I Hear Drums Along the Potomac!

The gurus at MLB.com have ranked the Nats at the TOP of their power rankings, as we head to the playoffs.  That has me worried a bit mainly because I’ve had a lifetime of experience watching favorites NOT being able to live up to expectations, ESPECIALLY in the game of baseball!

Yes, Matt Williams has the team peaking at just the right time.  And even Ryan Zimmerman finally got some ABs at the end of the regular saeson.  Winning the most games in the NL (96) is quite an accomplishment for a rookie mgr. and the players.  (Before the season began, I predicted they would win 88-92 games). And The Nats “run-differential” was huge (+131 I think).  That is a very important stat.

But even more important in baseball playoff games is starting pitching.  This is why teams will pay the big bucks for John Lester, David Price, John Shields, Zack Grienke, etc.  The Nats have 5 playoff-ready starters, more then any other team!  Their only problem is which of the 5 gets added to the bullpen.  I’m thinking it will be Roark because he has done it before and was effective.  In their final 13 starts the other four guys (Strass, Zimm, Fister and Gio) went 13-0!  In their last “turn” (meaning the last 4 starts) they pitched 31 innings, gave up ZERO runs, 6 hits, had 38 strikeouts and only 4 walks!

Here’s hoping they play the Giants rather than the Pirates in the first round.  The Pirates have given the Nats a harder time this year:)

Note:  the 4-day layoff (Monday to Friday’s game) could be a problem, but I know Williams is trying to counteract that with simulated games and other activities.

Nats Enter “new” Territory

According to whom?  Well, how about yours truly and little Tommy Boswell?

The Nats 14-inning winner Wed. night made me a believer, and apparently I’m not the only one.  Boswell is the best BASEBALL analyst I have ever encountered.  And rather than writing a long article explaining why I finally do think the Nats have a chance to get to the World Series, I encourage readers to google his article in today’s Wash. Post.

For starters, Manager Matt used 26 players in that watershed game, and did NOT MAKE even ONE Mistake.  Some might quibble about bringing Soriano in for the 9th inning, or leaving him in a couple of batters too long, but he is the closer we are stuck with for better or worse.

Second, all the Nats are peaking at the right time in a long-tough season.  And all the new players are doing what they have been hired to do.  Even Strass!

Enjoy the rest of a great season!

Where Are the Nats as of Sept. 1?

The Nats look (to me) poised to get into October in pretty good shape.  But I would not bet the farm on them getting to the World Series:)

Manager Matt did a great job of managing last night (Sept. 1).  The best move of all was bringing Thornton in to rescue Storen.  He has been showing a tendency to switch pitchers quicker recently; GOOD!

The guys are looking (as a team) ready for the necessary Sept/Oct. “push.”  Span, Gio, Strass, Werth, Harper, Rendon, Cabrera, Lobaton and Ramos have been stepping up their production recently.  The good teams do that.

The team brought up 6 players for the “Sept. Call-up.”  The best of those moves was getting Barrett and Cedeno for the bullpen.  They had been trying to rest Barrett in Syracuse and they accomplished that.  Hopefully he is ready for what is ahead; he could very well be the additional “stopper” the Nats need.  Cedeno is another lefty weapon in their pen.  No team has enough of those.  I used to be one myself:)

Us fans need to hang onto being positive, no matter how hard that is!

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.

Rizzo Looking For Lefty Reliever

GM Mike Rizzo has been on the phone looking for a new lefty for the bull-pen, and there are several out there available. I would think that means Blevin’s days are numbered, but I’m not hearing anything definite on that.
Other than that it looks like the Nats will stick with who they have, coming up on the July 31 trade deadline. No surprise there.

The Nats are in pretty good shape for the stretch run, and have won a lot of series in July. The 2 losses to the Marlins in the past two days were especially ugly, however. It was a shame to waste two excellent starts by Strass and Zimmermann. The injury to Ryan Zimmerman is really hurting the offensive production. Zimm is a very good clutch-hitter. Looking at the good news, both Spann and Werth are prime contenders for “Player of the Month.” They have been hitting the cover off the ball in July. Spann even had 2 consecutive 4-hit games! We all know Harper has been struggling with the bat, but he looked more comfortable last night (July 29) and had two key hits.

My prime concern is the apparent lack of a team “killer instinct.” Monday night they had the Marlins 6-0 going into the 7th, but they let the game slip away. Teams that really want to get to the World Series DON’T DO THAT! Two of the veterans made key late-inning mistakes; Werth trying to take an extra base on Stanton’s outstanding arm, and McLouth going all-out for a low line-drive that he let skip past him for a triple.

My other comment coming from that game is about Matt Williams. He, more than anyone else, was responsible for the Nats’ loss. Soriano was tired from having pitched the night before as well as other recent games. Storen however looked REALLY GREAT that night; I would have had him close out the game. Also, I would have replaced Blevins after he struck out lefty Yellich. The next batter, Jeff Baker, hits lefties very well so the situation called for Williams to bring in a righty such as Aaron Barrett for example. Unfortunately Tyler Clippard was not available for this game.

The Z-man Going Back to 3B

Zimmerman catching a fly ball during his debut in left field. (Photo: Tommy Gilligan, USA TODAY Sports)

Zimmerman catching a fly ball during his debut in left field. (Photo: Tommy Gilligan, USA TODAY Sports)

I heard Matt Williams say clearly in a pre-game radio interview last night (June 5) that Ryan Zimmerman would be back at 3B once Bryce Harper returns from the DL.  This is the clearest statement yet from anyone on the “top mgmt. team” of the Nats regarding how they plan to accommodate Harpers return in approximately a month.  I believe (and this is just my opinion!) he was basing that on how well the other pieces of this “equation” (namely Rendon, Spann, LaRoche and Espinosa) are performing AT THIS TIME.  Consequently, I take what Willims said last night with a small grain of salt:)

Baseball is a game of streaks.  (I know this all too well, as I’m dealing with a minor three-week hitting slump myself).  If any of the above players happens to be mired in a slump when Bryce comes back, Manager Matt would likely send Zimmerman alsewhere.

Footnote:  One of the main reasons Ryan is now in left field is not because anyone has firmly decided that is his future, but more likely because he is far less prone to re-injuring his healing thumb out there!

 

Bryce, Boswell is Required Reading Today (4/30)!

Harper forced to DL with sprained left thumb (photo courtesy of CBC Sports)

Harper forced to DL with sprained left thumb (photo courtesy of CBC Sports)

I’ve mentioned writer/reporter Tom Boswell before.  He is a gifted observer of our national pastime, and today’s piece on Bryce Harper is another gem.  I hope Bryce takes it to heart.

Manager Matt (MM) was interviewed on XM radio on 4/30 and when asked if he would be counseling Harper on not sliding headfirst so much, had this to say “he slid feet first in our season-opening series with the Mets and had a potential concussion.  Also, he did hurt himself once last year sliding feet first.”  It is apparent MM plans to be very careful in any effort to alter Harper’s approach to his playing style:)

 

Manager Matt Blows One

Matt Williams cost the Nats the game last night (April 21).  In the 8th inning Tyler Clippard was on the mound.  An Angels rally was gathering steam with two dangerous left-handed batters coming up (Aybar and Raul Ibanez).  Ibanez is a well-known “Nats-Killer”.  Everyone knows Clippard is having serious problems with Lefties, especially this year.  The Nats had 3 left-handed pitchers in the pen and Cedeno was all warmed up. But Matt stuck with Clippard!  I was screaming at my TV! I think even my 5-yr old grandson would have brought in Cedeno 🙂  So the bottom line is the Angels proceeded to score 4 runs as both batters came through with base hits, and Ibanez hit his over Bryce’s head in left field!

Ian Desmond’s 2 errors in the inning didn’t help!  But errors happen, while manager decisions are avoidable.