Nationals Arm Race

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

Archive for the ‘kurt suzuki’ tag

Nationals 2013 post-mortem

7 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ladson’s Inbox 10/4/13

4 comments

Wouldn't it be nice to see Price in a Washington uniform?  photo unk via strikesportsnetwork.com

Wouldn’t it be nice to see Price in a Washington uniform? photo unk via strikesportsnetwork.com

Nothing like a Bill Ladson inbox to start off your week!  This one is dated 10/4/13 and was posted late friday.  As always I write my response here before reading his and edit questions for clarity and conciseness.  Here we go.

Q: This past season, Adam LaRoche had a .403 slugging percentage, which might fly at shortstop, but not at first base. Do you think that Tyler Moore is good enough to be in a platoon with LaRoche, or should the Nats go after someone like James Loney to start most of the time?

A: Adam LaRoche‘s season was a disappointment for sure.  In addition to the noted poor slugging percentage, I’ll give you two more interesting stats.  He posted a bWAR of 0.9 for the year, which is only slightly better than the bWAR of 0.7 posted by Billy Hamilton during his two weeks of base-running terror in September.  And he ranked 20th of qualified first basemen in the league in terms of fWAR for the year.  James Loney put himself in a position to get a decent contract this year, with a nice slash line, a 118 OPS+ and a 7.2 UZR/150 at first.  But Loney’s problem is that he just doesn’t hit for enough power.  The Nats need LaRoche’s power, and I think at this point they stick with what they have for one more year and hope he rebounds.   I don’t think Tyler Moore is ready for prime time and will continue to be a power RH bat off the bench.  Lastly; who is taking LaRoche off our hands if we decide to replace him?  We’d have to pay most of his salary, get little in return, and I just don’t see this management team doing that.  Ladson agrees.

Q: How does Ross Ohlendorf fit in with the Nationals’ future plans? I see him as a great No. 4 or 5 starter.

A:  Ross Ohlendorf is in an interesting spot.   He was signed as a MLFA this past off-season, but did not accrue enough service time to get to 5 full years, so I believe he’s still tied to the club.  He should be arbitration eligible, and (per springfieldFan’s big board work) seems to have 2 options left.  So, on the one hand he pitched pretty well for us and I’d definitely tender him a contract for 2014; he’ll be relatively cheap even through arbitration.  I see him competing for the 4th/5th with the other obvious candidates (Karns, Jordan, Detwiler, Roark), but his longer term history as a starter in 2011 and 2012 does not inspire confidence.  His new motion helped him to a 3-1 record with a 3.52 ERA in 7 starts this year, but ultimately I see him settling into a long-man role similar to what he had this year.  Ladson agrees; he’s arb eligible but doesn’t seem like he can stick as a starter.

Q: I feel like the Nationals should go after center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. How do you feel about that?

A: Nope.  Jacoby Ellsbury is a nice player, but I feel like he’s somewhat of a one-season wonder.  Look at his career homer records and tell me how he hit 32 in 2011 when he’s never hit more than 9 in any other season??  Doesn’t that outlier scream out PEDs?  Plus he can’t stay healthy; he missed 30 games this year, half of last year, basically all of 2010.  He’s a Scott Boras client who is already making noise about getting more for Ellsbury than he got for Carl Crawford.  Would you pay $150M for 7 years of Ellsbury??

But here’s the other thing; as with LaRoche, this team has a center fielder under contract for 2014!  If the Nats want to make a change in center they’ll be selling somewhat low on Denard Span.  Personally I wouldn’t mind putting Harper in center, acquiring a big bopper for left and adding some muscle to this lineup.  But I just don’t see Mike Rizzo doing that and admitting defeat on the Span acquisition.  Ladson points out that Span’s great finish means he’s clearly not in line to be replaced; organizationally they have to be hopeful that his 2014 will resemble more closely the end of 2013, not the middle.  Fair enough; I can get on that bandwagon.

Q: Have you noticed how similar the home run swings of Wilson Ramos and Andres Galarraga are? Every time Ramos goes yard, he reminds me of The Big Cat.

A: I had not noticed, but sure, whatever.  No real question here otherwise.  I like Ramos, and he’s finally showing signs of durability after an injury-plagued career.   This is the kind of hard-hitting question that Ladson is known for taking.

Q: Do you think the Nationals should go after another pitcher or two during the free agency period?

A: I think the Dan Haren experience may have scared them off the FA market for a bit.  And this coming off-season’s FA market for Starting Pitching is really thin.  After spending $13M each of the last two years for Haren and Edwin Jackson (and getting bWARs of -0.1 and 2.0 respectively) the Nats have to be thinking that there’s better ways to spend money.  I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see another deal similar to the Gio Gonzalez deal, where we package a slew of close-to-the-majors players together for one decent-to-good pitcher.   The problem would be finding such a team; Oakland’s current slate of young starters mostly struggled this year and none of them are arb-eligible yet.  Maybe Tampa lines up; not only do they have to deal with David Price‘s rising salary but Jeremy Hellickson is arb-eligible for the first time too.  Hellickson took a major step back though in 2013; would Tampa use this to their advantage and keep him at a lower arb-number for one more year instead of selling low?   Would you trade, say, Karns, Roark and Kobernus for Hellickson?  Too much?  Too little?  Ladson says he could see them going after a pitcher either on FA or in Trade.

Q: Will Jhonatan Solano be the backup catcher out of Spring Training or will the Nationals try to bring in someone else? 

A: This is one of the bigger questions for this team this coming off-season: do the Nats go into 2014 with Ramos and a minor league call-up as his backup, or do they go for a veteran backup?  I’m guessing they may go the veteran FA route; there’s a ton of catchers on the FA market this year.  Jhonatan Solano may have peaked as a player: his AAA slashline as a 27 yr old this year was .214/.245/.279.   He’s been bouncing between AA and AAA since 2009.   Sandy Leon seemed like he was the future answer, but he bottomed out this year too after looking great in 2012.   I’d go with a veteran backup (Kurt Suzuki is a FA …) and wait out the kids one more season.  Ladson thinks FA route.

Q: Do you think a new manager will be able to change the hitting philosophy of the team and play more small ball instead of over-swinging and trying for home runs all of the time?

A: Is that the perception of this team’s offense in 2013?  That they over-swing all the time?  I think they just don’t hit well in the clutch.  Small-ball is a century old concept mostly debunked by modern stats in the game as being out-dated strategy.  Honestly, I want a manager who stands up for his players, who keeps them in line, who isn’t afraid to order a bean-ball when it is called for, and who doesn’t come across as a feeble old man (sorry Davey Johnson; that’s how I interpreted your last season).  Ladson says the hitting has settled since the firing of Rick Eckstein and the hiring of Rick Schu. 

Q: I think that left-hander David Price would be the ideal arm to add to the Nationals’ rotation. If he is willing to agree to an extension, do you think that he would be a good fit for the Nationals?

A: Price would be a great fit on every team in the majors.   Duh.  The problem is extracting him from Tampa.  Tampa is shrewd, drives a hard bargain, and wants to win every trade.  They’re not exactly the best team to try to negotiate with.  We’ve had this argument on this site many times; what would it really take to get Price out of Tampa?  Giolito, Jordan, Kobernus and Rendon maybe?  Would you make that deal or is that too much?

Of course, that being said … ask yourself this; was starting pitching *really* the reason this team failed in 2013?  No I don’t think it was.  Yes, the team was 10-19 in Haren’s starts … even if they’d finished .500 in Haren’s starts they were still out of the WC game.  No; this team took a significant step backwards offensively.  So the way to fix that should be to address the offense.  Problem is; all 8 starting fielders are under contract or under team control for 2014.  What do you do?  Get a couple of bench guys who can hit?  How does that help?

Ladson punts with his patented ‘lets see what happens’ line.

 

Ask Boswell 8/19/13 edition

7 comments

Arod, the greek tragedy figure. Photo John Munson/The Star-Ledger via nj.com

Arod, the greek tragedy figure. Photo John Munson/The Star-Ledger via nj.com

With somewhat of a lack of topics to write about lately, I turned to find a relatively deep Ask Boswell discussion on the Washington Post website 8/19/13.  Tom Boswell takes baseball questions, I provide my own answers.

As always, I’ll write answers here before reading his, and edit questions for clarity.  All stats quoted are as of 8/19/13.

Q: Leave it to the Red Sox to make A-Rod into a sympathetic figure!

A: Agree.  I wouldn’t normally have tuned into the expected 4.5 hour 8pm Sunday night game between Boston and New York, but just happened to see the first Alex Rodriguez at bat last night.  My immediate thought: Ryan Dempster‘s actions were pretty gutless and he should have been immediately ejected.   You throw at a guy once and miss?  You’ve made your point.  You had your chance to make a statement and missed.  But then throw two more balls inside then blatantly drill the guy on 3-0?  Sorry; that’s just bush league.  The umpires badly mismanaged that situation; Dempster should have been immediately ejected.  Joe Girardi had a very legitimate point at the time, and continued with very intelligent observations afterwards (where, paraphrased, he said that Dempster was a union rep, should have known better, and if he had a problem with the process of his own players’ union the time and place was elsewhere, not on a nationally televised game).

So, yeah, Alex Rodriguez did earn sympathy there.  How poetic was his home-run later in the game?  Were it me, I would have milked it for everything it was worth, making it a poster child for every egregious home-run celebration.  Bat flip, slow trot, kisses to the stands, fist pumps and multiple pointing to the sky.  But that’s just me.

Boswell doesn’t really say much about the question other than stating the obvious about the athlete and the situation.

Q: Wouldn’t it be better to show up the Braves by actually beating them once in a while, rather than throwing at them?

A: Not the point.  As I posted in this space over the weekend, there’s a code in the game that the Nats, for some unknown reason, were not keeping to.  Kudos to Stephen Strasburg for finally standing up for his own.  It has nothing to do with wins or losses on the field, it has to do with protecting yours.  Boswell says the Justin Upton plunking was done perfectly, but then questions the ejection for what a lot of people thought were just very wild pitches to Andrelton Simmons.

Q: Why did the Nats not keep Oliver Perez?

A: Who said it was just the Nats decision?  Oliver Perez piched as a starter for our AA team in 2011 and then signed another minor league deal with Seattle for 2012.  Only then he converted to a reliever and has had success since.  We don’t really know what happened; maybe the Nats offered to keep him but wouldn’t promise a AAA spot or a spring training invite.  Maybe Perez saw our rotation for 2012 and thought Seattle would give him a better shot at a MLB job.  Honestly I don’t remember a single word at the time indicating that either side wanted a 2012 deal.  Perez was good but not great in AA for us in 2011 (3-5, 3.09 ERA. 1.3 whip in 15 starts), far less than a guy who was once a very effective MLB starter.  Maybe we just though he was washed up.  Boswell questions whether a guy with a 4.25 ERA is even worth discussing.  Fair point

Q: Who would the Nationals “third-string” catcher be? If, for instance, Suzuki got injured and Ramos pinch-hit. -Who would be the preferred position player to pitch if they ran out of pitchers? 

A: Great question.  3rd string catcher?  I have no idea, maybe Steve Lombardozzi.  I do remember the team saying that despite Bryce Harper‘s youth position being predominantly catcher that he was not an option.  Pitcher?  Boy, another who knows.   I can’t remember a single positional player who has taken the mound for the Nats since they moved here.  The best guess would be a utility guy, either Lombardozzi or Scott Hairston.  Boswell guesses the same names I do.

Q: Do you think the Nats will make a serious effort to keep him next year? (I’m already writing off 2013) I’m sure he wants to play every day, but given Ramos’ physical issues that isn’t out of the question.

A: Kurt Suzuki is gone.  His $8.5M option for next year is way, way too much for what he has become; a once-a-week catcher.  Even given Wilson Ramos‘ fragility, you just can’t waste money at the backup catcher position.  Look for a 2014 spring training fight between Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano for the #2 catcher spot, and look for the team to add a lot of depth in the minor league ranks in the off-season.  Boswell notes the horrific catcher ERA of Suzuki compared to Ramos, and predicts a minor FA signing this coming off-season.

Q: Is there a more insincere human being in sports than A-Rod? Has he always been like this?

A: The above answer was my weekly quota of Alex Rodriguez discussion.  I will say this though; how do you really KNOW that A-rod is an “insincere human being?”  Do you know him personally?  Or are you just following the media narrative?  Boswell makes a good point; the damage he’s done to the game outweighs any sympathy you could have for him.

Q: You’ve said in the past the Nats would return to their career averages…eventually. Are the Nats reverting to their mean, or is this the new mean?

A: If 2012 was the high, maybe 2013 is the low.  Lets hope for somewhere in the middle for 2014.  Hell, i’ll settle for league average.  I did a quick little runs-scored analysis at the end of June that showed where the Nats record would have been if they had a league-average offense (tied for 1st place) or their 2012 offense (best record in majors).  You could quibble with the math, but I think we all know what has let down the team this year.  Boswell summarizes many of the same points I made … and then has some great stats isolating the bench’s collapse this year.

Q: Given Haren’s performance since returning from the DL, does Rizzo make him a qualifying offer for 2014?

A: Good question.  I just don’t see how you can give Dan Haren a qualifying offer.  The Q.O.  amount is going to increase; lets assume its $14M/year.  Would you give a guy with this stat line $14M?  7-11, 4.79 ERA?  Probably not (those are his season numbers).  His last 8 games (since coming off D/L?)  3-2, 2.25 ERA.   Yeah, that’s worthy of a Q.O.   Maybe the team avoids having to make a decision and flips him to someone needing a starter for September, since he passed through waivers.  That’d be advantageous to Haren too, meaning his signing next off-season won’t have compensation associated with it.  In any case, I think the performance of Taylor Jordan has clearly made Haren expendible, giving as good as or better performance for 1/26th the cost.  Use that $13M towards some hitting.  Boswell says no.

Q: When does Drew Storen replace Soriano as the Nats closer?  (After another blown save).

A: When Soriano’s contract is over.  You bought him, you’ve gotta use him.  Rafael Soriano‘s m.o. was always “good when he’s the closer, sullen underperformer when not.”  He was a poor signing when they got him, and continues to be wasted money.  But hey, its not my money.  Boswell agrees.

Q: When Magic Johnson’s group purchased the Dodgers, he was going to fire Mattingly, whom you said would be a very good manager. Does he still want to fire Donnie, now that the Dodgers have gone 42-8, the best MLB win stread in 100 years? Would you like to see him managing the Nats?

A: Well of course Don Mattingly isn’t going to be fired; he’s now neck and neck with Clint Hurdle for manager of the year.  I don’t have a good sense for what kind of manager he is; after Davey Johnson‘s laissez-faire attitude I know what kind of manager I do want; I want someone with some emotion.  Girardi proved a lot to me last night; lighting into an umpire who failed to control the game.  That’s the kind of emotion I want in my skipper.  Boswell gives some good managerial candidates.

Q: Who are the young pitchers the Nats thing are coming soon?

A: From AAA on downwards, here’s a few starters to keep an eye on: Nathan Karns, A.J. Cole, Robbie Ray, Taylor Hill, Sammy Solis, Matthew PurkeBlake Schwartz, Jake Johansen, Austin Voth and Lucas Gilioto.   Almost every guy on this list has performed well and/or earned a promotion in 2013.   Boswell points some of these guys out and then mentions that we need to produce some hitting too.

Q: Should I be worried that the Nats are going to become the new Caps, a talented team who just lacks the discipline to get it done when it matters?

A: No, because at its heart this is still the same basic team of guys who nearly won 100 games last year.  They need a new voice in the skipper’s office, one who reverses the course of Johnson and who properly motivates them.  Boswell says not to judge a team because of 3/4′s of one disappointing season.

Q: Zim’s surgically-repaired shoulder clearly affected his throwing this year — whether physically or mentally. However, his power numbers at the plate are down too, and we haven’t seen his usual late summer hot streak. Do you think his shoulder affected his hitting? If so, what’s the prognosis for next year for Zim’s hitting?

A: If his shoulder really is/was as bad as everyone seems to think, then yeah you can derive all sorts of bad performance indicators from it.  Next year?  Who knows; he should be healthy.  Of course, he was promised to be healthy by spring training of THIS year.  It takes me back to what I now perceive as disinformation from the team about the whole shoulder issue from the onset.  Either way, I think he’s playing 3B for this team in 2014 no matter what (well, unless the team somehow unloads Adam LaRoche).  Boswell shows some good stats showing Zimmerman’s consistency over the years, then goes on to rave about Jayson Werth.

Q: Will baseball be ruined by the addition of instant replay or have the times changed?

A: I think times have changed.  But from all accounts, the implementation will be typical of everything MLB does; half-done, ham-handed, inefficient and not going nearly as far as its counterparts.  Boswell isn’t a fan.

Q: With two years under his belt, he has a 3.00 ERA and a pretty good 27-19 record. He doesn’t hit 100 mph anymore. He hasn’t proven so far to be anything better than mediocre in the clutch. Not a bad track record, of course, but not anywhere near great. He’s 25 years old now. Is it time to adjust expectations?

A: Is this a baiting question?   Quotes ERA and W/L record as the sole ways to evaluate a pitcher (especially a pitcher who hasn’t yet pitched a full season).  What proof is there that he’s “mediocre in the clutch?”  He’s still the highest or 2nd highest average fastball of any starter in the league despite dialing it down, he’s still a league leader in K/9.  His ERA+ is still significantly above average both for this year and for his career.  What more do you want from the guy?  Ask any baseball pundit to give you a list of his top 5 starters in the league and he’s still on it.   Boswell gives some great historical stats, putting Strasburg in pretty elite company thus far.

Q: Why has Bryce Harper not made the 20 year old leap we expected him to? Did the collision with the wall in LA derail his entire season?

A: A fair point; everyone saw his splits pre and post-LA wall.  His lefty splits are abhorrent.  But he hasn’t been the second coming of Mike Trout.  Maybe we just need to appreciate him for what he is right now.  Boswell mirrors what I said.

 

Is it time to fire Davey Johnson?

12 comments

 

Davey Johnson can't get this team in gear.  Is it time to go?  Photo Getty via mlb.com

Davey Johnson can’t get this team in gear. Is it time to go? Photo Getty via mlb.com

I know this is blasphemous to say.

I know it’ll never happen, not under this GM and not under this ownership group, both of whom have far more respect for Davey Johnson than to give him such an ignominious end to his time here.

And I know that Johnson is as good of a manager as is out there.  I may have been critical of his decisions here and there (especially related to yanking starters on low pitch counts), but I recognize he’s a Hall of Famer and cannot argue against his career accomplishments.

But I’m beginning to believe that the only way to shake this team out of its current malaise is to change the message coming from the top.

They tried demoting players who weren’t hitting (Danny EspinosaTyler Moore).   They’ve tried calling up their best remaining prospects (Anthony Rendon, Nathan Karns and Taylor Jordan).  They’ve tried cleaning house of underperforming relievers (Henry RodriguezZach Duke, and Drew Storen).  They’ve tried changing key staff (firing Rick Eckstein).  They’ve tried ridiculous lineups (your best power hitter Bryce Harper leading off??)   Nothing has made a difference; the team has basically been playing .500 ball for weeks and weeks now.

For whatever reason, this team of players, picked by every baseball pundit out there to make the playoffs and by a good portion to make it to or win the World Series, is now 10 games out of of the divisional lead.  They’re 10 games back of Atlanta, which themselves has only played .500 ball since mid April after a 12-1 start.  The Nats just finished June and July playing 50 games in a row against teams that missed the 2012 playoffs (perhaps not the best bench mark, since Pittsburgh has the best record in baseball this year, but still), and finished the stretch 5 games south of .500.

The team looks like its sleepwaking through games.  They look like they have no voice, no spark, no sense of urgency.  No leadership.

The trade deadline won’t help at all; the Nats have practically no tradeable assets.  Their only FAs to be are Dan Haren and Chad Tracy.  Kurt Suzuki has a 2014 option that clearly won’t be exercised, so he counts too.  But who is out there lineing up for these 3 guys?  Meanwhile, despite their offensive woes, there’s really not a spot on the field that can be improved through trade.  Go around the field and you’ve got players on deals that at least extend through 2014 (LaRoche and Span), or  you’ve got guys on major contracts (Zimmerman and Werth) or you’ve got cornerstone younger players (HarperRamosDesmond and Rendon).  Who are you going to replace?  Maybe you think about trading Rafael Soriano (after all, the last thing a losing team needs is a high-priced closer) but a quick glance at the teams in playoff contention does not easily find a team in need of a closer (the best candidate may be Pittsburgh, who just lost their closer Jason Grilli to a forearm injury, but they’re not exactly rolling in dollars nor likely to take on an $11M/year guy).

Maybe its time to bring in a new voice, and see if he can scare this team into an August and September run.

Sorry Davey; you know how the old saying goes.  You can’t fire 25 players, but its pretty easy to fire the manager.

Ask Boswell 7/22/13

10 comments

Denard Span is catching a lot of criticism right now.  Photo: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Denard Span is catching a lot of criticism right now. Photo: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Well, Phil Mickelson came out of nowhere to take the British Open over the weekend, NFL training camps are coming up soon and the Nats just got swept anemically at home.  I wonder how many baseball questions there are in this week’s ask Tom Boswell chat?  Lets find out.

As always, I answer here before reading Boswell’s response, only take his baseball/Nats questions and edit those questions for clarity.

Q: Is one of the reasons for the Nats malaise because they know Johnson is a short timer?

A: The implication of the question is this: if Davey Johnson suggests a change, the player says, “Eh, you’re gone by the end of the season, why should I listen to you?”  I have a hard time believing this for two reasons:

1. I’m not convinced there’s that much “coaching” going on in the majors.  Especially for veterans.  These guys are professionals, they’ve been playing professional baseball for years.  If you don’t know how to bunt, or how to field by the time you’ve made the majors then I don’t think you’re ever going to get it.  Maybe I’m wrong.

2. I’m also not convinced that managers really have that much to do with a game’s being won or lost.  Yes, disastrous bullpen decisions can back fire.  But its still on the hitters to hit, the starters to pitch, the fielders to make plays.

Related to #2; word came out today that the Nats have fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein.  Is this sort of like firing the secretary when the entire office puts out bad work?  Johnson was really upset by it and said so in the media … and I don’t have any doubt that this is a reactionary move to the poor offensive numbers.  But ask yourself; what is a new hitting coach going to do to turn this team of hitters around between now and September 30th?

Boswell gives Johnson lots of credit in 2012 for instilling confidence in the youngsters and garnering more respect out of the veterans (in comparison to Jim Riggleman). 

Q: Suzuki, Soriano, LaRoche. Any reason the Nats shouldn’t be sellers this year?

A: The Nats will not sell.  Because that would be Mike Rizzo admitting that all his moves last off-season were wrong.  And he’s not going to admit that.

Lets play the what-if game though; what if the Nats were to become sellers.  First guys on the block are FAs in their last (or only) year.  We only have a couple of those guys: Kurt SuzukiDan Haren and Chad Tracy.  Look at that list and ask yourself who would want these guys and what they’d be willing to give up?  Even newly acquired Scott Hairston is signed through 2014.  But then again, teams are smarter and generally won’t give up good prospects anymore for rentals.

One last point: the Red Sox blew a 9 game lead in September two years ago.  The Nats are only 7 out of the division lead, even playing as poorly as they have.  It’s still just mid July.

Boswell says wait until July 31st.  And interestingly he criticizes the Denard Span acquisition. 

Q: Can we get rid of Span?

A: Ironic that Boswell took this question right after killing him.  I have always thought that the Span acquisition was Rizzo being too clever, too focused on defense.  And so far it looks like the critics were right.  Span is posting an 86 OPS+ right now.  His OBP is about the same as the guy we had to jettison to make room for him (Michael Morse).   Except Morse at any moment can hit the ball 430 feet; it’d take Span 3 swings to get it that far.  To say nothing of driving out a fan favorite/good clubhouse guy.

Can we get rid of him?  Nope.  Stuck with him and most of this team through next season.  But, at that point he seems tailor made to flip to bring up someone like Brian Goodwin.

Boswell says that Bernadina isn’t the answer.

Q: Isn’t it galling to the team that Rafael Soriano acts differently on the mound — e.g., windup vs. stretch — depending on whether or not it is a save situation?

A: The word on Rafael Soriano wasn’t positive before he got here, and the whole “shirt untuck” seems to smack of showing people up.  And it’s clear to me that he’s a “Save snob;” look no further than his numbers in 2010, 2011 and 2012.  In2010 as a closer in Tampa?  226 ERA+.  The next year as a setup guy in New York?  4.12 era.  Then when Mariano Rivera goes down and he gets the closer job in 2012?  Back to being excellent.  If he purposely pitches differently in save vs non-save situations?  I’d be really, really pissed as a player.  But luckily the stats don’t support it; his ERA in non-save situations is better than in save situations, by a lot.  Boswell says that Soriano’s behavior is being noticed.  great.

Q: Should we start platooning Span with Hairston?

A: Is this what it’s come to with Span?  That we’re talking about platooning him with a guy hitting .170?  Yes Hairston’s lefty splits are good … but come on.  It isn’t like he’s an all-star slugger.  At least span brings plus-plus defense to center.  Bat him 8th, where his damage is limited.  Boswell says Yes its time to platoon.

Q: Everybody says Nats Park can’t get an All-Star Game because the surrounding area isn’t developed enough. But how does that explain sites like Busch Stadium (their development plan is further behind than ours), Angel Stadium (surrounded by parking lots and freeways), or Citi Field (surrounded by parking lots, a subway line, and a junkyard)?

A: Great question.  Maybe Bud Selig hasn’t seen all the development going on.  Or maybe Ted Lerner just don’t want to get on his knees and beg for it before the omnipowerful commissioner.  I do think its kind of ridiculous that baseball has chosen to return to parks that have previously hosted before giving a game to every new park.    Boswell doesn’t really answer.

Q: How good has Gio been over the past two months?

A: Before his 6 shutout/11k outing last weekend Gio Gonzalez had won 4 straight starts.  The worst of them was a 6 2/3 3 run performance that the team won easily anyway.  Maybe he’s pitching to score (ooh, don’t say that too loudly, the sabre nerds get all pissed).  Yeah he’s pitching great.  Boswell agrees.

Q: Should Krol start working later in games?

A: I’m still not entirely convinced Ian Krol can be more than a loogy.  Every time i’ve seen him, he’s been a one-pitch/one-trick guy.  I’ve literally never seen him throw his off-speed stuff for strikes.  Luckily the deception and velocity on his fastball are good enough to let him ride to a very good season statistically so far.  I’d stick with what we’re doing now; using him and Fernando Abad as situational relievers and leaving the hard work for Clippard and Soriano.  Drew Storen?  Now that’s another story.  Boswell says give him more work.

Q: I’ve seen a recent increase in the criticism of Davey Johnson’s managerial decisions. I can’t believe fans are blaming him for where the Nats currently stand. I put the blame on the players. It’s execution that’s at fault. Right? What else could/should Davey do that he hasn’t already tried?

A: Stop using poor relievers.  Stop pulling effective starters after 90 pitches.  Stop batting Span 1st and drop him to 8th where he belongs.  That’s what I’d do.  Boswell shared some ancedotes.

Q: I was so in favor of the Span acquisition, now it just looks horrible. Do you think he can get back to the .392 On Base Percentage he has in 2009 or is he really a .317 OBP guy? Will this team ever solve CF and lead off?

A: Just had this discussion with someone over email.  He does look horrible at the plate.  But he plays a great center field!  Rizzo just had to have his center fielder; well now you have him, and the guy he displaced (Mores) has about the same OBP this year as Span.  To go along with 200 points of slugging.  So there’s that.  You say “well Morse has been injured?”  I say sure … he got injured in Seattle.  No reason to assume the same thing would have happened here.  We gave up Morse’s power in the middle of the order and moved a perfectly capable defender (Harper) off center to acquire Span and have him drag down the top of the order.  Can’t do anything about it now (or until 2015 frankly): I say bat him 8th until he proves he deserves to return to the top.   Boswell points out that Span’s OBP is only 1% better than league average.

Q: Should we keep Soriano in the closer role?

A: Pretty much; $11M a year and he’ll be a sullen clubhouse cancer if he’s not closing.   He’s being paid way too much money to flip, even to teams that covet closers.  Well, maybe we can talk to Boston; they seem to be idiots when it comes to paying for closers (as noted in this space).   Boswell also mentions Boston but points out how battle-tested Soriano is, implying he has value.  I’m clearly on the record in my opinion about closers and paying big money for them, disagreed with the acquisition and disagree with Boswell here; if we could trade him, you do it.

Q: Is Jayson Werth immature and/or a hypocrite?

A: You’d have to read the whole question (which clearly implies the opinion of the asker), but there’s some vitriol in there.  I can’t think of any incidents that make me ever put Jayson Werth in the same maturity category as Nyjer Morgan.  I think the questioner is off-base here.  Boswell predictably defends Werth.  I will say this: go look at Werth’s hitting stats this year; he’s been very, very good.

 

Ladson’s Inbox 6/24/13

2 comments

What a week!  Both Bill Ladson and Tom Boswell doing chats/email inboxes!  As I sit here as my flight has been delayed a second time, I find myself with the time to bang out Ladson’s latest inbox.

As always, I write my response here before reading Ladson’s and edit questions as needed for clarity.

Q: With right-hander Dan Haren going on the disabled list, is it possible the Nationals will try and trade for left-hander Cliff Lee or another top-of-the-rotation pitcher near the Trade Deadline?

A: Rumors on the street are that Mike Rizzo is working the phones, hard.  That sounds to me like he’s looking for serious reinforcements to try to salvage this “go for broke” season.  But somehow I seriously doubt it’ll be Cliff Lee.  Lee is owed too much money, he’s already 34, and the likelihood of Philadelphia dealing intra-division seems remote.  There’s plenty of other pundits out there reviewing the likely pitchers on the Trade market and there’s some intriguing names out there.  But it’ll be a sellers market and the Nats farm system has already been thinned recently.  Will they thin it even more in a desperate attempt to keep the 2013 dream alive?  I hope not; we’re already seeing how poorly thought out trades by other teams in similar positions have backfired and cost their teams significant prospect depth.  As others have noted, Ladson predicts the callup of Taylor Jordan for the time being.  Lets hope he comes out of no where and pitches 6 shutout innings.

Q: Does Wilson Ramos remind you a bit of Jesus Flores — a promising young catcher who can’t seem to stay off the disabled list?

A: Yeah, except that Ramos is twice the size of Flores and still can’t stay healthy.  That Kurt Suzuki move is looking better and better.  Derek Norris has yet to really pan out in the majors for Oakland (hitting below .200 this year and for his career), and Suzuki is holding down the fort for now.  That being said, we need Ramos back to spell Suzuki, who seems to be tiring as he catches the large majority of the innings.  Ladson doesn’t say much … but says the Nats miss Ramos.  Duh.

Q: Is there any chance we might see Ryan Zimmerman at second base?

A: Zero chance.  He’s a big dude; he’s not a 2nd baseman.  Now, Anthony Rendon looks like a 2-bagger to me.  Shorter guy, agile, quick arm, good glove.   Ladson agrees.

Q: What do you think of the Nats’ start this year, compared to last? Are they a stronger team?

A: Lots of injuries, lots of under-performing on the offense, and a couple of depressing pitching issues.  They’re better than a .500 team but they need to have at least a league-average offense (not one of the worst).  Ladson says they need Harper back.  Duh.

 

 

 

Ask Boswell 6/17/13 Edition

leave a comment

Anthony Rendon - What a draft day steal.  Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via chron.com

He’s continued to hit in the pros like he used to in college.  Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via chron.com

The Nats continue to struggle offensively.  They’re generally only above the Mets and the Marlins in key offensive categories, two teams that have basically given up for 2013.  They’re hitting worse than the Astros, a team that also had given up on 2013 before it started and whose payroll is 1/6th of ours.   Our best hitter Bryce Harper languishes on the D/L, but the team has (finally) made some adjustments and shed some of the underperforming players on its roster and rookie Anthony Rendon has been living up to his expectations.

So, what is Tom Boswell‘s weekly chat is going to be about?   Here’s his 6/17/13 version.  As it turned out many of the questions were about the US Open, and a few about Hockey and Football.  But lots about baseball.  As always I answer here before reading Boswell’s response and edit questions for clarity.

Q: Is Davey Johnson the problem with the Nats in 2013?

A: Despite some complaints about his Starting Pitcher and bullpen usage earlier this year, Davey Johnson isn’t the reason this team is losing.  Not with a team whose offense ranks 28th in the league in all the basic run-creating categories (Runs, Batting Average, OBP, and OPS+).   Changing the manager won’t help; all you can do is change the personnel.  And the Nats have done what they can; sending Tyler Moore and Danny Espinosa to the minors, calling up Rendon (slash line as of 6/16/13: .361/.426/.525; yeah that’s pretty darn good), giving Chris Marrero some at-bats.  The obvious: they need Harper back, they need the bench to start producing like it did in 2012, and they need Wilson Ramos to come back and spell the quietly falling-apart Kurt Suzuki (he’s now hitting just .215 with little power).  Boswell agrees; its the offense.

Q: Did Johnson screw up by not loading the bases in the Friday loss?

A: Situation: 2nd and 3rd with none out; do you load the bases?  I’d normally say that it depends on the matchups; a fly ball beats you anyway, so you’re looking for a pitching matchup that you can either get a punch out or a ground ball.  Well, they got their groundball; it just wasn’t enough to get the guy at the plate, who broke on contact and was fast.  A bases-loaded situation there means Suzuki doesn’t have to make the tag, just get the force out.  I guess Johnson could have loaded the bases.  Boswell points out the similarities to this and the NLCS Game 5 situation with Pete Kozma but doesn’t give an answer.

Q: Is Rick Eckstein culpable for the Nats Offensive woes?

A: Boswell answered an identical question on 5/28/13.   I’ll say the same thing again: I just don’t see how a hitting coach is responsible for players who suddenly hit 200 OPS points below their career averages as we’re seeing with a huge percentage of this team.  Rick Eckstein isn’t in the batter’s box; these guys are.  Boswell agrees, saying it isn’t Eckstein who is waving at balls a foot outside.

Q: Are the Nats just mentally fragile?

A: Possibly.  I think the weight of expectations is causing them to press.  But you have some veteran guys in that clubhouse (Jayson WerthAdam LaRoche especially) who should be leading the team and helping to manage this.  Maybe these guys just aren’t “Captain” material?  Notice too that the two most senior guys on the pitching staff (Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano) aren’t exactly the best role models either; Haren is struggling too much to command any respect, and Soriano doesn’t appear to be a big clubhouse influence (and I privately wonder if there isn’t lingering animosity towards Soriano’s signing from the rest of the bullpen, which seems relatively close in age and experience).  Boswell notes that the team leaders need to step up.

Q: Why is Dan Haren pitching again?

A: Asked and Answered here four days ago.  Boswell didn’t really answer.

Q: Should we eliminate pitcher Wins and Losses?

A: Well, if you’re a sabrematrician we should.  A pitcher can give up one hit in 5 innings (as Stephen Strasburg did on sunday) and take the loss, while a pitcher can give up 5 runs in 5 and get a win if his offense bails him out.  That in a nutshell is the issue most people have with the Win and Loss statistics.   I saw a stat on billy-ball.com today that Chad Billingsley took the loss in an 8-inning one-hit outing in 2011 (the run was un-earned to boot).  That’s pretty unlucky.  Bill James said recently that he continues to use W/L records simply because they’ve been the default way to express stats for pitchers for 100 years.  I now view them sort of as throw-away stats written ahead of the meaningful measurements for pitchers, things like Fip and xFip, perhaps Siera.  I like ERA+ and K/9 as good short-hand measurements too, but realize that every one of these stats has flaws.  The pitcher “Win” used to mean a lot more than it does now; when a guy went 9 innings every day instead of going 5 2/3 and having a bullpen close out more than a third of the game it becomes harder and harder to equate one with with another.  Boswell agrees.

Q: How much of Rendon’s hitting is a reflection of his talent, and how much of it is a product of teams not having a book on him yet? Certainly he’s not a .350 hitter, but is he a .300-.310 hitter?

A: Great question.  I think its part column A and part column B.  For one, he’s an exceptional hitter.  He wasn’t College Player of the Year as a sophomore at Rice by accident.  He should have been a 1-1 pick had it not been for lingering issues that dropped him into the Nats lap in 2011.  And in his short sample size so far in 2013 we’re seeing his great approach; fast hands, ability to use the whole field, opposite field power.  Now, a new hitter hasn’t had “the book” written on him (that’s what advance scouts do) so yes, we’ll expect to see teams identify weaknesses in Rendon’s swing and start pitching him accordingly.  The great players then adjust to the adjustments.  In the ESPN documentary Bryce Begins there was a very telling quote from Braves pitcher Kris Medlen, who commented that Harper had “already made the adjustment” to the way the Braves were pitching him from one series to the next.  The film then showed Harper fanning at a pitch to strike out .. and then clobbering the same pitch in a subsequent game.  That’s what pro hitters do to stay good, and that’s what Rendon is going to have to eventually do to keep his lofty average.  Boswell raves about his stat lines all the way up the minors.

Two months in; Stuck in Neutral

13 comments

So my dad calls me the other day and immediately exclaims, “What’s wrong with this team?!?

Today, the season is 57 games old.  Two months old.  Almost exactly 1/3 old.  And the Nationals, the supposed power houses, next-coming-of the 1927 Yankees, the possible 110 win Nationals, are a .500 team.  Actually, a game under .500 with the weekend series loss to Atlanta.

We’ve talked about the Nats early schedule (as has Tom Boswell recently), chock full of 2012 playoff contenders.   But 2013 is a new season and in reality the Nats as of two months in have played the 14th ranked schedule of 30 teams (3 days ago it was 19th ranked … so these rankings move fast).   We’ve talked about the injuries, the offense in general, defense, the bench, Drew StorenDanny Espinosa, and Dan Haren all as contributing factors. A couple of prominent national baseball writers pipped in on 5/31/13 on this topic: Jay Jaffe on si.com and then Rob Neyer on BaseballNation.com, offering some suggestions, possible trades (Ian Kinsler?) and possible call-ups (the obvious Anthony Rendon).

But here’s my scary thought, as proposed to my dad.  What if .500 is exactly what this team is?

The 2011 Nationals finished .500.  The 2012 Nationals surprised us all and won 98 games.  Now the team is back to its 2011 levels.  Is it possible that this was always a .500 team for whom everything went perfectly right in 2012?  All the stars were in alignment in 2012 in terms of hitting, bench play and coming out parties for guys like Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez.   Now in 2013 are we just seeing all these guys revert to their normal production levels?

Were we just spoiled by the amazing bench production we got last year?  Here’s a quick table (stats as of 5/31/13):

player 2012 OPS+ 2013 OPS+ Career OPS+
Bernadina 113 34 85
Moore 125 27 90
Lombardozzi 83 55 74
Tracy 112 19 97

In other words, all four primary bench guys outperformed their career OPS+ values (mostly by a 25-30% factor) in 2012, and now all four guys are hitting so far below replacement level as to be drastically hurting the club.

I think the answer to the above questions goes along the following, topic by topic:

  • No, this is better than a .500 team.  The 2013 team is absolutely better than the 2011 team that rallied in September to finish 80-81.  The rotation now is leaps and bounds better than the 2011 rotation.  The offense (on potential anyway) is better.
  • This team is by-and-large the exact same team as the 2012 98 win team.  You can quibble about the loss of Michael Morse‘s charisma and power versus the fire-starting abilities of Denard Span at the top of the order, but then you also have to acknowledge the runs-saved so far this season by having an additional plus-plus defender in the outfield.  Haren versus Edwin Jackson?  At least a wash.  Bullpen additions and subtractions?  Perhaps replacing Burnett, Gorzelanny and Gonzalez with just Zach Duke and Rafael Soriano has weakened the bullpen.  Perhaps not, considering Soriano’s pedigree as a closer and its cascading effect on the rest of the bullpen.
  • The bench over produced in 2012 and is underproducing thus far in 2013, per career averages.  A bit of expected regression to the mean should indicate rising bench offensive production from here on out.  It almost has to; there’s just no way that these four guys are going to hit THIS badly the rest of the season.

But, the early season damage as been done.  At this point, just for the team to match its 2012 win total they’d have to finish the season 70-35.  That’s a .667 winning percentage.  That’s a 110-win pace for a season.  The NL Central right now has three teams with better records than either Atlanta or Washington, the two pre-season NL favorites, meaning there may not even be a NL Wild-Card to fall back on.  This team needs to focus on winning the division or there may not be an October.

This sounds like something Yogi Berra would say, but here goes: you have to score to win.  For me, if they start scoring runs and out-hitting teams, the issues we have with defense, the bullpen and injured starters will become secondary concerns.  As we speak, these Nationals are hitting .229 AS A TEAM.  That’s unbelievable.   Almost amazingly bad.  They’re 28th in batting average.  They’re dead last in team OBP (on a pace for a modern seasonal low OBP in fact), 27th in team slugging, 29th in wOBA and 28th in wRC+.

They need Werth back in the middle of the order.  They need a healthy Harper, who hasn’t been the same since the LA wall crash but really hasn’t been the same since hitting the wall in Atlanta in late April (from a tweet by Mark Zuckerman: Bryce Harper’s stats before April 29 collision in ATL: .356/.437/.744. His stats since: .183/.315/.350).  They’re finally getting LaRoche back on track, and Zimmerman is hitting well.  They need to stop giving at bats to Espinosa, and they need Ramos back to help spell Suzuki (he’s catching nearly every game and his offense has bottomed out in the last month).

I’m going under the assumption, by the way, that Strasburg misses at most one start and that Detwiler returns straight away.  I don’t think Nathan Karns is ready for the big time and the team needs to find another spot starter in the short term (Stammen?).

June is here; a weak schedule and an opportunity to get some wins.  If we’re still .500 on July 1st, then we’ll probably have run out of excuses and decided that we are who we are.

Ask Boswell 5/28/13 Edition

4 comments

Apparently shelving Danny Espinosa will solve all the Nats problems. Photo AP via mlb.com

Its the end of May, the Nats are still lingering around .500.  Are the natives getting restless in Washington?  Lets check in on Tom Boswell‘s 5/28/13 chat.

Q: Pretend there is some kind of supplemental draft and only 3 players are available – Machado, Harper and Trout. Would you mind channeling your inner Mel Kiper and give us your “big board” and rank these 3 phenoms?

A: I’d likely go Trout, Harper and Machado.   I think Trout slightly beats out Harper right now in terms of overall talent, though its really really close.  I like Trout’s advantage on the basepaths and in the outfield.  Harper’s 80 power is hard to find though.  Meanwhile Machado’s supposed defensive prowness isn’t even being exploited by the O’s, but given that he plays a premium position to either Trout or Harper he may end up being in the mix for #1 overall too.   Boswell puts them in the same order.

Q: Can Ryan Zimmerman play 2B? What about moving him over there and making room for Rendon at third? Ryan played SS in college and in his major league debut, and his quick reflexes seem to give him the range necessary to play the position. And the best part: the throws are a lot shorter from 2B.

A: Michael Morse played shortstop in high school, why wouldn’t we want him to play middle infield now?   (sorry, taking a ridiculous similar stance with a player’s athletic abilities NOW versus when he was 18 or 21).  I perceive Zimmerman to be “quick” but at the same time “slow.”  I don’t think he’s make it as a middle infielder any more.  Boswell says almost the same thing; he’s “quick but not fast.”  Wow, Boswell and I are 2-for-2 like minded so far!

Q: Is Espinosa ever going to find his swing? I know you were tooting his horn a while back, do you still feel the same about him?

A: Danny Espinosa needs to stop hiding significant injuries from his management.  You can’t blame him though; he knows he’s likely out of a job if he sits and someone else succeeds in his place while he heals.  But, this is now two major injures he’s basically hidden and tried to play through.  No judgement can be made about him any more before he gets completely healthy.  I believe the team should D/L him, get both his injuries fixed and re-assess when he’s healthy.  He’s certainly not doing the team any favors by hitting .150 with loose bone fragments in his wrist.  Of course, his current BABIP is .202;  That’s so low as to be amazing, so even with his struggles he should be set to improve.  Wow, Me and Bos are 3-for-3; he talks a bit about Espinosa plus tools, his issues post first 1,000 at-bats, and then mirrors my statement of wanting him shutdown to heal for the rest of 2013.

Q: Shouldn’t Harper just be placed on the DL until he heals up enough that he won’t be missing a few games every week? The way they’re doing it, the team is short a player and a bat for two or three days on a regular basis, or has Harper playing at 70 percent

A: I agree.  Harper‘s splits since running into the wall at the end of April are pretty distinct.  April: 1.150 OPS.  May: .687 OPS.  And that was before Los Angeles.  An now he’s got this knee issue.   I think he needs a D/L trip, rest, sit in the hot tub for two weeks and come back refreshed.  Between him and Espinosa and Detwiler the team has been playing 22 against 25 for days now.  Boswell agrees; he thinks Harper should have been given the 7-day D/L stint when he hit the wall.

Q: Has anyone suggested Espinosa get his vision tested? He has absolutely no pitch recognition, he looks like the world’s [biggest] guess hitter.

A: I don’t think its his vision.  I think he’s just an awful left-handed hitter, and unfortunately he takes most of his switch-hitting swings from the left side.  He’s just lost at the plate.  I went through a game like this once; the umpire’s zone was so unpredictable that I was just up at the plate swinging at whatever came.  It was like BP when you know you’re only getting 10 swings and the pitcher sucks; swing at everything.  Boswell says Espinosa has the worst plate discipline on the team, and talks about how Espinsoa is swinging before the ball even comes to the plate.  Sounds familiar.

Q: With a lack luster offense, poor defense, a bullpen you can’t seem to count on and only two starters pitching well, why do you believe the Nats will turn it around?

A: Because of their upcoming schedule of course!  Here’s my post on the topic on April 24th.  The gist of it is this; by the time May 31st rolls around, the Nats will have played 27 of their 55 games against 2012 playoff contenders.  Look at their season so far; they’ve played the Reds, the Braves, the Cardinals, the Reds again, 4 at Atlanta, the Tigers, at the Giants and now 4 straight against Baltimore.   June and July are significantly easier.  Look at the teams they play for the next 8 weeks; yes Cleveland and Arizona are improved, but a lot of the games on their slate are easy, winnable games.  You can get confident quickly when you have a bunch of winnable games.

To this question specifically, the offense has absolutely been affected by injuries.  People will get healthier.  The Defense was great last year; what changed?  If anything we’ve got a better defensive team now than in 2012 (replaced Morse with Span, replaced Flores with Suzuki).  The bullpen is fixable; Storen has just been unlucky, not bad.  Only 2 starters doing well?  I’d say at least 3 are doing well (Strasburg, Detwiler and of course Zimmermann, one is inconsistent but at the high end when he’s on (Gonzalez) and one has been a pretty severe disappointment in Haren.  My hope is that Haren slowly gets back to a 100 ERA+ level pitcher and then is left off the playoff roster.  Boswell eventually talks about the schedule, but goes off on a huge Pecota Rest-of-Season projection tangent.

Q: Big day (maybe) for the Nationals future if Karns can establish himself as a future 3-4-5 starter. Everything I hear and read about him says he has plus stuff and makeup, and an especially good fastball. What are you looking for tonight vs. the Os and how many starts can we expect Karns to make?

A: I’m looking for Nathan Karns to make it through the lineup tonight against Baltimore giving up just a minimum of damage frankly.  I don’t think Karns has a servicable 3rd pitch, which means he can get by on heat and his great slider for a while … but eventually Baltimore’s hitters are too good to get fooled more than twice.  I’ll be ecstatic with a line like this: 6 ip, 2 runs, 5 hits, 2 walks, 6 k’s.   I think he makes this start and perhaps 1 more before going back down when Detwiler returns.  Boswell didn’t really answer the question.  Editor Update: Karns had flashes of good and bad in last night’s game, going 4 1/3 and giving up 3 runs on 5 hits and two homers.  Didn’t agree with Johnson’s yanking him and taking away his Win though.

Q: Are the Nats and Harper going the way of Shanahan and RGIII with this knee business OR will we see common sense prevail so we can see our best player Harper rest up and make a difference when it really counts? Didn’t Harper come to bat with the score already 5-1 (6-1 ?) , in the bottom 8th when the Nats already had a commanding lead?

A: Hardly the same situation.  A brused knee from a foul ball versus a blown ACL?  Come on.  Must be someone begging the question.  Boswell does have some criticism for the Harper handling considering the kid gloves that Strasburg has been handled with his whole career.

Q: Why are people praising Espinosa for being “tough” and playing through his broken wrist? He was HURTING the team, it’s time to sit down at that point!

A: Because we live in a macho football culture, and playing through pain is a football mentality.  Boswell punts.

Q: The Nationals bats have not lived up to expectations. What move or moves could the Nationals make to get these bats going? Maybe a new hitting coach, an additional hitting coach, minor league players or some through a trade.

A: Why do people think hitting coaches make a difference?  Is Rick Eckstein part of the problem here?

Actually, looking at the Nats starting eight hitters; four of them have OPS+ figures > 100 (meaning they’re better than MLB average).   Suzuki is a bit below but he’s the catcher.  Span has slowly started to be come a liability at the top; he’s only got a .332 OBP with zero power right now.  Espinosa of course is the big black hole.  So while we’re knowingly in a rut offensively … the individual pieces aren’t really that bad.  There’s some bats in the minors but not much.  We really have very little prospect depth that’s tradeable for a bat mid-season.  This is your team ladies and gentlemen; get used to it.  Boswell also says we have to ride it out, but points out that the team hasn’t been healthy and has replaced Morse’s ABs with almost zero production from our bench.

Q: Any early predictions as to who will be managing the Nats next season? Davey’s also dropped a couple of hints that his retirement isn’t entirely his idea. Assuming they don’t win the World Series and he gets to ride off into the sunset, any chance that he comes back next year?

A: I’m continually amazed at the amount of curiosity about the manager.  Maybe Davey Johnson is back, maybe he isn’t.  Maybe the team hires a name guy, maybe they hire from within.  Lets focus on 2013 first.  Boswell mentions Don Mattingly, as we’ve heard in the national media.

Ask Boswell 4/29/13 edition

10 comments

Loved Zimmermann’s 1-hitter last week. Photo AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

We havn’t done an Ask Tom Boswell chat response in a while; I started one from last week’s chat but ended up deleting it.  Nothing really to add to what Boswell was responding.

Here’s the 4/29/13 edition, after an up and down week with the Nats; getting swept by St. Louis and then taking three of four from Cincinnati behind some of the best starting pitching we’ve seen in a while.

As always, I’ll write a response here before reading Boswell’s, and will edit questions for clarity.

Q: Did Strasburg learn anything from watching Gio’s and JZimm’s efficient starts against the Reds?

A: We talked a bit about Stephen Strasburg‘s issues last week in this space.  I’m not sure what he could have learned from Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann‘s consecutive 1-hit outings that he didn’t already know; get ahead of hitters, throw first-pitch strikes, use your whole arsenal.  Cincinnati is a good hitting team, but Atlanta is better.  At least we have the distinct pitching matchup advantage in game one (when the struggling Julio Teheran goes for Atlanta).  Boswell repeats both my points here; first pitch strikes and a favorable Teheran matchup.

Q: Why is blocking the plate by the Catcher now suddenly such an issue?

A: I think it starts with the horrible injury suffered by Buster Posey; a needless debilitating injury that took out an MVP candidate and cost him a year off his career.  Locally, we all remember Chase  Utley‘s cheap shot on Jesus Flores, which essentially cost him two years and a job in the majors.  And I think it is the general climate in sports today to try to avoid concussive injuries at all costs in the wake of the very scary CTE studies that are out there and may change the very fabric of Football as we know it.  Every time there’s another injury, another collision the drumbeat gets louder.  Just because catcher collisions have always been a part of the game doesn’t mean they’re right.  I’m in favor of eliminating the play, and If I was a MLB manager i’d advise my catchers to give the runner half the plate and try to avoid injury.   Boswell agrees.

Q: Why isn’t Solano catching any games?

A: Two reasons: Kurt Suzuki by virtue of the off/on schedule with Wilson Ramos for the first couple of weeks is relatively rested and can catch 6 straight days.  The other?  Jhonatan Solano just isn’t as good of an offensive option, and with the whole team struggling at the plate why put a guy in who is clearly overmatched?  The guy only has about 100ABs above AA after all.  Boswell says the last thing you should do when struggling is bench a veteran for a rookie, especially at catcher.  Ramos returns from the DL tonight so its a moot point.

Q: If you were betting on a team to win the next World Championship in DC who would be that team?

A: You have to think its the Nats right?  Redskins are lookup up with RGIII but aren’t a complete team yet and may be a couple years off (and no more salary cap penalties) from putting together a SB team.  The Wizards may not be relevant for another decade.  The Caps are hot and may go for a decent run in the NHL playoffs, but those series are such coin flips that if they couldn’t win when they were the league’s best regular season team, its hard to see why they’d win now.  Lastly DC United is just getting back to some respectability after years of decline, but winning an MLS title over some of the powerhouses in the league is a tall order.  Boswell says Nats, Caps, Skins.  Doesn’t even mention the other two franchises :-)

Q: Any chance Bud steps in ala with the Dodgers and Frank McCourt and forces Loria’s to sell the team?

A: I think there’s a chance, but something “illegal” would have to happen.  Selig was able to force McCourt to sell when the league was being embarassed and the team was clearly suffering financially because of mis-management.  Selig has allowed Loria to already do several unsavory things to fan bases in both Montreal and Miami, so its hard to see what else could happen.  However, if this supposed SEC investigation finds real evidence of fraud and the team is sued, I can see Selig stepping in and forcing Loria out.  Boswell doesn’t really answer the question.

Q: When he gets sent down next week, would you be surprised if he played second base exclusively given that Espinosa is now struggling with the bat and glove?

A: Anthony Rendon was ALREADY playing multiple positions in the minors this season, starting mostly at 3B but also getting a few games at 2B and at least one at SS.   But I don’t think Rendon would be Danny Espinosa‘s replacement; Steve Lombardozzi would be.  If Espinosa were to be sent to the DL, Lombardozzi starts and then Rendon probably gets called back up to provide some infield cover.  Boswell thinks Rendon could make the transition, but needs more minor league time.  He also talks a lot about Espinosa vs Lombardozzi and (in my opinion) overrates the defensive value of Espinosa a bit.  In the age of rising strikeouts, it isn’t as important to have Gold Glove calibre fielders everywhere.  This is just a partial answer that may need eventual expansion in a blog post of its own.

Q: Mr. Boswell, why did Davey insert Rendon instead of Lombardozzi (following Ryan’s injury) into the lineup and why did he not allow Tyler Moore to start Sunday with Cingrani on the bump?

A: Good questions, both.  I think the team likes Rendon’s defense at 3B more than Lombardozzi or Chad Tracy, so that makes sense at least against lefties.  Why didn’t Tyler Moore play against the tough lefty Tony Cingrani?  I do not know.  You could see Adam LaRoche‘s o-fer a mile away going against the second coming of Randy Johnson (Cingrani’s now has 37 Ks in 23 MLB innings).  Perhaps veteran preference/veteran blind spot on the part of Davey Johnson?  Boswell agrees at least with the LaRoche assessment.

Q: Have the Nats have over-managed Strasburg (in terms of pitch counts, innings limits and pitching to contact) since his injury and gotten into his head?

A: I don’t see Strasburg’s issues being a result of lack of confidence.  If that was the case we’d be seeing 3ip-8 run explosions, not “first inning bad then lights out for the next 6 innings” outings.  Have the Nats over-managed him?  Perhaps; we know Strasburg didn’t like the 2012 shutdown but I supported it (as did the surgeon who performed the damn operation, nobody ever remembers).  I think Strasburg also understands the value of getting hitters to hit your pitch instead of going for blow-em-away Ks every time.  Call it “pitch to contact” but I like to call it “making them hit your pitch.”  You want to try to get a great swing in after falling behind in the count?  Fine; hit my 97mph inside fastball for power, or try to drive my 94mph sinking 2-seamer on the outside corner.  I’ll tip my hat to you if you do.

But Strasburg misses his spots; his command has not been great.  97mph flat on the corner is good; in the middle of the plate is bad.  He’s been missing in the middle way too much.  Boswell defended his column, saying Strasburg needs to “keep it simple.”

Q: What does the team do with Henry Rodriguez?

A: So far this year we’re seeing nothing but “bad” Henry Rodriguez: more walks than hits, too many base-runners, and too many pitches that he just has no idea where they’re going.  He only threw FOUR of Seventeen pitches yesterday for strikes.  Luckily for him, its only a “wild pitch” if someone advances right?  Because some of those pitches were just ridiculous.  I’ll chalk it up to the wet conditions, as (likely) will management.

What can they do with him?  As often repeated in this space, he’s a human roster logjam.  The team has been forced to carry him and his Jeckyl and Hyde pitching for 3 years now because he was out of minor league options when we acquired him.  We’ve invented nebulous DL trips to stash him in extended spring training.  He’s now the lowest leverage guy on the bullpen, when he should be in the mix for 7th and 8th inning opportunities.  But the thing is, there’s not really a guy in Syracuse who is beating down the door to come up.  Maybe Erik Davis, who has pitched really well in AAA and has shown why the team put him on the 40-man.  Or perhaps the team could call up one of its veteran lefties (Fernando Abad or JC Romero) in a pinch.  But I think we’ll see at least another month of H-Rod trying to find his way before that happens.

Boswell raves about his career BAA (.211).  To that I say this: he has now for his career walked 91 batters out of 606 plate appearances.  That’s 15%.  6.1 bb/9.  I’m sorry, but how can you have a reliever with those kind of walk rates be put into any close game?  You can’t.  So in my opinion there’s better ways to use the 7th bullpen slot.

Q: What’s a good ratio for balls to strikes?

A: I’ve always used 60% strikes to pitches thrown as a benchmark for a good outing.  In Jordan Zimmermann‘s 1-hitter he threw 59 of 91 for strikes, or 64%.  In Yu Darvish‘s near perfect game in early April he threw 78 of 111 pitches for strikes for 70%.    Boswell says 65% is a good goal; honestly that’s a bit too high for me realistically.

Q: Do you think Soriano’s presence is helping or hurting Storen?

A: Good question.  Drew Storen‘s struggles so far are really baffling; how do you go from a career 1.099 whip in your first 3 seasons to a 1.7 whip in 2013?  And it isn’t on walks; he’s giving up a ton of hits.  Perhaps it is mental; when Rafael Soriano himself has been a non-closer, his numbers have never been as good than when he’s getting the Saves.  Perhaps Storen is struggling to adapt to this mindset so far.  It also could just be small sample size syndrome too; its only April 29th after all.  Boswell basically says that Storen isn’t a kid anymore and that he should “man up.”

Q: What are Harper’s MVP chances looking like right now?

A: Pretty good.  MVP voting usually starts with “the best players on the best teams” and then whittles down from there.  Bryce Harper is clearly the best hitter on what should be a playoff team, and has been making a game-wide name for himself so far with his performance.  If Washington wins the division and Bryce keeps playing like this, he’s a shoe-in.  However, some guy named Justin Upton has been just as strong; if Atlanta wins the division Upton may be the name people vote for.