Nationals Arm Race

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Obligatory Post on the 2017 Hall of Fame class

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"Throw another circle change so you can blow out your elbow!" Photo via zimbio

“Throw another circle change so you can blow out your elbow!” Photo via zimbio

The ballot for the 2017 Hall of Fame class came out in early November 2016, and had 34 names on it.  Baseball-reference has a very  nice page summarizing all the candidates and their career stats.  Since Ballots are due by 12/31, and since this is the beginning of the obligatory holier-than-thou arguments about HoFame balloting, I give you my own holier-than-thou take on it.

Important/Vital link for 2017 Hall of Fame vote tracking: Ryan Thibodaux‘s online tracker of all HoF votes, which is showing some very different trends in 2017 for long-time ballot candidates.  You may have already seen some analysis of the early voting, from Bill James to Buster Olney.  The big shock so far is just how much support both of the major PED-tainted candidates (Bonds and Clemens) have gained since last year.  Some (most?) attribute this to the veteran’s electing of Bud Selig, who presided over the Steroid era and did little to stop it.  The thinking probably goes, “well if Selig is in, he’s just as culpable as the players, so i’m now voting for Bonds/Clemens).

With my imaginary ballot, here’s how i’d vote.  Since there’s a (ridiculous) limit of 10 players per ballot, I’ll list these players in rough order of voting priority to start:

New Ballot Candidates:

  • Absolute Yes on Ivan RodriguezManny Ramirez (and with Pudge, the first “Nationals” connected player to make it!)
  • Less emphatic Yes for Vladimir Guerrero
  • Slight pause to consider Jorge Posada
  • No on everyone else.

Returning Ballot Candidates:

  • Absolute Yes on Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds
  • More tepid Yes on Curt Schilling, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Fred McGriff, Trevor Hoffman
  • Pass on Lee Smith, Jeff Kent, Larry Walker, Gary Sheffield, Billy Wagner, Sammy Sosa

Discussions on my opinions from a hypocritical litmus test stand point:

  • Why support Hoffman but not Smith and Wagner?   Probably a fair question and probably not supported by stats when you compare all three guys together.  But that’s why its the “Hall of Fame” and not the “Hall of WAR” or the “Hall of Stats.”  Hoffman was more famous than these other relievers.  I always viewed Smith as a good-but-not-great reliever who compiled stats, and I viewed Wagner as an electric and under-rated closer without near the career accomplishments of Hoffman.
  • Why support McGriff/Guerrero but not Walker?  You can make the argument that Walker’s numbers were a product of Colorado … and you can make the alternative argument too.  I think for me the fact that Walker couldn’t reach even 400 homers while playing in the launching pad in Denver is an indictment of his career.  Walker was a fine hitter … but he never inspired the league wide “fear” that Guerrero and McGriff did.  He’s in the “Hall of Good” but not the “Hall of Fame” for me.  Also it is worth noting that McGriff finished his career with 493 homers, but missed months out of the 1994 season at his peak.  Had he eclipsed 500 homers … i think we’re having a different conversation about him.  These artificial numbers (300, 3000, 500) are pretty important to voters.  Guerrero himself was for a time absolutely “the best player in the game,” a title that I don’t think Walker can come close to claimin.
  • Why support Bonds and Ramirez but not Sosa?   Something about Sosa’s career just screams “artificial.”  He went from being a 35-home run hitter to a 66-home run hitter overnight, he has PED suspisions and a corked bat on his resume, and his skills disappeared as soon as testing became the norm.

So that gives me 6 “Yes” votes and another 6 less emphatic  “yes” votes.  So i’d have to cull two candidates to fit onto a 10-person ballot.  I’d cut Schilling just on principle for the ridiculousness of his statements lately, and Hoffman on general anti-closer principles.  So my hypothetical ballot is:

  • Rodriguez, Ramirez, Guerrero, Bagwell, Raines, Clemens, Bonds, Martinez, Mussina, McGriff

My prediction on who actually gets elected?  Well, of course the PED issue comes into play.  So three or four of my “Yesses” are going to struggle to get votes.  So i’m guessing that the likes of Pudge and Manny don’t get 1st ballot votes, and Clemens/Bonds will continues to struggle.   But based on there being three candidates that got pretty close last year, i’m going to guess that its a 3-man roster for 2017: Raines, Bagwell and Hoffman.  And that’s a fine class.   The tracker is showing Raines, Bagwell and Rodriguez well in the 75% range, with Bonds, Clemens, Hoffman and Guerrero in the 70-75% range.  Which means that they’ll likely fall short in the end, since the non-public ballots are usually more parsimonious and more narrative-driven.  Hoffman has enough of a narrative to perhaps maintain his 75% range though, so i’m putting him in first ballot (whether or not you think he deserves it).

One great change coming to HoFame balloting; no more secret ballots.  Every idiot who has a ballot and turns in something nonsensical will now have to answer for his vote in the court of public opinion.  Which I think is a great thing; no more sanctimonious votes preventing deserving players from getting their due.

So, who you got in the Hall this time?

 

Ask Boswell 3/3/14 edition

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Walter's hot start to the spring has him in a lot of people's thoughts... Photo unk via wp.com

Walter’s hot start to the spring has him in a lot of people’s thoughts… Photo unk via wp.com

Well, the entire DC area was off-work with yesterday’s (hopefully) final snowfall of the season snarling roads and cancelling work.  But Tom Boswell was busy chatting.  Here’s how i’d have answered his baseball-related questions from his WP chat session on 3/3/14.

Q: Walters is 5-5 and making some impressive defensive plays. Do you foresee him being more than a September call up this year – perhaps a quality utility player? He also seems like a sharp kid and an interesting character.

A: Well, the only “impressive play” I’ve seen Zach Walters pull off was a 2-run scoring throwing error … but that’s just a “short sample size.”   To answer this question; yes I think Walters is more than a 9/1 call up this year; I think he’s going to be the first guy called up (ahead of both Jamie Carroll and/or Mike Fontenot at this point) if we need middle infield coverage.  I’m worried about his defense (as has been noted in this space before), so I dunno how much we want to depend on him … but so far he’s looking impressive indeed at the plate.  What more does he have to prove in AAA?   The more he hits, the more he pressures the organization to give him a shot at the MLB level.  Boswell doesn’t know either; there’s no room at the inn for him here; maybe a trade is in order to either move him or free up space for him.

Q: If Danny Espinosa can find his swing and cut down on the strikeouts, could Matt Williams get 300+ ABs for him alternating between 2nd/SS/3rd as a super utility?

A: I’m pretty sure that’s the plan for him even if he doesn’t necessarily “find his swing” right now.   Who would you rather go to war with as your backup infielder right now?  Danny Espinosa or a 40-yr old punch-less middle infielder like Carrol or Fontenot?  More and more I think the decision may be Espinosa vs Walters.  Boswell agrees, thinking Espinosa *is* going to be the primary utility guy for this team.

Q: Does Mussina get in to HOF?

A: Hmm.   That is a tough one.   On the one hand his career bWAR is *way* up there (82.7, which puts him in some very heady company right around 50th best in the history of the game). JAWS likes him, and the “Hall of Fame Standards” metric on B-R.com thinks he’s borderline.  On the other hand his ERA isn’t fantastic (career 3.68, career ERA+ of 123, which is about what Jimmy Key or Tim Hudson are pitching to for their careers).  Didn’t get the magical 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts.  Never won a Cy Young but was in the top 6 in voting 9 times out of 18 years.  Five all-star appearances, seven gold gloves.  7-8 with a 3.42 ERA in 139 2/3 post season innings, where he peaked in his 1997 exploits in an epic Baltimore vs Cleveland series.  I think he was unquestionably one of the best arms in the game for a period of time, even if Cy Young’s don’t show it.  He did not have the greatest reputation with the media though.

Answer?  I’d vote for him, but i’m a “bigger hall” guy.  I think he’s the type who gets in after a few votes to gather steam as people remember how good he was.  But I think its also telling that his best player comparable on B-R is Andy Pettitte, another very borderline hall-of-fame guy.  There’s certainly no PED usage issues with Mussina; maybe that’s enough to get him votes that other players will never get.  Boswell agrees with my sentiments here.

Q: What are the Syracuse Chiefs expecting in terms of a pitching staff this year?

A: In December 2013, here’s what I predicted for Syracuse’s pitching staff:

  • AAA Rotation: Jordan, Karns, Rosenbaum (L), Young, MLFA or two?
  • AAA Bullpen: Barrett, Mattheus, Garcia, Davis,  Cedeno (L), Robertson (L), Herron (AA?), Alfaro, Stange, Delcarmen
  • AAA Release candidates: Meyers, Lehman

What’s happened since then?  We traded away Karns, resigned Ryan Tatusko, resigned Tyler Robinson, signed Clay Hensley , signed a lefty Zack Jackson, signed a righty Warner Madrigal, signed former Nat Luis Ayala, traded for Felipe Rivero, signed Josh Roenicke and (just today) signed another former Nat Reliever Michael Gonzalez.

Phew.  That’s a lot of guys signed who all look like they belong in AAA.   I honestly have no idea how spring training is going to shake out but I do see one issue here: none of these new guys coming in are starters.  So with Karns traded away, we’re looking at just 3-4 true starters left out of all these guys.  Does Tatusko go back into the rotation?   Do the Nats throw a bone to one of the remaining veteran FA starters out there (Joe Saunders has local connections, and Barry Zito could use some work).

If I had to guess, right now, what 5 starters and 7-8 relievers break camp and fly to upstate NY i’d go with the following:

  • AAA Rotation: Jordan, Rosenbaum, Young, Myers, Tatusko
  • AAA Bullpen: Barrett (closer), Davis, Cedeno (L), Robertson (L), Ayala, Gonzalez, Rivero (L), Delcarmen.
  • AAA D/L: Mattheus, Garcia (come on, you know its going to happen)

As for the rest of these guys?  Maybe some push back to AA, maybe the rest exercise out clauses and hit MLFA again.  But there definitely seems like a ton of 4-A/AAA guys for not a lot of spots.  Boswell has no idea and openly solicits input from people who do follow the Nats minors.

Q: Why is the opener in Australia a real game instead of an Exhibition?

A: Probably because the moment it becomes an exhibition thousands of miles away … teams would basically send their AAA squads.  And MLB knows it, so they have to be “real games.”  Boswell just notes how unfair it is to the teams that play.

Q: What’s the best way to get Bryce Harper’s autograph on a special piece of memorabilia?

A: Probably to go to Spring Training and bring along a little kid :-)  That’s my plan, eventually, to use Son-as-proxy to get cool autographs.  Of course, I also have this thing where everytime i’m in a position to get an autograph I have the player customize it to my son … cheesy, sure.  But i’m not acquiring autographs to re-sell them or some fool thing.    Boswell doens’t have any good advice.

Q: Assuming you could afford them all and they would resign, if you had to who on the current roster to make “lifelong” Nats – who would you choose among Desmond/Zimmermann/Strasburg/Harper? And who is the most replaceable?

A: Great question.  The kind that will inevitably lead to 30+ comments here :-)

Assuming money is no object and that they’d all re-sign, I think your “lifelong” Nats have to be in order Desmond, Harper, Strasburg, and then Zimmermann.  All four if you can get them.   I think they’re replaceable in this order: Zimmermann, Strasburg, Desmond and Harper.  But even that order is splitting hairs between Strasburg and Desmond; who is more replaceable?  A top-5 short stop in the league or a top-10 arm?  I dunno.  Harper is in a league by himself; you just can’t replicate power hitters who matriculate to the majors by age 19.

I think Zimmermann is the most replaceable by our pipeline of upper-end arms.  The other three guys, not so much.

By the way, this question goes to the essence of my arguments against “Big Money GMs” as postulated in the post and comments sections of my big GM Rankings post last week.  This question is entirely moot if you have a $200M payroll.  Do you think Brian Cashman ever had to sit down with his ownership and go, “ok we’ve got Derek JeterMariano RiveraBernie Williams and Jorge Posada coming up on the end of their deals: we can only keep a couple of them; which ones are we letting walk?”

Boswell goes slightly different order of replaceability, putting Strasburg ahead of Desmond because the Nats have Espinosa and Walters.  Uh … not sure I think either of those two guys is a “replacement” for Desmond right now Mr. Boswell.  Nonetheless he also postulates that the Nats really can only keep two of the four, and that internally they keep a “5 max contract” limit in place, meaning that they still have some flexibility to keep three of these four guys.  

Q: I am not impressed with the Nats’ bench, because it is a bucket full of strikeouts. Does this open a door for Jamey Carroll to make the Opening Day roster? Would it be a bad sign if he did?

A: I cut-n-pasted this whole question because I love the “bucket-full of strikeouts” line.   Maybe a grizzled vet keeps Carroll instead of Espinosa or Tyler Moore.  Maybe not.  But if you carry Carroll instead of Moore, you are trading one commodity (defense) for another (power).  I’d rather have Moore but understand the positional flexibility of Carroll.   Boswell seems to intimate the decision will be Carroll vs Walters: why does everyone assume Moore is making this team with two other backup outfielders already under multi-million dollar contracts??  

Q: If Zach Walters continues his excellent play from the end of last year deep into the Spring, and Danny Espinosa parties like it’s 2012, do you see the Nats dealing Espinosa this year, or are his defensive skills at short and second too valuable to lose?

A: Yes, I think Espinosa will eventually be traded, as I’ve noted many times here (best summarized in this 1/2/14 Ladson inbox response).   But, he has to regain value first.  If he’s suddenly returning to a near 100 ops+ hitter with his defensive prowness, there’s a whole slew of teams that could use an upgrade at the position (just perusing RotoWorld depth charts, I can see a 2011-esque Espinosa being a desirable choice to current options for at least Houston, Minnesota, Miami, maybe the Mets, Pittsburgh, San Diego, maybe Chicago (WS), maybe the Angels, maybe Seattle, and maybe the Dodgers (so they can move Hanley Ramirez back to 3B).   And that doesn’t even look at the 2B options out there that he could ably fill.  Boswell notes this little nugget; the Dodgers sniffed around on Espinosa exactly to do what I just said; move Hanley back to third.  

Q:  Should we be concerned about middle infield depth? If Espinosa can’t hit over .200, who’s left? Jamey Carroll’s OBP was .267 in 227 ABs last season… yikes.

A:  I’m not concerned because we should only have to count on one of these guys.  Espinosa (as mentioned ad naseum) had a pretty legitimate excuse for his BA last year; he was hurt.  He’s healthy now; there should be no reason he doesn’t return to at least a .240 guy with power he was for his first couple of seasons.  Boswell points at his new favorite fan boy Zach Walters.

Q: Assuming the Nats fifth starter (whoever it may be though I’m pulling for Detwiler) has a great “fifth starter” season, how good can we expect it to be? Has any fifth starter won 15-20 games? 

A: I think a “good” season out of our 5th starter would be 28 starts, a 14-8 record or something like that, and an ERA in the 3.50 range.  I’d love to see that happen.  Has a 5th starter ever won 15-20 games?  I have no idea how you’d find that out; it isn’t as if starters are “labeled” by their rotational rankings like we do in the sportswriting world.  I looked up a couple of options though to see how some “5th” starters fared on some very good teams (looking up the winningest teams I could think of in the 5th starter era)

  • The 5th starter for the 108 win 1986 Mets was Rick Aguilera; he went 10-7 with a 3.66 ERA.
  • The 114-game winning 1998 Yankees 5th starter was Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who went 12-4 and had the best ERA+ on the staff, but he wasn’t exactly a “normal” 5th starter.   In reality by the time the playoffs rolled around the real 5th starter was Hideki Irabu: he was 13-9 in the regular season but didn’t get a start in the post-season.
  • Lastly the 116-game winning 2001 Mariners’ 5th starter seemed to be John Halama, who went 10-7 despite a 4.73 ERA and was replaced mid-season by rookie Joel Pineiro. 

Boswell notes a good point; if a “5th starter” wins 20 games … people forget he was the 5th starter.

Q: He had 38 (or thereabouts) errors in Syracuse this year. I don’t think there should be any serious talk of him spending significant time with the Nats until he can clean up his fielding in AAA.

A: I wonder if the person who sent in this question also reads me.  By the way: the break down of Errors (per b-r.com) was 31 errors in 104 games at short to go along with 7 additional errors in 27 games while playing third.  That’s a LOT of errors.  And it is almost entirely consistent with the number of errors he committed in 2012 in AA.  So this wasn’t a fluke season.

We all hear stories about how crummy minor league fields are and how they contribute to poor fielding numbers for players.  Have you ever played on a pro field?  They’re miles better than any amateur field and looked beyond immaculate to me.  I wonder just how much nicer they can get honestly.

But, yes I do somewhat agree with the questioner here; I’d like to see Walters have a cleaner fielding season before counting on him.  That being said, we should all remember that we were ready to string up Ian Desmond for his fielding issues … now he’s a gold-glove calibre talent.   Boswell brings up Desmond’s incredibly poor minor league fielding record … maybe there’s more truth to the whole minor league field issue than we thought.

Q: Do you think Storen might not be long for the team? I’ve felt for some time that Game 5 in 2012 truly affected how Rizzo sees him. Also, many like to say they have three guys who have closed in the bullpen. I feel the 7th, 8th and 9th are all different so that theory doesn’t always work. Thoughts?

A: I’m not sure if 2012 has anything to do with it: Drew Storen definitely got squeezed in that inning and in some ways was very unlucky.  And as my dad likes to point out, Davey Johnson‘s usage of Storen in the series (and his bullpen management overall) really left something to be desired.  Nonetheless, to answer the question no I think Storen is eventually moved, not because of any bad blood but because of simple economics.  We’ve got a really expensive bullpen and three closer-quality guys when only one is needed.  At some point we will cash in.  I’m not sure I believe that 7th/8th/9th innings require different mindsets; you still want guys who can get people out, you want swing-and-miss talents, you want people who can keep the ball in the park and not walk anyone.  Boswell doesn’t really answer the question.

 

How do Pitchers “tip” their pitches to opposing hitters?

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Zack Wheeler's mechanics are apparently a mess right now.  Photo cnnsi.com

Zack Wheeler’s mechanics are apparently a mess right now. Photo cnnsi.com

I’ve taken an interest in Mets rookie right hander Zack Wheeler since his call-up.  I nabbed him for my fantasy team and have watched his starts when I could.   His name has been in the news for quite a while, ever since he was traded by the Giants for a 2-month rental of Carlos Beltran (a trade that had Giants prospect-watching fans howling).  Moreso because of Wheeler’s pedigree; 100mph heat, #1 starter ceiling.  There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a prospect for the first time, even if he could be the bane of your team’s existance for the next 10 years.

His first few starts have been up and down; now we may know why: reports are coming out of the Mets camp that say that Wheeler’s been tipping his pitches.  Of course, it apparently wasn’t an issue when he threw 6 shutout innings in his debut, but its still something worth looking into.  The team plans on working with Wheeler in the bullpen to make some adjustments (he apparently is doing several things wrong right now; see below for all the different ways he’s tipping).  However, apparently not enough was fixed prior to his last start against the Nationals, who teed off on him as if they knew what was coming.  And you know what?  They probably did.

But this got me wondering: how exactly to pitchers “tip” their pitches?  I’ve played an awful long time and have always been a “feel” hitter at the plate; I look fastball, adjust to the curve, never really give much thought to trying to think along with the pitcher, and generally “feel” my way through at-bats.  I’ve never in my life specifically looked for or noticed a pitcher tipping his pitches or tried to take advantage of it; frankly when a guy’s fastball is only in the upper 70s or low 80s as it generally is in amateur leagues, you don’t really need to get that kind of advantage.

After doing a bit of research, here’s what I’ve found.  Pitchers can “tip” their pitches a number of different ways.

  1. Differing Arm Angles for different pitches.  This (according to the above link) is one current Wheeler issue.  I have seen this personally; usually a curveball comes in at a slightly lower arm angle if the pitcher wants to get more side-to-side action.  Pitch F/X data tracks release points and this type of tip can be worked on.
  2. Differing Arm Action: A common tip is when a pitcher specificically slows their arm when an off-speed pitch comes, especially a change-up.  This is an amateur tip though; professionals throwing change-ups hone their craft to be as deceptive as possible.
  3. Glove Positioning: another apparent Wheeler issue; he was holding his glove in different spots (as pointed out by this fangraphs.com link and as noticed in the video in this article here) depending on the pitch.  This has to be something done unconsciously; there’s no reason to hold your glove in different spots or to hold your body in different positions based on the pitch you’re going to throw.   Others have noted that pitchers will have different “glove widths” depending on the grip; a “12-6” grip (like on a fastball) allows the glove to be slightly more closed than a “3-9” grip, like you’d have on a curve ball.  Another glove tip-off may be the way the glove is held in the set position; some pitchers have a tendency to hold the glove more straight up and down when throwing fastballs.
  4. Differing Motion Mechanics: I’ve often wondered if our own Drew Storen, who uses two different leg kicks, has any sort of telegraphing of his pitch selection by virtue of this mechanical difference.  Andy Pettitte unconsiously was once found to bring his arms together in slightly different ways from the stretch depending on the pitch he was to throw.  Dennis Eckersley admitted (after he retired of course) that he went through a tipping period where batters could tell he was throwing off-speed stuff because he unconsiously was “tapping” his leg with his hand.
  5. Differing Motion Speeds: do you speed up  your motion for one pitch but not another?  Apparently Wheeler may be doing it now.  Conventional wisdom states that a pitcher will take a nice leisurly motion for a fastball to gain natural physical momentum but may forget that momentum when he’s throwing a curve.
  6. Pitch Gripping in the Glove: If a pitcher throws an unconventional pitch that takes a moment to get a grip on, a batter can pickup on different timings or different mannerisms and get a read on the pitch.  I’ve noticed this with pitchers who throw specifically the split-fingered fastball, one of the more difficult pitches to properly grip.  I once watched a guy on the hill who would pre-jam the ball in-between his fingers as he took the sign; it became pretty easy to know what was coming because if he did NOT fiddle with his glove you knew it was a splitter.  Some pitchers have to look down at their grip to get it right after accepting the call; can you glean anything from this fiddling in the glove?
  7. Pitch Grip VisibilityMike Mussina found out from a teammate (Jorge Posada) during spring training one year that his unique change-up grip telegraphed the pitch to opposing hitters.  Posada watched him pitch and called out every pitch in what must have been a rather disheartening bullpen session.  He made a slight adjustment with his finger positioning and eliminated the tell.  This problem is somewhat related to a pitcher’s overall ability to “hide the ball” during his wind-up; if you’re an over-the-top thrower and you throw a pitch that shows a lot of the ball … batters can see it.  Knuckleballers especially are plagued by this, but they don’t much care since everyone knows what pitch is coming anyway.
  8. Poker-face tells: sometimes pitchers just flat out have a Poker table-esque tell that they unconsiously perform on certain pitchers.  They’ll grimace, or puff up cheeks, or stick out their tongue on some pitches but not others.

The best way to find out about any of these tells is to have a former rival hitter get traded to your team.  But even then sometimes players can be secretive.  So video tape work is key, as is 3rd party eyes looking for predictive tells in your body language and motion.

 

Written by Todd Boss

July 2nd, 2013 at 1:31 pm

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.

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 1/14/12 edition

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I’m looking for a contract “This Big!” Photo unknown via iusport.com

This is your semi-weekly/periodic wrap-up of Nats and other baseball news that caught my eye.

Nationals In General

  • Talk about rumors that just won’t go away: Nationals apparently remain the favorites for Prince FielderKen Rosenthal says the sameBuster Olney has a nice overview with pros/cons laid out.  For me (as discussed in the comments of the previous posts), I think he’d be a mistake for 8-10 years, but an absolute steal for 3.  Here’s some thoughts from Tom Verducci, who thinks the Nats are his destination.  And here’s a post that says one of the 3 candidates for Fielder I identified in this space a few days ago (Toronto), is out of the running.
  • Imagine a lineup that goes like this: Espinosa-Werth-Zimmerman-Fielder-Morse-Ramos-Desmond-Cameron to open the season, and then potentially inject Bryce Harper hitting behind Morse and replacing Cameron in the outfield.  That’d be 5 straight home-run hitting threats in the middle of your order, with good L-R balance.  I know he’d be expensive, but that’s a 95 win offense.  It’d be even better if we got a one-year stop gap hitter to open the year playing RF and who we could flip in trade if Harper comes up sooner than later.
  • From Jdland.com: the concrete factory across the street from Nats park is finally coming down!
  • Whoops: Zech Zinicola hit with a 50-game suspension for non-PED drug abuse.  Sounds like Marijuana to me.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Nats release him after this, his 2nd transgression.
  • John Sickels‘ new rankings of the Oakland A’s top 20 prospects, post trades this off-season.   6 of the 10 top were acquired in the Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez trades, while three more represent Oakland’s #1 draft picks in 2011 (Sonny Gray) and 2010 (Michael Choice) and 2009 (Grant Green).  Say what you will about Billy Beane, but he’s clearly building a big-time farm system for the future right now.
  • A nice review of the Nationals 2012 outlook from seamheads.com.
  • We lost Doug Slaten.  Now he can go be horrible for Pittsburgh.
  • Good news on both Sammy Solis and Bobby Hanson from Byron Kerr.
  • Adam Kilgore says the team is still talking to Rick Ankiel about coming back as a 4th OF… I wouldn’t be totally opposed to that; he’s essentially the same player we got in Mike Cameron, right?  Only difference seems to be lefty versus righty.
  • Fun little position-by-position exercise: ranking the NL east teams position by position from David Shoenfield.  I must admit though I think he was a bit generous with his Nats rankings in some cases.

Free Agents/Player Transaction News

  • MLBTraderumors is great; they’ve created arbitration tracking pages that will “keep score” of all the cases coming up in Jan-Feb.
  • If you believe Jim Bowden, the Rangers are playing hardball in their Yu Darvish negotiations.  If this falls through … look for pandemonium both on the Prince Fielder front and with Darvish next year when he’s an unrestricted FA and could attract interest from pretty much every team in the league.
  • Makes sense: Marlins plan to aggressively pursue Yoenis Cespedes.  Getting the latest big name Cuban defector can only be a good thing for the franchise as they try to re-build a fan base in a heavily latino/cuban community.
  • Well, the  Yankees shored up their rotation in one 3 hour period on Friday night; trading for Michael Pineda and then signing Hiroki Kuroda.   They went from having three question marks in their rotation to now wondering if AJ Burnett can hold onto the 5th rotation spot.  Wow.  Here’s Keith Law‘s analysis, predictably giving the “edge” to the Mariners in the deal despite the obvious fact that Pineda is MLB proven while the other three guys in the deal, aren’t.

Hall of Fame items

  • Mike Silva becomes one of the very few BBWAA writers with a HoFame vote to publish support for Jack Morris.  I’m sure I’ll be seeing the inevitable Craig Calcarerra blog posting questioning Silva’s IQ for doing so.
  • David Shoenfield has a little missive on the HoFame, voting procedures and comments on how few players are getting elected these days.
  • Chris Jaffe does an excellent job predicting HoFame votes every year; here’s his guess on 2012’s election.  Bad news for Bagwell and Morris, good news for Larkin though.
  • Other interesting HoFame notes: one site in particular collects ballots; here’s a summary of the 80-some ballots she has right now.  Very good support for Larkin.
  • No Bagwell votes here; prepare for the ridiculing.  Danny Knobler and Scott Miller.
  • I think i’m just about fed up with bloggers who see everything in modern baseball through little spreadsheets of data and who never even saw Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven tell me I’m an idiot because i think the former is a better pitcher than the latter.  At some point statistics are just that; numbers that prove or disprove whatever your theories are.  You can’t just ignore 20 years of performance and context of playing in the league by boiling down thousands of innings pitched into one number, whether it is ERA+ or WAR or whatever.   For me, when you talk about whether a player is a Hall of Famer, you look at individual season accomplishments.  Morris basically had 15 seasons of full time pitching.  In 5 of those seasons he was a top-5 vote getter in the Cy Young; that means in 5 seasons those people who covered baseball that season considered him among the best 5 pitchers in his league.   In another two seasons he didn’t finish top 5 but still received votes.  He was god-awful his last two seasons, lowering his career totals.  And there’s dozens of examples of him completing games despite having given up 3-4 runs and sitting on 140 pitches.  Maybe Morris just needed to pitch in the current era, where he would be taken out in the 7th on a pitch count and then replaced by specialized relievers.  Meanwhile Blyleven, in 21 full seasons of starting made exactly TWO all-star games and received comparable Cy Young support 3 times.  I’ll ask again; how can you be considered one of the best of all time if nobody who covered you day in and day out during your career thought you were even among the best of your day??
  • Jorge Posada announces his retirement; the inevitable “Is he a Hall of Famer” articles start.  Immediate gut reaction from me: yes he’s a HoFamer.  Unlike some of his Yankees dynasty team members (Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte) Posada seems a bit more transcendent in terms of talent and legacy.  A quick glance though at his career stats show some of the problems with his eventual candidacy.  He’s a late bloomer; not playing a full-time season til he’s 25.  However for the 10 seasons he had from 25 to 35 he was fantastic; 5 all-stars, 5 Silver Sluggers and two top-6 MVP votes.  After he turned 35 though he struggled with health and had a relatively poor final season at the plate.  He has no gold gloves and had a reputation for having a very weak throwing arm but had a 121 OPS+ for his career (a great offensive player for a catcher).  His compareables in b-r are heady company (including Carlton Fisk and Gabby Hartnett).  I guess we’ll see in 5 years’ time.
  • Jan 9th 2012: the wait is over.  Only Larkin elected, Morris and Bagwell vote totals rise but still not close.
  • Spreadsheet of all published/known hall of fame votes, with links to explanations.  Interesting to say the least; several blank ballots and several very odd ballots to say the least.

General Baseball News

  • Buster Olney continues his rankings of the top 10s of baseball; this time with lineups.  Predictably its very AL East heavy. Previously he had done rotations, bullpens, infields and outfields.  Links to other lists available from this article (ESPN insider only; consider spending $2/month for it; its worth it).
  • Buster, after finishing the above rankings, publishes his preliminary 2012 top 10 Power Rankings.  Rays #1, Nationals essentially #11/”Best of the Rest.”  Boy this team’s reputation has come a long ways in just a few short years.
  • Jeff Passan‘s A-to-Z discussion on Baseball this off season and in 2012.  I link it since I like most everything Passan writes.
  • Joe Torre joins an ownership group chasing the LA Dodgers … but not the one that Stan Kasten is heading.  Bad move; I think Kasten’s a shoe-in to be Selig‘s pick.
  • This could have a bigger effect than the loss of Albert Pujols: St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan is taking a leave of absence from the team to care for his ailing wife.  Duncan has been such a miracle worker for reclamation project starters over the past few years that its hard to imagine the Cardinals pitching staff not to take a dent.
  • The Chicago Cubs franchise potentially takes another hit: Starlin Castro reportedly accused of sexual assault.  Castro returned home for the off-season and isn’t in the country; could this incident prevent him from getting a work visa in 2012?
  • Jonah Keri takes on one of my favorite topics; calling out Billy Beane and showing how he’s closer to being an incompetent GM than he is to his vaunted reputation as the game’s best GM.
  • Great article on Baseball Prospectus about SLAP tears in baseball players (normally pitchers).  The article is very heavy on medical jargon but talks about the different types of tears and surgical remedies.  This is the injury that Chris Carpenter had and recovered from (though I’m pretty sure he ALSO had Tommy John surgery too).
  • Nice book review for “A Unique Look at Big League Baseball.”

Collegiate/Prospect News

  • 2012 AL rookie of the year favorite Matt Moore, profiled at seedlingstostars.com.  This is part of a series of prospect reviews, counting down to #1 and Moore is ranked #4 … but the author immediately caveats it by saying that any of the top 4 could be #1.  I talked about Moore after his playoff start on this site, coming away with a Wow factor that I havn’t had since Strasburg.
  • Scout.com’s top 100 Prospect list for 2012Bryce Harper #3 behind Moore and Mike Trout.  Can’t argue there.  Other Nats on the list include Anthony Rendon (#56).  AJ Cole (#76) and Brad Peacock (#85) would have made us a bit more respectable pre-Gonzalez trade.  Here’s hoping that the Nats “other” big prospects (Meyer and Purke in particular) turn in stellar 2012’s and beef up our presence on the national prospect scene again.

General News; other

  • Article on 10 “trendy sports medicine” fixes.  Including some exotic baseball remedies we’ve heard about recently.
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/tom_verducci/01/13/ryan.madson.prince.fielder/index.html