Archive for Nationals

Nationals Get Going on 2019, Marlins Look to 2023

The vast majority of our focus right now is on the playoffs, and rightly so. Dan Szymborski is writing postmortems on the teams whose seasons effectively ended in August or September, while Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel are doing prospect stuff. Other than that, we’ve been writing about the events we have literally waited all season to watch. But due to some pummeling in the Division Series, we’ve all been robbed of playoff games for a few days, and the Marlins and Nationals attempted to fill that void with a trade.

Nationals Receive

Marlins Receive

  • International Bonus Pool Money

A year ago, international bonus pool money was traded at a pretty frenzied pace. There were a lot of teams unable to spend that money due to restrictions from prior spending, and there were a lot of teams trying to create as much space as possible in an effort to sign Shohei Ohtani. The Marlins’ motivation to obtain bonus pool space now is pretty obvious. Yesterday, the club hosted Cuban prospects Victor Victor Mesa, Sandy Gaston, and Victor Mesa, Jr. According Eric and Kiley’s report yesterday, the Marlins are the favorites for Victor Victor Mesa; they had the following to say about the young Cuban:

Mesa hit some balls out to his pull side during batting practice, showing 50-grade raw power, but he has a linear, contact-oriented swing that we think will lead to below-average power output in games. There’s no question he can hit, defend, and add value on the bases, but there’s real doubt about the game application of his power. In aggregate, it looks like an average to slightly below-average offensive profile on an above-average defender at a premium position. Scouts think Mesa is a low-risk, moderate-impact prospect who should be ready for the big leagues relatively soon. He garners frequent comparisons to Cubs CF Albert Almora. There’s a chance Mesa has a three-win season or two at peak, but expectations are more of a solid 1.5- to 2.0-win type player. He’s a 45+ FV on our July 2nd version of THE BOARD, which would be somewhere in the 130 to 175 range overall in the minors.

Mesa presents Miami with an opportunity to obtain a prospect cheaply, and obtaining more signing bonus money increases their chances to do so. As for the cost, Barraclough is an interesting reliever. You might remember him as a guy who struck out 37% of batters and gave up just a single home run in 75 MLB appearances. That version of Barraclough was really good, but that version is from three seasons ago. You might also remember him as a slightly less effective pitcher who struck out 30% of batters and put up a decent 3.66 FIP and 3.00 ERA. That version is now two seasons in the past.

All versions of Barraclough have featured a roughly 14% walk rate, and his most recent season featured a 25% K-rate and eight homers in 55.1 innings. That’s a below-replacement-level season. Worse still, five of his eight home runs happened in 13.1 second-half innings. After a smoke-and-mirrors first half where he put up a 1.00 ERA despite a 3.66 FIP and looked on pace to repeat his 2017 season, Barraclough had 13 strikeouts and 11 walks in the second half, which included a stint on the disabled list for back stiffness. Some combination of a high asking price plus a very poor July resulted in the Marlins holding on to Barraclough at the trade deadline, likely hoping that he might recover some lost trade value over time.

The Marlins opted not to see if Barraclough could recover any of that value and traded him away at a very modest cost. The righty is projected to make $1.9 million in arbitration, a cost even the Marlins would reasonably absorb if they believed Barraclough would be better next season.

Everything has trended worse over the past few seasons. Hitters have been more patient on offerings out of the zone, and when they do swing, they make more contact.

As a result, he’s had to make more hittable pitches in the zone.

That’s meant fewer swings-and-misses.

It isn’t as though the league has caught up to Barraclough. It’s actually the opposite; he has pitched down to the league level as seen by his drop in fastball velocity.

Batters have learned to lay off the slider, due perhaps in part to having just a hair more time to react to the fastball. Two seasons ago, Barraclough was getting swings on his slider outside of the zone around 40% of the time, and batters swung and missed on those pitches more than two-thirds of the time, helping him to a whiff rate of more than 20% on the pitch. This past season, he induced swings out of the zone closer to 20% of the time and his overall whiff rate has been cut in half. He has used a changeup a little bit more and it has been fairly effective, but the overall outlook isn’t good unless he can get hitters to chase that slider.

It’s possible Barraclough was just a little hurt as the season wore on and a full offseason of rest will get him back where he needs to be. Relievers are a volatile bunch, as seen by both Barraclough’s rise in 2015 and 2016, and his fall this year. We probably don’t know what he will offer next season until at least March of next year. For a Washington club that has had issues with its bullpen in the past, he’s worth a flier to see if the old version of Barraclough shows up.

The Nationals aren’t acquiring a proven closer, a guy they can expect to handle the seventh inning, or a guy that can come in and shut down the opposition. That was Barraclough a few years ago. What the Nationals are getting now is a lottery ticket, a chance to hit on the old dominant reliever might still be in there. To truly remake the pen behind closer Sean Doolittle, the club should probably make three or four more moves like this one in order to find a solid arm for later innings.


The Problems with Sean Doolittle’s Challenge

The best part of being a lawyer, aside from winning cases, is using long and cool words like fiduciary and promissory estoppel and collateral attack and forcible entry and detainer. The worst part of being a lawyer is when you have to give people bad news, to play the role of the “fun police.” This piece falls squarely into the latter category.

Enter Nationals southpaw Sean Doolittle, who, as our very own Carson Cistulli explained last week, has issued a challenge. Specifically, this challenge:

Awesome! Bat flips are awesome. Like this one.

Shortly after his comments were published, Doolittle later said he was joking.

That is, as they say, unfortunate. Really unfortunate, in fact, because I agree with Dan Gartland and Scott Allen: this challenge is awesome. Or, more precisely, it would be awesome if the rules allowed it. Alas, today I’m forced — in my capacity as an officer of the fun police — to inform you, Dear Reader, that Doolittle’s idea is probably prohibited.

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Defense, Contact Quality, and the NL Cy Young

This year’s National League Cy Young race invites multiple interesting questions about how best to evaluate pitching performance. Jacob deGrom, for example, is the league’s leader in ERA by a healthy amount; however, he’s also recorded only as many wins as reliever Jeremy Jeffress. Max Scherzer is having another great season, but his .255 BABIP compels one to consider whether his 2.31 ERA is the product of luck or defense (although the Nationals have recorded below-average defensive numbers both by UZR and DRS). Aaron Nola, meanwhile, has recorded a similarly low BABIP even as Philadelphia has produced NL-worst figures both by UZR and DRS. Finally, while the race has been viewed as a three-person contest for some time, it’s also possible Patrick Corbin has inserted himself into the conversation with a fantastic second half.

Sorting through the candidates is difficult. Ultimately, one’s choice for Cy Young will depend on how one weighs what a pitcher can and cannot control — and how best to quantify those effects. To start, here are some general metrics that should be familiar to FanGraphs readers.

National League Cy Young Contenders
Metric Max Scherzer Jacob deGrom Aaron Nola Patrick Corbin
IP 202.2 188 188.2 179.2
K% 34.4% 31.3% 26.6% 31.3%
BB% 5.8% 5.7% 6.8% 5.9%
HR/9 0.93 0.43 0.62 0.65
BABIP .255 .290 .251 .293
ERA 2.31 1.68 2.29 3.01
FIP 2.66 2.08 2.86 2.38
WAR 6.7 7.3 5.4 6.0
Blue=Leader
Orange=2nd Place

Based on these numbers, Jacob deGrom is the pretty clear favorite for Cy honors, with Max Scherzer an equally clear runner-up. What’s less clear, however, is that the results of a vote would produce a similar outcome, as both pitcher wins and other versions of WAR are likely to influence writers — and arrive at different conclusions than the figures here. Below, I’ve included some different versions of WAR, each of which paint the field in a different light.

National League Cy Young Race and WAR
Metric Max Scherzer Jacob deGrom Aaron Nola Patrick Corbin
WAR 6.7 7.3 5.4 6.0
RA9/WAR 7.6 7.9 7.3 5.7
BRef 8.7 8.1 9.4 4.4
BPro 7.2 6.6 6.1 5.5
Blue=Leader
Orange=2nd Place

Here we see a version of reality that suggests greater parity in the race. Averaging the numbers above, we’d still put deGrom first, Scherzer second, and Nola third, but Scherzer actually places ahead of deGrom in two of the four metrics, while Nola and Scherzer are more closely situated. Examining how each of WAR metrics arrives at its destination can help inform how to use them. Last week, Eno Sarris took a look at some of these same issues in a discussion of how large a role luck ought to play in Cy Young voting. There is also the question of what defines “luck” in the context of pitching, what sort of control a pitcher exerts over certain outcomes, and what role a a pitcher’s park ought to play in our evaluations of him.

The metrics above all feature different inputs which, naturally, lead to different results. In the version of WAR used at FanGraphs, those inputs are innings, strikeouts, infield flies, walks, and home runs — along with factors for league and park. DeGrom leads by this particular measure because his strikeout, walk, and homer numbers are all great. Scherzer has good walk and strikeout numbers but a closer-to-average home-run rate. Nola features slightly inferior (although still excellent) strikeout and walk numbers — plus a good home-run rate — but he falls behind Corbin, who has good numbers in all three.

The next metric, RA9, is another version of WAR carried at FanGraphs — one which, in this case, simply considers the number of runs a pitcher allows while also factoring for league and park. That’s how Nola, with the very good ERA, jumps up near Scherzer, though still short of deGrom. RA9 includes runs that were scored or not scored due to defense and sequencing, but does not try to make any adjustments for those factors.

Baseball-Reference begins with something like FanGraphs’ RA9 calculation but makes further adjustments for opponent and team defense, which is a significant factor in this year’s race. Nola tops the Baseball-Reference WAR leaderboard because of how well he’s prevented runs despite Philadelphia’s poor defense. Generally the effects of these defensive adjustments are muted, but because Nola appears to be headed for one of the 10 best bWAR seasons of the last 50 years, this case invites some scrutiny. Patrick Corbin suffers from the opposite scenario: Arizona has recorded strong defensive numbers, meaning he receives a “penalty” of sorts for his contribution to run-prevention.

Here are the overall team defense numbers by DRS, which Baseball-Reference uses, and UZR, which is included in WAR for position players but not pitchers here at FanGraphs.

NL Cy Young Race and Team Defense
Metric Max Scherzer Jacob deGrom Aaron Nola Patrick Corbin
UZR -13.2 -27.1 -38.2 14.8
DRS -50 -79 -113 105

There is obviously a much larger spread with the DRS figures, as defensive adjustments alone mean a difference of 24 runs between Nola and Corbin, which is about four times as much as the difference by UZR.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, their Deserved Run Average (DRA) metric accounts for as many aspects of a pitcher’s game as possible and attempts to factor for everything including park, opponent, catcher, umpire, and pitch effectiveness to determine how many runs a pitcher should have allowed with all those variables rendered neutral. By their methods, Scherzer leads over deGrom, with Nola and Corbin a ways behind.

There’s certainly an argument to be made for considering the strength of a defense behind a pitcher, and reason dictates that a defense can help or hurt a pitcher’s run-prevention numbers. Defense alone, however, isn’t going to fully explain the difference between a pitcher’s FIP and ERA. Luck is involved, as well. We can use Statcast information to determine just how much defense and luck might be involved, though it won’t do a good job separating those two factors. For starters, here are the xwOBA and wOBA figures for each of the pitchers above.

NL Cy Young Race, Defense, and Luck
Name wOBA xWOBA Difference
Max Scherzer .245 .256 -.011
Jacob deGrom .240 .257 -.017
Aaron Nola .247 .266 -.019
Patrick Corbin .256 .289 -.033
League .312 .322 -.010

In terms of what a pitcher has deserved to concede based on quality of contact, strikeouts, and walks, Scherzer has gotten just about what we might expect, while deGrom and Nola aren’t far off expectations. Corbin is the outlier here, and there is a case to be made that Arizona’s defense is partially responsible for his good fortune. What’s interesting, though, is that Corbin’s ERA is actually much higher than his FIP. This could mean that Corbin has been rather fortunate this year on home runs or that the contact he’s conceded on balls in play has been of higher quality than the sort conceded by other pitchers.

We can remove the most skill-based aspects from above by taking out strikeouts and walks and looking at xwOBA on just batted balls.

NL Cy Young and xwOBA on Contact
Name wOBA on Contact xwOBA on Contact Difference
Max Scherzer .340 .357 -.017
Jacob deGrom .317 .345 -.028
Aaron Nola .296 .325 -.029
Patrick Corbin .343 .397 -.054
League .364 .379 -.015
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Here we see almost no effect on Scherzer’s outcomes, with a slight benefit for deGrom and Nola, and then a big help for Corbin. You’ll note that the league-wide numbers are off by 15 points from each other, likely due to a potentially dead baseball, as the estimates on launch angle and exit velocity are based on previous seasons, when the ball was perhaps a bit more lively. As we are looking at numbers between pitchers in this season alone, the comparisons still provide value. What happens when we remove home runs and look solely at batted balls? See below.

NL Cy Young and xwOBA on Balls in Play
Name wOBA on BIP xwOBA on BIP Difference
Max Scherzer .256 .310 -.054
Jacob deGrom .287 .325 -.038
Aaron Nola .251 .296 -.045
Patrick Corbin .292 .361 -.069
League .293 .334 -.041
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

In theory, these numbers factor in both defense and luck on batted balls this season. As we can see, it appears that, whatever poor defense has victimized Nola has likely been evened out by good fortune. The same is true for deGrom. Scherzer, meanwhile, appears to have received a slight benefit, with Corbin being the recipient of some good defense in Arizona. This probably doesn’t leave the reader with any definite conclusions. We have a better idea about the quality of contact and how defense might have affected run totals — which is to say not much — but the extent to which a pitcher exerts control over that contact is also a matter of debate.

If you believe that a pitcher controls very little of opponent contact — or, alternatively, are unsure of the level of control — the version of WAR hosted here at FanGraphs is your main resource. If you believe that a pitcher is wholly responsible for the quality of contact he concedes and also that defensive quality doesn’t move the needle much in one direction or another, RA9/WAR makes some sense for you. If you believe further adjustment needs to be made for defense, bWAR can provide some help. If you want a more granular look at individual pitches, DRA provides guidance. If you just want something based entirely on xwOBA, a crude attempt is made below.

While the question of value is somewhat objective, there is some subjectivity involved, but if making a decision on the Cy Young, it’s important to have as much information as possible to determine why one pitcher might be better than the other. It isn’t enough to simply prefer one stat over another and blindly rely on it because you generally agree with the methodology. Look at how the results are reached to make the best possible decision.

*****

As promised in the final paragraph above, here’s a rough approximation of WAR based on xwOBA:

NL WAR Based on xwOBA
Name IP xwoba xWAR
Max Scherzer 202.2 .256 7.1
Jacob deGrom 188.0 .257 6.5
Aaron Nola 188.2 .266 6.0
Patrick Corbin 179.2 .289 4.4
Zack Wheeler 167.1 .293 3.9
Clayton Kershaw 137.1 .277 3.9
German Marquez 164.1 .294 3.8
Noah Syndergaard 128.1 .277 3.8
Mike Foltynewicz 157.0 .291 3.8
Ross Stripling 110.1 .262 3.7
Jack Flaherty 132.1 .280 3.7
Jameson Taillon 164.0 .299 3.5
Miles Mikolas 173.2 .304 3.4
Tyler Anderson 153.2 .302 3.2
Alex Wood 144.1 .299 3.1
Walker Buehler 110.2 .279 3.1
Kyle Freeland 176.1 .312 3.0
Nick Pivetta 145.0 .304 2.9
Jon Gray 157.1 .309 2.9
Anibal Sanchez 113.2 .288 2.8
Kyle Hendricks 169.2 .313 2.8
Vince Velasquez 134.0 .302 2.8
Sean Newcomb 149.1 .314 2.4
Wei-Yin Chen 118.1 .305 2.3
Zack Greinke 181.1 .324 2.3
Kenta Maeda 117.0 .306 2.3
Zach Eflin 114.0 .306 2.2
Steven Matz 133.2 .314 2.2
Joe Musgrove 103.1 .301 2.2
Jake Arrieta 154.2 .322 2.1
Jhoulys Chacin 168.0 .327 2.0
Carlos Martinez 108.2 .310 2.0
Jose Urena 151.0 .325 1.9
Tanner Roark 170.1 .329 1.9
Trevor Williams 148.2 .330 1.6
John Gant 96.0 .314 1.6
Derek Holland 152.2 .331 1.6
Stephen Strasburg 107.0 .320 1.5
Robbie Ray 97.1 .317 1.5
Madison Bumgarner 105.2 .326 1.3
Julio Teheran 159.1 .338 1.3
Junior Guerra 135.0 .334 1.2
Gio Gonzalez 151.1 .337 1.2
Joey Lucchesi 110.1 .330 1.2
Luis Castillo 148.1 .338 1.2
Brent Suter 101.1 .329 1.1
Jose Quintana 147.2 .339 1.1
Rich Hill 108.2 .332 1.1
Tyson Ross 143.2 .339 1.1
Luke Weaver 133.1 .338 1.0
Andrew Suarez 139.1 .341 1.0
Zack Godley 159.2 .343 0.9
Mike Montgomery 107.2 .336 0.9
Matt Harvey 138.2 .343 0.8
Chase Anderson 150.1 .346 0.8
Ty Blach 110.0 .345 0.6
Trevor Richards 102.2 .345 0.5
Ivan Nova 146.2 .351 0.5
Eric Lauer 95.2 .346 0.4
Chad Bettis 112.0 .349 0.4
Tyler Mahle 109.0 .348 0.4
Sal Romano 134.2 .354 0.2
Jon Lester 158.0 .360 0.0
Clayton Richard 158.2 .362 -0.2
Dan Straily 122.1 .369 -0.4
Chris Stratton 126.1 .374 -0.7
Tyler Chatwood 103.2 .378 -0.9
Homer Bailey 106.1 .382 -1.0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Min. 400 batters faced. Numbers through Saturday.

Reynaldo Lopez’s Quest to Become a Smart Power Pitcher

Reynaldo Lopez remains a work in progress. The 24-year-old right-hander has been brilliant in his past two outings — allowing just a pair of runs over 14 innings — but his overall performance this season has been a mixed bag. In 28 starts for Chicago’s South Side club, Lopez has a 4.37 ERA, and he’s fanned just 6.8 batters per nine innings.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t making strides, nor does it mean that he can’t miss bats when he needs to. Acquired by the White Sox along with Lucas Giolito and Dane Dunning in the December 2016 deal that sent Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals, Lopez has been removing the word “raw” from his reputation. Tutelage from a pair of baseball’s best pitching minds is a big reason why.

“I’ve matured a lot,” Lopez told me this summer via translator Billy Russo. “Four or five years ago my mindset was to throw hard and overpower the hitters. Now it’s more about location and pitch selection, and managing the game. You have to be smart in order to succeed at this level.”

The native of San Pedro de Macoris began learning that lesson upon his arrival in the nation’s capital midway through the 2016 season. His initial outings were rocky, and teammates were in his ear. Their messages were straightforward. He couldn’t just throw hard. He needed to have a plan.

His first tutorial came from one of the game’s best, and most cerebral, pitchers.

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Sean Doolittle Has Issued a Challenge

A brief examination of basically any human encounter ever reveals that people frequently do not agree with each other. This one human over here has an opinion; this other one, meanwhile, has a different opinion. It would be fine, perhaps, if those individuals never interacted, but that is also part of being human: there’s a lot of interaction. At stores, for example. Or on streets. And the one human says to the other, “Hey, your opinion is different than mine!” And the second one says to the first, “I am mad about that!”

Sometimes the interaction in question occurs at home plate during baseball’s postseason and Sam Dyson, for reasons known primarily to Sam Dyson, has decided that the proper course of action for someone like him is just to slap Troy Tulowitzki directly on the buttocks. Tulowitzki, whom one will identify immediately as a different person than Sam Dyson, regards this as not the proper course of action and proceeds to lodge some complaints verbally. Other humans get involved and all manner of other complaints are lodged, some verbally and some even physically. Complaints abound, is what one finds. Then everyone retreats back to their respective holes in the ground (known, in the sport of baseball, as a “dugout”) and awaits the next event worthy of their indignation.

One small thing over which humans frequently disagree is how much joy is acceptable to display publicly. One camp, whom we might characterize broadly as The Sons and Daughters of John Calvin, believe the amount is very close to zero. Another camp, whom we might call Basically Everyone Else, contends that — so long as no one is getting hurt — it’s probably okay to just do whatever.

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Contending Brewers Trade for Often Good Pitcher

The National League Wild Card race is nuts. Here’s the currently field of clubs competing for it, through Thursday’s games, with our playoff odds.

National League Wild Card Race
Team W L GB Proj W Proj L ROS W% Win Division Win Wild Card Make Playoffs
Cardinals 75 59 0.5 88.8 73.2 .494 4.1% 63.0% 67.3%
Brewers 75 60 0 88.7 73.3 .508 4.5% 61.8% 66.4%
Rockies 72 61 2 86.2 75.8 .491 14.6% 14.7% 29.4%
Dodgers 72 62 2.5 89.2 72.8 .616 56.4% 17.4% 73.8%
Phillies 71 62 3 86.2 75.8 .525 35.3% 6.2% 41.6%

That’s just nuts! In the American League, the next closest Wild Card team, the Seattle Mariners, is 4.5 games out of a playoff spot. The next closest team behind them is the eight-games-out Rays. The next closest NL team, as you might notice, is significantly closer than that. The NL has eight teams whose odds of making the playoffs are over 25%; the AL, meanwhile, has just five such teams.

And so, with the NL’s relative nuttiness in mind, the Brewers traded this afternoon for left-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez to bolster a rotation that is still in search of reinforcements after losing Jimmy Nelson to a shoulder injury before the season started and Brent Suter to Tommy John surgery in July. In return, the Nationals will reportedly receive two minor leaguers, though at the time of publication, those players’ identities are still unknown. As such, we’ll evaluate this trade in terms of Gonazalez’s merits for the Brewers and what the trade signals for the Nationals’ late-season tear-down. We should also note that the trade, famously a disruptive event, was remarkably convenient for Gonzalez, who — as a result of the two teams playing one another today — simply had to walk across the field to the Brewers’ dugout.

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Daily Prospect Notes Finale: Arizona Fall League Roster Edition

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Note from Eric: Hey you, this is the last one of these for the year, as the minor-league regular season comes to a close. Thanks for reading. I’ll be taking some time off next week, charging the batteries for the offseason duties that lie ahead for Kiley and me.

D.J. Peters, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Level: Double-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: 7   FV: 45+
Line: 4-for-7, 2 HR, 2B (double header)

Notes
A comparison of DJ Peters’ 2017 season in the Cal League and his 2018 season at Double-A gives us a good idea of what happens to on-paper production when a hitter is facing better pitching and defenses in a more stable offensive environment.

D.J. Peters’ Production
Year AVG OBP SLG K% BB% BABIP wRC+
2017 .276 .372 .514 32.2% 10.9% .385 137
2018 .228 .314 .451 34.0% 8.1% .305 107

Reports of Peters’ physical abilities haven’t changed, nor is his batted-ball profile different in such a way that one would expect a downtick in production. The 2018 line is, I think, a more accurate distillation of Peters’ abilities. He belongs in a talent bucket with swing-and-miss outfielders like Franchy Cordero, Randal Grichuk, Michael A. Taylor, Bradley Zimmer, etc. These are slugging center fielders whose contact skills aren’t particularly great. Players like this are historically volatile from one season to the next but dominant if/when things click. They’re often ~1.5 WAR players who have some years in the three-win range. Sometimes they also turn into George Springer.

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Mr. Harper Stays in Washington

Unable to escape the gravitational pull of .500, the Nationals finally waved the white flag on Tuesday. They let Matt Adams return to the Cardinals via a waiver claim. They traded Daniel Murphy to the Cubs for “an exciting Class-A prospect,” according to general manager Mike Rizzo. They put Bryce Harper through waivers as well — all three of these players actually hit the wire on Friday — but while he was reportedly claimed by the Dodgers, his waiver period expired without a deal transpiring, meaning that he’s staying put. Alas, the novelty of seeing the 25-year-old slugger in a new uniform, and the buzz such a transaction would create, will have to wait.

Despite his 30 home runs (tied for second in the NL) and 91 walks (first), Harper’s age-25 season has been something of a disappointment. He’s hitting .246/.380/.511 for a 133 wRC+, the last figure significantly below both last year’s 156 and his career-best 197, set in his NL MVP-winning 2015 season. His fall-off, however, isn’t the reason the Nationals’ 2018 is down the tubes. From injuries to several key players (Murphy, Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman) to replacement-level-ish production from their catchers (-0.1 WAR) and bullpen (0.8 WAR), to questionable management by rookie skipper Dave Martinez, there are no shortage of reasons why the Nationals reached this stage and no shortage of fingers to point. It’s true that had Harper been more productive before July 31, perhaps by a couple of wins, Rizzo could have taken a more aggressive approach at the deadline, shoring up a weakness or two on a 54-51 team that was 3.5 games out of both a Wild Card spot and the NL East lead instead of shrugging his shoulders at a 52-53 squad. We’ll never know.

The Nationals are doomed, but Harper has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball in recent weeks, in stark contrast to the first few months of the season. Here’s a breakdown, using the All-Star break as the divider:

Bryce Harper Pre- and Post-All-Star Break
Period PA HR BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
1st Half 414 23 18.8% 24.6% .226 .214 .365 .468 118 1.5
2nd Half 117 7 11.1% 26.5% .444 .350 .436 .650 187 1.5
All statistics through August 20.

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Cubs Acquire Daniel Murphy, Infield Insurance Policy

With the Nationals under .500 and their playoff hopes growing slimmer, the club decided to put a few pending free agents on waivers. One of the more prominent names is that of Daniel Murphy, who is headed to the Cubs. The deal was first reported as close by Craig Mish and then confirmed shortly thereafter by multiple sources.  Jon Heyman came through with the return, so here’s the deal:

Cubs receive:

  • Daniel Murphy

Nationals receive:

The trade is an interesting one for several reasons. First, because the Cubs were the team to claim him and trade for him, that means that every other team in the National League passed on Murphy. The 33-year-old lefty was in the final year of his three-year, $36 million contract that pays him $17.5 million this season with $5 million deferred to the following two years. That means Murphy is owed about $4 million for the rest of the season. The money, plus a lack of need at Murphy’s position of second base, likely caused other contenders to pass and land in the lap of the team with the best record in the National League.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 8/21/2018

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Johan Quezada, RHP, Minnesota Twins
Level: Low-A   Age: Turns 24 on Saturday   Org Rank: 46   FV: 35+
Line: 3.1 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 0 R, 6 K

Notes
This was Johan Quezada’s first career appearance in full-season ball. An imposing mound presence at a towering 6-foot-6, he has recovered from the shoulder surgery that cost him all of 2017, and his velocity has returned. He sits 94-97 with extreme downhill plane created by his height, and he’ll show you an average slider every once in a while. Quezada’s breaking-ball quality and command need to develop as they’re understandably behind due to his limited pro workload. He’s a older-than-usual arm-strength/size lottery ticket. On the surface, he seems like a candidate for extra reps in the Arizona Fall League.

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Matt Adams Returns to St. Louis

The St. Louis Cardinals brought 1B/“OF” Matt Adams back to his old stomping grounds, picking him up from the Washington Nationals after claiming him on revocable waivers.

Bryce Harper hasn’t been traded yet — and that would be a big one if it actually happens — but the departure of Daniel Murphy (about whom Craig Edwards will soon publish a post) and Adams is a likely indicator of how Washington feels about their rapidly deteriorating playoff odds. It’s a bit of speculation here, but from talking with people around baseball, I’m of the belief that ownership was less inclined to throw in the towel than team general manager Mike Rizzo.

Adams is a role player but a useful one for a team that’s starting to think about playoff bullpens. The 340-point OPS split between his career numbers against lefties (.595) and righties (.835) always made Adams a tough call as a full-time starting first baseman. Nevertheless, it gives him situational value. The Cardinals are 17th in baseball against right-handers by wRC+ versus sixth against lefties, and Greg Garcia is the only other left-handed bat available on the bench. Nor can the team dig in and grab someone from Triple-A: the only lefty Redbird hitters are Justin Williams, recently picked up in the Tommy Pham trade, and Max Schrock, who only has a .666 OPS and I think was the secondary bad guy in Batman Returns. Williams may have a future on the team, but if you just need a lefty bat off the bench, Adams is more valuable at this point.

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Sunday Notes: Niko Goodrum Got Comfortable and Became a Tiger

Niko Goodrum has been a find for the Tigers. His 232/.297/.435 slash line is admittedly ho-hum, but he’s providing plenty of value with his versatility and verve. Reminiscent of Tony Phillips, the 26-year-old former Twins prospect has started games at six positions. In his first Motor City season, he’s served as both a spark plug and a Swiss Army Knife.

He came to Detroit on the cheap. After toiling for eight years in the Minnesota system, Goodrum arrived as minor league free agent with just 18 MLB plate appearances under his belt. He’s more than earning his league-minimum money. While the aforementioned offensive numbers are pedestrian, the switch-hitter has driven his fair share of baseballs up gaps. His 24 doubles and 12 home runs rank third on the team, and he’s legged out two triples to boot.

Goodrum recognizes that his ability to play all over the field is a major reason he’s getting an opportunity with the rebuilding Tabbies. Another is that he’s finally found himself.

“I’m not searching anymore,” Goodrum told me. “I think that when you’re trying to find your identity of who you are, including what type of hitter you are, the game is a lot harder. When you believe in the things that are in you, your ability will start to show.”

Goodrum feels that corner was turned two years ago. Read the rest of this entry »


Juan Soto, Joe Simpson, and When Commentary Becomes Defamatory

Without a doubt — and this is an objective fact — the best thing about baseball in 2018 has been Juan Soto. I mean, you could say it’s Mike Trout, because the answer to almost every baseball question is Mike Trout. But Juan Soto is probably the best teenager baseball has ever seen, and baseball’s been around a while. Juan Soto has posted a .415 wOBA and 161 wRC+, both marks fifth in baseball among players with 200 or more plate appearances. He’s outhit Aaron Judge (157 wRC+) and Freddie Freeman (143) and Paul Goldschmidt (141) and a whole bunch of other people he has no business outhitting. Juan Soto is third on the Nationals in WAR (2.7) and has played in 68 games. Trea Turner, who leads the team with 3.5 WAR, has played in 113 games. Juan Soto is so good. And he’s doing this, again, at 19 years old.

For no other reason than because Juan Soto is my favorite thing about 2018 Major League Baseball, here is Juan Soto hitting a ball to somewhere past Saturn — off fellow southpaw Chasen Shreve:

And an even more impressive dinger on a pitch that was probably off the plate inside:

Juan Soto doing Juan Soto things has brought him some degree of attention around the league, and Soto might be, at just 19, the best position player on a Nationals team that also employs Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. And it’s likely because of his surprising ascent that, when he came up to bat against Atlanta earlier this week, Braves announcer Joe Simpson made a comment that raised a few eyebrows. You can hear the audio here, but here’s what he said as relayed by the New York Post:

“If he’s 19, he certainly has his man-growth,” Simpson said. “He is big and strong.”

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Juan Soto Looks Like the Best Teenage Hitter in History

Every so often it’s fun to review the preseason FanGraphs staff predictions. We predict standings, but we also predict awards, and, clicking and scrolling down to the National League Rookie of the Year predictions, you can see a lot of love for Ronald Acuna Jr. And, you know, he’s a 20-year-old with a 119 wRC+. Very good! Acuna Jr. ran away with the predictions. There were three votes apiece for Lewis Brinson, Victor Robles, and Scott Kingery. And then there were single votes for J.P. Crawford, Ryan McMahon, Alex Reyes, and Nick Senzel. There were zero votes for Juan Soto. In fairness, there were also zero votes for, say, Brian Anderson and Harrison Bader, but this is a Soto article, so that’s where I’m going to focus.

I wouldn’t consider this a case of staff stupidity. Late last October, Soto turned 19 years old. Injuries limited him in 2017 to just 32 games, all in the very low minors. He came into the season as the FanGraphs No. 50 overall prospect. He was ranked No. 56 by Baseball America. When Soto reached the majors, he did it at nearly record speed. His ascent was as much about major-league injuries as it was about his own performance. Soto wasn’t supposed to arrive as quickly as he has.

There are 240 players who have batted at least 250 times this season. The leader among them in wRC+ is Mike Trout, at 190. In second place, we find Mookie Betts. After Betts, there’s Jose Ramirez. After Ramirez, there’s J.D. Martinez. And after Martinez, there’s Juan Soto. There’s 19-year-old Juan Soto, with a wRC+ of 161. This is a season that hasn’t at all gone the Nationals’ way, but even with that being said, the sudden emergence of Soto has changed the organization’s longer-term outlook. And the shorter-term outlook, too.

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Selling Is the Right Move for the Nationals

Bryce Harper might join Manny Machado among those traded before the deadline.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

This post has been updated to reflect the Washington Post‘s latest report about Harper’s availability.

Last week, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the Nationals, who at the time were 50-51, “might need to win three of its next four games in Miami to stave off growing internal pressure to sell.” While the team trounced the Marlins in the series’ first two games, they lost the final two, capped by a two-hit shutout by Jose Urena and three relievers on Sunday. Now 52-53, they’re 5.5 games back in the NL East and six back in the Wild Card race. On Monday night, MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reported that they’ve made it known that pending free agent Bryce Harper is available:

[Update] On Tuesday morning, via the Washington Post‘s Chelsea Janes, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo proclaimed the team’s intention to keep Harper:

Harper, of course, is not having his best season. Though he’s first in the league in walks (84) and second in homers (25), he has struggled like never before when it comes to hitting against infield shifts; both his .240 BABIP and 42 wRC+ in such situations are career lows. In all, he’s hit .220/.369/.473 for a 121 wRC+, down from a 139 career mark, and his 1.6 WAR in 103 games is less than half of last year’s 4.9 in 111 games.

Even before Janes’ report, FanCred’s Jon Heyman suggested that Rizzo may not have been earnest about moving the 25-year-old slugger:

That jibes with Rosenthal’s report, which suggested that money is at the root of the Nationals’ concerns, but that not all of the team’s decision-makers were onboard (a situation that may have changed in the ensuing days):

“According to sources, ownership is pushing Rizzo to sell, particularly with the Nationals projecting to be over the $197 million luxury-tax threshold. That ownership preference, first mentioned by MLB Network Radio’s Jim Duquette, is shared by some in the front office who believe it might be time to retool. Rizzo, however, is not inclined to concede, and other sources suggest ownership is simply ‘riding it out’ and waiting for Washington to play better.”

Per Cot’s Contracts, the Nationals’ payroll for luxury tax purposes is $208,548,348. As second-time offenders, they would pay a 30% penalty on the amount over the threshold, which comes to all of $3.46 million, about what they’re paying Howie Kendrick this year — peanuts, by major-league standards. For the sake of comparison, the Dodgers paid $36.2 million in taxes and penalties last year, the Nationals just $1.45 million.

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Sunday Notes: Eugenio Suárez Added Power and Sterling Sharp is a Pitching Ninja

Eugenio Suárez played in the All-Star Game earlier this month, so in some respects he’s not under the radar. But in many ways, he really is. The Cincinnati Reds third baseman is slashing .301/.387/.581, and he leads the National League in both wRC+ and RBIs. Were he playing in a bigger market, those numbers would make him… well, a star. Which he is… in relative anonymity.

Opposing pitchers certainly know who he is, and that’s been especially true this past week. Going into last night, Suárez had homered in five consecutive games, raising his season total to 24. That’s two fewer than last year’s career high, which came in his third season in Cincinnati. Count the Tigers’ former brain trust among those who didn’t see this coming. In December 2014, Detroit traded the then-23-year-old to the Reds for (gulp), Alfredo Simon.

“I don’t think anything has really changed,” Suárez claimed when I asked him about his evolution as a hitter. “I just play baseball like I did before. I’ve always been able to hit, just not for power like last year and this year.”

He attributes the power surge to maturity and hard work in the offseason. Asked to compare his current self to the 17-year-old kid who signed out of Venezuela in 2008, Suárez said the biggest difference is physicality. Read the rest of this entry »


The Manager’s Perspective: Matt LeCroy on Mentoring in the Minors

Matt LeCroy played for Ron Gardenhire back when the former was a slugging catcher-first baseman for the Minnesota Twins in the early 2000s. Today, he shares many of the veteran skipper’s attributes. LeCroy is now a manager himself — he skippers Washington’s Double-A affiliate, the Harrisburg Senators — and there’s a lot of ‘Gardy’ in the way he goes about his business. Equal parts engaging and nuts-and-bolts baseball rat, he’s adept at balancing the variety of responsibilities that comes with the job.

Managing in the minors obviously differs from managing in the big leagues. The focus is more on player development than it is on winning, which LeCroy learned after being hired to lead Low-A Hagerstown in 2009. Now, 10 years after that first managerial gig, he’s using his experience — including what he gleaned from Gardy — to mentor the likes of Carter Kieboom and, earlier this season, Juan Soto.

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Matt LeCroy: “The biggest thing I’ve learned is to put players in positions to be successful. Preparing guys for the big leagues is a lot harder than I assumed it was going to be. When I first started out, I had goals, too. I figured that if I won, I may have a chance to go coach or manage in the big leagues. But that’s not why I’m here. My main job is to make sure I maximize everybody’s abilities to the highest level possible, so that they can go to the next level.

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The Thoroughly Average Exploits of Bryce Harper

As was the case for the fans an hour north in Baltimore — where franchise cornerstone Manny Machado entered the last year of his own contract — the 2018 campaign has, for Washington supporters, loomed in the distance like a poorly understood Mayan prophecy. It was, of course, Bryce Harper’s final season before entering free agency.

Unlike the Orioles, though, the Nationals were at least likely to provide some solace by remaining the class of the NL East until Harper left to grab his $300 million contract. Unfortunately for residents of the area, that merry scenario has not unfolded as expected. While the the Braves and Phillies seemed unlikely to have completed their rebuilds by the start of the 2018 season, both teams appear to have done exactly that, leaving the Nationals in third place a week from the deadline, six games back and a game below .500.

More surprising than the accelerated schedule of Atlanta and Philadelphia is Harper’s role in the poor season. Even hitting .216, Harper has been far from worthless, recording a .365 on-base and .470 slugging percentage for a 119 wRC+. With some poor defensive numbers added in, the result is a 1.4 WAR in nearly two-thirds of a season. A league-average player is a real contributor, of course, but a league-average Bryce Harper feels a little like Beethoven composing the radio jingle for a local pizza place.

(Historical note: Beethoven’s Der glorreiche Augenblick, Op. 136 isn’t really that far off from being this, but that’s a story for another day on another site — or, more likely, just a Google search.)

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Which Teams Could Even Trade for Lindor and Ramirez?

“Probably none,” is mostly the answer to the question posed in the title.
(Photo: Erik Drost)

Last week, I took up the mantle from Dave Cameron and published this site’s 11th annual Trade Value series. If you’re new to the concept, the Trade Value series represents an attempt to rank the most valuable assets in baseball, accounting for each player’s current skill level, age, and health while factoring in controllable years or contract status (with lots of advice from scouts and execs). Few, if any, of the players are likely to be traded in reality; however, the rankings represent an opportunity to see how the industry is and isn’t valuing players.

An unusual thing happened in this year’s series — namely, the top two spots in the rankings went to a pair teammates, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. By my reckoning, the combined eight years for which their contracts are controlled by Cleveland are worth around $385 million*. They’re incredibly valuable.

*To arrive at this figure, I used ZiPS projected WAR, projected dollar-per-WAR inflation, discounted values for years further into the future, and a linear concept of dollar-per-WAR. This is more of a ballpark number since clubs on either extreme of the payroll spectrum may value each win much more or less than the average team that’s assumed in this sort of calculation.

In the wake of this year’s edition, I began thinking: would any clubs have sufficient ammunition for Cleveland even to consider a possible trade of Lindor and Ramirez? As with the Trade Value series itself, this is mostly a hypothetical question. The Indians, as a contending club, have little incentive to deal two of the majors’ best players. Still, I was curious if any club could put together enough assets even to make it possible.

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Did Bryce Harper Cheat in the Home Run Derby?

The 2018 Home Run Derby was an awesome spectacle despite what appeared, on paper, to be a lackluster field. Bryce Harper, who somehow has 173 career homers and is still just 25, won the event in a dramatic finale that saw him best fellow catcher-turned-outfield-slugger Kyle Schwarber.

Or did he?

Yes, that’s #Justice4Schwarber trending on Twitter. My personal favorite hashtag, though, was this:

In short, the Twitterverse (mostly, to be fair, Cubs Twitterverse) was abuzz with the sentiment that Bryce Harper won the Home Run Derby by cheating. Specifically, by doing this:

You can also see that video here. In terms of what it shows, it’s pretty obvious: during the last minute-plus of his final round, Ron Harper (who, by the way, has alarmingly immense limb musculature) didn’t wait for Bryce’s batted balls to hit the ground before tossing another pitch to his son. It’s also pretty clear that, absent those extra pitches, Bryce wouldn’t have been able to catch Schwarber. As Jay Jaffe explained yesterday (emphasis mine):

[T]he 25-year-old Nationals superstar did have his back to the wall in the final round against fifth-seeded Kyle Schwarber, but with nine homers in the final minute — on 10 swings by my count, though ESPN’s broadcast said nine in a row — he tied the Cubs slugger’s total of 18. On the second pitch of the 30-second bonus period, he lofted a 434-foot drive to center field, then did a two-handed bat flip as the crowd went wild, and quickly handed the trophy to his barrel-chested father, Ron, who had pitched to him[.]

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