Nationals Arm Race

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

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Ewing theory and the Strasburg Shutdown

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How much will Strasburg's shutdown really affect the team? Photo allansgraphics.com

Here we are, September 1st, and every single columnist and blogger who covers baseball has, by law, added their 2 cents to the Stephen Strasburg shutdown debate. And as the imminent shutdown date approaches (I had predicted 9/12 being his last start either in a post or the comments section, and that date still seems to hold; 9/12 gives him 3 more starts, which seems to match what we’ve been hearing lately out of Davey Johnson and the front office), I’m honestly not looking forward to the coming blitz of additional opinions from the blogosphere talking about what idiots the Nationals are, blah blah.

My succinct opinion on the shutdown can be expressed in this metaphor; if you had open heart surgery, and your cardiologist says to you, “take it easy next season and only pitch 160 innings,” wouldn’t you follow his advice?   Both the doctor who performed Strasburg’s surgery (Lewis Yocum) and the famed James Andrews (together essentially the two leading experts on the injury and the surgery) have come out in support of the National’s conservative plan.  To every other pundit out there who says something like, “there’s no proof that shutting him down will protect him in the long run,” I’ll say this: I trust the guy with the M.D. behind his name over the internet dork sitting in his mom’s basement who thinks he knows better.

Even my wife has added her 2 cents; while watching Saturday’s game (a pretty amazing back and forth offensive outburst ending with St. Louis scraping a run against Drew Storen to take it 10-9), one of the telecasters added his opinion on the matter and my wife asked me why the Nats didn’t just “let him pitch less” earlier on in the season.  A common theme for Strasburg shutdown critics; to which I say this: if you think the whole shutdown thing isn’t playing will with the Veterans in the Nationals clubhouse, exactly how do you think it would have played out if the entire pitching rotation was manipulated all season on account of one guy?  Baseball is a team game; you have 25 guys out there who contribute to each win, and I’m pretty sure the veterans on this team wouldn’t have taken well to having their routines thrown off in an effort to squeeze 5 more starts out of a 24 yr old (no matter how promising he may be).

But I digress slightly from the point of this post.  I’m of the opinion that we may see an interesting phenomenon occur when Strasburg gets shutdown for the season.  We may see a theory that Bill Simmons has come to popularize called “The Ewing Theory.”  In essence, the theory says that teams with stars who receive an inordinate amount of media attention often perform better once that star has either left the team or gone down with injury.  Teams rally around each other after their star player either leaves or goes down with injury partly because of the “relief” they get from media questions, partly to show that they can win without the big name, and partly (in some cases) because the star player was “holding the team back” by virtue of his presence (this happens more in sports like Basketball, where one player can really command an entire team’s attention; less so in Football or Baseball).  It is named after Patrick Ewing because his 1998-99 New York Knicks ended up in the finals despite Ewing going down with injury.  The phenomena has repeated itself in a number of notable ways over the years; off the top of my head these situations fit the theory:

  • UVA basketball went as far in the NCAA tournament without Ralph Sampson in 1984 than they ever did with him.
  • The NY Giants won the super bowl the year AFTER Tiki Barber retired.
  • The Seattle Mariners won 116 games the year after Alex Rodriguez left as a free agent.
  • The Tennessee Volunteers won the National title the year AFTER Peyton Manning graduated.

I think this team may exhibit a bit of inadvertent Ewing Theory once Strasburg sits.  You have to think the players are tired of being asked about it; who’s to say they won’t just keep on rolling and play even better once Strasburg gets shutdown and the issue is done?  Plus, here’s some corroborating evidence that may help out;

1. After September 12th, the Nats will only miss three Strasburg starts.  The difference between Strasburg starting those three games and John Lannan is likely to be nearly negligible.  Strasburg’s Wins above Replacement (bWAR) figure for the season is 2.6 right now through 26 starts.  That’s .1 WAR per start that Strasburg gives the team over a replacement player.  And Lannan isn’t exactly a replacement-level pitcher; he owns a sub 4.00 ERA and a 103 ERA+ for his career.  Lannan’s WAR for his two spot starts this year?  Exactly .2, or the same .1 WAR contributed per game as Strasburg.

2. Lannan is the quintessential guy pitching for a contract, and in all likelihood will use these three spot starts to showcase himself for his eventual new team in 2013.  It isn’t that Lannan isn’t a good pitcher, its just that he isn’t the type of guy Mike Rizzo likes to have in his rotation (i.e., power arms with high k/9 rates).   So I’d bet dollars to donuts that Lannan pitches three quality games in mid-to-late September, then gets left off the post-season roster and eventually gets non-tendered at the arbitration offer deadline.

3. Of the 6 series that the Nats play between September 12th and the end of the season, at least 3 will be against teams with no playoff implications (home-and-home versus Philadelphia plus a 4-game home series against Milwaukee).  The Nats are also at St. Louis in the second to last series, by which time the Cardinals may very well be completely out of the Wild Card race.  If the end of 2011 showed us anything, its that teams out of playoff contention in September have a tendency to play really, really weak lineups of prospects and September 1 call-ups.  Look at some of the lineups that the Nats faced in September of last year (especially some of the New York line-ups): they were literally two regulars and 7 AAA guys.  There’s no reason to think that the Nats won’t improve on the .655 winning percentage they’ve had for the last two months despite not having Strasburg in the rotation.

But, the critic may say, wouldn’t you rather have Strasburg pitching Game 1 of your divisional series?  Well, yes of course.  In arguably putting out a playoff rotation of Strasburg-Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Jackson is better than Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Jackson-Detwiler.  But, our playoff rotation is still pretty darn good.  Using the probable playoff teams as of this writing, here’s how our playoff rotation would rank with other NL playoff teams (the ranking is league rank in ERA)

  • Washington: Gonzalez (12), Zimmermann (8), Jackson (17), Detwiler (13).  Strasburg, btw, is 10th.
  • Cincinnati: Cueto (1), Latos (27), Arroyo (29), Bailey (37).  Leake, their #5 starter, is 43rd.
  • San Francisco: Cain (4), Vogelsong (9), Bumgarner (11), Zito (42).  Except there’s no way they’d go with Zito in a playoff series, so you’d be seeing Lincecum, amazingly ranked 50th of 51 qualifying NL starters in ERA this year.
  • Atlanta: Maholm (14), Hudson (25), Minor (46).  Their likely 4th starter would be Medlen, who in 6 starts has a 1.71ERA.
  • St. Louis: Lohse (3), Wainwright (32), Westbrook (33).  Their likely 4th starter would be Garcia over Lynn, but Garcia’s era would rank him 45th or so if he qualified.

San Francisco’s rotation looks pretty tough.  Until you remember that the Nats swept them at home and just beat them 2 of 3 on the road for a 5-1 season split.  In fact, of probable playoff teams here’s the Nats current season records:

  • Cincinnati: 5-2.  We beat them 3 of 4 in April, then took 2 of 3 in Cincinnati in May.
  • San Francisco: 5-1.  Swept at home, took 2 of 3 on the road.
  • Atlanta: 10-5 at current, with 3 critical games in Atlanta in mid September.
  • St. Louis: 3-1 in the series just concluded, with a 3 game set in St. Louis in late September.

Wow.  I didn’t even realize just how well the Nats have played against the league’s best until I looked it up.  This has to give any Nats fan some serious confidence heading into a playoff series, no matter who we may end up playing.

Here’s hoping the Strasburg shutdown doesn’t affect the team as much as pundits seem to believe.

Mitch Williams on 106.7 inre Strasburg Shutdown, Mechanics

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Would you listen if this guy was criticising your pitching mechanics? Photo unknown via insidesocal.com

I just happened to catch former MLB pitcher and current MLB.com analyst Mitch Williams calling into the morning show on 106.7 this am.  And I felt compelled to immediately call into the show to rebut some of the more arguable statements he made.  Of course, this being Washington DC they only took 2 calls (one of which immediately changed the subject to golf; nice screening there WJFK) before moving onto a football-related segment, so I’ll exhaust my need to speak up in this space.

Williams had lots to say about Stephen Strasburg‘s mechanics, Mike Rizzo‘s decision to shut him down, and other fun stuff.

First off, I find it ironic that a guy with some of the worst mechanics in the last 25 years has the audacity to question Strasburg’s mechanics.  Williams nearly dislocated his left shoulder on every delivery and fell off to the 3rd base side so badly that he nearly hit the ground on each pitch (as is displayed in the photo above).  Strasburg, on the other hand, was considered to have impeccable mechanics upon hitting the draft and you really had to squint to find flaws in his delivery.  Google searches on the topic are so muddied with opinions that its hard to find actual scouting reports from his amateur days versus “hindsight is 20/20” pieces that look for flaws to explain his 2010 injury.  But its ironic that Strasburg suddenly has all these mechanical issues according to pundits, because he got injured.

Speaking of that 2010 injury, Williams intimated that the infamous “Inverted W” was the reason Strasburg got hurt.  I just have an awful hard time with that theory.  First, its a THEORY and is merely a coincidental piece of evidence in pitcher injuries.  You can find examples of pitchers who get into this position pre-delivery who have never had any injury issues just as easily as you can cherry-pick guys like Strasburg or Mark Prior who have suffered injuries.  More importantly, the Inverted W is more indicative of SHOULDER injuries in pitchers, not elbow ligament tears.  Shoulder injuries in pitchers are by and large wear-and-tear injuries, caused by over use and over-throwing over hundreds and thousands of pitches.  You don’t generally throw one pitch and tear completely through your labrum or rotator cuff.   However, elbow injuries to the UCL are almost entirely singular, acute injuries caused on a specific pitch.  We all can remember the exact pitch Strasburg threw to injure his arm and the grimace on his face after he threw it (as well as the blowhard Rob Dibble comments …. but we’ll choose to ignore those).

I wrote at the time my opinion on why Strasburg got hurt, and it had nothing to do with his pitching mechanics (my pet theory: Ivan Rodriguez fell in love with Strasburg’s change-up, had him throwing too many of them, and the vastly increased stress on his elbow caused the injury.  See the Aug 2010 post linked above for more detail).  I think its irresponsible for Williams to get onto a local radio show and opine that Strasburg “needs to change his mechanics” because of the injury, or else he’ll always be an injury concern.  Because in reality, nobody knows.  Personally I think teams trying to “change mechanics” in pitchers is a mistake; you throw one way your entire life, from age 5-6 onwards, and your entire shoulder/arm combination becomes inured to that method of throwing.  How can anyone think that suddenly as a 25 yr old you can even change the fundamental way you throw a baseball and be successful?  Adjustments, no problem.  Fix slight timing issues or slight changes to your wind up?  Sure.  Core changes to arm slots and arm loading?  Problematic.

Williams continued with the same tired themes we’ve been hearing from National writers (i.e., the Veterans aren’t going to like this, its a team game, the Nats should have managed this better, the Nats are foolish not to go for it, etc).  But he fails to mention what most fail to mention; Rizzo arrived at this shutdown decision with Strasburg the SAME way he did with Jordan Zimmermann last year; he talked with the surgeon who performed the surgery (Dr. Lewis Yocum in LA, the same doctor apparently about to pronounce the same fate on our 2012 #1 draft pick Lucas Giolito) and arrived at a prescribed, pre-defined innings limit.  You notice we’re in the EXACT same position as we were with Zimmermann in 2011, yet without any of the national media interest.  (And so far, that limit has worked out pretty darn well for the Nats and Zimmermann; right now, he’s 2nd best in the NL in several macro pitching categories; bWAR, ERA and ERA+, while being top 10 in WHIP, K/BB, and BB/9).

The way I look at it is thus: if you or I had Heart Surgery, your Cardiologist probably would recommend a course of recovery.  For the first X months, avoid any activity, then ease your way back to vigorous activity over a period of Y more months.  And you’d follow that advice, right?  Well, the pitching arm of a Major League Starter pretty much is equivalent to the heart of a normal person; without that arm, you’re not a major leaguer any more.  So when you get surgery on it, you listen to your doctor and do exactly what he says.  If someone told that same heart patient that, well because we’re really close to the World Series, you should really ignore your surgeon and just go for it for the betterment of the team, what would you say?  You’d probably say, “well, this may help the team make this one short term goal but I may be dead a lot sooner because of it.”  In my mind, that’s what Strasburg/Rizzo are doing; they’re following the same advice that has now led to Zimmermann having a fantastic (and healthy) 2012 season.

And one caller, to his credit, did point out a very important fact: the story on Strasburg hasn’t really changed all year.  There was a communicated shutdown expectation to Strasburg and the team in spring training.  Its only the National media that is now catching onto this and thrusting microphones into our players’ faces and asking for reactions that are getting over blown and taken out of context.   I guess this is what its like day in, day out in New York and Boston…

There are no absolutes in life; Strasburg could absolutely re-injure himself in 2 years time and turn into this generation’s Mark Prior.  Or he could be like Chris Carpenter, who had the TJ surgery in 2007 then recovered to a 17-4 record in 2009 as a guy in his mid 30s.  But anyone who thinks they know otherwise is just stating an opinion.  And everyone has an opinion.  I support the shutdown, I think its prudent for the longer term position of this team, and I don’t think 2012 is a once-in-a-lifetime shot for this franchise.  Of the “core 15” of the Nats (8 positional players, 5 starters and 2 relievers) exactly ONE guy is a free agent or not presented with at least an option for 2013.  Most of these guys are either signed long term or under team control for at least another FOUR seasons.  So this team isn’t going anywhere.  You play it safe and get ready for a 4-5 year run.

That’s MY opinion.  :-)

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 12/9/11 edition

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Probably the biggest Nats news of the week was who we DIDN’T get. Photo Peter Christian via thesportsbank.net

Weekly wrap-up of Nats and other baseball news that caught my eye.  With the absolute deluge of baseball news, rumors, and unbelievable FA signings this week I frankly got lost in the shuffle, so most of these items are from the weekend and early this week.  Hopefully you know by now about Reyes, Buehrle, Wilson, Pujols and our Rule5 losses.  If not, you’re just not a true baseball fan now are you?  :-)

Nationals In General

  • An excellent good-bye blog posting from Ben Goessling, leaving the MASN Nats beat for his home-town paper.  No permanent replacement has been hired, but MASN still has Byron Kerr putting out excellent prospect-focused posts, and Pete Kerzel temporarily filling in for Goessling during the Winter meetings (and perhaps beyond).
  • Well, now we know what Stan Kasten plans on doing in his post-Washington career.  Unfortunately for Kasten, Bud Selig can’t just give him the Dodgers as has been his custom in “awarding” teams to new owners.
  • Byron Kerr reports that Hector Nelo, our high-A reliever who is pitching in Venezuela, can now hit 100mph.  He always had a high velocity arm, but being a 25-yr old in high-A isn’t necessarily the most impressive feat.  He was an April minor league free agent pick up, having been released by the Texas organization after putting up pretty mediocre figures.  I’m projecting him in our AA bullpen for 2012.  He may be able to hit those high figures, but its not being reflected in amazing k/9 rates.  I remain skeptical that he can be an impact arm for us in the future.
  • As noted elsewhere, Keith Law‘s posted his “top 50 under 25” list of players under 25 but who have already lost their rookie eligibility.   Its insider-only but Amanda Comak at the Washington Times pretty much cut-n-pasted the entire list late last week.  You can google it or search her archives.  3 Nats made the list: Strasburg, Ramos, and Espinosa.  No real quibbles about those Nats left off; Drew Storen would have qualified, as could have Desmond and some weaker members of the bullpen/bench, but clearly Law doesn’t rate closers (nor do I, really).  He has Craig Kimbrel, 2012’s ROY at #49.  Law’s little dig at Desmond in his Espinosa write-up also indicates his opinion of the hitting capabilities of our current starting SS.  I do question some of his rankings: I’d certainly have ranked Kershaw above one-year wonders such as Mike Stanton, but perhaps Law’s explanation of his ranking (he’s looking at projections for the next 6 years versus what they’ve already accomplished), explains it away.
  • Well, there goes one OF option: Laynce Nix has signed with the rival Phillies.  Most reports seemed to indicate that the 2-year guarantee solidified the deal for Nix, who faces at best a LF platoon in Philadelphia.  Still, he could turn in a 20-homer season rather easily hitting in that bandbox.
  • Jim Riggleman signed on to manage the Cincinnati AA franchise, a bit of a step down from a MLB manager job but at least he has on-field work.
  • In what is sure to inspire a fire-storm of Natmosphere posts, Jim Bowden reports that Ryan Zimmerman‘s agents have been “rebuffed” in opening contract extension talks.  I can’t blame Rizzo here: you’ve got a franchise player who can’t stay healthy; he’s a risk to guarantee a bunch of years and a bunch of money.  Yes, everyone’s a risk to give guaranteed contracts … perhaps why the team needs to think on it a bit more.
  • Uh oh.  Sammy Solis is visiting Dr. Yocum to get his elbow looked at.  This is not a good sign.  Can anyone say Tommy John surgery?

Free Agents/Player Transaction News

  • A month-old post, but somehow I missed it.  Jeff Passan‘s free agent tracker, with some concise opinion on each of 181 free agents this off-season.  No predictions but on-point analysis.
  • Wow.  Heath Bell gets 3yrs/$27M from the Marlins.  Not that I don’t think he’s a good closer, and not that I really care that the Marlins just acquired a player being paid in AAV the equivalent of 1/8th of their 2011 payroll.  Maybe this whole “Marlins are going to spend money” thing is for real.  I agree with Neyer‘s assessment here: “that’s a lot for a guy who is going to throw 65 innings.”  Predictably, Keith Law hates the deal.
  • Even more Wow: Jose Reyes signs for a reported 6yr/$106M deal with these same Marlins.  One has to wonder if we’re looking at another dynasty build-up/epic team dismantling situation.
  • Jon Heyman‘s list of 10 busiest clubs for the Winter meetings, and somehow the Nats, whose name is associated with practically every FA in some form or another, are not on the list.
  • We could soon find out just how serious the Nats interest is in Yoenis Cespedes, with him possibly being declared a FA within the next week or so.
  • Despite some opinions that the Rule 5 draft is useless, there are active teams every year (The Nats included).  Here’s one blog’s Top 25 available Rule 5 draft potentials.  He does list three Nationals: Brad Meyers, Sandy Leon and Erik Komatsu.  He also lists the top other prospects by system.  That’s a TON of research frankly, digging through rule5 eligibles from all 30 minor league systems.  Of course, John Manuel did the same on Baseball America, posting part 2 of his review, highlighting some favorites for role players (utility infielders, 4th outfielders, loogys and middle relievers).  I’m guessing its from this group that the Nats may tempt fate and look to fill some bench spots.  12/7/11 Update: sure enough we lost both Meyers and Komatsu.  So irritated.
  • Sometimes, star athletes just don’t know how to say good bye.  Manny Ramirez has filed for re-instatement and plans on playing in 2012 after serving his 2nd drug suspension.  He’ll have to improve on his 1-17 outing for Tampa Bay last season.
  • Interesting potential trade tidbit posted by new Masn beat reporter Pete Kerzel: Boston possibly dangling either Josh Reddick or Ryan Kalish in trade for starting pitchers (names mentioned include Ross Detwiler and Collin Balester).  I’d like any trade permutation here; both Detwiler and Balester are out of options and increasingly with every Buehrle/Wilson/Oswalt rumor Detwiler’s chances of making our 25-man roster diminish.

General News; Baseball and other.

  • “Just in time,” indeed.  Rob Neyer reports that the Feds are investigating the incredibly shady Marlins stadium deal.  Jeff Passan also mentions the SEC subpoenas for financial records, meeting minutes, etc, looking for evidence of bribery of federal officials.  Nothing would make me cackle more than to find out that the Marlin’s owners and management were to expect a federal indictment for corruption.  Everything I’ve ever read about Jeffrey Loria, David Samson, and Larry Benifest and anything related to the Marlins as an organization and this stadium deal in particular has been negative, and this undoubtedly will be no different.  I hope Selig is happy with himself for engineering Loria’s Expos sale and Marlins purchase, as well as watching his new buddy subsequently pocket millions and millions of dollars in revenue sharing whilst occupying the 6th largest market by MSA.
  • Wow.  Jon Heyman is leaving SI for CBS.  This prolific writer is well known for being ahead of the curve on baseball news, and leaves a pretty big hole in the baseball reporting department for cnnsi.com.
  • Interesting precedent setting event: MLB has restored Mike Trout‘s rookie eligibility for 2012.   He’ll certainly be a candidate .. if he can get on the field.  Matt Moore may be a better candidate, based on what we saw in September and October though.
  • I’ll put in just enough opinion to get into trouble on the BCS: LSU-Alabama repeat for the National Championship is an abomination of justice when looking at the Alabama season in basic comparison to Oklahoma State.  The OK State-Stanford game will be 10x as enjoyable.  I only wish the BCS could have had 100% egg on its face with LSU losing the SEC title game but still being pretty much guaranteed a match up in the Championship.  I would have laughed.  Call me when there’s a playoff.
  • I didn’t realize they were nominated: legendary college coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt received 2011’s SI Sportsman of the  Year award.  Clearly these were “career” awards, as opposed to anything specific to 2011.
  • In case you were interested, or wanted to nit-pick every Hall of Fame ballot to death, here’s a blogger who tracks all the BBWAA voters and finds their HoFame votes.
  • Not to get into too much politics here, but Mitt Romney‘s reported dig on Barack Obama‘s planned 17-day vacation smacks of hypocrisy.  All he needs to do is check the record on George W. Bush‘s days spent “on vacation” while office and perhaps he’d wish he wasn’t casting stones.  In fact, depending on how you interpret this research, Bush spent nearly 32 PERCENT of his time in office actually back home at his ranch or at Camp David.