The Nationals entered September with a 6-game lead over the Braves. By September 16, they clinched the division with a victory in Atlanta. As the Nationals cruised through the month, going 19–8, the Braves collapsed, going 7–18 for the month. The Nationals finished the season 30 games above .500 and 17 games ahead of the Braves and the Mets, who were tied for second place. The season ended on an especially high note, with Jordan Zimmermann pitching the first no-hitter in Washington Nationals history in the final game of the regular season.
The month began with the Nationals finishing up a west coast road trip with a 3-game series against the Dodgers, which many commentators described as a possible preview of the National League Championship Series. The Nats won the first game and lost the second. The third game was one of the most remarkable ball games of the season, a 14-inning affair that lasted a record 5-1/2 hours and featured multiple shifts in momentum and three blown saves, which the Nats finally won 8 to 5.
Returning to Washington, the Nats started the home stand with a series against the Phillies. The Nats lost the first game in 11 innings, with the bullpen and shoddy defense blowing a 5–1 lead. This game was Rafael Soriano‘s fifth blown save (in 13 opportunities) since July 20, and two games later Drew Storen took over the closer role. The Nationals also lost the second game of the Phillies series, but avoided a sweep by winning the finale. They then hosted the Braves in a series that the visitors needed to sweep if they were to keep their fading hopes for a divisional championship alive. The Nats took the first two games before losing the third, and now it was just a matter of time before the Nats were expected to clinch.
Playing in New York, the Nats took 3 games of 4 against the Mets. Their next series was in Atlanta, and their “magic number” was down to 4, which meant that two victories over the Braves would clinch the division. With Stephen Strasburg on the mound, they won the first game, and Tanner Roark started game 2, helping shut out the Braves in a 3–0 victory to clinch the championship. For the series finale the next night, the Nats fielded a team of backup players and September call-ups, giving the regulars a rest, and lost the game.
The September call-ups provided playing opportunities to players like Tyler Moore, Michael Taylor, Steven Souza, Jeff Kobernus, Sandy Leon, Blake Treinen, Taylor Hill, Xavier Cedeno, and Ryan Mattheus. Also, on September 20, Ryan Zimmerman returned to the active roster after nearly two months on the disabled list for a torn hamstring.
The Nats finished their road trip in Miami with a 4-game seies against the Marlins. They swept the series, winning the last three games by one-run margins. For the final week of the season they returned to Washington, facing the Mets in three games followed by four games against the Marlins. They beat the Mets in the first game. The second game was rained out, requiring them to finish the series with a Thursday double header, which they split. The next day, they played another double header, this time against the Marlins, and again split it, with Doug Fister pitching a 3-hit shutout in the first game. On Saturday, Strasburg pitched his third consecutive scoreless start, going 6 innings in a 5–1 victory.
In Sunday’s finale, Zimmermann took the mound, with Williams expecting him also to go perhaps 6 innings in a meaningless game to prep them for the playoffs. A second inning home run by Ian Desmond put the Nationals ahead. Zimmermann pitched quickly and didn’t allow a base runner until the fifth inning, when he walked Justin Bour. Meanwhile, Matt Williams was pulling out all of the regulars and bringing in the bench players and call ups to finish the game. By the 8th inning, it was becoming apparent that Zimmermann had a real chance to pitch a no-hitter. The last regular (other than Zimmermann and Ramos) left in the lineup was Ryan Zimmerman—Williams left him in to get his fourth plate appearance in the bottom of the 8th, but then sent in Steven Souza for the top of the ninth as a defensive replacement. The first Marlins batter in the ninth, Hechevarria, grounded out to Kobernus at second. The second batter, pinch hitter Saltalamacchia, hit a long fly ball to center that Michael Taylor was able to catch. The last hitter was Yelich, and he hit a line drive to the gap. Jordan dropped his shoulders and walked slowly off the mound, convinced that he had just given up a double. But Souza was sprinting toward the wall, and like a football receiver, leaped with both hands extended and corralled the ball, dropping to the grass, then coming up with the ball in glove. Jordan, as well as just about everyone else as National Park, lifted their arms in triumph and the Nats raced to the mound to celebrate the no hitter. It was a beautiful culmination to the season.
In September, the Nationals success was again led by their starting pitchers, who led MLB in ERA– with 61 (or 39% better than the average team)—this is a measure of ERA that is park-adjusted and measured relative to the league. The Nats starters were also first in the majors in the version of pitching wins above replace (WAR) that is based on runs allowed (RA9-WAR) with 5.5. In the fielding-independent metric, FIP–, the Nats’ starters ranked first in the National League and second in the majors with 75.
For relievers, my preferred metric is RE24, which takes account of game situations, such as inherited runners. The Nats relievers ranked 9th in the NL in September with an RE24 of –2.35. They were 2nd in the league in shutdowns, with 27, but also tied for 2nd in meltdowns, with 12.
The Nats’ offense was above average in September—the team ranked 4th in the National League in on-base percentage (.330), 5th in slugging percentage (.395), and 4th in home runs (26). In park-adjusted weighted runs created (wRC+) they ranked 5th with 103, or 3% better than the average team.
17-10 (4.04 R/G – 3.11 RA/G)
Stephen Strasburg (3-1, 1.13 RA/9, 5 G, 32 IP, 9.0 K/9, .223 opp OBP, 1.7 RA9-WAR).
Most valuable position player:
Anthony Rendon (.337/.429/.506, 22 G, 3 HR, 14 R, 11 RBI, 1.3 fWAR).
Most valuable relief pitcher:
Drew Storen (0-0, 0.73 RA/9, 14 G, 12-1/3 IP, 7.3 K/9, .213 opp OBP, 3.20 RE24, 0.7 RA9-WAR).
Craig Stammen (0–1, 11.12 RA/9, 9 G, 5-2/3 IP, 4.8 K/9, .448 opp OBP, –4.26 RE24, –0.6 RA9-WAR).
Best start this month:
Jordan Zimmermann (of course! September 28, 1–0 win over the Marlins in Washington) pitched the Nationals’ first ever no-hitter, giving up 1 walk while striking out 10, for a game score of 96. An honorable mention goes to Doug Fister for pitching a 3-hit, complete-game shutout against the Fish two days earlier, striking out 9 and walking none in the first game of a double header (game score 90).
Taylor Hill (September 26, 15–7 loss to the Marlins in Washington in the second game of the Fister double header) gave up 10 hits, 7 runs, and 2 walks in 4-2/3 innings, while getting 4 K and a game score of 18.
- Tanner Roark (September 6, 3–1 loss to the Phillies in Washington) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk with 8 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 55).
- Stephen Strasburg (September 10, 6–2 loss to the Braves in Washington) gave up 3 runs on 7 hits with no walks and 8 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 54).
- Gio Gonzalez (September 12, 4–3 loss to the Mets in New York) gave up 4 runs (3 earned) on 6 hits and 1 walk with 7 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings (game score 54).
Xavier Cedeno (September 3, 8–5 win over the Dodgers in Los Angeles in 14 innings) entered the game in the bottom of the 10th with the bases loaded, one out, and the score tied 3–3. Facing the Dodgers’ best left-handed hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, Cedeno struck him out (Win probability added .175). Aaron Barrett then came in and struck out Uribe, getting the Nats out of their jam.
Ross Detwiler (September 17, 3–1 loss to the Braves in Atlanta). Ok, the Nats were essentially conceding the game by playing a lineup of bench players the night after clinching the pennant. Nevertheless, Blake Treinen had pitched 5 shutout innings and the Nats possessed a 1–0 lead when Detwiler came into the game in the bottom of the 6th. Detwiler gave up 3 singles, a walk, and a hit by pitch, which along with an error by Sandy Leon allowed 3 runs to score before the third out was recorded (WPA –.478).
Adam LaRoche (September 3, 8–5 win over the Dodgers in Los Angeles—see “Best shutdown”). In a 14-inning game that contained a week’s worth of clutch hits, shutdowns, meltdowns, and defensive miscues, LaRoche was nursing a sore back and wasn’t expecting to play. He was called on to pinch hit in the top of the 9th with Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen on the mound, Bryce Harper on first, no outs, and the Nats trailing 2–0. On a 2–1 count, he blasted a home run over the left field fence to tie the game (WPA .372). LaRoche went on to drive in two more runs in the 12th and the game-winning run in the 14th, for 5 total RBIs.
Bryce Harper (September 5, 9–8 loss to the Phillies in Washington). In the bottom of the 11th, runners on first and second, and two outs, trailing 9–8, Harper lined out to left to end the game (WPA –.161). In the top of the inning, Harper’s fielding error in a collision with Denard Span had contributed to the Phillies taking a 2-run lead.
Seventy years ago, on Sunday, September 24, 1944 in Griffith Stadium, the Washington Homestead Grays clinched their second consecutive World Series championship with a 4 to 2 victory over the Birmingham Black Barons, winning the series four games to one.
Washington has a rich baseball history. Media outlets like MASN and the Washington Post often have stories about some of the great major league players and teams that used to play in the city’s two American League franchises. We hear less frequently about the city’s Negro league history. Although the Grays called Washington home for less than a decade, they fielded some great teams that won multiple pennants and three Negro World Series championships. Those championship teams are now largely forgotten.
When we watch movies about the Negro leagues, such as last year’s critically acclaimed 42, the stories emphasize the differences with white baseball. From the point of view of the ballplayers, the working conditions of white baseball and black baseball were dramatically different. Major league players lived and traveled in relative comfort, earned reliable paychecks, and played fixed schedules. In contrast, Black players constantly confronted Jim Crow conditions and financially strapped ball clubs, traveled in cheap buses, stayed in flea-bit hotels, and played many more barnstorming games than regularly scheduled league contests.
What we sometimes forget, though, is that from the point of view of fans, Negro league baseball really wasn’t that different from major league baseball. There were leagues and pennant races and World Series championships. By the 1940s, most of the games were being played in major league or minor league ballparks in front of crowds that sometimes matched major league teams in attendance. Most Negro league history tends to focus on stories and people, but we may have forgotten the history of those seasons and pennant races. To learn about them, I had to look up old newspapers, some of which are now available online.
The 1944 Washington Homestead Grays were an old team—undoubtedly a factor in allowing them to avoid losing many top players to military service. They featured five future Hall of Famers—catcher Josh Gibson (age 32), first baseman Buck Leonard (37), left fielder Cool Papa Bell (41), pitcher Ray Brown (36), and ancient pinch hitter Jud Wilson (48). Gibson and Leonard were still among the best hitters in the league. The other regular players on their roster were second baseman Norman Jackson (35), third baseman Jesse Canady (32), shortstop Sam Bankhead (34), center fielder Jerry Benjamin (34), right fielder Dave Hoskins (19), and pitchers Roy Welmaker (30), Edsall Walker (34), and Spoon Carter (41).
Just a week before the series, the Birmingham Black Barons confronted a disaster when five players were injured in a car crash when their car was struck head on while driving back to Birmingham after a Friday night game. Tommy Sampson, their regular second baseman, suffered a broken leg and a fractured hip; their backup catcher Lloyd “Pepper” Basset had two broken ribs; and Leandy Young, a substitute outfielder, also had a broken leg. Two other regulars had less serious injuries and managed to play in the series—shortstop Art Wilson (sprained wrist) and Johnny Britton (cuts on head and knees).
Other players on the Black Barons roster, which did not include any Hall of Famers, were pitchers Johnny Markham, Alfred Saylor, Earl Bumpus, and John Huber, catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, first baseman Leroy Morney, second baseman Piper Davis, third baseman Lester Locket, left fielder Collis Jones, center fielder Felix McLauren, and right fielder Ed Steele.
Both the Grays’ Negro National League and the Black Barons’ Negro American League played split season schedules, with the winners of the first and second halves scheduled for a playoff series for the league championship. However, both teams won both halves, so no pennant championship series were held and the World Series contestants were known well in advance.
Game 1. The first game was played on Sunday, September 14 at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field in front of a crowd of 14,000. The Grays scored a run in the top of the first when they loaded the bases with one out and the Black Barons were unable to complete a double play. The home team tied in the bottom of the third, but then Gibson hit a home run in the fourth, Leonard hit another in the fifth, and the Grays broke it open with three more runs in the eighth (including another home run by Hoskins) and two in the ninth. The Black Barons were able to score two in the bottom of the ninth, but still fell 8 to 3. Welmaker was the winning pitcher.
Game 2. The second game was played on Tuesday night before a crowd of 8,000 in New Orleans. (The Negro World Series traditionally played several games in cities other than the homes of the two contestants. Note that the Negro leagues were playing world series games at night nearly 30 years before that change came to the majors.) The Grays scored the first run in the top of the first on a sacrifice fly. The Black Barons tied it in the fourth with an RBI double by Lockett, but the Grays regained the lead in the seventh on another sacrifice fly. The pitching duel ended in the top of the ninth when the Grays scored four insurance runs and beat the Black Barons 6 to 1. Walker was the winning pitcher.
Game 3. The third game was played on Thursday night back in Birmingham. Ray Brown pitched a one-hit shutout as the Grays beat the Black Barons 9 to 0, moving to a three-game lead in the series. Some costly Black Barons errors allowed the Grays to score 4 runs in the fifth inning, and they continued to add on, as the Black Barons made 3 errors.
Game 4. The fourth game was played on Saturday in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. The Black Barons kept their world series hopes alive behind a 3-hit shutout pitched by John Huber. One article says that Josh Gibson was robbed of a triple when McLaurin raced back and dove to catch a 430-foot drive in deep center, turning somersaults but hanging on. The Black Barons took the lead with an RBI single by Lockett in the second. A sac fly scored another in the fourth, with Gibson missing the tag on a close play at the plate. In the sixth, they scored 4 more runs, including two scored after Gibson lost the ball on a collision play at the plate. The final score was 6 to 0, leaving the Grays ahead 3 games to 1.
Game 5. Playing on Sunday, September 24 at Griffith Stadium before 10,000 fans, the Grays won 4 to 2 with Roy Welmaker on the mound. The Grays jumped ahead with 3 runs in the bottom of the first. The Black Barons scored one in the fourth and another in fifth, but the Grays scored an insurance run in the bottom of the fourth and held onto their lead, winning the championship.
The Grays pretty much dominated in all of their games but one, so the series didn’t feature a lot of drama. But it capped a long dominant run by the best team in black baseball during the 1940s. They would go on to win their ninth consecutive pennant in 1945, but would lose in the Negro World Series, as age finally caught up with the team.
I relied on contemporary newspaper articles from the Baltimore Afro American, which are available from Google News Archives, and from the Chicago Defender.
For general background on the Homestead Grays during their Washington years, see Brad Snyder, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators: The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball, Contemporary Books, 2003.
The Nats have a really solid starting lineup, but they are facing a couple of big decisions here. First, how do they use Ryan Zimmerman now that he’s back from the disabled list with Asdrubal Cabrera now in place and no obvious opening on the roster. Second, which bench players should be included on the post-season roster.
First, some principles—sabermetric research has long demonstrated that you get better predictions of post-season performance from looking at least the last two seasons than from just focusing on this year’s statistics. Fortunately, there are now websites that use sabermetric models to come up with estimates of future performance. I’ll use the ones published by FanGraphs (which are averages of ZiPS and Steamer projections), though other projections are available and give roughly similar results. In contrast, most reporters and bloggers focus just on this season’s numbers. The current-season stats can be especially misleading for bench players, who may have only 100 to 200 plate appearances, making the data very noisy and unreliable for projecting.
Here’s the Nationals’ usual starting lineup, with FanGraphs projections of batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and weighted on-base percentage (wOBA) in parentheses:
- C – Wilson Ramos (.270/.314/.433/.326)
- 1B – Adam LaRoche (.252/.344/.444/.344)
- 2B – Asdrubal Cabrera (.264/.325/.420/.329)
- 3B – Anthony Rendon (.275/.344/.443/.346)
- SS – Ian Desmond (.262/.313/.428/.326)
- LF – Bryce Harper (.274/.354/.483/.365)
- CF – Denard Span (.284/.336/.391/.323)
- RF – Jayson Werth (.280/.372/.453/.364)
We’ll start the discussion of the bench with the two players who will definitely be on the post-season roster:
- LF/1B/3B/DH – Ryan Zimmerman (.278/.345/.463/.354)
- C – Jose Lobaton (.239/.308/.352/.296)
Lobaton, of course, is the required back-up catcher and there aren’t really any other options to consider there.
Turning to Zim, the first point I’d like to make is that after taking account of Zimmerman’s defensive deficiencies (weak throwing arm, and for at least the next 3 or 4 weeks, lack of speed as his hamstring continues to recover) the only case for replacing any of the regular starters would possibly be as a platoon starter against left-handed pitchers. Zimmerman’s offensive advantage relative to Rendon of .010 in wOBA, or .025 relative to Cabrera or .031 relative to Span clearly don’t make up for the cost in defense.
What about in a platoon role? Here are the possible platoon arrangements, ranked (in my opinion) from best to worst:
- Zim replaces LaRoche at 1B against lefties. LaRoche has had fairly large platoon splits the last couple of years (.280 wOBA vs. lefties and .383 vs. righties this season; .253 vs. lefties and .343 vs. righties last season). Because LaRoche doesn’t have much range at first, there’s probably not much defensive cost either, though LaRoche obviously has more experience in picking throws to first.
- Zim replaces Harper in LF against lefties. Harper’s numbers haven’t been hurt against lefties this season, though over his career he has a normal platoon split (.345 vs. lefties and .333 vs. righties this season; .314 vs. lefties and .373 vs. righties over his 3-year career). Of course, Harper has quite a bit more range and a cannon for an arm, so the defensive cost of substituting Zim would be substantial.
- Zim plays LF against lefties, with Harper moving to center and Span moving to the bench. This move would give you a little bit more in terms of offense, but at the cost of making the team worse defensively at two outfield positions, as well as replacing one of the best base runners with one of the worst. In my opinion, that’s not a good trade-off.
- Zim plays 3B against lefties, with Rendon moving to second and Cabrera to the bench. Again, this move makes the team worse defensively at two key infield positions and with an even smaller benefit in terms of offense, since Cabrera as a true switch hitter is essentially equally good from either side of the plate. His career wOBA is .326 vs. lefties and .328 vs. righties.
If I were managing the Nationals, I’d go with option # 1 and platoon Zimmerman with LaRoche at first. In my opinion, none of the other options offer any true benefit, with the defensive costs outweighing the offensive benefits. My fear is that Matt Williams, who doesn’t seem to like Harper much, will go with option # 2 and platoon Zim in left field and that Zim’s lack of range and/or arm will cost the team in a key game.
Now, let’s talk about the rest of the bench. As I discussed in the bullpen article, I think the Nats should go with an 8-man bullpen, which leaves three more bench players after Zimmerman and Lobaton. I see five candidates:
- 2B/SS – Danny Espinosa (.222/.284/.362/.286)
- 1B/2B/3B/LF/RF – Kevin Frandsen (.274/.315/.361/.301)
- LF/RF – Scott Hairston (.237/.282/.417/.306)
- LF/CF/RF – Nate Schierholtz (.239/.285/.399/.300)
- LF/CF/RF – Stephen Souza (.239/.309/.399/.314)
I think Espinosa’s defensive abilities and speed as a potential pinch runner make him a relatively easy pick. Also, his extreme platoon splits make him useful as a pinch hitter against left handers. Despite Schierholtz’s awful performance this season, he’s the only left-handed pinch hitting option. (What’s the matter, Mike Rizzo? You’re not doing your job!) Schierholtz hit pretty well in 2013 and is still 30 years old, so I’d go with him as a left-handed bat and defensive reserve for the outfield.
That leaves one slot. I’d argue that Souza is actually the best hitter of the three, and he’d probably be my choice in an unconstrained world. But I doubt the Nats will go with the rookie (if they were planning to, I think he’d be seeing quite a bit more playing time since his call up). So it comes down to Hairston vs. Frandsen. Frandsen’s been the better hitter this season, though frankly neither player has been good. Hairston’s big platoon differential is an advantage in a pinch hitting role where the manager can pick and choose the spots, and is the better option late in the inning if the team needs a home run. Frandsen, on the other hand, is the better choice if the Nats need a pinch hitter to lead off an inning and get someone on base. With Espinosa and Zimmerman available, Frandsen’s defensive versatility isn’t needed. It’s a very close call, but I’d probably go with Hairston (though my real preference is Souza).
One of Matt Williams’ strengths as a manager is that he doesn’t interject himself too much into the ballgame. As Jayson Werth said during the divisional victory celebration Tuesday night, he lets the players play. In fact, according to one published index, he may be the least meddlesome manager in baseball.
However, with post-season play fast approaching, I am concluding that sometimes he’s too passive and doesn’t make the decisions that he’s paid to make. In tonight’s 3–2 victory over the Marlins, his failure to lift Ryan Zimmerman for a pinch runner in the 7th inning nearly cost the Nationals the game.
The Nats entered the top of the 7th trailing the Marlins 2–0. Ian Desmond led off the inning with a single. Zimmerman, in his first game back from his hamstring injury and his third at bat of the game, hit a line drive in front of Marlins right fielder Reed Johnson, who seems to be defensively challenged. Johnson dove for the ball, which sailed past him into the right field corner, and Zimmerman sauntered to third with a triple. The Nats were trailing by one with Zimmerman on third and no outs. Bob and FP started asking whether Williams was going to pinch run for Zim, since the lineup is well stocked with potential pinch runners and the tying run could depend on a sacrifice fly or an infield ground ball. Ramos hit the ground ball, a chopper to third, and Zimmerman broke for home and was thrown out on a close play. In the bottom of the inning, Williams sent Nate Schierholtz out to replace Zim in left field.
The Nats caught some breaks and went on to score two more runs that inning and Drew Storen managed to get a double play to get out of a first-and-third-one-out jam in the bottom ninth, so it didn’t cost them the game. But I can’t see any reason for not pinch running for Zim in that situation. It helps the team win, it protects Zim’s leg, and it gives one of the bench players a chance to contribute. The only thing I can think of is that Williams didn’t think about it until Ramos was already at bat. A couple of times this season I’ve seen him fail to send in a pinch runner with no outs, then send one in after the next batter has made an out. If you think about it, that’s not an effective way to use a pinch runner, who is potentially most effective with no outs, and becomes less effective with one or, especially, two outs. It seems that Williams isn’t thinking ahead, not saying to himself when Zim goes to bat in the seventh inning, “I need to be ready to send in a pinch runner if he gets on base.”
Although I prefer Williams’ passive style to the meddlesome style that seems to be the norm for most managers, I don’t think it’s good to be at the extreme area, where he doesn’t make the moves that would clearly help the team win. (I discussed another example a few weeks ago here.) I really get the sense that Williams, as a rookie manager who has never managed at any level is still doing a lot of learning on the job.
I assume that the Nats will carry 12 pitchers on their post-season roster—the 4 starters and 8 in the bullpen. (Though there’s been some speculation about only carrying 11 pitchers and using the extra slot to carry another bench guy—presumably Kevin Frandsen—though I think that’s crazy. With the Nats’ deep lineup and Ryan Zimmerman available as a pinch hitter, there’s no way that an extra bench guy is worth more than an 8th arm in the bullpen.)
I’ll talk about the bench in my next post, but let’s talk about the bullpen now. With Tanner Roark, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Matt Thornton, and Craig Stammen locks for the bullpen, and Aaron Barrett a strong candidate, the main debates are whether Ross Detwiler or Jerry Blevins should be kept as the second lefty, and whether Rafael Soriano should be kept on the post-season roster. Let’s look at Detwiler versus Blevins first.
Most writers are saying that Detwiler has the edge and Blevins is the odd man out, pointing to Detwiler’s advantage in ERA (4.11 for Detwiler compared to 5.17 for Blevins). I, of course, disagree.
- Why is Blevins a better choice than Detwiler?
Although Detwiler has the advantage in ERA, ERA is a terrible statistic for evaluating relievers. And in just about every other statistic, Blevins has the advantage:
- But hasn’t Detwiler been better than Blevins recently?
Detwiler has pitched better in the second half than he did in the first half and holds the advantage in ERA (4.71 to 5.82), but I think it would be a stretch to say that he’s pitched significantly better than Blevins over that span. Here are their statistics since the All-Star break:
Although the differences are smaller for the second half, the edge still goes to Blevins.
- So what’s wrong with ERA that it gives such a different answer?
ERA doesn’t work for relief pitchers because they often come into the game with base runners already on, whom their not “responsible” for in the calculation of ERA, and also can leave with runners on who they “are responsible for,” even though they have no control over whether those runners subsequently score.
For example, this season Blevins has come into games with 32 inherited runners and has allowed only 4 (13%) to score—a very good ratio (the Nationals team average is 28%) for which he receives no credit in his ERA. Conversely, he’s been pulled from innings with a total of 15 runners he was responsible for, and the subsequent reliever(s) allowed 8 of them to score—all charged against his ERA even though he didn’t have anything to do with it after he was pulled.
A much better statistic is RE24, which appropriately assigns each pitcher responsibility for changes in run expectation that occurred while he was on the mound. It assigns every run allowed to the pitchers who were pitching, but in proportion to their responsibility for each run. Blevins is ahead of Detwiler with an RE24 of –0.59 to –5.22 (that is, both pitchers are below average in this statistic, but Blevins is close to average whereas Detwiler is 5 runs below average).
- But isn’t Blevins hurt by his huge platoon differential?
It’s true that Blevins has one of the largest platoon differentials in baseball this season. Right-handed batters are hitting .307/.403/.436 against him, while left-handed batters are hitting only .163/.208/.224. As I pointed out in mid-July, however, Matt Williams hasn’t really been taking advantage of this differential by using him in a LOOGY role in short appearances against tough left-handed batters. In fact, Blevins has been allowed to face more righties than lefties.
Since then, things really improved. Since the all-star break, he’s continued to face more right-handers than lefties. It’s not that Williams doesn’t know how to use a LOOGY—since Thornton has come aboard, he’s been used in a LOOGY role several times and has faced more lefties than righties (even though Thornton’s platoon differential probably isn’t nearly as large as Blevins’). It just seems that Williams doesn’t trust using Blevins in any kind of high leverage situation, which, of course, is a problem if he’s selected for the post-season roster.
I think Williams failure to use Blevins in the LOOGY role that he seems suited for is a misuse of a valuable asset. In the regular season, I get that using a pitcher for one or two outs may put too great a strain on the rest of the bullpen, but in the post-season we’re going to run up against some tough left-handed hitters in high-leverage situations, and the Nats would be much better off if there are two pitchers that Williams can call on in those situations. Blevins is the right pitcher for that role. And with Roark available for long relief (Detwiler’s main role), I don’t know what Detwiler’s good for. He doesn’t get enough strikeouts to bring him in when you need one. I think he’d just be dead wood on the roster.
- Weren’t you going to say something about Rafael Soriano?
I see he pitched the ninth inning tonight and shut down the Marlins in order. He’ll probably get about three more chances to pitch before the end of the regular season, and unless he has major meltdowns in a couple of those appearances, I expect to see Soriano on the post-season roster. I suppose that Blake Treinen is another option, and he has looked good in most of his appearances with the Nats this year, but he’s basically a groundball pitcher who doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts, whereas when Soriano is pitching well, he gets a fair number of strikeouts. I’d say there’s at least a 95% chance that Soriano will be on the Nats’ post-season roster.
The Nats are in the enviable position of having five good starting pitchers. With extra days off during post-season play, a four-man rotation can pitch with the usual four days of rest between starts, which means that the worst starter gets bumped out of the rotation. Who’s the Nationals’ odd man out?
If we just ranked them by this season’s ERA, it looks like Doug Fister is the ace:
- Doug Fister, 2.55
- Jordan Zimmermann, 2.83
- Tanner Roark, 2.85
- Stephen Strasburg, 3.34
- Gio Gonzalez, 3.79
Of course, these decisions shouldn’t be based just on this season’s ERA.
The difference between the stats junkies in the media (I’m looking at you, Thomas Boswell) and the sabermetric researchers is that the media “experts” focus on ever narrower statistics—for example, ERA since the All-Star break, ERA against likely opponents, whereas the sabermetric experts look at a wider set of statistics—multiple years of data, and additional statistics like fielding-independent pitching (FIP) and its relatives (xFIP, SIERA, etc.) I remember Bill James making the point in his Abstracts 30 years ago that you can better predict post-season performance from the players’ statistics for the last two years than from the current season alone. And since then, Voros McCracken taught us that fielding-independent statistics do better at predicting future ERA than does a player’s past ERA.
These factors suggest that the ranking of the Nats’ starters should have Strasburg (3.10 FIP and 2.84 xFIP over 2013–14) and Zimmermann (3.09 FIP and 3.32 xFIP over the same span) on top. Even though Fister’s fielding-independent numbers aren’t as good, with his experience and success at inducing weak contact makes him a natural for the third spot. So the fourth spot comes down to Gonzalez versus Roark.
Gio’s experience and ability to get strikeouts gives him the edge. But I’d also consider the opponent – if the opposing team in a series has hit lefties especially well, I’d be inclined to pick Tanner for that series. Let’s look at the probable playoff teams, 4 teams seem to hit better against lefties than righties:
- Angels (.276/.340/.436 vs LHP) (.257/.321/.402 vs RHP)
- Tigers (.284/.339/.453 vs LHP) (.274/.329/.420 vs RHP)
- Cardinals (.253/.327/.387 vs LHP) (.255/.321/.367 vs RHP)
- Royals (.264/.322/.381 vs LHP) (.259/.307/.371 vs RHP)
The Dodgers, Athletics, Pirates, and Mariners, on the other hand, hit better against right handers, and the Giants and Orioles are pretty much neutral. So I’d consider putting Roark in the rotation should the Nats face the Cardinals, Angels, Tigers, or Royals.
Who should be the Nationals’ ace—the pitcher called on to pitch the most games and to face Kershaw or Wainwright? In my mind, it’s obvious that it should be Strasburg. Even though his average pitching performance may have been a little worse than the other pitchers in our rotation this season, he’s still the guy who gives you the best chance of pitching that shutdown game that you’d like when you’re up against a Kershaw. For example, in 12 of Strasburg’s 32 starts, he’s had a game score of 65 or higher. None of the Nats’ other starters have more than 9 starts with a game score that high. Strasburg’s ability to get strikeouts and avoid walks simply gives him the best chance for an outstanding performance, even if he does occasionally get blown out.
The other thing to emphasize is that whoever gets sent to the bullpen (probably Roark) has the chance to play a key role in saving games in long relief, as Lincecum demonstrated in the Giant’s 2012 World championship post-season. If a starter gets in trouble early, he’d give us the chance to still come back and win the game.
The Nats clinched the division, beating Atlanta the same way they’ve been winning all year—behind excellent starting pitching (in this game, Tanner Roark), just enough offense (thank you, Ian Desmond, for tonight’s offense), and a pretty good bullpen (nods to Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen).
It’s been a wonderful season. I’ll be back later this week with thoughts on preparing for the post season.