Nationals Baseball

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Joe Blanton - the needed arm

We've talked about this earlier. The Nats pen had lost a lot of innings pitched - some good Rivero/Melancon (79.1), Belisle (46), Rzep (11.2), some not so good Petit (62), Papelbon (35), but a lot of innings nonetheless. Knowing this, the Nats made some efforts to get a lights out closer, first trying to re-sign Melancon, then going after Jansen. They failed at both.

That happens, but what happened next was unexpected. Unable to solve the problem of lost innings with the preferred solutions the Nats acted as if there was no longer a problem to solve. Things would be fine, they said, with Kelley and Treinen and maybe Solis and hopefully Glover and ? ? ? It didn't make sense then. It doesn't make sense now, a team that sees itself competing for a title content to leave its bullpen up to the fates

Eventually though opportunity knocked. The best available pitcher, Joe Blanton, was seemingly drawing no interest from the teams despite a price tag that appeared to be quite reasonable (1yr 5 million might have done it). Desperate to take a deal that got him the same money, if not in the same time frame, the Nats were able to swoop in with a deferred deal that paid Blanton his money and got the Nats the arm they desperately needed.

So what kind of arm is Joe Blanton? Since settling in as a relief pitching Joe's been a very effective arm.  He's a slider heavy pitcher (43% of the time last year), who uses curves, fastballs, and change-ups around it. The movement of his main pitch makes it very effective, he strikes out a decent amount and is effective at getting swinging strikes, but hard to control. He can walk a few. His ability to place the pitch where he wants has made him as effective against LHB (.546 OPS) as RHB (.587 OPS).

Do the fancy stats have any warnings for us? Plenty. First is the .240 BABIP. Part of that is surely induced weak contact from that slider. But his percentage of soft contact isn't all that high, suggesting luck is playing a large part in this as well.  The previous year, pitching mostly, but not exclusively in relief, he had a .301 BABIP which was more in line with past results. That number should rise. Another thing is an oddly low HR/FB rate. Perhaps related to pitching in the vast fields of the NL West, Blanton, who was a severe flyball pitcher last year, had a HR/FB rate of a mere 7.4%.  Improvement in this number is not unusual given the focus of relief pitching but again it's a number that should go up. Finally his LOB% - the percentage of men left on base - was fairly high at 82%. This again symbolizes some level of luck, whether that means a lot or a little I can't tell you.

That may seem like a lot of negatives but the end result is basically explaining to you why Blanton isn't a sub 2.50 ERA pitcher, but probably more an over 3.00 ERA pitcher.  He's not Melancon, he's Belisle. But this isn't bad. The Nats need a reliable arm and Blanton throwing 80 IP of say 3.10 ERA baseball would fit that perfectly. He's not your lights out closer but he solves the problem we noted at the beginning of the column with the best available solution.

This isn't to say there couldn't be a worst case scenario. Blanton is over 36. His arm could simply dry up. It's hard to say if its coming because going from starter to reliever all those went up the last couple years. However there has been no trend at all in his career yet of declining velocity.  Or Blanton, who had everything work for him last year could have everything work against him this year, a .330 BABIP, 70% LOB rate, 17% HR/FB rate which would balloon his ERA up over 4.00. But understand we're saying "oh if he has bad luck accross the board it'll be bad". That's not really an analytical statement. That's a common sense one that applies to anyone.

We try to find the middle ground here and the middle ground says Blanton, shifted over to the Nats and with more moderate luck is probably a low 3.00 ERAs type pitcher. 3.30 or so. That's good enough. Reliable arms are a necessity. You could pray you develop them or you can go out and get them. The Nats went out and got one.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What will Matt Wieters be? Exactly what he has always been

If we're lucky, Matt Wieters won't surprise us. I say that because at age 31 the idea that somehow Wieters will suddenly fulfill the expectations that were set nearly a decade ago should not even be considered. No, the surprise that Matt Wieters may have in store would be a precipitous decline, not unheard of from aging catchers. If you look at his most similar batters you can see examples of this. Michael Barrett done at 30.  Jody Davis, Earl Battey done at 32. Charles Johnson, John Buck done at 33.  Rich Gedman, probably should have been out of the game before 30.

That's not to say it will happen to Matt or that we should be worried about it for next year, but I just want you to have the right mindset in place. This isn't about getting a bat to replace Ramos' 2016. This is about getting a bat to replace the potential issues with a Norris/Lobaton platoon in 2017.

What kind of bat is it? Wieters has been surprisingly consistent in his underwhelming performances since his first full year.  He'll hit for a low-ish average, say around .250.  He won't walk very often meaning his OBP will be fairly low, around .310. And he'll pop 15-20 home runs, ~20 doubles*, slugging under .420 or so.  He won't strike out that much (K rate under 20%). He will ground into double plays. A reasonable approximation of this performance might be Kurt Suzuki's short 2012 stint played out over a season, or perhaps a more impatient, contact oriented version of last year's injury recovering Jayson Werth. It's a bat. Won't embarrass, won't impress.

Do fancy stats suggest anything is getting better or could get worse? Nah. BABIP is fairly consistent with other full years, so he's not sneaky bad or good with the average. His power is definitely fading, but not fast enough that you worry he can't get 15+homers in a full year. K-rate is stable, though he is making less contact then at his prime, especially with pitches in the zone. HR/FB rate is stable.

If I'd be worried about one thing it would be the increase in softly hit balls over the past two years.  19.6% last year. 20.2% last year. Since the hard % hasn't dropped I imagine this again speaks to contact issues. He's swinging hard but having issues lining the ball up right. But as long as the K-rate stays where it is some of those squibblers will find their way through the infield for hits. Short of it is I think we're just explaining the deterioration we've seen since his mild peak, where he might have challenged 25 homers and had a few more walks, to what he is now. It happens to all players at some point and Wieters looks to have already started the process. This makes that 2nd year iffy for the Nats, and makes it easily understandable why 4+ years wasn't out there, but as for what we care about today, Wieters in 2017? Average is the best guess.

Behind the plate Wieters is a mixed bag. In things not 100% controlled on him he's ok. He can throw out runners, but is beginning to have plate blocking issues. Outside of Gio none of the Nats strike me as particularly wild, not the relievers either, so if the latter continues I don't think it'll matter that much.  The bigger issue is Wieters is a poor pitch framer and has consistently measured as such. How much does that matter? It's unknown but it can't be dismissed.

Wieters will be better than Lobaton. He will hit better and produce more than Severino. He may not hit better than Norris, who was deviled by some bad luck last year, but then again he might. That's the thing about Norris - you can see him hitting above average and you can see him repeating last year's debacle**. For a contending team that's too much variation to have, especially with no good back-up. Wieters is a good attempt at a solution to a problem where the Nats had a questionable attempt at a solution before. Will it work? Well that's the eternal question now isn't it?

Added - Nats sign Blanton? Looks like it. Smart move. Nats need bullpen depth. Blanton has been very effective in relief for two years now. Price should not be prohibitive. There's no downside here. I said yesterday that Blanton was the only FA I was confused at not being signed and that any team with bullpen issues, including Nats, should be harangued by fans for not signing this guy. More tomorrow

*He's never hit a lot of doubles. Peaked with 29 in 2013. Just doesn't have good speed. 
 ** You don't hit like last year just being unlucky.  Apparently high fastballs might have been an issue for Norris.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Monday Quickie - Spring Training Reminder!

Spring Training games have begun so it is time for your annual reminder.


Who was the Nats best hitter last Spring? Why it was Michael Taylor who hit .453 / .491 / .849.  That didn't work out. What about second best? Scott Sizemore. OK well that's not fair. What about second best regular? Ben Revere. Dammit. Third best regular? Ryan Zimmerman.

It's a little harsh to say it doesn't matter, but only a little and we're far better ignoring this "information" than we are trying to find a nugget of wisdom from it. Spring Training has everything you don't want from your source of information; small sample size, varying levels of competition, arguably dissimilar goals.You are far more likely to let personal biases effect your interpretation of what are perfectly normal stats under these circumstances than be able to pick out something that is actually useful. Honestly, it's the best time of year to listen to the guys playing the game and see what they are saying (that's not related to how they are doing stats-wise in the Spring)

Max Scherzer update 

Max threw off a mound Saturday. That is good. Max didn't use his regular grip during this. That is not good.  What does this mean? Not much today. In my head I'm pencilling in Max to start his first game the 9th or 10th (Game 5 or 6).  If you believe the same, things are looking "good". If you are hoping Max can be ready for Opening Day, that's still a possibility, we'll probably know by the end of this week if that's off the table. If you are hoping Max is really hurt, first why are you reading this blog?, second we're probably a couple weeks of not ramping up before that comes into play.

Closer update

Neither Treinen, nor Kelley has pitched yet so unless you think Mike Broadway has a real shot at closing for the Nats we've learned nothing.

Clint update

Robinson is one of two players (MAT being the other) who have started both Spring Training games. I'm inclined to think that's far more hoping he gets hot and the Nats can say "Hey! Look at this guy! Trade for this!" than it is evaluation. That's me though.  We'll check back in a week and if he's got the most at bats on the team... well I don't think that's a good thing.

Anything else? 

Bryce CRUSHED a homer.

Trea had an error. Expect this. Everything points to him having at least 20 errors this year, I wouldn't be surprised if he went over 25.  It's a process even for ones that are talented enough to play the position. Trea can, but he's not a wizard or anything.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What's going to happen today?

Assuming Wieters passes his physical he goes on the 40-man.

The Nats have a full 40-man

The Nats would prefer to trade Norris.

So do they trade Norris today?

There isn't a terrible rush. There are many names on the 40-man that I think could be DFA'd to the minors. Jimmy Cordero, a 25yo middling relief non-prospect. Raudy Read, a 23yo C trying to get over the hump of hitting in A+ ball. Jose Marmolejos, a hihg-average hitting first-baseman with questionable power potential.  A couple others like Austin Adams or Rafael Bautista, who might be just good enough not to take a chance they get grabbed on waivers but are no big loss in general.  One of these guys could also magically get injured enough to be placed on the 60 day DL.

Still if you can you'd rather not go through the hoops of removing someone just to bring them back a few days later so it'll be interesting to see if the Nats can make a deal.

What's on the table now? No one really knows. It's thought that there is a deal out there where the core is Pedro Severino for David Robertson but the idea that Severino would be enough for a major league caliber player is confusing. On one hand there's his defensive reputation. He's thought to be a plus defender, if not even better with a strong arm and good framing. Even if he can't hit, he's thought to be a shoe-in to make the majors as a back-up catcher, possibly for a long while. On the other hand is his offensive stats. Young, yes, but consistent. He doesn't hit for average. He isn't patient. He doesn't hit for power. He's not bringing anything to the table.

Perhaps the lack of stats is because of his aggressive movement up the minors. He's never able to really improve in place. That could be true about his acceptable hitting for average, which has remained steady as he climbed the ladder. But his patience (also steady) is so terrible and improvement would only make it bad. And his power has diminished as he's gone up. This suggests a ceiling of something like .250 / .300 / .340. Basically a good outcome is he becomes Steve Lombardozzi but slow and not nearly as good as putting the ball in play.

If he's the hold up, he shouldn't be.

Well interesting day. I'll update when we find out exactly what is going on.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Wieters! (maybe) then Robertson (possibly)

News just broke! Nats closing in on Wieters deal says Jon Heyman. There's further thought that a Robertson deal could go down soon after that. Quick thoughts

The contract is supposedly for 10 million this year, 11 million next (player option). But 5 million is deferred money.  Norris makes 4.5 million this year. So if you trade Norris (who you need far less now) you end up adding only 500K to the payroll for this year.  Next year? Worry about next year, next year.

Wieters is better than what the Nats have, still not very good. 

It's been nearly a decade since Wieters was hailed as the second coming at the plate after crushing the ball in college. However in eight years and nearly 900 games Wieters has shown himself to be... ok. He has moderate power but he doesn't hit for high average and he is not patient. You can't blame recent injury issues because he was merely ok when healthy. He is not particularly adept defensively either meaning there is no secret value here.  However blah Wieters sounds - catcher is a hard position to fill and what the Nats have now is Lobaton, who is no good, and Norris, who has a chance to hit good and a better chance not to do that. Wieters is a competent major leaguer and would be a strong bet to improve the Nats situation.

Roberston is an effective but troublesome arm with a big contract attached. 

Robertson was cruising along as a very effective Yankee middle reliever fighting a slight tendency to get wild that was keeping him from elite status. Then right before FA he got a chance to close and then - poof! - he was a CLOSER. He closed for the White Sox in 2015 and pitched some of the best baseball of his career. He also hit an ERA of 3.41.  He closed for the White Soc in 2016 and pitched some of his worst baseball in years. He also hit an ERA of 3.47.  Karmic justice? Perhaps but everything trended the wrong way last year. Strike outs? Down. Hits? Up. Walks? WAY UP.  That's still a lot of strikeouts and not a lot of hits so he would still be effective piece to add but you couldn't say the Nats got a lights-out closer. Of course that assumes it's a new normal. If it's an aberration then the Nats... well still don't have a lights-out closer but have someone just as effective as Kelley, maybe more so, and a strong back end of the pen however it shakes out.  If it's instead a trend, well then Roberston is a 12 million 4th/5th arm out of the pen.

I don't see the Nats adding Wieters and Robertson without jettisoning Gio, and maybe more.

Maybe I'm wrong. But if I'm not the Nats are adding say 6 million with Wieters and some chunk with Roberston. Where can they get that money back? Well maybe the White Sox won't make the Nats pay everything for Roberston. If they can get it so the White Sox cover 6 or so of this years' money then that matches up nicely with Gio's 12 million. If they make the Nats pay pretty much all, well then Norris (4.2) goes too. Which honestly makes sense. The Yankees, who the Gio deal was in place for, haven't solved their rotation issues and would still probably bite on the deal. Would it leave the Nats short in the rotation? Yep. But that's the gamble you take. There isn't another tradeable commodity the Nats can afford to lose.

Could the Nats add just Wieters, trade Norris, and keep everyone else? 

Yes. I suppose they could. Depends on, as always, money spent and money deferred. In my head that leaves them spending a couple million. They can save some of that throwing Robinson into any Norris deal but I don't see a perfect match. But come on Nats, you can spend a couple million right? I think they can. I think that's why they had a firm price on Wieters. That's what they could spend (jettisoning Norris). Take it or leave it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The best shapermetrics of his life

There isn't a problem in baseball that can't be solved in the Spring.

Obviously this isn't a literal statement but a figurative one, based in the constant stream of stories that come out now featuring Player X identifying the underlying issue that held him back in the previous year and how he's now doing exactly what he needs to do to address it. The most common, now almost laughable, version of this story is the one about the player who had an off-year now showing up "in the best shape of his life" but that's only one type. There is a version for every type of malady and as sabrmetrics ingrains itself more and more into the major league culture it was only a matter of time before something like "launch angle correction" showed up.

Last year some people noted that even though Ryan Zimmerman was doing poorly, he was hitting the ball hard. They took that to mean that a revival was just around the corner. Some of us more steeped in the fancy stats noted that while Zimmerman was hitting the ball hard* he was simply driving it into the ground. The difference between a 80 MPH ball hit 10 feet and a 110 MPH ball hit 10 feet is just how much you get thrown out by.

Well Zimm has found out this same information and is working on hitting the ball higher. But as Boz notes it's not a given. It is difficult to change your approach without messing something else up. Try to hit the ball up and maybe you end up popping up a ton or just missing the ball entirely. Maybe you can hit the ball at the angle you want but to do it you have to adjust your swing just a bit so now your exit velocity drops. The balls that were supposed to be home runs are now lazy fly balls, the doubles to the gaps singles dropping in infront of outfielders. To add to the issue Zimm also wants to be more aggressive thinking that there has been such a change in pitching that he's no longer able to take advantage of a pitcher by working deep into counts and looking for mistakes.

Has he been doing that? Let's tackle the question in two parts - has he been overly patient? Boz seems to think so but I'm not so sure. The numbers are out there but not already calculated for us so in lieu of looking at the whole league** I went ahead and compared the number of 2-strikes ABs to the number of 0 strike at bats (Boz's stat) for the Nats Top 10 hitters last year. The result? Zimm was patient but not appreciably more than Rendon. He was also in the neighborhood of Espy, Bryce and Revere. Murphy and Ramos stood in stark contract as aggressive hitters but on the flip side Werth stood out as ridiculously more patient than Zimm. Looking at 2015 and 2014 seems to say the same thing - patient but not crazily so, not like Werth.

Ok he's kind of patient.  Is he hitting well with two strikes? Well no. No one hits well with two strikes. BUT he was during his peak (2009-2012) one of the better two-strike hitters in the league. So there's that. Of course it's been a long time since 2012 and Zimm has been terrible with two-strikes since then even though as a hitter he didn't even go below average overall until last year.  Perhaps the game did change that quickly? Doubtful. People hit terribly with two strikes in 2009-2012, pretty much just as bad as in 2013-2016. So while the game may be shifting, it's a slow shift and Zimm's two-strike issues were immediate. So I do think being aggressive may help. He may be passing up some decent pitches looking for a great one and leaving himself open to get blown out but I think he's not going to hit those decent pitches all that well.

Daniel Murphy may have been able to figure out how to hit better, but Daniel Murphy is a different type of hitter than Zimm. Murphy always hit for higher average and always wanted to hit the ball. He put the ball in play constantly, keeping walks and strike outs down. He did this not by swinging a lot but by making contact when he chose to swing. This does not describe Zimm.

I suppose it is worth a shot. Zimm had a terrible year last year and it's hard to throw up your hands at something like that and say "well hope it changes this year". At the same time any one who's even swung a bat in Little League can tell you that once you start changing things it can just as easily make things worse as opposed to better. If Zimm gets any worse he's unplayable.

*perhaps - statcast still isn't perfect or complete in its gatherings - but it's close enough though for comparative purposes

** Swing percentage probably is a decent proxy. In that Ryan would be about 40th lowest out of 147 qualifiers if he had qualified. Low - indicating patience, but not crazy low.  Werth, who I've noted is a very patient hitter, would be 6th lowest for example.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Spring Training Notes

Spring Training WooooOK that's enough.

I noted yesterday (and we'll go over again when the games start) that Spring Training is really about three things
  1. Injuries
  2. Confirming Main roster decisions
  3. Making fringy roster decisions
That's it. For the first you are looking at those coming back from injury to see how they are recovering. You are also praying that you avoid an injury now.

For the second and the third, we all know the issues with Spring Training stats. That's why you should have your decisions basically all made going INTO Spring, not coming out of it. You really do have all the information you need, outside of potentially a look at the physical development of a young player that may start. For main roster then you have your guys set and Spring should only serve as a chance for something weird to happen that makes you second guess that decision. A guy who hits for power can't get it out of the infield. A control pitcher can't find the plate at all. That sort of thing. It should be a very rare event. If you have a last guy on bench, last guy in pen decision to make and you don't have any favorite then using Spring as a tie-breaker is fine. But really using anything as a tie-breaker at that point is fine. Who fits better in the clubhouse? Who would help the AAA team more? Who's closer to FA? Whatever.

So here we are. And getting back to #1 there is an injury recovery for the Nats to worry about (two actually). Scherzer is not guaranteeing that he'll be ready for Opening Day.  In grand tradition of the Nats medical staff (and probably all medical staffs) it's already a walkback from the inital recovery estimate, telling us Scherzer would be a “full participant” in Spring Training. It's a bit disturbing because Opening Day is a good six weeks away but I imagine Scherzer is just being overly truthful. Even if you are 95% sure, it's better not to promise anything. Plus, I think we all agree, be overly cautious. If he's not ready for Opening Day but is ready a week or two later - so what? 

The biggest injury question on my mind though isn't Scherzer, who says he pitched through the finger in September (as was very good - but not great at that point). It's Kelley. If you remember last season ended for Kelley walking off the mound with numbness in biggest game of the year. Certainly that's a "gut it out" situation if he felt he could so he was really hurt/bothered in the moment. In grand tradition of the Nats medical staff (this sounds familiar) the Nats apparently haven't done an MRI to see if anything is up there. So I'm going to wait until I see Kelley pitch a couple times in Spring Training games before I believe he's likely to be fine to start the year. You can choose differently. 

Other than that - I think the Nats are in the clear. Zimm, Bryce, Murphy all may have injury issues but they all were playing at the end of the year, injuries or not, so whether they play in the 3/4 speed of Spring Training doesn't tell me much.

Allright Nats, go out there and don't get injured!