Nationals Baseball

Friday, February 27, 2015

Odds or Ends but not both

Why does this claptrap keep being written?  Oh, I know. It makes a handy narrative. It's an easy inflection point to single out as a changing force for a team that was terrible before and not terrible after. Plus, an article digging deep into the real reasons the Nats became a winning franchise is long and involved. Explaining how this window was created by the combination of savvy deals, good drafting, FA signings that worked out better than expected, terrible play leading to #1 draft picks at just the right time, surprising developments, and a bit luck in the timing of all this. Each of these deserves their own written piece, that's work.  "Werth did it" is a lot simpler, cleaner and most on the team will go along with. Save, Print, email to editor let's go to lunch.

I've tried to yell into the wind about this over and over again. But yelling obviously has had no effect so I'll try a different approach.  I'll go over how the Nats went from being the worst ever in 2008-2009 to the best ever in 2012-2015 and maybe the right people will read it and will stop defaulting to "Werth culture change" as the ultimate cause or anything more than one important piece among many.

So that'll be the posts for next week (because I just decided this and they are involved pieces). For today? It's hard. There is little drama in the Nats camp. I talked about the things worthy of talking about, injuries and position battles, and there aren't a lot of these in the Nats camp. As far as injuries are concerned Werth is topic #1. From all indications, though, if he's not ready by Opening Day, he'll be ready soon after. There isn't any thought that it may be longer that that. So really we aren't judging his recovery as much as keeping an ear to the ground in case he suffers a setback.

With position battles there aren't any starting ones. Yuney will play 2nd pushing Espinosa to the bench. Scherzer's signing pushes Roark to the pen. These are all but officially decided. Right now I can guess at the roster being

Ramos/Lobaton
Zimm/Rendon
Yuney/Ian/Danny/Frandsen
Werth/Span/Bryce/McLouth

Stras/ZNN/Max/Fister/Gio
Roark/Storen/Barrett/Stammen/Thornton/Janssen/Blevins

and feel 100% right about that.  That's 24 players, leaving one spot for Taylor? Cedeno? Treinen? Assuming that it's probably a pitcher and not Taylor (which is what I think it'll be) you're talking about the last guy in the pen. Hardly worth fretting about. Manager is set (just extended), GM is set, ownership is not in flux, park is fairly new. Man, being good can be dull. Other than my traditional "don't look at ST stats" piece, I expect not to write about ST at all. And I hope not to because if I am it's probably because of an injury.

What injury would be likely? Well I don't predict injury but if I was going to I'd note the Nats are still getting by on a crazy bit of pitching health.

83+ starts in past 3 years - 55 pitchers, or real roughly 2 a team - includes all five Nats starters
91+ starts in past 3 years - 31 pitchers or less than one a team - includes all the Nats starters but Fister who missed a month last year and about a month in 2012.
96+ starts in past 3 years - 15 pitchers, 2 or 3 in a division - includes Max Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann.

Now some guys are healthy but are going to be too young to get on these lists, but you see the point I'm making. That's a lot of healthy pitching. Does it mean these guys are going to get hurt? Hard to say because it's such an indvidual thing. What we can do is look at a non-overlap period say 2009-2011 and see if we see anything.

56 guys starting 83+ starts - so right at the same level of healthiness overall.  We're not concerned with anyone over 31 becuase the Nats don't have them. Let's concentrate on 29-31 since that covers everyone but Stras (26). That's 15 guys. How many got hurt the next year? Five.  Doesn't seem telling. I think this feeds into the same thing I was looking at with all those charts. Up to about 32/33 you're pretty safe, after that things start to fall apart. Not for everyone but for enough that if you have 4 guys that age, it's a good bet two aren't lasting the season.

The Nats have a bunch of young enough pitching and have for a while. I think this will be the most interesting transition heading forward. Scherzer will soon get into that danger zone. If ZNN stays, or Gio or Roark even, they'll be getting to that level not too far in the future too. 2018 or there abouts. But if they don't stay... you've got Giolito to replace one, but who replaces the rest? Again this is why I try to keep Stras here big time. At 26 next year by age he's out of the danger zone till after 2020. Pitcher health has been a pillar of the Nats success. They need to keep that going. Signing Stras is your strongest in-house bet on doing that.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"This Spring Training reporting is terrible." "And such small portions!"

We've talked about how literally terrible Spring Training "news" is before but it's true. We're trained to view sports as a daily provider of news topics and for the most part it succeeds in that role.  But Spring Training isn't sports. It's the preparation for sports. There are no meaningful daily results to review. There are no meaningful upcoming games to preview. There is just preparation. Athletes performing mild exercise at medium effort for no stakes. A forty plus day slow shift from "in-shape but not ready" to "in-shape and ready". There is no news concerning 95% of the players here, certainly no news that hasn't been discussed in some other fashion during the offseason.

There are a few players returning from injury for which we are not sure of their status. This is something that demands reporting on but conditions usually don't change rapidly enough to necessitate daily updates. There are also some players fighting for a position. This may be discussed as often as these players perform but we're not at that point yet and as we've often noted Spring Training performance is unreliable. The best coverage on these fights should then be on the management's view of the situation which hopefully isn't changing daily.

All in all Spring Training reporting should be as leisurely as Spring Training is itself portrayed.  A check-in weekly, or perhaps twice a week. Reporters there to break a story, like a new injury, if it happens. But that hasn't been the case for decades I imagine.

The worst thing is that the situation I'm talking about - news being forced to be daily - is antiquated. News is now forced to be immediate. We're taking something that can barely qualify as a bi-weekly news source, punctuated here and there by actual stories, and making it something from which we expect hourly news bites. This is why we get the "Hey, today Johnny Baseball's son was at the park and played catch!" and the "Jim Baseball (no relation) looked real good at the plate today" updates. It's literally the only new thing that has happened since the last time they were asked for news.

Who asked them? We did. It's our own fault. Someone 40-50 years ago found out people liked to hear daily from Spring Training. So they did daily. Everyone read that guy, so then every place had to go daily. When the internet came that moved to a faster pace and with twitter faster still. We want news even if there isn't really news to report. Well we want information, really. Any sort of tidbit that we can pass off to ourselves as news. We are used to this level of baseball news consumption - hard stories daily with endless discussion between them -  and finally we can have a substitute, even if it's so pale as to be transparent. Give us the substitute.

There isn't a cultural solution to this problem. There isn't a going back. The only solution for each person comes down to the themselves. Too much Spring Training nonsense for you? Cut back on the reporters you follow. Check on the baseball news once a week. That's where I am at this point in my life. See what drifts by that looks important, otherwise I'm still in off-season mode.

Monday, February 23, 2015

2012 led to 2013. Does 2014 lead to 2015? Of course! That's how time works!

Listen. We can sit here before the season starts and compare the 2015 team to the 2013 team. Certainly the 2012 and 2014 teams were similar so why shouldn't we be worried that 2015 would match the disappointment of 2013? Or maybe we shouldn't be worried because... well because whatever. It doesn't matter. It's pre-season baseball filler time where we get to talk about nonsense like this. Could the 2015 Nats be the 2013 Nats redux? Sure! Could they be the best team ever? Sure! Whatever floats your conversational boats.

What we can't argue about though is the reason 2013 ended in failure. Sure, you can say it was because they were "complacent" or whatever nonsense you want and you know what? No one can prove you wrong. There's no there there. Good for you and your unassailable argument from the top of Mt. Nonsense.

I'll point out that a mere two years later and its likely not a single bench player for that team will be on a major league roster. (Suzuki will but he was not a bench guy as much as a Ramos injury replacement. Espinosa likely will but he wasn't a bench player - he was a starter usurped by Rendon - who was also not a bench player)  I don't know if it was historically bad but it was the worst bench in the majors that year and cost the Nats several games. The Nats also had a bunch of injuries and saw Dan Haren, a one-year FA pick-up looking for a deal after 2013 not a 2012 Nats with a reason to be complacent, pitch poorly. This is my argument, but sure, you can say fairies might have caused them to lose in 2013, too. You're wrong but you can say it.

Why do some default to the "they just didn't care enough" for the reason the Nats didn't win in 2013 (or "cared too much" - depending on which psychobabble you like more)? Because it gives the Nats a stronger measure of control over success. 2013 was derailed by the unexpected. Injury and unpredicted poor play led to heavy use of a bench that was overly reliant on what turned out to be 2012 career performances. Outside of Rizzo fiddling while the season burned (a glaring mark on an otherwise stellar tenure) there wasn't much the Nats could do. Be healthier? Play more amazing like last year? We don't like it that a team, even this one in 2015, can be derailed by the unexpected. So poof! Let's pretend they weren't! Instead they were derailed by their on hubris or nerves or something that we can imagine that THIS time they'll be able to control better. Matt Williams will show them how. Or maybe it will be their experience from last time. Or the fact, as Boz notes, a lot of them are looking to prove something.  For some, it's a lot nicer feeling than relying on the cosmic uncertainty of "Hope nothing goes crazy".

The Nats should win. They should win a lot of games in fact. But they could lose. It could happen. The chances aren't good but they exist. And just like in 2013, if they do lose, it won't be because of focus or drive or whatever (it would probably be because of injury) even if people say that's what it is.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Grass is always greener on my side actually

It's cold. I'm sick.

For those that think ZNN contract might suffer because of all the talent becoming FA. Sure it's possible. He could find himself in a crowded market with David Price, Johnny Cueto, Rick Porcello, and Zack Greinke among other lesser talents. Of course...

Here's Cueto trying to get a deal now. The Tigers, who have an owner willing to throw money around like a fool, want Price back. Greinke, is unlikely to just take his remaining contract, but is on the Dodgers a team with a decent amount of money behind them I hear. Porcello is on the Red Sox, see Greinke comment. Even the White Sox, not known as big spenders, will try to make a play to keep Samardzija

Chances are probably as likely that the stacked FA class ends up being ZNN and Mat Latos, as it ends up being 4 really good pitchers. You don't usually let really good pitchers walk.


And for the "trade for a cheap but good young MI" crowd there is this. Profar out indefinitely after shoulder surgery. This is why you don't just deal guys, when it seems like there might be a problem, you wait until the situation basically dictates you have to deal guys. Forget being in a better trading position if the other team thinks you don't have to deal. When you are trading a young talented player you'll always be in a good trading position.

The Nats aren't getting a Ranger or Cub MI for a song. Not unless Rizzo pulls out his magic wand and hypnotizes another GM.


Then there's the Baseball America Top 100. Say 7 in the Top 100 and it sounds really good for the Nats.  Say 1 in the Top 10 and 4 in the bottom 3rd and it sounds different (and more honest). I said it before and I'll say it again. Lucas Giolito is the guy. When you are up that high it is very unlikely that you don't have some sort of impact in the major leagues, usually a pretty big one. The rest are question marks. Taylor is probably the best of the bunch but he's also the oldest (he'll be 24 in March - older than Rendon going into last year. Older than Bryce is now) Reynaldo Lopez is young but has had one good year, and not even a full one.  He's one bad year from being back off the list. (Don't believe me - check out Lucas Sims. Everyone is trying to beat everyone else on rankings so guys who perform when young 19/20 tend to get ranked a bit higher than they need to - at least that's my opinion).


This is just a friendly reminder that our views are often clouded by where we are coming from. We want ZNN to have a crowded FA market - so he'll be more likely to re-sign for a lower price. We want other teams to feel like they need to make deals when they have a glut of young players at one position - so we'll be able to pick up a good young player for ourselves. We want all the prospects in the Top 100 to be hot commodities - so we can imagine them helping the team or bringing back a lot in trades. All those views are biased though. Take a step back. See the whole picture.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Rendon is the new Zimm?

While discussing the offense, the commenters and I have had a little back and forth about the projections for Rendon. A young player (25 in June) who had an excellent pedigree, there was a question of why I would project a slight decrease in performance for 2015.

The fancy stat argument exists but it isn't very compelling. His strikeout rate (15.2%) lags behind the strikeout rate he put up in the minors. Looking at his swing stats - he isn't being more discerning though. He's swinging more and his contact rate has dropped a bit, mainly for pitches in the zone. These are the pitches you generally hit well. What's happening is muddled but from what I can glean he's dramatically reduced his strikeout looking percentage (43.5% to 32.7%) I haven't gone through a ton of players but it doesn't look like a stable stat to me.

Rendon's HR power is also in question. He hit a fair number of home runs that barely got enough distance and a few that wouldn't have went out in any other park. Some I'm sure will argue "He hits line drive home runs!" but he doesn't average an elevation angle that much lower than the average home run and about half of his barely HRs were normal fly ball type homeruns.

The BABIP  going up (.314) seems a little high and it's a little strange that it went up given that his LD% went down (25.5% to 20.4%). So the average is probably a skooch higher than it should have been.

Off the plate, which is the only thing we were talking about but I'll expand the discussion, his SB total of 17 is way higher than he had in the minors and seems questionably aggressive for someone with ankle issues. His fielding is good, but those things can be notoriously fickle on an annual basis.

We looked at all the data going into last year and came up with an idea of how he would hit in 2014, weighing the most recent data (.265 stint with ok power) heaviest. I would have pegged him for something like just over .270 with a SLG of like .420. In the alternate universe where he hit that, maybe I'd go up to just under .280 with a SLG of like .450 for 2015. But in this universe he passed my bar set for 2014 easily. So we adjust the projection up. But we're still doing the same thing as last year. We're taking all the data. The same data that had us at .270 and say 13 homers last year.  If you do that, last years numbers won't be the floor for 2015. It'll be something less.

Taking all this above into account is how I end up with something a half-step back from last year. .280 slugging .455, so like 16/17 homers, something in that neighborhood. I think most stat guys will agree with me. That's still very good!

Now the fun part about players like Rendon is that he's young and we don't have a lot of data so there is a lot of variability in the projections. He could absolutely get even better. He could go out there and threaten .300 and... well I have a tough time seeing 30 homers but maybe 25? Totally possible, but I'd say unlikely. It's also possible, and more unlikely given the recent success, that he regresses and hits say .260 again with say 12 homers. I don't see it but it's out there. For what it's worth the fans basically say he'll stay the same. That's a pretty good guess, too.

If Rendon DOES stay the same, or gets a little better, that will be very exciting for the future. Rendon will basically be Ryan Zimmerman redux. Not the Ryan Zimmerman that the Nats have had, who's been perfectly fine since 2011, but the Ryan Zimmerman the Nats could have had.  The one that could have been a team-carrier. Let's see how the two compare.

First full year
Rendon : .287 / .351 / .473
Zimm : .287 / .351 / .471

That's a bit scary, right? Now of course if you're smart you'll say "Harper, Rendon did that when he was 24. Zimm was 21 when he did that. It isn't comparable".  Ok then how about this

Age 24 year
Rendon : .287 / .351 / .473  125 OPS+
Zimm : .292 / .364 / .525  133 OPS+*

Rendon isn't quite the hitter Zimmerman was in his prime but only just a touch off. Zimm back then was almost certainly a better fielder than Rendon is now, but Rendon is very good and a bigger threat on the basepaths. Overall Zimm was probably more valuable but only just enough for separation. Zimm was Top 3 level, Rendon, probably more Top 5-10.

It's easy now to overlook how good Zimm was back during that time period, because it was easy then to overlook how good Zimm was. For a period from late July 2008 (when he returned from injury) through early April 2011 (when he'd go out again for injury reasons), Ryan Zimmerman was a Top 5 player in the major leagues and a legit MVP candidate. He never got his due because he played on lousy teams (the 2008-2010 teams won 59, 59, and 69 games respectively) and because you had a lot of 3B competition. Evan Longoria was arguably the 2nd best player in the majors during this time. For the Red Sox, Youk had a great 2009, then gave up his spot to Beltre who had a great 2010. For the Yankees, A-Rod had his last great year in 2009. Zimm couldn't help being an "Hey! Over here!" type. How bad was the overlook? Last year Rendon finished 5th in the MVP voting, a completely deserved vote total. 2009 Zimm hit better and fielded better than 2014 Rendon did and ended up 25th.

When Zimm came on in 2006 there were people who immediately thought he could have a Hall of Fame type career. After a misstep and an injury people grew wary, but 2009 & 2010 turned them back into believers. Unfortunately that ab injury would knock Zimm's power and hurt his fielding which would then break down further with his arm troubles. He was so good that he's still useful but he's no longer a star and the chance at a HoF-type career is long gone. You can't help but wonder what could have been and with Rendon, in a way, we have a chance to see.


*What happened? It got tougher to hit. When Zimm entered the league the NL batting line was .265 / .334 / .427. When he had his best season in 2010 it was .255 / .324 / .399.  By the time Rendon had his breakout year it was .249 / .312 / .383.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Dream!

The dream scenario is a team for the ages. A team talked about in hushed tones and reverence. "You know what team was really good? That 2015 Nationals team. What a powerhouse!" It takes more than winning a lot of games to do it, it takes a championship, but winning a lot of games helps (see our comment discussion on the 2001 Mariners). What is a team for the ages? Last time the Nats were coming off a crazy good year I defined it as 110 wins. That turned out to be quite a challenge to put together. So we're scaling back just a couple games to 108 wins. Why 108? Well it ties for the most wins by a National League team in 100 years. That's pretty immortal.

Let's put our heads on our pillows, dial in our sleep numbers (mine is "whatever - I'm not the goddamn Princess and the Pea"), and get to this!

Ok so we will start in the same general area we did for the nightmare scneario, adjusting up and down for various things we would consider fair. Ramos/Bryce/Zimm more playing time, Max here, LaRoche gone.  That takes us down to... 101 wins? Well I was fudging a bit and that 102 point was really more like 101.5 so how about 100.5 wins? I'll also knock off some value for Clippard being gone - but instead of forcing 2 wins, we'll stick with 1. And I'll knock off some for Werth, who again is old and injured, but best case decrease instead of worst case. Let's say half a win vs 3 wins. We're now at... 99 wins.*  All we have to do is piece together 9 more wins.

Ok the easiest place to get wins is with Bryce Harper. We adjusted him up based on last years WAR numbers but those were the worst of his short career. It doesn't take much to think he'll be closer to his previous years' totals if he plays everyday. Let's say 2.5 more wins and we can come back as needed. 101.5 wins. We also scaled Zimm up to a mere 120 games. While that number might be hard and fast for Ramos (He's never played that many in fact) Zimm has played more than 120 games in 4 of the last 6 years. If he's healthy 145 or so seems more reasonable. Defense won't be a factor as much but that's a good thing after the last two years. Another win here, too? 102.5 wins.

A couple more paths of least resistance. I figured Yuney to be a win worse than LaRoche was last year. Instead, let's say he really bounces back and call it even. 103.5 wins. And let's say Janssen, Barrett, and company keeps the pen closer to the level of last year. 104 wins. Only 4 away!

But we've hit a philosophical wall here. We're to the point where simple positive thinking is not enough to get the Nats where they need to be. The Nats need guys not only to maximize what we've seen from them recently, but take actual steps forward. Strasburg, everyone thinks he should be more of an elite pitcher. Let's say that happens - 105 wins. Bryce, too, people think should be a STAR, so let's make him one with another win and a half of production. 106.5 Ummm

Hmmmm...

How about...

We're kind of running out of young guys / guys not reaching potential talent level. This is what happens when you have players who are really good and they play really well. There's no room for them to go up. Are you going to adjust Rendon up? That would make him arguably the 2nd best player in the majors today behind Mike Trout. Denard Span a win or so better? You've given the Nats a guy who made himself a Top 5 CF around age 30. Adjust ZNN or Max up? Hello Clayton Kerhsaw dominance.

But we're not giving up. Let's say Gio has one last great year in that arm. Sure that 2012 looks fluky and he's been trending down, but we're not asking for a full return to that form, just a strong move in that direction. It isn't crazy, he's only 29 for God's sake. 107.5.  Ok a half-win can come from anywhere but what makes the most sense? Werth? The guy is nearly 36 and may not start the season. I can't go there. Fister? Nah I like where he's at and wrong side of 30 for a jump. Ramos? No, I think I'm already probably over estimating him. Desmond? Tempting given it's a contract year but no, I'll go with the simplest way to 108. The bench gets a little better. Might be hard to see that with the main players being the same but the sample is so small here it amounts to a coin flip if we see better or worse results. That's how the 2012 bench ended up best in three counties. 108 wins! (and if you want to go to 109 - let's say Desmond has that contract year) 


What did we learn? A lot went right for the Nats last year to get to 97 wins, so even saying everything goes right isn't enough to get them to historic levels. There's an extra step needed and a couple young guys who should be very good, Strasburg and Bryce, need to be great. I'm tempted to say an easier path to this level of winning is rather than have all this go right is simply to have these two become the generational players it was expected they could be. Add like 3 wins for Stras, 5 additional for Bryce. These are huge jumps, but that is probably as reasonable as saying everyone takes a half-step forward.

All in all getting to 108 is hard. I'd say it's slightly less hard then making the Nats miss the playoffs without injury but just slightly less and given the fact you never have 0 injuries, missing the playoffs has to be the better bet. But neither are good ones. I would say I like 100 wins more than 90. That's saying something. Early thoughts on a final prediciton right now... I'd have to say 96-97 wins, but nothing official until we see Spring Training play out, and see how Werth is doing.

The Nats are a high 90s win team here who, despite a slight uptick in competition, should cruise to a division title. If they don't something has gone terribly wrong. It may be injury, it may be surprise collapses in performance, or it may be managin', but something would have to keep this collection of talent from reaching the playoffs. 

* I'd say the the Nats "everyone is healthy" base level is 98-99 wins. That might seem low, coming off a 96 win season with some injury issues, but this is EVERYONE is healthy, like everyone on every team. In the real world if the Nats got lucky and had perfect health likely they win a bunch more games because everyone other team wouldn't be so lucky. However, I will say the Nats history makes me think they are a little more prone to the injury bug.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The "bust" potential of the offense

A comment by Wally got me thinking about the offense. He was talking about the future and how the Nats are dependent on the success or failure of Rendon and Bryce (which is true given Span & Desi are likely gone, you can't count on Ramos, and ZNN, Yuney, & Werth should all be declining) but for this quick post I'll bring it back to 2015.

If you want to take prediction to it's simplest level you can make every call into "better", "worse", or "about the same".  If we take a look at the Nats offense on those terms the situation doesn't seem like it has big bust potential.
  • There are three players I'd expect to hit "worse" this season. Werth (old and injured), Span (career year) and Rendon (young player exceeding expectations). The amount of worse is different and what that actually means for the player is different but still this is what I think. 
  • There is one player I'd expect to hit "better" this season. That's Bryce Harper who is the flip side of Rendon, a young player who underachieved expectations. 
  • The remaining players, Zimm, Ramos, Desmond, and Escobar (and the bench as a whole if you care about that). I'd expect to be about the same. 
All in all that seems like the offense will take a step back, but Bryce, Zimm, and Ramos each should add dozens of games to their seasons, off-setting most, if not all of this drop.

That's the way it should work and the way you would normally project it.

But if I take it a step further and look at all those players that should hit "about the same" I come to the same conclusion for all of them. If forced to choose, I'd predict that they'd hit worse than better. Zimm and Escobar are in their very early 30s so they are heading into decline years. They haven't hit significantly better than they did in 2014 in a while. I can't predict better over worse. Desmond has been trending in the wrong direction for a couple years. While I think he'll stabilize, I can't see how he'll suddenly reverse the trend. Ramos, I'm the most wishy-washy on, as I've always been a big fan. But honestly he's a guy who also has trended the wrong way and has mutliple years of injuries on his body. You want me to pick "better" for this guy?  I can't.

This is important because how a season can turn is based on injuries and where expectations are not met. In general some guys will outperform and some will underperform the guesses we put out there.  If taken at the major league level it would come fairly close to 50/50. But this is never equally distributed through the teams. A lot of team roughly get 50/50 splits but a couple will have more outperformers than underperformers, and a couple will find themselves in the other boat. Looking at the Nats, I see them as decent bets to be one of those in the wrong boat.

Of course this doesn't mean DOOM. The offense was very good last year. If they find themselves being one of those teams where more goes wrong than right then they'd likely still be average. And as we saw yesterday, even if everything goes wrong hitting wise (excluding injury), the pitching should carry them into the playoffs. It's a 98 win type team when we don't think about injury, it takes a lot to get them to miss the playoffs.

No 2015 should be fine (and could be awesome as we'll see tomorrow), but don't be surprised if the Nats aren't a dominating all-around squad but a pitching led team with an unpredictable offense.