August 20, 2014

Washington Nationals Game 124 Review: Nats Shut Down Diamondbacks to Extend Win Streak to Eight

With their current win streak numbering eight games, the Washington Nationals would likely invite the Arizona Diamondbacks to stay in town if given the option.

Tuesday night brought their largest margin of victory of the Arizona squad thus far as Ian Desmond and Asdrubal Cabrera together batted in seven of the Nats’ runs en route to an 8-1 win.

The heavy hitting likely helped starter Stephen Strasburg (W, 10-10) find his comfort zone as he allowed just one earned run – a homer by David Peralta – on three hits and one walk through 8.0 innings pitched. He also threw 61 of 95 pitches for strikes, and struck out four batters.

Arizona pitching didn’t fare so well.

Starter Chase Anderson (L, 7-5) lasted just two innings, during which he gave up six runs on six hits and three walks. Perhaps surprisingly yet, all six of Anderson’s runs allowed occurred in the third inning – before an out was recorded.

It was actually the Diamondbacks who struck first – the only time in which they posted a run on the board.

After Strasburg retired the first two batters of the game, Peralta worked him to a 2-2 count on five pitches before powering a four-seam fastball over the right-center field wall.

Following two fairly quiet innings, the Nats answered. Oh, did they. [Read more...]

Statistically Speaking: Stephen Strasburg and Bearing Down

As frustrating and mercurial as Stephen Strasburg can be, he does provide a wealth of topics to cover, especially when they pertain to the statistical application and translation of potential to performance. Never short on talent, the righthander has shown to be a day late and a dollar short when it comes to the final box score numbers, with this season proving to be particularly challenging for Strasburg to make the most of his health and talent.

[Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 123 Review: Nats Walk Off for Third Straight Game to Extend Win Streak to Seven

It’s been the same story for three consecutive games, but for the Washington Nationals, it hasn’t gotten old.

To cap off an up-and-down performance against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Adam LaRoche hit a solo home run to hand the Nationals a 5-4 walk-off win in 11 innings at Nationals Park Monday night.

The victory marked the Nats’ third straight walk-off win – a feat that has never before happened in Nationals history.

Washington starter Jordan Zimmermann came up with a decent performance, allowing three runs on four hits and three walks through seven innings pitched, while striking out only two. It was, however, enough to keep the Nationals in the hunt, although Zimmermann did allow the Diamondbacks to retake the lead in the eighth before being relieved.

Until that point, Zimmermann’s only run allowed came by way of a Mark Trumbo walk, Miguel Montero single and, following a sacrifice bunt, a sacrifice fly by Jake Lamb that made it 1-0 Diamondbacks. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals sign outfielder Nate Schierholtz

The Washington Nationals signed free agent outfielder Nate Schierholtz to a minor league contract and assigned him to AAA-Syracuse on Monday. Schierholtz is a left-handed hitter with a career .254/.303/.406  line and will provide insurance against injury down the stretch.

From the team’s press release:

The Washington Nationals today agreed to terms with outfielder Nate Schierholtz on a minor-league contract. Schierholtz will be assigned to Syracuse of the Triple-A International League. Nationals President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo made the announcement.

Schierholtz is a .254 career hitter (520-for-2050) with 117 doubles, 51 home runs and 224 RBI in 776 career games with the Cubs (2013 – ‘14), Phillies (2012) and Giants (2007 – ‘12). Earlier this season, he tallied 19 extra-base hits (10 doubles, three triples, six home runs) in 99 games for the Cubs.

A left-handed hitter, Schierholtz is a career .289 pinch hitter (48-for-166) with four home runs and 23 RBI. Schierholtz’s .763 OPS in the pinch ranks fourth among active players with at least 150 career plate appearances in a pinch-hitting role.

The 30-year-old Schierholtz is one season removed from his finest offensive campaign. In 2013, his first year with the Cubs, he hit .251 and established career highs in home runs (21), doubles (32), extra-base hits (56), RBI (68) and runs scored (56).

Schierholtz is a veteran of 11 postseason contests and earned a pair of World Series rings, both with the Giants (2010, ’12). A U.S. Olympian (bronze medal) in 2008, Schierholtz was originally San Francisco’s second-round selection in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft.

In related news, we’ve now added “Schierholtz” to our word processor dictionary.

Washington Nationals Game 122 Review: Nats Top Pirates Again in Walkoff Fashion

For the second straight game, the Washington Nationals beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in a walkoff scenario, this time in 11 innings by the score of 6-5 at Nationals Park Sunday evening.

Pinch-hitter Scott Hairston came up with the game-winning sacrifice fly that plated Jayson Werth, who reached base on a smoker double off the left-field wall.

Washington starter Doug Firster was solid through seven innings pitched, allowing just two unearned runs on five hits and a walk. Unearned runs proved a menace to both teams’ starters as Pittsburgh’s Edinson Volquez allowed four runs – only one of which were earned – on six hits and two walks through 6.1 innings pitched.

In the top of the sixth, Gregory Polanco reached on a fielding error by Ian Desmond to start things off before Josh Harrison singled to right.

Neil Walker then grounded into an otherwise easy fielder’s choice, but on the play, Anthony Rendon committed a throwing error which allowed Harrison to take third as Polanco came home.

Russell Martin then singled to plate Harrison to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead.

The Nationals earned one back in the bottom of the inning, however, after Rendon singled and Adam LaRoche drew a walk, allowing Desmond to bat in Rendon with a single of his own.

In the seventh, the Nats looked positioned to run away with the lead.

Michael Taylor took first with one out on a hit-by-pitch, before Kevin Frandsen and Denard Span hit back-to-back singles. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 121 Review: Nats Rally Late, Walk off against Pirates

ADAM LAROCHE, WILSON RAMOS LEAD LATE CHARGE FOR FIFTH STRAIGHT WIN

The Washington Nationals rallied late to top the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-3 in walkoff fashion Saturday night at Nationals Park to tally their fifth straight win.

The Nats struggled offensively all night against Pittsburgh starter Jeff Locke, who held Washington scoreless through 5.2 innings with just four hits and two walks allowed.

Meanwhile, Gio Gonzalez’s performance, yet again, was middle-of-the-road. The 6-9 starter allowed three runs on seven hits and two walks through 5.0 innings pitched in what later became a no decision thanks to Adam LaRoche & co.

All three runs came in the third after Gonzalez allowed a single to Josh Harrison and a walk to Russell Martin. The next batter, Starling Marte, doubled on a line drive to left to knock in a run, before Gaby Sanchez singled in Martin and Marte. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 120 Review: Nats Hang on to Top Pirates in Series Opener

WIN MARKS WASHINGTON’S FOURTH STRAIGHT

Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche drove in two runs apiece to help Tanner Roark and the Washington Nationals to a 5-4 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park Friday night.

Having scored all five runs within the first three innings against Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton, the Nats nearly let their 67th win of the season slide through the cracks.

Morton gave up nothing but singles and walks to account for the Nats’ first three earned runs. Denard Span started the bottom of the first with a single, before Asdrubal Cabrera walked and Anthony Rendon and LaRoche hit back-to-back singles to put the first run on the board.

Ian Desmond then walked on four pitches before Harper hit a two-RBI single.

In the bottom of the third, the Nats kept with the strategy that worked.

Cabrera led off with a single, Rendon walked, and LaRoche hit an RBI-single to make it 4-0 Washington.

After Desmond grounded into a force out and Harper struck out swinging, Wilson Ramos batted in the run that would later round out the Nats’ win with a single on a sharp grounder up the middle.

In the top of the fourth, however, Roark nearly lost his footing.

After getting Russell Martin to fly out, Roark allowed a double to Neil Walker and a two-run homer to Starling Marte to cut the Nats’ lead to 5-2.

Then, Roark walked Travis Snider before getting Ike Davis to fly out without advancing the runner. But, Pedro Alvarez doubled in Snider to make it 5-3.

Roark lasted for just 5.2 innings pitched to earn the win, allowing three runs on just five hits, two walks, four strikeouts and a homer.

The win was all but in the bag until closer Rafael Soriano cut things pretty close in the ninth.

Soriano allowed a leadoff single to Marte who advanced on Snider’s grounder. Soriano then got Gaby Sanchez to fly out, but Alvarez answered with an RBI single.

The Pirates then opted for pinch-hitter Chris Stewart who singled to right, advancing the tying run to third.

But, Soriano lucked out with a 93 MPH fastball that jammed up Josh Harrison, who popped out to Ramos in foul territory.

With the win, the Nats remain six games up on the Atlanta Braves for first place in the National League East.

Washington Nationals Game 119 Review: Strasburg cruises, Harper homers in win over Mets

LAROCHE, HARPER HOMER AS NATS EXTEND DIVISION LEAD TO SIX

Last time out against the Atlanta Braves, Stephen Strasburg wasn’t himself, allowing a career-high four home runs and seven total, driving his road ERA to 5.25.

Thursday night, Strasburg conquered those demons, pitching seven innings without giving up an earned run to lead the Washington Nationals to a 4-1 win over the New York Mets, sweeping their division rival at Citifield.

Washington moves to 66-53. Coupled with the Braves loss to Los Angeles earlier in the evening, the Nats now hold a six-game lead in the N.L. East. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 117 Review: Fister strong, Taylor homers in debut as Nats pound Mets

MICHAEL TAYLOR WITH FIRST MLB HIT, HOMER IN ROUT

The Washington Nationals needed a game like this.

After a disappointing weekend series with the Atlanta Braves, the Nats broke out in a big way against the New York Mets, slugging four home runs — including three in one inning — and Doug Fister tossed seven shutout innings as the Nats dumped the Mets 7-1 at Citifield in Queens.

The win, coupled with the Braves loss to the Dodgers, gives the Nats a five-game lead in the N.L. East.

One of the three homers hit in the sixth inning came from Michael Taylor, making his first start in the Major Leagues. [Read more...]

Statistically Speaking: Is Stephen Strasburg’s Slider Hurting His Curveball?

As 2014 begins to slowly loom larger in the rear view mirror as the remaining games trickle in, fans of the Washington Nationals are yet again at a place where the promise of Stephen Strasburg lies somewhat orthogonal to his results. Despite some encouraging stats—in particular, a 3.00 fielding independent pitching and a 3.0 wins above replacement, all in the top-10 for National League starting pitchers—there is also plenty to point to a discouraging season for the righthander.

Hopes were high earlier in the season, as 2014 looked to be a year where Strasburg was finally completely healthy; add to it an addition to his already devastating four pitch repertoire in the form of a slider, and it appeared that the NL Cy Young Award and the NL East were all but wrapped up, courtesy of D.C.’s once and future ace.

Much was made of the inclusion (then the scrapping, only to be brought back again) of the slider, with most feeling this was a subtraction by addition. Recently, a great article by the venerable Pat Jordan added some body and tangibility to the underlying discouragement of the new pitch by Strasburg, with a particular passage being at the heart of the issue:

There’s a longtime axiom in baseball that a slider ruins a pitcher’s curveball. They are diametrically opposed pitches, a stiff-wrist slider and a loose-wrist curveball. When a curveball pitcher adds a slider to his repertoire, pretty soon he won’t have either. He’ll have a slurve. A slurve is a big, fat, right-to-left breaking pitch that loses the best qualities of both pitches. It’s slower than a slider and begins to reveal itself too soon, and it has a less definable break than a curveball. The greatest breaking pitches are the ones that break late, sharp, down and a lot.

In essence, the slider appeared to be a waste of time; Strasburg’s otherworldly fastballs, curve, and changeup were plenty to not only get hitters out, but dominate them. At best, it would be an infrequently used pitch, occasionally flipped up there to set up another pitch. At worst, it would make his once-in-a-lifetime curveball less effective—a slurve—and something that was in between the curve and slider, possibly losing the bite and movement in the process, as alluded to in Jordan’s piece on overhand curves. Adding insult to injury, it could make his other pitches also a little less effective in the process, thereby making Strasburg’s stuff a little more human.

Could the trials and tribulations of 2014 be caused by Strasburg’s flirtation with the slider, making his repertoire a little less effective and more hittable?

First, let’s figure out how often he has thrown the slider; for this and any following stats, this season will be compared to 2013, the most recent (and most healthiest) season where he threw his usual four pitch mix: a four-seam fastball (FA), two-seam fastball (FT), curve (CU), and changeup (CH). For the table below and in the sake of data robustness, the number on the left is taken from FanGraphs PITCHf/x data and the number on the right is from Brooks Baseball, which has an additional manual classification correction implemented.

Season FA% FT% SL% CU% CH%
2013 48.7/57.7 12.2/3.5  — 22.8/22.8 16.2/16.0
2014 40.2/57.5 18.3/1.3 0.5/1.9 17.9/17.6 22.8/21.3

For Strasburg, the slider is a rare pitch, being used at most two percent of the time. This being said, has its incorporation affected the success of his other pitches? To answer that, here is another table, including 2013-14 data on each pitch type, including their respective walk (BB%) and strikeout (K%) percentages as well as weighted on-base average against (wOBA) and pitch type linear weights per 100 pitches thrown (LW/100), with LW/100 in particular especially useful telling us how effective a particular pitch was, in terms of minimizing run expectancy.

Season Pitch BB% K% wOBA LW/100
2013 FA 8.70% 12.60% 0.325 0.62
2013 FT 10.10% 10.10% 0.351 -0.27
2013 CH 8.30% 43.80% 0.172 1.86
2013 CU 2.40% 50.60% 0.150 2.16
* * * * * *
2014 FA 5.50% 18.60% 0.353 -0.18
2014 FT 6.00% 13.50% 0.406 -1.72
2014 CH 5.50% 43.20% 0.210 1.65
2014 CU 1.60% 47.20% 0.252 0.30
2014 SL 0.00% 14.30% 0.310 -1.55

Between last season and current, all of Strasburg’s main four pitches have dropped in effectiveness, per LW/100, with the slider overall not being a terribly effective pitch, given its greatly negative linear weights value. wOBA shows the same trends, with all of the ‘big four’ getting hit around a little more this season. Strasburg’s strikeout percentages appear to be as strong as ever this season, however, with each enjoying a moderate hike in rate compared to last season.

These numbers are valuable, but don’t provide the entire story. Variables such as release points, pitch movements, and spin rates, to name a few, all play a role in a pitch’s effectiveness and aren’t necessarily reflected in the above numbers; in short, a pitch and its ultimate effectiveness is comprised of a number of dimensions.

Let’s look at those dimensions and see if we can visualize any changes from last year to today that might help answer whether the slider is hurting Strasburg’s other pitches. One way to do this is with the help of a statistical method that is used to reduce the dimensionality of a dataset: principal component analysis (PCA).

An approach that is commonly seen in psychology and sociology and used in things such as intelligence and personality tests, PCA is used to identify and analyze underlying linear structures and previously unsuspected relationships in order to reduce large datasets into more palatable results, using their variance to help collapse and parse out themes that help in explaining the underlying structure of the data.

For the curious, a great reference for PCA can be found here. For the purposes of this article, it isn’t so much reducing factors, but visualizing how much the factors ‘cluster’ for each pitch in 2013 and seeing if that clustering pattern is the same (or different) this year, so the math and nuts and bolts of the PCA will be glossed over, simply because we are just interested in a snapshot of the process versus the process itself.

The variables in question are primarily PITCHf/x based and include:

spin direction
break angle
pitch horizontal movement
pitch vertical movement
velocity
break length
spin rate
horizontal release point
vertical release point
vertical height of the pitch where it crosses hoke plate
horizontal height of the pitch where it crosses home plate

After applying a PCA to Strasburg’s 2013 and 2014 data, the following loading plots of the respective principal components were created (PC1 and PC2, which explain 99.9% of the variance of the factors discussed), which reveal the relationships between variables; here, it is with respect to pitch type.

First 2013:

Strasburg_13_PCAEssentially, Strasburg’s fastballs and changeup ‘run together’, with his curveball and the respective factors at play behind it being a separate and disparate entity. Thus, we have our template for what the various factors and dimensions of each pitch for comparison to this year, with the new pitch.

2014 looks like this:

Strasburg_14_PCAWith the new pitch, we do see some less-clustered aspects of the curveball, but more drastically, with the changeup; there is perhaps a smidgen of truth to the idea that the slider, with all other factors remaining the same, could perhaps lend itself to hurting Strasburg’s other pitches, though not necessarily the curveball in isolation. However, it isn’t such a cut-and-dried ‘his curve looks like his slider’ explanation, which was discussed in the Jordan article, or at least, not yet.

While the few specks of the slider are tough to discern, we do see them drifting between the two trend lines, with some bleed of the curve and change into an in-between area. However, we don’t have a grasp of what underlying factors are at play with this visualization. Interpreting some of the factor loadings (not presented), the biggest difference between this season and last is the exchange of importance between the horizontal release point (x0) and pitch height as it crosses the plate (pz), with x0 having a slightly larger role as a factor in the loading of the variables used this season.

remain stable across the two seasons of interest. Other factors could be at play with respect to Strasburg’s somewhat shaky 2014; injury and even simply being a year older and the ramifications that has on a pitcher’s ultimate success could be variables that are responsible for the hiccups that the PCA does not capture.

Overall, through the interpretation and visualization of many of the factors and their respective dimensions at play with respect to Strasburg’s pitching, we do find that while his curve still might ‘look’ like his curve after the incorporation of a slider, there is some potential for some trending towards a slurvier offering if this small amount of data are to be trusted. With that said, Strasburg might do well to scrap the slider, as not only is the curve at risk of looking less like a curve, but his changeup as well is threatened by the unfavorable, neither here nor there characteristics of his slider.

***

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball, and FanGraphs.
__________________

Stuart Wallace is a Contributor to District Sports Page. A neuroscientist by day, the Nevada native also moonlights as an Associate Managing Editor for Beyond the Box Score and a contributor at Camden Depot and Gammons Daily. A former pitcher, his brief career is sadly highlighted by giving up a lot of home runs to former National Johnny Estrada. You can follow him on Twitter @TClippardsSpecs.

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