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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.

October 8, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

NLDS game 4: Nats’ rookie manager blows the inning, game, and series

7th inning – Bryce Harper‘s home run has just tied the game. Matt Williams brings in Matt Thornton, the team’s last left hander. I think he should have held on to Thornton for Sandoval and Belt, but ok, he wants to use him on Blanco and Panik. I see that Dave Cameron of FanGraphs and Fox Sports has beat me to the story of what he did wrong:

Thornton got a groundout from Gregor Blanco, then gave up a single to Joe Panik. That put the go-ahead run on base for Buster Posey, the Giants best hitter. The Giants best right-handed hitter. Here is what Buster Posey has done against left-handed pitchers in his career:

631 at-bats, 210 hits, 53 doubles, 2 triples, 32 home runs, 61 walks, 77 strikeouts.

That’s a .333/.393/.578 batting line, which when you account for his home park, translates to a 168 wRC+, meaning that Posey’s performance against lefties has been 68-percent better than a league-average hitter. Do you want some context for that? In 2012, when Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, he had a 166 wRC+. Posey’s performance against left-handers has basically been the equal of the game’s most feared hitter having one of his best years.

In the seventh inning of a tied regular-season game, you probably wouldn’t let Buster Posey face a left-handed reliever. To do so in an win-or-go-home playoff game defies basic reasoning. And that’s exactly what Matt Williams did, sticking with Thornton against Posey, even though Thornton had just put the go-ahead run on base.

Posey hits a line drive single, so runners are on first and second with one out. Back to Cameron:

Williams rightfully decided that Thornton shouldn’t be the guy to face Pence, and went to the bullpen to get a right-hander. But no, he didn’t call on Tyler Clippard, the team’s best relief pitcher, who held right-handed batters to a .126/.197/.226 line this season, even though the Giants would be almost 90-percent favorites to win the game if Panik scored and they took the lead into the top of the eighth. Preventing Panik from scoring in that inning was of the utmost importance, but Clippard wasn’t called upon because he wasn’t even warming up.

That’s right. Not only did Williams let Posey hit against a left-handed reliever with the go-ahead run on base, he didn’t even have his best reliever warming in case it didn’t work. He did have rookie Aaron Barrett warming up, however, and that’s who he called on to go after Hunter Pence.

I’ll also note that in Barrett’s only previous appearance in the series, he faced one batter, Hunter Pence, who absolutely clobbered a line drive to the center field wall for a double. In the late innings of a close elimination game, Williams never warmed up even one of his four best pitchers—Clippard, Drew Storen, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann. Williams has faced his test as a manager and failed big time.

David Schoenfield of Sweetspot and Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, offer their own analyses, which reach pretty much the same conclusion—Williams badly mismanaged his bullpen.

October 6, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

NLDS game 3: Fister keeps Nats’ hopes alive

The Nats won 4 to 1 in game 3 in San Francisco. Doug Fister pitched 7 shutout innings, giving up only 4 hits. The defense played well, especially Bryce Harper, who made a run-saving catch at the wall and saved another on a shoestring catch with a runner on second. The game was scoreless until the 7th inning, when Wilson Ramos bunted with runners on first and second and no outs, and Bumgarner threw the ball away in a misbegotten attempt to catch the lead runner, Ian Desmond, at third. In the top of the ninth, Harper hit a monster home run to right. In the bottom of the ninth, Drew Storen gave up hits to the first two batters before getting the final three outs.

Not quite so much strategy to talk about for this game. I would have played Ryan Zimmerman at first in place of Adam LaRoche (who wound up going 0 for 4 against the tough lefty), partly because LaRoche wasn’t likely to do much, and partly to get Zim some at bats and playing time. But Matt Williams went with the same old regular lineup. Williams doesn’t much like to change things up.

The interesting play was the Ramos bunt, especially since he made the bunt with two strikes after being unable to get it down earlier in the count. Although a two-strike bunt usually isn’t a good play, I think it also should be emphasized that part of the goal with the bunt is to mix things up and not make it too easy for the opponent to guess what you’re doing. In this case, the Giants were surprised (Sandoval and Belt had dropped back to their usual fielding position), and I think the element of surprise contributed to Posey’s overly aggressive and unwise decision to have Bumgarner throw to third. It worked out well for the Nats, even though it may not have been the best percentage play. (Though obviously Williams really wanted to keep Ramos from grounding into yet another double play.) For more on the bunt, see this article by Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs.

Can we trust Storen with a lead? The hit by Sandoval was a little flare off the handle of the bat that I think Danny Espinosa would have caught. (There’s another managerial decision that I would have made differently—in the ninth inning with a lead, I would have had Espinosa as a defensive substitute for Asdrubal Cabrera. If Nate Schierholtz hadn’t already been burned as a pinch hitter, I’d have used him as a defensive sub for Jayson Werth too.) But Pence really squared up on the second hit, a double to the gap in left field. Storen fooled Belt for strike three on a breaking ball—though that pitch hung and could have been dangerous—and got Crawford on a routine fly and Ishikawa on a ground ball. I think Storen needed to finish the game, if possible, for rebuilding trust. I think he’s still as good as anyone we have to go to in the 9th inning, though in any elimination game we also need to keep him on a short leash. If another runner had reached, especially on a well hit ball, I think you have to pull Storen and give the ball to one of the other relief pitchers.

For more on the game, see this article by David Schoenfield of Sweetspot, this article by Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, and this article by Eno Sarris of FanGraphs.

Best wishes to Gio Gonzalez and the team in Game 4.

October 6, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

More on balls and strikes in game 2

August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs did a really nice analysis of home plate umpire Vic Carapazza’s inconsistent strike zone during game 2, the 18 inning marathon. He picked up on some points that I missed when I discussed the game.

Carapazza was a bit better to the lefties, but what these images call to my attention is Carapazza’s consistency. Consistency, as an umpire, is giving the same strike zone to both teams. The Giants got 20 called strikes outside the typical strike zone. The Nationals got just 10. Look at the right-handed plot. Of the 15 pitches called for strikes outside the typical right-handed strike zone, 12 of them were in favor of the Giants. The Nationals didn’t get the same calls up in the zone as the Giants. The Nationals didn’t get the same calls low-and-away as the Giants. Now look at the left-handed plot. Yes, for the most part, Nationals pitchers also threw to an expanded zone, but they also saw several of their pitches within the expanded zone go for balls, whereas nearly every close pitch the Giants threw went for a strike.

But the issue isn’t just that Carapazza was inconsistent in the Giants favor. It’s that he was inconsistent at the worst possible times…

All game long, Jordan Zimmermann was dealing. And all game long, Jordan Zimmermann was getting the outside strike. Until the last batter he faced. One out away from victory… Zimmermann throws a pitch that he got for a strike all night, but Carapazza calls it a ball. Zimmermann shakes his head in slight disapproval, now behind 1-0 in the count… Zimmermann comes back to the exact same spot, because, again, that pitch had been a strike all night. But again, Carapazza sticks with his newfound zone and calls a ball… The ball four pitch was a shade outside, but the first two were both not only within the boundaries of a typical strike zone, but strikes Carapazza had already called that night, given his expanded zone.

Adding insult to injury is that after Zimmermann’s costly walk, Carapazza went right back to calling this pitch a strike!

It seems the only time all night that pitch wasn’t a strike was during Panik’s walk. That is, until one pitch before Belt’s game-winning homer in the 18th, when he got this pitch for a ball in a 2-2 count… Granted, this pitch is little high, and it’s probably a borderline call either way. Granted, catcher Wilson Ramos is not a good receiver and did a terrible job framing this pitch. But both teams had gotten strikes higher than this, and both teams had gotten strikes more outside than this… Had this pitch gone for a strike, Belt would have been out. Instead, Belt got one more pitch that resulted in a bat flip and a trot around the bases.

See the article to see gifs of the pitches that he’s discussing. It’s a really nice analysis—and a sad comment on how much influence poor umpiring can have on crucial games.

October 5, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

NLDS game 2: 18 innings to deep disappointment

The Nats lost 2 to 1 in the 18th inning. The Nats’ batters didn’t hit Tim Hudson. Jordan Zimmermann pitched great, but couldn’t get the final out. Drew Storen blew the save. The relievers relieved. The batters didn’t hit Yusmeiro Petit. In the 18th inning Tanner Roark missed his spot on one pitch and Brandon Belt found the sweet spot on his bat. Down 2 games to 0, the Nats go to San Francisco to face Madison Bumgarner in an elimination game, needing to pull off three wins in a row.

The big controversy was Matt Williams pulling Zimmermann with two outs in the ninth after issuing the two-out walk to Joe Panik. Boswell thinks Williams should have left him in. Some crap about “why do we revere sports in this culture? Why do we pass stories down through generations?” Boswell thinks that Williams, as a rookie manager, needs to learn not to do so much and just let the game play out. Which is ironic, because according to one metric, Williams is the most passive, “least meddlesome” manager in the majors.

My own opinion is that Williams was absolutely right to pull (J)Zim there. Watching Panik’s plate appearance, it was clear that Zim was gassed and was losing his command. Not so much the walk as the one where he missed his spot and Panik pulled it foul with authority—fans were gasping thinking he may have tied the game with one swing. Zim had pitched well against Posey and Sandoval tonight, but Sandoval, in particular, has hit him well over his career. It was the fourth time through the order, and like almost any pitcher, Zim pitches less effectively the more times that batters see him. Here are his career statistics (OPS allowed) by time through the order: 1st .628; 2nd .682; 3rd .719; 4th .830. You’d expect anyone in the Nats bullpen to pitch better than Zim has pitched his 4th time through order. (Addenda: Rob Neyer and CJ Nitkowski of Fox Sports Harper of Nationals Baseball agree that Williams was right to pull Zim.)

I actually think that where Williams may have blown it was in letting Zim start the inning. He should have brought Storen in and the start of the 9th, which is what he would have done if the score was 2 to 1 or something and Williams wasn’t concerned about Zim getting credit for a shutout and “passing stories down through the generations.” If Storen had started the inning, Williams could have kept Tyler Clippard and Matt Thornton warm in the bullpen to send in if Storen got into trouble. The problem last night is that with Panik on base and Posey and Sandoval coming up, Storen was already in trouble. Of course, a closer is supposed to be able to get you out of trouble, and the failure to do so is on Storen. (And also on Mike Rizzo who didn’t make the major bullpen upgrade he might have made at the trade deadline.)

Williams’ other mistake was not pinch hitting Ryan Zimmerman for Adam LaRoche when Bochy brought in Javy Lopez in the 8th with Rendon on second. We talked about this a bit in my game 1 summary, and Harper at Nationals Baseball talked about it quite a bit more. LaRoche has hit poorly against left handers, and especially against Lopez, and unlike Game 1, the result this time was predictable—Rochy struck out. With one inning left, the case for making the substitution was stronger than it was in Game 1. If you’re ever going to take advantage of the Zim’s platoon advantage compared with LaRoche, that seems like the spot to do it. Christina Kahrl of Sweetspot even suggested that it may have been a mistake for Rendon to still, given that it led to such an unfavorable matchup for LaRoche. The mistake was Williams’, not Rendon’s.

There was a lot of complaining by the Nationals batters about the strike zone. It’s weird how in the wild card games, ESPN was showing the pitch-track graph on literally every pitch, whereas Fox, though it clearly has the capability, is extremely reluctant to discuss the strike zone and showed its strike zone graphic only a couple of times in the game. So it requires going to another site to find tracking of pitches—I went to the excellent Brooks Baseball pitch f/x site. As several writers have noted, Asdrubal Cabrera really didn’t have a legitimate beef with the high strikes that got him tossed. But Bryce Harper did have a legitimate complaint about the low called strike that he was barking about. And in general, umpire Vic Carapazza did call an unusually large strike zone, especially for outside pitches against right-handed batters. It was clearly frustrating for our hitters. While I don’t see evidence that his wide strike zone was purposely unfair, it did help the Giants because Hudson and Petit were clearly taking advantage of it, whereas most Nats’ pitchers weren’t. Close Call Sports sees the advantage as +4 pitches for the Giants. I also thought Carapazza should have tried to calm the situation with Cabrera after Asdrubal’s first complaint. Although Carapazza was right on the call itself, one of his other jobs is to keep things calm so that he doesn’t have to eject a player in an extra inning post-season game.

One of my theories is that the Nats are a warm weather team. For the last three years, they’ve always seemed to play poorly in April and May and heat up in the dog days of summer. Warm weather helps the ball carry, and my theory is that helps the hitters more than it hurts the Nats’ pitchers. Some day I may put together some data and try to test that theory. For now, I’ll just note that on this chilly night the Nationals hit several warning track shots that might have been home runs in August—Harper to center field in the 12th, Rendon in the 15th, and LaRoche in the 16th. Of course, Pence’s double in the top of the 12th also probably would have gone out in warmer weather.

At 18 innings and 6 hours and 23 minutes, this was the longest baseball game I’ve ever watched. It’s too bad that the memories will be bitter.

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