April 21, 2014

Statistically Speaking: Anthony Rendon’s Swing

Sitting atop the Washington Nationals leaderboard in several offensive categories, Anthony Rendon is having himself quite the start to 2014. The Texan’s long-coveted swing and bat-to-ball skills appear to be in full bloom, also displaying some tantalizing pop that some felt he might not fully develop. Here’s a quick look at some of Rendon’s numbers, compared to his rookie season:

Season PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2013 394 7.90% 17.50% 0.131 0.307 0.265 0.329 0.396 0.318 100
2014 59 6.80% 15.30%* 0.273* 0.386 0.345* 0.390 0.618* 0.426* 166*

* denotes team leader

Comparing his start to 2014 to his 2013, we see Rendon is not only making lots of contact, but is making harder contact (per his isolated power), while also continuing to develop his already keen eye for the strike zone. Let’s delve a little deeper into that eye for the strike zone and its development; here, we have Rendon’s swing and contact rates for pitches in (labeled with the prefix ‘Z-’) and out (labeled ‘O-’) of the strike zone:

Screen shot 2014-04-16 at 9.59.42 AM

Here, we see an interesting trend—Rendon is swinging at more pitches, but making less contact compared to last season. In fact, he is swinging more at pitches outside of the zone, which is also flies in the face of his slight uptick in walk rate in 2014. Despite the slight rise in chasing pitches outside of the zone, he still shows the most restraint when comparing his O-Swing rates to his Nats cohorts; Rendon trails only Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth with respect to Z-Contact rate (89.6% versus 90.6%), but leads the team in overall contact rate, connecting with 85.6% of pitches he has seen.

Much of this possibly points to pitchers attacking Rendon differently—is this the case? Let’s take a look at Rendon’s heatmaps for pitches seen from this and last season, courtesy of Brooks Baseball; 2013 pitches are on the left, with this year’s on the right:

Screen shot 2014-04-16 at 10.32.13 AM

By the looks of it, pitchers are taking a slightly different approach with Rendon, busting him inside with pitches more so than last year, when they went down and away with their most of their offerings. How is he faring with this tweaked approach? Let’s look at his batting average heatmaps, again with last season on the left, 2014 on the right:

Screen shot 2014-04-16 at 10.55.28 AM

The colors are a tad misleading for 2014 simply due to sample sizes—he is still making lots of contact and getting hits on pitches in the strike zone. However, we also see that Rendon is taking those inside, slightly off the plate pitches and doing more with them this year, which is not only reflected here, but in his BABIP, currently at .386.

Let’s discuss BABIP briefly. Overall, the stat doesn’t have a strong year-to-year correlation, so the chances of Rendon maintaining and continuing his current average isn’t likely. However, popup rate (PU%) is pretty correlative year to year and is also relatively predictive of BABIP. It is also a nice way to gauge how hard a hitter is hitting the ball. With this in mind, we can take a look at Rendon’s popups and not only see the potential of his BABIP to remain above average, but also how well he is hitting the ball, not only in terms of accumulating base hits, but also how hard the contact he is making really is.

Using the formula IFFB / (FB+LD+GB) * 100, we can calculate PU%. First, let’s do this for 2013:

9 / (97+73+116) * 100 = 3.16%

To put this into contrast, Joey Votto had a 0.22 PU% in 2013, having had one IFFB; teammate Bryce Harper had a 2.1% popup rate. Comparing him to a similar hitter in terms of BABIP, Manny Machado had a 5.1% popup rate.

For 2014, Rendon, like most of the league, has a 0 PU%, so we can’t really say much about popup rate improvements just yet, as we simply don’t have enough data points. However, this correlation is something to keep in the back of our minds as the season progresses. However, looking at last year’s numbers, we do see Rendon as someone who projects to hit the ball hard as he continues to develop.

Last, let’s briefly look at Rendon’s swing. Overall, it’s one that spends a long time in the strike zone, allowing for more opportunities to make contact. He does show some ‘noisy’ hands, exhibiting lots of extra movement. However, as you can see, his hands appear to be a little less noisy:

rendon3 09-09-55-127

Click to start gif

…compared to 2013:

Verlander_strikeout_7-31-13

Click to start gif. Courtesy of www.blessyouboys.com

While these gifs aren’t the best for comparison given the first is on a fastball, while the second is on a curveball, it does show the changes in how his hands and feet are set and work throughout his approach. With that caveat noted, it appears that Rendon has also removed some extra movement with his lower half, making an already compact swing quicker, allowing him to cover all corners of the plate and also turn on those high and tight fastballs he appears to be getting more of in 2014.

Despite counter intuitive statistical changes from this season to last, we see an improved approach by Rendon, possibly brought on by some slight mechanical tweaks. He is not only taking what he is given in terms of pitches in the strike zone, but is also showing pitchers that he can turn on the inside pitch, thus opening up the outside corner for Rendon in future at bats. In terms of his BABIP and the ability to consistently make hard contact, the trends bode well; however, it’s a little to early to say with much conviction whether the BABIP we have seen from Rendon in the first month of the season will remain through the year or his career, but nonetheless, we should enjoy the show one of the best pure hitters in the game is putting on.

 

Data courtesy of FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted

 

Washington Nationals Game 13 Review: Rendon, Leon Lead Nats Past Marlins

The power the Washington Nationals lacked Sunday against the Atlanta Braves returned, swing after swing, in the team’s 9-2 win over the Miami Marlins Monday.

Anthony Rendon and Sandy Leon each homered and combined for a total five RBIs to fuel the Nats’ offense against a Marlins squad that has now lost eight straight.

In a seemingly no-pressure situation, Jordan Zimmermann looked sharp, striking out seven and allowing two runs on six hits and one walk. And, he too, built on the Nats’ momentum at the plate, going 2-for-3 with two singles and a sacrifice bunt.

Left-hander Brad Hand (L, 0-1) lost control of the game quickly. In the first, Jayson Werth doubled with two outs and came home on a triple from Bryce Harper that put Washington on top 1-0 before the Fish came to bat.

In the second inning, Tyler Moore’s inexplicable luck in Miami produced once again as the outfielder led off the inning with a homer to right.

Danny Espinosa followed up with a double before advancing to third on a single by Leon. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 8 Review: Werth’s slam in eighth wins crazy game with Marlins, 10-7

Crazy game.

The Washington Nationals fell behind 5-0 after a stalwart starter got lit up. They clawed back to take the lead in the middle innings. A former 40-save closer gave up a mammoth homer in the seventh to fall behind again. Then, in the bottom of the eighth, the Nats hairy guru made the Miami Marlins pay for intentionally loading the bases.

Jayson Werth clubbed a 1-0 pitch into the visitor’s bullpen in left center for his first home run of the season, a grand slam that delivered the Nats a 10-7 win in one of the craziest games we’ll see all season long.

For starters it wasn’t Jordan Zimmermann’s night. The righty struggled with location and pitch count all night long. He gave up a single to leadoff hitter Christian Yelich and walked second baseman Derek Dietrich. Giancarlo Stanton followed with a run-scoring single and Dietrich moved up to third. Garrett Jones brought Dietrich home with a sacrifice fly to center to make it 2-0 before most folks had settled into their seats.

The second inning was worse. Adeiny Hechavarria lead off with a triple to the left center gap and scored on Yelich’s single. Dietrich then sent a ball that landed in the first row of bleachers above the out-of-town scoreboard in right center before falling back to the field of play. It was ruled a triple on the field, but after review Dietrich was sent home, correctly having been awarded his first home run of the season.

After singles by Jones and Casey McGehee, Zimmermann was done. He was yanked after 1 2/3 innings — his shortest stint as a big league starter. He allowed five runs, all earned, on seven hits and two walks, striking out one.

Marlins’ starter Brad Hand cruised until the fourth inning. Adam LaRoche continued his hot streak, singling to lead off, and Ryan Zimmerman followed with a single. After Ian Desmond struck out, Bryce Harper battled through a 10-pitch at bat, culminating in an absolute moonshot – three rows back in the upper tank in straight-away right field. It was Harper’s first home run of the year.

The Nats clawed their way back to one in the fifth. Anthony Rendon tripled to right field with one out and scored a batter later on Werth’s ground out. Washington completed the comeback in the next frame. Zimmerman doubled to the right field corner over Stanton’s head. The big right fielder bobbled the ball in the corner, allowing Zimmerman to move up to third. Ian Desmond’s swinging bunt brought Zimmerman home and all hands were safe.

Harper followed with a single the other way off lefty Dan Jennings to put runners at the corners, still with no outs. Jose Lobaton tapped a comebacker to Jennings, but the reliever fumbled the ball — Desmond scored to make it 6-5 and Lobaton rumbled safely to first on the E-1. Span singled to load the bass with one out, but Arquimedes Caminero came on to get Rendon and Werth to fly out to end the rally.

Drew Storen came on for the seventh and was rudely greeted, as Jerrod Saltalamacchia blasted a shot to dead center to tie it that was every bit as impressive as Harper’s was earlier.

But this game was far from over. The Marlins called upon Carlos Marmol for the eighth inning, and the Nats made them pay for that decision.

Pinch-hitter Nate McLouth was hit with a one-out fastball and went to third on Denard Span’s bunt single and error on the throw by Derek Dietrich, playing his first MLB game at third base. The Marlins walked Rendon intentionally to set up force plays everywhere with bases loaded, but Jayson Werth wouldn’t have any of it. Werth ripped a 1-0 pitch into the visitor’s bullpen for his first homer of the season, a Grand Slam that gave the Nats a comfortable 10-7 lead.

It STILL wasn’t over. Rafael Soriano put two runners on in the ninth to make sure any fingernails left did not go unchewed, but struck out two to eventually nail down one of the nuttiest wins we’re going to witness in 2014.

Washington Nationals Game 1 Recap: Nats comeback against Mets pen, win 9-7

If Opening Day was any indication, this will be a wild season of baseball for the Washington Nationals.

Stephen Strasburg allowed a three-run homer in the first inning, settled down to strike out 10 batters, and the Washington Nationals then came back against a porous New York Mets bullpen, capped by Anthony Rendon’s three-run homer off John Lannan in the top of the tenth inning to win 9-7 at Citifield.

The bad news: according to reports during the game, catcher Wilson Ramos broke a bone in his left hand and will miss up to six weeks. [edit -- After the game, manager Matt Williams indicated the x-rays taken on Ramos were "negative" and he would see a specialist in D.C. on Tuesday.]

The Mets got to Strasburg in their very first ups. Strasburg struck out Eric Young to start off the first, but Juan Lagares and David Wright singled back-to-back to put runners on the corners. Strasburg got Andrew Brown to 2-2, but a fastball that was designed to hit the outside corner tailed back into Brown, and he crushed it to left center for a three-run homer.

The Nationals got two back in the top of the second. Bryce Harper drew a lead-off walk and was erased on a fielder’s choice to short by Ian Desmond that would have been a double play were it not for Harper’s late, hard take-out slide. Harper was kicked in the head by Young for his troubles and stayed on the field for a few moments, but left the field under his own power and stayed in the game.

The next batter, Adam LaRoche, crushed an 89-MPH fastball 10 rows deep into the upper deck in right field to make it 3-2 Mets.

The Mets picked up another run in the bottom half. Travis d’Arnaud walked to lead off and Ruben Tejada singled. Dillon Gee’s sacrifice mived both runners up, and Young’s fly ball to right was dep enough to plate d’Arnaud.

After that, it was a pitcher’s duel, with both hurlers trading outs for the next three innings, until Strasburg departed after the sixth. The big righty settled down nicely, retiring his final 10 batters and 12 of his last 14. He finished with five hits, four earned runs, two walks and 10 strikeouts, with 64 of his 102 pitches for strikes.

Meanwhile, Gee carved up the Nats, retiring 15 in a row until Harper reached on a hard-hit single off the glove at Young at second base. Desmond forced him again, but LaRoche followed with a walk. Anthony Rendon delivered a run-scoring double to the right field corner to plate Desmond, but the slow LaRoche was held at third.

Pinch-hitter Nate McLouth drew a four-pitch walk to set up a bases loaded, two out situation for Denard Span against reliever Scott Rice.

Rice couldn’t find the plate. Four straight balls handed Span first base and the Nats their fourth run of the day, tying the game. Jose Valverde was summonsed to pitch to Ryan Zimmerman, and the big righty got Zim to swing through a ball fro strike three.

The Mets breathed life back into the Citifield faithful in the bottom of the eighth, as Juan Lagares homered off Tyler Clippard leading off the frame.

But that only set up the Nats heroics in the top of the ninth. Ian Desmond led off with a single and went to second on Danny Espinosa’s tow-out, pinch-hit, eight-pitch base on balls. Denard Span then ripped a double to left center, which scored Desmond from second to tie the game at five.

For the second inning in a row though, Zimmerman ended a rally with a fly ball to center.

After a 1-2-3 MLB debut with two strikeouts for Aaron Barrett in the bottom  of the ninth, the Nats went back to work against reliever Jeurys Familia. Jayson werth led off with a sky-high fly ball that eluded the Mets in short left center, then Jose Lobaton (in for injured Wilson Ramos) sent a broken bat liner past second base.

Ian Desmond fought through an eight pitch at bat before delivering a fly to medium right that allowed Werth to walk home with the go-ahead run.

The Nats weren’t done. The Mets brought in old friend John Lannan to face LaRoche, and issued a five-pitch base on balls. Anthony Rendon then greeted Lannan’s first offering with a huge clout to left center. The three-run shot made it 9-5.

Jerry Blevins coughed up a two-run, two-out gopherball to David Wright in the bottom half, but it was too little, too late for the Mets.

Washington Nationals 2014 “Natosphere” Preseason Survey

HAPPY OPENING DAY!

For the past several seasons, the DC Chapter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association (DC-IBWA) has conducted a preseason survey, asking questions to key Washington Nationals issues and seeking predictions for season statistical leaders. You can find this year’s results here. Below is how our staff answered the tough questions.

1) Who will lead the Nats in home runs?

DAVE NICHOLS (Editor-in-Chief): Bryce Harper. Hopefully Harper stays healthy, lays off the breaking stuff, and is passable against lefties.

RYAN KELLEY (Prospects and scouting): Harper’s left-handed power is the best on a team with plenty of pop. In his early 20′s he’s put together a career .209 ISO during his first two MLB seasons, and there’s plenty more power to come. He also showed up to spring training with more muscle in his frame. If he stays healthy he could hit 30+ bombs, and even 40 wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to predict.

STUART WALLACE (Statistical analysis): Bryce Harper.

CHRIS GAROSI (Fantasy): Harper. A full healthy season sees him approach 30 homers.

ALYSSA WOLICE (Beat writer): It’s no secret that last season Jayson Werth edged Bryce Harper for D.C.’s home run crown with 25 total home runs. But the sophomore battled injuries for the greater portion of the year. And, his new stature makes evident the fact he’s had a productive offseason. Critics – or, pessimists, rather – say Harper’s weight gain could adversely affect his swing. But, I’m not buying it. If he can remain healthy, Harper will certainly lead the Nats in home runs – and, perhaps, he’ll even make a run for the 40-mark.

2) Who will lead the Nats in RBI?
DN:  Harper. If he hits fourth the bulk of the season he’ll have the best opportunity to lead the team in RBIs batting behind Rendon and Zimmerman. At least, in a perfect world that’s how it works out.
RK: Ryan Zimmerman. Lineup spot plays a direct part in determining totals. Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman are generally guys that stay closest to the middle of the lineup, and furthest from the leadoff spot. LaRoche will sit against some lefties this year though, and he looked punchless for much of last season.
Zimmerman has plenty of power and is a good hitter, but if Williams decides to spread his lefties out, there’s an outside shot Ryan could be pushed away from the RBI spots. He’s also a guy that will lose games to injuries every year. Harper has the most pop, but he’s young and he was owned by southpaws last year. So, I guess I’ll gamble and go with Ryan Zimmerman. He’s a good bet to be in the either the 3-hole, clean-up spot, or 5th spot in the lineup consistently and he’s a good balance of power, discipline and hitting ability–though his bat wrapping makes his swing very long.
SW: Ian Desmond.
CG: Harper. If he keeps hitting fifth he’ll have plenty of opportunities to drive in Werth and Zim.
AW: Ian Desmond. Last season, the star shortstop knocked in 80 runs – just two shy of Jayson Werth. And, while Werth posted some of the best numbers of his career in 2013, Desmond has the advantage of relative youth. In fact, Desmond has batted in more runs year after year, and I would bank on that trend continuing, at least for 2014.
3) Who will lead the Nats in stolen bases?
DN: Denard Span. If spring training taught us anything, it’s that new skipper Matt Williams wants to be aggressive on the basepaths. I expect Span will be running a lot this season.
RK:  The Nats don’t have much speed. Supposedly, first-year skipper Matt Williams will run the team on the bases more aggressively than Davey did, but judging by the player he himself was — and the juiced-up era he learned to play MLB baseball in — it’s hard for me to envision the offense putting a lot of emphasis on stolen bases.
Harper, Span and Desmond have some speed, while McLouth is a heady baserunner, but none of them are truly plus runners. If I had to pick one, I guess I’d say Desmond, who is the best mix of aggression, veteran instincts and raw speed. His workload also means he’ll get plenty of chances. But if Eury Perez gets extensive playing time, that’ll be the guy.
SW: Ian Desmond.
CG: Ian Desmond.
AW: Denard Span. Sure, Span had a less-than-stellar 2013 season. But if spring training can produce only one thing, it’s promise. And, Span gave plenty of reasons to hope for improvement this season. But of course, in order for Span to rack up the stolen base total for Washington, he’ll have to fine-tune his approach at the plate to avoid repeating last season’s .327 OBP.
4) Who will lead the staff in wins?
DN:  Stephen Strasburg. This is his year to put up 200+ innings and show he’s the workhorse of the staff he’s always said he wants to be. His stuff is downright nasty, he has a mean streak on the mound, and he’ll be working to a decent pair of catchers really for the first time in his career.
RK:  Jordan Zimmermann. I really like JZ, he’s an outstanding pitcher and one of the most underrated guys in baseball-even now that he’s gotten his money. His approach to pitching and demeanor are very similar to Mike Mussina, and statistically, he’s a similarly productive — and overlooked — player. He led the NL in wins last year with 19, and his 4.03 K/BB ratio was seventh in the league and tops among returning members of the staff. Considering he’s this talented, and he’ll get plenty of favorable match-ups in the middle of the rotation, JZ is the safe bet.
SW: Stephen Strasburg.
CG: Jordan Zimmermann.
AW: I’m finally going to write what I’ve been long hoping to write: I think this season will be Stephen Strasburg’s breakout year. Fans have every reason to believe he will emerge better than ever before, now that he’s had the bone chips in his elbow taken care of. Now that the birth of his daughter has provided Strasburg with a new perspective on life, I think he’ll approach each start with a renewed sense of focus and purpose. Add to that, one can only hope Strasburg’s newly acquired slider will create even more frustrations for opposing batters. That’s not to say Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez won’t challenge Strasburg for most wins. But, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Strasburg could reach 20 wins this year, provided he remains healthy and garners the run support he lacked last season.
5) How many games will Ryan Zimmerman play first base?
DN:  25 or so. I think Zimmerman will get a handful of starts against lefties and get moved around a handful of times late in games when LaRoche gets pinch-hit for against LOOGYs. I think the Nats will resist the temptation of moving him over to first full-time until next year, but it’s coming. His throwing looked no better in spring training than it did for much of last season. It’s a shame that Zim and Espinosa both wrecked their careers (Zim defensively, Epsi offensively) playing through injury in 2012 in pursuit of a pennant.
RK:  10-15. It could certainly be more depending on how well LaRoche and Espinosa play against southpaws, but I don’t think the Nats will put him there too often so they can avoid raising discussion about him getting unseated there so early. Personally though, I don’t think Rendon plays like a long-term second basemen, and he looks much better at third. Espinosa’s value lays in the fact that he’s a middle infielder with plus defense and pop. So, it’s not a bad idea to get Zimmerman reps at first, especially because his third base defense has regressed to average, largely due to his throwing issues.
SW: 55.
CG: 45.
AW: I’ll give Zimmerman a dozen starts at first base, and 30 total games in which he makes an appearance on the right corner of the infield. I think it’s pretty clear the Nats are interested in having Zim switch corners, at least for curiosity’s sake. And, Matt Williams has already hinted that the star third baseman could be called upon to cover first in double-switch scenarios and the like – anything causing Adam LaRoche to be pulled from the game. Of course, if Zimmerman’s shoulder starts to show signs of wear and tear – or if Adam LaRoche misses significant playing time for any reason – that number could rise tremendously. But, assuming neither of those situations occur, I’d say Zimmerman makes an appearance covering first base a maximum of 30 games.
6) Who starts more games: Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf?
DN:  Taylor Jordan. I think he’s got the better long-term package to succeed out of this group. But they’re all just a place-holders really until Giolito and Cole are ready. By then, though, one of those might be replacing Jordan Zimmermann, who it seems more and more likely that he’ll test the free agent waters.
RK:  Tanner Roark. Taylor Jordan is the best pitcher of the four, but he’s also the youngest and still isn’t that far removed from TJ surgery. Long-term Jordan is a more fundamental member of the rotation, but there isn’t enough need to push him now with options ahead of him. The organization really likes Roark, and though I have my doubts about his feel and the depth of his repertoire, he does have good command of a 94 mph fastball and has a very high floor. Ultimately, he still may be best suited for the bullpen, where he’d be very good in a Craig Stammen role or even as a closer.
SW: Jordan.
CG: Tanner Roark – He’s got more upper minor league experience. I think Jordan heads back to the minors once Fister is healthy.
AW: I’m going to take what we saw of Tanner Roark and run with it and say he earns the most starts with Washington of the four. That’s assuming he posts numbers that come even remotely close to his hard-to-believe 1.51 ERA and 7-1 record from last season. Do I think he’s going to post a sub-2.00 ERA again? Not at all. But, if he can maintain good movement on his sinker and approach the upcoming season with confidence, I think he’ll earn a bit of time in the rotation, particularly if Doug Fister struggles to return to good health.
7) Who will get more at bats for the Nats this season: Danny Espinosa or Jamey Carroll (Survey went out well before Carroll was released or Kevin Frandsen was added to roster)?
DN:  Obviously, the answer is Espinosa by default. But I’m very skeptical that Espinosa will contribute anything with the bat again this year. His two-homer game in spring training aside, he continued to look lousy at the plate in Florida despite cutting down his swing a bit. I just don’t think he has the power in his shoulder to generate MLB bat speed anymore.
RK:  Danny Espinosa. Carroll is insurance, at most. He didn’t look so “ageless” (what so many people refer to him as) last year when he hit .211/.267/.251, and he looked old this spring. The Nats want to see what they can get out of Espinosa, even in a bench role. And at the very least, they’ll showcase his skills enough to trade him at a better price when the market is hungrier.
SW: Espi (but this question is moot. He will get more ABs than Frandsen also).
CG: Danny Espinosa – I assume he’ll play at least one.
AW: The burning joke to make here would be to vote for Jamey Carroll, despite the Nationals’ recent decision to release the 40-year-old infielder. But, all burns aside, I think Danny Espinosa would have earned more at-bats, regardless. Call me an optimist but, I’d like to hope Espinosa has made enough improvements at the plate to make him a considerable option for the Nats’ reserves. I wouldn’t necessarily imply he might be a first- or second-choice in a pinch-hitting situation. But, injuries plague every team, and the optimist in me says that, should the opportunity for a second chance arise, Espinosa could deliver. After all, numbers aside, Espinosa has something to prove – perhaps more than any other player who could find himself on the Nationals’ bench this season.
8) Which minor leaguer are you most interested in keeping tabs on this season?
DN:  Hard not to say Giolito. Scouts are drooling all over the kid. Big fastball, two more plus offerings. Great makeup. This season will be his first full year after TJ surgery, so look for pitch counts and about 160 innings out of him. Next season, the training wheels come off.

RK:  Drew Ward. I really like Ward, and see him as a solid bet to be a Hank Blalock-type third baseman, and even if he moves to the outfield, his bat is good enough to be a slugging right fielder with plus on-base percentages like Geoff Jenkins or even J.D. Drew. But there’s considerable risk here, and his background is a throwback to when farm boys used to populate minor league circuits playing on hay-covered dust.

Ward played on a very rural circuit in high school, and while he looked good against stronger competition, he rarely had the chance to swing against high 80′s heat and advanced breaking pitches. His first taste of the pro’s was promising, as he hit .292/.402/.387 in the GCL. So, it’ll be interesting to see how he plays a level higher in 2014. If not for his playing on such a rural circuit, and him not graduating early, Ward would’ve likely been a top-20 draft pick this coming June.
SW: AJ Cole
CG: Zach Walters. He could be a very important piece if the Nats have to move Zimmerman to first base sooner than later.
AW: I’m most interested in seeing what becomes of RHP A.J. Cole this season. For starters, I’m interested to see how Cole works his way up the ranks after being reacquired by the Nats (he was dealt to the Oakland A’s in the Gio Gonzalez deal). I wouldn’t necessarily say Cole will be the Nats’ star prospect this season – that title could very well fall to Lucas Giolito, Matt Skole or Brian Goodwin. But, the Nats, no doubt, have seen something in Cole who, after struggling with the A’s High-A team in 2012, posted strong number fors the Nats’ Double-A Harrisburg. In seven starts last season, Cole recorded a 2.18 ERA and a 4-2 record with Harrisburg. And, if he can improve his curveball a bit, he could really garner some attention, wherever he finds himself in the Nats’ organization this season.
9) Who will reach majors first: Sammy Solis, A.J. Cole, Lucas Giolito or Matt Purke?
DN:  Sammy Solis is the easy answer. He’ll be one of the first recalled if the Nats need a pitcher of any sort. Cole is next, with Giolito in close pursuit. Purke has a long way to go to prove he belongs in this discussion anymore.

RK:  Giolio’s age, recent recovery from elbow surgery and ceiling means he has no chance this year. Purke’s injury-laden resume and struggles this spring make him a long shot, even despite his contract, notoriety and left-handedness. So, that leaves Cole and Solis. Cole has more upside, with a premium heater, plus fastball command and nice athleticism, and he’s very polished for his age. He’s one of the top 10 right-handed pitching prospects in baseball in my opinion. Solis is older, craftier and more MLB-ready. He’s also left-handed, a skill that puts him right behind Jerry Blevins and Ross Detwiler on the team’s depth chart. So, either one of these guys.

I think Solis might get a shot in the ‘pen as soon as someone goes down with injury, so it’ll be him first. But if any of the team’s big name starters goes down for extended time, and if Jordan or Roark don’t live up to expectations, then the organization will be more than happy to start Cole’s arbitration clock early.
SW: AJ Cole.
CG: AJ Cole.
AW: I’m going to go with LHP Sammy Solis on this one, if only because Lucas Giolito will require a bit of time to earn his way up the ranks – and prove his ability to stay healthy. Giolito’s pitching repertoire is downright impressive – he boasts a nasty curveball and a top-notch changeup – but, he’s battled with his fair share of inactivity as the result of a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament.
10) How many all-stars will the Nats have? Whom?
DN: Two: Harper and Strasburg. Jordan Zimmermann will have a tough time replicating his first half last season, just because it was so damn good. And I have a bit of worry about Gio this year.
RK:  Four. Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper are almost locks if they’re healthy. Not only are they elite-level players at their positions, but they’re fan-favorites and high fantasy picks. I know Desmond got snubbed last year, but there was enough hubbub about it that I don’t think the Washington area’s massive market will let that happen if the team lives up to expectations this year. Plus, Tulo and Hanley are both very injury prone.
Stephen Strasburg is a lock if he’s healthy (knock knock), so that’s 3, and it’s hard to believe that one of Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Tyler Clippard won’t make it. So that’s four, almost definitely. Wilson Ramos has star-level talent, and has produced when healthy — he just needs to stay healthy. And then Ryan Zimmerman and Jason Werth also have good chance, and it’s not like Storen, Fister and Rendon don’t have the chops. So I think it’ll be four, But, it could certainly be five, and six isn’t too crazy if the team wins and grabs the spotlight.
SW: 4 – Strasburg, Harper, Desmond, JZimmermann.
CG: Two — Bryce Harper and Tyler Clippard.
AW: Three: Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Stephen Strasburg
11) Total wins and what place in the division?
DN:  90 wins, first place. With all the injuries to Atlanta’s pitching staff, the Nats will win the division by default, and I believe the N.L. East is the worst division in baseball now due to the Braves plight. The Phillies are falling apart due to age, the Mets are a couple years away and the Marlins just have so very little big league talent right now, despite a couple of very good pitchers.

RK:  95 wins, 1st place. Matt Williams’ managerial resume is pretty light, so he’s a bit of a wildcard no matter what kind of player he was. With that said, I think the Nationals are the MLB’s best bet for first place.

Besides Atlanta, the Nats’ division is weak and their balanced roster is overflowing with All-Star talent. The team transformed into a winner in 2012, and while they had a sophomore slump in 2013, the franchise’s studs–Harper, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gio– are now entering their primes and their leaders–Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth–are hungrier than ever for a World Series.
After the front office neglected their need for left-handed pitching and power last year, they did a great job addressing it this offseason. Now, the club not only looks supremely talented, but supremely balanced. Rafael Soriano as the closer looks like the lone weak spot, but the team has enough bullpen talent between Clippard, Storen, Stammen and Detwiler that this issue isn’t troubling. Their run differential could approach a full run per game if they’re well managed, so they could bring home as many as 100 wins and be one of the most dominant teams since the ’98 Yankees. But, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. The rotation is gifted but somewhat fragile and every big league season brings plenty of disappointment.
SW: 91-71; 1st
CG: 89 wins, first in N.L. East.
AW: With the Philadelphia Phillies all but defunct and the Atlanta Braves coping with serious injuries before the season’s first pitch, I say the Nationals absolutely have to win the NL East this season. I’ll give them 96 total wins to edge the Braves, who will likely enjoy a bit of a revival in the second half of the season.
Essay: What should be the single most important development for the Nats this season?
DN:  Ryan Zimmerman’s defense, in conjunction with Adam LaRoche’s offense. Ryan Zimmerman is the Face of the Franchise. He’s signed through 2019. He could outlast all of Desmond, Zimmermann, Strasburg and Harper. His bat is better at third than it would be at first base, but if he can’t get his defense sorted out — and it’s more than just the throwing at this point — he’s going to have to be moved.
LaRoche is essentially a platoon player at this stage in his career. Granted, it’s the side of the platoon where he’ll see the bulk of at bats. He’s never been good at hitting lefties, but last year he was down-right atrocious. The Nats can’t afford that type of production from their first base position. LaRoche is still decent in the field, but not as great as people in this market seem to think. If LaRoche doesn’t show signs of bouncing back early in the year, it’s a bad sign and will force the Nats into shuffling things around.

RK:  Wilson Ramos and the team’s catching. Ramos has shown All-Star-level ability, with outstanding power for a catcher, a strong arm and the ability to keep the ball in front of him. Injuries have been his downfall, and it’s what forced Davey Johnson to give a rundown and weak-swinging Kurt Suzuki so many starts over the previous two years. In Ramos’ absence, Suzuki proved not only to hurt the team with his poor pitch-framing, but he didn’t make opposing base-stealers hesitate before going for second base–not one bit–and his 70 wRC+ during his time in Washington means he was horrific with the bat.

Ramos is being handed the reigns to one of the most gifted rotations the game has every seen–and certainly the most valuable. He too is young, and his job comes with plenty of pressure. Even with Jose Lobaton added to the team as both the back-up and injury insurance, the weight still falls heavily on Ramos’ shoulders. For this team to live up to it’s potential, he’ll have to catch 100 games this season and be a stud both in the box and behind the plate.
Can he frame pitches well enough to keep the pitch counts down for fragile guys like Strasburg, Gio and max-effort Tyler Clippard, whom all have exhausting mechanics? Can he get Jordan Zimmermann and Rafael Soriano strike calls while they live on the edges of the zone? After his ACL and hamstring injuries, can he still block the plate well enough to keep the staff’s young guns confident in their premium breaking stuff? And can he get out of his crouch quick enough to slow down base stealers despite a so-so career 27% CS%?
Ramos has a hefty amount of responsibility. He could step up the the plate and flourish, establishing himself as a star, or it could certainly be more disappointment for him. But the team really needs him to play his best. Because even if Lobaton is a solid game caller and receiver, he’s not a first-tier catcher like Ramos is. And after him, the organization has little beyond glove-only Sandy Leon and a few bullpen catchers.
SW: The most important development of the season for the Nats will be the maturation and continued development of Anthony Rendon, both at the plate and as a utility player. Possessing one of the more impressive and advanced hit tools for a player his age, continued seasoning from MLB plate appearances will further hone his contact rate, his understanding of the strike zone and how opposing pitchers will handle him, which will only improve his offensive stock. A full return to health after being a little banged up last season will also add to his performance.
However, the biggest piece of the puzzle for Rendon will be in the field, as he continues to learn how to play 2B at the major league level, while also retaining his above average skills at his natural position of 3B. Given the merry-go-round of players and their positions in the infield with Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa as well as Rendon all looking at new positions part-time or otherwise, it will be up to Rendon to provide a precociously steady influence at both second and third for the other two to have successful transitions. The hitting will always be there, but health and fielding from the young Texan will play an enormous role in the overall success of the bottom half of the batting order and the team’s defense.
AW: Saying the bench should be the Nationals’ single-most important development this season might not fire up fans. But, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be item No. 1 on the Nationals “must-fix” list. Washington boasted some of the league’s best pitching last season, and came up with absolutely no run support to swing the win-loss column in their favor. With the addition of Nate McLouth and the lingering hope that Danny Espinosa could show at least marginal improvement, one would hope Washington will perform better in clutch situations this year.

“Battle” for second base endures as Spring Training reaches the stretch

Washington Nationals first-year manager Matt Williams has yet to name a starting second baseman with less than two weeks to go in spring training.

The team is doing everything they can to salvage value from Danny Espinosa and, if healthy, the  former starter brings a 20-20 game with excellent defense at both second and shortstop.

The other candidate, Anthony Rendon, brings adequate defense and a refined hitting approach that practically screams “number two hitter” with a line drive swing and tremendous on-base skills.

Williams told the media the other day:

“That is a tough decision for us to really make. As you come into Spring Training, you want to make it difficult for the manager to make a decision and for the organization to make that decision. They are both doing really well.

“I’m not ready to make that decision. We have a week left and they will continue to play and get at-bats. They have competed really well. We’ll see how it goes the rest of the way and make our decisions accordingly.”

The problem is two-fold. If Espinosa doesn’t make the team, the Nats will have to keep 40-year-old Jamey Carroll on the squad, as he’s the only other player left in camp that can play shortstop since they sent prospect Zach Walters to the minors earlier in the week. But that sets up the million dollar question: Can Espinosa hit?

Espinosa’s injury history is well documented in these parts. He suffered a torn left rotator cuff during the Nats stretch pennant drive in 2012 and didn’t remove himself from the lineup. Instead of having surgery during the offseason he chose to try to strengthen the muscles around the joint and play through the discomfort.

The results in early 2013 were abysmal. On top to that, he suffered a broken right wrist after getting hit by a pitch, which further reduced his capacity at the plate. After two weeks on the disabled list, be went back to playing full-time in Syracuse and was arguably worse than in the bigs.

He hit .158/.193/.272 with 47 Ks in 167 PAs (28.1%) for the Nats last year after leading the N.L. in strikeouts in 2012. Then in Syracuse after his D.L. stint, Espinosa hit .216/.280/.286 with 101 Ks in 313 PAs (32.2%).

So far this spring, Espinosa isn’t much better, hitting .200/.300/.257 with 7 Ks in 40 PAs and just two extra base hits — both doubles.

The strikeouts are one thing; the utter lack of power from last season to this spring is alarming. His line drive rate last year plummeted from 19 percent to 10 as the injuries robbed him of any power whatsoever and his contact rate has gone down in each of the past four years, from 73 percent in ’10 to 71, 68 and finally 63 percent last season.

The final nail is his ground ball rate, which was an astronomical 51 percent in ’13 for a guy with 20-homer potential.

With Espinosa, the Nats once had a promising 20-20 player who played Gold Glove caliber defense at second base. Playing though a shoulder injury, then failing to get it fixed the immediate offseason, has completely destroyed his career.

There’s no mystery surrounding the Nats starting second baseman. Anthony Rendon is young, healthy, and already has an elevated approach at the plate. He isn’t the fielder that Espinosa is, but should be able to produce a .350 OBP to go along with 15-20 homer pop in his prime.

This spring, the Nats have given Espinosa every opportunity to prove health, and he’s looked good in the field. His shoulder may not be causing him pain, but that masks the underlying issue that the joint is weakened and is no loner capable of producing enough bat speed to provide contact and power at the Major League level.

It’s a shame.

Washington Nationals Spring Training: Nats dump Cards 11-1

Stephen Strasburg gave up one run on two hits and two walks in three innings, but the Nats offense pounded out 11 runs on 15 hits as the Washington Nationals dumped the St. Louis Cardinals 11-1 at Space Coast Stadium in Viera on Sunday.

Strasburg wasn’t the sharpest in his second appearance, as he walked the first two batters he faced and did not record a strikeout. He did generate five ground ball outs and induced two double plays.

The rest of the pitchers that followed were near perfect. Matt Purke, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen, Christian Garcia and Luis Ayala combined for six innings of shutout ball, allowing just one hit and no walks, striking out four — three by Garcia in his inning of work.

To be fair, the Cardinals brought very few major league players for the road trip up U.S. 95.

Anthony Rendon led off and went 2-for-3 with a homer, two runs and an RBI. Wilson Ramos — hitting .563 this spring — went 2-for-3 with a run and 3 RBIs and Koyie Hill drove in two. Tyler Moore added a pair of hits in two trips.

The Nats host the Houston Astros at 6:05 on Monday.

 

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview, Part I: The Infield

Ryan Zimmerman gets Matt Kemp out in top of 5th (third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to first baseman Adam LaRoche) - Los Angeles Dodgers v. Washington Nationals, Game One of Doubleheader on September 19, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Ryan Zimmerman is a key component to Nats playoff hopes. (stock photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page, Sept. 2012)

 

As a whole, the Washington Nationals return mostly intact from the teams that won 98 games in 2012 and 86 games in 2013. This is a veteran team with high aspirations of competing in the World Series. I hardly think rookie manager Matt Williams will boldly proclaim “World Series or Bust” as his predecessor did, but the implications are there.

If the team overachieved in ’12 and underachieved last season, what is the logical progression for 2014? If the ’12 and ‘13 results had been flipped, I think everyone would be riding the Nats as an odd-on favorite this season. They may be anyway.

With a rotation as solid No. 1 through No. 4 as any in baseball, a deep bullpen, an infield full of silver sluggers and a versatile outfield led by a burgeoning superstar, the Washington Nationals seem poised to make noise this season on a national level.

For the next two weeks, District Sports Page will preview the Washington Nationals 2014 season. This week, we’ll do profiles of the players on the 40-man roster and significant non-roster invitees, players that have a chance to make an impact on the Nats roster this season.

Here’s the schedule:

Monday: The Infield
Tuesday: The Outfield
Wednesday: The Catchers
Thursday: The Rotation
Friday: The Bullpen

In week two, we’ll profile the manager and front office, reveal our Top-25 minor leaguers and prospects, examine the “big picture” the Nats this season, and do a little statistical analysis and projecting.

With no further adieu… [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 146 Review: Nats complete sweep of Mets; 5 1/2 out of Wild Card

SPAN DOUBLES TO EXTEND STREAK TO 23 GAMES, SECOND LONGEST IN MAJORS THIS SEASON

Every single game matters for the Washington Nationals at this point as they valiantly try to keep their scant playoff hopes alive. In a Thursday matinee, the Nats beat the Mets 7-2, sweeping the four-game set. It was the Nats sixth win in a row overall, their longest winning streak of the season.

The Nats (77-69) out-homered the Mets in the series 13-0, the second-most homers the Nats have hit in any single series. They are now 5 1/2 games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the wild card standings with 16 games to play and one game yet in hand.

Tanner Roark, making his second start since his recall, gave the Nats six solid innings wrapped around an hour-long rain delay for his sixth win of the season against no losses. He allowed two earned runs on six hits and one walk, striking out three.

The Nats got started early in this one. After Denard Span struck out to lead off the game, Ryan Zimmerman delivered a bomb to straightaway center off the Mets’ recently acquired starter Aaron Harang for his 23rd of the season and his eighth home run in his last 10 games to put the Nats up 1-0.

The Mets got that run right back against Nats’ starter Tanner Roark. Eric Young, Jr. led off with a single and went to second on a sacrifice by Juan Lagares. Daniel Murphy then doubled to bring home Young to tie the game at one.

Then the rains came.

An hour-plus rain delay ensued, and when play resumed, Harang came back in to pitch for the Mets. Maybe he wished he hadn’t.

The first batter back, Ian Desmond took one to the wall that was caught. The following batter, Adam LaRoche, then rocked one that appeared off the top of the wall and he cruised into second base with a double. But upon video review, the ball struck a railing above the home run line and bounced back into play off center fielder Young’s glove and the umpires ruled it a home run to make it 2-1 Nats.

The Mets tied it in the fourth. Lucas Duda led off with a single to right field. With one out, Mike Baxter singled to left to move Duda up one base. Catcher Anthony Recker followed with another single which plated Duda easily, but Harper threw out Baxter trying to advance to third on the play.

Wilson Ramos delivered the lead back to Washington in the fifth inning with a solo home run, his 13th of the season.

The Nats added insurances run in the seventh and eighth.

LaRoche led off the seventh with a double to center. After a pitching change, Ramos grounded out to the pitcher. But because Mets third baseman Josh Satin came in on the slow infield grounder, LaRoche snuck behind him and advanced to third. Anthony Rendon then lifted a fly ball to medium center field that plated LaRoche without a throw.

Span led off the eighth inning with a double to extend his hitting streak to 23 games and Zimmerman plated him with a double of his own to make it 5-2.

Reliever Frank Francisco then hit Jayson Werth with a 3-0 pitch. Bryce Harper’s grounder to the right side forced Werth at second but moved Zimmerman over to third and he scored on Ian Desmond’s grounder to short when Harper’s hard slide forced a bad throw by Ruben Tejada on the relay.

Anthony Rendon added to the hit parade in the ninth with a line drive home run to left field, his seventh of the season.

THE GOOD: Tanner Roark. The swingman put together another impressive starting performance, perhaps tossing his hat into the ring with the other candidates that could be considered for the fifth starter spot next season.

Also, props to reliever Xavier Cedeno, who struck out lefties Daniel Murphy and Lucas Duda on six pitches in a scoreless eighth inning.

THE BAD: Jayson Werth. 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. Average dips to .324 in his chase for the batting title.

THE UGLY: Frank Francisco. The pitch he hit Werth with was definitely intentional. There was simply no reason for Francisco to bean Werth there except being mad at himself for stinking up the joint. Mets television commenter and former MLB pitcher Ron Darling called Francisco “a fool.”

THE STATS: 8 hits, 1 BB, 11 Ks. 1-for-4 with RISP, 3 LOB. No errors, no DPs.

NEXT GAME: Friday at the Philadelphia Phillies at 7:05 pm. Stephen Strasburg (7-9, 2.96) faces Kyle Kendrick (10-12, 4.51).

Washington Nationals Game 145 Review: Nats move to seven over .500 with 3-0 win over Mets

Dan Haren gave up one hit in six innings and four relievers pitched the final three innings as the Washington Nationals (76-69) won their fifth in a row and seventh in their last eight games to move a season-high seven games over .500 with a 3-0 win over the New York Mets at Citi Field in Queens, NY.

Ryan Zimmerman led off the sixth inning with his 22nd home run of the season off Mets starter Zack Wheeler (L, 7-5, 3.22) to break a scoreless tie and Anthony Rendon’s two out, two-run double in the eighth provided all the necessary insurance.

Haren (W, 9-13, 5.02) rediscovered the magic he had during a string of starts he made immediately after returning from the disabled list mid-season. He walked one and struck out eight holding the Mets scoreless through six innings.

Xavier Cedeno retired both left-handed batters the faced in the seventh, and Drew Storen recorded the last out of that frame after allowing a single. Tyler Clippard pitched a perfect eighth inning for his league-leading 32nd save of the season, and Rafael Soriano earned his 41st save of the year to solidify the win.

THE GOOD: Ryan Zimmerman. I’ve been as hard as anyone on the guy this season, but he’s been on absolute fire the past 10 days with his power, hitting his seventh home run in that timeframe. Props to Haren as well rebounding from three miserable starts to give the Nats a fighting chance in this one.

THE BAD: Wilson Ramos went 0-for-4 and stranded four runners.

THE UGLY: Home plate umpire James Hote. On four different occasions, Hoye granted time to a Mets batter while Haren was in the middle of his delivery. Also angered Storen on a pitch called a ball immediately preceding the base hit Storen allowed.

THE STATS: 11 hits, 1 BB, 9 Ks. 1-for-10 with RISP, 9 LOB. No errors, no DPs.

NEXT GAME: Thursday at 1:10 pm against the Mets. Tanner Roark (5-0, 0.93) faces Aaron Harang (0-0), recently acquired after Seattle released him.

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