Archive for Nationals

Projecting Victor Robles

In something of a surprise move, the Washington Nationals have called up 20-year-old center fielder Victor Robles from Double-A. Robles spent most of the season at the High-A level, having only played at Double-A since late July. Robles lacks experience against big-league-caliber pitching, but met basically every challenge at the lower levels this year, hitting an outstanding .300/.382/.493 with 27 steals. You’d be hard-pressed to find many batting lines better and more well rounded than Robles’. He hits for average, hits for power, and is a weapon on the bases. Oh, and he’s also an elite center fielder who was worth 15 runs above average this year according to Clay Davenport’s numbers.

If you’re looking for any signs of weakness with Robles, his plate discipline is a candidate. He struck out in 17% of his plate appearances in the minors and walked in 7%, which are both league-average-ish marks. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with average strikeout and walk numbers, particularly when everything else is off the charts. But keep in mind that those figures were recorded mostly against A-ball pitching and are likely to worsen against big leaguers.

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Something Dennis Eckersley Said Is Relevant to Gio Gonzalez

This post is about Gio Gonzalez. It says so right in the title. But to get there, we first have to talk to Dennis Eckersley, because he said something the other day that’s pertinent to what the lefty in Washington is doing right now.

Eckersley, in Oakland because the team named a gate after him, was relaxing before a game. We were talking about changes in the sport, and I asked him why his strikeout rate peaked in 1992, at a point when he was 38 years old and had been a reliever for five years. Was it a new pitch? Grip? Approach?

Nope.

“Everyone started chasing, just like now,” the legendary reliever said that day. “You punch out 200 guys now, it’s not a big deal. Everyone is striking out a guy an inning. You tell me why. First of all, they’re throwing harder. I get that. But no one puts down their hack. These 2-2 swings… they’re, like, crazy.”

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Daily Prospect Notes: 8/22

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

Victor Robles, CF, Washington (Profile)
Level: Double-A   Age: 20   Org Rank:Top 100: 8
Line: 3-for-5, 2B, HR, SB

Notes
Robles is slashing .320/.375/.505 since his promotion to Double-A and has tallied a career-high 51 extra-base hits already this year. Many of those are doubles hooked down the left-field line that Robles turns into extra bases because of his plus-plus speed. Though he still has occasional lapses out there right now, that speed is likely to make Robles a very good defensive center fielder at maturity as he runs down balls in the gaps that many center fielders cannot. Scouts anticipate Robles will hit around .300 with some pop — though probably not quite as much as he’s shown this year — while playing good defense in center field. As a point of reference, Lorenzo Cain, a good defensive center fielder, has slashed .295/.360/.440 this season with strikeout and walk rates within 1% of Robles’ career marks. Cain has generated 3.3 WAR in 119 games this year. That appears to be a very reasonable outcome for Robles, who is one of baseball’s best prospects.

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Dusty Baker Is Throwing Caution, Pitch Counts to the Wind

Washington left-hander Gio Gonzalez pitched into the seventh inning on Sunday in San Diego. His 120th pitch of the late afternoon was ripped into right field by Manuel Margot for a single. It was his last pitch of the outing, as Nationals manager Dusty Baker strode to the mound, gestured to the bullpen, and took the ball from Gonzalez.

Twenty years ago, this wouldn’t have been a noteworthy event. The sequence would seem rather innocuous, in fact. But we live in an age marked by an unprecedented number of pitching injuries, an age in which teams and players are more often turning to science to better understand performance and injury prevention. We live in an era when pitch counts routinely accompany the game data in the corner of a telecast. No team of which I’m aware has figured out how to significantly reduce pitching injuries, but there is a general sense that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

And this is where Baker stands out from the crowd.

While pitch counts are crude metrics, only 10 teams have allowed a starting pitcher to exceed 120 pitches this season; only two teams have allowed it to occur on multiple occasions.

Baker and the Nationals have accomplished it four times.

Baker is lapping the field.

Starts of 120+ Pitches in 2017, by Team
Team Number
Nationals 4
Padres 2
Red Sox 1
Indians 1
Rockies 1
Tigers 1
Diamondbacks 1
Cardinals 1
Rangers 1
Rays 1
Everyone else 0

The Nationals under Baker also rank second in average pitch count per start (100.5 pitches), one of only two teams averaging more than 100 pitches per start. They also rank second in number of 100-plus pitch outings (76). The Nationals are trailing only the Red Sox (101.1, 81) in each category, according to the Baseball Prospectus data.

It’s not curious just that Baker is leaning on his starters to an unusual degree relative to the league in 2017, but that he’s doing so at a time when the Nationals have a 14-game lead in the NL East and a 100% chance of reaching the NLDS according to FanGraphs playoff projections entering Monday. This would seem like the time to give players more rest when possible.

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How Would We Increase Balls in Play?

There’s a difference between watching the game at home and watching at the park, that much is obvious. Personally, I’m more analytical at home, where I have the tools to identify pitch type and location with some precision, for example. At the field, I can only tell velocity and maybe spot the curveballs, so I get an adult soda, a good companion, and I talk and wait.

What am I waiting for? “People go to the game to see us put the ball in play, throw the ball away, and fall down,” Giants starter Jeff Samardzija told me the other day. “They want to see people doing things,” said Indians slugger Jay Bruce. I couldn’t disagree. The problem, if this is true, is that baseball is trending in the opposite direction. There are fewer balls in play now than at any other point in the history of the sport. There’s less of people doing things, to use Bruce’s words.

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Updated Top-10 Prospect Lists: NL East

Below are the updated summer top-10 prospect lists for the orgs in the National League East. I have notes beneath the top 10s explaining why some of these prospects have moved up or down. For detailed scouting information on individual players, check out the player’s profile page which may include tool grades and/or links to Daily Prospect Notes posts in which they’ve appeared this season. For detailed info on players drafted or signed this year, check out our sortable boards.

Atlanta Braves (Preseason List)

1. Ronald Acuna, CF
2. Ozzie Albies. 2B
3. Kyle Wright, RHP
4. Luiz Gohara, LHP
5. Kolby Allard, LHP
6. Kevin Maitan, SS
7. Ian Anderson, RHP
8. Mike Soroka, RHP
9. Joey Wentz, LHP
10. Cristian Pache, CF

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The Best Reliever Traded at the Deadline

Evaluating relievers is difficult given their small sample of work in any given year and their volatility from year to year. But, given the fact that the most active sector of the trade deadline ended up being relievers, it makes sense to put them all in one place and wonder who got the best one. Might there be a surprising answer since the Padres ended up holding Brad Hand’s production on their roster?

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Projecting the Prospects Traded on Friday Night

Three minor-ish trades went down on Friday night. The Mets acquired A.J. Ramos from the Marlins for Merandy Gonzalez and Ricardo Cespedes; the Nationals acquired Howie Kendrick from the Phillies for McKenzie Mills; the Orioles acquired Jeremy Hellickson from the Phillies for Garrett Cleavinger and Hyun Soo Kim.  Below are the projections for the prospects who changed hands. WAR figures account for the player’s first six major-league seasons. KATOH denotes the stats-only version of the projection system, while KATOH+ denotes the methodology that includes a player’s prospect rankings.

None of the players dealt last night are top prospects, and as a result, their likelihood of outcomes graphs are heavily skewed towards “no MLB”. Kyle Glaser recently found that fewer than one in five prospects traded at the deadline contribute more than one positive WAR season. All three of these pitchers seem like good bets to fall into that bottom four-fifths.

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The Phillies’ Returns for Hellickson and Kendrick

Philadelphia made a pair of trades Friday, sending Howie Kendrick to Washington for LHP McKenzie Mills. They also traded RHP Jeremy Hellickson to Baltimore for LHP Garrett Cleavinger and OF Hyun Soo Kim. Philadelphia also received bonus pool money from both clubs.

Baltimore gets
RHP Jeremy Hellickson

Washington gets
2B Howie Kendrick

Philadelphia gets
LHP McKenzie Mills
LHP Garrett Cleavinger
OF Hyun Soo Kim
International Bonus Slots

Mills is a 21-year old, big-bodied lefty with advanced changeup feel. He was an 18th round pick out of Sprayberry HS (GA) in 2014 and then spent each of his first three pro seasons in either rookie or short-season ball. Mills struggled with control. His strikeout and walk rates — 20% and 12%, respectively, in 2016 and 28% and 5% this year — have both drastically improved this year and he’s having more success as the season goes on despite having already doubled his innings total frmo last year.

As far as the stuff in concerned, Mills is a deceptive 88-92 with downhill plane and could have an above average changeup at maturity. His below average curveball has shape but not power. He can locate it, and his other pitches, and projects to have starter’s control/command. He has K’d 118 hitters in 104.2 innings with Low-A Potomac and is a potential backend starter.

Cleavinger, a 2015 3rd rounder out of Oregon, is a pure relief prospect with a low-90s fastball and loopy, twisting curveball. His command is very erratic and, while he has premium loogy funk and repertoire, it needs to develop significantly if Cleavinger’s to have a steady big league role.

The Phillies also acquired $1 million in international bonus money yesterday General Manager Matt Klentak’s post-trade comments indicate that money will be speculatively used to as yet unidentified or available talent on the international market. The Phillies were originally allotted a $4.75 million bonus pool for the international period and spent a significant amount of it on five players, including SS Luis Garcia ($2.5 mil) and four other players who all signed for around $500k each.


The Crazy Probabilities in the Nationals Five-Homer Inning

Bryce Harper got a little help from his friends. (Photo: Keith Allison)

 

The Nationals just exploded offensively against the Brewers, winning 15-2. It might be hard to believe, but it could have been worse as all 15 Nationals runs were scored in the first four innings. One inning in particular stands out as the Nationals hit five home runs in the third inning on their way to a seven-run inning. It might be hard to believe, but the inning didn’t appear to be a particularly promising one from the beginning as Max Scherzer and his .185/.215/.200 slash line led off. Here’s how the inning went down, per the FanGraphs play log.

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The Nationals Need a Catcher

Earlier this week, I examined the Rafael Devers call up and the void that has been the Red Sox’ third base production for what seems like forever. But I also looked at the weakest position player units among the contenders such as the Rockies’ right field situation (and catcher, and first base and shortstop positions) and the Yankees’ first base production.

But another notable production void among contenders, particularly among division leaders with aspirations of playing deep into October, is the Nationals’ catching situation. Read the rest of this entry »


Bryce Harper Just Keeps Getting Better

Earlier this month I set out to explore an adjustment Bryce Harper has been working on, a sort of lower gear, to ostensibly better allow him to compete against elite velocity and with two strikes.

As of July 26th, the leg-kick-less swing remains, and it continues to get results. It has helped Harper become the best two-strike hitter in baseball this season and it is not particularly close as you can see via FanGraphs leaderboards. Read the rest of this entry »


Finding a Home for Justin Verlander in Washington

What do you get the team that seemingly has everything? The Washington Nationals have the best pitcher in the National League with Clayton Kershaw on the disabled list. They have two of the best position players in the National League right now in Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. They have depth in the lineup with the fantastic Daniel Murphy and the rejuvenated Ryan Zimmerman. Their bullpen was terrible about a week ago, and that’s been seemingly solved with the addition of Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle. They already have a playoff spot nearly locked down, with an 11.5 game lead on a division full of sellers. So what do you get the team that’s already set for the playoffs in July? How about Justin Verlander?

We probably wouldn’t be talking about the Nationals adding a pitcher if Stephen Strasburg hadn’t left his last start after two innings. With Max Scherzer followed by Strasburg, then Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, the Nationals have one of the better top-fours in baseball. Take away fifth starters, and only the Boston Red Sox have a higher projected WAR the rest of the way than the Nationals. That’s a really formidable playoff rotation, and it doesn’t really matter that Joe Ross is out for the year or one of the best teams in baseball is using Edwin Jackson as a starter because they will make the playoffs and the fifth starter doesn’t matter. However, it does matter if Strasburg can’t be counted on, and depending on the potential acquisition, even if he is back, a great third starter could help a lot in the playoffs and next season.

There might be some temptation on Washington’s part to go for a rental. With the team already set for the regular season, a rental’s value is limited to the postseason. How much in prospects and money is a pitcher worth for one game? Assuming the Nationals don’t catch the Dodgers–who are way out in front right now–and the Cubs take control in the NL Central, the Nationals will play the Cubs in the Division Series. The team would certainly like its chances with Scherzer against Jon Lester and Strasburg against Jose Quintana, but Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark and Scherzer on three days rest against Quintana, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks isn’t quite as appetizing. Read the rest of this entry »


Speedy Andrew Stevenson Slows Down and Reaches DC

Andrew Stevenson made his big league debut with the Washington Nationals on Sunday. His call-up came in a time of need — injuries and a bereavement leave had left the Nats short of outfielders — but the call-up wasn’t without merit. The 23-year-old former LSU Tiger had put himself back on the fast track after a slow start in Triple-A.

It was a dogged climb for the speedy 2015 second-round pick. Promoted to Syracuse on May 1 after hitting a heady .350 with Double-A Harrisburg, Stevenson found himself straddling the Mendoza Line six weeks later. Then he picked up the pace. From June 10 onward, he went 48 for 159 (.301), hitting safely in 30 of 40 games.

His modus operandi is slash and burn. Stevenson’s stroke is geared toward the gaps — he has just six home runs in 1,216 professional plate appearances — and he’s a running threat once he gets on. The native of Lafayette, Louisiana swiped 39 bags a year ago, and he was 9 for 10 in stolen base attempts after joining the Triple-A Chiefs.

His Double-A manager sees some raw power lurking in Stevenson’s lanky frame, but he largely concurs with the slash-and-burn label. Read the rest of this entry »


Anthony Rendon Is Everything

If you want to understand why the Dodgers have such a good record, I can share with you a fun fact. Right now, as I look at the leaderboard, the Dodgers have six players within the top-30 in National League WAR. They have five players in the top-20, and three players in the top-10. I think there’s been some kind of understanding that the Dodgers have been built around depth, instead of stars. They have stars. They have, at least, star-level performances.

Yet the Nationals, I think, can top that fun fact. The Nationals aren’t better than the Dodgers, and the Dodgers are likely to be the favorites for the pennant. But what the Nationals have is the guy in third place in the NL in WAR. They also have the guy in second place. And they also have the guy in first place. According to this one method, the top three players in the league have all played for the same team. You expect Max Scherzer to be dominant, and Bryce Harper was projected for a rebound season. The player in first, though, is Anthony Rendon.

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Projecting Sheldon Neuse, Part of the Return for Doolittle and Madson

The Nationals finally addressed their struggling bullpen yesterday by acquiring relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the Oakland Athletics. In return, Oakland received veteran reliever Blake Treinen and prospects Sheldon Neuse and Jesus Luzardo. Luzardo was a third rounder out of high school last year who has just 14 professional innings to his name. As such, I don’t have a KATOH projection for him, but Eric Longenhagen gave him a 40 FV in the offseason in his offseason writeup of the Nationals system.

Neuse was Washington’s 2016 second-round draft choice out of the University of Oklahoma. He was an excellent hitter in his last season of college, slashing .369/.465/.646 with 12 steals over 55 games. He has carried his hot hitting over to pro ball, slashing .291/.349/.469 at the Low-A level this year while playing shortstop.

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Nationals Make Inevitable Trade for Actual Good Relievers

No trade-deadline need has ever been clearer, has ever been more obvious, than the Nationals’ need to acquire some help in the bullpen. It’s been an annual concern, which means you could call the Nationals front office experienced, but the bullpen this year has been a disaster. They still have a massive lead in their division! A playoff entry is all but guaranteed. Yet the Nationals want to someday get beyond just making the playoffs. They’d like to win a damn series, and these last few months, they haven’t had good relievers.

Do you consider yourself a fan of our in-house statistics? The Nationals bullpen ranks last in baseball in WAR. Do you prefer to give more credit for events that have actually happened? The Nationals bullpen ranks last in baseball in RA9-WAR. If you’re bigger on storytelling statistics, the Nationals bullpen ranks 26th in baseball in WPA. To address the area, the Nats have swapped with the bullpen that ranks 27th in baseball in WPA. Here are the players:

Nationals get

Athletics get

On paper, this is a big double-get for the Nats. On paper, these were some of the better relievers available. Certainly, moving forward, Dusty Baker can feel better about his bullpen than he did yesterday or the day before. The risk is that things aren’t always as promising as they look on paper. The Nationals know that better than most teams.

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Starting-Pitcher Championship-Belt Showdown

The overriding theme of the 2017 season to date has been a wave of homers, many of them hit into the stratosphere courtesy of the sport’s new wave of sluggers, like Cody Bellinger, Miguel Sano, and, of course, Aaron Judge. Somewhat under the radar, the game’s three best starting pitchers, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and are doing what they always do — namely, dominate.

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Bryce Harper Has a New, Lower Gear

According to this weekend’s ESPN Sunday Night Telecast, Bryce Harper has, in recent years, often performed his pregame routine and taken batting practice indoors, in the bowels of major-league ballparks, much to the disappointment of ballhawks across America. But Harper revealed himself over the weekend in St. Louis, taking BP on the field, and any time a star like Harper deviates from a routine, it raises curiosity. During the broadcast, ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza related how she’d asked Harper about the change. He said he wanted to hit some batting practice home runs, wanted to see the ball travel.

Perhaps he wanted to see how an adjustment, something akin to an R&D prototype, would work outside a lab setting, outside of an indoor batting cage.

When I think about Harper’s swing, I think about the violence of it. The leg kick, the force compelling his back foot — his left foot — to rise from the ground. Former Nationals beat writer Adam Kilgore wrote an excellent multimedia piece about Harper’s swing for The Washington Post several years ago.

From that piece:

[Nationals video coordinator Rick] Schu scanned through video and found film of Harper hitting. He arranged clips of Harper and Ruth side-by-side on the monitor and stopped at the moment each hitter’s bat connected with a pitch. In each still picture, he saw a stiff front leg, an uncoiling torso and a back foot lifting off the ground. “Wow,” he thought. “That’s identical.” …

“The full thing is God-given,” Harper said. “I don’t know how I got my swing or what I did. I know I worked every single day. I know I did as much as I could with my dad. But I never really looked at anything mechanical. There was nothing really like, ‘Oh, put your hands here.’ It was, ‘Where are you comfortable? You’re comfortable here, hit from there.’ ”

What’s interesting, at least to this author, is that Harper is willing to tinker with a gift that allowed him to reach the majors at 19. What’s perhaps troubling for the opposition is that he continues to look for ways to improve despite already possessing an NL MVP on his resume and returning close to that form thus far in 2017. He’s still just 24 — he won’t turn 25 until October — and is four months younger than Aaron Judge. His youth suggests he’s still learning himself and the game. And on the ESPN telecast, Harper debuted an apparent decision to trade power for control — or at least explore it. It’s not a swing I recall him taking — at least not regularly — a swing seemingly executed at 80% effort.

Against the hard-throwing Carlos Martinez, Harper shelved his signature leg kick. To commence his swing, he slightly raised his right foot but not completely from the ground, and took a much less explosive movement. He seemed to consciously trade power for control.

Consider Harper’s first swing of the evening:

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Daily Prospect Notes: 6/29

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

Jacob Nix, RHP, San Diego (Profile)
Level: Hi-A Age: 21   Org Rank: 7   Top 100: HM
Line: 9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 11 K

Notes
A groin strain sidelined Nix until late May. Since returning, his fastball has been in the mid-90s, touching 97, and his curveball flashes plus. He has an inning-eater’s build (I have a Jon Lieber comp on the body) and throws lots of strikes. He’s rather firmly an overall top-100 prospect.

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