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July 5, 2018 / Nat Anacostia

Scherzer, Harper, Rendon, and Turner are my Nats 2018 All-Stars

Each year I select a National League All-Star team based on objective formulas and post it here.

The basic criteria is wins above replacement (WAR), giving roughly equal weight to performance in 2017 and 2016, with a small weight given to career performance (mostly serving as a tie breaker). Because my criteria are objective and use the same methods year after year, these results are not subject to cherry picking or fan bias. Max Scherzer is the starting pitcher, Bryce Harper starts in right field, and Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner also make the team. If it weren’t for his injury, Stephen Strasburg would also have made it, and Sean Doolittle was just knocked off by the requirement that every team be represented. Here’s the team:

Starters

C – J.T. Realmuto – Marlins

1B – Joey Votto – Reds

2B – Ben Zobrist – Cubs

3B – Nolan Arenado – Rockies

SS – Brandon Crawford – Giants

LF – Christian Yelich – Brewers

CF – Lorenzo Cain – Brewers; Cain is currently on the DL, and if he can’t make it, he would be replaced by Tommy Pham of the Cardinals

RF – Bryce Harper – Nationals

DH – Freddoe Freeman – Braves

SP – Max Scherzer

Reserves

C – Buster Posey – Giants

C – Francisco Cervelli – Pirates; Cervelli is currently on the DL and if he can’t make it would be replaced by Willson Contreras of the Cubs

1B – Paul Goldschmidt – Diamondbacks

2B – Scooter Gennett – Reds

3B – Anthony Rendon – Nationals

3B – Eugenio Suarez – Reds

SS – Trea Turner – Nationals

LF – Marcell Ozuna – Cardinals

CF – Charlie Blackmon – Rockies (if Cain is unable to play; otherwise the backup center fielder is Pham)

RF – Nick Markakis – Braves

DH – Kris Bryant – Cubs; Bryant is currently on the DL and if he is unable to play he should be replaced by Max Muncy of the Dodgers

SP – Jacob DeGrom – Mets

SP – Zack Greinke – Diamondbacks

SP – Aaron Nola – Phillies

SP – Clayton Kershaw – Dodgers

SP – Stephen Strasburg – Nationals; but I’m going to drop him because I don’t believe he’ll be able to play, making Lester our seventh and final starting pitcher

SP – Patrick Corbin – Diamondbacks

SP – Jon Lester – Cubs

RP – Josh Hader – Brewers

RP – Kenley Jansen – Dodgers

RP – Adam Ottavino – Rockies

RP – Kirby Yates – Padres

RP – Felipe Vazquez – Pirates (and former Nat)

Yates and Vazquez are included because of the requirement that every franchise be represented. Without that requirement, I would have selected Jeremy Jeffress of the Brewers and Sean Doolittle of the Nationals.

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July 1, 2018 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ June in review: We’ve got to start working better at bats

After a tremendous May, the Nationals fell apart in June. Having started the month only a half-game behind the Braves, the Nats briefly took the divisional lead, but then wound up going 10–16* for the month. It was their worst monthly winning percentage since the bad old days of August 2010. The Nats finished the month in third place, five games behind. With the season at the half-way mark, their 42–39 record leaves them in fifth place in the NL wild card race. Although the projections from FanGraphs thought the Nats were still likely to win the division (64% probability), FiveThirtyEight estimated the probability as 30%, and Baseball Prospectus had it at 26%, behind both the Braves and the Phillies.

* NOTE – For all the statistics I’ve reported for June in this post, including the team’s win-loss record, I’m counting whatever occurred during the final three innings of the suspended game played on June 18 against the Yankees. This differs from MLB’s bizarre practice of showing those statistics as having taken place on May 15.

June opened with the Nats in Atlanta, playing the last three games of a four-game set. They won game 3 of the series (a 14-inning marathon), but lost the others. Returning home, they swept a two-game set against the Rays and on June 6 briefly moved into first place, essentially tied with the Braves but with a tiny percentage-point lead. They next faced the Giants and lost two of three, but maintained their pace with the Braves. Stephen Strasburg went on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, but Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy came off the DL.

Next came a road that began with a two-game set against the Yankees in New York. The Nats split the series but dropped a game behind the Braves. After that, they went to Toronto where they were swept in a three-game set against the Blue Jays.

Returning home and now trailing the Braves by 3-1/2 games, Mike Rizzo traded with the Royals to obtain bullpen ace Kelvin Herrera. On the first evening of their home stand, the Nats had to finish the last three innings of a suspended game against the Yankees, then play the second game, which had been postponed due to rain. Juan Soto homered to give the Nats the win in the suspended game, but they lost the other game. The Nats next played three games against the Orioles, and took two of three. The home stand concluded with a three-game series against the Phillies. After losing the first two, they came from behind to win the third game. But it was a Sunday evening, rain-delayed game that ended after midnight, so they were probably exhausted when they landed in Tampa Bay the next morning.

The Nats were blown out, 11 to 0, in the first game against the Rays, then lost the second (and final) game of the series 1 to 0. Then on to Philadelphia, where they finished the month playing the first three games of a four-game set against the Phillies. They lost the first and third games, but the offense finally exploded in the second game, which they won 17 to 7.

The Nats’ offense was pretty awful. A team that had rarely been shut out was shut out seven times during June. Their .239 batting average ranked 12th in the National League, their .308 on-base percentage ranked 11th, and their .373 slugging percentage ranked 12th. Their 21 home runs ranked 13th.

While the Nats’ bats have struggled most of the season, what was really unusual about June was that the pitching also struggled. The starters’ ERA of 5.54 for June ranked last in the National League. Furthermore, the handful of good starts (mostly from Max Scherzer) were wasted due to inadequate run support (see the list of “Tough Losses” below). Nats starting pitchers were credited with only 3 wins all month.

The Nats’ bullpen was a moderately bright point in an overall dismal landscape. The reliever’s ERA of 3.54 ranked fifth in the NL, while their 24 shutdowns ranked seventh and their 12 meltdowns were tied for third fewest.

Record:

10–16 (.385)

Pythagorean Record:

11–15 (4.08 R/G – 4.76 RA/G)

June MVP:

Max Scherzer (1–3, 2.31 RA/9, 5 G, 35 IP, 11.6 K/9, .231 opp OBP, 1.4 RA9-WAR) wins this award for the third consecutive month. Yes, his record was just 1–3, but in his three losses he allowed only 5 runs and received zero runs in offensive support. The reality is that he pitched just as well in June as he did in April and May, and in both of those months he was named NL Pitcher of the Month.

Most valuable position player:

Juan Soto (.321/.441/.643, 25 G, 7 HR, 20 R, 17 RBI), with honorable mention going to Anthony Rendon (.320/.358/.580, 25 G, 5 HR, 20 R, 18 RBI).

Addendum: Soto was named the NL Rookie of the Month.

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Justin Miller (4–0, 2.89 RA/9, 12 G, 18-2/3 IP, 13.0 K/9, .247 opp OBP, 3.96 RE24, 0.4 RA9-WAR, 4 shutdowns, 2 meltdowns). Yes, the award could have gone to Sean Doolittle (1.08 RA/9, 7 shutdowns, 0 meltdowns), but Doolittle pitched only 8-1/3 innings, whereas Miller pitched more than twice that many.

Worst month:

Pedro Severino (.075/.125/.113, 20 G, 0 HR, 0 R, 2 RBI)

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (June 5, 4–2 win over the Rays at home) pitched 8 innings while giving up 2 runs on 5 hits and no walks, striking out 13, for a game score of 77.

Worst start:

Gio Gonzalez (June 25, 11–0 loss to the Rays in Tampa Bay) gave up 6 runs in just 1 inning (and also pitching to 7 batters in the second without getting an out), while allowing 3 hits (including a grand-slam home run) and 5 walks, and striking out 2, for a game score of 20.

Tough losses:

  • Stephen Strasburg (June 1, 4–0 loss to the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 4 runs (3 earned) on 7 hits and no walks with 10 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings (game score 56).
  • Max Scherzer (June 10, 2–0 loss to the Giants at home) gave up 2 runs on 4 hits and 3 walks with 9 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 67).
  • Tanner Roark (June 11, 3–0 loss to the Yankees in New York) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 2 walks with 5 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 51).
  • Max Scherzer (June 16, 2–0 loss to the Blue Jays in Toronto) gave up 2 runs on 4 hits and 1 walk with 10 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 65).
  • Max Scherzer (June 26, 1–0 loss to the Rays in Tampa Bay) gave up 1 run on 4 hits and 3 walks with 4 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 66).
  • Tanner Roark (June 28, 4–3 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia) gave up 2 runs (1 earned) on 7 hits and 3 walks with 5 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 54).

Cheap wins: 

  • Erick Fedde (June 29, 17–7 win over the Phillies in Philadelphia) gave up 5 runs on 8 hits and 3 walks with 3 strikeouts in 5 innings (game score 31).

Best shutdown: 

Justin Miller (June 2, 5–3 win over the Braves in Atlanta in 14 innings) pitched the 11th, 12th, and 13th innings of a 3–3 tie and retired all nine batters he faced—five of them by strikeout (win probability added .420). In the top of the 14th, Max Scherzer got aboard with a pinch hit, then Wilmer Difo hit a triple to drive him in and give the Nationals the lead.

Worst meltdown:

Tanner Roark (June 3, 4–2 loss to the Braves in Atlanta). Entering in the bottom of the ninth with the game tied 2 to 2, the Nats bullpen was depleted after the previous night’s 14-inning game. So Roark got the call to pitch in relief. He got the first out, then gave up a double followed by a home run, giving the Braves a walk-off win. (WPA –.360).

Clutch hit:

Daniel Murphy (June 24, 8–6 win over the Phillies at home). After an intentional walk was issued to Juan Soto, Murphy came to bat in the bottom of the 8th with two outs, the bases loaded, and the Nats trailing 6–5. He poked a single over the second baseman to drive in two, giving the Nationals the lead (WPA .497). Michael A. Taylor would drive in one more run, after which Sean Doolittle got the save.

Choke:

Pedro Severino (June 24, 8–6 win over the Phillies at home). One inning before Murphy got the clutch hit, Severino choked. In the bottom of the seventh with runners on first and third, one out, and the Nats trailing 6–5, Severino grounded into an inning-ending double play (WPA –.250).

Favorite defensive play:

June 30, 2018 / Nat Anacostia

A brief rant about statistics for suspended games

The May 15 suspended game between the Yankees and Nats was finished on June 18. MLB official statistics record the game as having taken place on the day that it started, which led to a number of statistical anomalies. We’ve seen the articles about how Juan Soto hit a home run five days before his debut.

Each month I prepare an article reviewing the baseball played by the Nats during the month. I’ve decided that the way that MLB records the game is not just a bit idiosyncratic. Rather, in the era of on-line databases like baseball-reference and fangraphs, the convention actually distorts baseball history in undesirable ways.

For example, if you look up the standings on June 6 from baseball-reference, it shows the Nats moving into first place with a 36–25 record and a half-game lead over the Braves. Except, the Nats didn’t have a 36–25 record or a half-game lead after playing on June 6; their actual record was 35–25 and they were essentially tied with the Braves (though the Nats’ .583 winning percentage was slightly better than the Braves’ .581). But with the databases now showing the game as if it were completed on May 15, the standings from May 15 through June 17 have all been revised. And for someone who is trying to write the history of the season as it actually occurred, that’s a problem.

I think I get how MLB originally made the decision. Back in the days of paper records, it was too much trouble to split the records for a game, so you had to file them all on a single date. But for at least the last 30 years, records have been kept in electronic databases, and there’s really no reason we can’t record a game having been played across two days (as it, in fact, was). The plate appearances from June 18 should be recorded as having taken place on June 18, not on May 15, and the Nationals’ win should also be recorded as having taken place on June 18. Modern databases should be able to accommodate this easily.

There would be a few statistics where we’d have to make some decisions. If a player played both on May 15 and June 18, it should count as one game played, and I guess I’d record the game played on May 15 when the game became official. (If a player only played on June 18, however, I don’t see any reason his game played couldn’t be recorded on June 18.) And if there’s a consecutive game streak underway, it should be based on the same day that the player’s game played was counted. But most individual statistics, such as plate appearances, hits, and strikeouts, can be recorded on the day that they actually occurred. No problem.

Let’s take this aspect of MLB statistical convention into the 21st century and start recording suspended games in a way that’s consistent with when the events actually took place. We’d have better records and a more accurate history.

June 1, 2018 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ May in review: Every man is stepping up

The Nats went 19–7 in May—their best monthly winning percentage since June 2005, when the recently arrived franchise shocked the baseball world by going 20–6. Beginning the month in fourth place, 5-1/2 games behind the Mets, they finished it in second place, only a half game behind the Braves. At month’s end, the FanGraphs site indicates the Nats’ chances of winning the division at 82.4% (and of making the playoffs at 92.5%), whereas the less optimistic FiveThirtyEight site indicates a probability of winning the division of 59%, and a 77% chance of making the playoffs. The Baseball Prospectus site shows a probability of winning the division of 53.6% and a probability of making the playoffs of 73.1%.

May began with the  Nats at home facing the Pirates, having won the first game of a four-game series. Bryce Harper had gotten into a slump as opposing teams pitched around him, so Dave Martinez decided to bat him in the lead-off spot. It seemed to work, as Harper hit a 3-run homer and scored two runs in a 12–4 win for the Nats. Harper stayed in the lead-off spot, and for the first four games it seemed work, as he went 6 for 17 with 4 home runs, 9 RBIs, and 6 runs scored. After that, he cooled off, and on May 11 he was moved to the second spot in the batting order.

The Nats went on to win the last two games of the Pirates series, sweeping the Bucs. The home-stand concluded with a three-game series against the Phillies, which the Nats won, two games to one. Anthony Rendon returned from the disabled list after three weeks out with a toe injury. Contrary to earlier reports, Rendon admitted that there had been a hairline fracture of the toe.

After finishing their home-stand with a 7–3 record, the Nats traveled to the west coast, where they took two out of three against the Padres. Next they played a four-game set against the Diamondbacks in Phoenix, which the Nats were able to sweep, resulting in a 6–1 road trip. Adam Eaton, who had been on the DL for a month, had surgery to remove a cartrilage flap on his ankle that had been impeding his recovery. He was moved to the 60-day disabled list, as Matt Wieters (left hamstring strain) and Ryan Zimmerman (right oblique strain) were placed on the 10-day DL. Pedro Severino took over at catcher and Mark Reynolds, who had signed a minor league contract, was called up to play first. When Reynolds debuted in the final game against the Diamondbacks, he hit two homers, including a clutch 2-run homer in the 8th-inning that put the Nats on top.

The Nats returned home to face the Yankees, Dodgers, and Padres. After an off-day on Monday, the Nats were scheduled to face the Yankees on Tuesday and Wednesday. Unfortunately, Washington seemed to be experiencing a monsoon that week. The Tuesday game was suspended due to rain after 5-1/2 innings, tied 3-3, and although they hoped to complete it the next day, both games on Wednesday had to be postponed. The first game against the Dodgers was scheduled for Friday, but it also had to be postponed and was played as a doubleheader on Saturday. By that time, the Nats hitters and relief pitchers seemed to be rusty after nearly a five-day break, and the Dodgers swept the three-game series despite strong pitching performances from all three Nats starters.

The Nats took two of three against the Padres to finish the home-stand with a 2–4 record. During the home-stand, Howie Kendrick experienced an Achilles rupture that will leave him unable to play the rest of the season. The Nats called up the 19-year-old outfielder Juan Soto, who took over in left field and quickly exhibited hitting ability beyond his years. He hit a home run in his second major league at-bat, becoming the first teenager to hit a home run in the majors since Bryce Harper in 2012.

The month concluded with a road trip to Miami, Baltimore, and Atlanta. The Nats swept three games each against the Marlins and the Orioles before losing their final game of the month, the opener of a four-game series against the Braves in Atlanta. After the sweep of the Orioles, the Nats briefly regained first place, but then dropped a half-game out with their loss on the 31st to their division rivals. Daniel Murphy, who had been out all season recovering from right knee surgery, ended the month on a rehab assignment.

The Nats’ success in May was overwhelmingly attributable to their starting pitching. Both their starters’ park-adjusted ERA relative to league (ERA–) of 57 for May (that is, 43% better than league average) and their fielding-independent measure (FIP–) of 71 were the best in MLB. All of their five main starters contributed, with each recording an ERA– of 80 or better. In particular, their new fifth starter, Jeremy Hellickson, while kept on a short-leash, had remarkable results, with a 2–0 record and an ERA of 1.30 for the month.

The hitters performed well when taking account of the large number of substitutes filling in for injured regulars. Their 41 home runs led the National League for the month, and their weighted runs created relative to league (wRC+) of 101 ranked sixth in the NL. Their on-base percentage of .312 ranked 10th, while their slugging percentage of .439 ranked fifth.

The bullpen performed better than average. Their RE24 (a measure of runs allowed relative to average, which accounts for the situation when a pitcher is brought into or leaves the game) of 11.37 for the month ranked sixth in the NL, and they tied for the league lead for fewest meltdowns with 9. They ranked fifth in the NL in shutdowns with 27.  Their ERA– of 79 ranked fifth in the NL, and their FIP– of 88 ranked third.

Record:

19–7 (.731)

Pythagorean Record:

19–7 (4.33 R/G – 2.63 RA/G)

May MVP:

Max Scherzer (4–0, 2.21 RA/9, 6 G, 40-2/3 IP, 13.9 K/9, .238 opp OBP, 1.6 RA9-WAR), with honorable mention going to Jeremy Hellickson (2–0, 1.30 RA/9, 27-2/3 IP, 1.5 RA9-WAR)

Addendum: For the second consecutive month, Scherzer was named the NL Pitcher of the Month.

Most valuable position player:

Anthony Rendon (.263/.355/.550, 22 G, 5 HR, 9 R, 13 RBI, 0.9 fWAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Sean Doolittle (2–1, 1.46 RA/9, 11 G, 12-1/3 IP, .213 opp OBP, 5.39 RE24, 0.8 RA9-WAR, 8 shutdowns, 1 meltdown)

Worst month:

Andrew Stevenson (.188/.270/.188, 17 G, 0 HR, 5 R, 3 RBI, –0.3 fWAR)

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (May 30, 2–0 win over the Orioles in Baltimore) pitched 8 shutout innings while giving up 2 hits and 1 walk, striking out 12, for a game score of 89.

Worst start:

Nats pitchers didn’t have any really awful starts this month—just three starts with game scores below 50. The worst one was by Tanner Roark (May 31, 4–2 loss to the Braves in Atlanta), who gave up 4 runs in 6-2/3 innings while allowing 7 hits and 5 walks and striking out 3, for a game score of 42.

Tough losses:

  • Tanner Roark (May 5, 3–1 loss to the Phillies at home) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks with 9 strikeouts in 6-1/3 innings (game score 55).
  • Tanner Roark (May 19, 4–1 loss to the Dodgers at home) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk with 8 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 60).
  • Stephen Strasburg (May 20, 7–2 loss to the Dodgers at home) gave up 3 runs on 5 hits and 4 walks with 7 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings (game score 55).
  • Erick Fedde (May 23, 3–1 loss to the Padres at home) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk with 6 strikeouts in 5-2/3 innings (game score 50).

Cheap wins: 

  • Max Scherzer (May 25, 9–5 win over the Marlins in Miami) gave up 4 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks with 4 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 44).

Best shutdown: 

Ryan Madson (May 12, 2–1 win over the Diamondbacks in Phoenix) pitched a scoreless ninth inning with a one-run lead to get the save. The first batter Madson faced, Ketel Marte, reached on an error by Wilmer Difo and then advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. After that, Madson got a strikeout and a ground-out to secure the win (win probability added .225).

Worst meltdown:

Sean Doolittle (May 19, 5–4 loss to the Dodgers at home). Entering in the top of the ninth with the Nats leading 4 to 3, Doolittle allowed two singles and a 2-run double to the first three batters he faced, blowing the save and leaving the Nats behind 5 to 4. Although he got the next three outs, the damage had been done. The Nats were unable to come back in the bottom of the inning, and Doolittle was charged with the loss (WPA –.622).

Clutch hit:

Mark Reynolds (May 26, 4–1 win over the Marlins in Miami). Leading off the top of the ninth with the score tied 1 to 1, Reynolds hit a home run and gave the Nats the lead (WPA .340). The team would add on two more runs before the end of the inning, and Doolittle would shut down the Marlins in the bottom of the ninth for the save.

Choke:

Spencer Kieboom (May 23, 3–1 loss to the Padres at home). With the Nats trailing by two, Kieboom came to bat in the bottom of the ninth with runners on first and third and one out. He hit into a game-ending double play (WPA –.221).

Favorite defensive plays:

  • Wilmer Difo made a diving stop on a grounder from Matt Kemp and threw him out.
  • Michael A. Taylor throws out Jose Pirela at home.
May 2, 2018 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ April in review: This thing will change

The Nats went 13–16 in April for their worst monthly record since August 2015, and finished the month in fourth place, 5-1/2 games behind the 17–9 Mets.*

*Note: In this article, the “month of April” includes the two games played in March.

The 2018 season began with the Nationals, after two consecutive runaway divisional championships, again regarded as the consensus favorites. The FanGraphs website set the Nats’ preseason probability of winning the division at 77.8%, with an 89.3% chance of reaching the playoffs. Other sites were somewhat less optimistic but still considered the Nats to be favorites to win their division and make the postseason. (Baseball Prospectus estimated their preseason playoff probability at 67%, and FiveThirtyEight at 73%.)

The preseason forecasts generally saw the NL East division to be on the rise and no longer considered the weakest division in baseball. The Mets were recognized as real challengers, possessing an intimidating pitching staff if it could stay healthy. The Phillies had begun supplementing their talented young roster with free agents and were considered long-shot contenders. The Braves also had a talented young roster and were seen as improving, though most prognosticators thought they were still a year or two away from contending. Bringing up the rear were the Marlins, whose new owners had spent the winter trading away their star players in a salary dump, resulting in a consensus that the team would be pretty awful.

By the end of the April, the Nats’ advantage was gone, and the divisional race was seen as wide open among the Nats, Mets, Phillies, and Braves. According to FanGraphs (the more optimistic site), the Nats’ probability of winning the division had dropped to 55.4%, and their probability of making the playoffs to 72.2%. Other sites gave less favorable odds—for example, Baseball Prospectus showed them having a 33% probability of winning the division and a 46% probability of reaching the playoffs.

The season began well enough, with the Nats playing the Reds in Cincinnati. The team was mostly healthy, with the exception of Daniel Murphy, who was still recovering from knee surgery last October. The Nats swept the 3-game set against Reds, and Adam Eaton was named NL Player of the Week (it was a short, three-game opening week) after hitting .615 (8 for 13) with 2 home runs, 2 doubles, 5 RBI, and 7 runs scored.

Their next stop was a 3-game series in Atlanta against the Braves. The Nats won the first game and at that point had managed to take the lead in the first inning of each of their four games without ever giving it up. Their streak of holding the lead in 36 consecutive innings to start the season had last been accomplished in 1912. The euphoria began to fade with the next game, though, when the Braves torched the Nats’ fifth starter, A.J. Cole, for 10 runs and beat them 13 to 6. The Braves also won the third game and the Nats slipped out of the lead in the divisional race.

The Nats’ home opener was against the Mets, who were off to a hot start and had taken over the division lead with a 4–1 record. The Mets swept the series, winning the first game handily (8 to 2), and then taking the last two games by one-run margins, with the final game decided in the 12th inning. In addition to dropping three games in the standings, though, the series had an added cost for the Nats when Eaton hurt his ankle sliding into home in the third inning of the first game. He would come back in the third game and try to play through the injury, but ultimately went on the disabled list and was out for the rest of the month.

Next, the Nats hosted the Braves, and broke their five-game losing streak by winning the first two games. The Braves came back to win the third game in another extra-inning game that featured several late rallies by the Nats that ultimately fell short. The home stand concluded with a four-game series against the Rockies, which the visitors took three games to one. Perhaps the one positive aspect of the home stand was Max Scherzer, who won NL Player of the Week with a record of 2–0, an ERA of 1.13, and 21 strikeouts and only 1 walk in 16 innings, including a complete-game shutout of the Braves.  The Nats, however, by going 3–7 during the home stand, had dropped to two games below .500 and trailed the still streaking Mets by 6 games.

Anthony Rendon left the second game of the Rockies series after fouling a pitch off his big toe. At first, the team thought he would be able to return quickly, but ultimately he went on the disabled list and was out the rest of the month. The absence of Murphy, Eaton, and Rendon for the last half of the month took a big hit on the Nats’ offense.

Their road trip began with a 3-game series against the Mets in New York. In the first game, the Nats were trailing 6 to 1 after seven, but then rallied for 6 runs in the eighth before winning the game 8 to 6. They also won the second game, and in the third game were leading 4 to 2 entering the bottom of the eighth, seemingly poised to sweep the series. The Nats bullpen, however, had been overworked and unraveled, giving up 9 runs in the inning, with the Nats losing 11 to 5.

The road trip continued to Los Angeles where they faced the Dodgers. In the opener, Scherzer outpitched Clayton Kershaw, giving the Nats the victory. The Nats then lost the last two in Los Angeles and the first two against the Giants in San Francisco before winning the third game in a 15 to 2 blowout. The Nats’ 4–5 record on the road trip was disappointing, but not disastrous.

The month’s final home stand began with a 3-game set against the Diamondbacks, whose 17–7 record was tops in the National League. The Nats lost the first two games, then won the finale, with all three games decided by one or two runs. April concluded with the first game of a 4-game set against the Pirates, which the Nationals won.

With three key players out at least part of the month with injuries and Ryan Zimmerman in a slump, the Nationals’ offense was only average—their .331 on-base percentage was third among the 15 teams in the National League and their .389 slugging percentage ranked seventh. The comprehensive park-adjusted measure of weighted runs created (wRC+) of 97 was eighth in the league. Their 31 stolen bases (in 36 attempts) did lead the majors.

The Nationals starting pitchers were generally impressive, with a park-adjusted earned run average relative to league (ERA–) of 87, second in the National League. Their fielding-independent measure  (FIP–) of 94 wasn’t quite as impressive, but still ranked fifth in the league. The big question mark in the rotation was the fifth starter duties, which went to A.J. Cole for the first two starts to disastrous results, before being handed to Jeremy Hellickson.

The bullpen performed poorly. The team’s relievers had an RE24 (a measure of runs allowed relative to average, which accounts for the situation when a pitcher is brought into or leaves the game) of –1.68, which was 11th in the National  League. Their ERA– was 121, which ranked 12th in the league, and their FIP– was 107, which was 11th. With 26 shutdowns and 16 meltdowns, their ratio of shutdowns to meltdowns ranked 12th.

Even taking account of the Nats’ mediocre performance in batting and relief pitching, the team’s won-loss record was weaker than should have been expected. With 126 runs scored compared to 122 allowed, their expected (or “Pythagorean”) record should have been 15–14 rather than 13–16. This difference was reflected in their poor performance in one-run games, in which they had a 2–8 record.

But even their run differential under-performed when compared with their underlying statistics. The team’s batting OPS was .720, whereas their opponents’ OPS was only .685, to which we can add 31 stolen bases in 36 attempts for the Nationals compared to 12 stolen bases in 23 attempts for their opponents. Poor performance in clutch situations led the Nats to score fewer runs and allow more runs than they should have. There are several ways this can be measured—my favorite is the split that baseballreference.com calls “high leverage” situations (such as situations with runners on in the late innings of close games). In high leverage situations, the Nats’ batting OPS was only .622, whereas their opponents’ OPS was an elevated .783. Throughout the month, the Nats failed to score and to prevent runs in clutch situations, costing them wins. The one bright note is that researchers have found that under-performance in clutch situations tends not to be persistent, suggesting that the Nats are likely to revert to their expected performance. But it’s also true that the team has dug itself into a bit of a hole, and it shouldn’t be assumed that it will be easy to make up the lost ground.

Record:

13–16 (.448)

Pythagorean Record:

15–14 (4.34 R/G – 4.21 RA/G)

April MVP:

Max Scherzer (5–1, 2.31 RA/9, 6 G, 39 IP, 13.2 K/9, .227 opp OBP, 1.5 RA9-WAR)

Addendum: Scherzer was named the NL Pitcher of the Month for March/April.

Most valuable position player:

Trea Turner (.284/.381/.379, 29 G, 12 SB, 0 CS, 14 R, 7 RBI, 1.1 fWAR). Bryce Harper played the first ten games like an MVP (.345/.553/.966), but, as opponents began pitching around him, he spent the rest of the month in a slump (.200/.405/.317) , which allowed Turner, with his superior defense and base running, to pass Harper (0.9 fWAR) for the honor.

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Sean Doolittle (0–1, 2.08 RA/9, 13 G, 13 IP, .174 opp OBP, 3.75 RE24, 0.4 RA9-WAR, 5 shutdowns, 1 meltdown)

Worst month:

A.J. Cole (1–1, 13.06 RA/9, 4 G, 2 GS,  10-1/3 IP, .431 opp OBP, –0.7 RA9-WAR), after a couple of awful starts followed by a couple of awful relief appearances, got himself designated for assignment and then sold to the Yankees.

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (April 9, 2–0 win over the Braves in Washington) pitched a 2-hit, complete-game shutout, striking out 10 without giving up a walk, for a game score of 93.

Worst start:

A.J. Cole (April 3, 13–6 loss to the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 10 runs in 3-2/3 innings, allowing 10 hits and 3 walks while striking out 4, for a game score of 2.

Tough losses:

  • Stephen Strasburg (April 5, 8–2 loss to the Mets at home) gave up 4 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks with 6 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 50).
  • Gio Gonzalez (April 12, 5–1 loss to the Rockies at home) gave up 3 runs (2 earned) on 5 hits and 3 walks with 7 strikeouts in 5 innings (game score 51).
  • Tanner Roark (April 13, 2–1 loss to the Rockies at home) gave up 2 runs (1 earned) on 3 hits and 1 walk with 3 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 62).
  • Stephen Strasburg (April 21, 4–0 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles) gave up 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks with 10 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 67).

Cheap wins: 

  • Gio Gonzalez (April 17, 5–2 win over the Mets in New York) gave up 2 runs on 8 hits and 2 walks with 5 strikeouts in 5-1/3 innings (game score 47).

Best shutdown: 

Sammy Solis (April 8, 6–5 loss in 12 innings to the Mets at home) pitched scoreless frames in the 10th and 11th to keep the game tied 5–5, allowing just one single while striking out 5 (win probability added .286). In the 12th inning, Brandon Kintzler would give up the deciding run.

Worst meltdown:

Ryan Madson (April 18, 11–5 loss to the Mets in New York). Entering in the bottom of the eighth with the Nats leading 4 to 2, Madson faced 8 batters and gave up 4 singles, an intentional walk, and a double while getting just two outs. When he was finally pulled, the Nats were trailing 6 to 4 and runners were on second and third with two outs (WPA –.794). Then Solis and Cole would allow five more runs to score before the inning mercifully ended.

Clutch hit:

Matt Adams (April 11, 5–3 loss in 12 innings to the Braves at home). With the bases empty and one out in the bottom of the 9th and the Nats trailing 2 to 1, Adams hit a game-tying home run to deep left-center field, sending the game to extra innings (WPA .466). The Braves took the lead again in the 11th inning, and the Nats responded with some more clutch hitting to send it to the 12th, when the Braves were able to take a 2-run lead that the Nats weren’t able to match.

Choke:

Michael A. Taylor (April 28, 4–3 loss in 10 innings to the Diamondbacks at home). The D’backs had taken a one-run lead in the top of the tenth, but in the bottom of the inning the Nats had loaded the bases with two outs. Then Taylor grounded into a forceout at second, ending the game (WPA –.277).

Favorite defensive plays:

  • Michael A. Taylor made a diving catch that Statcast rated as a five-star play.
  • Trea Turner made a diving play on a grounder hit up the middle.
October 24, 2017 / Nat Anacostia

Farewell to Dusty Baker

On Friday, the baseball world was stunned by the announcement that the Nationals were letting Dusty Baker‘s contract expire, effectively firing him. The baseball baseball press called this move everything from insane to ridiculous, from cold to arrogant, from unfair to short-sighted, and from dumb to foolish. With the decision apparently originating from the owners, the Lerner family, and coming over the objections of general manager Mike Rizzo, the story reinforces a long-standing view of stubborn, tight-fisted owners impeding Rizzo’s efforts to build a winning team.

While I’m not quite as affected as most baseball writers, I did think Dusty was a good manager and I will miss him. He quickly restored order and teamwork after the calamitous Matt Williams tenure, and he subsequently led the team to 95 and 97 wins, despite battling injuries both seasons. Several young players, including Joe Ross, Trea Turner, and Michael A. Taylor, have developed into good players over the last two years. Also, Dusty Baker is definitely one of the coolest and most interesting men in baseball, and my sense is that the players largely enjoyed having him at the helm. As with all managers, I quibble with some of his choices about playing time and in-game strategy, but I think it’s ludicrous to blame him for the Nats’ losses in the 2016 and 2017 NLDS. None of Baker’s strategic moves was horrible enough to be blamed for the losses (though, with five of the Nats’ six losses coming in one-run games, of course it’s impossible to say that different strategies couldn’t have made a difference). Ultimately, though, it was the players who were responsible for executing or not—it’s not Baker’s fault that the Nats batters barely hit in Games 1 and 3, or that Max Scherzer gave up a go-ahead double to Addison Russell in Game 5.

I’m going to spend the first half of this post talking about my general thoughts on the job of a baseball manager and how it can (or can’t) be evaluated, and the last half talking about some of Dusty’s strengths and weaknesses as a manager.

The roles of a baseball manager.

A baseball manager has to do a lot things. Among the more important roles are:

  1. In-game strategy. Each game, the manager has to make countless decisions, such as: what batting order should be used? should a player bunt or swing away? should a runner be given the green light to steal? should the defense play in or concede a run? when should the defense use a shift? when should an opposing batter be issued an intentional walk? and most importantly, when should relief pitchers, pinch hitters, pinch runners, and defensive substitutions be employed?
  2. Use of the roster. Given a 25-man roster, it’s the manager’s job to make decisions about how to best utilize them: when should a player be rested? which bench player should be used? how much work should be expected from starting pitchers and from relief pitchers? should decisions about whether to use a player respond to factors like the players history against an opposing pitcher, or should those factors be ignored?
  3. Communication with the press and the public. The manager is the most visible spokesman for the team, and usually talks to press, often on-camera, both before and after games. A manager who is effective in this communication helps build good-will with the fans and respect from the media. Some managers have also done harm through their communication, for example, by venting their frustration at poorly performing players.
  4. Communication with the players. We tend to hear less about this and the following roles, except when things really break down. One of a manager’s jobs is to let players know what their role is, to communicate what management is expecting of them, to explain the situation if changes are potentially coming (such as a player being reassigned to the minors) so the player isn’t blindsided, and to let players know when they need to make changes in how they’re playing.
  5. Leader in the clubhouse. This role is probably bigger in our collective imagination than it is in practice—I suspect the scene of managers giving inspiring speeches to turn their team around mostly just happens in bad baseball movies. But a manager is still responsible for setting the tone in the clubhouse and correcting problems and misbehavior when they arise. The manager is also responsible for enforcing team discipline.
  6. Oversight of the coaching staff. Major league teams have large coaching staffs, and the manager is responsible for coordinating and overseeing the effectiveness their work.
  7. Mentor for young players. While some players arrive at the majors with years of minor league experience, others—especially the budding stars—often are still developing and require coaching and mentoring to fully develop their talents. A talented manager can help those players become better players.

While the first three roles take place in the light of the public, we usually know relatively little about the last four. Furthermore, the front office may know things going on behind the scenes that the public knows little about. I think that means that we should be a little humble in our criticism of these kind of personnel moves—it’s sometimes the case that a personnel move that looks unwarranted to the general public may be justified on information that we know nothing about. I should emphasize that I’m not saying that’s true in this particular case—just that it’s sometimes true in some cases.

How well can we evaluate the success of a manager? Sabermetric analysts have spent a lot of time studying in-game strategy. But even there, the analysis ought to be taken with a grain of salt because it never can control for all the factors that are relevant in a particular game situation. Furthermore, the gains from following optimal strategies are almost always quite small—we’re talking about changing the expected run value by maybe 0.1 or 0.2 per game. Over a long season, that may add up to two or three extra wins, which is huge, but blaming a loss in a particular playoff game or series on use of a suboptimal strategy is almost never valid.

While we write a lot about the importance of managerial strategy in winning and losing games, it’s worth keeping in mind that when it comes to spending money, no team acts like managers are especially important. The highest paid managers in MLB—Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon, and Mike Scioscia, are paid $6 million a year. Dusty Baker was paid only $2 million. If owners really believed that the best managers were worth two or three wins a season, I think we’d see a “free agent”-type market for managers, with salaries bid to $15 to $20 million for the best managers. The fact that we don’t see that type of bidding suggests that either no one really believes managers make that much difference, or that if they actually can, no one thinks they can accurately identify the best managers.

The other managerial roles are almost impossible to evaluate quantitatively. Analysts have occasionally taken stabs at trying to measure how well a manager does at improving the overall performance of his players, but those studies are subject to so many confounding factors that it strains credulity to take their results seriously.

With many roles to fill, it seems to me that different managers are probably better at filling different roles, and different managers may be better fits for different teams. For example, the managerial needs of the 2009 Nationals with players like Elijah Dukes and Nyjer Morgan were clearly different from the needs of the 2017 Nats, with their many veteran players and expectations of winning. So, to me it makes sense that teams sometimes need to change their managers, not because the manager has done a poor job, but because the team’s needs have changed and a different manager is a better fit for their needs. That may have been the case, for example, when Jim Riggleman was replaced by Davey Johnson (though, of course, there were also contract and other issues going on at the time.)

Dusty Baker as a manager

Baker is known as a “players’ managers”—that is, he generally supports his players, looks out for their interests, and isn’t known for aggressively confronting or challenging them. While 30 or 40 years ago, that style of managing was considered fairly novel, I think it’s now the predominant style of managing. Johnson was also considered to be a players’ manager.

When I think of things I like about Baker as a manager, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is how he regularly rested his starting players. Almost every starter would get a couple of days off each month. As an example, Anthony Rendon, who was pretty healthy all year and never went on the disabled list, started only 143 of the team’s 162 games and played  in 145 of them. This policy not only helped keep the starting players fresh, but also gave playing time to the bench players, keeping them fresh as well. I think Baker’s roster policies were part of the reason the Nats got a lot of production from bench players like Wilmer Difo, Adam Lind, and Howie Kendrick.

I also thought Baker was good at mentoring young position players. I often saw TV shots of Dusty chatting with Michael A. Taylorfor example, and I’d guess that Taylor’s development as a player this season was due in part to Dusty’s work.

A possible downside to Baker’s loyalty to his players is that he may have stuck with his regulars too long when the playoffs were on the line. In this year’s NLDS, for example, in view of Jayson Werth‘s late season struggles, I don’t think it was wise to have him start and play most of every game. Dusty was pretty conventional about relying on his regulars during the post-season, and really didn’t make great use of his bench.

The most prominent complaint we hear about Baker is that he over-uses his pitchers. This story goes back to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood blowing out their arms while Dusty was managing the Cubs. While Dusty no longer allows his pitchers to go 130+ pitches, in 2017 he still tended to push his starters longer than most other managers. Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark ranked third and fourth in MLB in pitches per start, with 105.1 and 103.6. Both of them saw their performance tail off late in the season. Scherzer’s 100.4 pitches per start ranked 13th, but he would have been in the top four if injury hadn’t forced him to leave early in a couple of starts in August and September (excluding the August 1 and September 30 starts when he was pulled early, he averaged 105.1 pitches per start, the same as Gonzalez).

Of course, the Nats’ bullpen during the first three-and-a-half months of the season was such a disaster that Baker was almost forced to push his starters a bit more. Teams with stronger bullpens didn’t have to push their ace starters as much—Clayton Kershaw averaged only 93.4 pitches per game. But I wonder whether some of the Nats’ late season and playoff pitching issues, such as Scherzer’s neck and hamstring issues and the slide in performance of Gonzalez and Roark, might have been avoided if Baker hadn’t pushed them quite so hard earlier in the season.

Where do the Nationals go from here? With the Nationals now having gone through six managers in 13 seasons, and with their reputation for short, cheap contracts, they’re unlikely to find an experienced, well-regarded manager. That means they’re probably looking at a rookie manager. It will be interesting to see what kind of manager they try—I interpreted the hiring of Williams as a reaction to Johnson’s relatively lax, player-friendly style. Will they want to try a harsher style again? Of course, the coaching staff will also need to be replaced. If it’s hard to evaluate the manager, it’s even harder to evaluate coaches, but my general impression is that Mike Maddux was a well-regarded pitching coach, and that base running improved under Davey Lopes’ tutelage. It will be interesting to watch how this all turns out. 

 

October 24, 2017 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ 2017 NLDS in review: Things went haywire

A familiar refrain—the Nats lost a closely fought series with lots of self-inflicted wounds and plenty of weirdness. Here are my comments on the Nats-Cubs NLDS series.

The Nats outplayed the Cubs. For the second consecutive year, the Nats lost the series despite outscoring and generally outplaying their opponents. The Nats scored 20 runs; the Cubs scored 17. The Nats hit an admittedly poor .186/.302/.335 and hit 6 home runs. The Cubs hit even worse: .180/.285/.280 and 2 home runs. The Nats pitchers got 52 strikeouts and gave up 18 walks with a 1.023 WHIP. The Cubs struck out 41 and surrendered 25 walks with a 1.250 WHIP. There was one area where I thought the Cubs did outplay the Nats—defense. The Cubs made 7 errors to the Nats 5, but in my opinion they also made more outstanding plays that robbed Nats of hits, and had fewer instances where they failed to make a play that should have been made without having an error charged. But, because fielding other than than errors tends to be reflected in batting statistics, that means the Nats were actually hitting the ball better than reflected in their statistics, and the Cubs were hitting worse. All things considered, this was a series that the Nats should have won.

Roster decisions. Coming into the series, a Nats lineup that had been battered by injuries in mid-August had gotten just about everyone back. There were still a couple of injury question marks. Bryce Harper had been back for just one week and frankly looked lost at the plate, with an OPS of .417 in 20 plate appearances. And while Jayson Werth had been back for nearly five weeks, his OPS since returning of .512 suggested that he wasn’t fully recovered. The other big lineup weakness was catcher, where Matt Wieters, after starting great in April (OPS of .934), had been awful the rest of the season, with monthly OPS from May to September of .561, .578, .576, .609, and .481. It was a problem that should have been taken care of at the trade deadline when catchers had been available (for example, the Cubs picked up Alex Avila), but between eating Weiters’ $10 million salary and his hot April start leading to false hopes of a turnaround, the Nats weren’t willing to make the move.

The basic starting lineup would be (C) Matt Wieters, (1B) Ryan Zimmerman, (2B) Daniel Murphy, (3B) Anthony Rendon, (SS) Trea Turner, (LF) Jayson Werth, (CF) Michael A. Taylor, and (RF) Bryce Harper. Considering Werth’s late season struggles, it might have made sense to play a platoon of Howie Kendrick and Adam Lind in left field, but Dusty Baker likes to be loyal to his starters and stuck with a fixed lineup with Werth starting every game in left.

On the bench, besides Kendrick and Lind, the Nats went with Jose Lobaton, Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin, and 20-year old uber-prospect Victor Robles. Carrying both Goodwin and Robles was a bit of a surprise, though as it turned out, Dusty didn’t make much use of either of them.

With Max Scherzer coming off a hamstring issue in his final start, he was given some extra rest and ultimately was given the Game 3 start. The other starters were expected to be Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark. The bullpen had four lefties: closer Sean Doolittle, Sammy Solis, Oliver Perez, and Enny Romero, and three righties: Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, and Matt Albers. By carrying six bench players, they decided to forego carrying a long reliever (presumably either Edwin Jackson or A.J. Cole.)

Game 1, Friday October 6, Hendricks vs. Strasburg, Cubs win 3–0 . Strasbyrg pitched great. He went 7 innings, striking out 10, and carrying a no-hitter for 5-2/3 innings. But the Nats hitters couldn’t solve Hendricks, against whom the Nats scattered 2 hits and 3 walks in 7 innings. The sixth inning was the crucial one, when Rendon muffed a groundball that Baez, leading off the inning, hit sharply down the line. The TV announcers thought the ball was foul when Rendon tried to pick it, but the replays were inconclusive, and regardless, it was not subject to appeal. After a sacrifice bunt and a flyball out, Bryant drove in the first run with a single to right (the first hit of the game), and then advanced to second when Harper overthrew the cut-off man. Harper’s mistake was costly, as Rizzo immediately drove him in with another single. In the eighth, the Cubs scored a third run on a pair of doubles off Madson, while Edwards, and then Davis, retired the last six Nats batters.

Game 2, Saturday October 7, Lester vs. Gonzalez, Nats win 6–3. The wind was blowing out. In the bottom of the first, Rendon hit a home run to the right-field bullpen. In the top of of the second, the Cubs answered when Contreras lofted a solo home run to left. In the top of the fourth, Gonzalez allowed a lead-off double to Bryant followed by a home run from Rizzo that didn’t need any help from the wind, and the Cubs led 3 to 1. Gonzalez pitched five innings (twice through the lineup), while Lester lasted six and got out of a bases-loaded jam unscathed in his final inning. The eighth inning ranks alongside Werth’s 2012 Game 4 walk-off in the annals of Nationals post-season heroics. Lind led off the inning with a single, and after a Turner strikeout, Harper drove a home run to tie the game. After that, Rendon walked, Murphy singled, and Zimmerman added another home run, this one barely clearing the fence with the help of the wind. The Nats had broken their batting slump and Doolittle shut out the Cubs in the ninth for a 6 to 3 victory.

Where do the Harper and Zimmerman homers rank among Nationals’ post-season hitting heroics? The website Baseball Gauge has a statistic, championship win-probability added, which is designed to answer that question. Think of it as similar to win-probability added, but instead of measuring the impact of a play on the probability of winning the game, it’s the probability of winning the entire season, so Game 5 heroics, for example, receive more weight. According to this metric, and limiting ourselves to the games the Nats won (for example, we tend not to remember Chris Heisey’s 2016 Game 5 home run as particularly heroic because the Nats still fell short), they rank as follows:

  1. Werth’s walk-off homer (2012 Game 4)
  2. Tyler Moore‘s 2-RBI single giving the Nats a 3–2 lead (8th inning of 2012 Game 1)
  3. Harper’s game-tying 2-run homer (8th inning of 2017 Game 2)
  4. Lobaton’s 3-run homer giving the Nats a 3–2 lead (4th inning of 2016 Game 2)
  5. Taylor’s grand slam giving the Nats a 5–0 lead (8th inning of 2017 Game 4)
  6. Zimmerman’s 3-run homer giving the Nats a 6–3 lead (8th inning of 2017 Game 2)
  7. Werth’s game-tying RBI double (3rd inning of 2016 Game 3)
  8. Ian Desmond single, advancing Michael Morse to third, ahead of Moore’s RBI single (8th inning of 2012 Game 1)
  9. Rendon’s 2-run homer giving the Nats a 4–1 lead (3rd inning of 2016 Game 3)
  10. Adam LaRoche‘s solo home run giving the Nats a 1–0 lead (2nd inning of 2012 Game 4)

Moore’s single is the surprise on this list—home runs are more memorable. But considering the game situation, it makes sense that it ranks this high on the list.

Game 3, Monday October 9, Scherzer vs. Quintana, Cubs win 2–1. Most of the Nats had never faced Quintana. Kendrick had faced him in the American League with success, 5 for 10, so I was hoping that Dusty would let him start in left in place of Werth, who at that point was 0 for 8 in the first two games. But Dusty stuck with his standard lineup, and the Nats mostly flailed, managing only two hits in Quintana’s 5-2/3 innings. The Nats managed to score an unearned run in the sixth when Murphy came to bat with two outs and hit a fly ball to left that Schwarber missed and then booted, charged with two errors and allowing Murphy to reach third. Strop relieved Quintana, and Zimmerman hit a double to drive in Murphy. The Cubs made a couple of additional errors that night for a total of 4, though the Nats weren’t able to capitalize on the others.

Meanwhile, Scherzer was pitching brilliantly and held the Cubs hitless through 6-1/3, though there were indications his hamstring was still bothering him. The first indication that he may have been tiring was in the sixth, when Jay led off with a rocket to deep center that Taylor was able to run down. Scherzer started the seventh at 90 pitches; Dusty had said he wasn’t going to allow Max more than about 100 pitches. After getting Contreras to strike out, Scherzer gave up his first hit, a double by Zobrist, and Dusty pulled Scherzer for Solis. Schwarber—who had hit 30 home runs in 486 plate appearances—was due up, but Maddon countered with pinch hitter Almora, who had hit .342 against left-handed pitching. Solis pitched to Almora and he singled, tying the game. He gave up another single to Heyward, then Kintzler came in and got out of the inning on an unconventional double play, when Taylor made a great play running down a fly ball that Russell hit in the gap, then doubling up Heyward off first.

Should Dusty have pulled Scherzer? I think that despite the no hitter, Scherzer was showing signs of tiring and it was time to turn things over to the bullpen. There was a debate whether Solis or Kintzler was the better reliever to bring in, but I think Solis (who has been lights out in the second half) was defensible—though he should have tried to pitch around Almora. But I think there was another strategy that hasn’t been discussed as much. Dusty had let Strasburg bat with two outs in the top of the seventh. With Scherzer on a short leash and with maybe only 10 pitches remaining, I think the optimal strategy would have been to pinch hit for him in the top of the inning, then start off the seventh with Kintzler. Maybe the pinch hitter might have gotten the Nats another run, and maybe the relief corps would have done better starting a fresh inning. Other managers, like Dave Roberts with Kershaw, have been more protective of their aces’ innings, and I think the Nats have been hurt by trying to wring an extra inning from their starters.

In the eighth, with the score tied, Kintzler gave up a lead-off walk to  La Stella. After a sacrifice, Kintzler struck out Bryant. Perez was brought in to face Rizzo, and we have our second strategic debate. Rizzo said he was shocked that the Nats would pitch to him with first base open, and after he flared a single into short left field he could be seen yelling “Respect me!” While there certainly is a case for intentionally walking Rizzo in that situation, Contreras was on deck. In that situation, I’ll defend pitching Dusty for having Perez pitch to Rizzo, and Perez, in fact, did was he was supposed to do, inducing weak contact from the Cubs star. The real strategic problem in my opinion, was that Dusty hadn’t made another move that he should have made. Werth was still playing left field in the late innings of a close game, when I think he should have been lifted for a better fielder. At least, that seems like the rationale for carrying both Goodwin and Robles as backup outfielders—to get Werth off the field late in a game when every out counts. I’m confident that Robles would have caught Rizzo’s flare, and pretty confident that Goodwin could have caught it too. As it was, I think Turner might have caught it if he’d been less hesitant, and Taylor might even have had a chance if he’d dived. But no one took charge, and a little pop fly that most left fielders would have caught was allowed to drop between three fielders.

Game 4, Wednesday October 11, Strasburg vs. Arrieta, Nats win 5–0. The Nats were facing elimination. The game was scheduled for late Tuesday afternoon, with Roark as the scheduled starter, but a rainstorm led to postponement until Wednesday. The question immediately arose, would the Nats be able to substitute Strasburg as starting pitcher, now that he would be on full rest? To everyone’s shock, the Nats said no, Roark would still start because Strasburg was “under the weather.” It was a communications debacle, with the Nats repeatedly giving out incorrect information and the baseball press, with little else going on, using the news as yet another opportunity to slam Strasburg. Sportscasters, many of whom are former athletes, love to engage in macho posturing, and they replayed the image of Strasburg that they had fashioned five years earlier during the shut-down, as a wimp who couldn’t be trusted to come through for his team when it needed him. I honestly can’t understand how the Nats management and communications staff could do such an awful job of handling the situation and leave one of their star players to be crucified by the national press.

Strasburg answered the brouhaha only way he could, by asking to pitch Game 4 and then pitching superbly. He went 7 shutout innings, striking out 12 and giving up 3 hits and 2 walks. Baker, frustrated by the Nationals’ lack of hitting, finally made his big “line-up change”—having Werth bat second and Rendon bat sixth, a lineup he had used in the first half when the Nats were scoring a lot of runs. There’s no real evidence that the new lineup helped, and personally I’d rather that Rendon have had more at-bats and Werth, fewer, but the Nats did score more runs over their last two games using this lineup. The Nats’ first run came in the third, when Turner scored from third on a two-out ground ball from Zimmerman that Russell booted for an error.

It was 1–0 until the top of the eighth. The inning began inauspiciously, when Harper struck out and Zimmerman, after reaching on a walk, was picked off first base by Lester. But Murphy followed with a single, driving Lester from the game, and Edwards gave up a wild pitch and two walks, loading the bases for Taylor. Wade Davis was brought in to get the inning’s final out, but Taylor drove a high fastball to right field against the wind, barely reaching the basket for a grand slam home run. Madson and Doolittle eached pitched an inning without allowing a run, and the Nats could move on to Game 5.

Game 5, Thursday October 12, Hendricks vs. Gonzalez, Cubs win 9–8. It was such a crazy game with so many things we could talk about; I won’t be able to get to many of them.

In the top of the first, Gonzalez was already struggling—he gave up a lead-off double to Jay, who scored following a wild pitch and an RBI ground-out. Then, with two outs, he gave up a walk, a single, and another walk to load the bases, before getting out of the jam without giving up another run. In the bottom of the inning, Turner singled to lead off, stole second, and advanced to third on a Werth fly-out. Harper grounded sharply to Baez at second, who made a great throw to nail Turner at the plate, ending the Nats’ bid to answer the Cubs’ go-ahead run.

In the second, Gio set down the Cubs in order, and Murphy led off the bottom of the inning with a solo homer, tying the game. Then Rendon and Wieters each singled and Taylor hit a 3-run homer to give the Nats a 4–1 lead. It was still early, but at the time the prospects were looking good for the Nats (win probability of 82.3%). It was, however, mostly downhill after that.

In the third, Gio struggled again, giving up a lead-off double, two one-out walks to load the bases, an RBI ground-out, and another wild pitch to score another run. The Nats’ lead was down to one run. Gonzalez’s evening was done after three innings, 3 runs allowed, and 4 runners left on base. Albers pitched a 1-2-3 fourth inning, while Scherzer warmed up. Meanwhile, Hendricks seemed to be back in control and got through the third and fourth innings without giving up a run, with the Nats scattering three singles.

Fifth inning. The top of the fifth is the inning that will live in infamy. Scherzer came out to pitch in relief. While bringing in ace starters to pitch in relief in post-season play has become popular since Bumgarner’s 5-inning save in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, the strategy often hasn’t been successful. Things looked good for the first two batters—Scherzer retired Bryant on a grounder and Rizzo on a fly-ball. But then Contreras and Zobrist each singled, and Russell doubled, driving in both runners. The Nats were suddenly trailing 5 to 4.

After Scherzer fell behind Heyward in the count, and with Baez on deck, Dusty decided to have him intentionally walked. Scherzer struck out Baez on three pitches swinging—but Wieters failed to catch the third strike, a low slider, and it rolled toward the backstop as Baez ran to first. Wieters probably should have just held the ball, since it appeared that Baez would have been safe at first, but instead Wieters threw it away into right field and Russell scored. Wieters spoke to Jerry Layne, the umpire, and the replay showed that Wieters had clearly been hit in the helmet on the backswing—after the ball had slipped under his glove—but the umpires conferred and decided to leave the original call unchanged. I’ll talk more about the controversial call in a minute. Runners were now on second and third. The next batter reached on catcher interference when Wieters’ glove touched the bat, loading the bases. Scherzer hit the next batter, making the score 7 to 4, before finally retiring Bryant on a fly ball. With two outs, seven consecutive batters had reached base, including a bizarre mixture of rare plays, and 4 runs had scored.

Wieters seems to have become the goat of this inning, but Scherzer also clearly didn’t have his best stuff. Should Dusty have avoided bringing in Scherzer? Sure, in retrospect maybe it looks like we would have been better off asking Albers to pitch a second inning, or bringing in someone else. (Enny? Tanner?) But with Scherzer saying he was willing and able to pitch a couple of innings, I certainly thought that bringing him in to pitch mid-game was a good move. Where Dusty can be faulted, in my opinion, was in not preparing for the possibility that things might go awry. In a close must-win game, if a relief pitcher gives up three consecutive hits and two runs, the manager must be prepared to bring in a replacement. But for this inning, I remember a TV shot of the bullpen where no one was getting ready. After giving up the go-ahead run, Dusty left Max in to face five more batters and give up two more runs. I could see signs that Max was rattled as early as the Heyward at-bat—certainly, he should have been lifted before he hit Jay with a pitch. In this case, Dusty was managing like it was the regular season, not the middle of a do-or-die final game.

Let’s talk about Layne’s decision on the backswing. Twitter lit up with references to Rule 6.03(a)(3), particularly this paragraph:

If a batter strikes at a ball and misses and swings so hard he carries the bat all the way around and, in the umpire’s judgment, unintentionally hits the catcher or the ball in back of him on the backswing, it shall be called a strike only (not interference). The ball will be dead, however, and no runner shall advance on the play.

That paragraph seems perfectly clear – if the batter swings and misses and hits the catcher on the backswing, it’s a strike and the ball is dead, and no runner shall advance. The rule does allow for umpire judgment, but only in determining whether the bat hit the catcher, not on whether the play should continue. But Layne told Matt and Dusty that the rule applied only when a runner was stealing a base, not for a passed ball. He also told them that, in his judgment, the bat contact didn’t cause the passed ball (which was true) or affect his fielding of the ball. Layne’s opinion was not consistent with rule shown above, but as Craig Edwards of FanGraphs explained, there’s another rule that may be applicable and possibly consistent with Layne’s ruling, Rule 6.01(a)(1):

It is interference by a batter or a runner when:

(1) After a third strike that is not caught by the catcher, the batter-runner clearly hinders the catcher in his attempt to field the ball. Such batter-runner is out, the ball is dead, and all other runners return to the bases they occupied at the time of the pitch;

Unlike Rule 6.03(a)(3), this rule is clearly referring to a case when a catcher fails to catch a third strike. Furthermore, the rule appears to allow for more umpire discretion, because the umpire is the one who decides whether the batter “clearly hinders the catcher in his attempt to field the ball.” If Layne had this rule in mind, his explanation that, in his opinion, the contact didn’t affect the fielding of the ball would seem to justify his allowing the play to proceed. In the Edwards’ opinion, Layne applied the right rule in this case.

I disagree with Edwards’ interpretation. I keep coming back to the the parenthetical comment in Rule 6.03(a)(3) that says that when the bat unintentionally hits the catcher, the play is “not interference.” If hitting the catcher on the backswing is not interference, than how could Rule 6.01(a)(1), which deals expressly with batter/runner interference, be the applicable rule? The only possible rationale would be that the contact is generally not interference, but becomes interference only in the special case when a third strike isn’t caught. But I don’t see anything in either of the rules that would support that interpretation. At a minimum, I have to say that the rule book is sufficiently ambiguous about which rule applies in this case that the league really should clarify it. I side with the opinion that 6.03(a)(3) is the more relevant paragraph. And with two runs scored that inning after the backswing at stake (since the inning would have ended with a strikeout), it means we wuz robbed.

One more comment. Dusty didn’t file a protest, but if he had, I’m not sure MLB has thought about how it could handle it. For the post-season, I’d recommend that the umpiring staff that handles replays also be given authority to promptly adjudicate protests. It might require a five to ten minute delay of game for them to review the applicable rules, but given that it would be nearly impossible to replay a protested playoff game, it seems like the league really should set up a mechanism to handle the possibility.

Innings 6 through 9. Kintzler pitched the sixth and the Cubs got another run on a freak play, this time a Russell line drive that Werth missed as he battled the lights, which turned into a double and scored Zobrist from first. The Nats were trailing 8 to 4. In the bottom of the inning, the Nats got a little two-out rally going. Werth walked, then Harper doubled, advancing Werth to third, and Zimmerman walked, with a wild pitch coming on the fourth ball to score Werth and advance Harper to third. Murphy hit a double, scoring Harper and advancing Zimmerman to third. There’s been some discussion of whether Zimmerman should have scored on the double, and after looking at the replay it seems to have been cleanly fielded, so I’m doubtful that Zimmerman could have made it. The Cubs then walked Rendon to load the bases, then Wieters drove the ball down the right-field line, but Heyward chased it down to end the inning. The Cubs lead had been narrowed to 8 to 6.

Think about that Wieters flyball that Heyward caught. Perhaps because Heyward is one of the best defensive right fielders in baseball, the play didn’t look impressive on the replay, and it probably won’t make the post-season highlights. But according to Statcast, Heyward had to run 82 feet to make the catch, a catch that is typically made only 42% of the time. We’ve seen that Wieters is being considered the goat of the game, but I can imagine an alternate reality in which he drove the ball ten feet farther, or in which the Cubs had to substitute a less speedy right fielder in place of Heyward, where Wieters would have driven in three runs and gone on to be remembered as the hero of the game. Baseball is a fickle sport.

Solis pitched the top of the seventh inning and got Baez to ground out before giving up a pair of singles to Schwarber and Jay, with Schwarber advancing to third. Madson was brought in, and Bryant hit a sharp ground ball to third. The Nats got the force at second, but were unable to turn the double play, so a run scored. The Nats appealed, claiming that Jay’s slide was illegal, but the umpires’ calls were upheld. I’ll talk more about the appeal in a bit. Madson got Rizzo to ground out, avoiding further damage, but the Cubs’ lead at the seventh-inning stretch was 9 to 6.

Taylor led off the bottom of the seventh with a walk, then Lobaton, having come in on a double switch, flied out. (Note: If Dusty was planning to double switch Wieters, why not have Kendrick pinch hit for him in the bottom of the sixth?) The Nats battled on, with a single from Turner and a walk to Werth loading the bases. Harper drove in Taylor with a sacrifice fly to center, but Maddon brought in Davis to face Zimmerman (and ultimately, to get a 7-out save), and Zimmerman struck out. The Cubs lead was back to two runs, 9 to 7.

In the top of the eighth, Madson retired the Cubs in order. In the bottom of the inning, the Nats staged their final attempted rally. Murphy and Rendon led off with consecutive walks, and Lind pinch hit for Madson. In his two prior series plate appearances, Lind was two for two, but he was unsuccessful this time, grounding into a double play. According to the Baseball Gauge’s championship win probability measure, Lind’s double play was the costliest out in the Nationals’ playoff history. But the Nats’ chances weren’t yet over. Next up was Taylor, and he singled, driving in Murphy. Lobaton followed with another single, and Turner was at bat with the tying run in scoring position and the go-ahead run on base. Cubs catcher, Contreras, loves to pick off runners caught sleeping at first, and he tried to catch Lobaton. Lobaton clearly beat the throw to first and the umpire initially ruled him safe, but on replay review the call was overturned because his foot had popped off the bag while Rizzo was still applying the tag. The inning, and the Nats’ last threat was over, and they were still trailing the Cubs 9 to 8.

From the views I saw on TV, I didn’t think there was “clear and convincing” evidence that Rizzo held the tag while Lobaton’s foot popped up (and neither did the TBS color commentator, who I believe was Ron Darling). But assuming the video reviewers had a better shot available and made the correct call, I still hate this play and this aspect of video review. Every other type of video review has just helped improve the accuracy of calls that umpires have always made. But when managers started challenging tags where the sliding base runner slightly loses contact with the bag while the tag is being held, runners started getting called out on a play that had never been called previously. Yes, we used to see runners called out when they over-slid the bag or lost contact on a hook slide, but never when their foot or hand was on top of the bag but briefly lost contact. In fact, you still seldom see that call made by a live umpire, so it almost only occurs with video review. Even if the reviewers got it right in this case, I’ve never liked the call and would really like the rule to be changed (see, for example, Dave Cameron’s proposal). By calling these pop-off tags, MLB is rewarding players who take cautious leads and make gentle slides. That ultimately hurts the base running game and makes the game less fun. I grew up as a baseball fan in the generation of Maury Wills and Lou Brock and reached maturity with Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines. Aggressive base running makes baseball fun and exciting; carefully maintaining foot contact with the base isn’t fun or exciting. Let’s change this rule and stop calling this type of out.

I have a similar problem with the call on Jay’s slide in the seventh inning to break up the double play. When MLB first changed the rule, I thought the intention was to stop players from unnecessarily using their bodies as projectiles to break up double plays. At first it seemed that way, but then I noticed on video review that their were still plenty of exceptions. If a player, like Jay, was sliding in a way that part of their body (say, his hands) were sliding into the base, he was still free to use his legs as a weapon against the fielder trying to turn the double play. I understand that technically this play is legal, but in my opinion that just means that the rule change didn’t go far enough. If we don’t want unnecessary, violent body contact between baseball players (and I don’t) let’s change the rule to prohibit all those types of plays. It seems like the previous rule change was just a half measure.

After all the drama, the ninth inning was anticlimactic. Doolittle retired the Cubs in order, then Davis, who would face nine batters and throw 44 pitches, got Turner to fly out and struck out Werth and Harper.

Post-game commentary. With each Nats post-season debacle, I find myself getting more and more emotionally detached. In 2012, I remember feeling almost depressed for the next couple of days, but now it just seems like something we almost expect to happen. Maybe next year.

I really hated Tom Boswell’s perspective column in the Washington Post. Although he did a nice job of enumerating the team’s many mistakes in Game 5. But I absolutely don’t buy his interpretation that the team’s mistakes are a sign of lack of “competitive passion.” I especially hate his interpretation that players who didn’t show a sense of anger in the locker room after the game were somehow morally deficient. Players are people, and people respond to disappointment in lots of ways. Some are demonstrative, while others, like lots of people, have become good at hiding their feelings. I will take the fact that the team kept battling back, even after they had fallen four runs behind in the sixth inning, as a better sign of their competitive will than what they were saying or not saying in the locker room afterwards. While I’ve long admired Boswell when he’s purely analytical, his constant attempts to make a morality tale out of every sports story is incredibly irritating.