November 20, 2017

Nats problems in 2013 not associated with karma, pressure or curse

Now that the Washington Nationals have been eliminated from the playoff hunt, everyone, their brother, and their Uncle Junior is going to have opinions on what went wrong this season. It’s pretty simple to me. Heck, I outlined the reasons in my Aug. 7 column during the Braves sweep that unofficially ended the Nats season.

And no, the Nats struggles of the first two-thirds of the season have nothing to do with karma,  the baseball gods, pressure to live up to expectations, the Nats decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg last season or the team signing Rafael Soriano.

Now that the Nats have played almost two months at the level everyone thought they would play all season, let’s take a look at what kept the Nats from doing so the first 115 games of the season.

1) Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos spent a significant portion of the year on the disabled list or futilely playing through injury.

No one likes to use injuries as excuses, but that’s a third of your everyday lineup on the shelf, forcing inadequate backups into way too many at bats (as we’ll outline below). Harper missed 40 games, Ramos 45 and Werth 30 – all before Aug. 9.

Up until Aug. 9, when the Braves completed that sweep, the Nats were at or very near the bottom in team batting average, on-base percentage and slugging and averaging just 3.7 runs per game, which would be next to last in the N.L. this season (ahead of only Miami) extrapolated for 162 games. That’s pretty much the Bermuda Triangle of offensive futility. Since that time, though, they’ve averaged exactly 5.0 runs per game, which would clearly lead the league. That pace might not be entirely sustainable, but it’s not far off of the true capability of this offense.

The Nats will finish the season sixth in the N.L. in runs per game, eighth in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging, even considering how atrocious they were for the first 115 games. The final 47 games of the season showed a remarkable turnaround in offensive performance, and it was primarily due to the team being healthy again and keeping their bench players on the bench.

2) The Nats wasted 150 at bats on Danny Espinosa.

We all knew Espinosa was hurt. During the winter meetings, the team announced Espinosa tore the rotator cuff in his left shoulder last August (and played through it, including his dismal performance in the playoffs). Then, Espinosa broke his right wrist getting hit by a pitch in early April and either he hid it or the team allowed him to play through it until they could no longer take it.

Espinosa “hit” .158/.193/.272 in 44 games before being placed on the D.L. and was not much better in his exile in Triple-A. His poor health decisions, going back to when he originally injured the shoulder during last season’s pennant run, could end up costing the better part of three seasons instead of one — if not jeopardizing his entire career.

Combined with the other injuries, during May and into June the Nats essentially played with four pitcher’s spots in the batting order.

3) The strength in Ryan Zimmerman’s surgically repaired right shoulder did not return to him until August.

Up until that Braves series the first week of August, Zimmerman hit .269/.340/.427 with 12 homers in 115 games. Not terrible, but certainly not numbers fit for an All-Star in the prime of his career.

Zimmerman hit a home run that night on Aug. 9. In the 42 games since, all he’s done is hit .300/.367/.556 with 13 home runs and 23 RBIs, primarily out of the two-hole. It’s been a remarkable, and much welcomed, turnaround for the face of the franchise.

As for his fielding, it too is noticeably better in the last two months than it was the first four months of the season. It’s apparent that his shoulder is much stronger now that it was early in the season and hopefully Nats fans don’t have to worry about moving Zim to first any time soon.

4) It took Denard Span three months to adjust to the National League.

I normally scoff at notions such as this. In the “old days” there was a perceived difference between how pitchers pitched in the two leagues. I don’t think it was ever really as pronounced as some oldsters might lead you to believe, and I don’t think there’s any difference now, with as much team-hopping and interleague play that there is these days.

However, and this is a big however, this was the first time in his career Span was told “You are the man.” It’s the first time a team has told him that he would unequivocally play every day and lead off every day (not that he did). It was also the first time he had to bat behind the pitcher’s spot, so perhaps that went into his mindset as well.

Regardless, he did not get off to a good start. He was very patient, as his history suggested, and even more so very early on. That limited his aggressiveness and he found himself in plenty of bad hitter’s counts, which resulted in a LOT of grounders to second. He was also completely anemic to left-handed pitching – a trait he was not alone in with the Nats this season.

Davey Johnson moved Span to the seventh spot in the order for a couple of weeks in late-July and early August and he was just about at his lowest slash of the season (.259/.311/.357) on – you guessed it – the start of play on Aug. 9, when he was put back in the lead-off spot. From that point forward, Span hit .326/.366/.425. Coincidence the Nats played their best baseball when their lead-off hitter was playing his best? I don’t think so.

5) There was no viable left-handed relief presence (and other bullpen meltdowns).

Rizzo allowed Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez all to walk last off-season. Zach Duke made the team out of spring training as the sole left-handed reliever, and in a long-man role at that. The theory was that Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen were as tough, if not more so, on lefties as they were righties. Storen has limited lefties to a .242/.302/.355 slash in his career, marginally worse than he’s done against righties. Clippard is actually tougher on lefties (.181/.264/.315) that righties (.203/.293/.374), so the theory was good.

Except – Davey Johnson only uses Clippard in the eighth inning and Storen was a mess until he was demoted and came back with a revamped delivery, scrapping the slow, straight leg action for a more traditional kick which restored the tilt on his slider. The other problem was who was left to face lefties in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. Duke was a disaster, Henry Rodriguez wild pitched his way out of town and Ryan Mattheus punched a locker.

The team had no other option. They called up Ian Krol, who mixed bouts of effectiveness and batting practice equally, and Xavier Cedeno and Fernando Abad, two players Houston let go this season. Both have done a decent enough job when called upon, but neither is a long-term option.

6) The bench, which performed admirably in 2012, was dismal in ’13.

Last season, when the Nats went through their injury phase, players such as Kurt Suzuki, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina and capably filled in for the injured starters, as we noted above. This year, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Suzuki showed some promise to return to his 15-homer seasons of his early career after coming over to the Nats mid-season last year. Five homers in 164 plate appearances gave hope. But he was abysmal at the plate in ’13 (.222/.283/.310) while playing full-time most of the first half while Ramos was out.

Lombardozzi has a level and he played to it this season. It’s just not very high, and certainly a drop-off from a healthy Harper or Espinosa, the two positions he’s filled in at the most. There’s just no way a contending team can give Lombardozzi 400 at bats an expect good things to happen.

Moore simply was overmatched and didn’t get regular enough at bats to get on track. He’s had a better approach since his return from the minors and may very well platoon with Adam LaRoche at first base next season. I’m not sold on Moore’s potential as an everyday player, but he could succeed in this role if he can keep himself fresh with semi-regular at bats.

You can almost understand the long leash with Bernadina this season. He was properly used last season (almost exclusively against RHPs) and gave the Nats his career year. Pressed into more general duty this season, he was exposed. Some also think he might have been hiding a nagging injury, carried over from the World Baseball Classic.

Chad Tracy, at 33, is at the end of the line. His overall numbers (.184/.221/.288) are pitcher-esque. He’s hitless for September in nine plate appearances and is 5-for-25 since Aug. 1.

Rizzo traded for Scott Hairston in early July to be the right-handed bat off the bench. He has a .683 OPS for the Nats in 57 plate appearances. Hairston has another year on his contract and is capable defensively, but he’s hit just .221/.267/.500 against lefties this season.

7) Dan Haren was the worst starting pitcher in baseball for the first three months of the season.

Haren was signed in the offseason for a not-so-meager $13 million. In the fifth spot in the rotation, the Nats only needed him to be a .500 pitcher for the team to have success. Unfortunately, for the first half of the season he was the worst starter in baseball. He was two different pitchers this season.

Before he went on the D.L. (it was either that or be released), Haren made 15 starts. The team went 4-11 in those starter. His record was 4-9 with a 6.15 ERA and his opposition slash was a dismal .306/.340/.548 against, with an NL leading 19 home runs allowed in 82.0 IP. Essentially, he made every hitter look like an All-Star.

When he returned, he was a different pitcher. He was able to get more separation between his four-seam and cutter and he was able to keep hitters off-balance again. In 14 post-D.L. starts, Haren has gone 5-5 (team record 7-8) with a 3.57 ERA and one save in that marathon game. Opponents have hit .234/.277/.365 against him, and he’s limited the homers to 9 in 80.2 IP.

So, attribute all the intangibles you want to why the Nats played poorly the first 115 games of the season. Call it karma, pressure or curse. But this team perfomed pretty much as expected the final 47 games of the season, and I have no reason to doubt they will next season as well.

OPINION: Stats, taken in context, help us understand the game better

In my guest blogging gig for MASNSports.com today, I wrote about Bryce Harper’s eighth inning sacrifice, Win Probability Added, and human evolution. It was a bit of a rambler, but my biggest point was this:

 You don’t get to pick and choose which stats you think are the right ones. They all are.

It drives me absolutely crazy to hear fans, players, managers or executives dismiss certain statistical evaluators, like we’re fabricating these numbers or pulling them out of thin air. WAR, or WPA, or wOBA, or wRC+, or ISO, or FIP, or UZR… all of those numbers are in the game every bit as much as batting average or earned run average.

It’s just that those “in the game” have been using the traditional statistical evaluators for over a century and some others were “invented” by folks not actually “in the game” in the past two decades.

Just because a statistical evaluator was created by math whiz doesn’t mean it’s any more or less legitimate than those we’ve been using for 120 years.

Each, in their own way, tells part of the story about what’s going on out there. No single statistical evaluator can tell us exactly how efficient a particular player is in his chosen craft. Some of them give us a better idea than others. But each should be taken in the context it is presented.

The “new stats” weren’t created to make following the game more difficult. They were developed to help us more deeply understand the game. Or help us compare players on a more neutral field. Or help us compare current players against the past more accurately. They weren’t created to confuse, but enlighten.

Fangraphs.com has a glossary of many of the “new stats”. They don’t hide their formulas. There’s a lot to take in, but if you take a couple of minutes most of the “new stats” are pretty simple to understand. Sure, there are some concepts that might take a few moments to think about before they make total sense. But they are all as rooted in the game as ERA, which is not a particularly good or accurate method to evaluate a pitcher.

Here’s another chunk of my MASN column to think about:

Back in the old days, they invented batting average and earned run average as a method of evaluating players side-by-side since they weren’t able to watch every game in person.

Yes, there was an era before computers. Before television. Even before radio was popular. If you wanted to know what type of ball player a guy was, you has to see him in person. You had to travel for days and hope for no rain out. There was little scouting and even less statistical evaluation. That’s why they started to keep track of these things, in order to be able to evaluate players without actually seeing them in person.

Even though every single game is now on TV and we have video of each player going back to their middles school games, we’re still looking for more clear statistical evidence to measure a player’s effectiveness. PITCHF/x and batted ball data are taking us into the next phase of statistical evaluation, and it all helps us better understand the game.

Statheads and seamheads have been at odds for decades. They don’t have to be. Each individual statistical evaluator only tells part of the story. Taken in context, they are part of the big picture. If you love the game, it’s worth your while to become more familiar with these concepts. It’s just a little math, that’s all.

OPINION: Nats offensive problems nothing new, it’s who they’ve always been

Over at Nationals Journal this morning, Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore finally saw the light. Well, he got part of the way, anyway.

“Consider: The Nationals have scored 14 percent of their base runners – dead-on league average. As of Sunday morning, they had produced 2,343 base runners – the fewest in the National League.

Also consider: The Nationals are hitting .242 with the bases empty this year. With runners in scoring position, the Nationals are hitting – you guessed it – .242.”

This really isn’t news. In fact, if you’ve been reading this space for the past few years (first, thank you), you’ve known about this problem all along. I first wrote about it in May 2011, when the bulk of this team was still young enough to be capable of changing their approach.

“Rizzo and Riggleman are absolutely correct that the team isn’t hitting well with runners in scoring position.  But as the statistics show, they aren’t hitting well period, hitting .230/.301/.361 overall (15th, 15th and 13th in the N.L.), and the difference between their numbers with RISP and not is, well, statistically negligible.”

I have to admit, it was kind of fun to go back and look at that article that quoted Jim Riggleman. Seems like that was forever ago. But the point still stands. Teams’ batting average with runners in scoring position is meaningless. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals can’t hit lefties: The Numbers

The Washington Nationals are getting a lot of ink lately regarding their struggles against left-handed pitching. It’s on the front burner since the first three games of the four-game set with the Phillies, with two losses so far, are against lefties. Monday, the Nats were completely dominated by former teammate John Lannan. Tuesday, it was Cole Hamels that held the Nats hitless for five innings until scratching a few hits out in the eighth.

Wednesday, they face the stiffest competition of all, Cliff Lee, who is 10-2 this season so far with a 2.73 ERA and limiting left-handed batters to a .268/.318/.341 slash line.

What looked like a grand opportunity after sweeping the Padres over the weekend and getting to four games behind the Braves now looks like an impending disaster, as the Braves have won both their games this week to be back to six games ahead of the Nats, and it’s all due to their ineffectiveness against left-handed pitching.

The Nationals are an N.L. worst against lefties, with a team slash line of .215/.281/.336. For a reference point, that’s not much better than Livan Hernandez’ career hitting line of .221/.231/.295. Reminder: Livan was a big, slow pitcher. And they’re doing that as a team.

GM Mike Rizzo went on the radio Wednesday and tried to explain his team’s utter failure to hit lefties. “We just haven’t done it,” Rizzo concluded. “We haven’t gotten it done. And against left-handed pitching, it’s your right-handed part of your lineup that’s got to get it done.”

But is that the case? Are the Nats RHBs really not getting it done? A quick glance at the numbers doesn’t support Mr. Rizzo’s assessment, despite particularly bad at bats by Ryan Zimmerman (0-for-4 with 2 Ks vs. Hamels) and Jayson Werth Tuesday with the bases loaded in the eighth inning.

This first table we’ll look at the Nats RHBs with the largest sample sizes, and the guys Rizzo counts on to drive in runs. We’ll examine their overall 2013 slash line and compare their 2013 vs. LHPs against their career numbers vs. LHPs.

PLAYER SAMPLE AVERAGE ON-BASE SLUGGING
ZIMMERMAN 2013-TOTAL .279 .358 .464
  2013-LHP .291 .404 .494
  CAREER LHP .316 .400 .506
 
WERTH 2013-TOTAL .288 .353 .451
  2013-LHP .273 .344 .542
  CAREER-LHP .287 .387 .527
 
DESMOND 2013-TOTAL .278 .322 .493
  2013-LHP .272 .318 .469
  CAREER-LHP .274 .321 .457

Upon inspection, I don’t see any of these three players suffering any statistically meaningful drop-off from their career norms against left-handed pitching. Werth’s OBP has dipped about 40 points, but his slugging is better. But even then, not much change.

Now, let’s examine the Nats left-handed batters against southpaws this season, using the same data.

PLAYER SAMPLE AVERAGE ON-BASE SLUGGING
SPAN 2013-TOTAL .264 .319 .359
  2013-LHP .154 .222 .176
  CAREER-LHP .278 .358 .373
 
HARPER 2013-TOTAL .276 .380 .541
  2013-LHP .196 .313 .333
  CAREER-LHP .240 .300 .415
 
LAROCHE 2013-TOTAL .256 .340 .440
  2013-LHP .193 .253 .337
  CAREER-LHP .246 .301 .437

Across the board, the three left-handed batters that, to this point, have stayed in the lineup when facing a LHP are all hitting significantly worse than their career averages against lefties. Span’s on-base is over 100 points lower than his career norm, his slugging almost 200 points. It’s no wonder Rizzo went out and traded for Scott Hairston to give Span the day off against lefties in the future.

Hairston’s career .269/.318/.499 isn’t all that much to write home about, but he does deliver some pop against left-handed pitchers and is a capable defensive outfielder, opposed to Tyler Moore or Steve Lombardozzi, the Nats other options for a right-handed bat in the outfield.

Harper’s sample size, obviously, is the smallest, but might be the most troubling. He’s 50 points down in average and almost 100 points in slugging. At least his OBP is hovering around the same, so he’s being a bit more selective, drawing more walks against LHPs but making less contact and weaker contact.

There’s nothing that can be done about LaRoche. His on-base is 50 points lower and slugging 100 points lower that career norms. The Nats have to hope he rebounds as the summer chugs along. There is no viable replacement for him, unless they sacrifice a relief pitcher to bring Chris Marrero back up and institute a platoon.

What’s the bottom line? With all due respect, I disagree with Rizzo’s assessment that it’s the Nats right-handed bats that are letting the Nats down against left-handed pitching. The players the Nats count on are all performing according to their career morns.

It’s the left-handed bats that are killing the Nats, more than normal: their prized off-season trade acquisition “everyday” center fielder, the aging first baseman who signed a two-year deal, and the phenom 20-year old. They seem to have accepted Span’s shortcomings in the Hairston acquisition, but Harper and LaRoche are on their own to figure things out.

Strikeouts do not drive pitch counts; control and contact do

Here we go again.

In theory, getting an out on one pitch is better than using three. But in practical application, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t make a batter swing at a pitch. In fact, most batters would be better off not swinging at all. But that’s a whole separate argument.

Here’s a partial list of the things that can happen once a batter puts a ball in play: Fly ball, ground ball, line drive, pop up, bunt, foul ball, home run. Any of those things can lead to a batter being safe or out. Except, of course, the home run part.

Here’s a complete list of the things that happen when a batter makes strike three: Out*. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals By the Numbers: What, exactly, is wrong with Ryan Zimmerman?

Following the conclusion of Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the New York Yankees, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson lamented the lack of offense, especially from his Nos. 3 and 5 hitters, Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse. We’ll give Morse a pass for now, as he’s essentially having his own personal spring training, having missed three months with a lat strain then given all of three rehab games before being thrown back in the middle of a Major League lineup. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals By the Numbers: Difference between the Nats and Yankees

There’s a lot been written over the weekend about the differences between the upstart Washington Nationals and the “big, bad Yankees,” as Davey Johnson called them before the first-place series showdown that ended in a sweep for the Bronx Bombers. Most writers tried to capitalize on Bryce Harper’s bad day, or the youth and inexperience of the Nats, or the simple “badassness” of the Yankees.

Despite all the words about leadership and intangibles and the like, as with everything else in baseball and real life, the real difference between the Nats and Yankees can be explained with simple numbers. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals offensive problems stem from lack of slugging

The Washington Nationals are having trouble scoring runs these days. They haven’t really been good all season, but at least at the beginning they were getting timely hits and doing enough to keep winning. Over the last five games — all losses — even their excellent pitching hasn’t been able to save them, plating just seven runs in the five games. That ain’t good.

After last night’s 5-1 loss to Arizona, the Nats were averaging 3.26 runs per game this season, 14th in the N.L.

Contrary to widely held opinion though, the Nats problem isn’t necessarily getting runners on base in relationship to the rest of the league — they’re seventh in the N.L. in total base runners. Sure, the individual OBPs of various players — notably Desmond, Espinosa and Ankiel — well, stink. But overall as a team, there are usually enough guys getting on to be competitive. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals: As hits stop dropping in, Desmond’s OBP plummets

Just as the Washington Nationals have, shortstop Ian Desmond got off to a very hot start. He had three hits opening day and for the first 10 games of the season he continued that torrid pace, going 17-for-48 (.354). But in those ten games he walked just twice. Granted, after ten games a slash line of .354/.380/.479 is awfully impressive.

In the seven games since, Desmond has gone ice cold. He’s 4-for-27 (.148) with two extra base hits and just three walks. I think you can see where I’m going with this.

I’ve written it several times now in Desmond’s career: while the hits are falling in, he’s an exciting player to watch and can contribute to a Major League batting order. When he’s cold, his lack of any plate discipline makes him a liability in any lineup, let alone in the leadoff spot. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals: Previous history not predicitive of future performance

“Never tell me the odds.” Han Solo

The Washington Capitals have a long, complicated history of not winning the “big one.” Their record in Game Sevens in their 37 years in D.C. is not glorious. In fact, it’s downright awful at 2-7, and just 1-3 since the lockout, with all four of those appearances in their own building, no less.

Considering all that history, it’s so bad around here some of my blogging brethren have come to expect the worse, anticipating defeat rather than investing emotionally in the prospect of advancing. Is it better to be pessimistic and pleasantly surprised by an outcome rather than optimistic and be disappointed by a result? [Read more…]

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