There are times in sports where a narrative or a theme gets assigned to a player, a team, or a city that seems like it takes over reality and can’t be defeated by things like talent, planning, or intelligence.
A team that chokes when the lights become bright…
A city of sports losers…
Here’s the thing though: You’re wrong. Not just about that sweater vest or the 13th beer you smashed through last Friday night. You’re wrong about him, and them, and most importantly, you’re wrong about us.
In 2012 the acolytes of Natitude were happy to be there, and in 2014 we were just happy to be back and prove it wasn’t a fluke. We’re not willing to settle for that any longer, and neither are the 25 soon-to-be decided men wearing the curly W on their hats and on their chests.
They have a single minded purpose and an obsessive determination, and they won’t let you, the odds, or whispered doubts stand in their way.
Did I convince you yet? No? Pull up a chair and give me a few minutes and see if I don’t change your mind…
How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?
The Nationals are a veritable Swiss Army Knife of offense: They do it all, and they do it all pretty well, but they don’t do anything better than a tool dedicated solely to that function. Here’s a run down of how they lined up in a few important offensive categories when compared to the rest of the National League:
Runs: 686 – 3rd
HR: 152 – 4th
SB: 101 – 6th
OBP: .321 – 4th
SLG: .393 – 5th
The only categories where the Nationals don’t come out smelling somewhat rosy are doubles (8th), triples (10th, one of which cost Bryce Harper an extended trip to the DL with a broken thumb), and most notably, strikeouts, where their 1,304 Ks put them 11th worst in the NL.
Here’s the thing with the Nationals—they aren’t aren’t star dependent, but you could say they’re star driven. The beauty of their line up is that, when healthy, it can come from almost any spot 1-7 on any given day. Whether it’s Harper pretending he’s the God of Thunder and launching balls into the upper deck, Rendon lacing double after double into the right center gap, or Span setting a team record for hits (184) and using his speed on the bases to disrupt the opposing pitcher. Or if those guys aren’t producing, Ian Desmond is one of the most tantalizing combinations for power and speed in all of Major League Baseball, Wilson Ramos—if he can stay on the field—certainly brings a wealth of power, Jayson Werth has led the team in OBP the last three years, and that’s ignoring the “face of the franchise” Ryan Zimmerman (who might, anecdotally, be one of the best clutch hitters in the NL).
Despite a raft of injuries to some of their star position players last year, the Nats managed to hang around in contention until they went from M.A.S.H. unit to smash unit, and they might have to employ that same formula again this year. If they Nationals are all there and hitting on all cylinders, which has been a tough double bill for them to fill consistently, they might be are the most complete and most talented lineup in the NL. Earlier in the offseason I wrote about how the Nationals stacked up position by position with the rest of the NL East based on PECOTA rankings, and they came out looking like the dominant lineup every has billed them to be.
Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances.
Matt Williams likes to run out the same line up every day and have guys in predictable roles where they feel comfortable, so there wasn’t a ton of line up changing depending on who was the opposing starting pitcher, although Scott Hairston would get to see time against LH pitchers.
Williams’ team also had the 11th fewest pinch hitting ABs in the NL. Part of that can probably be attributed to the fact that he had a dominant starting rotation that he didn’t want to pinch hit for early in the games, but a larger part of it comes from the fact that the Nationals had a bench so comically bad at the plate (.144 AVG, worst in the NL by .035) that he might have been better served letting Jordan Zimmermann have all those PAs (.182 AVG, although he did have a 13 OPS+…). Basically the only bench player that even came close to earning his per diem was Kevin Frandsen, who still had an anemic OPS+ of 69, and even with that, if he wasn’t starting, Frandsen was Williams’ first and last choice as a pinch hitter. After he had been burned the Nationals usually let the bat boys rock/paper/scissors in the tunnel for which one of them would put on Danny Espinosa’s uniform and wildly swing through pitches while wearing expansive fake facial hair.
What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much?
The Nationals vary when it comes to approach, with hitters that love going the other way (Rendon, Zimmerman) and others that attack the ball visciously and pull the ball (Ramos, Harper). Jayson Werth almost always comes in the top 5 in the NL in pitches per plate appearance, but the team clocked in with 4 of the top 30 in the NL in P/PA though, and if you had asked me to bet my next mortgage payment that free swinging Ian Desmond was #30 on that list my credit rating would have taken a massive hit this month (he is).
Nats fans that watch them on TV frequently know when the 3-0 count happens MASN color commentator F.P. Santangelo only has one answer to the green light question, and that answer is “Yes.” For the most part, Matt Williams seems to trust his hitters to find the right 3-0 pitch to swing at and do damage if that damage is available.
On the question of strike out, it was previously mentioned that they come in 11th in the NL in Ks. While hitting coach Rick Schu would love to see the ball put in play more, the Nationals high power numbers make up for some of those whiffs, and if striking out led to getting benched, Ian Desmond (28% K rate) and Danny Espinosa (whopping 33.5% K rate) would not be getting a ton of plate appearances.
Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?
When Matt Williams took over as manager he stated he wanted an “aggressive” team on the base paths, but what wasn’t said was that he also wanted his team to be the smartest on the base paths. The Nats were aggressive, coming in 6th in stolen bases (101), but they were 1st overall in SB% (81.45%) and Fangraphs had them as the top NL baselining team of 2014 by a wide margin.
When it comes to laying down the sacrifice, the Nationals were were 5th in the NL, but part of that comes from having pitchers who were adept at laying the sac bunt down, particularly Jordan Zimmerman and Doug Fister.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?
For the guys that are actually inside this clubhouse, they seem to have quite a healthy atmosphere and relationship. Despite the dust up over Bryce wanting to bench Denard Span and Matt Williams actually benching Bryce everyone that covers the Nats clubhouse consistently reports that have a strong bond amongst the team, and it is due to the type of player Mike Rizzo brings to the team. It’s one of the reasons the front office wasn’t worried about bringing in former malcontent Yunel Escobar to play second this year.
Speaking of Escobar, he’s going to be filling in the only whole in the Nats healthy starting eight. Last year the second base spot had a revolving door of characters before being filled by Asdrubal Cabrera at the end of the season. It was also the only spot going into the offseason that wasn’t spoken form. It remains to be seen if Escobar can regain his pre-2014 form and close the chink in the Nationals hitting armor.
As to line up construction, I said before Matt Williams likes a consistent line up, and this is what Mike Rizzo went to sleep at night dreaming of in February:
1. CF Denard Span
2. 3B Anthony Rendon
3. LF Jayson Werth
4. RF Bryce Harper
5. 1B Ryan Zimmerman
6. SS Ian Desmond
7. C Wilson Ramos
8. 2B Yunel Escobar
Excuse me, I need a cigarette.
Unfortunately cigarettes cause cancer, and a rapidly spreading cancerous injury bug has decimated that preseason offensive order. When opening day comes around, the most likely lineup probably looks more like:
1. CF Michael Taylor
2. 2B Yunel Escobar
3. RF Bryce Harper
4. 1B Ryan Zimmerman
5. SS Ian Desmond
6. C Wilson Ramos
7. LF Tyler Moore/LF Clint Robinson/LF Tony Gwynn Jr./LF Nationals mascot Screech
8. 3B Danny Espinosa
Excuse me, I need a drink.
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness?
Nationals park has a reputation for being a fairly neutral park, with the humid weather in the District playing a formidable factor in how the park is playing on any given night. The beginning and end of the season can feel more like a pitchers’ park, while the dog days see balls carrying over startled outfielders’ head and into the Red Porch seats.
ESPN has Nats Park as the 6th highest run park factor for runs in 2014 (link to ) even though it is second to last in HR factor (super bizarre). Fangraphs has Nats Park as a perfectly neutral park for 2014 so…go figure.
As for handedness, Fangraphs has Nats Park as very slightly favoring RH hitters, unless they’re hitting triples, but that last part could just be Denard Span skewing the numbers.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned? Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
Does anything else really need to be said? No? Moving on.
…ok. Just kidding.
It’s pretty simple, the Half Street Heartbreakers’ (this is what I’ve named the rotation so…#trademark) six starter, Tanner Roark, who will be moving to the bullpen this year, had the 17th best ERA…in all of baseball amongst starters. That’s better than Bumgarner, better than Scherzer, better than Strasburg, better than Shields, better than Price, and he’s in the damn bullpen.
The Half Street Heartbreakers (yes, I’m going to keep using it) aren’t just the best rotation in the NL, or the best rotation in baseball, but they’re being chatted about in terms like “historic” and “super rotation.” The team with the best starting ERA last year by almost a quarter of a run went out and added some guy named Max Scherzer to be their Opening Day hurler, and the guy who was the Opening Day starter the last three years, Stephen Strasburg, is now sitting in the 3-hole in the rotation behind Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann. Want to hear a super crazy stat? The Half Street Heartbreakers (told you…) 5th starter for 2015, Doug Fister, had the 6th best ERA in all of baseball last year. The fifth starter.
Ok, so Fister and Roark are probably due for a regression, as both of their ERAs outpaced their FIPs (Fister by almost a run and a half), but Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez underperformed when you compare ERA to FIP, and Zimmermann was almost identical. That’s all true, but it’s also true that the 2013 AL Cy Young winner is now coming to a depressed (talent and emotionally) NL East and will have one less real hitter to face. This rotation will be not be sick, it will be an outbreak of filthiness like baseball hasn’t seen in a while.
The problem is, it might have to be. The Nationals bullpen is not what it once was, and nothing shows that more than the departure of Tyler Clippard, who was arguably one of the best relievers in baseball the last five years. What’s not up for argument is that Clippard was the best reliever the Nationals have ever had. He led MLB in appearances over the last five years, and was not only prolific, but dominant.
While Drew Storen is as worst a push when compared to the departed Rafael Soriano, the Nationals are lacking an experienced set up man. What’s that you’re saying? Casey Janssen? Think again, he’s getting an MRI on his throwing shoulder. While Aaron Barrett or even Tanner Roark could fill this hole, I’m hoping the Nationals allow up and coming super-sinkerballer Blake Treinen to have the first crack at it if Janssen isn’t able to answer the bell on Opening Day.
The Nationals are a good fielding team, but can be error prone. They had a rough start to the 2014 season, but rounded into form nicely…maybe. The boys from D.C. are second in the NL when measured by Total Zone (42 runs), but come in a much less inspiring tenth when measured by Defensive Runs Saved (11 runs). Defensive metrics are so…defensive metrics sometimes.
When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matches? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?
Oops, so I answered some of this the last question.
For the most part the Nationals are a long line of “guys” behind Drew Storen, who, despite having the hook from his hamate bone removed recently, is without question the Nats opening closer.
Ignoring that star-crossed hooking of Jordan Zimmerman in last years’ NLDS, Matt Williams seems to trust his starters, but also isn’t afraid to go get a guy when he thinks he has a good match up coming from his bullpen. With both Jerry Blevins and Matt Thornton in the pen, he has two solid left handed options if he wants to play merry-go-reliever during the end of a game, and that’s not mentioning Matt Grace lurking in Syracuse.
From the right side after Storen, Aaron Barrett looks to continue his strong rookie debut last year with a solid fastball/slider combo and a developing changeup, and Craig Stammen looks to rebound off a down year (for him) and continue to provide reliable and flexible innings.
Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flights? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
Do the Nationals shift? Volume wise they don’t, but when they do they get the most bang for their buck out of almost any team in baseball. I wouldn’t think the Nationals will significantly up their frequency of shifting in 2015, as they have intimated in the past the Half Street Heartbreakers aren’t extremely fond of having fielders looking like they’re playing Duck Hunt behind them, and they Nationals have an infield with good range at all four positions.
As for double plays, they are breaking in a new second baseman in Yunel Escobar. Escobar used to be a fairly decent defensive SS whose numbers slipped badly last year. Mike Rizzo has attributed this to Escobar having some nagging lower body injuries and not enjoying playing on the turf at Tropicana field.
The other huge defensive stories are two position changes: Ryan Zimmerman to first base and Bryce Harper to right field.
So far this spring Zimmerman looks rejuvenated defensively now that he’s flipped away from the hot corner. His third baseman’s reflexes and soft hands look primed for a defensive rebirth at first, and swapping sides of the diamond can now hide his vastly declined right throwing shoulder.
As for Harper, look for this long awaited change to have him battling Yasiel Puig in most gif’d throws in the NL. The spring has already seen Harper okey-doke someone into trying to take second base and getting gunned out, and he has said he is salivating over unleashing a frozen rope to first base and taken a single away from some pitcher rumbling down the line (please, oh please let it be Bartolo Colon).
The only person on the bench that looks to maybe be a defensive replacement would be Espinosa if Frandsen is in the game at second or third, or later in the year once Span returns Michael Taylor, if he’s up, could replace Werth in left. An outfield of Taylor, Span, and Harper would pretty much end hopes of many balls landing or runners going for an extra base, as all have good speed (Taylor and Span especially) and while Taylor’s arm is not in Harper’s league, it’s still well above average.
Does the primary catcher frame well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
When looking at catchers with more than 3,000 framing opportunities Wilson Ramos ranked 28th by Baseball Prospectus at basically a wash (-0.1 runs). His backup, Jose Lobaton, came in 22nd with 4.7 runs added by his framing. This fits the narrative when Lobaton was traded for last year—he was an above average framer who added versatility with his switch hitting.
Where Ramos made an unexpected jump last year was in his 9% increase in caught stealing up to 38%, a career high. Nationals pitchers after the 2012/13 steal-a-thons also have prioritized holding runners, but Ramos has to be given some credit for this increase.
Lobaton had a strong start to the year after Ramos went down on Opening Day with a broken hamate bone, but then had a nightmarish middle of the season before salvaging the year in August and performing decently in September and October. He has a very quiet glove and appears to handle low pitches well, something Ramos has struggled with (I’m judging that by eye test only, mind you) in his career.
Does the team’s home park impact their ability to prevent runs in any unique way? Is the park factor drastic? Is the square footage of the outfield significantly off the MLB norm?
As stated earlier, Nationals Park is about as average or normal as you could want in a ballpark. I stated earlier Fangraphs had it as a dead average park factor wise, and this shows that it is exactly in the middle of all parks in fair territory size. So, moving on.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of an injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
Keith Law has the Nationals’ system sitting at #9 ($) on his list, while Baseball Prospectus has them sitting at #11. This is fairly remarkable considering the Nationals in the past five years have graduated to the big leagues the likes of Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, and Drew Storen, while trading away players such as all-star Derek Norris and Steven Souza Jr.
If you talk about standouts in the system it begins and ends with Lucas Giolito. Ranked by almost every list as baseball’s best pitching prospect, the right handed fireballer, who also sports one of the best curveballs in the minors, is on track to maybe join the Half Street Heartbreakers 2016 iteration, and if not then than 2017.
Graduating from the ranks of prospects to big league players this year will be Michael Taylor, who will start in center field Opening Day for the big club with Denard Span down with another abdominal injury. Taylor’s tantalizing grab bag of tools (our sites own Ryan Sullivan has nicknamed him “Toolshed”) might finally get it’s real test to see whether he can make enough contact to get on base and let that plus speed show.
A.J. Cole has a strong chance to be the first starter called if the Half Street Heartbreakers need help beyond what Roark can supply, and if Blake Treinen doesn’t break camp with the club he’ll almost certainly see time with the team this year.
Trading Steven Souza Jr., the Nationals minor league player of the year in 2014, to Tampa Bay in a three team trade with the Padres netted them Joe Ross and Trea Turner, who Keith Law listed as their second and fifth best prospects currently, and both could see time in the big leagues in 2016 or 2017.
Finally, break out stars from the past year to keep your eyes on: Wilmer Difo had an incredibly shiny season in A ball and hung around in big league camp for quite a while during spring, and fireballer Reynaldo Lopez has flown up prospects lists all around baseball with his swoon worthy fastball velocity.
Speaking of injury, who is particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
This is the point of the preview where every diehard D.C. hopeful feels their lunch start to turn. The only person of the position players who isn’t injury prone is Ian Desmond (now I have to go sacrifice a live chicken so he doesn’t get hurt). Span and Werth both had off-season surgery, and while Werth has an outside chance of making the Opening Day roster, Span had to have another abdominal surgery shortly into spring training, making the earliest he could return after the calendar changes to May.
Harper, Ramos, and Zimerman have all proved fragile the last two seasons, although Harper and Ramos (outside of his hamstring problems) have both been the victim of freak accidents or high speed collisions with outfield walls and third base bags.
Anthony Rendon’s recent MCL sprain also puts his Opening Day start in doubt, and for a player who fell down draft boards due to injury concerns, having him play a full year last season gave Nationals fans heart that is now beginning to flutter.
Team depth after the starters is not poor, but it certainly isn’t up to the standard the starting eight have set, so it remains to be seen if the replacements can reliably fill in until the big guns are ready to resume their spots.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?
The boys from the DMV aren’t just trying to win, they’re trying to make Harper a prophet and cast some rings. The amazing thing though is that while Mike Rizzo has put this team in a spot where they have lead the NL in wins two out of the last three years, he has not left the cupboard bereft of future talent. Both savvy drafting practices and admirable prospect development (Tanner Roark was 25th rounder acquired in part of a deal for Cristian Guzman people, Cristian Guzman!) have made the Nationals primed to contend out to 2020, not just 2015.
It’s hard to believe they could still have any payroll flexibility after giving Max Scherzer $210 million dollars before the season, but the crafty (or insane) structure of that deal means Scherzer for 2/3s of what the Phillies are paying Cliff Lee to plan his retirement. So, who knows? Maybe Rizzo has another 37 feet of scarves crammed up the sleeve of his polo shirt.
What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.
Extend Mike Rizzo some more?
I tried to trick the Red Sox into trading Mookie Betts for Jordan Zimmermann straight up after the Scherzer signing, but apparently I didn’t pick the right kind of scotch to bribe Ben Cherington into rampant stupidity. You know you want to Ben. Call me.
Outside of maybe another bullpen arm mid season, as long as the Nationals are healthy and the Heartbreakers are dealing, they don’t really need to make a move and send away future big leaguers. It does seem like they have one too many front line starters, but with Zimmermann and Fister leaving next year, they’d have to get a serious haul to trade Roark, Gonzalez, or Strasburg and potentially lose the best shot they might ever have at a World Series.
What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Wil they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
Look, it’s been sad ad nauseum that the postseason in baseball is the biggest dice roll of them all, so to bet on anything but the field versus the Nationals chances would be mathematical folly.
Here’s the thing though: I don’t care. You want a prediction? This is the year. For all of it. Harper shuts all of you up, and puts together a monstrous season that finally gets him some breathing room from the haters. Scherzer is all he’s cracked up to be and what happens in 2022 when he’s being paid to pitch for the Yankees is forgotten. Zimmerman, Ramos, and others are healthy, and the juggernaut in waiting finally breaks the bonds that have held it agonizingly close to terra firma these past seasons.
When the dust settles only one team can be standing, and it will be standing tall on the steps of the Capitol.Next post: Season Previews: The Tampa Bay Rays in a Tank/Box
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