Nationals Baseball

Friday, April 17, 2015

Worry worry worry. Too much worry.

How do we feel now? Better? 4-6 isn't good, but 2-8 would have been... well don't sound the alarm, but good teams have like one run like that a season. (Neither the 2012 or 2014 teams ever went 2-8, though last years team had a run in mid to late May that flirted with 2-8 several times) Put your hand on the alarm and watch the next two-three games.

As much as I'd like to say the Nats are turning the corner, I don't have any faith that the Phillies are a good team. Losing two games to them previously was terrible. Ruiz and Howard are over the hill. They are starting Ruf, Francoeur, and Sizemore at times. While you could expect Utley and Revere to hit a lot better, you have to expect Galvis and Asche to hit a lot worse. This team won't score. David Buchanan, is a bad team's 5th and he's their 4th. Jerome Williams is done. Once Harang's arm tires out this team won't pitch. If the Nats are going to be any good they have to fatten up on the weaklings they play. The Braves may or may not be weak (I'll go with "may") but the Phillies definitely are. You play this team 19 times, you better get 12+ wins. One loss this series is the limit.

It's also important because what follows. After the Phillies come the Cardinals at home, then the Marlins, Braves, and Mets away, then the Marlins and Braves at home. That's a lot of games, 22 more to be precise, that will set up the rest of the Nats 1st half. If they do well during this stretch, even after this slow start, it's likely that they'll have put separation between them and the other NL East teams, with the possible exception of the Mets (since the Mets have the best record right now and play the Nats the fewest times in this stretch). The first half will be about either keeping the Mets at bay, or widening the gap between the Nats and their closest competitor. If the Nats do poorly they'll likely have allowed a couple NL East teams to be right there with them (if not have a slight lead). The first half will be about keeping pace with whoever is in front, and fixing whatever is "wrong". Taking at least 3 from the Phillies will keep the first couple series from feeling apocalyptic if they go badly.

I told you a couple days ago you should let worry sit until they played another 8 games or so. Get 10% into the season, then see what you think. If you aren't seeing horrendous or amazing baseball it's what you have to do (Nats were close but not quite at horrendous). That's especially true with a team that has injury returns in it's pocket. But really it's about how good the teams are you think the Nats are competing against.

If you think the Nats are 10 games or so better than the Mets over the course of the season, then falling a game or two behind early is no big deal. It'll work itself out over the next 154. Worrying is kind of silly because your most likely scenario still has the Nats winning the division, but by around 8 games instead of 10. Falling 9 games behind in the first 16 though (tough to do) and you've set up a situation where the most likely situation to play out from this point, based on preseason expectations, is a neck and neck finish. Worry is valid. (plus your preseason expectations were probably off)  Of course the season is too long and variable to take that in anything but the broadest sense but the take away is worry is not only based on how a team is doing, but how you expect them to do going forward and how you expect everyone else to do. 2-6? There just isn't enough separation there to really matter unless a team you think will be as good or better than yours has gone 7-1 or 8-0.*

Since the Nats were such big favorites and have guys returning there's a nice big cushion to work with. Watch the Nats, watch the Mets, watch the Braves & Marlins a little. Enjoy (as much as the Nats play allows you to).  Try not to worry needlessly. 

*Does that mean Minnesota can consider it's season lost already? I won't go that far but I'd probably already write them off for an AL Central title. Harsh but true. You'd expect they were the worst and they are. Anyone want to be that they play at least a half-game better than CLE and CHW AND at least 4 games better than the Royals AND at least 5 games better than the Tigers? 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Busy!

But here, let's quickly talk about yesterday.

Is the Nats offense back or is it a function of facing a team with terrible pitching who play in a bandbox, lyric or not?  Doesn't matter. Even if it is the latter if you're a good team you should score a bunch versus a team like that. Plus sometimes a team like that is exactly what you need to get back on track.  Normally I wouldn't consider a series versus the Phillies telling since they don't have a killer pitching staff either, but the Nats will catch both Hamels and April Aaron Harang who sports like a 2.50 ERA in the month over the past two years. We'll see if the bats continue to be hot.

Is Rafael Martin that good? Of course not. But he's not Xavier Cedeno, a journeyman with no major league track record of success, so it's better that he's here and we see what he can do.

Like I said yesterday 2-6 isn't good but let's see where the Nats are 16 games in. If they are around 4-12 then go ahead worry. If they are closer to 8-8 just go with it. The Mets play the Marlins for four starting tonight. The Mets have a small lead on the Marlins, if they can expand it with 3 wins or a sweep then the Nats have a clear idea of who their challenger will be, at least for the first couple months. (The Braves no one really liked, they started 5-0 and already are 6-3 and Fredi Gonzalez is their manager.)

Ok a sweep at Fenway might have been too tall an order. How about a series win at home vs the Phillies? That's gotta be doable.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

All the information we have

2-6 is 2-6. Except when it isn't.

Both the equivalency and its opposite apply to the Nats.

2-6 is 2-6 in that going 2-6 for a week and a half now has the same effect on your record as doing it in May, or July, or Septemeber. On one hand that means you shouldn't worry about it. Last year's team (again under .500 on June 1st), went 2-6  three different times. The 2012 team never went 2-6 but they went 0-5 a couple times and 3-7. It, or something relatively close to it, happens, even for mid 90 win teams.

On the other hand teams that fail to realize these games can't be dismissed are teams that miss out on the playoffs by a game. They blame a single late season bad start or muffed play but should really blame the dozens of "could have been"s over the course of the year. Play hard, try to win every day, solve the problems at hand as soon as you can (like the Cedeno DFA), and don't shrug things off with "it's a long season" because you don't know how the season is going to turn.

2-6 isn't 2-6 in that when analyzing a team during a current season you have to factor in the data at hand. For those other Nats teams there was a lot more data, not just the 2-6, to help us figure out what kind of team we were dealing with. For this team, we only have the 2-6. What the 2-6 tells us is nothing good. The depth and quality of offensive talent is not strong enough that it can suffer through injuries. Sure it looks like Span and Rendon will join Werth sooner rather than later, but this is an injury prone team. The defense, which had a couple question marks, is failing. The bullpen, robbed of two of its better arms (Soriano and Clippard) and two useful ones (Detwiler and Blevins - Detwiler wasn't as bad as you think and Blevins at least had LHB flummoxed, if not a bounce back in him), is a mish mash of maybes with none of the clear hierarchy that can help a young manager out.  

But 2-6 is just 8 games so the data size is small. With 50 games under your belt last year, you could have questioned the Nats. They turned out fine. The data says bad things, but the data also says "there's a good chance I don't know what I'm talking about"

One thing that helped the Nats out in 2014 though was the lack of true challenger. On June 1st, they would be only 3.5 behind the Braves, a half game behind the Marlins, a half game ahead of the Mets and only 2.5 ahead of the Phillies. The Nats would go four games over in June. If they went .500 the rest of the year after that, that still would have given them the NL East. The Braves, Phillies, and Marlins would all play well under .500 for the rest of the year. If there are no challengers this year should go roughly the same. If someone rises up things start to look worrisome. The good thing is no one really has exploded from the gate but both the Braves and Mets are set up that they could over the next two weeks. You may not believe in the Braves but that's a good staff and the Mets were a possibility to start the year.

This season has stunk so far, but it's also not even 5% over. The next week or two will be telling on if you have to turn this "what the hell is wrong" into actual concern or if it's just a fluke of timing in the expected march to a title.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Are the Nats stupid?

This isn't about their fielding. Yes, the defense has been terrible.  I've been saying all off-season that I was worried about the defense and hell if I'm going to not play up the one time I'm right. Outside of Rendon the Nats had no one young and great at D on the field. That means the whole shebang might decline and for some (I'm looking at you, Werth. It's easy for me to do that because you move so slowly) decline means a descent into awfulness. The injuries matter too because they took great fielders (and Werth) off the field and there is no telling if we'll get great fielders (and Werth) back. Add in a Yuney Escobar that might have become unable to field now moving to a new position, in place of an actually good fielder, and there were red flags all over the place. Now, I didn't see Desmond becoming Bootsy McThrowaway but hey, we can't get them all.

Nor is it about their hitting. Right now the team is hanging its hat on Yunel Escobar and Clint Robinson. That sound like something you'd hear about an expansion team, not a World Series contender. It's a slow start cross the board. One of the issues with a superstar less offense (and that's what the Nats are - though potential lies with Bryce and Rendon) is that while there are no holes to the offense, there is no one that's going to carry you either. Instead of one guy, prone to be hot anyway, being hot and driving the team forward, a certain number (at least 5, maybe 6 or even 7) have to be "not slumping" to keep the engine humming. With the injuries pulling three regulars out that basically means everyone has to be on, or one of the replacements has to hit.  The Nats are nowhere near that.

The hope though, is that when these guys get back and get acclimated things will be better. That's a fair hope. Werth is already back. Span is on the fast track. Rendon is looking like he won't be missing months.

Then why might the Nats be stupid? Because of this
Williams said Rendon is taking ground balls at both second and third base in Viera. For now, at least publicly, the Nationals aren’t prepared to say where Rendon will play once he returns...
You know what. I've already decided. The Nats ARE stupid, because even if Rendon ends up at 3rd and Escobar at 2nd like they should, they are considering doing this. They admit that 2nd base involves more twists and turns and pressure on the knee and yet they are making Rendon take grounders at 2nd. Rendon who just hurt his knee and has been out becuase that knee seems slow to heal. They are doing this because Yunel Escobar seems comfortable at third and they don't want to force him to change positions mid season. Yunel Escobar. The man who over the last three seasons has hit .256 / .318 / .350 with 25 homers total. The man who they brought in hoping his slick-fielding at SS would come back. They want him to play third and they want to move Rendon back to 2nd. Let's say this again.

The are at least entertaining the thought of moving Anthony Rendon, their 24 year old who finished 5th in the MVP voting, back to second, increasing his chance of injury so Yunel Escobar, their 32 year old "stopgap to Trea Turner" who was possibly the worst regular shortstop in the majors last year, can play third.

AAAAAAAA! It doesn't make sense. 

It so much doesn't make sense I'm convincing myself this isn't about Escobar. It's about dealing Desmond now, shifting Yuney to SS and getting a 3rd baseman. That's the only way it makes sense right? Of course who would trade a young good 3rd baseman with control for a SS with one year left? No one right? Doesn't make sense. Maybe they do go after Beltre then and Yuney can be the Beltre stop gap for Texas while their young guys get a little more playing time. Yes, that's it. They are about to trade Cole and Escobar over the Texas for Beltre. You heard it here first!

The Nats AREN'T stupid. They are sneaky! Right Rizzo? Right?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Monday Quickie - Starting Pitching can't do everything.

Here's a stat for you :

The Nats starting rotation currently has an ERA of 1.91, best in the NL by nearly half a run. That's great and completely in line with the "best rotation ever?" questions that followed the team after the Scherzer signing.

Here are two more stats for you.

The Nats offense is currently the worst in the Nationals league in runs per game at a measly 2.17 a full half-run worse than any other team.  They are particularly bad at getting guys on base with a .256 OBP. .256!

The Nats relievers are a middling group with a 3.24 ERA. Nowhere near the worst (hi Miami!) but with meh numbers similar to 2013.

Hence 2-4.

I warned you that the Nats essentially lost their 4 best bats from 2014, who batted most often, and were the among most patient bats the Nats had.  That's a huge red flag. Still it's a little surprising that it's worst in the league bad. We expected the likes of Uggla (.111 with 1 double) and Moore (.000) to struggle, but Ramos (.200 with a .190 OBP), Desmond (.136, no homers), and Zimm (.130 with 8 Ks) have all been off. Half the Nats lineup has been terrible. Only Bryce and Yuney have been good. Luckily this issue may solve itself. Werth will be back if not today, very soon. Span seems on the early time frame for his recovery and Rendon is even doing baseball like things! If the Nats come out of this finding out Clint Robinson is the true good bench bat that they always wanted Tyler Moore to be then great. The Nats offense should be fine.

The bullpen is a more pressing issue to me because I don't know if it can be fixed with what's at hand. I'm not sure exactly what the problem is but Matt's moves feel... uncomfortable.  I think he wanted it to be Stammen/Cedeno in the 7th (depending on match-up) then Treinen. I think. That's what you would glean from the usage pattern though Stammen in the 7th with the lead could have been just getting him work in. The bulk of Stammen's work otherwise has been as "hold it together" guy after a lead is blown. That's a good place to use a guy you trust but an odd place for a by the numbers manager to use a "7th inning guy". Cedeno over Thornton doesn't make much sense based on their numbers historically (Thornton better vs lefties and better overall) but if you think contractually you get it. Cedeno is controlled and not old. Thornton is old and gone next year. You want Cedeno in that role. I don't like it - it's not a winning strategy - but I can see the big picture behind it. Going with Treinen is fine, the standard manager has to pick someone, though he's far from a sure thing.

But really the problem is in the last series the Nats kept blowing their tiny leads (1-0, 2-0, 2-1) in the 7th and 8th forcing Matt into the confusing territory of late inning ties. How a manager's mind works when there is no end game in sight is telling and I'm not sure what to think. He immediately turns to Stammen and after that (Stammen's been PH for the inning after appearing each time)  we've seen Treinen in a wasted inning, Roark in extras (I think because he could go two... I hope), and Barrett in a key role. Roark makes sense, but shouldn't Treinen and Barrett been switched? I guess he wanted to keep these guys working (Barrett pitched the day before that first game, Treinen didn't) but I don't know. And why put in Stammen, a guy who had 22 appearances of more than an inning last year, in places where you are sure he'll have to come out after at most an inning?

Nothing here is terribly wrong, but then again I could go in there and randomly select a pitcher based on the handedness of the batters coming up (and saving Storen for saves) and it wouldn't be terribly wrong. It feels like fumbling. I don't know it might be just me.

Anyway onto Boston SWEEP. That's an order.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A teenager at Strasmas

Stephen Strasburg is a very good pitcher. Stephen Strasburg is not a great pitcher. He's had runs of greatness. At the ends of seasons you can look back and say "if he just does A and a little of B he'll be great" but he has yet to put together a career that would make you say he's great.

This should be fine. We should be able to go into a Strasburg game hoping for a great game, expecting a good one, and ready to complain about off ones (like yesterday). And yet we can't (or at least I can't) because of the dark cloud of ill will that surrounds Strasburg. Where did that come from? Why is it here?

Looking back I'm pretty sure it all started with that most dreaded of Nats' topics, the "Shutdown". Right now it would be silly to think Strasburg could have pitched if Mike Rizzo wanted him to sit. We all know that the team is, as Mike Rizzo affectionately calls them, "Mike Rizzo's Nationals". Outside of Teddy coming down and saying "Little Scottie Boras and I made a deal", what Rizzo says, goes. But at the time of the shutdown there was still some question. Davey Johnson was a strong presence. The Nats had just began to win. So there was a non-ignorable amount of Nats fans that thought if Strasburg just made a big enough stink, they'd have to keep him pitching. At the very least they wanted him to throw a fit and see what happened. Instead Strasburg said "I want to pitch but the coaches told me to sit so that's how it goes"  Not good enough, ya pansy!

A larger set of fans thought, with some justification, "If Strasburg is so good that we'll screw with our playoff chances, he better be the damn second coming of Walter Johnson". The shutdown made the beginning of 2013 a judgment on if Strasburg was worth all this special attention. Nevermind the attention wasn't really special. ZNN was treated the same way before. Other teams had innings limits but tried to work it so they missed time at the beginning, leaving playoff pitching open. Strasburg was being singled out as the greatest arm ever that had to be protected under all circumstances. Let's see what he can do.

Well how did 2013 open up? With a shutout win!... then a loss, and another loss, and another loss, and another. With the judging eyes of a baseball nation upon him, Strasburg went 1-5 in his first 8 games, taking to mid-May to pick up win #2. Outside of the second game of the year he didn't pitch poorly, but he had a lot of unearned runs scored on him. The onus of him being a guy that wilted when the defense failed him stuck. It isn't true. But having 3 such games come together in close proximity when everyone was trying to see if the shutdown was worth it, made it seem so. We're not really ones for going back and re-judging people. It's much easier to sit around and pick out the moments that confirm what we already think.

Plus he was a loser! 1-5! What fans didn't know in the moment is that the Nats' offense was taking a step back toward average in 2013, and the lack of offense would especially hurt Strasburg with low run support. Strasburg would go on to have a very good rest of the season, but would never get over .500, losing three games after reaching 5-6, including his best game of the season a 2 hit, 1 run, 8IP, 12 K gem. He would finish 8-9. By year's end you had that initial group of skeptics now convinced. Strasburg wasn't worth it. He wasn't a winner. Jordan Zimmerman, at 19-9, was a winner (no other Nats would win more than 11)

Still going into last year it wasn't fully set yet. Many people could read the season that was hidden underneath that record and were convinced that Strasburg would bring it all together in 2014. Just watch! You'll see! Again the Nats fans turned to Strasburg early in the season and... he blew Opening Day and he pitched poorly in his next game versus Atlanta and he pitched poorly in his 4th game vs Miami. Going into his last start in April he had a 1-2 record and a 5.33 ERA. Stras would pitch well from then on out but the wins wouldn't fall his way. Despite a good offense and a good ERA (3.14 from that last April start), Stras would only go 6-7 and would be at 7-9 for the year. The conversation was over. There were going to be no more converts to Strasburg. Those that wanted to hate him had another "fact" on file that he wasn't a good pitcher. Strasburg would pitch even better the rest of the year, including putting up a 2.29 ERA and 8-3 record over the past two months, but for naught. Everybody but Gio pitched great and ZNN even finished the year with a no-hitter. Perhaps a dominant playoff performance would start Stras on the road back but he only gave a workman like one.

At this point it would take at least a half-season, a FIRST half of the season, that was the best in the NL to start turning anyone who dislikes Strasburg back toward him.

The end result is Strasburg, a very good pitcher with great stuff, is no fun to watch anymore. Every god damned game he pitches has become a 3 hour referendum on his ranking in the pitching world. Every fifth day, one half of Nats fans shout "HE'S THE WORST" and the other half has to keep from punching the first half in their stupid faces because their stupid faces deserve punching. Add to that a national (and most local, to be honest) media that still is stuck on "See, Strasburg isn't the best pitcher ever!", a fact that any sane person following this franchise moved on from a couple years ago, and any joy has been sucked out of the day. Dad got stuck in the chimney and died. Strasmas is ruined.

But otherwise, how are you today?

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Season Back On!

A win! Everything is better now. Until they lose again. But then they can win again!

Escobar had a hit. Ramos had a hit. Storen looked good. Treinen looked... well he did his job. Nothing going.

The most interesting thing going on right now is the fact that the supposed best challenger to the Nats, the Marlins, got swept by the supposed door mat to the Nats, the dismantled Braves. It's just 3 games but every game does matter and if you liked the Nats to be say... 8 games better than the Marlins over 162, with a win today they'd only have to be 6 games better over 159 to do it.

Of course you're saying "that's a real long time" and you're right. That's part of the fun of baseball, this double hope thing it has every season. In the beginning of the year you have an idea of where these teams will end up and a long season should help smooth out any luck that might arise. But the long season introduces other things, mostly injuries but also surprise crashes, surprise falls, trades and call-ups, that can change the make-up of the team with 40+% of the season to go. Every team in every sport starts with hope but in baseball it lingers longer for more teams because of the number of games in front of you where things can change.

And just when the hope of "something may change" dies out because the number of games becomes too small to matter (sometime in the dog days of August) and a few non-contenders wave goodbye a new hope arises for the rest. The "maybe we just get hot" hope. At this part of the season you have a much better feel for the teams. You know how good they are, where their faults lie. You should be able to predict the finish. But now the season is short enough for luck to play a role and in no sport is the line between winners and losers as thin as it is in baseball. This hope can linger for most teams all the way to the last week. "If we can just go 7-2 and they go 2-7" That's sort of crazy but it can happen and probably did at some point in the year.

The whole thing adds up to a lot of  fun for the teams doing the catching and a lot of worrying for the teams they are trying to catch. The Nats are definitely the latter so just be ready for worry all year barring a dominant wire to wire season.

Are the Braves any good? Offensively no. They scored 2 runs twice so far and are barely above average in their stats. There is no revelation here. They just had one shot versus a pitcher totally off his game.  The pitching though - it could be this good (1, 2, 0 runs allowed). The Marlins were an average hitting team last year and should be better. That's a nice start for those arms. The back end of Stults and Cahill is weak, but Minor returning from the DL should knock whichever of these guys stinks worse off the mound.

Should the Marlins worry? Offensively I wouldn't. Slow start - but three games and Stanton, who's the key, was off. But again 3 games. I'd be very interested in Latos' next start as the Marlins are fielding a rotation that's in holding pattern for the return of Jose Fernandez. It can't really afford a crash out. The pen was also not impressive and might be an issue. Too early to be concerned but a things to keep an eye on.