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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. 

 

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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.

 

 

October 24, 2017 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ September in review: The best is yet to come

The Nats won the National League East by 20 games over the second place Marlins and finished with 97 wins. After counting down the magic number early in the month until the division was clinched, much of the rest of the month seemed to resemble spring training, with lots of playing time going to call-ups and most of the concern focused on getting ready for the play-offs. The Nats went 16—13 for the month (counting the season’s final game, which was actually played on October 1).

September began with the Nats on the road in Milwaukee, where they had lost the first game of a 4-game series. The Brewers won two of the remaining three games, taking the series from the Nats three games to one. The Nats next played the Marlins in Miami, where they swept a 3-game series. As the series ended, Hurricane Irma was approaching Florida.

Returning home, the Nats faced the Phillies for four games and had a chance to clinch the division. They took two of the first three games, and had Stephen Strasburg pitching in the finale on Sunday, September 10. Strasburg pitched 8 shutout innings, extending his scoreless innings streak to 34, and the Nats won 3 to 2, leaving their magic number at one. (Strasburg’s streak would end at 35 innings in his next start.) The Braves were playing the Marlins in Atlanta, and the Nats’ title would be clinched if the Marlins lost. Several thousand fans stayed at Nats park to watch the remainder of the Marlins-Braves game on the scoreboard, even doing the Tomahawk Chop as they rooted for the Braves. After an hour and a half, the Braves won on an 11th-inning walk-off homer—and the Nats had clinched. The team came onto the field and tossed t-shirts up to the faithful fans, then retired to the clubhouse for the traditional champagne-drenched celebration.

The home stand continued with the Nats losing two of three to the Braves, followed by losing two of three to the Dodgers.  Next, the played the Braves in Atlanta, where the Nats won two of three. Trea Turner stole his 42nd base, breaking the Washington Nationals team record held by Alfonso Soriano. The Nats went on to win two of three in their next series against the Mets in New York, and then traveled to Philadelphia to conclude their road trip against the Phillies.

In the second game of the Phillies series, Bryce Harper returned from his 6-week stint on the disabled list. Most of the core Nationals team that had started the season was finally back. (The exceptions were outfielder Adam Eaton, starting pitcher Joe Ross, and relief pitcher Koda Glover, who had all suffered season-ending injuries, and relief pitcher Shawn Kelley, who ended the season on the DL with bone spurs.)

The Nats lost two of three against the Phillies, then returned home for their final series against the Pirates. In a four-game set, they won the first two and lost the final two games, splitting the series.

During September, the Nats’ batting remained in the funk it had been in since the All-Star break. The Nats’ .311 on-base percentage for September ranked 12th of the 15 teams in the NL, and their .401 slugging percentage ranked 9th. Their weighted runs created relative to league (wRC+) was 84, or 16% below league average, ranking 12th in the league.

Uncharacteristically, the Nats’ starting pitching also struggled, with an earned run average relative to league (ERA–) of 100 (that is, the same as league average), which ranked 8th in the NL. In particular, Edwin Jackson, with an ERA– of 225, and Gio Gonzalez, with an ERA– of 125, especially struggled. The starters’ fielding independent pitching relative to league (FIP–) was 91, or 6th in in the league. The Nats’ strength in September was in the bullpen, which had an ERA– of 67 (4th in the league), and a FIP– of 75 (2nd in the league). Their RE24 of 14.74 ranked 4th, and they were tied for 2nd-fewest meltdowns (with 10) and for 2nd most shutdowns (with 31).

Record:

16–13 (.552)

Pythagorean Record:

14.5–14.5 (3.97 R/G – 3.97 RA/G)

September MVP:

Stephen Strasburg (4–0, 1.10 RA/9, 5 G, 32-2/3 IP,  11.0 K/9, .228 opp OBP, 2.0 RA9-WAR); he was named National League Pitcher of the Month.

Most valuable position player:

Trea Turner (.290/.361/.505, 27 G, 4 HR, 18 R, 12 RBI, 9 SB, 2 CS, 1.1 fWAR). Honorable mention goes to Michael A. Taylor (.284/.340/.558, 1.0 fWAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Sammy Solis (1–0, 0.00 RA/9, 9 G, 8-1/3 IP, .138 opp OBP, 5.23 RE24, 0.7 RA9-WAR, 3 shutdowns, 0 meltdown). Actually, Sean Doolittle won National League Reliever of the Month with his 8 saves in 9 opportunities, but Solis pitched more effectively.

Worst month:

Shared by Edwin Jackson (0–3, 10.23 RA/9, 5 G, 22 IP, 9.4 K/9, .385 opp OBP, –0.9 RA9-WAR) and Jayson Werth (.139/.222/.236, 20 G, 1 HR, 5 R, 7 RBI, –0.8 fWAR).

Best start this month:

Stephen Strasburg (September 10, 3–2 win over the Phillies at home). Later that afternoon, after the Braves beat the Marlins, the Nats would celebrate clinching the division, but Strasburg’s pitching gem was a necessary precursor. Strasburg pitched 8 shutout innings with 10 strikeouts, allowing 2 hits and 1 walk, for a game score of 87. In the ninth inning, Ryan Madson gave up two runs but still got the save.

Worst start:

Edwin Jackson (September 15, 7–0 loss to the Dodgers at home). Jackson gave up 7 runs on 6 hits and 2 walks with 2 strikeouts in 2-1/3 innings (game score 17).

Tough losses:

  • Tanner Roark (September 1, 1–0 loss to the Brewers in Milwaukee) gave up 1 run on 5 hits and 1 walk with 10 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 72).
  • Tanner Roark (Sepbember 21, 3–2 loss to the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits with no walks and 7 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 60).

Cheap win: 

  • Max Scherzer (September 8, 11–10 win over the Phillies at home) gave up 4 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks with 7 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 48).

Best shutdown: 

A.J. Cole (September 30, 4–1 loss to the Pirates at home). With a 1–0 lead and one out in the top of the fourth, Max Scherzer had to leave the game with a hamstring injury. Cole pitched 3-2/3 scoreless innings without giving up a hit. He allowed two walks and got two strikeouts (win probability added .312).

Worst meltdown:

Brandon Kintzler (September 30, 4–1 loss to the Pirates at home). It was the same game that saw Cole pitch the best shutdown. In the top of the ninth inning, with the Nats still holding onto their 1–0 lead, Kintzler allowed 4 runs on 3 singles, a walk, and a triple in 2/3 inning, and was charged with the blown save and loss. (WPA –.801).

Clutch hit:

Daniel Murphy (September 23, 4–3 win over the Mets in New York). Leading off the top of the tenth in a game tied 3–3, Murphy hit a home run to deep center field, giving the Nats the lead. (WPA .348).

Choke:

Adam Lind (September 22, 7–6 loss to the Mets in New York). In the top of the ninth, trailing 7 to 6, Lind came to bat with one out and runners on first and third. He flied out to short left field, unable to drive in the tying run (WPA –.213). In the following at bat, Victor Robles struck out to end the game.

Note: Due to travel, I wasn’t able to finish this post at the usual time shortly after the end of the month. I’m trying to “catch up” by posting this older material.

October 24, 2017 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ August in review: What’s best for this organization

August opened with the Nats holding a 14-game lead over the second-place Marlins. It would have taken an epic collapse for the Nats to lose the division, and by mid-August it was clear that no collapse would occur. The team went 18–11 in August and finished the month 15 games ahead of the Marlins and with a “magic number” of 15.

The month’s first series was in Miami. The Nats had won the series’ first game on the last day of July, but then lost the last two games of the series. In one of the them, Max Scherzer hit his first career home run, but then had to leave the game with a pinched nerve in his neck after a single inning pitched. The Nats then played the Cubs in Chicago, where they took two of three. Returning home, they won three of four against the Marlins and two of three against the Giants.

The first game against the Giants started late on a wet Saturday night—Friday night’s game had been rained out and Saturday’s game had been delayed three hours. In the first inning, everyone shuddered when Bryce Harper tried to beat out a grounder and slipped on the wet base, twisting and falling in pain. Initially it looked like it might be as bad as Adam Eaton‘s season-ending injury in April. We later learned that nothing was torn or broken—Harper had suffered a bone bruise and calf strain, but was expected to return in time for the playoffs.

At this point, the Nationals disabled list had gotten to be somewhat ridiculous. In a tweet, Dan Kolko of MASN listed the Nats players on the DL in mid-August:

Nats DL: 3 SP (Scherzer, Strasburg, Ross), 5 OF (Harper, Werth, Eaton, Goodwin, Raburn), 2 INF (Turner, Drew), 3 RP (Madson, Glover, Romero)

This is almost an entire team right here. And a damn good one

Games were being played by bench players and minor league call-ups like Adrian Sanchez, Andrew Stevenson, and Alejandro de Aza. But then, players gradually started returning from the DL and the team started to retake its form. Stephen Strasburg returned on August 19, Scherzer and Jayson Werth returned on August 28, and Trea Turner returned on August 29.

Sadly, during August we also learned that Nats co-owner Mark Lerner was battling cancer.

After the Giants series, the Nats concluded their home stand by splitting a two-game inter-league series with the Angels. Next, they were on to San Diego, where they took three of four against the Padres. They then won two of three against the Astros in Houston. Returning home, the Nats split a four-game series against the Mets, then swept a three-game series against the Marlins. The month ended with the Nats losing the first game of a road series against the Brewers in Milwaukee.

During August, the Nats’ offense slowed, with their hitters having an on-base percentage of .322 (ranking 8th of the 15 NL teams), and a slugging percentage of .402 (12th in the league). Their weighted runs created relative to league and adjusted for park effects (wRC+) was 85, or 15% below average, which ranked 13th in the league. Most of their regulars hit below their season average, with Matt Wieters (wRC+ of 63) and Michael A. Taylor (49) having especially disappointing months.

Pitching kept the team winning during August. The Nats’ starters had an ERA relative to league and adjusted for park effects (ERA–) of 70, which was 30% better than the league average and ranked first in the NL and second (to the Indians) in MLB. Their fielding independent pitching relative to league (FIP–) of 96 ranked third in the NL, behind only the Cubs and Diamondbacks. And after the acquisition of a trio of elite bullpen arms before the trade deadline, the Nats’ bullpen started to look good. The bullpen’s ERA– of 87 ranked fourth in the NL, their FIP– of 87 ranked third, and their 9 meltdowns were tied for second fewest.

Record:

18–11 (.621)

Pythagorean Record:

18–11 (4.45 R/G – 3.38 RA/G)

August MVP:

Stephen Strasburg (1–1, 0.86 RA/9, 3 G, 21 IP,  9.9 K/9, .211 opp OBP, 1.4 RA9-WAR). Honorable mention to Gio Gonzalez (4–1, 2.51 RA/9, 5 G, 32-1/3 IP, 7.5 K/9, .292 opp OBP, 1.3 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable position player:

A tie between Howie Kendrick (.357/.396/.619, 26 G, 5 HR, 12 R, 21 RBI, 0.8 fWAR) and Wilmer Difo (.324/.357/.438, 29 G, 1 HR, 15 R, 4 RBI, 0.8 fWAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Sean Doolittle (0–0, 1.38 RA/9, 13 G, 13 IP, .245 opp OBP, 4.42 RE24, 0.7 RA9-WAR, 9 shutdowns, 0 meltdown).

Worst month:

Alejandro de Aza (.125/.143/.219, 12 G, 36 PA, –0.4 fWAR).

Best start this month:

Stephen Strasburg (August 30, 4–0 win over the Marlins at home). Strasburg pitched a 9-inning shutout, the second of his career, with 8 strikeouts, allowing 6 hits and 1 walk, for a game score of 82.

Worst start:

A.J. Cole (August 2, 7–0 loss to the Marlins in Miami). Cole gave up 5 runs on 6 hits and 4 walks with 5 strikeouts in 5 innings (game score 36).

Tough losses:

  • A.J. Cole (August 13, 4–2 loss to the Giants at home in first game of a doubleheader) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks with 6 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 51).  
  • Tanner Roark (August 16, 3–2 loss to the Angels at home) gave up 3 runs on 4 hits and 2 walks with 3 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 58).
  • Stephen Strasburg (August 19, 3–1 loss to the Padres in San Diego) gave up 2 runs on 4 hits and 1 walk with 8 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 63).
  • Edwin Jackson (August 23, 6–1 loss to the Astros in Houston) gave up 2 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks with 1 strikeout in 6 innings  (game score 50).
  • A.J. Cole (August 25, 4–2 loss to the Mets at home) gave up 1 run on 4 hits and 4 walks with 8 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 64).

Cheap win: 

  • None

Best shutdown: 

Matt Albers (August 13, 6–2 win over the Giants at home in second game of doubleheader). Albers entered in the top of the tenth, with game tied 2–2. He pitched two scoreless innings, getting two strikeouts and allowing only a walk (win probability added .277).  Albers got the win when, in the bottom of the 11th inning, Howie Kendrick hit a walk-off grand-slam home run.

Worst meltdown:

Matt Albers (August 1, 7–6 loss to the Marlins in Miami). This was the game where Max Scherzer had to leave after one inning. Albers entered in the bottom of the fifth with runners on first and second, one out, and the Nats leading 6 to 3. The first batter he faced, Ozuna, hit a three-run homer to tie the game. He then gave up a single to Realmuto and a triple to Dietrich, making it 7 to 6, before retiring the next two batters and getting out of the inning (WPA –.436). Albers would be charged with the loss.

Clutch hit:

Ryan Zimmerman (August 17, 2–1 win over the Padres in San Diego). With two outs in the top of the 8th, the score tied 1 to 1, Zimmerman hit a solo home run to deep right field that would prove to be decisive (WPA .301).

Choke:

Matt Wieters (August 27, 6–5 loss to the Mets at home). In the bottom of the eighth, trailing 6 to 5, Wieters came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs. He grounded out to short (WPA –.198).

Favorite defensive play:

Andrew Stevenson, with the tying run on third base, made a diving, game-ending catch near the left-field foul line on a line drive from Gordon. Off the bat, I was sure that Gordon had tied the game, but Stevenson was perfectly positioned and made an amazing catch to end this 3–2 victory over the Marlins at home on August 10.

Note: Due to travel, I wasn’t able to finish this post at the usual time shortly after the end of the month. I’m trying to “catch up” by posting this older material.

 

August 3, 2017 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ July in review: It’s a continual experiment

In July, the Nats sent five players to the All-Star game and traded for three relievers—all with experience as closers—as well as for an experienced utility player. They also battled injuries and were giving a lot of playing time to the backup players. Their record in July was 16–8, and they ended the month with a 14-game lead in the NL East and a playoff berth almost guaranteed.

The month began with the Nationals in St. Louis, playing the last two games of a 3-game series against the Cardinals. They had lost Game 1 on the last day of June. They lost Game 2 also, though  it was close—a 2 to 1 loss with the last out recorded with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth. In Game 3, which was televised nationally, Bryce Harper hit two home runs and Max Scherzer pitched 7 shutout innings as the Nats avoided being swept.

Returning home, the Nationals swept the first two games of a series against the Mets, the second an 11 to 4 Independence Day victory. Game 3 was postponed due to a heavy rainstorm. The start of the first game of the next series, a four-game set against the Braves, was delayed three hours based on faulty weather forecast of heavy rain that never materialized. The result was a rare home game that was played after most fans were asleep. The Nationals lost the game and Michael A. Taylor suffered an oblique strain that sent him to the disabled list for the rest of the month. The next night Brian Goodwin took over the center field position, and the Nats came back from a three-run deficit to tie the game in the ninth and win the game 5 to 4 in the tenth. In the following game, Stephen Strasburg was hit in the hip by a come-backer and left the game after three rough innings. The Nats lost 13–0, suffering their first shutout of the season. (They would suffer two more before the end of the month.) The Nats won the final game of the series 10 to 5, garnering a split just before the All-Star break. But even the victory was costly, as starter Joe Ross had to leave the game with an injury. A few days later we would learn that his season was over, as he had to undergo Tommy John surgery.

The Nats were represented at the All-Star Game by starters Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Ryan Zimmerman, and Max Scherzer was the starting pitcher for the NL squad. Stephen Strasburg also made the team, though he didn’t appear in the game. Scherzer pitched a scoreless first inning with two strikeouts. Harper went 1 for 1 with a walk and gave a live on-air interview while playing right field. Murphy went 1 for 2, and Zimmerman went 0 for 2. The National League lost the game 2 to 1 in 10 innings.

There was some good legal news during the break, as an Appellate Court ruled in favor of the Nationals in their long-standing legal battle with the Orioles over their share of MASN revenues. The court ruled that their share of TV rights should be determined by an MLB committee, as the Nationals had argued. While there is no immediate financial effect, hopefully it will eventually shore up the long-term finances of the team.

After the break, the Nats began a road trip against the Reds in Cincinnati. They took advantage of the short fences and swept the four-game series, scoring 35 runs. We also learned that the foot injury that had kept Jayson Werth out since early June involved a fracture in addition to the previously announced bone bruise. Meanwhile, GM Mike Rizzo helped fix the team’s bullpen problem by trading with the Oakland A’s for relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle. The Nats had to give up Blake Treinen, who had been ineffective this season with the Nationals, and two prospects, Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse.

The Nats next went to Anaheim to face the Angels in a two-game series. In the first game, Edwin Jackson returned to the Nats for the first time since 2012, taking Ross’s place. But the media was focused on the fact that Harper was facing off against AL superstar Mike Trout for only the second time. Each player hit a solo home run in the first inning, but Harper went on to win the match, going 4 for 4. He only missed hitting for a cycle because he was thrown out at second by former Nat Ben Revere while trying to stretch a single. His lead-off triple in the eighth inning allowed him to score the go-ahead run in what would be a 4 to 3 Nats victory. Harper missed Game 2, which the Nats lost 7 to 0. They won the last series of their road trip in Arizona against the Diamondbacks two games to one, going 7–2 overall on the road trip. In the final game in Arizona, Strasburg had to leave the game early and was placed on the disabled list with “right elbow nerve impingement.”

Returning home, the Nats faced the Brewers and lost the first game 8 to 0, their third shutout in less than three weeks. But their offense was either hot or cold. The next night, Harper came to bat in the bottom of the eighth with the scored tied 2 to 2, one out, and runners on first and third. He struck out, but angrily argued a strike call and got ejected. The next batter, Zimmerman, hit a double, driving in two runs and giving the Nats the lead, and the Nats went on to score 6 two-out runs, ultimately winning the game 8 to 5. The next game, the Nats offense exploded for 15 runs, including 8 homers. In the third inning, the Nats hit four consecutive home runs (tying the MLB record) and five home runs overall.

For the next series, they hosted the Rockies. The first game was rained out, and would be made up in a Sunday doubleheader. With the trade deadline looming, the Nats traded for Howie Kendrick, who took Chris Heisey‘s place as the right-handed bench player. The Nats lost the first game against the Rockies, then split the doubleheader. On the last day of the month, the team made its final trade just minutes before the deadline, getting relief pitcher Brandon Kintzler from the Twins. The last game of the month was against the Marlins in Miami, taking place on the 25th birthday of the late Marlins pitcher, Jose Fernandez, ten months after his death. Gio Gonzalez, a Miami native and friend of Fernandez, got the start for the Nationals and took a no-hitter into the bottom of the ninth, when Dee Gordon broke it up with a lead-off single. Doolittle then came into the 1–0 game and got the save.

As in the previous months, the Nats success in July derived from the offense and starting pitching. Their on-base percentage, .330, ranked seventh in the National League; their slugging percentage, .475, ranked fourth, their batting average, .268, ranked sixth; they were second in home runs with 37, third in runs with 128, and fifth in weighted runs created (wRC+) with 106.

The starting pitchers ranked second in the NL in park-adjusted ERA relative to league (ERA–) with 69, and ranked fourth in fielding-independent pitching relative to league (FIP–) with 89. The relief pitching continued to be below average. They ranked 14th of 15 NL teams in RE24 (–8.65), 9th in shutdowns (16), 12th in ERA– with 113, and 10th in FIP– with 103.  The trades have upgraded the bullpen but results haven’t yet showed up in the numbers.

Record:

16–8 (.667)

Pythagorean Record:

15–9 (5.33 R/G – 4.17 RA/G)

July MVP:

A tie between Bryce Harper (.378/.456/.778, 23 G, 9 HR, 26 R, 22 RBI, 1.8 fWAR) and Anthony Rendon (.392/.500/.689, 22 G, 5 HR, 13 R, 19 RBI, 1.8 fWAR). They were the top two players in fWAR in the NL for July, though the league’s player-of-the-month award went to fifth-ranking Nolan Arenado.

Most valuable starting pitcher:

Gio Gonzalez (2–3, 2.14 RA/9, 6 G, 42 IP,  7.9 K/9, .235 opp OBP, 1.9 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Ryan Madson (1–0, 0.00 RA/9, 5 G, 5 IP, .222 opp OBP, 2.57 RE24, 0.4 RA9-WAR, 4 shutdowns, 0 meltdown).

Worst month:

Sammy Solis (0–0, 18.00 RA/9, 4 IP, .500 opp OBP, –5.64 RE24, –0.4 RA9-WAR, 0 shutdown, 1 meltdown).

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (July 2, 7–2 win over the Cardinals in St. Louis). Scherzer pitched 7 shutout innings with 12 strikeouts, allowing 2 hits and 2 walks, for a game score of 83. Runner up is Gio Gonzalez (July 31, 1–0 win over the Marlins in Miami). Gonzalez carried a no hitter for 8 innings before giving up a lead-off single in the ninth. He struck out 5 and gave up 3 walks and one hit batsman, for a game score of 82.

Worst start:

Erick Fedde (July 30, 10–6 loss to the Rockies at home in the first game of a doubleheader). In the major league debut of the Nats’ top pitching prospect, Fedde gave up 7 runs on 10 hits and 2 walks with 3 strikeouts in 4 innings (game score 15). I wonder how long he’ll have to carry that 15.75 ERA.

Tough losses:

  • Gio Gonzalez (July 1, 2–1 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis) gave up 1 run on 2 hits and 2 walks with 9 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 76).  
  • Gio Gonzalez (July 6, 5–2 loss to the Braves at home) gave up 3 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks with 6 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 50).

Cheap win: 

  • None

Best shutdown: 

Sean Doolittle (July 31, 1–0 win over the Marlins in Miami). With a 1–0 lead, Gio Gonzalez had  given up a lead-off single in the bottom of the ninth, breaking up his no-hit bid. With the heart of the Marlins order coming up, Dusty Baker brought in Doolittle for the save. He got Giancarlo Stanton to ground into a double play. Then, after giving up a single to Christian Yelich, Doolittle got a pop-up from Marcell Ozuna to end the game (win probability added .329).

Worst meltdown:

Enny Romero (July 21, 6–5 loss to the Diamondbacks in Phoenix). Romero got the call to pitch the bottom of the ninth in a game that was tied 5–5. He gave a lead-off triple to A.J. Pollock, leaving him in a bind. Baker ordered intentional walks to Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt, loading the bases with no outs. (NOTE: I don’t approve of issuing intentional walks to load the bases, especially with a pitcher who walks nearly 10% of the batters he faces.) After getting the first out on a short flyball, Romero gave up a single to Brandon Drury to lose the game (WPA –.353).

Clutch hit:

Ryan Raburn (July 3, 3–2 win over the Mets at home). With two outs in the bottom of the 9th, runners on first and third, and the score tied 2 to 2, Raburn hit a blooper to left that Yoenis Cespedes trapped, driving in the winning run. On replay review, the call was upheld, giving the Nats the victory (WPA .362). Raburn has been a pretty marginal player this year, but for at least one game he was the hero.

Choke:

The statistics say this should go to Adrian Sanchez (July 1, 2–1 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis). In the bottom of the ninth, trailing 2 to 0, the Nats had rallied to score a run and had the bases loaded with two outs, when Sanchez, in his major league debut, got the call to come to bat as a pinch hitter. Facing Cardinal reliever Matthew Bowman, Sanchez battled to a 3–2 count. The ninth pitch of the at-bat came in outside, and Sanchez took it; he should have driven in the tying run. But umpire Manny Gonzalez called “strike 3” instead, and the game was over (WPA –.230). I think you can identify the pitch—the only red dot of the night that’s clearly outside the strike zone:

 

So I’m going to give the “Choke” award to umpire Manny Gonzalez instead of Sanchez, who deserved a better outcome than that from an outstanding first plate appearance.

Favorite defensive plays:

I’ll link to two of them this time.

  • Anthony Rendon dives into the stands to catch a foulball, with Stephen Drew falling in there behind him, in the first inning of the July 1 game in St. Louis.
  • Brian Goodwin ran in to make a diving catch to rob Mike Trout of a hit, in a game in Anaheim that at the time was tied 2–2 in the bottom of the seventh inning.
August 3, 2017 / Nat Anacostia

New book on the 1948 Homestead Grays

I’m not an expert on the Negro leagues, but the Homestead Grays of the 1940s (who split their home games between Washington DC and Pittsburgh) were arguably the most dominant team in Washington baseball history. So a few years ago I posted items on their 1943, 1944, and 1948 Negro World Series champsionship. I described the 1948 series between the Grays and the Birmingham Black Barons (who featured a young Willie Mays) as forgotten because of the relative dearth of information about it.

Now I can report that there’s quite a bit more information, thanks to a new book from SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World SeriesThe E-book is free for SABR members and inexpensive for non-members, and even the hardcopy is quite affordable. The book includes not only more detailed information than I was able to find about the series and the league championship series leading up to it, but also detailed biographies of the members of both teams. Many researchers contributed to this fine book. So if you’re interested in this relatively obscure part of American baseball history, I recommend that you get the book.

 

July 3, 2017 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ June in review: It is what it is

June was  tough month for the Nationals. With their 14–14 record, they were only playing at a .500 clip. Fortunately, the other teams in the weak NL East didn’t take advantage. By the end of the month, the Braves moved into second place, 8½ games behind. On June 29, the Nats’ young shortstop, Trea Turner, suffered a wrist fracture when hit by a pitch and the team learned he will probably be out of the lineup until September. In June, Turner had stolen 22 bases in 26 attempts, hit .298, and scored 23 runs.

As June began, the Nats were on a west coast road trip that had started with a sweep of the Giants. In a three-game series against the Oakland A’s, the Nats took two of three with scores that wouldn’t have been out of place for football—a 13 to 3 win, a 10 to 4 loss, and an 11 to 10 win. Next came the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and the Nats again took two of three, though with scores more befitting of a pitcher’s stadium—wins of 4 to 2 and 2 to 1, followed by a 2 to 1 loss. The Nats’ record on the road trip was an excellent 7–2.

Returning to Washington, the home stand began with a make-up game against the Orioles for an earlier rain-out. The Nats won 6 to 1. But the rest of the home stand turned bad, as the Nats were swept by the Texas Rangers. Their bats seemed to have died, as they only managed to score 6 runs in the three-game series. But their bullpen woes also returned in the second game of the series, when Koda Glover blew a 3 to 1 save opportunity in the ninth, and Shawn Kelly gave up a 3-run home run in the 11th for a 6 to 3 loss. After the game, Glover admitted to back injury and was placed on the disabled list (an injury report that was later expanded to include inflammation of the rotator cuff). In the third game against the Rangers, Oliver Perez and Blake Treinen were unable to keep the game tied in the eighth, resulting in a 5 to 1 loss for the Nats. The Braves were the next visitors, and the Nats bullpen again surrendered a lead in the ninth, with Matt Albers giving up a 9 to 8 lead with a 3-run home run. The Nats lost two of three against the Braves and ended the home stand with a 2–5 record.

Their next road trip began with a four-game series against the Mets. The Nats played well and won the first three games. Their next series was a three-game set against the Marlins in Miami. The Nats lost two games, both by one run, for a 4–3 record on their road trip.

Returning home, they faced the Reds for three games. They won the first game in walk-off fashion, 6 to 5 in 10 innings. They also won the second game, 18 to 3, before losing the finale. They next hosted the reigning  World Series champions, the Chicago Cubs, in a four-game set. In the first game, they avoided being shut out by staging a four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth, only to fall short with a 5 to 4 loss. They won the next two, but the Cubs were able to split the series when the Nats’ bullpen again blew a save in the finale, with Treinen taking a 4 to 2 lead into the ninth and giving up 3 runs. That was also the game when Trea Turner suffered his broken wrist. The month ended with the Nats playing the Cardinals in St. Louis, where they suffered an 8 to 1 loss.

In June, the Nationals’ strength continued to be its offense. Their on-base percentage (.341) ranked 5th in the NL, and their slugging percentage (.480) ranked 2nd, while their weighted runs created (wRC+) of 111 ranked third.

The starting pitching also performed well, ranking fourth in park-adjusted ERA relative to league (ERA–) with 93, and third in fielding-independent pitching relative to league (FIP–) with 89. They also led the league in innings pitched per start with 6.06. The problems of the relief staff were also apparent in the statistics. They ranked 14th of 15 NL teams in RE24 (–13.04), 12th in shutdowns (15), 14th in ERA– with 127, and last in FIP– with 113. After the third consecutive month of abysmal relief pitching, the Nats fans (and probably their players) are anxious for a pre-deadline trade.

Record:

14–14 (.500)

Pythagorean Record:

16–12 (5.75 R/G – 4.93 RA/G)

June MVP:

Max Scherzer (3–2, 1.98 RA/9, 5 G, 36-1/3 IP,  12.6 K/9, .187 opp OBP, 1.7 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable position player:

Anthony Rendon (.300/.414/.638, 24 G, 7 HR, 18 R, 18 RBI, 1.3 fWAR). Also, Michael A. Taylor (.299/.330/.619, 26 G, 7 HR, 20 R, 18 RBI, 1.1 fWAR) deserves a mention as runner up.

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Enny Romero (0–1, 1.15 RA/9, 13 G, 15-2/3 IP, .302 opp OBP, 4.15 RE24, 0.7 RA9-WAR, 1 save, 4 shutdowns, 1 meltdown).

Worst month:

Tanner Roark went (1–4, 9.20 RA/9, 30-1/3 IP, .404 opp OBP, –0.9 fWAR) for the worst month of his career.

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (June 21, 2–1 loss to the Marlins in Miami). You probably remember this game. Scherzer carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning and got 11 strikeouts in an 8 inning complete game, allowing 2 hits, 1 walk, and 2 unearned runs, for a game score of 84 in the quintessential tough loss. It all fell apart when Adam Lind couldn’t catch a throw for the third out. Also, the Nats’ offense couldn’t get anything going against Dan Straily and the Marlins’ bullpen.

Worst start:

Tanner Roark (June 19, 8–7 loss to the Marlins in Miami). He gave up 6 runs on 6 hits and 2 walks in 2-2/3 innings (game score 20), and left with the game tied 6 to 6. The bullpen took a tie into the ninth inning, but Romero gave up the walk-off run to the Marlins.

Tough losses:

  • Stephen Strasburg (June 7, 2–1 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles) gave up 2 runs (1 unearned) on 3 hits and 1 walk with 8 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 67). He had the bad fortune to face Clayton Kershaw. 
  • Max Scherzer (June 11, 5–1 loss to the Rangers at home) left a 1–1 game with one out in the top of the eighth, after allowing a runner to reach on an error and another to walk. The bullpen allowed the runners to score, as well as two more, with Scherzer charged with the loss. He gave up 3 runs (2 earned) on 3 hits and 1 walk with 10 strikeouts in 7-1/3 innings (game score 71).
  • Max Scherzer (June 21, 2–1 loss to Marlins in Miami). We already talked about this one (see “Best start this month“) – a game score of 84.

Cheap win: 

  • None

Best shutdown: 

Enny Romero (June 10, 6–3 loss to the Rangers at home). Romero came into the game in the top of the 10th and got four consecutive outs, before being replaced by Shawn Kelley with one out in the 11th (win probability added .198). Kelley would get a strikeout, then with two outs give up a double, an intentional walk, and a 3-run homer for the Nats’ 6 to 3 loss.

Worst meltdown:

Blake Treinen (June 29, 5–4 loss to the Cubs at home). Treinen came into the game in the top of the ninth with a 4–2 lead, looking for the save. After striking out the first batter, he hit the second batter, then got a forceout at second. After a two-out single, the Cubs had runners at first and third. Treinen then allowed another single (scoring one run) and a double (scoring two more) giving the Cubs the lead. He finally ended the inning with a groundout (WPA –.723). Wade Davis set the Nats down in order in the bottom of the ninth for the Cubs win.

Clutch hit:

Bryce Harper (June 23, 6–5 win over the Reds at home). With two outs in the bottom of the 10th, runners on first and third, and the score tied 5 to 5, Harper drove a line drive into deep right field for a walk-off single. (WPA .362).

Choke:

Ryan Zimmerman (June 26, 5–4 loss to the Cubs at home). Down 5 to 0 going into the bottom of the ninth, the Nats rallied for 3 runs and had the bases loaded  with two outs when Zimmerman came to bat. Wade Davis uncorked a wild pitch, allowing a fourth Nationals run and advancing the other two runners. Zimmerman then struck out to end the improbable rally and the game. (WPA –.244).