September 22, 2014

Washington Nationals Game 155 Review: Strasburg shuts down Marlins

Behind seven stellar innings from ace Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals beat the Miami Marlins 2-1 on Sunday.

It wasn’t without some tense moments though, as deposed closer Rafael Soriano gave up a run in the ninth inning before finally securing the last out of the game. Soriano was pressed into the closer’s role on Sunday as Drew Storen was unavailable due to pitching so frequently this week.

Before then, it was a two-run rally for the Nats in the fifth — and Strasburg. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 149 Review: NL East within Reach after Nats Top Braves

STRASBURG, RAMOS HELP NATS LOWER MAGIC NUMBER TO TWO

With their Magic Number now down to two games, the Washington Nationals could win their second NL East division title in three years Tuesday night should they continue to dominate against the Atlanta Braves.

Following a 4-2 win over their rivals Monday night, helped by a solid performance from Stephen Strasburg (W, 12-11), the Nats could very likely celebrate their 2014 playoff berth at Turner Field.

Despite reporting neck stiffness, Strasburg was sharp against a Braves team he frequently struggles to beat. Through 7.0 innings pitched, the Nationals right-hander allowed five total hits, no runs and no walks and struck out seven batters.

His one trouble spot came in the fifth inning when, after Jason Heyward led off with a single to right, Strasburg committed a throwing error in his attempt to pick off Heyward. Instead, Heyward made it all the way to third base on the error.

Fortunately for the Nats, Strasburg came up with three big outs to work out of the inning unscathed. After striking out Chris Johnson, Strasburg forced Christian Bethancourt to ground out to third, before B.J. Upton struck out to end the inning.

Before that point, the Nats had helped themselves to a two-run lead over Atlanta starter Ervin Santana (L, 14-9, thanks to a one-run double by Denard Span in the third and a lead-off solo shot by Wilson Ramos in the fifth. Ramos’ homer marked his 11th of the season.

With Luis Avilan on the mound in relief for Atlanta, Strasburg helped himself to another insurance run in the seventh inning.

After Nate Schierholtz drew a lead-off walk, Ramos lined out to center before Asdrubal Cabrera doubled to left. Then, Strasburg singled to center to plate Cabrera. The Nats threatened to tack on more runs as Span took first on a hit-by-pitch, but reliever Juan Jaime successfully struck out Anthony Rendon to end the inning.

The Nats earned one more run in the top of the eighth after Jayson Werth led off with a walk and came home by way of an Ian Desmond force out and Schierholtz RBI single.

After Craig Stammen delivered a solid eighth inning of relief, Rafael Soriano seemed to pine for his closer role. Having lost the job a few weeks ago, Soriano appeared in a would-be non-save situation in the ninth, only to immediately allow a double by Andrelton Simmons and a two-out, RBI double by Justin Upton.

Soriano got Heyward to fly out to left, but walked Chris Johnson, allowing the tying run to step to the plate.

Not surprisingly, Nationals manager Matt Williams opted to pitch Drew Storen for the save situation. Storen allowed an RBI single to Bethancourt, but successfully forced B.J. Upton ground out to end the game.

 

THE GOOD: Stephen Strasburg has without a doubt struggled against the Atlanta Braves this season, but he showed no signs of bad habits when he struck out seven and allowed no runs and no walks through seven innings pitched. Additionally, the Nats – who were out-hit nine to six by the Braves – did enough with relatively little, going 3-for-8 with RISP and stranding just six base runners all night.

Thanks to their collective efforts, the Nats will have cause to celebrate if they can secure a win against Atlanta Tuesday night.

THE BAD: Rafael Soriano nearly undid eight solid innings of work for the Nationals’ pitching staff. In just 0.2 innings pitched, he allowed two runs on two hits and a walk.

THE UGLY: Stephen Strasburg’s pickoff attempt in the fifth inning was a far cry from pretty. Fortunately, Strasburg was in the zone through his entire outing, and pitched out of the jam without allowing a run to score.

THE STATS: 4 R, 1 HR, 6 H, 4 BB, 9 K, 3-for-8 RISP, 6 LOB

Washington Nationals Game 144 Review: Nats Lose As Braves Strike Late

NATS CAN’T OVERCOME ATLANTA’S LATE SURGE AGAINST BULLPEN

Looking for a sweep, the Washington Nationals fell to the Atlanta Braves in a Wednesday afternoon contest at Nationals Park, 6-2.

In the first two games of the Nats three-game series with the Braves, Washington used some early offense to boost them to victory. On Wednesday afternoon, Braves’ starter Aaron Harang kept Washington’s offense in check while Atlanta slowly built a lead in the latter innings of the contest. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 139 Review: Nats Waste Five-Run Lead, Fall to Phils in 11

Washington Nationals reliever Rafael Soriano did little to ensure his job security Friday night.

In a game in which the Nats led by as many as five runs over the Philadelphia Phillies, the 34-year-old right-hander took the mound in the ninth with three runs padding the Nats’ pathway to a win.

Instead, Soriano allowed a lead-off single to Domonic Brown and a two-run homer off the bat of Carlos Ruiz, pulling the Phillies within a run as they trailed 7-6.

Just an out later, Philadelphia came up with that run, by way of a Ben Revere solo shot to right.

The blown save marks Soriano’s seventh of the season.

Meanwhile, Tyler Clippard did his part to keep a Curly W within reach, but Craig Stammen had no such luck thanks to two costly mistakes by Nats’ fielders.

The eleventh inning started off with a fielding error by Bryce Harper that allowed Brown to reach second base. Brown advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt laid down by Ruiz and came home on a fielder’s choice by Maikel Franco. On the play, covering first base, Tyler Moore committed a throwing error that allowed Franco to advance to second. [Read more...]

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.
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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.

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