September 2, 2014

Washington Nationals Game 134 Review: Strasburg Tosses Gem in Nats Win

WERTH HOMERS, STRASBURG STRONG AS NATS DEFEAT MARINERS

On Saturday night at Safeco Field, the Washington Nationals didn’t need six homers like they did Friday night to defeat the Seattle Mariners, 3-1.

Instead of an offensive onslaught, it was the steady arm — at least on this night — of ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg that led the Nationals to victory. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 128 Review: Nats Blow Past Giants, Win Series

BEHIND A SIX-RUN SIXTH, NATIONALS TAKE 2-OF-3 FROM SAN FRANCISCO

In front of 35,000-plus at Nationals Park on a beautiful Sunday afternoon for baseball, the Washington Nationals defeated the San Francisco Giants by a score of 14-6 to end their 10-game homestand. [Read more...]

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

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

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

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

Arizona pitching didn’t fare so well.

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

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

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

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

Statistically Speaking: Stephen Strasburg and Bearing Down

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

[Read more...]

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

LAROCHE, HARPER HOMER AS NATS EXTEND DIVISION LEAD TO SIX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First 2013:

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

2014 looks like this:

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Washington Nationals Game 114 Review: Strasburg rocked; Nats comeback falls short against Braves

Stephen Strasburg has had better nights — but not any worse.

For the first time in his career, the Washington Nationals starter gave up four home runs in one start and dug the Nats a deep hole. Despite clawing back to within one run before the seventh inning stretch, the Nats never did tie and lost to the Atlanta Braves, 7-6, at Turner Field.

The Braves snapped an eight-game losing streak in the process and cut the Nats lead in the division to 3 1/2 games.

In 15 starts against the Braves, Strasburg is 3-6 with a 4.62 ERA.

Strasburg (L, 8-10, 3.68) surrendered homers to Justin Upton (20) in the first inning, his brother B.J. (8) and Freddie Freeman (16) in the second, and Tommy LaStella in the fifth inning. LaStella’s homer in the fifth — the first of his career – ended up being the difference in the game.

B.J. Upton had not homered in over 130 at bats.

Strasburg’s final line was ugly. He gave up seven runs on seven hits and two walks, though he did strike out nine in five innings. But the home runs were the killer.

The Nats trailed 7-0 entering the middle innings but made a game of it. The rally started in the sixth. Scott Hairston pinch-hit for Strasburg and was hit by Braves starter Ervin Santana. Denard Span ( 3-for-4, .304) singled to put runners at the corners. Asdrubal Cabrera followed with a  single to center that plated Hariston, then Anthony Rendon connected for his 15th home run of the season to cut the deficit to 7-4.

Washington pulled within two in the seventh. Wilson Ramos led off the inning with a no-doubt-about-it shot for his fifth homer of the season. Later, Kevin Frandsen reached on an error, went to third on Span’s single and scored on Cabrera’s sacrifice fly to left.

But the comeback stalled in the late innings, as Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel pitched clean slates in the eighth and ninth innings.

The second of the three-game series is Saturday at 7:10 pm ET. Tanner Roark (11-7, 2.94) faces Aaron Harang (9-6, 3.41).

NATS NOTES: Steven Souza Jr. made his first start since his recall in right field for Jayson Werth, but he didn’t last long. Chasing Freeman’s homer to right, he crashed full-speed into the outfield fence. He stayed in the game for another at bat, but after watching the video, it’s hard to imagine how. The Nats said he was day-to-day after the game, but then again, aren’t we all.

Washington Nationals Game 109 Review: Nats Shut Out Phillies to Earn Series Split

For the second day in a row, the Washington Nationals shut out the Philadelphia Phillies, this time to win by the score of 4-0 Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park.

Nats right-hander Stephen Strasburg pitched a gem, allowing just three hits while striking out ten and walking just one batter over seven innings pitched. He was perfect through the first two innings, and retired nine of his first 10 batters faced.

In the meantime, the Nats broke little ground against Phillies starter Cole Hamels. In fact, the 6-6 starter allowed just one unearned run and one more hit than his counterpart – but, it was enough to earn him the loss.

Nevertheless, it was not without effort that the Nats posted a run against Hamels.

In the bottom of the third, Jose Lobaton reached first with one out on a fielding error by third baseman Cody Asche. Lobaton took second on a perfect bunt by Strasburg, and came home on a single by Denard Span before Anthony Rendon lined out to end the inning.

Philadelphia had few opportunities to score, but they came up empty in each.

Jimmy Rollins led off the fourth with a single up the middle and stole second, but no one was able to bat him in.

In the fifth, the Phillies found themselves in a similar situation as Asche doubled with two outs but got nowhere.

Then, when Philadelphia called in Ken Giles for relief in the bottom of the eighth, Washington earned its insurance runs almost immediately.

Span led off with a walk and came home on a double by Rendon before Rendon himself scored on a double by Jayson Werth. Giles intentionally walked Adam LaRoche to get to Ian Desmond, who struck out swinging, but the Phillies then called on reliever Jake Diekman to stop the bleeding.

Before doing so, he lobbed a run-scoring wild pitch, allowing the Nats to make it 4-0 before the inning came to a close.

 

THE GOOD: The Nats proved they could follow up a powerhouse performance from Saturday’s 11-0 rout with yet another lights-out performance. Stephen Strasburg was superb, allowing just three hits and striking out 10 for the fifth time in his career.

THE BAD: Ian Desmond and Asdrubal Cabrera each went 0-for-4 on the day. Desmond struck out twice and Cabrera K’d once.

THE STATS: 4 R, 6 H, 3 BB, 9 K, 2-for-6 RISP, 6 LOB

Washington Nationals Game 104 Review: Offense leaves Strasburg out to dry against Marlins

When the offense dries up, it dries up hard.

With Ryan Zimmerman out of the lineup for the foreseeable future, and Jayson Werth out resting a sprained ankle acquired when unsuccessfully trying for an extra base Monday, the Washington Nationals were missing two of their most productive hitters entering Tuesday’s rematch with the Miami Marlins.

The results weren’t pretty. The Nats wasted six walks by four Marlins pitchers, went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and left 11 men on base, spoiling another strong outing by Stephen Strasburg, to fall 2-0 to Miami at Marlins Park. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 99 Review: Strasburg uninspiring in 6-4 loss to Rockies

ZIMMERMAN TO D.L. FOR HAMSTRING STRAIN; TEAM RECALLS INF ZACH WALTERS

Despite an exciting ninth inning comeback attempt, the Washington Nationals fell to the Colorado Rockies 6-4 in the finale of the three-game series at Coors Field.

Nats starter Stephen Strasburg struggled again in the first inning en route to another uninspiring performance, as the nominal ace of the rotation gave up four earned runs in just 5 1/3 innings. [Read more...]

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