July 23, 2014

Washington Nationals Game 92 Review: Nats Top Phillies 5-3 in Extras

In an extra inning affair at Citizens Bank Park in the city of brotherly love, the Washington Nationals defeated the Philadelphia Phillies with two runs in the 10th inning for their 50th win of the season by a score of 5-3.

Ryan Zimmerman’s RBI single in the 10th was the difference. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 87 Review: Zimmerman’s single in eighth delivers Nats 2-1 win

Since moving back to his more familiar third base, Ryan Zimmerman has coincidentally also been on a tear at the plate. The run continued Sunday, as his eighth inning single scored Denard Span, lifting the Washington Nationals to a 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs before 32,941 at sun-drenched Nationals Park.

Zimmerman is now 11-for-21 with six RBIs since Bryce Harper returned to the lineup and Zimmerman re-took his spot at third base.

Span led off the eighth inning with a hustle double to right field. After Anthony Rendon lined out and Jayson Werth struck out against Cubs reliever Pedro Strop (L, 1-4, 3.03), Adam LaRoche was intentionally walked, bringing up Zimmerman. The Nats’ veteran laced a 1-1 slider to left field which easily scored Span. LaRoche drew the cutoff throw away from the plate and was tagged out between second and third for the final out of the inning.

Rafael Soriano pitched an eventless 1-2-3 inning in the ninth for his 21st save of the season.

Zimmerman’s heroics made a winner of Tyler Clippard, who put his first two runners on, then wiggled out of the jam to pitch a scoreless top of the eighth.

Jordan Zimmermann turned in another exemplary start for the Nats (48-39). The stoic righty gave up no runs on seven hits and one walk over six innings, striking out five.

The Cubs(38-48) managed their lone run off Drew Storen in the seventh, as the reliever gave up two hits and a walk in two-thirds of an inning. Jerry Blevins struck out Luis Valbuena with runners on to keep the game tied at that point.

The Nats scored their first run in the first inning off Cubs starter Jake Arrieta. Span doubled, went to third on Rendon’s groundout and scored on Werth’s hard-hit grounder to third.

The Nats start a two-game series with the Baltimore Orioles on Monday. Stephen Strasburg (7-6, 3.53) hosts Chris Tillman (7-4, 4.21) at 7:05 pm.

Statistically Speaking: Bullpen Efficiency

The Washington Nationals bullpen as a unit are having a fantastic season in support of their more acclaimed starting rotation brethren. While the actual ranks differ by which all-encompssing statistic you prefer to use—the bullpen ranks tied for second in MLB with 2.8 wins above replacement (WAR) and fourth in RE24 at 27.53—the overall sentiment that the team’s relief corps is among the best in the business is not lost without the statistical confirmation.

It hasn’t been a smooth ride throughout the course of the season overall, with the likes of ever-dependable setup man Tyler Clippard and immensely talented former starter Ross Detwiler taking their lumps in the form of blown leads and inherited runners scoring. Yet, these shaky outings have been countered and exceeded by the efforts of Drew Storen, Rafael Soriano, and rookie Aaron Barrett, among others, and has kept the bullpen ledger in the black and the team in whispering distance of first place in the NL East.

Looking further at the polarizing outings of Clippard led me to come to this particular stat last week:

With the polarizing outings of Clippard to go along with the some similar clean outings by polarizing personality of Soriano, the Nats have a pair of relievers that face the minimum number of hitters half of their outings, which goes a long way to accruing the WAR and RE24 values the bullpen has thus far. It also speaks to how efficient the guys in the ‘pen are in getting hitters out and preventing the big inning for the opposing team. Do the rest of the Nats relievers follow suit and could this ability to keep additional runners (and potential runs) at bay be a reason for the success of 2014 from a group that hasn’t changed much in terms of roster from last year’s staff that finished 18th and 20th in MLB in WAR and RE24, respectively?

First, let’s outline what bullpen efficiency means. Efficiency is essentially how many batters a pitcher faces over the number that was expected from an outing. From there, we will also look at ‘clean outings’, where a pitcher faces the minimum number of batters for a given outing, with game situation considered. The fewer batters faced over the minimum, the better, as this obviously keeps runners off the base paths.

Let’s look at some data.

Name G IP xIP IP, Diff TBF xBF BF, Diff Efficiency(%) AppClean/Pct. RE24
Aaron Barrett 28 25.2 26.2 1 108 77 31 59.74 13/46.4% 2.77
Craig Stammen 22 38.1 39 0.2 152 115 37 67.83 6/27.3% 6.72
Drew Storen 29 24.1 26.2 2.1 93 73 20 72.80 16/55.2% 5.94
Jerry Blevins 33 27 29.1 2.1 116 81 35 56.80 16/48.5% 2.82
Rafael Soriano 31 31 31 0 114 93 21 77.42 17/54.8% 9.83
Ross Detwiler 20 29 31.2 2.2 137 87 50 42.53 4/20% -7.08
Tyler Clippard 37 34 36.1 2.1 137 102 35 65.70 19/51.4% 2.11

 

The table above is a little busy, but the explanations of the various columns are very straightforward and on the lighter side, mathematically. Aside from the standard games, innings pitched, and RE24 values, we also have a couple of variables that were calculated to help capture efficiency.

The first of these is expected innings pitched (xIP), which is the number of inning pitched that were expected from a pitcher, with game and outing specific information included. For example, if a pitcher has an outing where he pitched 0.2 IP, he could have an xIP of 0.2 if he came in relief with one out in the inning—he was only expected to get the other two outs to complete the inning.

Conversely, he could have a xIP of 1, but failed to get the third out of the inning before being pulled. Calculating xIP and confirming game situations was dine using game log data from Baseball Reference. Total batters faced (TBF) is simply that and expected batters faced (xBF) is calculated similar to xIP, with game situation taken into account. With xIP and xBF, care was taken with the Nats bullpen members who are more situational relivers, in particular, Jerry Blevins, to account for how they were pulled.

If they left an outing due to poor performance with runs scored or runners put in scoring position, then they were allotted the full inning of work expected and the batters faced. If they were pulled due to situation—bringing in Blevins to face a tough lefty, for example—then a full inning pitched was not assumed. Differences between actual performance and expected data re capture with the ‘Diff’ categories. From the game log data also comes the clean outing data (AppClean/Pct.), where the number of clean outings specific to game situation were tallied, with percentages also provided for comparison.

With the variables exhaustively described, let’s talk results. Not surprisingly, the Big Three of the Nats bullpen—Clippard, Soriano, and Storen—lead the way in clean outings, with Soriano and Storen also showing the most efficiency in terms of batters faced over the minimum (BF, Diff.).  Percent efficiency was calculated by taking the percentage difference between xBF and TBF and then subtracting this value from 100 and again shows how well both Soriano and Storen have been, not only in terms of performance, but in terms of being economical.

Not to be forgotten are the performances of Barrett and long man Craig Stammen, who both show a high rate of efficiency, despite subpar clean appearance numbers. Despite some encouraging recent outings, a very rough start to the season skews Ross Detwiler’s numbers greatly and shows a propensity for big innings and difficulties in keeping hitters off of the base paths.

Does this idea of efficiency trend with performance?

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 10.45.04 PM

In our very small sample, it indeed does, as the above graph of RE24 by number of batter faced of the minimum (BF, Diff in our table above) shows. As the number of extra hitters faced rises, RE24 drops, which makes this a negative correlation with a very strong R-squared of 0.72, providing us confirmation of good fit of the data. However, with seven data points, it would be very unwise to make any grand inferences out of these results. Despite this, we do see an interesting aspect of the bullpen’s success that doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score or in the formulas of the numerous advanced metrics available—not only are they keeping runs off of the scoreboard, they’re doing so in tidy fashion.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference and current through 6/24/2014.
____________

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.

Washington Nationals Game 74 Review: Nats’ Pitching Staff Silences Braves in 4-1 Win

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon for baseball at Nationals Park, the Nationals’ pitching staff shutdown the Atlanta Braves to lead Washington to a 2-2 split of the series with a 4-1 win. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 73 Review: Fister Pitches Gem in Nats’ 3-0 Win Over Braves

In front of a sellout crowd at Nationals Park on Saturday night, Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister tossed his best game of the season to help his team reclaim the NL East lead by beating the Atlanta Braves, 3-0. [Read more...]

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.

Washington Nationals 2014 Season Preview: Five biggest issues to watch

Here we go again.

The Washington Nationals, despite not qualifying for the playoffs last season and spending the first three-quarters of the season in the bottom-three in the N.L. generating base runners, are preseason favorites in the N.L. East and a popular pick again for the World Series.

The Nats are a talented team with a nice blend of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance. With big paydays ahead for Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann (with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper not too far behind), the time is now for the Nats to really start making noise on the national level.

Most of the prognosticators are ignoring all the warning signs and putting their reputations on the line for the Nats. Are they capable of making a long playoff run? Yes. But simply ignoring warning signs from last season and expecting another near-perfect run in the regular season like 2012 would be foolish.

GM Mike Rizzo had a nice offseason. The addition of Doug Fister (presuming health) was enough to merit a good grade, but they also added veteran outfielder Nate McLouth to strengthen the bench and mitigate the inevitable Jayson Werth trip to the disabled list or Bryce Harper crashing into an outfield wall. The cherry on top was picking up lefty Jerry Blevins, who’s useful against righties just as well, for the bullpen.

Last week, Rizzo picked up UTL Kevin Frandsen off the waiver wire from the Phillies. This may prove to be a key addition to the bench as well.

But there are still plenty of question marks heading into the 2014 season. What are the top five issues Nats fans need to watch for? At the end of last season, I wrote a couple of columns on what went wrong in 2013. That’s a good place to start since many of the same issues still exist.

This might seem like I’m down on the Nats chances. Not so. The bar for this team is set around 91-92 wins. Best case scenario sees Harper bust out instead of incremental improvement, Werth’s normalization from last season’s overachieving isn’t a free-fall, and LaRoche recovers to career-average production instead of sliding further.

They could get reach the 95-96 win total without injury. Either way, I’m predicting first in the N.L. East by default. Atlanta was crippled by injuries to its rotation and the rest of the division is either too old (Philly), not ready (Mets) or flat-out lacking in talent (Miami). Of course, worst-case scenario sees all of the below scenarios blowing up and derailing another promising season.

GETTING ON BASE

Overall, the team carried a .313 OBP, in the bottom third of the league and it could have been worse if not for a hot stretch the last five weeks of the season — as late as mid-August they were next-to-last in total baserunners and finished just 12th in the league. They have to be better setting the table to truly contend.

But the starting roster is intact from last season, when the Nats needed a scorching hot final seven weeks to climb out of the cellar of run scoring and putting runners on base. That stretch coincided with Denard Span’s hot streak, so maybe Rizzo figures Span’s adjustment period to the N.L. is over and he’ll contribute a his career average .350 OBP at the top of the order all season long.

Span bottomed out on Aug. 16 at .258/.310/.353, nowhere near what’s necessary in the top spot in the batting order. For the next 39 games, he hit .338/.375/.459, instrumental in the Nats late resurgence. It was too little, too late to save the Nats playoff aspirations, but the Nats have to get more near his career line (.283/.351/.387) on a more consistent basis to make this offense work.

Hopefully, Anthony Rendon will eventually settle into the second spot in the order. In his rookie season (while learning a brand new position at the Major League level), Rendon hit .265/.329/.396 with seven homers and 23 doubles. In his short minor league career, the now 23-year-old hit .269/.408/.531 and he’s always been lauded for his plate discipline.

If Rendon can handle the two-spot, it goes a long way in helping Matt Williams set the heart of the order and provide protection for the next bullet point.

HITTING AGAINST LEFTIES

The Nats lefty swingers were a combined .211/.283/.291 last season, including Span’s .223/.278/.261, Bryce Harper’s .214/.327/.321, Adam LaRoche’s .198/.254/.313. That’s fully one-third of the Nats’ everyday lineup that hit like a pitcher against lefties.

I have very little doubt Harper will figure it out. He’s a world class baseball talent and hitting against lefties is the last element from him absolutely exploding at the plate.

Span is still in the prime of his career and should bounce back closer to his career norms of .281/.358/.374 (including last season) against southpaws.

LaRoche is a completely different matter. He’s 34. He’s never been good against lefties to begin with (.244/.300/.430 career). In his career year of 2012 he only hit .268/.319/.506 vs. LHP. This is very much a player in steady decline and really should be relegated to platoon work at this stage in his career.

He’s still capable with the glove, but he’s overrated in this market with exactly how much value he brings defensively considering the stone hands the organization ran out there before him at the position. If LaRoche slides anymore from what he provided with the bat in ’13, it’ll be time to consider other options at the position (see below).

RYAN ZIMMERMAN’S SHOULDER

Ah yes. Here it is. I was speaking with DSP’s fantasy baseball contributor Chris Garosi the other day during an on-line draft, and he remarked that the most important Nats player this season is Zach Walters. His theory: Zimmerman’s shoulder (and defense in general) is so unreliable at this point that his move to first base is more imminent than anyone in D.C. wants to admit. With Danny Espinosa’s problems with the bat (more below), Walters could factor very big in D.C. mid-season.

While that might be gloom and doom, it’s probably not far off.

I’m not a doctor. But I have had my share of shoulder injuries. In fact, I had the same injury as Zim (tear of the Acromioclavicular joint). Mine was a complete tear. Obviously I don’t have access to Zim’s medical file, and he’s had it surgically repaired. But he spent most of last season still mired in the throwing problems and had a not-so-mysterious lack of power until late in the season. It’s entirely possible that it took that long for the joint to gain strength back.

Offensively, Zimmerman should be fine. His defense got better as the season went along, but we still saw some problems with his throwing in spring training. This situation bears close attention, as Zimmerman remains the most important National and the Face of the Franchise. He’s signed through 2019. He could very well outlast Desmond, Zimmermann, Strasburg and Harper.

His bat is much more valuable at third than first base. But if he can’t provide the defense, he’s going to have to move. If that move is predicated by ineffectiveness by LaRoche, or Zimmerman’s throwing woes, it’ll come sooner than later, and perhaps even this season.

BACK OF THE BULLPEN

Do you have confidence in Rafael Soriano?

According to Fangraphs, Soriano has lost speed off his fastball the past four seasons in a row. He’s walking less, but striking out shockingly less, as hitters are making much more contact on him on pitches inside — and outside – of the strike zone. Outside the strike zone, baters went from 22.9 percent contact rate in ’12 to 29.6 percent in ’13. On strikes, the contact rate went from 60.8 percent to 63.9 percent. He’s given up 12 hits in five inning in Florida.

His hits per nine innings jumped an alarming 1.5 hits from ’12 to ’13 (with normal .296 BABiP) while his K/9 rate fell to 6.9. His line drive rate and fly ball rate are going up, his ground ball rate is going down.

All of this is dangerous territory and a recipe for unmitigated disaster. This is a pitcher whose skills are eroding very quickly.

As for options, of course Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen remain. Both have 40-save seasons to their credit. Clippard continues to defy logic with his repertoire of high fastballs and disappearing changeups from his awkward delivery.

Storen, on the other hand, remains a mystery.

Our Stuart Wallace took a look at Storen’s alarming rise in walk rate last week. Storen was fairly horrible the first couple months of last season, due to a large number of batted balls falling in and a higher walk rate (5.95 ERA, fueled by a .355 BABiP before demotion). After his exile in Syracuse, he came back with a more streamlined, natural delivery, rather than the unusual and clumsy straight leg kick he used. He had better command, kept the ball down and was pretty much his old self.

But he’s been back to getting lit up this spring. All caveats on spring training stats, but he’s walked six in 6 2/3 innings, while giving up nine hits and six earned runs. How long a leash does he have this season?

HELP FROM THE BENCH?

Last season the Nats bench was horrific. There’s no other way to say it. .207/.264/.351. Those are pitcher’s batting numbers.

They picked up Nate McLouth as a free agent to be the primary left-handed bat on the bench. McLouth is a capable fielder at all three outfield spots, so if the Nats have an injury there they at least have an MLB-caliber replacement, something they didn’t have last season in Steve Lombardozzi.

But for everyone’s fawning over the 32-year-old, let’s remember: prior to his career renaissance last season with Baltimore, McLouth had been simply waived by Pittsburgh (twice) and Atlanta.  In ’10 and ’11 with Atlanta he hit .190 and .228 with 10 homers combined. His first 34 games with Pittsburgh in ’12 were no better: .140/.210/.175, leading to his release. He’s never hit higher than .276 and is a career .250/.334/.418 hitter. He’s a capable backup, not more.

The other outfielder is Scott Hairston. Hairston is the right-handed hitting Yin to McLouth’s Yang. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work on paper. But Hairston’s overall numbers last year (.191/.237/.414) and age (34) – not to mention his paltry .214/.259/.484 against LHPs, who he’s supposed to “mash” — signal the end is rapidly approaching for the once versatile and useful player.

It’s true, all 10 of Hairston’s homers last season came against lefties, but as his slash line indicates, it was literally all or nothing for Hairston. 10 of his 27 hits in 140 plate appearances against LHPs were home runs. Against righties? .097/.147/.276. Can this actually be the Nats primary right-handed bat off the bench? With a walk rate of 5 percent and contact rate of 72 percent, this a guy whose skills aren’t declining, they’ve just about evaporated.

Danny Espinosa “won” a utility job in spring training after hitting .226/.305/.415 in 59 plate appearances. Where to start with Espinosa?

The rotator cuff tear in 2012 that he never had surgically repaired? The broken wrist that he sustained in April only to be revealed/properly diagnosed in late May which allowed him to “hit” .158/.193/.272 in 167 PAs? The months of ineptitude in Triple-A (.216/.280/.286 in 75 games) after taking just two weeks off to let the wrist calm down?

Espinosa’s career is at a crossroads as his performance has fallen completely off the table as his injuries continued to mount. If Espinosa can return healthy — and that’s not a given — he can provide 20 homer power and speed with Gold Glove caliber defense. After spring training, and the waiver-wire pick-up of Kevin Frandsen, we’re still waiting to see him prove his health.

Frandsen can play all over the diamond and outfield, and he’s proven adept at pinch-hitting (which is a highly volatile “skill”), but he has no power and doesn’t run. He is the very definition of journeyman utility player.

Washington Nationals Spring Training: Nats power past Houston 8-5

Home runs by Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos in the first inning led the Washington Nationals past the Houston Astros 8-5 on Friday in Viera, FL.

Both home runs came of Astros start Brett Oberholtzer, who allowed five runs total on six hits in two innings of work. Ramos finished 2 of 3 with 3 RBIs, Zach Walters continued his good spring by driving in two runs, and Adam LaRoche had a pair of base hits in three trips to the plate.

Tanner Roark started when Doug Fister was scratched with a sore elbow. The team indicated that it wasn’t an issue, but just normal soreness at his point in the spring. Roark pitched 2.2 innings and allowed one run on four hits, striking out three. The run came on a solo home run by minor league 1B Marc Krauss.

“He’s got a little inflammation in his elbow,” Williams said of Fister. “So we had an MRI taken of it yesterday and it shows a little inflammation in there, so we’re going to push him a couple of days just to make sure, get it out of there. But it came back good, he’s just go some inflammation.”

Christian Garcia, trying to earn a spot in the bullpen, allowed two runs — neither earned — on two hits and a walk in 1.1 innings. He struck out three. Rafael Soriano made his first appearance of camp and gave up two runs on three hits in one inning and struck out one.

Jerry Blevins, acquired in the offseason in a trade with Oakland for minor league speedster Billy Burns, threw 1.2 scoreless, hitless innings, though he did walk one.

The Nats host Atlanta tomorrow from Space Coast Stadium at 1:05 pm.

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview Part V: The Bullpen

Washington Nationals RHP Tyler Clippard pitched 8th inning and earned 10th hold against Baltimore Orioles, May 20, 2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Washington Nationals RHP Tyler Clippard in action of May 2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

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.

THE BULLPEN

Rafael Soriano, RHP: The saves were there last year, the elite skills were not. Soriano’s ERA and WHIP were their highest in any season he’s been a team’s top closer. On top of that, his K rate went down precipitously as he transitioned from a pitcher with a slider out pitch to a fastball pitcher, one who’s lost velocity each of the past four seasons. He lowered his walk rate, which obviously is good, but his hit rate jumped. His ground ball rate has dropped the past three seasons as his line drive and fly ball rates have risen, more evidence of him abandoning anything but the fastball. If the walk rate goes back to his normal seasonal allowance, he could be in a world of trouble. As it is, the velocity and strikeout rate drops are a big warning sign for a 34-year-old pitcher who hates not closing.

Tyler Clippard, RHP: Clippard turned in another exceptional season for the Nats with a 2.41 ERA and ridiculous 0.859 WHIP. All was bolstered by an incredibly unsustainable 4.7 H/9 rate and .172 BABiP, which completely mirrored his 2011 All-Star campaign. Those types of numbers are just unheard of, so he’s unlikely to repeat them, but he’s a funky pitcher. He succeeds with high fastballs and a changeup that almost impossible to identify out of his unusual and, frankly, weird delivery. The strikeout and ground ball rates were down just a tick but not alarmingly so. Clippard should be just fine in his established role. The big thing to worry about him is the price tag. He avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $5.88 million contract and he isn’t a free agent until after 2016, so the price tags is just going to keep going up. That’s a lot for a non-closer reliever — albeit one of the best in the game.

Drew Storen, RHP: Oh boy. Where do we start? Storen was fairly terrible in the first half, pitching to a 5.95 ERA, fueled by a .355 BABiP and outrageously high hit rate. The walks were fine, the Ks were fine, he was just simply unlucky as to balls finding their way into green space. He was sent to the minors on July 26 after wearing a the final inning of an 11-0 drubbing by the Mets on a day that he ran a 103 degree fever. When he came back Aug. 16, he was the same old Storen. Well, not really. He ditched the silly straight leg kick for a more conventional one that allowed him to have a more consistent delivery, but the results were more attributable to normalization. He held batters to a .200/.263/.214 line upon his return.

Jerry Blevins, LHP: Obtained from the A’s for Minor League Player of the Year Billy Burns, Blevins is more than a typical lefty specialist — he actually owned better numbers against righties than lefties last season. Overall, a 3.15 ERA and 1.067 WHIP were solid. He has a four-pitch repertoire and faced four or more batters in more than half of his appearance last season. Blevins won’t overwhelm with his fastball, and his K rates will keep him in a set up or LOOGY role, but he knows how to pitch. Has improved his walk rate each of the past three seasons.

Xavier Cedeno, LHP: Want the good news? Cedeno enjoyed his career year last season at age 26, earning a 1.50 ERA and 1.000 WHIP for the Nats. He struck out 9 per nine innings and walked just 1.5. Want the bad news? He also suffered his worst season as a big leaguer last year, as he allowed 11 runs (eight earned) in 6.1 innings for Houston before they cut him in April. Am I being dramatic? You betcha. But Cedeno’s numbers for the Nats came in just 6.0 over 11 games. Against lefties, Cedeno provided a .231/.333/.269 slash. Against righties, that jumped to .391/.517/.522. Granted, we’re talking 29 and 31 plate appearances here. Call me skeptical, but I just don’t see Cedeno coming anywhere near approaching his numbers for the Nats last season again. He’s not a kid, and nothing in his history indicates this was anything more than a couple of good appearances in a row against limited competition.

Craig Stammen, RHP: Stammen could start for half the teams in baseball. His stuff is that good. All his peripherals continue to go in the right direction and his traditional numbers are solid across the board. Is this a pitcher that has found his spot? Or are the Nats hiding a gem, either intentionally or not. Either way, Stammen has proven to be an absolutely invaluable arm in the long role that he’s occupied the past two season for the team. His walk rate dropped by 0.7 this year over last — if that holds, he should earn higher leverage late innings if Clippard gets too expensive.

Ryan Mattheus, RHP: On the other hand… Mattheus was unlucky, sure. His BABiP of .405 screams it. But look at the rest. Rising walk rate. K rate less than 6 per nine. Lost velocity on his sinker. Punching a locker, breaking his hand and being completely and utterly lost once he returned. The hit rate is going to stabilize somewhat, but how much is luck and how much is just erosion of skill? He’s 30, not a youngster that needs to figure things out. He needs to prove health and competence or there are plenty of arms that will push him out of a job.

Josh Roenicke, RHP: Roenicke is famous for being the son of former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Gary Roenicke and also being Ian Desmond’s brother-in-law. Roenicke the pitcher, however, is mediocre at best. He was brought in as an NRI and will provide depth in Syracuse most likely. He walks way too many (5.2 per nine in 62 IP last season) without the high K rate (just 6.5/9) that allows you live with it.

Erik Davis, RHP: Davis made his MLB debut last season at age 26, compiling a 1-0 record, 3.12 ERA and 1.269 WHIP in 8.2 innings, striking out 12 while walking just one. This was after going 3-7 with 15 saves, 3.10 ERA and 1.433 WHIP in AAA, so small sample caveats abound. Davis was slated to compete for a role in this year’s pen, but was placed on the 60-day D.L. with an “elbow strain” on the same day the Nats traded for Jose Lobaton. It’s quite possible he never throws a pitch to Lobaton.

Christian Garcia, RHP: “If only Garcia could stay healthy…” Any Nats fan that knows more than just Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg will cite Garcia as their secret weapon. He’s got the stuff, he knows how to pitch, and he’s still young enough (27) that he could impact the MLB roster. Unfortunately, that part of staying healthy just keeps eluding Garcia. He’s already had two Tommy John’s while he was property of the Yankees and last season he was limited to 13.1 innings in the minors after suffering a torn wrist tendon, which triggered shoulder soreness and hamstring injuries. He owns four quality MLB pitches, he just needs to get on a mound to show them off. Problem is, he can’t.

Manny Delcarmen, RHP: Delcarmen, 32, hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2010 with the Rockies. Why is he here? Well, he’s always had good stuff and has had several full seasons of downright goodness at the big league level. In 07-08 with the Red Sox he was a quality righty in their pen and some thought he had closer written all over him. Problem is, his walk rate was always high and got higher the older he got and his K rate plummeted after he hit 27. When he should have been in the peak of his career, he busted. Read into that however you want. Last year in AAA, he went 3-3 with a 2.83 ERA and 1.222 WHIP in 54 innings, so there might be something left. At the triple-A level, anyway.

Aaron Barrett, RHP: Barrett was drafted four times: by the Dodgers in the 44th round of the ’06 draft, by the Twins in the 20th round in ’08, by Texas in the 27th round in ’09 and finally by the Nats in the 9th round in 2010 after his eligibility ended for the University of Mississippi. Barrett, at age 25, dominated AA last year for Harrisburg, going 1-1 with a 2.15 ERA and 1.093 WHIP, 2.7 BB/9 and outrageous 12.3 K/9. In fact, in 149.2 IP in his minor league career, Barrett owns a 12.0 K/9 rate. He does this all with an average fastball, but a slider that Baseball America deemed best in the Nats’ system. At 6’4″, 215 he has a big league build. He needs to pitch against players his own age this year but his arm is definitely intriguing.

Clay Hensley, RHP: Hensley is a slight (5’11″, 190) righty that for the past few seasons has been able to fool enough batters to keep getting chances in the big leagues. But at 33 now, he’s running out of gas. Last season for San Francisco in 50.2 IP he walked 5.3 per nine and his ERA (4.62) showed it. Coupled with a 5.19 ERA for Florida in ’12, Hensley’s hanging on to the end of his rope.

Washington Nationals Game 161 Review: Haren’s gem leads Nats over D-backs

Dan Haren’s performance was one of the biggest disappointments of the first half of the season for the Washington Nationals. Since returning from the disabled list mid-season, he’s been more of the pitcher they thought he would be. The Nats dug themselves too deep a hole to climb out of, and Haren’s second half performance ended up too little, too late.

Saturday against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Haren had another terrific performance, holding the D-Back to four hits over seven innings, leading the Nats to a 2-0 win, ensuring that manager Davey Johnson finishes his Major League managing career at least 300 games over .500.

Haren walked one and struck out five, using the same formula that has led him to post a 3.28 ERA since July 8, the day he was activated from the D.L.

The Nats couldn’t do much off Arizona starter Brandon McCarthy, but it was just enough, scoring single runs in the sixth and seventh innings.  Denard Span tripled to lead off the sixth and came in on Ryan Zimmerman’s ground out to short. The next inning, Chad Tracy launched his fourth home run of the season, a solo shot, to cap the scoring.

Drew Storen pitched a perfect eighth inning with a strikeout, and though Rafael Soriano made things interesting in the ninth, allowing a walk and a hit, he got the job done, earning his 43rd save of the season.

THE GOOD: Tracy went 2-for-3 with the homer, raising his season batting average to .202.

THE BAD: Ian Desmond went 0-for-4.

THE UGLY: We’ll refrain.

THE STATS: 6 hits, 3 BBs, 4 Ks. 0-for-4 with RISP, 7 LOB. No errors or DPs.

NEXT GAME: Sunday at 4:10 pm ET against the Diamondbacks. Tanner Roark (7-1, 1.74) faces LHP Wade Miley (10-10, 3.63).

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