Archive for Nationals

Oakland Acquires Improbable, Inevitable Future MVP in Trade

In January of this year, the author of this post, following some statistical perambulations, arrived at the conclusion that Max Schrock, a 13th-round selection out of the University of South Carolina during the most recent (2015) draft, would someday win an MVP award. The basis for that conclusion: no SEC batter in 2015 had produced numbers more similar to Josh Donaldson‘s — during Donaldson’s own final year as a collegiate player (also in the SEC) — than Schrock. And Donaldson himself had just collected an MVP award in the American League. So, by a very liberal application of the transitive property, I concluded that Schrock would as well.

There were, of course, a number of reasons to suppose that Max Schrock would not win an MVP award in the major leagues. There remain a number of reasons. Chief among them is probably this: the best player of the current era — and possibly any one’s era ever — has received only one MVP award during his first four seasons in the majors and faces a non-negligible chance of extending that record to one in five years. If Mike Trout is capable of just a 20% conversion rate on MVP awards, everyone else’s chances are dramatically lower.

Moreover, there’s the matter of Schrock himself. Because, here’s a type of prospect who rarely develops into a perennial MVP candidate: a 5-foot-8 hitter. And here’s another kind: an infielder who’s incapable of playing a competent shortstop. And here’s a third sort: a player who’s selected in the 13th round. How many 5-foot-8, 13th-round second basemen have been recognized as their respective league’s best? I lack the requisite ambition to perform the search. But none seems like a reasonable answer. Let’s assume none or somewhere close to none. Indeed, even Josh Donaldson, whose ascent to stardom is regarded as improbable, is a former first-round selection. And features physical attributes that suggest the ability to hit for power. And offered, as a young player, the possibility of defensive value as a catcher. (And continues to offer it as a markedly above-average third baseman.) Schrock possesses none of these redeeming qualities.

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Projecting Max Schrock, the Return for Marc Rzepczynski

A 13th-round pick last year, infielder Max Schrock — received by Oakland today from Washington in exchange for left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski — has made something of a name for himself by putting up strong offensive numbers in the lower levels. He’s hitting .333 between two levels of A-ball this season, largely due to an 8% strikeout rate. That’s encouraging coming from a middle infielder with speed and decent power. As a result, he’s become a regular on Carson Cistulli’s Fringe Five column.

Despite his strong performance, KATOH isn’t a huge fan of Schrock. My system pegs him for 2.9 WAR over his first six seasons by the traditional method and 2.8 WAR by the method that integrates Baseball America’s rankings. That puts him in the #150-#200 range in terms of prospects. To help you visualize what his KATOH projection entails, here is a probability density function showing KATOH+’s projected distribution of outcomes for Schrock’s first six seasons in the major leagues.

Schrock

While Schrock’s hitting has been very good, KATOH dings him for being just 5-foot-8, and also for playing second base rather than shortstop. Second baseman with good numbers in the low minors don’t pan out all that often. There are some obvious exceptions to that statement, but it’s worth pointing out that those exceptions all provide defensive value, while Schrock has been eight runs below average at second base, according to Clay Davenport’s numbers.

To put some faces to Schrock’s statistical profile, let’s generate some statistical comps for the undersized second baseman. I calculated a weighted Mahalanobis distance between Schrock’s performance this year and every A-ball season since 1991 in which a batter recorded at least 400 plate appearances. In the table below, you’ll find the 10 most similar seasons, ranked from most to least similar. The WAR totals refer to each player’s first six seasons in the major leagues. A lower “Mah Dist” reading indicates a closer comp.

Please note that the Mahalanobis analysis is separate from KATOH. KATOH relies on macro-level trends, rather than comps. The fates of a few statistically similar players shouldn’t be used to draw sweeping conclusions about a prospect’s future. For this reason, I recommend using a player’s KATOH forecast to assess his future potential. The comps give us some interesting names that sometimes feel spot-on, but they’re mostly just there for fun.

Max Schrock’s Mahalanobis Comps
Rank Name Mah Dist KATOH+ Proj. WAR Actual WAR
1 Chad Akers 2.51 2.8 0.0
2 Jesus Mendoza 2.65 1.4 0.0
3 Lonnie Webb 2.91 2.1 0.0
4 Miguel Flores 2.94 3.3 0.0
5 Scott Hairston 3.20 2.5 5.2
6 Ralph Milliard 3.40 1.4 0.2
7 Kary Bridges 3.45 1.9 0.0
8 Delwyn Young 3.46 1.6 0.5
9 Marty Malloy 3.58 1.8 0.0
10 Alberto Callaspo 3.64 2.7 7.3

As Dave Cameron pointed out, Rzepczynski is a mediocre left-handed reliever, and a month of his services probably could have been had for next-to-nothing. Schrock probably won’t win any MVP awards, but there’s a pretty decent chance he’ll be a useful role player in a couple of years. That’s demonstrably more than next-to-nothing.


Nationals Play Scrabble, Probably Lose

One of the recurring themes over the last year has been the high price the market is putting on relief pitchers. Ken Giles and Craig Kimbrel brought back monster returns in trades last winter, while even decent middle relievers were getting two or three year deals as free agents. At last month’s trade deadline, Aroldis Chapman got the Yankees a terrific haul. It’s clearly a good time to be selling relief pitching.

And today, it looks like those rising prices have trickled down to mediocre lefty specialists, as the Nationals gave up a legitimately interesting prospect for a five week rental of Mark Rzepczynski. The guy nicknamed Scrabble is a useful situational reliever, having held lefties to a .270 wOBA in his career — don’t put any stock on his 2016 reverse split, which is all BABIP driven — but he’s useless against righties (.351 career wOBA allowed) so he’s effectively a one out guy.

Of course, the Nationals already have exactly this kind of pitcher in Oliver Perez, who they signed for $7 million over two years last winter. Perez hasn’t been as good as they hoped this year, and has been particularly bad lately, getting torched for a .473 wOBA in August. But he’s still held lefties to a .316 wOBA this year after keeping them to just a .230 wOBA last year, and is at .306 for his career; you’d have to really overreact to five bad innings in August to think that the Nationals needed to give up real value to improve their lefty specialist for the playoffs.

For the right to marginally upgrade their LOOGY, a guy who might face four or five batters in an entire playoff series, the Nationals surrendered a 21 year old currently running a 131 wRC+ in high-A ball. Max Schrock isn’t an elite prospect or anything, but he’s been a fixture on Carson’s Fringe Five all year, based on his strong contact rates and at least a little bit of power. As a diminutive second baseman, it’s easy to look at Schrock as a limited upside guy, but with Jose Altuve on the verge of getting AL MVP votes, we should remember that the idea of firm upside ceilings are much less concrete than is often thought.

Schrock’s more likely future is as a bench bat, but even if he’s just Alberto Callaspo 2.0, giving that up for a marginal gain in lefty specialists seems weird.

So why did the Nationals do this? Well, the deal was announced as Rzepczynski and cash for Schrock, so presumably, Oakland is paying some of the remaining ~$800K or so left on his contract this season. But according to sources in the game, Rzepczynski actually cleared waivers before this trade was completed, so the Nationals could have simply had him for just a the waiver fee, and kept a legitimately interesting prospect in their system.

So, effectively, the Nationals just sold a decent prospect for some cash savings in order to bolster the least important part of their bullpen. I know the value of relievers is going up, but deals like this still seem silly to me. Maybe Scrabble will get a big out or two in October and it will seem worth the long-term cost, but Rzepczynski seems like the kind of guy the Nationals should have gotten for next to nothing. When the market is inflating reliever prices to the point you have to give up a legitimately interesting 21 year old for a five week rental of a LOOGY, maybe it’s just time to stop paying market prices for relievers and go with what you already have.


Stephen Strasburg Has a Problem

There ought to be no shame in a pitcher struggling at Coors Field. Many of the greatest pitchers on the planet have been humbled in that stadium and, last week, Stephen Strasburg became merely the latest among them. Allowing nine runs before being pulled in just the second inning, Strasburg posted what was far and away the worst performance of his career. He’d never previously given up more than seven runs in a game and his game score of 1 was not only his lowest mark ever, but is tied for seventh worst in baseball this season. Ideally, this could be written off as a Coors fluke for one of the game’s best pitchers, but instead it’s served to illuminate the frustrating reality that Strasburg has struggled mightily of late.

Over his last six outings, Strasburg has given up 26 runs in 30.2 innings pitched. Crunch the numbers and you’ll find that works out to a decidedly un-ace-like 7.63 ERA. These six outings have caused his season ERA to rise more than one full run, from 2.51 to 3.59. The good news is that there’s more than a little hope to be found in his peripheral stats. Over this awful stretch, his FIP is a massively more palatable 3.25, largely on the strength of a solid 29.1% strikeout rate and a roughly league-average 7.8% walk rate. It also likely won’t surprise you to learn that he’s posted an inflated .388 BABIP during this rough patch. Unfortunately, this is not to say Strasburg’s swoon has been entirely devoid of red flags.

In mid-June, Strasburg hit the disabled list with a back injury. Considering a back injury was the primary culprit in Strasburg’s first-half struggles last season, this latest DL stint was an unavoidably alarming development. Fortunately, he made a swift return to the mound. Any hopes that he’d escape the performance struggles which plagued him a year ago, however, have been derailed by his recent stretch. Whether those struggles are directly related to the injury is unknowable, but there are observable things about Strasburg which have changed since his return.

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The Thing About Bryce Harper’s 2015

Bryce Harper was as good as Mike Trout, until he wasn’t. It hasn’t yet been that big of a deal, with the Nationals up in first place, but Harper has been slumping, and the slump hasn’t been short. For weeks on end, he’s hit barely .200, and though the walks have still been there, Harper’s supposed to be better than this. He’s supposed to be one of the best, actually. That’s what he just looked like, at 22 years old, and instead now he’s a 23-year-old in a lineup being carried by Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos. To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being on track for a four-win season. It’s just not how you want to follow a nine-win season.

There are plenty of indicators to point to. What happened to Harper’s numbers? His BABIP is a lousy .237. That’s guaranteed to come up. More discouragingly, he’s making more contact against pitches out of the zone. Last year, 70% of Harper’s batted balls came against pitches within the strike zone. That ranked him in the 67th percentile. This year he ranks in the 18th percentile. That partially explains why Harper’s exit velocity has dropped — and it has indeed dropped. That’s another thing. Harper so far has lost a tick or two on average.

Yet there’s still more. We all figured that Harper’s 2015 dramatically changed his own baseline. What if it shouldn’t have?

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Three Ways to a Super Sinker

Try to imagine the ideal sinker. What do you see? Probably a pitch that sits in the high 90s, right? And features tremendous sink and fade. And induces ground ball after ground ball. And, because it’s being thrown with max effort, probably one coming out of a reliever’s hand, right?

If you’re imagining a pitch that meets all four of those criteria, you probably see Blake Treinen throwing it. Or Sam Dyson. Or Zach Britton. If not, you should be.

If you limit the pool of commonly used sinkers to those which average 94 or more mph and then sort for sink, those three names soar to the top. And each gets to that movement in a different way.

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Trade Deadline 2016 Omnibus Post

As it has been the past few years, the 2016 non-waiver trade deadline brought about a flurry of activity that was hard to keep up with even if it was the only thing you were doing. Since most of us have other things that we have to or would like to occupy our time with, we figured we would save you some hassle and create an omnibus post with all of our trade deadline content so that you have it all in one place. For clarity’s sake, I’m going to limit this to articles about trades that actually took place.

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Projecting the Prospects Traded Over the Weekend

A bevy of trades went down over the weekend, as this year’s trade deadline-season entered into full swing. Here are the prospects who changed teams the last couple of days, as evaluated by my newly updated KATOH system. KATOH denotes WAR forecast for first six years of player’s major-league career. KATOH+ uses similar methodology with consideration also for Baseball America’s rankings.

The Andrew Miller Trade

Clint Frazier, OF, New York (AL)

KATOH: 2.7 WAR
KATOH+: 4.7 WAR

Frazier had been promoted to Triple-A a week ago after slashing a strong .276/.356/.469 with 13 steals at Double-A this year. He pairs a high walk rate with decent power and speed, making him one of the most promising offensive prospects in baseball. Despite possessing average speed, Frazier plays mostly the corner-outfield spots these days, and hasn’t graded out particularly well there defensively. This suggests most of his big-league value will come from his hitting. Still, considering he’s a 21-year-old who’s already mastered Double-A, his future looks bright.

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Nationals Acquire Elite Reliever for Relative Bargain

The Washington Nationals started with their sights on Aroldis Chapman. They’d deemed their bullpen to be in need of an upgrade, and Chapman was the most obvious candidate. Obviously, that didn’t happen. And not only did it not happen, but the return for Chapman was so high that clubs still interested in Andrew Miller could be seen as effectively priced out. From Washington, the Yankees reportedly asked for top prospect Lucas Giolito in exchange for Miller, and no matter what the tweets say, that was never going to happen.

So the Nationals had to lower their sights a bit. But they didn’t have to lower them far, because after Chapman and Miller, they might have gone out and gotten the next-best thing:

It’s a trade that makes sense for both teams, as they all should. The Pirates may not be strong current contenders, but they remain future contenders, if that makes sense. We’ve got their playoff odds at 16%, which is still very much in the race, but makes them a longshot. What the Pirates have beyond this year, though, is a strong core coupled with a handful of promising, near-ready prospects that ought to keep the club’s contention window open for years to come. They’re not going away anytime soon, but they’ve been largely done in this season by uncharacteristically poor starting pitching.

So they moved an expiring piece. Mark Melancon‘s been a fixture of Pittsburgh’s recent revival, but he’s gotten expensive, and he’ll be a free agent at year’s end. Teams like the Pirates typically don’t retain relievers like Melancon when they hit the market, so they got what they could. That means Felipe Rivero, a lefty reliever who touches the high-90’s in the majors right now, and that means Taylor Hearn, a lefty (future) reliever who stands 6-foot-5 and touches the high-90’s in the minors right now. They’ve got Rivero for five more years. They’ve got complete control of Hearns. The Pirates sold, but not really. They made this year’s team slightly worse in going from Melancon from Rivero, but they’ve made future year’s teams better by adding Rivero (and Hearns) for a player who was set to be gone anyway. It’s the perfect kind of retooling move for a small-market team operating within a window of contention.

And yet, it’s hard not to view this return as relatively light, at least up against what the Yankees just received for Chapman. The Yankees got a top-25 prospect in Gleyber Torres, a fringe-100 prospect in Billy McKinney, a pitcher capable of starting with major league success under his belt in Adam Warren, and then some. Speculation around a Melancon-to-Washington trade invoked names like right-handed starter Erick Fedde, who ranked 61st in Baseball America’s midseason update. The actual return featured a pair of lefty relievers. Exciting lefty relievers, but lefty relievers nonetheless; one of whom has already had his clock started, the other of whom didn’t crack top-10 prospect lists in the Nationals’ system at the start of the season.

Of course, Chapman throws 105 and because of that, is Aroldis Chapman. Melancon isn’t that. But he’s closer than one might think! Like, for instance, since joining the Pirates in 2013, Melancon’s 1.80 ERA is the lowest among all 255 pitchers with at least 200 innings thrown. He’s been better at preventing runs than literally everyone over the last three-plus years. And while he might not do it with the sort of eye-popping stuff to which we’re accustomed from seeing of the game’s top relievers, there’s no arguing with the results:

Most Valuable Relievers, 2013-Present
Name IP K% BB% K-BB% GB% HR/9 ERA FIP WAR RA9-WAR tWAR
Aroldis Chapman 218 44.2% 10.9% 33.3% 37.8% 0.54 2.03 1.81 8.5 8.2 8.4
Dellin Betances 229 40.7% 9.0% 31.7% 48.2% 0.55 1.88 1.89 8.0 8.5 8.3
Kenley Jansen 240 37.8% 5.6% 32.2% 35.2% 0.71 2.13 1.95 8.4 8.1 8.3
Mark Melancon 260 23.8% 4.2% 19.7% 56.8% 0.31 1.80 2.27 6.9 8.7 7.8
Wade Davis 183 32.2% 8.8% 23.4% 45.3% 0.15 1.08 1.97 6.0 9.3 7.7
tWAR: 50/50 split of RA9-WAR and FIP-WAR

Again, the style is a bit different, but when we’ve talked about the Chapman’s and Jansen’s and Davis’ of the world, Melancon’s been right there all along. Here’s another way to view things, if you’re not as keen on using WAR to evaluate relievers:

Win Probability Added, all relievers, 2013-Present

  1. Mark Melancon, +11.74
  2. Tony Watson, +10.63
  3. Zach Britton, +10.55
  4. Wade Davis, +10.42
  5. Dellin Betances, +10.07

By WPA, no reliever’s been more valuable than Melancon during his time in Pittsburgh. By WAR, it’s only Chapman, Betances, and Jansen. You see the second name there on the WPA leaderboard also plays for the Pirates, so it’s not like they’re suddenly hurting for high-leverage relief options, and Watson will still be there next year, too. But the Nationals just added one of the game’s elite to an already great bullpen.

Not that there aren’t flags with Melancon. I’m hesitant to call them red flags, but they’re orange or maroon, maybe. His walk rate is still great, but it’s also the highest it’s been during his Pittsburgh tenure. The curveball’s being spotted less often at the bottom edge of the zone, and is more often winding up in the dirt, and batters are laying off:

Brooksbaseball-Chart

Fewer swings against the curve explains the slight uptick in walks, and it explains the downtick in ground balls — the curve has always been Melancon’s big ground ball pitch. Melancon doesn’t possess top-shelf raw stuff, so he’s thrived by limiting walks and homers. Limiting walks and homers are predicated on elite command, and there’s some evidence that the command could be starting to slip. For now, though, the command still looks great. And those maroon flags can be the next team’s concern, anyway; the Nationals only care about the next three months.

Funny thing about the Nationals bullpen is, before the Melancon trade, they were projected for 1.8 rest-of-season WAR, and after  they’re Melancon trade, they’re projected for… 1.8 rest-of-season WAR. But what they’ve done is shift their leverage, the sort of thing that a WAR projection might struggle to grasp. Melancon is now clearly the best option in Washington’s bullpen, and he’ll receive the most important innings. Less important innings are to follow for Jonathon Papelbon, as should be the case. Shawn Kelley remains elite. It’s the kind of 1-2-3 punch we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the late innings of playoff games.

And while I’ve referred to the cost as a bargain within this post, it’s really only a bargain relative to Chapman. Really, it’s the kind of return we should expect for three-plus months of an elite reliever. The kind of return we might’ve expected, say, a week ago. The Chapman move was just an outlier, for whatever reason. Take that how you will. The Pirates retooled, as they should have. The Nationals improved their high-leverage innings for the stretch run by acquiring one of the game’s best run preventers. It looks like a win for both clubs, and yet somehow it also feels like something of a steal by Washington, based on what we’ve recently seen. Maybe the Pirates could have done better for Melancon. Or maybe the Cubs just gave up a ton for Chapman.


The Case for Trading Lucas Giolito

There’s a rumor out there that the Nationals would be willing to trade Lucas Giolito for Andrew Miller. That is almost certainly not true. There’s a related rumor out there that the Yankees don’t think Giolito would be enough in exchange for Miller. That is almost certainly not true. Miller is fantastic, no doubt, and the Nationals could use him, but it’s not like Miller is the only good reliever in the game, and Giolito is a wonderful prospect. Baseball America just ranked him fourth. MLB.com has him ranked fourth. Prospect people love Giolito. The Nationals think he’s pretty good, themselves.

This all raises an interesting question, though. How willing should the Nationals be to move Giolito for help? For Miller alone, it wouldn’t make great sense. Yet I do think there’s an argument to be made that Giolito should be more available than his prospect rankings would suggest.

It comes down to the difference between Giolito’s reputation and Giolito’s performance. He was a high draft pick, and he’s a highly-ranked prospect. He’s a highly-ranked prospect because people have seen him throw an outstanding heater, and a wipeout curveball. When scouts see two plus-plus weapons, and an intimidating frame, it doesn’t take much of a leap to envision long-term, big-league success. Giolito is supposed to have the tools. And his numbers have been more than acceptable.

But they haven’t been amazing, certainly not since Giolito graduated from A-ball. Last year, in the Double-A Eastern League, Giolito’s K-BB% ranked as “pretty good.” This year, in the same league, his K-BB% has ranked as “slightly above average.” Strikeouts have been present, but they haven’t come by the bushel, and the walks have been elevated. Walks are nothing new for big giant power pitchers, but command issues are a tremendous obstacle. They can’t be dismissed, and Giolito was anything but impressive in his brief time in the majors.

I wouldn’t read too deeply into those numbers. In the majors, Giolito has nine walks and five strikeouts, but, whatever. That’s nothing. Of greater interest: The stuff wasn’t…quite…there, not as advertised. I’ll pull from Baseball Savant. By average spin rate, Giolito’s four-seam fastball ranked in the ninth percentile. His curveball ranked in the 44th percentile. The drop on the curve is big, and it does look like a weapon, but the fastball result is more curious. Giolito didn’t throw an 80-grade fastball. Not with the Nationals. I don’t yet know what to make of that.

It’s not like I don’t believe the scouts. They’ve seen what they’ve seen. And Giolito does throw hard, which clearly boosts his ceiling. He’s helped by his size, which aids his plane. I’m just not in love with pitching prospects who don’t have outstanding numbers, or who haven’t shown much in the majors. Aaron Sanchez, this year, has proved my skepticism wrong, and sometimes pitchers do achieve that leap. Giolito still has to make that leap, and the majority of prospects don’t.

There’s no question he is a very good prospect. He’s already been a big-leaguer, and it’s always all about probability. Giolito’s probability distribution includes some ace-level outcomes. But for whatever it’s worth, this year, he hasn’t out-pitched co-prospect Reynaldo Lopez. He hasn’t out-pitched, say, Adalberto Mejia, who just earlier fetched Eduardo Nunez. Mejia doesn’t have Giolito’s raw stuff, but he has missed bats and thrown strikes. That has to matter for something. His command doesn’t need to improve so much.

If the Nationals love Giolito, that’s great. If the Nationals think he might be overrated, there could be an opportunity here. Giolito might even conceivably be around peak value, so the Nationals could cash him in, sending him to an organization that remains high on him. He’s definitely not someone to be given away, and for all I know he could be the solution to the Nationals’ current bullpen woes. Giolito is to be highly prized. But there are very legitimate questions. The Nationals, I’m almost sure, wouldn’t trade Giolito for Andrew Miller. But for, say, Dellin Betances? It’s not so far-fetched.


The Most Simple Fix for the Nationals Bullpen

Jonathan Papelbon walked off the mound in Cleveland on Tuesday night with the bases loaded in the ninth inning and no outs. That’s not what you want from your closer. Papelbon put the game in jeopardy by walking Jose Ramirez and giving up a double to Tyler Naquin to begin the inning, which led to a comedy of errors that tied the score and forced a pitching change. Papelbon then watched from the bench as Francisco Lindor beat a ground ball through the right side of the infield against Oliver Perez, completing the second ninth-inning meltdown by the Nationals bullpen in as many games, each initiated by Papelbon.

On the heels of a fruitless pursuit of Aroldis Chapman and amidst continued trade rumors targeting a high-profile relief pitcher, Jon Heyman tweeted the following after Tuesday night’s blowup:

And, yeah. Papelbon probably isn’t the greatest high-leverage relief option for a contending team. Among the 32 relievers who’ve recorded at least 10 save opportunities this season, Papelbon’s ERA- ranks 28th, and while that figure did look fine just a few days ago, we can’t pretend that these last two games didn’t happen, and we can’t pretend like the red flags don’t exist either. Papelbon’s lost another half-tick off his velocity from last year, and is now down to averaging under 91 mph on his fastball. The walk rate is higher than it’s been in five years. He’s posting the worst K-BB% of his career and his lowest ground-ball rate since his early days in Boston. More and more of Papelbon’s age is showing, and he now projects as something like the fifth-best reliever on his own team moving forward.

Papelbon projects as something like Washington’s fifth-best reliever, and he’s pitched as something like Washington’s fifth-best reliever, and yet he’s also pitched Washington’s most important innings. Hence, the Nationals looking for outside help regarding their closer role. But, do they really need to go outside the organization? Don’t they already have an elite closer, worthy of trusting in high-leverage innings down the stretch and into the postseason? Don’t they already have Shawn Kelley?

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Trea Turner and the Recent History of Outfield Conversions

Nearly a month ago to the day, Dave Cameron wrote an article for this very site praising the Washington Nationals for their patience regarding Trea Turner‘s place as the club’s shortstop of the future, in deference to veteran Danny Espinosa. Espinosa had hit well up to that point, and has long graded not only as a plus defender at a premium position, but as a plus base-runner as well. In other words, Espinosa’s play at short was as good or better than what could’ve been reasonably expected from the rookie Turner, validating the team’s decision to hold Turner down in the minors for further development and/or for service time reasons.

Since that post was published, Espinosa’s been on fire. He’s essentially had the best 20-game offensive stretch of his career, putting up a 144 wRC+ over 79 plate appearances, and if it wasn’t clear already that Turner wouldn’t be taking over shortstop anytime soon, it is now. Espinosa is in no position to lose his job. Neither is Daniel Murphy, the club’s second baseman (the only other position at which Turner had played at the time of Cameron’s article), who’s arguably been the National League’s best hitter.

Turner couldn’t appear more blocked, which is why, even though he was recalled from the minors two weeks ago when Ryan Zimmerman hit the disabled list, manager Dusty Baker offered the following quote:

“Right now, there’s no real place for Trea to take.”

Except, something else has happened since the publication of Cameron’s article. Turner began to learn the outfield. He made his center-field debut in Triple-A on June 27, and started six games in center before his recall to the majors. He worked with minor-league outfield coordinator Gary Thurman on deep routes, playing balls off the wall and reading spin. He went errorless in his six games and recorded an outfield assist to third base following an overthrown caught stealing attempt at second.

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Projecting Nationals Right-Hander Reynaldo Lopez

Less than a month ago, the Washington Nationals called up top prospect Lucas Giolito, with the hopes that he’d fill a hole in their rotation. However, as often happens with promising young pitchers, Giolito looked a bit overmatched in his first taste of the big leagues. He recorded more walks than strikeouts in his two starts with Washington, and was subsequently sent back to the minors to further refine his breaking stuff. Giolito will surely be back sooner rather than later, and still appears to have a bright future ahead of him. For now, though, the Nationals are turning to another electric young arm: hard-throwing 22-year-old Reynaldo Lopez debuts tonight against the Dodgers.

Lopez was signed out of the Dominican back in 2012, and his stuff has landed him on top-100 prospect lists for a couple of years now. But up until this season, he his minor-league performance hadn’t quite matched up with his stuff for any extended period. He spent the 2015 season in the High-A Carolina League, where he posted a mediocre 4.09 ERA. His peripherals suggest he pitched much better than that, but his 23% strikeout rate still underwhelmed.

He opened 2016 at the Double-A level, and soon began missing bats at a rate commensurate with his stuff. His 30% strikeout rate is tops among qualified Double-A pitchers this year. He also managed to keep his walk rate under 8%. Though he wasn’t super sharp in his two most recent starts at the Triple-A level, the body of Lopez’s 2016 campaign bodes well for his future in the bigs.

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The Worst Called Strike of the First Half

Yesterday, I wrote about the worst called ball of the first half, and that post always makes this post a necessity. Within that post, I noticed something: The worst called ball of the first half was thrown by an Angels pitcher, to a White Sox hitter. Last year, the worst called ball of the season was thrown by a White Sox pitcher, to an Angels hitter. It all balanced out. Tremendous! The universe is good.

Well, the worst called strike of the first half was thrown by Max Scherzer, to an outfielder on a rebuilding team, with Wilson Ramos catching. The worst called strike of the previous first half was thrown by Max Scherzer, to an outfielder on a rebuilding team, with Wilson Ramos catching. It didn’t balance out. It’s not tremendous. The universe is bad.

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The Adjustments That Made the All-Stars

Most All-Stars weren’t born into baseball this way. Most of them had to alter their approach, or their mechanics, in order to find that a-ha moment. They threw a pitch differently, or decided to pull the ball more, or changed their swing, and then found a run of sustained success that put them in the All-Star game that’s being played tonight.

So, given fairly fettered access to the All-Stars from both leagues, that was the question I posed: what was the big adjustment, mechanical or approach-wise, that brought you to this podium today?

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Scouting Earth’s Best Young Arm, Lucas Giolito

Lucas Giolito was once the 2012 draft’s odds-on first-overall selection. As he began his senior season at Harvard-Westlake, Giolito was seen as the most talented player in a draft class that included Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa. It would have made him the first and only high-school righty to be selected at 1.1 in the draft’s history. But then Giolito felt discomfort in his elbow during the first inning of an early-March start (he was up to 100 mph and had thrown a one-hitter the start before) and removed himself from the game in the second.

An MRI revealed damage to Giolito’s UCL but not so much that he would require immediate ligament reconstruction. Despite that, Giolito’s season was over and so, too, were his chances of going first overall. As the draft approached and the Astros, who possessed the first pick, shifted their focus toward Correa and other prospects (including Giolito’s teammate Max Fried), the industry wondered when and where Giolito would be selected. There wasn’t much precedent at the time for pre-draft UCL injuries and Giolito’s stock remained volatile until very late in the process. He was still being mocked within the top-five picks into late May.

The Nationals drafted Giolito 16th overall and signed him, at the deadline, for $2.925 million, exactly $800,000 over the pick’s slot value at that time and about $300,000 more than the slot’s value in 2016. Giolito threw two innings for the Nationals’ GCL team on August 14th of that year. On August 31st, Dr. Lewis Yocum fixed his elbow.

Giolito returned 10 months later, especially notable considering that effective Tommy John rehabilitations generally require 12-18 months. It has been almost exactly three years since Giolito made his first post-TJ start and his stuff has returned to pre-surgery levels.

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Projecting Nationals Right-Hander Lucas Giolito

It’s raining prospects. The prospect gods gave us Brandon Nimmo and A.J. Reed over the weekend, and today we’re treated with another prospect debut: hard-throwing righty Lucas Giolito. The former first-rounder will take the hill for the Nationals in tonight’s game against the New York Mets.

Giolito pitched exclusively at the Double-A level this year, where he posted a 3.22 FIP and a 23% strikeout rate. That performance is nothing to sneeze at, especially coming from a 21-year-old, but it’s a tad underwhelming when held against his numbers from prior seasons. Giolito showed an exceptional penchant for missing bats at the low minors, but he hasn’t been quite as prolific since he was promoted to Double-A last July. He posted a 29% strikeout rate in 168 innings in A-Ball between 2014 and 2015, but saw that figure dip below 23% in his 118 Double-A innings. His walk rate also ticked up upon reaching the Double-A level.

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Danny Espinosa, Trea Turner, and the Value of Patience

When the Nationals decided to begin the year with Danny Espinosa as their starting shortstop, with top prospect Trea Turner beginning the year back in Triple-A, it was widely seen as another example of a team manipulating the service time rules in order to extend their controllable years over a valuable player. That narrative was seemingly reinforced when the Nationals stuck with Espinosa even after he hit .185/.316/.246 in April, especially given that Turner was hitting .317/.387/.463 in Triple-A at the end of the first month of the season. And as the two disparate batting lines were compared and contrasted, calls for Turner to replace Espinosa got louder and louder.

Yet the Nationals stuck with Espinosa. They pointed to his superior defense as a primary reason, also noting that Turner has some work to do with the glove, and stuck with that plan even after Turner came up and went 3 for 3 with a double and a walk after he got summoned to the big leagues while Ryan Zimmerman went on paternity leave. And now, as we reach the end of June, it’s probably time to admit the Nationals made the right call.

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Clayton Kershaw’s Contribution to Bryce Harper’s Slump

Before homering last night in the first inning of a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers, Bryce Harper‘s OPS had briefly fallen all the way below .900. And while that might seem like occasion to sound the alarms, let’s get one thing straight: Bryce Harper’s season numbers are still great. His OBP is still above .400, his power’s still been immense, and by wRC+, he’s still had as good a year as Nolan Arenado and the Seager boys.

But lately, things haven’t been right for the reigning MVP. A couple months ago, we had a post here on the site about how Harper was catching up to Mike Trout, and it was totally reasonable. And it still probably is, but over the last 30 days, Harper’s wRC+ is 80, his OBP the same as what Andrelton Simmons did last year, and he’s hit for as much power during that stretch as 2015 Kevin Pillar. It’s the most underwhelming Harper’s looked since the middle of 2014:

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Y’know what’s not an ideal way to break out of a slump? Face Clayton Kershaw. Harper did that on Monday night, and he did not break out of the slump. No, he faced Kershaw three times, and he fanned three times.

Even with the recent slide, Harper’s still viewed as the best hitter in world, and the best hitter in the world facing the best pitcher in the world is always worth an examination. But there’s something about this particular matchup at this particular time that makes it all the more fascinating. See, something’s been happening to Harper lately. Rather, something’s been happening to the way Harper’s being pitched lately.

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Anthony Rendon: More Aggressive and More Passive, Too

Imagine you’re magically granted the power of time travel and that you use it to visit the days leading up to Opening Day 2016. Suddenly back in a world without daily regular-season baseball, you approach an unsuspecting baseball fan and tell them that you’re a time traveler with this bit of baseball information from mid-June: over the past 30 days, the Nationals have had the best offense in the National League.

The fan, presumably, would begin by chastising you for having wasted the gift of time travel on something so frivolous. Then, after gathering him- or herself, would likely respond with something like, “That Bryce Harper sure can rake, can’t he?” With the trap successfully set, you would then drop this bomb on them: “… and Bryce Harper posted a 77 wRC+ over those 30 days!”

Good job, time traveler. You successfully terrified an innocent person about the future without mentioning the name Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. But we seasoned veterans of the 2016 season are able to accept those facts as true. Over the past 30 days, Bryce Harper (.289 wOBA) and Ben Revere (.287 wOBA) have been equivalently awful for the Nationals and, yet, the team is on an offensive tear. As you might expect, it’s been necessary for a lot of different players to perform well in order to make up for Harper’s lack of production – Wilson Ramos and Daniel Murphy have hit well all season while Danny Espinosa and Jayson Werth have recently turned their early season struggles around – but the biggest contributor for the Nationals at the plate of late has been Anthony Rendon.

Through May 9th, Rendon had hit a dismal .211/.289/.297, a line which amounted to offensive production nearly 40% below league average. Coming off a disappointing and injury-plagued 2015 season, it was natural to start wondering whether the 2014 season which led to him finishing fifth place in MVP voting was a flash in the pan never to be seen again. But then, Rendon started hitting. He entered play last night with a .324/.411/.546 line since the cherry-picked date of May 9th. This offensive outburst has raised his full-season wRC+ to a perfectly respectable 107.

Although the May 9th dividing line is arbitrary, it does come close to splitting his season in half, with 142 of his plate appearance coming before this magical date and 128 coming after. Let’s keep using this convenient dividing line to help us take a look at a key change in Rendon’s approach — one which may help explain his recent offensive outburst.

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