December 14, 2019

After disappointment, where do Nats go from here?

So, where do they go from here?

The past season for the Washington Nationals couldn’t have been more disappointing. Injuries led to rust, which led to collapse, which led to overcompensation, which led to dysfunction, which ultimately led to clearing house.

Before next season starts, the Nats have a veritable laundry list of things to accomplish (in order of severity): [Read more…]

Treinen sent to minors because team doesn’t know how to use him

The Washington Nationals sent struggling right-handed reliever Blake Treinen to AAA-Syracuse and recalled fellow righty Abel de los Santos from AA-Harrisburg to make his MLB debut. de los Santos was acquired (along with SS Chris Bostick) in the Ross Detwiler trade with the Texas Rangers. Detwiler, meanwhile, was DFA’d by the Rangers two weeks ago and has resurfaced with the Atlanta Braves.

But we digress.

The Nats are sending Treinen down to Triple-A with the hope that he can reduce his walks and figure out how to get lefties out. The big problem with that is his age. He’s 27, and whatever he is as a pitcher is pretty much cemented by now. Players in the physical prime of their careers are who they are. It’s up to the team to put him in positions to succeed, and the Nats — to this point in Treinen’s career — have been pretty poor at it.

Treinen has pitched to a 4.39 ERA and 1.561 WHIP this season, getting hit at an overall clip at .276/.363/.378 in 180 plate appearances against. That’s solidly mediocre taken at first blush. He’s given up two home runs and 21 walks in 41 innings pitched. The first number (HR) is very, very good. The second number, not so much.

It’s when we dig deeper that we see the problem in his utilization.

Treinen has been exceptional (and I don’t use that word lightly) against right handed batters, limiting those hitters to a .205/.300/.244 slash line. Look again: the type of batter most prevalent in baseball slugs .244 against Treinen this season. For his career, righties hit .223/.303/.251, so this year’s no fluke. If you’ve got a right-handed batter up in a high leverage situation, you want Treinen to face him.

ON THE OTHER HAND (see what I did there?):

In his career, Treinen allows lefties to hit .341/.396/.466 against him in a statistically equal number of plate appearances as righties (202 career PAs against righties/192 PAs against lefties). That’s “Barry Bonds in the prime of his career” numbers. His numbers this year are even worse at .346/.427/.513, meaning with scouting other teams have figured him out. His BABiP to lefties this season is .413. That’s no joke. He ain’t fooling anyone.

If I can look up these numbers, you can bet the Nats can too.

What if boils down to is this: Treinen has a big league arm, and can get right-handed batters out with the best of any short relievers. What he can’t do is get lefties out. At all. The Nats can send Treinen down to Syracuse and wait for him to figure it out (he won’t, and likely waste any remaining value to his career) or they can admit what he is and utilize him at the big league level in situations that will put him in a position to succeed.

The question is thus: Can the Nats afford to carry a ROOGY (Right-handed One Out Guy) in the current iteration of the bullpen? Now, there are more right-handed batters than left, so he’s more useful than that.

But in no way should he be sent into a one-run game with the reasonable expectation that he’d face very good left-handed hitting batters in two of the first four batters he’d face, exactly what he was tasked with in Sunday’s ninth inning debacle.

That’s not putting the player into a position he can succeed. That’s dooming him to utter failure. And it’s not the player’s fault.

Washington Nationals Spring Training Preview: The Starters

This week, District Sports Page will review the players currently on the Washington Nationals 40-man roster and their potential contributions to the Major League roster this season.

Monday: Catchers
Tuesday: Infielders
Wednesday: Outfielders
Thursday: Starters
Friday: Bullpen

Max Scherzer
2014 AL: 33 games, 220.1 IP, 18-5, 3.15 ERA, 1.175 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 2.6 BB/9 (6.0 WAR) [Read more…]

Washington Nationals own historic rotation…for now

Once again, we’re in the difficult position of evaluating an off-season move without immediate data, and as far as the Clippard/Escobar trade can be the sort of dejecting move that leans on past data for pessimism, the aquisition of right hander Max Scherzer gives us the sort of situation to be optimistic about and to play with some numbers.

Adding perennial Cy Young candidate to the rotation, the Nationals a shot at a pitching rotation that could be favorably compared to the 1996 and 1997 Braves or the 2011 Phillies.

The Scherzer signing appears to be a massive one in more than just his contract. Scherzer’s 6.0 WAR ranked eighth last year in all of baseball, but his 723 strikeouts over the last three seasons lead the Majors over that period, and outstrip Clayton Kershaw’s 700 and Stephen Strasburg’s 630 by a fair margin.

On paper, the Nationals have now assembled a pitching rotation that joins the 1996 and 1997 Braves, and the 2011 Phillies in terms of quality. We could sit around and talk all day about which of those rotations were the best, but of those four, at least on paper based on this past year’s performance, the 2015 Nationals would likely stack up fourth. The problem here is that we’re getting into that dangerous “predicting the future” part of this job that really isn’t the sort of thing I’m known for doing with any accuracy.

However, we can look at some past data to see the regular season results. I want to focus on three post-strike/post-expansion teams: The 1996 and 1997 Braves, and the 2011 Phillies. I started these comparisons by looking at Cy Young Award Vote-getters, but I decided that data was too subjective, as it was looking for a single best player, and not a best rotation, and that lead me to the Pitching WAR scoreboard over at Baseball-Reference.com.

The 2011 Phillies put together one of the most remarkable pitching staffs we’ve seen in a generation, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels combining for 24.1 WAR that season. Halladay and Lee hardly walked anyone, and though Clayton Kershaw topped many individual categories, the Phillies’ 1-2-3 punch was substantial. Lee threw six complete game shutouts, and Halladay added eight complete games of his own. It’s hard to imagine a more dominant three-man combination.

When it comes to dominant rotations, though, you have to look at the 1990s Braves. The 1997 Braves combo of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Denny Neagle combined for 22.6 WAR, representing the second, fifth, eighth and ninth positions on the NL board for that season. The 1996 Braves combo of Smoltz, Maddux, Neagle and Glavine put up 26.2 WAR, representing second through fifth positions on the board.

Both of those are just absolutely staggering marks, and there’s a reason that Glavine and Maddux are in the Hall of Fame, and Smoltz was just selected.

I’m not saying that the 2015 Nationals are guaranteed be any of those three, but I am saying that this is their best chance at becoming something unique and wonderful for the fans to watch. I, for one, look forward to seeing how a starting rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister will handle a year together. There isn’t an “easy” day in there for the opponents.

Hell, there isn’t even a “just medium-hard” day in there.

If you use the 2014 numbers, Scherzer, Roark, Zimmermann, and Fister would have combined for 20.5 WAR, representing the fourth, seventh, eighth and 10th positions on the NL leader board for pitcher WAR. When you consider that Roark is likely the odd man out, the Nationals rotation combined for 15.2 WAR across the other four starters, which goes to 21.2 WAR when Scherzer gets figured in. For comparison’s sake, the reigning World Champion Giants’ rotation in 2014 ended up with about 8.8 WAR.

The biggest question become: What do you do when you have six pitchers for a five-man rotation? How does Tanner Roark handle a move to the long relief slot in the bullpen? Do you execute a trade for more offense now, and if so, whom?

Zimmermann’s name has been mentioned on the hot stove all winter long as a pending free agent at the end of the year. Over the weekend, media reports said the Nats would listen to offers for Strasburg. Roark has the most cost-certain number of years. Fister is an impending free agent himself. And even the almost-forgotten Gio Gonzalez was mentioned early in the offseason as a potential target for some teams.

These are all impossibly weird questions to consider for a team that was, five years ago, losing ninety to a hundred games a year.

The Nationals are a franchise that has now made the commitment to go for broke in the 2015 season, betting that a championship now — where none have existed in the District in almost twenty-five years — would be the sort of generational uplift that a newer team needs to make for an immensely profitable enterprise, and not just the sort that makes several million in profit. This is a commitment to winning a whole generation of young fans and commit them to a club for decades to come, and it’s the sort of thing that a baseball team needs more than ever right now in a football-heavy market in a time when baseball’s popularity has been on the wane.

The structure of Scherzer’s deal suggests that the Nationals are using this as an uplift contract — much as they did with Jayson Werth’s deal, which has largely proved worth its asking price — with some of the money deferred over the 2022-2028 timeframe. It’s impressive to think that my son, who is barely walking at this point, will be in high school before the deal is paid off, but that’s what has me thinking this deal was a statement to the rest of the players, the division foes, and the league. That statement is unequivocal at this point: this is the year the Nationals go the distance.

Is it enough? Can a team with dominant pitching and a good-if-not-world-class offense go on to win it all?

Suffice to say: this is rarified air, and the sort of thing that can get you deep into the playoffs. But none of those three previous teams won all the marbles. The 1997 Braves lost the NLCS to the Florida Marlins, a team with 10 fewer regular season wins. The 2011 Phillies didn’t make it past the Cardinals in the NLDS, who had 12 fewer regular season wins. The 1996 Braves lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series.

Stellar pitching isn’t the entire playoff picture. They’re not going to win it all based on pitching alone, but without that pitching, this isn’t a team that gets anywhere close.

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…]

Statistically Speaking: To Pull Or Not To Pull Your Starter

Among the many on-the-job lessons Matt Williams is learning in his first season as Washington Nationals’ manager has been the fine art of knowing when to pull a starting pitcher, due to ineffectiveness or fatigue. It’s an elusive skill and between it and bullpen management, can make or break a team’s season and a manager’s career. Unfortunately for many, it is a skill that is more art than science, with a lot of trial and error involved in the process.

For Williams, there has been lots of error in his trials thus far. But recently it appears a corner has been possibly turned, with his handling of Doug Fister’s most recent outing. Fister, only a handful of starts into his 2014 season after suffering a right lat strain, had been a mixed bag results-wise in his first three starts, and after 83 pitches in the sixth inning May 25th against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Williams had seen enough, despite going well over 100 pitches in his previous two starts and pitching well enough against the Pirates to get the win. However, vigilance surrounding the now-healthy lat ruled the day, and the righthander was relieved by Craig Stammen, an ever-lowering and inconsistent release point—possibly a result of fatigue—the culprit behind the early curtain for Fister.

Here’s a look at Fister’s release points for the 83 pitches, broken down by pitch type and inning, with the last pitch that sealed his fate circled in red. As noted in a previous article, x0 is the horizontal component of the release point (also labeled HRel) and z0 is the vertical component (VRel):

Fister RelPt

It was a savvy move by a green manager, who up until this point, had all too often been the victim of his moves backfiring; it appeared that Williams’ handling of his pitching staff was taking a turn for the better. However, looking at the release point graph, it appears that the incriminating pitch wasn’t necessarily that bad and there were plenty of other pitches that reflected a dropping release point that is often a red flag for fatigue. Yet, it does provide an interesting jumping off point for what the threshold could be for pulling a starter due to fatigue, with the caveat that game situations can dictate whether a pitcher gets pulled immediately upon exhibiting fatigue or if they stay in to finish an at bat.

Using this 83rd pitch as the threshold pitch, let’s calculate some z-scores in an effort to standardize the release point data—both HRel and VRel individually—so that we can compare all pitches, in light of the fact that each pitcher will have a slightly different average release point for each of their pitch types. The closer a z-score is to zero, the closer a pitch is to his average release point, with large negative values consistent with a drop in arm angle and release point. Calculating the respective z-scores across pitch type for Fister and then plotting these values across pitch count and inning gives us the following results: first, HRel data:

Fister_HRel

I have done the liberty of drawing the line across the data (arrow pointing at pitch 83) as a reference to this fatigue threshold; pitches below the line can be considered worse pitches from a release point perspective.

Here’s the same graph for z-scores of the vertical component of Fister’s release point:

Fister_VRel

It appears the vertical aspect has more ‘danger zone’ pitches, with a large number of four-seam fastballs (FF) seen, reflecting some inconsistencies with getting on top of the pitch, especially later in the game. VRel data also has larger negative values associated with it compared to HRel, which could possibly lend it being more affected by fatigue than HRel.

Overall with Fister, we do see a very cautious approach taken by Williams—Fister spent most of the game with z-scores at or above average, with only a handful of pitches going past the threshold of pitch 83.

Let’s go back to the previous day’s game, with Stephen Strasburg on the hill. Unfortunately for Strasburg, he ran into a little more trouble over the course of the last inning he pitched and there are many who felt that Williams kept him in too long. With a pitch count of 91 after completing six innings—but laboring through a 22-pitch sixth inning in the process—and surrendering a solitary run up to this point, Strasburg sputtered in the seventh, tallying another 17 pitches and giving up two runs on the way to a loss at the hands of the Pirates.

Like we did for Fister, let’s look at his raw release point data across pitch type and inning, with his last, ‘red zone’ pitch circled:

Strasburg RelPt

While the situation is a little different here compared to Fister, in that Strasburg was allowed to finish the inning and did not get the hook as abruptly as Fister, we do see some similarities between the pitches. With Strasburg, we again see the last pitch not being egregiously erratic with respect to the release point, but we do see some steady drop in arm slot in previous innings along with some inconsistent arm slots in the final frame, a possible clue that Strasburg was fatigued before the seventh inning.

Let’s move on to z-score data, again starting with HRel values:

Strasburg_HRel

…and the VRel values:

Strasburg_VRel

The data are slightly more damning compared to Fister’s; there are a large number of sub-threshold values in both horizontal and vertical components of release point; also Strasburg essentially spent the last two innings in this release point ‘danger zone’, potentially indicative of the 22- and 17-pitch innings he finished his outing with were not only stressful, but inconsistent due to arm fatigue.

The number of pitches under the threshold, across pitch type and release point component, are provided below in order to compare the duo:

Pitch Type HRel VRel
Fister CH 1 3
CU 2 3
FC 1 3
FF 7 9
FT 2 3
Strasburg CH 11 17
CU 6 12
FF 18 28
FT 1 3

CH: changeup, CU: curveball, FC: cut fastball, FF: four-seam fastball, FT: two-seam fastball

It is again clear that Strasburg’s outing, one where he battled hard and still put up a respectable pitching line, was less than ideal, compared to Fister’s. This is also an interesting contrast in how Williams handled his staff in the span of a day—one pitcher, despite some apparent clues that he was not long for his outing, is left to pitch through some bumps in the road, while another, who despite recently coming off of injury, still appeared to have a little more left in the tank, is quickly taken out of the game.

While not all variables have been taken into consideration—injury status, game situation, bullpen status, among many others—this exercise does potentially provide a very rough method of not only monitoring fatigue (albeit retrospectively), but also gauging a manager’s tendencies with how he handles his pitching staff as a whole and as individuals when they begin to labor in their outings.

***

Data courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
____________________

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, stats intern at Baseball Prospectus, and a contributor at Camden Depot. 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.

Statistically Speaking: Tanner Roark’s Called Strike Success

Just as the season started, Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post gave us an interesting perspective on the secret to Tanner Roark’s successful rookie season of 2013. Where many pitchers thrive on elite velocity or an unhittable trick pitch, Roark thrived on garnering called strikes and in the process, keep hitters in pitcher’s counts, allowing him to control the ebb and flow of an at bat. Given Roark’s fairly pedestrian stuff and repertoire, his ability to control the count is a crucial piece to him neutralizing lineups through pitch location, selection, and sequencing.

Considering Roark’s arsenal isn’t overpowering, the fact that he was able to get so many called strikes is amazing and a testament to not only the command and control he has on his pitches, but also their late movement, which has hitters giving up on them before they suddenly make a quick dart into the strike zone. This ability to trick hitters into not swinging rewarded Roark and the Nationals handsomely, with the righty amassing a 7-1 record in 53.2 innings pitched, with a 2.41 fielding independent pitching (FIP) and 1.4 wins above replacement (WAR) last season.

With a new season in full swing and with Roark winning a highly-contested rotation spot, has this knack for called strikes continued?

Let’s take a closer look at what Roark did last year with these called strikes compared to what he’s done in a little over 30 innings this year. In the graphic below, Roark’s 2013 called strikes, split by pitch type and batter handedness are provided on the left, with the same information for 2014 provided in the right:

TR Called

Despite the small 2014 sample, we do see that Roark so far has relied mostly upon the fastball (FF) to get his called strikes, with a handful of sliders on the outside corner to righties also helping his cause. Comparing what we can between the two seasons, we also see an interesting trend — Roark has been working lower in the zone with the fastball this season, especially against lefties. More on this later.

Focusing on 2013, we also see Roark getting called strikes from all of his pitches, but working the changeup solely against lefties and the slider solely against righties, but using a fastball-curveball combo to both lefty and righty batters, aptly using both corners of the plate in his favor.

So we have a grasp of where these pitches are coming in with respect to the strike zone, let’s now see what counts these called strikes are getting called:

Screen shot 2014-04-29 at 8.08.47 PM

Here, raw called strike counts broken down by hitting count and pitch type are provided; like before, 2013 data is to the left and 2014 data is to the right. Not surprisingly, most of the called strikes Roark are getting are in the first pitch of an at bat, both last year and this year, with some additional calls being garnered in earlier counts. With respect to pitch types, it’s Roark’s fastball that is doing most of the heavy lifting.

No huge surprise—Roark’s called strike bonanza is mostly arising from throwing first pitch fastballs. However, let’s go back to the strike zone heat map and check out how the rest of the 0-0 count called strikes shake down between this year and last:

TR 0-0

We again see his 2013 fingerprint: a fastball-curveball combo to both lefties and righties with an additional pitch (changeup for lefties, slider for righties) added in to keep things interesting, with everything just a little up in the zone. For 2014, we again fall victim to limited data, but find that for righthanded batters, Roark is now using a fastball-slider duo that he is keeping low in the zone. For lefties, we find no data — he has yet to grab a first pitch called strike to portsiders.

For the season, lefties are 1-for-11 in 0-0 counts in 2014, but have overall had more success against Roark independent of count, hitting for a .330 wOBA, compared to .288 last season. The lefty split is even more stark when comparing it to righties — this year, righties are hitting at a .264 wOBA, with 2013 seeing them hit a paltry .160 wOBA. Add to this trend the fact that the only home runs Roark has served up as a National have been against lefties and the trends seen against lefties with respect to pounding the lower part of the zone and not giving anything too good to hit on the first pitch of an at bat make more sense.

Roark’s bread and butter will always be quality strikes thrown where he wants them more so than a grip it and rip it approach; his ability to command all of his pitches and get ahead of hitters has and will continue to put him in good position to win his starts, or at least be competitive in the process.

While we find upon closer inspection of his called strike wizardry some difficulties in getting lefties to succumb to the allure of not swinging at his pitch, if his 2013 trends are to be believed, Roark still has some tricks up his sleeve when it comes to amassing more called strikes this year, in the form of throwing more secondary pitches, especially to lead off an at bat. With this working backwards and his continued mastery of the strike zone, Roark’s unexpected ascension as one of the Nationals’ more reliable starters will continue.

Statistically Speaking: Tyler Clippard’s Shaky Start

It’s another math light week for Statistically Speaking—you don’t need much advanced knowledge of math or statistics to realize that Washington Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard has struggled mightily out of the gate this season, coming to a crescendo in Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, where the usual reliable Clippard was on the hook for all four Angels runs. Clippard sputtering to start the season isn’t anything new, as the table of selected stats over the setup man’s first 11 appearances each year since 2011 below shows:

Year IP ERA FIP OPS BABIP Strikes RE24
2014 9.2 3.72 4.49 0.798 0.300 63.00% -4.99
2013 10.1 4.35 4.89 0.538 0.160 60.00% -1.48
2012 11 4.91 2.55 0.667 0.333 66.00% -0.80
2011 14.1 1.26 1.70 0.456 0.290 65.00% 8.09

Yes, Clippard is a notoriously slow starter; however, this season, it’s been a molasses-in-northern-Minnesota-in-January slow start. While he hasn’t been helped out by batting average on balls in play like he has historically—he owns a career .238 BABIP—he also has not helped himself out, with fielding independent pitching (FIP) nearly a run higher than his ERA, indicative of Clippard being responsible for the elevated OPS more so than any defensive miscues.

So what could explain the historically bad start by Clippard? Let’s go through some of the usual suspects that can sometimes induce performance declines and see if we can get to the heart of the matter with Clip’s shaky start.

First, let’s look at velocity; with drops in fastball velocity often come performance drops, as hitters no longer fear the velocity or the difference in velocity between the hard stuff and the offspeed stuff, so perhaps this is the culprit:

Brooksbaseball-Chart(1)

With the above chart, we find the exact opposite—Clippard’s fastball velocity has actually increased a hair in 2014, averaging 93.4 mph and maxing out at a little over 96 mph. His other most frequently thrown pitches (split-fingered fastballs are not shown due to small sample size) are also within shouting distance of one another with respect to velocity, so we can put to rest any questions over the demise of Clippards velocity, fastball or otherwise.

Thinking about all of his pitches, let’s see how he’s used each of his pitches in 2014. SL stands for slider, CH for changeup, FC for cut fastball, and FF for four-seam fastball:

TC_2014

…compared to 2013; IN indicates an intentional ball:

TC_2013

There is a slight change in how Clippard attacks hitters this season compared to 2013—he is going to his fourseamer 10% less now than last year, opting for more sliders and changeups, primarily.

More secondary offerings in place of a fastball that’s at an all-time best, velocity-wise—how well is Clippard locating, with the caveat that he is unique in that he thrives in the upper half of the strike zone with his fastball.

First, 2014:

TC 14 Loc

…compared to last year:

TC 13 Loc

By the looks of it, Clippard is just missing with his pitches, in particular, his bread and butter, the fastball and changeup. Unfortunately, just missing means missing in the strike zone. For the fastball, there isn’t as much rise in the pitch so far this year, concomitant with less drop with the changeup and the slider, which has been left up in the zone a little more this year compared to last.

Let’s finish this brief analysis with a look at Clippard’s swinging strike rate since 2011; this rate is typically above average for the righty:

Season SwStr%
2011 16.1 %
2012 10.6 %
2013 14.3 %
2014 12.8 %
Total 13.0 %

Again, nothing really screaming out as the reason for Clippard’s demise. Let’s look at the swinging strikes on 2014 broken down by pitch type for 2014:

TC SwStr

…and the same thing, looking at last year:

TC 13 SwStr

The first obvious difference is the lack of any swing-and-miss from a slider so fat in 2014; however, given the pitch isn’t used much by Clippard, this really isn’t anything of concern. However, despite the small smattering of data so far for this season, we do see that hitters aren’t chasing or missing the high fastball, just out of the zone. Hitters are also not apt to chase the changeup out of the strike zone this season, by the looks of it. Overall, we see Clippard’s ability to get hitters to chase not as strong this year, with those swings and misses just out of the zone being spit on, leading to working behind in the count more often, leading to both increased walk rates (5.6 BB/9 in 2014) and grooved pitches to get strike calls.

It’s been a discouraging start to the season for Clippard, but it appears that with a slight tweak in approach and possibly mechanics, the rough start will get smoothed out, bringing a return to the form that Nats fans have enjoyed for the last few years and the normally reliable Clippard back on track towards getting hitters to chase his pitch.

 ***

Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Brooks Baseball, FanGraphs, and Baseball Savant.

Statistically Speaking: Rafael Soriano’s Work Up In Zone

This week’s Statistically Speaking is less math and more heatmap interpretation. Sometimes, a picture can tell us more than a swarm of tabled numbers could ever start to, and for Rafael Soriano and his approach, it’s something that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Perhaps appreciated isn’t the best choice of word; for Rafa during his Washington tenure, his approach has been a bit of a tightrope walk, as his fastball/cutter and slider mix show some declines as he ages. For his fastball, we already see a precipitous drop in velocity this season compared to last, with his slider velocity beginning to match the fastball’s, commencing in a disappearing velocity difference that potentially makes both pitches less effective:

Brooksbaseball-Chart

Tracking back to a previous Statistically Speaking article on the declines in velocity seen in some Washington Nationals pitchers, Soriano would been included, had he met the innings pitched criteria; however, the above picture tells us all we need to know about the fading heat from the Nats closer.

Watching yesterday’s appearance brought to my attention another red flag with regards to Soriano—his propensity to pepper the top of the strike zone:

numlocation.php

Let’s take a look at this trend between his two 2014 appearances and 2013; here, we have a plot of the vertical component of Soriano’s pitches with respect to the strike zone. Again, we see the trend of his fourseamer and slider creeping up in the zone, especially the slider, starting last season:

Brooksbaseball-Chart(1)

Let’s now shift attention back to this year, looking at where Soriano’s fastball and slider end up:

Screen shot 2014-04-07 at 3.35.48 PM

Now, compare to where they ended up in the strike zone last season; again, fastballs are on the left, sliders are on the right:

Screen shot 2014-04-07 at 3.39.55 PM

…and let’s also take a look at Soriano’s 2013 whiffs on each pitch last year:

Screen shot 2014-04-07 at 4.11.47 PM

What we can gather from these heatmaps is that Soriano’s approach with the fastball really hasn’t changed—he still uses it up in the zone, using the late cutting action to bore into lefty hitters and to dart away from righties enough to prevent them from making solid contact with the pitch, or missing altogether, as the whiffs attest.

He then uses the slider down in the zone as a way to change the hitter’s eye level and keep them against the high fastball, preventing them from sitting on the high fastball. It’s a precarious approach, but one that has served Soriano well over his career. Yet, we do see the slider creeping up in the zone in 2014, which, thus far, hasn’t hurt him; also to note is the success Soriano has had with the slider in the past with respect to getting hitters to swing and miss with the pitch down in the zone.

Comparing the creeping location of the slider in 2014 to the whiff rates of the pitch in 2013 and we find that it isn’t as effective a pitch in terms of missing bats up in the zone. Include the decreasing velocity and velocity differences on the pitch in comparison to the fastball and we come to a dangerous convergence—more pitches up in the zone at a reduced velocity meeting a reduced potential to miss bats or at least generate poor contact by way of a disparity in velocity.

So far, Soriano has remained unscathed this season by the ominous trends; however, if his high-wire act is to remain an effective one for him and the Nats winning fortunes, Soriano should defy tightrope walking convention and start looking down.

With a little support, Jordan Zimmermann has been Washington Nationals’ one constant

Washington—As the Washington Nationals have struggled to find consistency all season, the one sure thing this year has been the pitching of Jordan Zimmermann.

After his win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday night at Nationals Park, Zimmerman is now 12-3 with an ERA of 2.46.  He has allowed more than three runs only three times this season, one of which was on Monday, and leads the National League in wins as the season approaches the All-Star break.

What a difference run support makes for a starting pitcher.

In 2011, Zimmermann finished the year 8-11 with an ERA of 3.18 in 26 starts as he was on a pitch limit in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery and his run support that year was 3.31 runs per game.

In 2012, the right-hander got a little more than a run-and-a-half more per game (4.91) and his record showed it as he went 12-8 with an ERA of 2.94 in 195 2/3 innings

In Zimmermann’s 17 starts this year, the Nationals are averaging 4.7 runs per game and he is making the most of that support.

“It’s definitely a lot easier to pitch and obviously I have been getting that this year,” Zimmermann said.  “I have also been pitching pretty good and I have been trying to put up as many zeroes as I can during the game and I feel like I am doing a pretty good job right now.”

Contrast that with the run support for Stephen Strasburg who won 15 games a year ago.  Strasburg is 4-6 in 16 starts and has pitched to a ridiculous ERA of 2.24 and his run support is a paltry 2.44 runs per games.

It does make a difference.

Zimmermann is finally getting the recognition he deserves.  It’s not that he hasn’t pitched well in the past but now with his record being what it is, people around baseball are starting to take notice.

In fact, over the last two weeks, Zimmermann has tried to shy away from questions about whether or not he is All-Star worthy, although he says it is hard not to think about the possibility of him being on the National League team at Citi Field in New York.

” Yeah, I think it’s possible,” he said. “I’ve had the best first half of my career and I think 12 wins is quite a big number for only the first half and I think I have a couple of starts left so who knows what’s going to happen.”

Teammate Ian Desmond agrees and went as far as to say Zimmermann should start the game.

“It would be a great honor to go there and represent the Nationals,” said Zimmermann.  “It would be a huge honor if I could start the game or just being in the game so we’ll see what happens.”

The most amazing thing about Zimmermann’s progression is he looks basically the same as he did three years ago.  Coming off last season, he decided he was going to work on the change-up and make it a bigger part of his repertoire and it has become a devastating pitch for hitters to try and adjust to.

“Just throwing it every day and working on it every day, it’s a feel pitch and the more you work on it, the better you feel,” he said.  “I am to the point where I feel comfortable throwing it in any count, at any time.  Any time I feel the hitter is sitting on the fastball and I throw that thing in there, I feel like there will be a swing and a miss or weak contact so, it’s been a pretty decent pitch for me.

“I threw it to Cargo (Carlos Gonzalez) the other day and he was way out in front and swung and miss.  Then he looks back up at the scoreboard and sees the speed of it and he’s like, “what was that?” So the next time I face him that will be in the back of his mind and give him another thing to worry about.”

The Nationals stand a full seven games in back of the Braves in the NL East as play started on Wednesday and they have been battling to stay afloat.  Zimmermann says the team is not in a panic mode and feels like they are not in bad shape as the second half begins.

“Obviously, we aren’t playing the best ball and people outside our team are starting to panic and wondering what’s going on but we’re in a good position right now.  We are just a few games back and there are a lot of games to be played and all it takes is a good five or six game winning streak and the Braves to lose a few here and there and you are right back in it.  So, I don’t think its anywhere near time to push the panic button because I think we are right where we need to be.

If he continues to pitch like he has, he may be right.

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Craig Heist has covered sports in the Baltimore/Washington corridor since 1988.  He worked for WTOP Radio from 1999 April of this year.  He is currently a freelance reporter for several radio networks.  Craig is a three-time winner of the Maryland Sportscaster of the year presented by the National Association of Sportswriters and Sportscaster and voted on by his peers.  Heist is also an regional Edward R. Murrow award winner.

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