Ranking the Nats Starting Pitchers (again)

Back in June I ranked the starterslike this:  Fister, Roark, Zimmermann, Strass, Gonzales.  Today I came across an article that took a different slant on this and ranked them this way FOR THE PLAYOFFS:  Zimmermann, Fister, Strasburg, Gonzales, Roark.  Very surprising!  Rather than re-create the article, here is where to find it: http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/92089982 and the author is Anthony Castrovince.  Easiest way to find it is to google the author and the date of the article: August 30. I’ll give you a hint as to why he ranks Roark 5th; he has already reached his career maximum innings workload of 159 1/3 innings.  Castrovince makes a strong case that with a month to go before the playoffs, it is a serious stretch to expect Roark to maintain his impressive stuff and stamina into the playoffs.  Check it out.

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Nats Infield Ranked Best in Baseball

Today MLB radio (‘Inside Pitch’ moderated by Jim Bowden and Casey Stern) ranked the Nats infield of LaRoche, Cabrera, Desmond and Rendon the game’s best.  Some might remember Bowden used to be the Nats GM a few years ago.   The Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals infields were also in the conversation.

Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees pitcher, is flying back to New York today after the team said he had “general arm discomfort.”   This could signal serious problems,  since Tanaka has been shut down for several weeks with an elbow injury that usually ends up with Tommy John surgery.  He began doing some throwing recently so presummably that is what has caused the team to take this action.

Nats Undone by Faulty Replay Calls

Last night two replay calls went against the Nats.  Both were correctly called by the onfield CREW CHIEF at 1B, Gary Cedarstrom, and then overturned by questionable analysis of the video replays.  For a call to be overturned the videos must have convincing evidence that the original call was faulty.  In NEITHER case was the evidence convincing!  I saw the replays, as did FP and Carp.  All 3 of us were shocked at both overturned calls!  If the first replay had gone the Nats way, the Phillies would not have been allowed to contest the second one, and the Nats would have won the game!

Huge bummer.

Read My Lips!

I have said this several times in several posts:  Stephen Strassburg should not start a game in the playoffs.  Why?  Because he cannot command his fastball consistently.  If you don’t believe me, then take a gander at Tom Boswell’s article on the subject in today’s Post.  Anyone who watched Strass pitch yesterday should understand what I’m talking about.

Fastball commands determines the effectiveness of all a starting pitcher’s repertoire of pitches.  Strass has had this inconsistency his whole life; I watched him pitch in college.  He gets hammered when he can’t spot his fastball, over, over and over again.

OK, one more time for Nats fans:  Strass should not be used as a starter in the playoffs.  Fister, Roark and Zimmerman should be the starters.

Mo’ne Davis–A Comment:)

As the still very proud father of two former baseball players, one a girl and the other a boy, I feel compelled (for numerous reasons!) to say something about Mo’ne Davis.  First, I wish her and her  parents all the best, I’ve been “there.”  I have watched her play baseball in the Little League World Series.  She and her teammates did very well for themselves and I can see the team coaches have done a great job.  I could see she was tired the other night, and knowing how much “media-pressure” she has been subjected to recently, I felt A LOT of compassion for her.  Most of all I wish Sports Illustrated had NOT put her on its cover—that has always portended a rough future for the athlete (just ask Bryce Harper!).

I hope Mo’ne does well in high school, both athletically and academically.  And I hope she actually does achieve her dream of playing basketball at UConn:)  I have many relatives up in Connecticut and all of them (as well as yours truly) are rabid UConn fans!

Sally Jenkins has written a good article in the 8/23 Washington Post on ‘The Mo’ne Story.’

Yes, this blog is focused on the Wash. Nationals, but I wanted to include the above:)

Soriano Comes Through in the Clutch!

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals

Raphael Soriano came on in the 9th inning last night (8/20) to a tie game, after a few days well-earned rest.  He pitched a 1,2,3 inning looking rested and his slider was back!  He had good control again and the slider was beaking down as sharply as I’ve ever seen it.  He obviously had worked on it since his recent troubles.

He came in again tonight.  Pitched almost as well as he did last night, though his slider was not as good.  They won again in a walk-off so Sori was the winning pitcher again!

I would not use him in more than two consecutive games.

Get Ready for the Babe Ruth Tap Dance

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Manager Matt long ago challenged the team to win 10 in a row. If they do he promised to do a Ruth impersonation:) I’m looking forward to seeing this happen today, but first Gio has to pitch like he wants to win. THAT MEANS HE HAS TO DO WHAT GOOD PLAYERS DO——quiet their mind and body and focus on making good pitches (and NOTHING else)!

I have to eat my words on Asdrubal Cabrera, since coming to the Nats he has shown me he can step up his game to where his new team is right now—-trying to get to the World Series. With his becoming a free agent at the end of this season, Rizzo will have to figure out how to make him an offer he can’t refuse, going forward. He and Desi have blended beautifully as they cover the middle infield, making some of the best DPs I have ever seen.

Stephen Strassburg did what the team needed on Tuesday August 19, he went deep into the game, pitching 8 innings and giving the Nats a gift. I hope he learned from the experience. If I were managing the Nats, that game might have me considering giving him a start in the post-season. My inclination would still be to just use the “big three”—-Fister, Roark, JZimm as the playoff starters.

Matt Williams blew This One

After the game Sunday (August 17) I was livid over the team’s mismanagement of Raphael Soriano. Manager Matt sent him out to close his 4th game in the last 5 nights! It is too late in the season for this crap. That is too much for any closer! Williams ought to be thinking ahead to how he is going to use his excellent bullpen in the playoffs. He has 4 strong late-inning guys, each of whom is very capable of closing close games (as well as Aaron Barrett, who will be back soon and likely will be ready for some late-inning use too in the playoffs).

The best way to use Sorriano, Clippard, Storen and Thornton is to start “mixing and matching” them in the 7th, 8th and 9th, closing with whomever has the “hot hand” and has been effective with the team they are playing that day. At this late date I would not even think of asking Barrett to close any games, but I’d not hesitate to use him in the 7th or 8th.

I’m pretty sure the Nats will make the playoffs, but they are not going to go far using just Soriano as the sole closer.

As for the starting pitchers, Williams should stick to his big three, and limit Strass and Gio to spot starts when the big three need a rest. The playoffs are just for experienced ADULT players!

Will the Real Bryce Harper……………

Diagnosing Bryce Harper’s Decline

Bryce Harper has a knack for making headlines.

Upon returning from the disabled list in late June, the Nationals outfielder questioned manager Matt Williams’s decision to bat him sixth in the lineup. This past weekend, Harper pissed off Braves fans by dragging his foot over the team logo behind home plate.1 He recently triggered a heated interaction between Williams and local media over whether he should be sent to the minors. He even found a way to motivate (or at least sprinkle batted-ball luck on) a teammate, indirectly hinting that Denard Span should hit the bench, and somehow turning Span into one of the hottest players in baseball in the process.

All of those incidents could spark some interesting discussions. They also ignore the more troubling trend: Harper has played poorly this season, and compared to his historical peers — the other players who broke into the big leagues with a bang at a very young age — Harper’s Year 3 performance looks hugely out of place.

To properly frame how disappointing Harper’s 2014 season has been, we need to start by recognizing how extraordinary his 2012 season was. Harper debuted on April 28 and went on to deliver an excellent all-around campaign, hitting .270/.340/.477 with 22 homers, 18 steals, impressive defense, and a stream of highlight-reel plays. According to Baseball-Reference’s wins above replacement stat, he generated 5.1 wins with his all-around skills, ranking just outside the National League’s top 10. His .817 OPS adjusted for park effects netted a 118 OPS+, 18 percent above league average. All of which was enough to earn Harper NL Rookie of the Year honors.

Given the vagaries of defensive metrics, and the fact that Harper earned his megaprospect status primarily with his bat, we can use that OPS+ stat to gauge the impact of his 2012 season. Harper was just 19 that year. Now that we’re decades beyond the bonus baby era, which saw teams throw gobs of money at teenage prospects and then very quickly promote them to the major league level, it’s rare to see players in the big leagues before they turn 20. It’s even rarer to see someone perform as well as Harper did at such a young age. I queried Baseball-Reference’s Play Index to see which players 20 or younger put up the best numbers by OPS+, with a minimum of 500 plate appearances. Here are the top 25. Note: “OPS” is OPS+ in this case.

It turns out that what Harper did in 2012 wasn’t just rare; it was the second-greatest offensive performance ever for a player that young.

Now, just two years later, Harper is having the kind of down season that’s nearly unprecedented for anyone who broke in really young and performed as well or better than he did.

I wrote about Mike Trout’s incredible 2012 season in August of that year; he’s the standard-bearer for 20-or-younger players, and is currently in the midst of a third consecutive season in which he’d make an excellent MVP pick. Ty Cobb hit .350 as a 20-year-old in 1907 and only got better from there, batting a ludicrous .420 four years later. Mel Ott never again matched the 42 homers he hit in his age-20 season in 1929, but he remained one of the best hitters and most fearsome sluggers in the league every year for the next decade and a half. Ditto for Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, and Ted Williams.2 Frank Robinson did see a modest drop in numbers during his third year, but he still cranked 31 homers and won a Gold Glove that season. And so on.

There are a few exceptions here. First baseman Dick Hoblitzell was born in 1888 and hit .308/.364/.418 as a 20-year-old in his first full big league season, but never again reached that level despite putting up above-average offensive numbers in his next five seasons. Tony Conigliaro was an offensive force through age 22, but a fastball to the face on August 18, 1967, derailed what could have been an incredible career.

Harper’s closest comp on this list, however, might be contemporary Jason Heyward. A 6-foot-5, 245-pound physical specimen, Heyward broke into the big leagues with a titanic three-run homer, setting the stage for an excellent rookie campaign in which he’d hit .277/.393/.456 with 18 homers, 91 walks, and an array of sparkling defensive plays. By advanced stats like WAR that factor in defense, Heyward has remained a tremendously valuable player, with the highlight-worthy clips to match. But he’s become a relatively pedestrian offensive player, with his home run numbers in particular drying up, a weird occurrence for someone that big and that talented.3

Still, when it comes to very young players who started their careers with a bang, none dropped off as dramatically by Year 3 as Harper has. Thanks to ESPN Stats & Info, we can track the full extent of Harper’s decline. And it’s not pretty.

First, let’s look at Harper’s strikeout rate and power numbers this season, as compared to 2012 and 2013. All stats in the below tables are current through Monday’s MLB action.4

Stat 2012-13 2014
BA .272 .249
OPS .834 .698
OPS+ 118 95
Strikeout Rate 19.6% 28.5%
HR (HR Rate) 42 (4.4%) 4 (2.0%)
Harper has struggled most this season against inside pitches. He’s failing to pull these balls as often, he’s hitting more of them on the ground, and he’s swinging through more pitches located in this zone. A total of 32.3 percent of his strikeouts have come on inside pitches this season, compared to only 21 percent in 2012 and 2013.

Stat 2012-13 2014
Slugging % .622 .404
Swing-and-Miss Rate 24.4% 34.8%
Ground Ball Rate 48.1% 63.0%
Percent Pulled 57.7% 44.4%
Inside pitches aren’t the only ones giving him fits this year. While Harper succeeded against pitches on the inner half before 2014, he’s now shown a persistent inability to do anything with pitches down and on the outer half. As the numbers below show, he’s ranked among the league’s worst in that category (out of 198 players who’ve seen at least 700 pitches) since the start of last season.

Stat Total Rank
BA .165 T-181
Slugging % .216 T-174
Swing-and-Miss Rate 39.7% T-147
Breaking down Harper’s performance by situational splits reveals more struggles. He hit .341 with six homers on the first pitch in 2012. In 2013, he batted .388 with eight homers in that spot. Through Monday of this season, he was hitting just .242, with no home runs and one RBI on first pitches. And while numbers with runners in scoring position often vacillate even for some of the game’s best and most consistent players, the drop in Harper’s RISP line is ugly. He was batting .196 in those spots this year, compared to .282 in 2012 and .230 in 2013, and striking out in 34.5 percent of his plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Here’s a look at the highest strikeout rates with runners in scoring position among NL players with at least 50 plate appearances this season.

Player Team Strikeout Rate
Junior Lake Cubs 43.5%
Jarrod Saltalamacchia Marlins 37.9%
Scott Van Slyke Dodgers 35.2%
Brandon Belt Giants 35.2%
Bryce Harper Nationals 34.5%
Finally, ESPN has a stat called hard-hit average, which tracks exactly what you’d think: the frequency with which a batter hits the ball hard. In his rookie season, Harper posted a hard-hit average of .226, placing him a solid 51st out of 144 qualified batters. Since then, that number has plummeted to .197 last season and .149 this season.

Despite all of that damning statistical evidence of decline, there remains one huge, mitigating factor that helps explain what’s happened to Harper this season: injuries. On April 25, Harper cracked a three-run triple, punctuating the feat with a head-first slide into third. But that slide resulted in a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb, an injury that knocked him out of the lineup for more than two months. At the time of the injury, Harper was hitting .289/.352/.422, solid numbers in today’s increasingly pitcher-friendly environment, even if they were a little short of the annual sky-high expectations that fans and pundits have for him. Since returning from the DL, however, Harper has been terrible. In 141 plate appearances spread over 36 games, he’s batted just .230, with a .329 on-base percentage and an anemic .352 slugging average. He’s hit just four homers in that span, and has posted a 36.1 percent strikeout rate that would lead the majors by a wide margin if prorated over the entire season.

There are two bits of positive spin here: The first is that Harper’s thumb has severely limited his productivity, the same way similar injuries did for top hitters like Dustin Pedroia and others. A return to health, whether this season or in 2015, would presumably allow Harper to better tap into his vast potential and become the hitting star and MVP candidate that the baseball world expects him to be. The second is that he might finally be turning things around. The above tables didn’t account for last night’s game, in which Harper smacked a two-run homer, his second in five games and sixth hit in that span.

Still, until Harper fully rediscovers his 2012 form, doubts will linger. We’ll wonder if his all-out playing style could result in more injuries, like when he smashed into the wall at Dodger Stadium last year, an incident that incredibly only cost him a couple of starts but could have been much worse. And we’ll wonder if anointing Harper as “Baseball’s Chosen One” when he was 16 years old might’ve been a case of way too much, way too soon.

He’s still just 21 years old, and he’s still on that OPS+ list with some of the greatest hitters of all time. The smart money’s still on Harper becoming a star, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.

Today I’d like to be Michael Taylor’s Father!

What an inspiring game last night! In his first big-league game Taylor really made an impression: two hits, including a home run, and he looked very good in Right Field too, making a good throw from the deep corner to 2B, preventing the batter from stretching a single into a double. And after the game he was refreshingly humble in dealing with the media. I first mentioned how good Mike looked in Spring Training in an early blogpost on March 1. After ST he made the jump from A to AA. He did so well there he jumped to AAA 2-3 weeks ago, and then up to the parent team the day before yesterday. That’s quite an elevator ride!

Doug Fister, the nats true ACE, also inspired last night! And Asdrubal Cabrera is steadily raising his batting average; it’s at .286 now.

The Nats can likely get to the playoffs without RZimm, and Werth may see limited playing time while his shoulder heals (or NOT), but they need both of their clutch hitters/players in the playoffs!

Read the Boswell article in today’s Post if you haven’t already!