Nationals Baseball

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Roark was... ok

Roark had a better outing last night than his last two, but it wasn't exactly the Roark we've came to expect to see last year. He was still missing wildly at times. He was still getting hit pretty hard. On the other hand, he wasn't just catching breaks on where they hit them. He did pretty much manage to get the ball over to every batter on one of the first two pitches. That's not trivial as it kept Roark away from a count where it felt like he needed to throw a strike or a pitch that looks like one.  His pitching, Seattle being a bit aggressive, and the Nats having a nice lead all added together to present few "have to" situations for Roark.

That's good enough and not good enough at the same time. It's good enough for the season, as you saw last night. The Nats still have a good offense. Maybe not the killer, carry the team all-season offense with Eaton, maybe one that can go into a funk now and then, but it's good. They will score and that means the pitchers can relax a bit. But it's not good enough for the playoffs. You at least need a reliable third arm in the playoffs and I didn't see that from Roark last night. I don't expect to ever see it from Gio - he's limited to starting against teams that can't hit lefties. I'm not sure Ross will get there. So Roark being '16 Roark again is pretty important for a team whose goals are not just to make the playoffs. There is plenty of time to work that out though.

The Nats Blog brought up re-signing Werth for next year and... well... I don't know. I noted last year that Werth had pretty much hit best reasonable expectation for his contract. He didn't do it in a usual way - the order of the productivity of his years were all out of whack - but he did it. I feel kind of sure that he won't get out of 2017 with a 120+ OPS+ but more like something around 100 and that's great! Really! That means he's still a viable player, though a lower end one because of defense, for an OF.  So he still fits into the Nats OF... maybe. Assuming Eaton is back and Bryce is Bryce you have one spot left. Is that for MAT*? Is that for Robles? The question is one of is the team better served in the long run by letting a young guy patrol that corner spot rather than trying to squeeze out something from a guy at best 2-3 years from being put out to pasture?

That's probably yes, in the long run, but what if you are just worried about 2018? 2018 could be the last year of Bryce and of Murphy as both head into free agency (also probably Weiters as Severino is nowhere near ready with the bat right now). With a big chunk of the offense potentially gone the next year do you really want to "try out" a guy in the OF and maybe cost yourself something? Wouldn't it be better for 2018 to sign up Werth for one last go at it?

It's a tough question. I suppose honestly the hope is the Nats win it all this year and then - hey! Who cares!? Champions! Woooo!

*Yes, I'll talk about MAT and Trea - maybe tomorrow, maybe post Memorial Day.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

All eyes on Roark

No real post today because sometimes you gotta put seeded rye on the table. But I wanted to note that today Roark is starting and that is more interesting than nearly any other start at this point. Max, Stras, and Gio are all pitching like I would expect them to. The 5th spot needs to be cleared up but you can't really tell much from one or two starts. Although I'll admit Joe Ross came pretty close to it last night.

So I'll guess I'll segway segue into that first. The Nats don't really NEED the 5th starter spot to clear up. We went over earlier how a pitching to expectations Max, Stras, and Roark could nearly get the Nats to the playoffs on their own. Once in the playoffs the 5th starter is somewhat of an vestigial appendage.*  But a decent 5th helps. It helps keep the bullpen rested (although as we've seen the IP of the bullpen isn't all that high), More importantly it gives you cover in case of injury. Up until now, the Nats were praying another arm didn't go down because they didn't have a good option. If Ross can be a decent but reliable 5th then in case of another injury they could fill in behind him with the same barely working mess they were doing before he came back. We don't want to see what's after that.

Even if you understand Seattle is a middling team who's best bat is thrown off in an NL park by having to actually play D he still shut them down solidly for 8 innings. You can be impressed by the efficiency but Ross actually was pretty efficient per batter before going out. It was getting hit that was the problem.  The home run is a continuation of issues he had before but if you don't give up a lot of hits and walks you'll be good enough for 5th.  That's the bar I'm looking at now. Yesterday he cleared it with ease. Let's see the next game.

Back to Roark, Roark hasn't been efficent all year and has been downright bad about how many pitches he's thrown in his last 5 starts. He's averaging over 4.7 pitches per batter. Even his 6IP with 0ER start against the hapless Phillies he threw 100 pitches to only 22 batters. In his last two games the combination of hits and inefficiency got to the point that it meant an early exit. Once is whatever. Twice is "hey look at this". Three times is a problem. These haven't been great offensive teams he's facing either.

It's not necessarily as simple as "pound the zone". Last year he was at 62% strikes. This year he's at 60% and even in the last five games he's at 59%.  Over the course of a game that's 3-4 pitches. I guessed earlier that he's having issue missing like he'd like to, especially to lefties so I'm going to pay particular attention to how he does the first time through against Gamel, Seager, and Cano who are all decent hitters. Can he get them to chase? Can he hit the corners? Are they getting hard hits on pitches out over the plate?

Let's hope those answers are yes, yes and no. Because if not another bad outing in a row and you have to start to wonder if something greater is wrong.

*Would a great 5th starter start in the playoffs, if circumstances called for a 4th starter instead of Gio? Sure. Would a a good one a step better than Gio? My guess is no. Gio presents a different match-up which managers like to think helps keep opposing line-ups off-balance. He in undeniably lefty which can take advantage of things the others can't. And I'm not feeling Gio in the pen, are you?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tuesday Quickie - I didn't want to do it

I really didn't want to do this but when even Barry, even Barry, is doing something wrong you have to step in right?

Look, if you are going to compare how many pitches the Nats starters have thrown in their first nine starts you can't compare it to the entirety of last year. You have to compare it to the first nine starts of last year. This is for two reasons. First pitchers definitely scale down as the year winds down. With more players available to managers with expanded rosters and with playoff situations becoming set, starters are asked to back off in order to ensure they are ready for the postseason. The other reason, which we will see in a minute is debatable, is because it is thought that pitchers often "ramp up" starting with a few briefer outings in order to get their arms back to major league readiness.

Of course it's an easy enough thing to check so here are the Nats current P/G through 9 games and what it was in 2016

Max :  106.2 (2017), 105 (2016)

Stras :  104.8,  103.2

Gio :  105.8,  98.3

Roark : 106.3, 104.5

How many 110+ outings? Ok that's a arbitrary line in the sand and we might see different things if we set the line at say 105 or 108, but I'll play along.

Max :  3, 2
Stras :  3, 2
Gio :  2, 0
Roark : 3, 3

It turns out that, surprise!, the Nats starters are pitching about as much as they did last year. The difference for Max, Stras, and even Roark who is obviously struggling, is not something close to a batter an inning, but rather just one or two more pitches. Surprising, right? The only one with a big difference is Gio. So yes, Dusty is trying to get more out of Gio, trying to wring an out or two more from a guy who he might have pulled early in 2016.

Why then the change in rank?  Well they did go up, but also because rank is kind of silly, especially the earlier in the year you go. If I throw 90 pitches a game but the league throws 80 I might rank #1. If it averages 100, I might rank #50. I'm doing the same thing, the league is changing. Rank without values can be misleading. To this end, I wouldn't be surprised if the overall P/G is down a bit in the NL given the increase in offense we are seeing this year from the league. The end result being the Nats being higher without really throwing more. Even if they all lost 2 pitches per game putting then UNDER where they were through 9 games last year they'd still rank #3, #4, #5, and #8 which would seem like an increase from last year even though again - they'd have been throwing fewer pitches (except Gio)

I'm not saying the bullpen isn't effecting the starters. There is something to be said about sticking it out for one more important batter and having X number of additional high stress pitches thrown. That may effect an arm. Though until someone shows me that is actually going on in a way different from last year I'm going to assume things are the same since the pitches are the same. There is possibly a psychological effect on the pitcher. He may be demanding more of himself earlier in order to keep the game close. But the straight up idea that the Nats starters are throwing significantly more this year because of the problems with the pen? It's just not true, except for Gio.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Monday Quickie - Relative or Absolute

The Nats are 9-9 in May.  10-10 since Adam Eaton was lost for the year.  Does it matter?

Well let's say that the Nats go .500 for the rest of the season starting at the point that Adam Eaton went down. They were 23 games in, 16-7,... subtract... carry the one... multiply by Plank's constant...
They'd end the season either 85-77 or 86-76. Those aren't great totals to be sure. And in a baseball vacuum, you'd worry, in this scenario, that they wouldn't even get a Wild Card berth.

Now let's look at some other numbers. Namely the records of the other teams in the NL East since that same date.

ATL 9-11
NYM 9-11
MIA 5-17
PHI 4-16

The short of it? The Nats have played .500 ball for 3+ weeks and have gained ground on EVERYONE in their division. They do not play in a baseball vacuum. They play in the NL East. Even in this scenario, they are fine.

Now that we satisfied any worry warts, why are the Nats struggling? They aren't a .500 team are they?  Well April / May makes a convenient break point, even if it is imperfect so lets look at RS/RA in the two months

April  6.8 RS/G,  4.88 RA/G
May 4.22 RS/G,  4.61 RA/G

So the hitting got a lot worse. Or more accurately, the hitting stopped carrying the offense. There were 6 (out of 25) games in April that the Nats almost could not lose where the Nats scored 11, 14, 14, 15, 16 and 23 runs. That certainly skews the month but it also, you know, happened.  There were also 5 more games where the team scored 6 or more runs. This is a usual win even against a Nats team struggling with the pen, a good run more over average. (they did in fact win all 5 of these).   Lastly the Nats scored 0-2 runs only two times during the months. These are close to automatic losses.

In May the Nats have had zero double digit scoring games, 5 games still over 6 runs scored (won them all again), and three games scoiring 0-2 runs. There's still a week to go but the Nats are playing a lot more "losable" games. What they aren't doing though is playing a ton more "unwinnable" games. Instead they are playing a lot of games where everyone is scoring some runs. This accentuates the late inning problems because these games are all relatively close. 

The relievers, believe it or not, have gotten better. Though that isn't saying much as they had a 5.70 ERA in April. The starters, in turn, have gotten a bit worse, up to a 4.20 ERA from a 3.90 ERA in April. So there are some

Where is 4.22 R/G? It's below average in a typical modern season, but not terrible.
Where is 4.61 R/G? It's above average in a typical modern season, but not terrible.

Really it's the combination for a below .500 team, but you know, that's like 1 game going the other way difference, we're talking about.

What this shows is that with a terrible pen, the Nats can still win... with a phenomenal offense and above average starting pitching. With an average-ish offense and average-ish starting pitching, you can't. This shouldn't really be a surprise. Average + average + below average isn't going to equal well above average.

Should you worry? Well about the NL East no. What about just in general? Maybe. The starters have been around a 4.00 ERA for over a quarter of the season, the relievers around 5.00. This may be what they are as a group. If that's the case it's a below average combination and the offense will have to carry the team. Can it? Probably. The questions start with Turner, who hasn't gotten anything going this year. That is ok, but that's about all you can afford. Then the questions turn to MAT. Can he be effective? If that's negative that sets up a problem for the team

There are still more questions that are now hanging around the Nats.Where does this drift back down end for Zimm? Can Rendon sustain success? But these are tabled for the moment secondary to the obvious ones above. If MAT and Turner can't hit and these are still questions, then these questions take on added importance drawing the line between a good offense and an ok one. If those questions are both answered negatively then things start to get dicey. Murphy and Bryce have to both be stars constantly which is too much to ask.

For all the potential worry, a possibly underperforming Nats offense and a disappointing starting pitching staff is still keeping the Nats at .500 with a terrible pen. If we're right about the offense and the starting pitching they'll pop back up. Probably not to April levels but above .500 and with a smooth sail to 90+ wins and the division title. You can worry about the playoffs but I wouldn't.  Not now.  Too much time. Too many things can happen. What I'd worry about is one more injury. One that could make this back and forth, disappointing .500ish May an expected result rather than a presumed dip. If that happens the new dips can be lower and that might open the door for someone. Probably not, but maybe.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Amusement Park

I want to say this season for the Nats is like riding a roller coaster. The offense and the starters provide the highs, the relief pitching the lows. But it's really not the season we're talking about. The season should end up fine because the rest of the NL East is pure garbage. There should be only highs and "not as high"s. It's individual games that provide the up and down excitement. So it's more like the season is a trip to the amusement park where you pick a ride, like a roller coaster, and go through great parts and scary parts and maybe some parts you don't like but you end up fine in the end. At least this is what the regular season is like.

With that in mind I guess we're already at the "sit back and enjoy it" phase. The season isn't clinched because there's time for craziness and there's a brutal schedule coming up, but I'm not expecting anything. Just enjoy these crazy roller coaster games for a while until the other rides open up at the trade deadline.

With that in mind it is vaguely hard to talk about stuff. We can talk about the relief pitching but dammit if we don't do that all the time. I'm sure Monday I'll talk about it again after another blown game. Other than that we have a lot of guys doing roughly what they should, or who are not where they should be but seem to be trending in that direction.  These aren't terribly interesting topics, especially if you are like me, and prefer to give more time, than less.

Looking at it I'm left with two reasonable topics, Werth - who's overperforming but glancing at stats I'll predict will fall soon and Roark who is underperforming. I guess Roark it is.

What you first need to understand is that you can't use last year's results as a baseline for Roark.  Well you can but I wouldn't. While I don't think his FIP or xFIP is fair (Roark has a history of lower than average HR/FB which these numbers will assume will be more average) I do think his LOB% is a little high. Can he stay near 80% - perhaps, but historically looking at minor league data as well he's normally lower. I'd think a low 70s would be more appropriate. That means more runs given up, higher ERA, fewer wins etc. I'm not saying he's bad, just don't go into this thinking he's a  2.80 ERA 16-10 guy. Maybe more of a 3.20 ERA 14-11?

OK so usual fancy stats thing

How's the velocity? 
Seems fine

How's the K/9? 

That's up

That's up too.

Ok that combo would suggest a lack of control and keeping the ball up. But I guess for the latter I'd expect a different group of hits if that were the case. Fewer GBs, more FBs. That could explain the homers - more pitches up mean more mistakes up. Eh - that is the case but only slightly. GBs down from 48.7% to 46%, FBs up from 31.2% to 32.7% I wouldn't attribute the HRs to that.

Is he getting hit harder then - does that explain the HRs? Or is it just a fluke - one HR does make a big difference here.
Yes that could explain it.  Soft percentage down a bunch, hard percentage up. But don't rule out fluke.

What about the walks? Is he out of control?  
No real change in percentages in the zone thrown would suggest not. The walks seem to be driven by swings outside the zone being down a bunch, swings inside up.Guys aren't biting on his stuff outside the zone.

But he's had no real difference in what's being thrown has he? 
No not really.

So we kind of reach the end of fancy stats analysis here. I can try to look at the zone profile now... ok I verify he's not really leaving the ball up more. I see big drops in the swing percentages inside for both RHB and LHB, but especially LHB.... His splits against RHB is fine. It is the lefties that are more of an issue. Zone profile doesn't tell me exactly how much he missed though

My hypothesis would be that whatever pitch he uses to attack inside, especially to lefties but maybe to both, isn't working the same. Maybe it's a movement thing, maybe location. Lefties are then able to sit on in zone pitches and attack a lot better (they have all the home runs and four of the 5 doubles he's allowed). Righties on the other hand just are able to lay off a few more pitches. This is just a guess though.

My other thought is that he's the victim of the decline in defense. As a RH GB pitcher there's a certain import on the ability of the 1B/2B side of the Nats infield to field and acoording to early stats Murphy and Zimm are worse than last year. This is of course - small sample size - (we like 3 years of D data and we're talking about 25% of one) but I think it's clear they ain't good.  The Nats starters except for Max are all GB guys now so that may explain the general slight shift down from them. Maybe - Turner though has been fine.  If anyone wants to track all the hits Roark has given up and see if this plays, go to it. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Appetizers and the Main Course

The bullpen didn't blow it last night. Of course it took a 6-1 lead to start and a very timely DP but they didn't do it.

We focus a lot on the pen, for obvious reasons, but the Nats are 25-13 with the 2nd best record in baseball. They have the best offense in baseball (not just the NL) and arguably the best starting pitching in baseball* Let's focus on all that for a moment, everything that comes before the terrible desert the Nats are serving up night after night.

Bryce is still BRYCE.  We're now 38 games in (almost a quarter of the season) and Bryce hasn't slowed down. After hitting .391 / .509 / .772 in April he's hitting .378 / .489 / .757  in May.  You may remember he had a fast start last year and worry a big fall is coming but (1) he was never hitting for this high an average and (2) he began his decline at the end of April (a week before the Cubs stuff if you must know). I'd say something about fancy stats and his average should drop but with talent like Bryce's sometimes you don't know the ceiling.

 Zimm is still hitting. .319 / .373 / .596 in May which is still excellent (he's still fighting Bryce for a NL Triple Crown right now) but is yes, a drop off from the HOF April. He'll have you know, if you'll listen to him, that it's not about any sort of stat analysis. I'm sure at this point he's telling dogs he sees on the street he's just suddenly hitting better than he ever has in his entire career at 32+ because of health. Ok. Sure. Whatever you want to believe. Just keep hitting. We'll get back when I said I would - end of May

This would almost be enough but you do need at least one more big swinging bat and in May, that's Werth. Werth is way up but is also carrying a unsustainable BABIP and a questionable HR/FB rate. Still it seems like "above average" is possible for him in season 7 and who would turn that down.

Three more guys are finding their level. The 3rd man in April, Murphy is slowing down a bit after a hot start, but his overall stats are about where you'd want him to be (25 homers is just not him). Wieters is in a similar boat - with a harsher slowdown (.583 OPS in May) to reach his more modest level (about average).  Rendon, on the other hand, is heating up and getting his overall stats back to the above average we think he should be.  Basically the Nats need a couple guys hot to complement Bryce at any time to keep the offense humming. They have five other bats that are at least average to get those hot months from. It should work out.

This leaves two guys to talk about. MAT looks good, but he's carrying a modest .266 average with a .404 BABIP, along with a 36.9% K rate and a 4.8% BB rate. In word form - his approach is garbage, and even though he's getting lucky he's still not doing great. Turner? Well we don't know exactly what Turner is and how hurt he still may be so I don't want to put up any expectations.  Sophomore season hasn't been good as they are getting him to K a lot more attacking his lack of patience.

What about the starters?

Scherzer has been great. He's matching last year across the board so expect a similar endpoint - maybe a little higher ERA since he outperformed a little last year. There isn't any particular warning signs unless you are like me and think that all the pitches he throws will catch up to him (now for me the timeline is very soon, like sometime before the start of next season - but hey I'm wrong all the time). Strasburg might be trading trading strikeouts for contact. GBs are up, HRs are down. Or he might just not be getting the ball by guys and getting lucky so far.  Probably somewhere in between. So he's very good now, I'd expect more of a normal good going forward. Gio is... let's talk about Roark first. He's basically doing what he did last year but not catching the same breaks. This is more in line with what he should do. Which is still good! So the Nats are set up 1-3 in my mind. It be nice if Stras can get back up to "co-ace" like talent but I'll take what they have now. Ok back to Gio.  IT'S ALL LIES. a .243 BABIP? a 91.4% LOB? K's way down. BBs way up? There's a reckoning coming.

But it'll be fine if the Nats can find that 5th starter because at this point in that 4th spot all they need is a decent arm that can put up 100+ innings of like 4.00 ERA ball.  It's probably not Jacob Turner or AJ Cole though.  2015 - early 2016 Joe Ross, where are you!?

You might be saying, hmm these don't seem like the best offenses and starting pitching in the league. Well offensively you're just not getting it. Bryce is a MONSTER. Zimm has been close to that so far this year as well. Werth might be getting lucky but he's still probably at least average, along with Wieters, while Murphy is simply "above average" and Rendon also should be there. That is a difficult six bats to get through. And with MAT getting lucky it's like Eaton didn't leave yet making it 7.  Should it slow down? Yeah probably. Zimm isn't a Triple Crown threat and as he settles back to somewhere between average and above average, and as MAT shows his true colors, there will be more instances of several guys slumping at once. But if Turner can just be average the Nats lineup will still be long in the eyes of a pitcher.

As for the starting pitching - well you're right, sort of. The Nats do have a 1-2-3 worthy of being in the Top 3. We WAY overrate what we think pitchers should be like. We look at the best rotations and think - ok yeah that's what it should be like. Instead you should be looking at the average one and comparing to that. Right now Max is a true ace (obviously) but Roark and Stras are both near the top of #2s.  Lots of innings at 3.50 ish would be great as a number 2 for 20 of 30 teams definitely. However the back of the rotation is shakier than you probably think and the only reason that hasn't seemed to come back to bit the Nats yet is some ERA luck. 

But for a team that is going to sail through the season (barring injury) what is a back of the rotation problem if you can keep 1-3 healthy? It's nothing. The offense and those first three pitchers should do what? Win 2/3rds of their games? I can see that.** That's another 50 wins. Win half of the back of the rotation games - essentially be a .500 team with the 4 and 5 guys, and the Nats are at 100 wins. That's the power of this offense with those three guys.

*What? No "Without Jeremy Guthrie..."  factoid? Look, it's not fair to pull out the Nats worst starting appearance and compare to everyone else's total. We'd need to pull out their worst too.  Well Guthrie isn't pitching anymore? Ok then we'd have to evaluate everyone's current starting 5. 

**They won almost 70% of Max, Stras, Roark starts last year with a less impressive offense. So I'm probably underselling this by a game or two. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Monday Quickie - The shape of the bullpen is round

The Nats got through another garbage weekend from the bullpen or so it seems. On Friday though Turner, Romero, Glover and Kelley worked 4 innings keeping the game tied. In the next game Romero and Albers combined to keep the lead where it was for over an inning. In the last game, Albers came in and shut the door.

Yes, I'm cherry picking the good where there was bad every night but it's for a reason. The bullpen is beginning to take shape. And it's beginning to take shape around Albers, who has been great.

You have Albers now as the lockdown guy, until he's not anymore. You have Glover on deck. You have Kelley available (every other day). And you have Turner and Romero to fill in some innings. It's not a good pen. Turner and Romero both aren't good enough to be relied on in big spots. You can use them sure, but you are rolling the dice. Kelley's limitations are apparent and keep the Nats from maybe forming a strong everyday back of the pen with what they have on hand (especially with the schedule with no breaks coming up). BUT, but - there is enough here to keep the Nats safely away from the rest of the NL East until teams are trading. That says a lot about the NL East but also a lot about the Nats starters and the Nats offense, even without Eaton.

I'll admit it's a precarious situation. One wrong offensive injury (Bryce would be the obvious one) could depress the scoring enough to matter. One wrong starting pitching injury (Max obvious one here*) could expand the instability of the 5th starter role into the entire back of the rotation. One wrong bullpen injury (Albers) could send us back to where we were a few days ago with nothing good to say about anything pen-related. But precarious is better than where it was before.

Yesterday didn't look good in part because of the double headers but I feel like there is something coming together. Boz is right. This isn't a pen you want to go into October with. There the pitching is better the hitting is better and the games should be closer. But the question is really more - Is this a pen that can survive until July? Today I say yes.

*which makes yesterday infuriating. One thing the Nats will have to do between now and whenever they bring in bullpen help is use the weakness of the NL East to their advantage. Let Jacob Turner soak up a beating. Pull guys early rather than late when possible.  A loss this year does not look like it will be as important as a loss in other years. Could that change and you regret it? I suppose but you can't worry about the hypothetical. You have to work with what's in front of you today.