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January 19, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Nats sign Max Scherzer; What’s next?

Baseball’s big news this holiday Monday is that the Nats have signed free agent pitcher Max Scherzer to a contract reported to be roughly $210 million over 7 years.

What does it mean for the Nationals, this year and beyond? I feel like I’m at the end of the first act of a play, waiting to judge the play until I’ve seen the rest of it. The move could be a win-now move or a win-later move, depending on what happens next. Do the Nats sit tight with an overloaded pitching staff? Or do they try to deal one of their other starters, as they’ve been rumored to be looking to do all winter.

  • Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs describes the Nats with Scherzer as a potential “super-team.” Pitchers with records similar to Scherzer’s during their age 27–29 seasons have gone on to average 22 wins above replacement during their age 30–36 seasons.
  • Dave Cameron of FanGraphs explains that the deferred money in Scherzer’s contract means that the $210 million obligation is costing the Nats only about $170 million in today’s dollars.
  • Garrett Hooe of Federal Baseball breaks down Scherzer’s pitch selection and location.
  • Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post sees the signing as a big improvement for the team.
  • Rob Neyer of Fox Sports cautions that teams that have won 96 games have a strong tendency to regress, so we shouldn’t assume that the Nats will be better this year.
  • Grant Brisbee of SB Nation looks for, and finds, cautionary tales—teams that appeared to be shoo-ins for pennants or World Series that went on to disappoint.
  • Jonah Keri of Grantland looks at some of the potential ripple effects if, for example, they move Jordan Zimmermann or Doug Fister.
  • One of the rumors that started floating shortly after the Scherzer signing was announced was that the Nats are now making Stephen Strasburg available. Jeff Sullivan looks at the enormous haul of prime prospects that a Strasburg trade might yield.

How does the Scherzer signing compare with a potential signing or extension of Zimmermann? My own view is that Scherzer is the better long-term risk. Yes, Scherzer is older and has pitched more innings, but Zimmermann has had Tommy John and lives more on control than on missing bats. Strikeouts and whiffs are fairly good predictors of a pitcher’s long-term prospects.

The other thing I think I’ve learned is that the Nats actually are willing to spend money to win. That’s assuming, of course, that they don’t dump the extra salary costs by trading off other assets. One of my big uncertainties about the team is how committed the ownership is to winning. This signing is a positive indicator—perhaps the best indicator we’ve seen since the Jayson Werth signing four years ago.

January 14, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Clippard traded for Escobar

The Nationals announced that they’ve traded Tyler Clippard to the Oakland A’s for Yunel Escobar.

A shortstop with Oakland, Escobar is likely to play second base for the Nats. He’ll be 32 years old next season and has 2 years ($12 million) remaining on his contract, plus a team option for $7 million for 2017. Over his last three seasons (with Toronto in 2012 and with Tampa Bay in 2013–14) he’s averaged .256/.318/.350 (numbers that are similar to his Steamer projection for 2015 of .258/.324/.351) and averaged an 87 OPS+ and 145 games per season. His defense at shortstop is also considered average, though he’s likely to be considered above average at second base. He’s averaged 2 wins above replacement per season—again, about what you’d expect from an average player.

So, in general, the Nats are getting a player who is pretty much average—average at getting on base, below average in power, and maybe a little above average as a second baseman. Not something to get too excited about, but it does fill the team’s biggest weakness, which was the prospect of having to play Danny Espinosa or Dan Uggla at second base.

In trading away Clippard, the Nats are giving up their best reliever, albeit one who has only one season left on his contract. Eno Sarris of Fangraphs presents the statistics demonstrating that Clip has been one of the 20 best relievers in baseball over the last five seasons. The Nats bullpen was not an area of strength even before the trade—the Fangraphs projections, which don’t yet reflect the trade, show the Nats bullpen ranked #19 of the 30 teams. Now it should be considered perhaps the team’s biggest weakness. Unfortunately, because last season the bullpen had better results than they should have, based on fundamentals, I think the weakness of the bullpen may not be well understood and could lead to disappointment. I’d suggest that the Nats perhaps try to pry Papelbon away from the Phillies.

But overall, it’s good to see the Nats make a move to fill a weak spot, even if it does somewhat exacerbate another weakness. I look forward to Escobar joining the team and bid a fond goodbye to Clippard.

January 2, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Nats team of the first decade

As the Nats mark their first decade in Washington, it’s appropriate to select an all-star team. We’ve already seen a few writers make their selections.

Of course, the selection of such a team is going to be largely determined by the rules that the writer sets. Here are the rules I’ve decided to go by:

  1. All performance (and value) while playing for the Washington Nationals counts. The rest of the player’s career doesn’t count. My metric is closer to cumulative value rather than peak value, and counts value at all positions played (not just at the position for which the player is selected).
  2. For the starting position players, a player must have played at least 100 games for the Nationals at the position. Also, the games played at that position must represent at least 35% of all games played for the Nationals. In other words, I’m trying to avoid slotting players at positions where they didn’t spend much time.
  3. The team composition should reflect a typical, standard roster—that is, in addition to 8 starting position players, I’ll have 5 starting pitchers, 7 relief pitchers, a backup catcher, and 4 other bench players. The bench must versatile enough to cover an injury at any position.
  4. I try, as best I can, to account for all aspects of performance, including batting, fielding, base running, etc. Length of service also counts. I pay especial attention to wins above replacement (WAR). However, I don’t go strictly by WAR – for example, Adam Dunn’s WAR is low partly because of low fielding scores when the Nats had him playing in the outfield—an obvious misuse of Dunn’s talents.

For each position, I’ll list the candidates (that is, the players with at least 100 games) and my selection.

  • Catcher – Candidates: Brian Schneider (358 games), Wilson Ramos (311), Jesus Flores (263), Wil Nieves (183), Ivan Rodriguez (136), Kurt Suzuki (120). My selection is Wilson Ramos (2010–2014). His batting has been strong enough (.268, .317, .432, 105 wRC+, that is, “weighted runs created relative to league”) to more than make up for the difference with Schneider in service time. The knock against Ramos is health, but a strong bat from a defense-first position can make up for a lot of qualms about health.
  • First base – Candidates: Adam LaRoche (481 games), Nick Johnson (407), Adam Dunn (220), Dmitri Young (154), Michael Morse (116). My selection is Nick Johnson (2005–2009). Again, the bat is able to overcome the effects of his injuries. Johnson’s (.286, .416, .471, 137 wRC+) statistical line is well above LaRoche’s (113 wRC+), and Johnson was probably the better defensive player too.
  • Second base – Candidates: Danny Espinosa (441 games), Ronnie Belliard (194), Jose Vidro (186), Felipe Lopez (121), Anthony Rendon (110), Steve Lombardozzi (102). This is probably the toughest choice, but I’m going to go with Anthony Rendon (2013–14; .279, .343, .445, 119 wRC+) over Espinosa. Both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs suggest that Espinosa’s 2010–2012 were nearly as valuable as Rendon’s 2013–2014, and Rendon has played more games (and better) at third base than at second. But Espinosa’s last two seasons have had little, if any, value, and Rendon’s overall hitting has been more valuable than Espinosa’s defense and home runs.
  • Third base – Candidates: Ryan Zimmerman (1,133 games), Rendon (149), Vinny Castilla (138). The selection is Ryan Zimmerman (2005–2014; .286, .352, .476, 120 wRC+). Well, that one was easy!
  • Shortstop – Candidates: Ian Desmond (758 games), Cristian Guzman (459), Felipe Lopez (190). The selection is Ian Desmond (2009–2014; .270, .317, .431, 104 wRC+). Again, a pretty easy selection.
  • Left field – Candidates: Josh Willingham (195 games), Bryce Harper (194), Willie Harris (177), Roger Bernadina (173), Alfonso Soriano (158), Ryan Church (144), Michael Morse (124). As you can see, this has been the Nats’ least settled position. My selection is Bryce Harper (2012–2014; .272, .351, .465, 125 wRC+). Harper benefits from my decision to include his value from other positions; if I were going just based on his time in left field, I would have gone with Soriano. But Harper has put together substantial value at a remarkably young age.
  • Center field – Candidates: Denard Span (300 games), Nyjer Morgan (181), Rick Ankiel (167), Roger Bernadina (140), Lastings Milledge (139), Nook Logan (137), Ryan Church (112), Bryce Harper (108). My selection is Denard Span (2013–2014; .290, .341, .398; 107 wRC+). Ryan Church is another plausible choice, but I prefer Span’s glove to Church’s bat.
  • Right field – Candidates: Jayson Werth (475 games), Austin Kearns (356), Jose Guillen (208), Elijah Dukes (134), Roger Bernadina (123), Michael Morse (111). My selection is Jayson Werth (2011–2014; .282, .375, .452, 131 wRC+).
  • Starting pitchers – My selections are: (1) Jordan Zimmermann (2009–2014; 57–40, 3.24, 739 K), (2) Stephen Strasburg (2010–2014; 43–30, 3.02, 746 K), (3) Gio Gonzalez (2012–2014; 42–26, 3.25, 561 K), (4) John Lannan (2007–2012; 42–52, 4.01, 410 K), and (5) Livan Hernandez (2005–2006, 2009–2011; 44–47, 4.32, 476 K).
  • Relief pitchers – My selections are: (1) Tyler Clippard (2008–2014; 414 games, 34 saves, 2.68), (2) Drew Storen (2010–2014; 297, 66, 2.94), (3) Chad Cordero (2005–2008; 224, 113, 2.78), (4) Jon Rauch (2005–2008; 236, 23, 3.40), (5) Craig Stammen (2009–2014, 224, 1, 3.94), (6) Sean Burnett (2009–2012; 245, 9, 2.81), and (7) Saul Rivera (2006–2009; 245, 4, 4.05).
  • Backup catcher – Brian Schneider (2005–2007; .253, .325, .356, 79). He was an able defensive catcher and a fan favorite.
  • Bench – My selections are: (1) Danny Espinosa (backup at 2B/SS, could cover 3B in a pinch, though it would make more sense to move Rendon to third and Espinosa to second) (2010–2014; .228/.299/.387; 87); (2) Ryan Church (OF; 2005–2007; .277, .354, .478, 118); (3) Alfonso Soriano (LF; 2006; .277, .351, .560, 129)—only one season in Washington, but it was a great one; (4) Adam Dunn (1B/PH; 2009–2010; .264, .378, .533, 139)—despite the poor defense and the ugly years after leaving Washington, we shouldn’t forget that he could really hit.

The outcome of this exercise is that the Nats’ all-stars look a lot like the team that’s been playing for Washington over the last three seasons. I guess that shouldn’t have been surprising, since looking at these names, it’s clear that the quality of the team’s lineup is much better now than it was during the team’s first six years in Washington. There are some names listed among “Candidates” that I’d really like to forget, but they are part of the team’s history too. I guess the other thing I learned is that the Nats have always been able to put together at least a semi-decent bullpen. Maybe that’s the easiest thing for a weak team to cobble together.

Let’s enjoy the current version of the Nats while they’re still together.

January 2, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Links to remember, 2014 season

“Links to remember” are links to articles and other webpages on the Nationals that I think have a longer shelf life—for example, articles that I enjoy re-reading months after they were written. In the past, I’ve posted these links every three or four months, but this time I have a whole season’s worth of links, so the list may be a bit long.

Here are my favorite articles:

  • In spite of what what happened in the NLDS, Rob Neyer of Fox Sports reminds us that the 2014 Nats deserve to be remembered as probably the best team in the National League and that Bryce Harper still ranks as on of the brightest young stars of this era.
  • I’m not going to link to much on the NLDS, but when the best sportswriter  of our generation (in my opinion), Joe Posnanski, rips on Matt Williams‘s pitching choices in Game 4, it’s worth a link.
  • In a lighter vein, James Wagner of the Washington Post shares Williams’s nicknames for the players and coaches.
  • Jonah Keri of Grantland analyzes how Mike Rizzo built a great team.
  • Christina Kahrl of ESPN adds some thoughts on the balance of the Nationals’ roster.
  • Dave Cameron of Fangraphs finds a surprising, and flattering, player comparison to Denard Span.
  • Anthony Rendon benefited from the move to third base, and Mark Simon of ESPN points out that Rendon has an outstanding ability to field bunts.
  • Shane Ryan of Grantland provides an in-depth look at Doug Fister‘s approach to pitching.
  • Rob Neyer notes that Ian Desmond is the Nationals’ last Expo and takes a look at some of the other remaining traces of les Expos.
  • David Schoenfield of ESPN explains how Stephen Strasburg continues to have disappointing results despite a deadly curveball and changeup.
  • Eno Sarris of Fangraphs points to Tanner Roark‘s success as an example of the importance of getting strike one.

Here are videos of some of the year’s most memorable plays:

  • Steven Souza‘s diving catch sealed Jordan Zimmermann‘s no hitter in the last game of the regular season.
  • The Nats clinched the division championship in Atlanta.
  • I love walk-off homers. Adam LaRoche hit this one in the 11th inning against the Diamondbacks.
  • A behind-the-back flip from Asdrubal Cabrera started this awesome double play.
  • Bryce Harper’s walk-off home run against the Mets came in the 13th inning late on a long, hot afternoon and it landed just a few rows in front of my seat.
  • If you watch enough baseball, you start to think you’ve seen everything. But I’d never seen anything before like Kevin Frandsen‘s behind-the-back catch.
  • Anthony Rendon dove to get a ball hit to the hole.
  • Ryan Zimmerman dodged a flying bat to start a double play.
  • The Marlins issued an intentional walk to Rendon to face Jayson Werth with the bases loaded. Werth made them regret it.
December 17, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

Souza trade yields shortstop, pitcher

In a three-way trade with the Padres and Rays, the Nats sent Steven Souza and Hagerstown pitcher Travis Ott to the Rays, receiving shortstop prospect Trea Turner and right-handed pitching prospect Joe Ross from the Padres. Both Turner and Ross are 21 years old and were were first-round draft picks, Ross in 2011 and Turner this last June. Ross is the younger brother of Tyson Ross and pitched in High A and AA this season, while Turner played in short-season and low-A. Because he was drafted less than 12 months ago, Turner will officially be a “player to be named later.” The trade is still contingent on review of medical records.

The Nats exchanged a major-league-ready outfielder who doesn’t have a roster position available for a shortstop prospect who might eventually fill Ian Desmond‘s spot and one of the Padres’ best pitching prospects. Ken Rosenthal writes that the Nats may be the big winner in the trade. With Souza blocked, not only by Jayson Werth, Denard Span, and Bryce Harper, but also by Michael Taylor who is a year younger and ahead of Souza on the prospect lists, the deal makes a lot of sense for the Nats and should strengthen the team in the long run, while losing very little in the short run.

Although Souza only played 21 games with the Nats, he will, of course, always be remembered by Nats fans for his diving catch in the last play of the regular season to save Jordan Zimmermann‘s no hitter. It won MLB’s GIBBY award as the play of the year, and is undoubtedly the choice as the greatest play in Nats history.

I’ll also remember Souza from another game. On August 6, the Nats were playing the Mets and Souza, who had just been called up to replace Nate McLouth, came into the game to replace Werth. My daughters were visiting and the whole family went to the game (now getting to be a relatively rare event), and we were sitting in left field—probably section 105. I mentioned to them that Souza was a power hitter who still hadn’t hit his first major league home run. Maybe we’d have a chance to catch it. On the next pitch, Souza launched the ball down the left field line. It went foul, and Souza would have to wait another 6 weeks for his first dinger. But for a moment, we thought we might see it.

My best wishes to Souza in his major league career.

December 13, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

Ross Detwiler, a regular role, and regular work

Yesterday Ross Detwiler was traded to the Texas Rangers. The Nats received two marginal prospects, Chris Bostick and Abel de Los Santos, in return. From the Nats perspective, however, the trade was really more about clearing the roster spot for a player who was out of options and whom the team didn’t think they needed.

In spring training, Det lost his starting role and was given the bullpen role of “long reliever.” Matt Williams is pretty good about giving his players well-defined roles, and it soon became clear that Detwiler’s role was going to be to pitch one or two innings in low leverage situations. In 8 of his first 12 appearances, he entered with the team either ahead by 5 or more runs or down by at least 2 runs. Over the course of the season, he had the lowest leverage index entering the game (0.65) of all Nats relief pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched—in fact, among “qualified” relief pitchers, he had the fifth lowest leverage index in the majors.

Although Detwiler had a regular role on the team, he didn’t necessarily have regular work. By July 4, he had already experienced 8 intervals of at least 5 days rest between appearances. With sporadic work, Det seemed to have trouble staying fresh and adapting to his role in the bullpen.

Williams likes to stick with a regular lineup and use his bullpen in well-defined roles. What he didn’t seem to do well was to keep the marginal players fresh by giving them playing time. Late in the season, Danny Espinosa and Scott Hairston also seemed to disappear from the roster as Williams ground on with his starters and seemed to lose faith in his bench.

In contrast, I think of a manager like Tony La Russa who would find ways to get something positive out of his entire bullpen and bench, no matter how marginal the talent. Compared to the other pitchers in the Nats rotation, Detwiler’s skills were limited, but there were some things he could do well. For example, he was very effective against lefties, who hit .218/.278/.238 against him. But only 34% of the batters he faced were left-handers—Williams clearly wasn’t trying to match him up against left-handers.

Before the season, I thought Detwiler would do well as a reliever. Research indicates that because relievers don’t have to pace themselves, the get higher strikeout rates, allow fewer home runs, allow a lower a batting average on balls in play, and give up fewer runs than when they start. I thought that those factors, along with better platoon usage, would help Det become an above average reliever.

As it became clear, however, that Williams wasn’t going to trust him or use him in a way that would allow him to prosper, it was best for the team to trade him. I think they blew it by not trading him earlier—the return would have been substantially larger if he’d been traded last spring. I wish Det the best with his new team.

In terms of memories, of course the game we’ll always remember is Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS. Detwiler pitched 6 innings, giving up only 3 hits and 1 unearned run, and helped set the stage for Jayson Werth‘s walkoff home run. The other game that I’ll remember was from this season, the 16-inning game on June 24 against the Brewers, when Det’s 4 shutout innings allowed the Nats to stay in the game and finally win it.

November 3, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

Madison Bumgarner and the strike zone in Game 7

Before we completely turn our attention from the World Series to the hot stove league, I wanted to make one comment about Game 7.

With all the attention to whether Alex Gordon should have been sent, or at least should have hustled, to Joe Panik’s great double play, and to Escobar’s odd decision to sacrifice bunt, not much has been said about the strike zone. Since the discussion we had of the influence of the strike zone in Game 2 of the Nationals’ NLDS, I’ve been paying more attention to other critical ball-strike calls. In my opinion, a key turning point in the game came in a bad call on Bumgarner’s first pitch against the last batter he faced in the fifth inning, Lorenzo Cain.

The setting–Bumgarner came on in relief in the bottom of the fifth with a one run lead and on only two days of rest. For the first three batters he faced, he had shaky control and was getting behind in the count. Infante led off with a single. Escobar got ahead 2-0, then laid down a controversial sacrifice bunt. Aoki got ahead 2-0, took a strike, then shot an outside pitch down the left field line that I thought was a sure double. But with good fielding and great positioning, Perez caught it and there were two outs with Infante still at second.

Then Cain came to bat. Bumgarner’s first pitch appeared to miss, as had his first pitches to the previous three batters he’d faced. Pitchf/x (available at Brooks Baseball) shows it as 3 inches below the bottom of the strike zone, but “strike one” was the call. All of the next four pitches were above the top of the strike zone, but Cain chased all but one and swung through the last one for a strikeout. For the rest of the game, Royals batters were chasing pitches outside the zone.

Did this one bad call change the game? You can’t prove that it did. Jeff Nelson actually did a pretty good job calling balls and strikes–according to Close Call Sports, he missed only 4 calls all night. But I do think that one bad call may have been very influential. When an umpire misses a call inside or outside, the batter’s teammates can’t see it and it’s less influential. But everyone in the dugout can see when an umpire misses very low or very high, and I think that might have changed the approach of subsequent Royals batters, as well as Cain’s own approach that at bat. And even though  the Royals were mostly chasing high pitches from Bumgarner, the fact that they knew that they had to guard against the low pitch that had been called as a strike may have affected their ability to guard against the high stuff.

We’ll never know if that bad call affected the game. Bumgarner’s control did improve, and Royals hitters are not known for their pitch selectivity. But it’s easy to imagine that if a couple of things had gone differently that inning–if Escobar had swung away and got a hit, or if Aoki’s line drive had dropped for a double, or if Cain had gotten ahead in the count and gotten something to hit, the outcome could have been much different. Maybe the pundits would all be talking about the folly of bringing back starters on short rest.

The longer term message is that baseball should start preparing for review of ball-strike calls, which I now see as inevitable. The key is can they do it quickly enough to not burden the game with delays. I think the current review system actually suggests a way forward. Limit each team to two (or maybe three) reviews per game, with bonus reviews when the call is reversed. Let’s not have the manager call for the reviews (with all the time wasting looks back to the dugout). Reviews would need to be requested by the batter or the catcher within 5 seconds of the call. The review would be based on the pitchf/x or pitchtrack system, along with a quick visual replay to ensure that the system hasn’t gotten out of sync. The system would obviously need to be routinely checked for accuracy. TV shows can do all of this within 10 to 15 seconds — if the umpiring system  can replicate that time, I’d be good with trying out the system.

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