Nationals Arm Race

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

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NLDS Game 1 Recap: Gonzalez the Escape Artist


The team escaped Game 1 with a victory despite Gonzalez’s struggles. Photo Joy Absalon/US Presswire via

Nats take Game 1 of the NLDS 3-2.

You know your pitcher is having a rough day when the score line reads “2-0-0.”  As in, 2 runs, 0 hits and 0 errors.  That was the score at the end of the second, an inning in which Nats starter Gio Gonzalez had walked no less than four batters, thrown a wild pitch and given up a sac fly for the second run despite giving up zero hits.

TBS broadcast a stat showing Gonzalez’s ERA on various days of rest; the key stat was that he had a 5.80 ERA when he had more than 5 days rest.  His days rest entering Game one of the playoffs?  Nine days.  He last threw in Philadelphia on September 27th.

Being able to rest your starters and “set up” your post season pitching rotation can be a blessing and a curse.  Today it was a curse; clearly Gonzalez was overthrowing, missing his spots, and his pitching line showed it.  He didn’t trust his curve early, was relying solely on his fast ball and couldn’t locate it to his desire.  To his credit he settled down for a couple innings, got a couple of very timely plays in the field, and exited having given up a sole meaningless hit to go with seven walks in 5 innings.  To me it looked like he was over-throwing, that he was “too strong.”  Starters are creatures of habit; throw one day, rest the 2nd, toss the 3rd, bullpen work the 4th, rest the 5th and then repeat.  When too many extra days are thrown in, younger guys can get off schedule.

In the first inning I thought perhaps Gonzalez was trying to “save” his curve for later in the game; a great strategy for professional pitchers who can do it.  Instead of showing guys your whole arsenal the first time through the order, pound them with fastballs and make them hit your pitch.  Then, in their 2nd and 3rd at bats mix in curves and off-speed stuff as out pitches as needed.  If you play your cards right, you can work through each hitter’s 3 at-bats keeping them off-balance and suddenly you’re deep into the 6th or 7th inning as a starter.   As it turned out, he wasn’t trusting his curve at all, and suddenly he was pressing to hit his spots.

Craig Stammen escaped an incredible jam in the bottom of the 7th, having loaded the bases with none out.  Usually that situation has a run expectancy of somewhere greater than 2 runs but the Nats defense came through; an Ian Desmond force out at the plate for the first out then a clutch 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.  Despite Tyler Moore‘s late inning heroics, this was the key of the win.

Adam Wainwright showed exactly why he’s a Cy Young candidate when he’s healthy; his curve-ball was absolutely fantastic on the night.  The already-strike-out prone Nats fanned 10 times, many times on a fantastic curve that Wainwright was controlling and commanding to the outside corner.  I was surprised when he got the hook despite being on 100 pitches; as it turned out he probably wasn’t going to finish 7 complete regardless.  You can’t really fault the bullpen management by Cards manager Mike Matheny; he had his 8th inning guy on the mound (Mitchell Boggs) and the Nats beat him.

Other thoughts from watching the game:

  • I scoffed aloud when the TBS announcing crew spoke of Ryan Zimmerman‘s defensive prowness and said that “he rarely makes throwing errors.”  Really?  I know they don’t watch Nats games normally but the narrative behind Zimmerman’s throwing issues on non-pressure plays is well documented in DC.  He had 12 throwing errors on the year, and his 19 total errors tied him for 3rd in baseball.  Sure enough, a throwing error in the bottom of the 8th put the lead-off guy on board and caused the inning to be far more stressful than it needed to be for Tyler Clippard.  Guy on first with nobody out?  Roughly an 85% chance he scores.  For years I’ve defended Zimmerman and talked of the ridiculousness of “wasting” his defense by moving him to first, but the fact remains that every time he fields a routine ground ball I’m waiting for him to air-mail the throw.  When Anthony Rendon is ready to hit at the major league level, I think the talk is going to be about Zimmerman moving to first and not Rendon moving to another position.
  • For as clutch as Moore, Ian Desmond and Kurt Suzuki were on the day, Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa were the opposite.  TWICE Werth squandered bases-loaded situations with two outs, leaving a total of 7 guys on base.  He may be our current lead-off hitter, but he’s normally a middle-of-the-order bat and he needs to capitalize on situations like that.  In Werth’s defense (no pun intended), the over-the-shoulder grab was a game-saver in its own right, so on a day when he disappointed at the plate he made up for it in the field.  Meanwhile it was not really shocking that Espinosa whiffed over and over; he led the NL in strikeouts on the season and was batting from his clearly weaker side.
  • How about Tyler Moore?  A fantastic job of hitting, hitting a pitcher’s pitch and not trying to do too much with it.  The old “game winning RBI” stat went the way of the Edsel, but tonight the clubhouse knows exactly who won that game.
  • Here’s to the return of “Clip-Store-and-Save.”  Clippard escaped Zimmerman’s throwing error in the 8th and Drew Storen dispatched two of the best St. Louis hitters in a 1-2-3 ninth.  The team has to feel great about its bullpen on the night.  No worries about using your 3 best guys; they’ll all be able to go tomorrow then get a travel day of rest.
  • The ridiculousness of the Hold stat: Boggs was credited with both a “Hold” and the Loss.  How is that possible?  Because he put on the go-ahead run that Mark Rzepcynski eventually allowed to score.  I think the Hold stat would carry more weight if it was withheld from relievers who don’t actually “hold” the game at bay and who contribute to the blown save and (if applicable) eventual loss.
  • The sideline reporter couldn’t help but compare the handling of Wainwright to Stephen Strasburg; both had Tommy John surgery last year.  He said the Cardinals “trusted” Wainwright more and let him pitch 200 innings.  But they didn’t really talk about the real difference: Wainwright is into the club option portion of his FA contract and is no sure thing to stay with the team beyond 2013.  He’s also 30.  Compare that to Strasburg; he’s 23 and is under team control for at least four more seasons, and is likely to be offered a multi-year contract that buys out those arbitration seasons and a couple of FA seasons beyond that (similar to the deal Gonzalez signed).  The point is; the Nats know they’ve got this guy for years to come and clearly played it conservative with his re-hab.  Why this point is glossed over by pundits and bloggers is beyond me.  Every time I hear some know-it-all say things like, “there’s no proof that letting him pitch more than 160 innings will harm him” my blood boils.  Well, there’s no proof to the other side either!  The fact is you can either be reckless with your major investment and overuse him, or you can play it safe and hope for the best.  There’s no guarantees in life and thus there’s no guarantee that Strasburg won’t blow out his elbow again in 2013.  But on this point I can guarantee; had the team continued to ride Strasburg down the stretch, push his innings to 190-200, and then he re-injures himself in the last week of September?  You can guarantee all those know-it-alls would immediately be clucking their tongues about how the Nats “mis-used” Strasburg and should have played it safer.  I don’t envy Mike Rizzo this post-season, because unless the Nats win the world series there’s going to be the inevitable stories about how the Nats would have won had they kept their Ace in the rotation.  To borrow a quote from Major League, “Well, I guess then there’s just one thing left to do … win the whole !?@& thing.”  (link NSFW)

Great comeback by the Nats, snatching a win in a game they probably should have lost.  They now have the split in St. Louis and are in a commanding position to win this short series.

WC Pitching Matchup Analysis

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Kris Medlen looks to get the WC win for his team. Photo unk via

Here we go.  Baseball’s first wild card play-in games are set for tonight (at 5pm and 8:30pm eastern time), and its safe to say there was a surprise or two with the announced pitching matchups.  Lets look at the guys getting the starts and make some predictions on which team has the better chance based on the starter going.  I tried to do similar posts for the 2011 post season and, while they’re not always accurate, they’re fun to do and to read.

MLB Probable Pitchers are here, for tonight and the first few games of the playoffs.

1. St. Louis at Atlanta.  This is the game DC will be watching.  Match up: Kris Medlen (10-1, 1.57 ERA) versus Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86 ERA)

What more can we say about Medlen that we havn’t already said?  9 earned runs allowed in his 12 starts on the season, a 10-1 record with a 1.57 ERA.  He’s the modern day equivalent of Greg Maddux, a slight framed guy with beyond pinpoint control.   He achieved a bWAR of 4.4 despite getting just 12 starts on the year and pitching in middle relief until August.

Meanwhile, Kyle Lohse quietly had a great year.  Nobody’s mentioning his name in consideration of Cy Young despite a sterling record and great ancillary numbers (a 134 ERA+ is pretty good).  I think his selection is slightly surprising to go in this game; he’s probably the #3 starter on the team (behind Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright) but he’s clearly the best performer on the year.  As with Atlanta choosing Medlen over Tim Hudson, Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny is going with his hottest hand.

However, while Medlen is likely to pitch 6-7 innings of one-run ball, I think the Braves get to Lohse.  They’ve faced him once already this year and put 9 hits and 5 runs on him in May.  The Braves hit right-handers far better than lefties, but St. Louis really doesn’t have a great lefty starter choice.  Jaime Garcia may not even make the post-season roster (would you take Garcia ahead of Lance Lynn?).

The Pick: Atlanta in what could be a romp.

1. Baltimore at Texas.   Match up: Joe Saunders (3-3, 3.63 ERA after his trade to Baltimore) versus Yu Darvish (16-9, 3.90 ERA)

Saunders is another surprising pick for Baltimore, who has gotten by on smoke & mirrors all season when it comes to starting pitching.  The Northern Virginia Native Saunders (West Springfield HS and then Virginia Tech) is essentially a MLB-average starter for his career (a 103 ERA+) but pitched above his career stats in Baltimore.

Not to denigrate Saunders, but he’s essentially a less stable version of John Lannan.  He’s a softer tossing lefty who is about MLB average over his career, but with higher and lower extremes from season to season.  Would you trust a do-or-die situation in the hands of Lannan?  Problem is, who else would you go with if you were the Orioles?  I thought they’d go with the hot-hand Steve Johnson or their ace Wei-Yin Chen.  We’ll see if this gamble pays off; the Rangers hit left-handed pitching pretty well (108 wRC+, .285 BA).

Meanwhile, this is a national stage for high priced Japanese import Darvish.  He had a relatively effective season (16-9, a 116 ERA+) and got a ton of strike outs (221 in just 191 1/3 innings pitched).  The Orioles definitely have some higher-strike out guys in the middle of their order (Chris Davis, Mary Reynolds).    Darvish never faced Baltimore this season, but had a strong September and seems hitting his stride entering the playoffs.

The Pick: Texas in a struggle.

Wild Card Pitching Strategy

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Kris Medlen is as close to an automatic win as there exists now. Should the Braves use him? Photo unknown via

I was listening to the excellent podcast last week, hosted by Carson Cistulli and featuring excellent writer Dave Cameron, and Cameron (who writes the blog USS Mariner in addition to his Fangraphs work) proposed an interesting theory for handling a pitching staff in the wild card game.

Conventional wisdom states that the Atlanta Braves (who I’m using as an example here because I think they’re the best bet to advance in a wild card game right now) would throw their unbeatable ace Kris Medlen in the play-in game.  Reasoning: you can’t leave your best starter on the bench in a do-or-die game; you have to try to win it.  So you throw your best guy to win that game and then deal with the consequences the next round.

(Tangent: I’m pretty sure MLB assumed that a side effect of adding a second pitcher would result in a weakened wild card winner, which benefits the #1 seeded divisional winner and gives them an advantage going forward.  I certainly talked about this as a benefit when I lauded the 2nd wild card in this space earlier this summer.   But the roster loopholes in the wild card game that can be exploited as explained below and the first two home games on the road for the higher seeded team are both major issues that need to be addressed asap).

But what if the Braves decided to try something unconventional instead of just throwing Medlen??  Because of the scheduling of the playoffs, the wild card game winner will get a day off between Friday 10/5/12 and Sunday 10/7/12, meaning they could empty their bullpen and have every single guy down there throw his typical limit of innings and still have everyone available on Sunday for the first game of the Divisional Series.  So Cameron’s theory is; don’t start your ace; start your bullpen guys, who (especially in Atlanta’s case) are more efficient at getting guys out on a short-term basis.  Then, after a few innings of relievers throwing, you take a look at the game and decide then if your starter needs to go in.

What if Atlanta were to start some bullpen guys instead of Medlen in a play-in game, then suddenly Atlanta jumps out to a 4-0 lead.  You could then put in a different starter (say, the #3 starter, who could throw on 10/5/12 then be ready on normal rest for game 3 of the NLDS on Wednesday 10/10/12) to finish out the game.   You could keep some bullpen guys in reserve to stamp out any fires, but in theory you could manage a game in this fashion and preserve your best starter.  Plus, a major loop-hole in the playoff roster specification rules means that Atlanta could field a far different roster for just this wild card game than for the rest of the playoffs.  They could leave off basically their entire rotation and add in 4 more bullpen arms and continue parading out fresh arms all night like it was a spring training game.

Here’s a look at Atlanta’s top 7 relievers right now (stast as of 9/24/12):

Craig Kimbrel 2 1 0.667 1.08 58 58.1 25 7 7 14 106 374 0.669
Cristhian Martinez 5 4 0.556 4.04 51 71.1 79 33 32 17 64 100 1.346
Chad Durbin 4 1 0.8 3.19 73 59.1 51 25 21 28 46 127 1.331
Jonny Venters* 5 4 0.556 3.46 63 54.2 57 23 21 28 65 117 1.555
Eric O’Flaherty* 3 0 1 1.82 61 54.1 46 14 11 19 45 222 1.196
Luis Avilan* 0 0 2.25 27 32 26 9 8 10 28 181 1.125
Cory Gearrin 0 1 0 1.62 19 16.2 15 3 3 4 19 254 1.14

There’s some serious arms in that bullpen.  Kimbrel is obviously a known quantity and his 106 K’s in 58 1/3 innings are ridiculous.  But it also means he’s almost guaranteed to shut down whoever he may be pitching against (heard a great stat about Kimbrel recently; he has not pitched an inning all year where he gave up more than one hit.  That’s as shutdown as it gets).   Venters has had a slightly “off” season after being unhittable last year, but still greater than a K an inning.   O’Flaherty has been fantastic and could give you an inning.  Younger guys like Avilan and Gearrin don’t have a ton of experience but have performed excellently for the Braves.

Why wouldn’t you start off a game with (say) Venters going against the top of St. Louis’ order, then bringing in someone like Avilan for the 2nd and 3rd (he’s a 2-inning guy).  Bring in O’Flaherty when the big hitters roll around again in the 4th inning, then go with someone like Durbin for the next two innings.  You bring in Gearrin for the 7th and 8th, and then you’ve saved Kimbrel for perhaps 4 or 5 out save in the 8th and 9th.   And by virtue of the one-game roster setting loophole, this is just the first 7 guys out of the bullpen; one could add in 4-5 more arms as need be.

Honestly, I think this is a winning strategy.  Will the Braves (or the Cardinals for that matter) consider employing it?  No way;  Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is well known in the baseball press for being “uber traditional” in the way he handles his pitching staff (lots of complaints about his leaving his best arm out there til it is a “save” situation instead of using him in higher leverage situations).  And the Braves have already manipulated their rotation to put Medlen in line for a wild card start.  Meanwhile St. Louis’ Mike Matheny is a rookie manager and such a strategy as laid out here is basically putting your job on the line for a coin-flip; if it doesn’t work out you’re fired.  Tony LaRussa could have pulled this off; he had enough respect and enough history to be given a pass if he tried something radical and it didn’t work out.  In fact, if LaRussa was still the manager I’d bet this is exactly what he’d do; we are talking afterall about the guy who essentially invented the modern bullpen.

In the end, it’ll be in the #1 seed’s favor if the Braves burned Medlen.  But it’d be great talking fodder if they tried the strategy above.