Archive for Nationals

A Look at the Comeback Player of the Year Award

In years past, I’ve looked at players who might win the Comeback Player of the Year Award. I don’t know why, but I just like this award. It sort of gets lost in the shuffle of awards season. It’s usually a feel-good story. I’ve felt like it is interesting to put some statistical context to the award. This year is no different. I never did last year’s post, but I did this in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The methodology remains the same as it did in previous iterations. From the 2013 post:

Just like last year, the criteria is a player who posted 2.5 WAR or less last year, and has posted at least 1.0 WAR this year. Then I cull the list. The general standard is for a player to have roughly 2.0 more WAR this year than last, but this year I’m making an exception for catchers (roughly 1.5 WAR) and relief pitchers (roughly 1.0 WAR), as WAR may not be as fair to them as it is to others.

From there, we have to decide who is really making a comeback. Sometimes, guys just make the leap, or were never really good to begin with. But first, some honorable mentions.

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Where Did the Nationals Go Wrong?

The Nationals’ season isn’t quite on life support, but there’s been a bad accident, and the family’s been notified. The situation appears to be dire, and while Tuesday brought its own fresh horrors, that wasn’t the day that slaughtered the dream. It’s the most recent event, the currently most upsetting event, but the Nationals weren’t even supposed to be in this situation in the first place. They’ve had problems for weeks, for months, and now they’re about out of time to save themselves and move on to the tournament. The Mets have simply done too much. The Nationals have simply done too little.

The story would be interesting if it were any division race. What makes this one extra interesting is that it’s this division race. The Nationals were expected to run away with the NL East. The Phillies, as assumed, have been bad. The Braves, as assumed, have been bad. The Marlins had the look of being mediocre. The Mets had the look of a fringe contender. The Nationals had the look of a champion. These are our preseason odds. The Nationals were given an 86% chance to win the division. They were projected to clear the Mets by 13 games. If the Nationals won out, and the Mets lost out, the Nationals would clear the Mets by 18 games. This was supposed to be a relative cakewalk. It’s been more of a…nailwalk? I don’t know. It’s been bad, is the point.

So: why? How has this happened? Obviously, the Mets have quite a bit to do with it, but this post is to focus on the Nationals. Where did this go wrong?

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The Inning That Ended the Nationals’ Season

I went to a baseball game in Oakland last night. This wouldn’t have any bearing on this article if not for this: I drove to the game, and in that 30-minute drive to the stadium, the Washington Nationals went from clawing their way back into some sort of contention in the NL East by beating the Mets to looking up October beachfront condo rentals. When I got in the car, there was the prospect of an interesting September division race. When I got out of the car, poof — that was all but gone. One inning, three pitchers, six walks, and six runs after the start of the top of the seventh, the score of the game was tied at 7-7, and all it took was a home run off the bat of Kirk Nieuwenhuis in the eighth to finally sink the Nationals.

If you follow either or both of these teams, yesterday’s seventh inning was an encapsulation of how the season has unfolded. The Mets have been one of the best stories in baseball; the Nats have been 2015’s poster child for the biggest gap between performance and preseason expectations. One of the most alluring things about baseball is how large season trends can play out in the microcosm of a single inning, and so the seventh inning saw a shift in win expectancy inline with the arc of the Nationals’ season, from spring training to today:

At one point, with two out and one on in the top of the seventh, the Nationals had a 99.2% expectation of winning the game. And, while late 7-1 leads are blown in games many times during the course of an entire baseball season, when they happen in this sort of context and with this kind of futility, it’s our responsibility to break them down.

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Hitters: Quit Chopping Wood, Don’t Go for Backspin

Around little-league parks, and even on the back fields of certain schools and organizations, you might hear a common refrain from the batting cages. “Chop wood, chop wood,” is how Bryce Harper mimics the coaches he’s heard before. The idea is that a quick, direct path to the baseball — like an ax chop — is the best way to get quickly to the ball and create the backspin that fuels the power.

Turns out, pretty much all of that is wrong.

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Likely Scenarios for Current Front-Office Vacancies

Two seasons ago, I ranked the job security of each general manager and listed GM prospects. I think I did a pretty good job with both lists given what we knew at the time, and may do it again as Opening Day 2016 closes in. We’ve had less executive movement in the last few off-seasons than usual and it looks like the regression is happening this year, with four GM jobs currently open and a likely fifth coming soon. This seemed like a good time to cover each of the situations in flux and target some possible changes in the near future, along with some names to keep in mind as candidates to fill these openings.

The Open GM Spots
We have two teams without a top baseball decision-making executive, in Seattle and Milwaukee:

Mariners
The Mariners moved on from (now former) GM Jack Zduriencik recently, a long-rumored move that club president Kevin Mather admitted he waited too long to execute. Mather has said they’re looking for a replacement sooner than later (likely eliminating execs from playoff teams), with GM experience (eliminating most of the GM prospects you’ll see below), and that the team doesn’t require a rebuild (meaning a shorter leash and higher expectations from day one). This should prove to narrow the pool of candidates a good bit, but this is still seen as the best of the currently open jobs.

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The Mystery of the Same Old Stephen Strasburg

The Nationals are in a pickle, and not one of those delicious hipster pickles with fresh dill and organic garlic cloves placed in a mason jar by a guy with lots of tattoos in some nondescript warehouse in Brooklyn. I’m talking a problem pickle. The kind you don’t want to see on your doorstep, the kind some hipster would make a horror film about with a hand-held camera in some nondescript warehouse in Brooklyn. Horror Pickle: The Dill of Death! It would be wonderfully awful! No, the nature of the Washington Nationals’ pickle comes from the lots of losing they’ve done this season — far more than the Mets, that is, who lead them both alphabetically (curse you, ancient Greeks!) and, possibly more importantly if more fleetingly, in the NL East standings.

Much has been said about the Nationals’ collapse, but some portion of their mediocre start falls on the broad shoulders of Stephen Strasburg, who my computer badly wants to call Stephen Starsbug, which needs to be a computer-animated movie starring Chris Pratt. In any case, Strasburg started out the season badly, then he hit the DL, then he pitched three games, then hit the DL again. His inconsistent health has been remarkably consistent. The odd thing was that, in between all these DL stints, Strasburg, one of the best pitchers in baseball since breaking into the majors in 2010, was awful. As Jeff Sullivan wrote about the issue back in May. Strasburg was having command issues, which manifested especially strongly with runners on base. But now he’s back (again) and he’s Stephen Strasburg again! What? How?

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Batted-Ball Velocity, Adrian Beltre, and Xander Bogaerts

In batted-ball velocity numbers, we’ve got a new toy. It’s hard to know exactly how to use it, as it goes with many new statistical toys. Without even a full year of sample size, we have no idea how accurate the data coming in is, how sticky batted-ball velocity is year to year, or how much of a skill it is. Even worse, the data is incomplete — velocity without angle is somewhat useless, and the angle that’s coming through is only for home runs.

Is there a short-term fix? Is there a way to combine batted-ball velocity with existing stats to make it useful in the short term? I think there might be, and I think the stories of Xander Bogaerts and Adrian Beltre might help us find this patch.

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Struggling Nationals Call on Trea Turner

It’s no secret that the Washington Nationals have fallen short of expectations this season. At 62-61, the unanimous NL East favorites from the preseason sit 5.5 games behind the Mets with a discouraging 19% chance of winning the NL East. Things have been particularly ugly of late, as the Nats have won just 11 of their last 30 games.

As Dave Cameron pointed out last week, several of the biggest culprits for the team’s struggles are members of the team’s offensive core. Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman have been bad. Jayson Werth‘s been worse than that. But perhaps the biggest disappointment has been the team’s shortstop, Ian Desmond, who was projected for the second-highest WAR among Nationals hitters by ZiPS. Desmond’s .229/.279/.384 batting line has put him within spitting distance of replacement level — a far cry from his preseason ZiPS forecast of 4.0 WAR.

Despite his struggles, the Nationals stuck with Desmond over the season’s first four-and-a-half months, trotting him out there in 119 of their 123 games this season. But on Friday, the team began to diverge from the status quo. After weeks of speculation, the Nats finally summoned prospect Trea Turner to the big leagues to help solidify the shortstop position from here on out.

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What Can The Nationals Do?

The Nationals have not played very well in the second half. This isn’t news. Since the break, they have an 8-12 record and have been outscored by 11 runs. This isn’t a soul-crushing stretch by any means, but when your competition is red hot, a stretch where you’re only scoring 3.65 runs per game can certainly seem soul crushing. The interesting question to me is what the Nationals can do about it? Are they content to just wait this out and take the patient approach that eventually their hitters will snap out of it, or is it time for action? Actually, let’s rephrase that — what actions can the Nationals even take?

We know that the Nationals have a great pitching staff. Their bullpen unit is solid. The core unit they’ve relied on the most the past 30 days — Aaron Barrett, Casey Janssen, Felipe Rivero, Tanner Roark and Drew Storen — has done pretty well. The worst xFIP- among those pitchers for the past 30 days is Rivero’s 114. For the season, the highest belongs to Janssen at 108. Perhaps there isn’t enough reliability in that group, especially given Storen’s playoff experience. So to that mix they have added Jonathan Papelbon. Potential problem addressed.
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The Pitch That Drew Storen’s Slider Became

When the Nationals picked up Jonathan Papelbon, they weren’t doing so to replace Drew Storen, but they knew they’d be giving him a demotion. It didn’t sit real well with Storen, nor did it sit well with a large number of fans, who wondered what Storen did to deserve getting booted from the closer role. Storen is in the middle of probably the best season of his career, with a strikeout rate that’s skyrocketed from last year’s one in five hitters to this year’s one in three. Storen has become a real shutdown reliever, and you generally don’t see those guys losing responsibilities.

But it is possible for Storen and Papelbon to share the later innings. Provided they get along, having both ought to be better than having one or the other, and Papelbon, for his part, was quickly impressed by the younger righty. A tweet that went around:

That slider — we should talk about that slider. Drew Storen has long thrown a slider, but his slider this year is behaving differently, and while you can’t simply chalk his entire improvement up to a tweak of one pitch, it seems to be a major component. Now, some weeks back, Owen already discussed a bit of what was going on. He highlighted some of the changes, and pointed out how successful the pitch is. So, Owen wrote about why the pitch is notable. I want to tell you why it might look familiar.

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Lucas Duda’s Turn With the Anomalous Dinger

Watching the Mets and the Nationals Sunday night on ESPN, there was a lot of talk about momentum. Momentum that the Mets seem to have, which has allowed them to catch and overtake their heavily-favored rival. It’s an easy thing to say, and an easy thing to believe, but then, right before the Mets caught fire, you could argue they bottomed out. They lost to the Padres, they had the whole Carlos Gomez fiasco, and then they lost to the Padres much much worse. The Mets right now are at a local maximum. Immediately preceding this, they had crashed to a low point.

There are some parallels between the Mets as a whole and their own Lucas Duda. Overall this season, Duda’s been pretty good. Over the last week and a half or so, Duda’s been the very hottest hitter in baseball. But from the start of June through July 24, Duda slugged .275. He then ripped off a stretch of nine homers in eight games. The timelines aren’t the same, but, Duda, like the Mets, bottomed out, and then reversed course in an instant. Duda flipped his own momentum, and in so doing, he wound up bashing an anomalous dinger.

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Grading the 58 Prospects Dealt at the Trade Deadline

This breakdown starts with the Scott Kazmir deal on July 23, but there weren’t any trades from the 16th to the 23rd, so this covers the whole second half of the month, trade-wise, up until now. I count 25 total trades with prospects involved in that span that add together to have 58 prospects on the move. Check out the preseason Top 200 List for more details, but I’ve added the range that each Future Value (FV) group fell in last year’s Top 200 to give you an idea of where they will fall in this winter’s list. Also see the preseason team-specific lists to see where the lower-rated prospects may fall within their new organization.

40 FV is the lowest grade that shows up on these numbered team lists, with 35+ and 35 FV prospects mentioned in the “Others of Note” section, so I’ll give blurbs for the 40 FV or better prospects here. I’ve also linked to the post-trade prospect breakdown for the trades I was able to analyze individually, so click there for more information. Alternately, click on the player’s name to see his player page with all his prior articles listed if I didn’t write up his trade.

I opted to not numerically rank these players now, but I will once I’ve made the dozens and dozens of calls necessary this fall and winter to have that level of precision with this many players. Look for the individual team lists to start rolling out in the next month, with the 2016 Top 200 list coming in early 2016. Lastly, the players are not ranked within their tiers, so these aren’t clues for where they will fall on the Top 200.

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Nationals Reward Drew Storen Breakout With Jonathan Papelbon

Among the bright spots for the Nationals this year has been the emergence of Drew Storen. Already an effective reliever, Storen tweaked his breaking ball and became something of a strikeout machine. Instead of sitting down two of every 10 batters, Storen has bumped that up to three out of 10, succeeding as the closer for a first-place but somehow still disappointing team. As a reward for his step forward, the Nationals have demoted Storen out of the closer role, agreeing to pick up Jonathan Papelbon and everything that comes with him.

For a straight swap, this one’s a little complicated. The Nationals needed to convince Papelbon to come, and there was the matter of his $13-million vesting option. The option was almost sure to vest, but the Nationals opted to guarantee it for $11 million. That gives Papelbon some certainty, yet he’s also been given other certainty: the right to close, down the stretch. Technically, I suppose, the Nationals could go back on their word. And if Papelbon struggles, well, the Nationals would be stupid to leave him there. But this is without question the interesting thing. A team with a closer added a closer.

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Nationals Righty Lucas Giolito Impresses, As Expected

Anyone who follows prospects knows that Washington Nationals pitching prospect Lucas Giolito comes with considerable hype. After being in consideration for the first overall pick in the 2012 draft before succumbing to elbow problems, Giolito has repeatedly shown the sort of form that put him in that conversation (one that, given the performance of Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton to date, is frankly quite lofty).

I have seen Giolito twice over the past two years, and I’ve happened to take in two of his more notable outings. Last August, I witnessed him toss five scoreless innings working exclusively with his fastball and changeup, and last week, I watched him throw seven no-hit frames after entering in the second inning. As one might expect, the heralded hurler showed plenty of substance behind his acclaim in both outings.

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Ian Desmond’s Weakness Has Turned into a Massive Hole

Despite his below-average walk rate and high strikeout numbers, Ian Desmond’s power and speed have made up for his contact inadequacies during the past three years. He is, at once, an exciting and frustrating player to watch: a hitter prone to incredible dry spells followed by gluttonous power explosions. The Nationals have accepted his droughts — even going so far as to offer him a seven-year, $107 million dollar contract extension before the 2014 season — because the hot streaks were worth it.

Desmond has relied on that full combination of speed, low contact, and high power during the years since his breakout in 2012, and because of that, his skill set is a relatively tenuous one. We’ve seen players excel at a high level with those same type of skills, but the difference between productive and unproductive is closer when you rely on the ball going over the fence a certain number of times.

If we navigate to the batter leaderboards and sort by wRC+, Desmond has been the seventh-worst qualified offensive player in the majors this season. He’s been the very worst defensive shortstop. The nightmare scenario has come to fruition in Desmond’s walk year: a cratered home-run rate per fly ball (HR/FB), a walk rate dive, an almost total absence of speed, and really poor defense. The 2015 edition of Ian Desmond is now 2010 Desmond, except with more strikeouts and less on the base paths. Take a look:

Season G SB BB% K% ISO wRC+ WAR
2010 154 17 4.9% 19.0% .124 86 0.8
2015 84 5 4.9% 28.4% .124 61 -0.9

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The Worst Called Strike of the First Half

When you write up the worst called ball of the first half, you’re set up for a two-part series. You have to write up the worst called strike of the first half, as well, or else it feels like something is missing. Usually, I make my own editorial decisions. Technically, this was my decision. But really, this decision was out of my hands. Once the first post went, the second was guaranteed to follow.

Bad called strikes, I think, are less upsetting than bad called balls. Oh, they’re both annoying, but the worst called balls are on pitches down the middle, and it seems inconceivable that an umpire could miss a pitch down the pipe. It’s easier to see why an umpire might grant a strike on a pitch out of the zone. There’s no such thing as the middle of the out-of-the-zone. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing strikes off the plate, so, what’s another inch or two? When you see a strike out of the zone, you think, ugh, whatever. When you see a ball on a pitch down the middle, you think, how did that happen? This is the long way of saying this post might be less interesting than the first one.

But here we are anyway, and your own curiosity will prevent you from leaving this post until you see the result. What’s been the worst called strike of the first half? I don’t mean the strike with the lowest called-strike probability, adjusting for count and handedness and everything. I mean just relative to the rule-book zone, which is directly over home plate. This pitch was 10.7 inches away from the border of the rule-book zone, as it crossed the front plane:

pestano-valbuena

Pretty bad! Lefty strike, but, pretty bad. Clearly outside. One pitch was worse than this.

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Stephen Strasburg’s Return In Just a Few Pictures

Used to be, people would argue about whether Stephen Strasburg was really an ace. There was no right or wrong answer, since there is no consensus definition of an ace starting pitcher, but aside from that, where Strasburg was concerned, there was disagreement. Some people thought he was amazing; some people thought he was a letdown. Some people could squint and see both. That all concerns past Stephen Strasburg. There was no disagreement over 2015 Stephen Strasburg. That version sucked, and by some measures he was one of the very worst pitchers in baseball. It wasn’t like him, and after a start in late May, Strasburg hit the DL. He didn’t feel great. He also needed to work on his mechanics. The DL stint was a chance to work on both.

And a few days ago, Strasburg came off the DL and threw 94 pitches against the Braves. Many of them were pretty good pitches, and while this was a Braves lineup without Freddie Freeman in the middle of it, I’d still say it wasn’t easy for Strasburg to throw his five shutout innings. That was still a major-league opponent, so the outing was positive from start to finish. What sorts of things was Strasburg up to? We can make this easy, with just a few pictures. In some ways, Strasburg was his classic self. In some ways, he was completely different.

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Drew Storen Finds His Strikeouts

A little over a month ago, I wandered into the depths of the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards, looking to see who had the most increased movement on their breaking pitches through the first month of the season compared to last year. As you might imagine, increased movement doesn’t always mean increased success, and so many of the names that turned up were interesting but inconclusive: seeing names like Rick Porcello and Ross Detwiler leading best-of lists tells us that the article was a fun exercise, if not a totally meaningful one.

However, there were a couple of interesting names when it came to right-handed pitchers with increased horizontal movement on their sliders. First, there was Sonny Gray, who is now the proud owner of a top-three slider by run value this year. Then, coming in a close third after Seth Maness, was Drew Storen. Unlike Gray and Maness, Storen has been around for a while, so the prospect of him tinkering with pitches (especially after four mostly successful years), drew some attention.

That attention was, and is, warranted: Storen’s slider (PITCHf/x calls it a slider; some say it’s a cutter. For ease, we’ll go with slider) now has over two inches of greater horizontal movement than last season, and at least one inch more than his previous career-high. Take a look at the horizontal movement change of his slider over his career, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Storen_Slider_Movement

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Making History With the Nationals’ 1-2 Punch

Last Thursday, Nationals fans had the season flash before their eyes when Bryce Harper‘s leg buckled while attempting an aggressive throw. The Nationals, to this point, have managed to withstand certain injuries, but no injury would be more crippling than a big one to the best hitter in the game. Thankfully for those with an interest, Harper’s issue was minor, and he was back in the lineup Saturday. In his return, he hit a home run; in his return, Max Scherzer no-hit the Pirates.

For all the Nationals have already been through, Harper’s been there all along, and Scherzer has too. That either player is having success is by no means surprising. The Nationals gave Scherzer a big giant contract, and Harper’s been hyped since he was still in the womb. The two were expected to be two of the best players on the team. But where the Nationals find themselves now is in a particularly unusual situation. That is: Bryce Harper has been the best position player in baseball. And Max Scherzer has been the best pitcher in baseball.

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JABO: Max Scherzer and the Benchmarks of Greatness

Whether or not you think Jose Tabata intentionally moved his elbow into the path of Max Scherzer’s two-out, ninth-inning curveball this past Saturday, the final result stood as an example of a very rare phenomenon: a perfect game broken up on the would-be final out of the game. While still securing the no-hitter put Scherzer firmly into the record books, the history of the almost-perfecto is incredibly interesting in its own right, as is the unparalleled dominance the Nationals right-hander has shown in his past two starts.

Scherzer now has a distinct place in the discussion of historic pitching performances. We should make sure to put the emphasis on the plural of the word performance, because Scherzer just put together arguably the best back-to-back outings by a starting pitcher since at least 1914. His final combined line for his starts on June 14th and 20th:

18.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 HBP, 26 K

Scherzer faced 57 batters over his two starts: he struck out just under 46% of them. To put that in context, he had a better strikeout rate over the entirety of two consecutive complete games than Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, or Dellin Betances have in their relief appearances this season. By the numbers, he was more or less the equivalent of facing the best closer in baseball on a particularly dominant day for two entire games.

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