promoted to AA.

On the plus side, the Phillies pick up all of his remaining 2015 salary (roughly $4.5M), and Papelbon pre-negotiated his 2016 option at a slightly lower figure ($11M with $3M deferred).  This is no 2-month rental; this is a strategic decision to go with him for the next two years.  So in that respect, what the Nats get versus what they gave up is pretty durn good.  Pivetta is a decent prospect who had a great first half for Potomac and just earned a promotion to AA (where he’s gotten hit around a bit in his first couple of starts).  But in terms of what the team is giving up, Pivetta is a “minor prospect” (mostly on the outside of our top 10 lists) and is perhaps no better than 13th or so on our starter depth chart (just off the top of my head, Scherzer, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Fister, Gonzalez, Ross, Roark, Cole, Jordan, Hill, Treinen, Espino, Voth and Giolito ahead of him), so the Nats trade from a surplus/depth for a position of need.

As a side-effect of the acquisition, AAA catcher Dan Butler was DFA’d to make room on the 40-man roster. Butler has been struggling in AAA and may pass through waivers, but if he doesn’t suddenly the Nats have zero catcher depth on the active roster.  So that’s a risk i’m surprised they took (if it were me, I could have named several other guys I would have risked versus Butler first).

My concern with this deal is more on the non-quantifiable side.  What message does this send to your team?  Drew Storen has been *excellent* this year, has remade his mechanics and (as noted elsewhere) has the 2nd best ERA of any reliever in the game over the last two years.  He’s been just as good a closer as Papelbon this year, and for his troubles gets demoted out of the closer spot.  Storen’s future compensation is *directly* tied to the number of saves (however arbitrary and useless that statistic may be) he earns, and now the team has told him “hey, we know you’ve been awesome but too bad you’re no longer going to have the opportunity to earn saves and therefore we’ll argue against you in arbitration to that end.”  Its no wonder Storen was immediately quoted as wanting to “explore his options” with his representation.

Lets also just say that it would not surprise this observer in the least if Storen’s performance fell off a cliff in the coming months.

You can argue that winning creates clubhouse chemistry; that’s your perogative.  You can talk about how the old Yankees “25 men, 25 cabs” had no problem winning and you can disclaim the chemistry factors that seemed to be in play with recent teams like the 2013 Red Sox or last year’s Royals.  Fair enough.  You can make the argument that these guys are all highly paid and should just accept whatever role is given to them … but lets be honest here; MLB players are human, they have egos, and (especially in the case of a reliever) they want to be the closer.  More to the point, when they do everything management asks of them and still get replaced, its hard not to blame them for being disgruntled.  This isn’t like when the Nats demoted John Lannan: Storen didn’t get beat out in spring training; he’s been absolutely stellar for the past two years.

Is this yet another reaction to Storen’s post-season record?  Lets all say it together: “short sample sizes.”  Storen has a grand total of 5 1/3 post-season innings.  Papelbon’s numbers in the post season are great (a 1.00 ERA in 27 innings), but he hasn’t pitched in October in 6 years.  Clayton Kershaw has a 5+ ERA in the post-season and nobody’s talking about replacing him.  You look for excellence in the regular season and hope it plays out in the post-season.

Two years ago, the management over-reacted to Storen’s post-season performance by over-paying (and burning a first round pick) on a closer in Rafael Soriano who, it should be noted, was himself demoted from the closer role in favor of the man he replaced by the time the deal was done.  Lets just hope that we’re not standing here in September of 2016 with Papelbon and his waning velocity ballooning to a 4+ ERA in his walks year with the ever-steady Storen right back in the same role…

I would have much preferred the team find some middle-to-later innings relievers to strengthen things in the 7th and 8th innings and not upset what Storen has established.  But it isn’t my team.  I just hope Storen can take the high road (much like Tanner Roark has been forced to do) and goes back to being a team player.

A few other excellent takes on the trade I recommend:

Post-publishing update: Joe Posnanski wrote a column 2 weeks onward, crucifying Rizzo and this trade (calling it “The Worst trade of the Season”) for its intangible impact on the team, echoing many of the same sentiments expressed here.

 

Closer post-mortem 2014

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Francisco Rodriguez screwed my fantasy team this year.  Photo via cbssports.com

Francisco Rodriguez screwed my fantasy team this year. Photo via cbssports.com

This post is somewhat driven by fantasy baseball, where one of the typical pitching categories is “Saves,” and the constant churn of closers has become a huge detriment to most fantasy baseball players.  I’m no exception; this year I drafted who I presumed was going to be the closer for Milwaukee (Jim Henderson), only to watch him be replaced the day before the season started, inexplicably and without warning, by Francisco Rodriguez, who subsequently earned 40+ saves for the guy in my league who vulture waiver-wire picked him up.  (We eventually found out why; Henderson gave up 10 runs in 11 innings before going under the knife for “Labrum & Rotator Cuff Debridement.”  Ugh).

My research shows that just 13 of the 30 teams in the MLB this year started and ended the season with the same closer.  That’s a pretty amazing churn of players.  So I put together a tracking XLS.

Team Switch during 2014 season? 2014 Closer, start of season 1/2 point Closer End of Year Closer Most Saves 2014 full season # Saves for Team Leader in 2014
Ari Addison Reed Addison Reed Addison Reed Addison Reed 32
Atl Craig Kimbrel Craig Kimbrel Craig Kimbrel Craig Kimbrel 47
Bal Yes Tommy Hunter Zach Britton Zach Britton Zach Britton 37
Bos Yes Koji Uehara Koji Uehara Edward Mujica Koji Uehara 26
Chc Yes Jose Veras Hector Rondon Hector Rondon Hector Rondon 29
Cin Yes J.J. Hoover Aroldis Chapman Aroldis Chapman Aroldis Chapman 36
Cle Yes John Axford Cody Allen Cody Allen Cody Allen 24
Col LaTroy Hawkins LaTroy Hawkins LaTroy Hawkins LaTroy Hawkins 23
Cws Yes Nate Jones Ronald Belisario? Jake Petricka Jake Petricka 14
Det Joe Nathan Joe Nathan Joe Nathan Joe Nathan 35
Hou Comm. Chad Qualls Chad Qualls Chad Qualls Chad Qualls 19
KC Greg Holland Greg Holland Greg Holland Greg Holland 46
LAA Yes Ernesto Frieri Joe Smith Huston Street Huston Street 17
LAD Kenley Jansen Kenley Jansen Kenley Jansen Kenley Jansen 44
Mia Steve Cishek Steve Cishek Steve Cishek Steve Cishek 39
Mil Yes Jim Henderson Francisco Rodriguez Francisco Rodriguez Francisco Rodriguez 44
Min Glen Perkins Glen Perkins Glen Perkins Glen Perkins 34
NYM Yes Bobby Parnell Jennry Mejia Jennry Mejia Jennry Mejia 28
Nyy David Robertson David Robertson David Robertson David Robertson 39
Oak Yes Jim Johnson Sean Doolittle Sean Doolittle Sean Doolittle 22
Phi Jonathan Papelbon Jonathan Papelbon Jonathan Papelbon Jonathan Papelbon 39
Pit Yes Jason Grilli Mark Melancon Mark Melancon Mark Melancon 33
Sdp Yes Huston Street Joaquin Benoit Joaquin Benoit Joaquin Benoit 11
Sea Fernando Rodney Fernando Rodney Fernando Rodney Fernando Rodney 48
Sfg Yes Sergio Romo Santiago Castilla Santiago Castilla Sergio Romo 23
Stl Trevor Rosenthal Trevor Rosenthal Trevor Rosenthal Trevor Rosenthal 45
TBR Yes Grant Balfour Jake McGee Jake McGee Jake McGee 19
Tex Yes Neftali Feliz Joaquim Soria Neftali Feliz Neftali Feliz 13
Tor Casey Janssen Casey Janssen Casey Janssen Casey Janssen 25
Was Yes Rafael Soriano Rafael Soriano Drew Storen Rafael Soriano 32

Now, technically the Reds never “switched” their closer; they just knew that Aroldis Chapman was coming back after a brief stint on the D/L.  And the Astros show Chad Qualls in all the positions, but they clearly were going with a committee for most of the season.  So you could argue against those two teams, but that still leaves half the league switching their closer mid-season.  Other teams stuck with the same guy all year (Detroit with Joe Nathan) despite awful numbers (4.81 ERA on the season for Nathan), so you could argue that they *should* have switched.

The Nats were no exception; they started the year with Rafael Soriano, who was one of the league’s best for half the season.  By September, the Nats had dumped Soriano for their *previous* closer in Drew Storen, who then dumped the bed in his only two post-season appearances (blowing the save in Jordan Zimmermann‘s epic 8 2/3 shutout innings, and then allowing two hits and a run in a non-save situation the next night).

What does this mean?  For “real” baseball, not much that we didn’t already know.  Closers are judged mostly on high-leverage short-sample sizes, where one blow-out inning destroys ERA and WHIP numbers for a month.  Its a ridiculous statistic that has far too much credence in the modern game.  And its even more ridiculous that a mediocre “closer” with a ton of saves earns more than a middle-to-late innings reliever with a ton of “holds” and great numbers.  But this is our system.

For “fantasy” baseball, the take away again is kind of known: closers are a crapshoot.  Try to get a couple of “known” closers in the 5th-8th rounds, grab a couple of fliers on people later on, but be sure to be incredibly proactive on the waiver wires in the last week of spring training/first week of the season.  A lot of these personnel changes happened in early April and then stuck the rest of the way through (quick examples being Milwaukee as described above and the New York Mets, who saw presumed closer Bobby Parnell blow out his elbow on practically the first day of the season and have Tommy John surgery on 4/8/14).

 

Chasing Saves: a cautionary tale for GMs

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Mariano Rivera’s success has led to a generation of closer-chasing in MLB. Photo wikipedia

One of the mantras we hear from Fantasy Baseball experts is “Don’t chase Saves.”  Closers are so hit-or-miss in this league, that on draft day trying to chase mediocre closers usually turns into wasted draft picks as these guys frequently get hurt or under-perform and get replaced.  Well, its not that much better in “real” baseball, where teams best laid plans for closers often backfire mightily.

In fact, check out this link on RotoAuthority.com, which charts the Opening day and Closing Day 2012 closers for all 30 teams.  In summary:

  • Only 10 of the 30 MLB teams kept the same closer wire-to-wire.
  • 14 of the 30 teams had a different guy in the closer role by season’s end.  That’s half the league!
  • The other 6 teams had the same guy at season’s start and end, but went through personnel changes in between.  This includes our own Nats, who started with Drew Storen, he got hurt, Tyler Clippard took over and stayed in the role after Storen got back, then Clippard melted in September and Storen took back over the role.

By my observations, as of June 15th 2013 here’s the same stats for this year:

  • 22 of 30 teams have same guy as start of season
  • 8 teams have already made a switch (Boston, Detroit, Arizona, Oakland, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland, St Louis, Los Angeles Dodgers)

So what’s the point here?  Teams need to re-think they way they grow, acquire and pay for “Saves.”  Lets look at how far one particular organization has gone “Chasing Saves” and pursuing a Closer.  I present you the Boston Red Sox, normally considered a very forward-thinking, analytical organization but which seemingly has a very large blind spot for the mytical “shutdown closer” position.  As of the publishing of this article (June 14, 2013):

  • Current Closer: Andrew Bailey, for whom they traded 3 players to the Oakland A’s in 2011 to obtain.  Two minor league prospects and one Josh Reddick, who hit 32 homers last year.
  • Acquired last off-season to be their 2012 closer: Mark Melancon, for whom they traded two good prospects to the Houston Astros in 2011; Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.   Lowrie is now posting a nifty 126 ops+ for the Athletics (to whom he was flipped by Houston for even more prospects).  Melancon had two bad outings at the beginning of 2012, was banished to the minors and eventually flipped for ….
  • Former 2013 closer: Joel Hanrahan, for whom they traded 4 players to the Pittsburgh Pirates last December.  Including Mark Melancon, who is repaying the Pirates for their patience in him by posting a .072 ERA in 25 innings thus far this year.  Hanrahan just had Tommy John surgery and is out for at least a  year.
  • [Post-post update]; By the end of June, Bailey allowed 4 homers in 5 games, hit the D/L and on July 22nd was announced as undergoing season-ending surgery. and is being replaced by … somebody.  By Mid July it seemed clear that it was Kenji Uehara, a free-agent signing last off-season.  So for all their trades, they end up using a minor FA signing as their closer.

So for the record that’s 9 guys traded away (including at least two effective hitters) in the past two off-seasons to chase one (in my opinion) relatively meaningless statistic.  And basically all they have to show for it is Andrew Bailey no longer pitching the 9th for them.

Of course, maybe the joke’s on me, since the Red Sox are in first place at the time of this writing.

But for an organization that used to be known for doing smart things (including the smart move of allowing long-time closer Jonathan Papelbon be overpaid by someone else on the FA market), these moves are just dumb.   Find a hard throwing guy in your system, make him the “closer,” repeat as necessary.  That should be the strategy.


And oh, by the way, I don’t exempt our own team from this.  Rafael Soriano was an unneeded purchase who (as we’ve seen by the unwarranted shot at Bryce Harper) could be more trouble than he’s worth.  But hey, its not my money right?  At least the Nats didn’t trade good prospects to acquire him (like Boston has done over and again).


This argument leads into an oft-repeated discussion in this space about the ridiculousness of the Save statistic and how frequently closers are preserved for “Save Situations” despite their leverage rating.   Lets look at a couple of very specific mathematical arguments against overpaying for closers:

1. Joe Posnanski and others have shown how useless closers are.  Teams are winning games at basically the same percentage now in the closer era that they were 50 years ago, without highly paid specialized closers.  Some quick percentages:  For the latest decade teams won 95.2% of games in which they led going into the 9th.  In the 60s, 70s and 80s that same percentage varied between 95.6-94.8%.   Can someone explain to me how the proliferation of highly paid closers in the last 20 years of the game has basically helped teams …. win the exact same number of games they used to before closers, matchup bullpen roles and Loogys existed??

2. Any old mediocre reliever is going to end up being a relatively effective closer.  Proof?

Lets say an average reliever has a 4.50 era or so (which in today’s game frankly is a stretch, given what we’ve talked about before and the advantages that relievers have over starters; they can go max effort for shorter time periods and they don’t have to face batters more than once).  That means he gives up one run every two innings.  Now lets say that you used this pitcher with his 4.50 era in every closing situation you face in a given year.  A save situation can be a lead held by 1, 2 or 3 runs.

So, out of these three scenarios your 4.50 ERA pitcher can give up his run every other start and still “save” 5 out of 6 games.

  • 1 run lead: gives up 0 runs; save
  • 1 run lead; gives up 1 run: blown-save
  • 2 run lead: gives up 0 runs; save
  • 2 run lead: gives up 1 run: save
  • 3 run lead: gives up 0 runs: save
  • 3 run lead: gives up 1 run: save.

And then even in those blown-save situations, extra inning affairs are basically coin flips anyway historically, which means that teams are going to win half those games anyway.  So you’re basically going to win 5.5 out of every 6 games.   5.5 out of 6 is 91%.  So historically even my normal case scenario undervalues the ability of teams to win these games.

And this scenario really undervalues what kind of reliever you’re actually going to put into the role.  Every team has a handful of relievers in their bullpen with ERAs in the 3-3.50 range; that’s 1-1.5 runs better than my “mediocre pitcher” example over the course of a couple weeks (assuming closers get about 9 innings of work every two weeks).  With even this marginal improvement you’re going from 91% to closer to the historical 94-95% of games won.


Want some more food for thought on closers?   Here’s your current top 5 closers in the league by number of saves, along with their acquisition method, salary and general statement about their careers thus far:

  1. Jason Grilli – 23 Saves.  36yrs old.  $2.25M.  He was flat out released in July 2011 by Philadelphia and signed as a Minor League FA by Pittsburgh.  He’s a 36 year old journeyman on his 7th pro organziation with a 106 career ERA+.
  2. Jim Johnson – 23 saves.  30yrs old.  $6.5M.  He’s a home-grown middle reliever thrust into the closer role last year when the O’s got fed up with FA closer Kevin Gregg.
  3. Mariano Rivera – 23 saves.  43yrs old.  $10m, taking a discount from his $15M/year deals since 2008 b/c of knee issue.  Home-grown player who converted to relief after bombing out as a failed starter at age 25.
  4. Joe Nathan – 20 saves.  38yrs old.  $7M, taking a discount from his last contract value of $11.25M/year after significant arm injury.   Failed starter with San Francisco, traded to Minnesota in the AJ Pierzynski deal and has flourished as a closer.
  5. Addison Reed – 19 saves.  24yrs old, $520k (20k above MLB minimum).  3rd round draft pick by the White Sox out of San Diego State, where he was a career relief pitcher after not having ever pitched until his Junior year of HS.

The next few guys are Kimbrel (655k), Mujica ($3.2M).   But you’ve also got guys out there closing like Wilhemlsen, who didn’t even make the majors until he was 27 and was out of the game working as a bartender for 6 years.

The point?  You shouldn’t pay for a high end closer; you find someone internally who looks like a good option on the cheap and go with them.  You can find someone in your farm system, or on waivers, or working in a bar who can be an effective closer.  Find someone who can throw 1mph for 20 pitches a few nights a week; they’re going to give you as good of a chance to win as throwing the last guy out of the bullpen out there with a 3 run lead in the 9th.


One last bit of observation:  Lets look at Dennis Eckersley‘s career.  As a starter: good, not amazing.  A couple years with a smattering of Cy Young votes.  One 20-game winning season but another season where he 9-13 with a 5.61 ERA.  He converts to a closer and immediately his ERA plummets, his K/9 jumps up, his ERA+ numbers rise to stupid levels.  One year (1990) as a 35-yr old he allowed just 5 earned runs and just 3 unintentional walks on the year through 73+ innings.

So, how is it that a 4th starter during his 20s can suddenly become a lights out Hall-of-Fame closer in his mid-30s while doubling his k/9 rates at a time when he should have been regressing as a player?  The answer is easy; relievers only have to face part of the lineup once a night, don’t need 4 pitches and can basically get by with a gimmick pitch.  And, since they’re only throwing 15-20 pitches a few nights a week instead of 100-110 pitches every 4 days, they don’t need to “save their arm for the whole night” and can go with max effort during their outings with no long term effects.

That’s a lot of loosely tied together points to my main theory: If I were the GM of a team, the absolute last thing I’d pursue on the FA market was a high-priced closer.  I don’t think the “closer” role is going away (players know that Saves translate to Dollars in arbitration and on the FA market), but I’m hoping we’ll see less Dusty Baker-esque management techniques and more Joe Maddon.

Why is Toradol “ok” but Steroids and HGH “bad?”

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Did Papelbon inadvertantly open up a whole new PED angle? Photo Keith Allison via wikipedia/flickr

The latest salvo in the “Questionable Performance Enhancing Drug” storyline in today’s professional baseball landscape was this interesting statement from Jonathan Papelbon last week;  he and other Boston teammates frequently were injected with the drug Toradol by team doctors when they were feeling “run-down” or overly fatigued in order to get a quick pick-me-up for a game.  Apparently Toradol had the effect of giving players a four hour window of feeling “pretty damn good” and it was used by a portion of the Boston clubhouse.  Its also in use in many other clubhouses (though apparently not in Philadelphia, who told Papelbon his Toradol days were over).

Ok, how is Toradol not a Performance Enhancing Drug?  It certainly seems to qualify based on WADA’s “Three Criteria” for PEDs:

  1. The capacity to enhance performance (clearly, as discussed by Papelbon)
  2. Use can result in negative health consequences (absolutely; Jon Lester suffered some of them and had a serious internal bleeding issue, and now Boston is reportedly reviewing its use of the drug)
  3. Violate the spirit of sports. (opinion based .. but after reading what Toradol can do, how can you NOT argue that its use violates the “spirit of sports?”)

(2/15/13 update: The Red Sox trainer who administered all this Toradol apparently “flouted” state laws by doing so, as reported by Jeff Passan, who is all over this case.)

By the way, WADA adds a drug to its banned list if it qualifies for TWO of the above three categories (hence the addition of things like “Deer Antler Spray” despite it having no known side effects, since it clearly seems to violate the spirit clause).

This leads me to my larger question: Why is Toradol, and as a side effect Steroids and HGH “bad” but the use of Cortisone, Toradol considered “ok” in terms of usage?   What do Cortisone shots do?  They enable a player to play through pain that otherwise may keep him out.  Uh … isn’t that the definition of a “performance enhancing” substance??   Our own Ryan Zimmerman clearly benefited from cortisone shots in 2012; his before/after splits after receiving shots in his shoulder are pretty distinct and obvious.   Cortisone itself also fits the 3 WADA principles; it enhances performance, it has side-effects that many doctors are quite worried about, and I’m sure some would agree it changes the “spirit of the game” in some ways.

If your answer involves something along the lines of “PEDs are banned because they’re illegal” then I’ll counter with this: Steroid’s aren’t illegal; they’re just controlled.  But so is Cortisone; you can’t just inject yourself with the stuff without a doctor’s order.  And so is Toradol; you can’t go into your local supermarket and buy injectable Toradol.   And so is HGH: ask yourself why most elderly persons keep bottles of the stuff on their bed-side table?  Even something like a B-12 shot raises some issues; lots of players get B-12 shots and swear by the natural effect it has, but as with Toradol I’m pretty sure you can’t just get injectable B-12 and administer it yourself.  Even though B-12 is naturally occurring, in order to naturally consume the amounts of B-12 being injected you’d likely have to eat a bushel of clams (or some other high B-12 food) every day.

Honestly I may have the biggest issue with the classification of HGH as a PED, when you think about what HGH is (a naturally occurring growth hormone that is generates solely to help the body heal itself after an injury or illness) and then think about what Cortisone accomplishes for athletes.  So its “ok” to take a Cortisone shot that treats inflammation from an injury/strain so that you can go out and play better … but its NOT ok to take a naturally occuring suppliment to help with the same issue??  The only reason adults don’t heal as fast as kids is precisely because our natural HGH generation slows as we age … and doctors prescribe HGH to help the elderly heal from illnesses and injuries all the time.  Isn’t this inconsistent?

And all the above just talks about various medications.  Lets talk about the in-vogue plasma-replacement treatments that Kobe Bryant popularized and which have now been done by others, including Alex Rodriguez and Bartolo Colon. In this op-ed piece from Jeff Passan from Dec 2011, he discusses the blurry line between PEDs and legitimate surgical procedures.  The article has a very in-depth description of the A-Rod procedure and raises the question as to what defines a Performance Enhancing Drug?   If blood doping is illegal, how is a procedure that filters out platelets and re-injects them to targeted spots legal?  Colon was out of the game in 2010, got the procedure and suddenly is a 116 ERA+ pitcher in 2013; isn’t this concerning?

Passan takes things one step further, comparing the healing effects of HGH with these new treatments that A-Rod and Colon got and makes a very good point; these new-fangled surgical procedures absolutely qualify for WADA’s 3 criteria.  Passan has also asked the same questions I’m asking in a June 2006 article that started about HGH but ended with this same general question.  And he makes very good points about cortisone, HGH, Testosterone and even Tylenol usage.  Its worth a read.

Here’s another question: why is it “ok” to have performance-enhancing surgical procedures (Lasik surgery, Tommy John surgery, or any manner of surgery involving transplanted ligaments or tendons) but it is NOT ok to use drugs that have the same general effect?   If I can take a pill that gives me 20-10 vision, which enables me to see the baseball better and become a better hitter, would that be considered a PED?  I’m pretty sure … but yet people go get laser surgery and can get their eyes fixed to this level of quality any day of the week.  Perhaps this is a ridiculous example but my point stands; whether or not your performance is enhanced by virtue of a bottle or by the knife, aren’t these valid questions?  We’re starting to hear of psychotic parents of teen-aged pitchers actually getting “preventative” Tommy John surgery done, knowing that most pitchers who have the surgery see improvement in certain aspects of their game (since the Ulnar Ligament connector is actually strengthened in this surgery over how it grows naturally).  Is this … ethical?

And then there’s this interesting point, which was proposed on a BS Report podcast done between Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman last week.  If HGH is considered a PED, and HGH’s sole purpose in life is to help people get better after being sick … then why aren’t classes of anti-biotics such as Amoxicillin also considered PEDs?  What is the difference?   Klosterman then made the additional (scary) point that PED usage and testing may all be for naught eventually; Genetic testing and DNA manipulation may get to the point where there can BE no test to find out whether someone’s been genetically manipulated in order to be a superior athlete.  Testing has been trailing the science for years in professional sports … it may eventually be rendered completely moot.  Of course, taken the the ridiculous extreme, do we really want a slew of genetically engineered super-athletes competing for our enjoyment?  Why not just invent a bunch of robots to play these games?

Food for thought.  I know we’ve discussed some of these topics here before but do you worry about the inconsistencies in professional sports PED policies?  I’m not sure I have an easy solution, but I will say that the classifications of drugs seems arbitrary in some cases.

Possible 2013 WBC Nationals participants?

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Harper makes perfect sense to represent the US in 2013 WBC. Photo GQ magazine Mar 2012

I read a quickie piece with some Mike Rizzo quotes from the Washington Time’s beat reporter Amanda Comak on November 11th, 2012 and there was an interesting tidbit at the bottom: per Comak,  Rizzo has not been approached yet about any Washington Nationals participation in the WBC, but would approach each request on a “case-by-case basis” to determine what is in the best interests of the team.  This got me thinking about possible Nats representatives on 2013 WBC teams.

Lets take a quick look at the Nationals representatives on WBC teams from the past, talk about whether its really in the best interests of the team to even let these guys play, and then talk about who may be candidates for the 2013 WBC regardless.

(Note: I’ve added updates highlighted in red since the original 11/21/12 publication date on players mentioned here).

Washington has sent a decent number of players to play in the WBC over the years, with very mixed results for the team’s interests.  In 2006 the team sent seven different players to the inaugural WBC:

  • Luis Ayala for Mexico
  • Chad Cordero, Gary Majewski and Brian Schneider for team USA
  • Ronnie Belliard, Alberto Castillo, and Wily Mo Pena for the Dominican Republic.

The tournament was marred for the team by a blown UCL ligament to Ayala, who had undergone elbow surgery earlier in the off-season but pitched for his home country anyway.  The team did not want Ayala to participate in the inaugural event, did not want him used by the Mexican team, and team officials were “livid” by the injury, which cost Ayala the season and cost the team its 8th inning setup guy.  Ayala recovered to pitch again in 2008 but was never as effective, and was shipped out in 2009 for a PTBNL.  Coincidentally, I suspect the team still harbors some ill-will towards Ayala to this day.  Meanwhile the other two relievers who participated both experienced regressions in form; Cordero’s ERA nearly doubled (from 1.82 to 3.19) from his breakout 2005 season while Majewski’s numbers dipped slightly before he was traded in the big Cincinnati deal of 2006.

In 2009, the team had 5 participants:

  • Pete Orr playing for Canada
  • Joel Hanrahan and Adam Dunn playing for the USA
  • Saul Rivera and Ivan Rodriguez playing for Puerto Rico.

The WBC seemed to energize particularly Dunn, who enjoyed playing in a post-season atmosphere for the first (and only) time in his career.  Nobody suffered any injuries, but Hanrahan in particular may have been affected by his lack of a proper spring training; he posted a 7.71 ERA for the team while losing the closer spot and was shipped to Pittsburgh.  Ironically, Rivera also experienced a huge regression of form, going from a 3.96 ERA in 2008 to a 6.10 ERA in 2009 and was eventually released.

This begs the question; do we even WANT our pitchers playing on this team?  The first two WBCs have shown pretty distinctly that our pitchers have regressed greatly after playing.  This only makes sense: the spring training routines are greatly impacted to play in this event.  We may see a ton of front-office resistance to specific guys (especially those coming off injury) playing in the 2013 event.  Which could affect the eligibility of some specific players for 2013.

Now, which Nats may play for the 2013 teams?  First off, looking at the Nationals 40-man roster, we have become an amazingly heavy USA-born team (we’ll get to non-40man roster players in a moment). Thanks to the Nats big board resource (originated by Brian Oliver and now maintained by “SpringfieldFan”), which has the country of origin for players, here’s a breakdown of the home-country of our current 36 active (as of November 15th, 2012) roster players:

  • USA: 27 (would be 29 if adding in our rule-5 avoidance players)
  • Venezuela: 5 (Jesus Flores, Sandy Leon, Wilson Ramos, Henry Rodriguez, and Carlos Rivero)
  • Cuba: 1 (Yunesky Maya)
  • Columbia: 1 (Jhonatan Solano)
  • Dominican Republic: 1 (Eury Perez)
  • Netherlands (via Curacao): 1 (Roger Bernadina)

As you can see, the massive bulk of our team is USA born, and essentially our entire post-season starting roster was USA born as well.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that these USA-born players will actually play for team USA (Alex Rodriguez played for Puerto Rico despite being born and raised in Miami, and our own Danny Espinosa is eligible to play for Mexico by virtue of his first-generation born in the US status), but almost all of these guys will be up for consideration for the USA team.  And this only accounts for our 40-man players; as we’ll see below there’s plenty of lower-minors players from smaller countries that will participate.

Who from the Nationals franchise may make a 2013 WBC roster?  First off, thanks to James Wagner‘s 11/15/12 NatsJournal post we already know of three WBC participants; Solano is on the Columbian team, minor leaguer Jimmy Van Ostrand is on the Canadian team, and A-ball catcher Adrian Nieto is on the Spanish team.  Curacao qualifies to play with the Netherlands, and I’d guess that Bernadina would make a great choice considering the lack of Dutch players in baseball (Baseball Continuum’s projections agree.  And as of 12/4/12 he’s officially been listed as a Netherlands participant).. Venezuela is already qualified for the main draw and has a relatively strong possible team.  The Baseball Continuum blog posted an early projection of the Venezuelan team and listed Flores as a likely participant (specifically mentioning that Ramos wasn’t considered due to injury recovery; I’d suspect these two players to switch based on Ramos’ recovery and Flores’ awful 2012).   If Henry Rodriguez was healthy i’d guess he would be on that list too, but his season-ending surgery probably precludes his participation.  The Dominican Republic has perhaps the strongest depth and has no need for the recently called up Perez among its outfield depth.  Maya’s defection eliminates him from discussion for the Cuban team.  (12/4/12 update): Chien-Ming Wang has been announced as a member of Chinese Taipei’s team (for the purposes of this article I investigated all 2012 Nats).

Which leaves our large contingent of American players.  A couple of writers have started postulating on these rosters (David Schoenfield‘s very early guess as to a potential USA roster is here, Baseball Continuum’s latest projection is here).  So using these two posts as a starting point, lets go position-by-position and give some thoughts as to who may get some consideration.  Keep in mind the WBC rosters are generally very reliever heavy, since no starter is going to be “allowed” to pitch a complete game in March.

(Note: I’m still considering our Free Agents as “Nats players” for the purposes of this analysis, since this really goes position by position from our 2012 team to find candidates).

  • Catcher: Kurt Suzuki isn’t nearly in the class of the likes of Buster Posey, Brian McCann, Joe Mauer, or Matt Weiters.  There are a ton of quality american backstops right now.
  • First Base: Free Agent Adam LaRoche probably faces far too much competition from the likes of Prince Fielder, Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Allen Craig, Eric Hosmer, and Mark Teixeira to make this team.  If it were me, I’d go with Fielder and Teixeira.  But, LaRoche’s great 2012 season and his Gold Glove recognition may get him a spot.  He is a FA though, so i’d guess he won’t commit until he signs and gets the go-ahead from his new team.  Or, perhaps he uses the WBC to showcase himself?  Not likely needed; he should sign long before the WBC kicks off in March.
  • Second Base: Danny Espinosa is a decent player, but not in the same league as  Shoenfield’s projection of Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist.  Brandon Phillips is also in the mix for the team.
  • Shortstop: Ian Desmond‘s breakout 2013 season may get him some consideration.  There’s not a lot of American quality short stops out there.  Troy Tulowitzki is the obvious leading choice (as was Derek Jeter in the first two WBCs), but is he ready to come back from injury?  Looking around the majors there are a couple other possibilities (JJ Hardy, Brendan Ryan, Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Crawford all could be alternatives as well).   I think Desmond’s combination of offense and defense, combined with Tulowitzki’s injury recovery could get him on the team.
  • Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman cannot break the hegomony of David Wright and Evan Longoria right now, even given Longoria’s injury struggles this season.  Chase Headley and David Freese are also in the 3b mix.  12/4/12 update: Apparently Wright is committed, Longoria is out due to injury recovery and Headley “was not asked,” so perhaps Zimmerman is back in the mix.
  • Outfielders: I think Bryce Harper is a natural to make this team, not only on talent but also because of the brand-name recognition (and TV ratings and fan interest) it would generate.  Same goes for Mike Trout.  Otherwise there’s a slew of top-end american players who can man the outfield and they read like the top of the MVP boards: Braun, Kemp, McCutchen, Stanton, Hamilton, and Granderson are all candidates to make this team.  12/6/12 update: Scott Boras has stated that Harper will skip the WBC to focus on his sophomore season.
  • Starters: The two logical Nats candidates to be considered would be Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg.  But lets be honest; there is no way in hell Strasburg would be allowed to play.  Could Gonzalez make this team?  Given the depth of American starter talent right now (just off the top of my head: Verlander, LincecumCain, Hamels, Halladay, Kershaw, Lee, Weaver, Sabathia, Medlen, and so on) perhaps this will be a selection of attrition moreso than a selection of availability.  So if a number of the older guys on this list beg out, perhaps Gio gets his shot.  The WBC’s location in San Francisco has already lead to Ryan Vogelsong committing to play in his home town, and could lead to other Bay Area players signing up.  I’m not sure any of the rest of our starters are really candidates, given the reputations of the above list plus the reliever-heavy nature of the roster.
  • Relievers: our two most well known relievers (Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen) are possibilities; would the Nats block Storen based on his 2012 injury?  Craig Stammen‘s breakout 2012 season could get him looks, based on the reliever-heavy needs of the team.  Normally Sean Burnett may be in the loogy mix, but there’s better lefty relievers out there AND Burnett’s FA status may lead him to bow out to curry favor to his new team (Schoenfeld lists Burnett as a possible member back in July, before knowing he’s declared free agency).  The question is, would you take Clippard/Storen against the likes of this list of quality american back-of-the-bullpen arms: Kimbrel, Ventors, Marshall, League, Janssen, Papelbon, Hanrahan, Motte, Boggs, Bailey, Reed, and Nathan?  Possibly, considering that a lot of these guys probably bow out.  We’ve sent multiple relievers to each of the past two WBCs and its likely going to be the same thing this year.

Summary: here’s my guesses as to which Nats (and recent ex-Nats) will play in the WBC:

  • Venezuela: Ramos
  • Spain: Nieto
  • Canada: Van Ostrand
  • Columbia: Solano
  • Netherlands: Bernadina
  • Chinese Taipei: Wang
  • USA: Harper, Desmond, Gonzalez, Clippard.  Perhaps Zimmerman and Stammen.

March 2013 update: here’s the post-WBC actual list of participants when all was said and done, helped by  the list of rosters via Wikipedia.  MLB reports that nine (9) Nationals are participating in the classic, though the below list (excluding Wang) totals more.  They’re not counting Solano/Columbia, having lost in the preliminaries.

  • Columbia: Jhonatan Solano (AAA/Mlb in 2012)
  • Spain: Adrian Nieto (low-A in 2012)
  • Canada: Jimmy Van Ostrand (AA in 2012)
  • Italy: Matt Torra, Mike Costanzo (both AAA in 2012, Washington MLFA signings for 2013)
  • Netherlands: Roger Bernadina, Randolph Oduber (high-A in 2012)
  • Chinese Taipei: Chien-Ming Wang (former Nat, non-signed FA for 2013 start of season)
  • USA: Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler
  • Dominican Republic: Eury Perez (3/4/13 addition to DR team)

Golfing with Tyler Clippard

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Tyler Clippard and yours truly waiting to tee off on the back nine on September 17th, 2012. Photo; Gary Boss

My Dad and I play in the Diamond Dream Foundation charity golf tournament every year (held this year on Monday September 17th) and this year we had the fortune of being paired up with none other than Nationals closer Tyler Clippard.

Clippard is a pretty darn good golfer.  As we found out, he’s been playing since age 9 and lettered in both golf and baseball in high school (in Florida, golf is a fall sport while baseball is a spring sport, unlike here, so he was able to pursue both sports all the way through high school).  He routinely bombed his drives 310 or so, utilizing a nice draw most of the time.  He could shape his shots on the course nicely (hitting mostly draws but employing a couple of fade shots as needed) and could control the trajectory of his drives based on the wind.  I’d guess he’s somewhere around a 4-5 handicap right now (its really hard to get a read on his mid-iron and short game when you’re chipping off of mud all day).  For what it was worth, he said his older brother was a far better golfer than he, so the golfing bug runs in the family.

We asked Clippard all sorts of questions over the course of the day (it was a slow round so we were on the course nearly 6 hours).  Here’s some highlights:

– We expressed some surprise that he showed up at all; apparently the Nats plane didn’t get back from Atlanta til 2am and he didn’t get to sleep til 4am after the Sunday Braves-Nationals game was moved to be the National 8pm game.  Clippard said that he plays golf on all his off-days, so he was going to show up no matter what.

– He says the team isn’t worried about who they may play in the playoffs at all.  They are confident in their abilities and know they can hang with any team that they may face.

– He gave us his pro history, talking about the various stops he had in the Yankees organization prior to getting traded here.  He saw the entire Yankees system, from rookie all the way to AAA ball, with stops in Charleston, SC, Trenton and then Scranton for AAA.  He said that Battle Creek, Michigan (his Short-A stop) was an “interesting” place to play, to say the least.  I didn’t realize this, but he really rose quickly through the minors, debuting as a starter for the Yankees at age 22.

– He talked about the trade to the Nats; basically he was very grateful for the trade because he was “falling behind” some of the more well-known names in the Yankees organization (Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlin and the like) and he knew he’d be getting a better shot in Washington.   It was almost immediately after he arrived in DC that he got converted to a reliever (we didn’t talk about the conversion really, he just said something that I’ve always said; “All relievers are failed starters.”).

– He told us why he signed out of high school despite being just a 9th round pick; He grew up in Tampa (I forgot to ask him if he knew some of the guys that come out of the famous Tampa HS Hillsborough) and had committed to USF, which is in Tampa, and the  Yankees rookie league team is based in Tampa, so he’d have been playing baseball in Tampa whether he went to college or played pro, so he decided to play Pro.   By total luck of the draw, his rookie league, his spring trainings and his high-A teams were all based in his hometown, meaning he could live at home to play pro ball.

– He spoke very highly about new Nats reliever Christian Garcia, having played with him in the Yankees organization.  After two Tommy John surgeries and a knee surgery, Clippard says its fantastic to see Garcia getting a shot at the majors.  He has “electric” stuff, always has, but has never been healthy consistently enough to get his shot.

– I asked him about reliever usage vis-a-vis highest leverage situations versus being the closer, and which he preferred.  Unequivocally he said he’d rather be the closer.  Simply put, baseball teams value the closer and the “Save” over the 8th-inning guy and the “Hold,” and he’s at a critical position in his career earnings-wise (he’s entering his 2nd Arbitration year) for him to be having such a fantastic statistical year.   We didn’t talk money, but per Cot’s he’s at 1.65M this year and you’d have to think he’s getting a significant raise this coming off-season.  Some back-of-the-envelope comparables; Chad Cordero earned $4.1M and $6.2M his first two arbitration seasons, putting his FA market value somewhere right around $10M a year.  Clippard’s stats aren’t as good as last year’s, when he was historically tough, but he’s still comparable to the likes of Jonathan Papelbon, who’s earning $13M a year.   I’d guess Clippard could jump up to the $4M/year range easily in arbitration this coming off-season, assuming his agents put his valuation somewhere between $10M and the $13M that Papelbon got.

– The funniest thing we learned; Clippard lives in Capitol Hill (kind of in the “hood” he joked) and that most of the time he BIKES to the stadium.  Along DC streets.  Which implies that he’s biking home after the games, sometimes at midnight.  He laughed about it, saying that nobody knows who he is and he’s just some random dude biking around the city late at night.

Our golfing team, on the strength of Clippard’s length and some great short-game contributions from the whole group, powered its way through the Army-Navy course to a team -16, good for a tie for 3rd on the day.  Our downfall was parring two par-5s; on both occasions both of our big hitters missed the fairway with drives and had to rely on metal wood second shots from much further back.  The course was not in the best of shape, so any chip around the green was basically off of mud, and everyone struggled to put up-and-down chances close to the hole.  We putted fantastically on the day though, draining several very long birdie puts and even getting a chip-in for eagle from my dad.

All, in all, a great day of golf, and a great time hanging with Clippard.  He’s a great guy and I couldn’t say enough nice things about the guy.

ps: I hate approaching ballplayers to sign stuff, but I had to get Clippard to sign something fun after playing with him all day.  We’re expecting a son in mid-to-late October, so here’s a shot of Clippard’s signature to my yet-to-be-born kid.  :-)

The inscription, in case you can’t read it, is addressed to my son and reads “I hope to pitch against you one day!  Tyler Clippard.”  Awesome.  That’ll sit in my kid’s nursery for a while.

Written by Todd Boss

September 20th, 2012 at 10:02 am

Ask Boswell 3/5/12

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Here’s Tom Boswell‘s weekly Monday chat from 3/5/12.  Of the baseball questions he took, here’s how I’d have answered them.  While lots of questions pertained to the recent Gregg Williams “bounty” issues and whether or not the Redskins partook during his time here, the starting of spring training has got Nats fans pretty excited.

As always, questions are edited for clarity and I write my own answer prior to reading his.

Q: What do you think the Nats w/l record will be?  Can they win 90 games?

A: For a team that won 80 last year (though their pythagorean W/L record was slightly worse), I don’t think its a stretch to assume they can improve another 10 games.  Mark Zuckerman did a nice little WAR analysis and showed that full seasons from Zimmerman, LaRoche and Strasburg, along with the new additions of Gonzalez and Jackson *should* give the team at least another 10 wins, perhaps a bit more.  That’s assuming basically that everyone else performs at the same levels they did last year, and it assumes that the WAR stat directly translates to wins on the field.  In reality, you have to plan for some people to step up while others step back.  Can we assume that Morse will hit 30 homers again?  Its a tough one to assume; he could break a leg and suddenly our offense is in tatters.

That’s why I’ve been a bit more conservative, predicting 8 more wins for this team and have them at 88-74 with this squad.  If the team is in the WC hunt, and they augment the offense, or if Harper comes up and produces … suddenly that’s a 90-91 win team.  Boswell didn’t really answer this question, just went off on Strasburg tangents.

Q: Who is your opening day starter?

A: barring injury it has to be Strasburg.  I think your initial 5-man rotation goes like this, in this order: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson and Wang.  This gives you a decent righty-lefty matchup at the top.  Perhaps you replace Wang with Lannan and have Jackson go out 5th to get a true R-L-R-L-R rotation.  Or perhaps Davey Johnson doesn’t care about lefty/righty matchups.  I’m more interested to see who the home opener starter is, since it happens 7 games into the season.  Right now it looks to be Gonzalez, which would be great, but early season rain-outs can greatly affect rotation orders.  Boswell says Strasburg but had a good caveat; if its 30 degrees and snowing in Chicago on opening day Strasburg probably won’t go.

Q: Where is this team’s Lenny Dykstra-esque scrappy mean streak player?

A: Honestly, the Mets-to-Nats comparisons may not ever bee 100%.   I don’t see a Dykstra type on this roster.  Mostly because this roster still does not have a center fielder/lead off type, which is exactly what Dykstra was.  Boswell says that Werth may still fill this role.

Q: Why didn’t the team keep Bixler and Nix?

A: Bixler is a good question; for reasons unknown the team designated him for assignment in the off-season while still possessing 40-man room (inexplicably; they did this a number of times, losing Kimball at one point but also losing two decent players in the Rule 5 draft).   Nix they probably thought was replaceable on the FA market … or at least obtainable for cheap.  There does always seem to be a number of halfway decent corner outfielders on the market who are available for less than what Nix got.  Boswell says Nix’s 2yr contract was the problem … the Nats want flexibility for 2014.  No mention of Bixler.

Q: If Tyler Clippard is our “MVP,” why isn’t he being paid more?

A: Two reasons; clearly the questioner doesn’t understand the whole arbitration process.  Just because Clippard is our best pitches doesn’t equate to him being the highest paid player.  Veterans always make more than pre-arb guys; don’t forget the players belong to a Union, and Union members reward longevitiy.  Secondly; Clippard unfortunately is a commodity player; he’s a non-closer reliever who doesn’t rack up saves and thus won’t ever be compensated like a Jonathan Papelbon or a Mariano Rivera, despite his value to the team.  Its an unfair world in some respects, and I just hope that the Nats do him right and keep paying him while he’s productive for the team.  Boswell mirrors my two thoughts but then also says that relievers are starting to become aware of newer stats like WPA that value Clippard highly (1st in the NL last year, above big name starters like Roy Halladay).

Q: What are your thoughts on the extra wild card?

A: Baseball purists may whine and complain, but the modern professional sports scene in this country, fortunately or unfortunately, places a ton of emphasis on playoffs versus regular season accomplishment.  Even with these two additional WC teams, Baseball still has the fewest of its teams reaching the regular season of any of the four major sports.  And, in a sport where payroll disparities may not determine the World Series victor every year they clearly help predict the playoff contendors (Yankees: one missed playoff appearance since 1994), having more teams in competition for the playoffs is good for the sport.  Frankly I’d like to see Baseball go to a 32-team/8-division structure similar to the NFL and adopt the NFL’s exact playoff structure.  The problem there is finding two more markets without cannibalizing the NY or LA market.  Boswell says “time will tell,” but also admits that he hated the first WC round initially but likes it now.  He also points out something I hadn’t thought of; the importance of your #3 starter with a new round of playoffs.

Q: Should the team just skip Strasburg’s start every few times to extend his 160IP limit until the end of the season?

A: It isn’t a bad idea; Zimmermann skipped one start and hit his 160IPs at roughly September 1st.  So skipping a few more starts for Strasburg would put him well into September.  But I don’t think he’ll be served well by jacking around his days rest.  Starters depend on getting into routines in order to pitch their best.  Honestly I think this situation may very well play it self out naturally; even in 2010 Strasburg had two separate DL stints; if he spends 30 days or so on the DL at various times we’ll get a full season out of him.  Boswell agrees with me on the not-skipping-a-start theory.

Q: How secure is Ramos as the #1 catcher?

A: I’d say he’s pretty secure.  Flores may have had a good winter, but winter leagues aren’t exactly MLB quality.  Flores’ injury history has more or less derailed his career, and that’s unfortunate.  The team has found a solid #1 in Ramos and will stick with him, with Flores getting his typical 1 or 2 starts a week.  The inclusion of Derek Norris in the Gonzalez package also spoke volumes about where this team thinks it is in terms of catcher depth, as does the 40-man addition of Maldonado, a journeyman catcher who now benefits from a distinct lack of upper-level minor league catcher depth.  Look for the team to make catcher a focus in the 2012 draft to start back up the catcher pipeline.  In the mean time, I doubt Flores will be trade bait even if he performs amazingly well, at least until we find another catcher in the wings.  Boswell says Ramos is as #1 as any #1 can be.

Q: Who are the best catchers ever?

A: For a combination of defense, calling games, arm strength as well as offense, i’d go with Johnny Bench.  But you also have to throw in Ivan Rodriguez in his prime.  Mike Piazza was notoriously bad defensively.  Jorge Posada was subpar defensively in his later years but was a monster bat.  I’d include other names from the past few decades like Carlton Fisk. Before Fisk and Bench, there was a dearth of HoF inductees from the catcher position for some 30 years, to Yogi Berra who is probably the benchmark for all-around catchers (with Bench).   Boswell says Bench as well, but mentions Varitek with Posada.  Interesting.

Q: What is the team going to do with Ian Desmond?

A: I’d guess that 2012 is the make it or break it year for Desmond.  If he’s hitting .220 at the all-star break without significant value proven at the SS position, the team may make a change.  Move Espinosa to SS, install DeRosa as starting 2B, look to move Desmond and perhaps make Lombardozzi the utility guy.  I also find it very interesting that Anthony Rendon is getting reps at both 2B and SS; if that kind of hitter can slot in at short stop on even an as-needed basis he could be even more of a dangerous prospect than he already is.  Boswell agrees; this is a big year for Desmond.

Q: If catcher is so important, why did we move Bryce Harper away from the position?

A: one word: longevity.  Yeah he was a catcher growing up but catchers get the crap beat out of them, have constant injury concerns, and the wear and tear of catching affects their hitting.  With such a bat potential, he needs to be on the field and playing 162 games.  That being said, I was slightly surprised that he didn’t at least try to stick at C for at least a little bit of his career … but understand the reasoning stated.  Boswell said the same things I said, but added that scouts didn’t really think he was a natural catcher anyway, so he got moved to the OF quickly.

Q: What would MLB’s response be to the same “bounty” scandal going on in the NFL?

A: Hard one; its not like purposeful bean-balls without context are common in the MLB.  And the game is just too random to purposely try to spike someone, or slide into them on purpose, or to purposely hit a catcher.  These plays are so bang-bang and so naturally occurring to baseball players who have played all their lives that they’re hard to script.  If it was found out to be happening?  Long suspensions.  Boswell thinks such a situation would be lifetime bans, if proven.

Q: Strasburg has never pitched more than 7 innings, at any level, ever.  Is this a concern?

A: I have a hard time believing this, but won’t challenge the questioner since I’m not entirely in a position to go searching through the guy’s college career.  Is it a concern?  eh.  Its modern baseball.  No more 150 pitch games, no more 38 start seasons.    Little leaguers have pitch count/innings limits, high school teams only play twice a week.  College rotations you go once a week.  I’d only be concerned if he showed any inclination of slowing down later in games, which he doesn’t.  Boswell isn’t concerned.