Apr. 17-20, 2014 Weekly Nationals Forecast Outlook Update

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WASHINGTON NATIONALS BASEBALL WEEKLY FORECAST OUTLOOK

VALID: Apr. 17-20, 2014

GAMES: 17-20: vs. STL

FORECAST: The first two games of this homestand are likely to be rather chilly, but dry. Temperatures for Thursday will fall into the 40s throughout the game, with Friday’s game being a few degrees warmer. Even still, Friday will be chilly with game time temperatures in the low 50s. Fortunately, the weekend games will be bathed in sunshine, with highs in the upper 60s both days. There may be a few more clouds mixing in with the sun on Saturday. Again, rain is not in the forecast for any of these games at this time.

Forecast by: Kenny Gartner, issued 4/17/14 8:30 am

Nationals Weather Service, sports forecasting division of Maryland Weather Center

Early Promising Trends for the Nationals

The similarities between 2013 and 2014 are somewhat alarming to many. The Nationals were 9-6 after 15 games in 2013 and have the same record after 15 games in 2014. The Nationals in 2013 made a lot of errors early in the season and have done the same to begin 2014. And finally the Nationals were slugged with early injuries in 2013 and the same has happened in 2014. There are promising signs for the 2014 Nationals that didn’t exist for the 2013 Nationals. Though the Nationals have the same record as they did in 2013 they have outscored opponents by 11 runs whereas in 2013 the Nationals had been outscored by 7 runs. In other words the 2013 Nationals were a bit lucky to start the season where the 2014 Nationals are right where they should be.

If we dig deeper into the stats there are some other promising trends. Keep in mind all of this is a small sample size and early season stats lack a bit of meaning, but it is still good to see these trends popping up. Let’s start with the Nats late inning heroics that were on display again last night when the Nats broke the tie against the Marlins bullpen and won by three runs. The Nationals in the seventh inning or later are hitting .297/.370/.517 and in 2013 in those innings they hit .230/.292/.359. A lot of this has to do with the Nats improved bench, but the improvement of the bullpen also cannot be ignored. Too often in 2013 it was the Nats bullpen that was failing to hold ties whereas in 2014 the Nats bullpen has outperformed the starters thus far into the season.

Looking specifically at the bench Nats pinch hitters in 2013 hit a paltry .208/.250/.358 and to start 2014 Nationals pinch hitters have improved to .286/.444/.429. It is a very small sample size with only 27 pinch hit plate appearances but it is a promising trend even if the overall numbers are unsustainable. Add to that the Nationals numbers against relief pitching were awful in 2013. The Nats .728 OPS against starters in 2013 isn’t much different than their .734 OPS in 2014 and neither number is far off from the 2013 league average of .715 OPS against starting pitchers. The improvement against relief pitching is dramatic as the Nationals in 2013 hit .236/.303/.371 against relievers and the 2014 Nationals have hit .303/.378/.513.

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World Series Winners Never Lose to Division Rivals

You’ve heard it countless times from talk show radio hosts and internet commentators galore. There are things that good teams just don’t do. The most important of these is something the Nationals (who aren’t a good team) just finished doing this weekend. At 1-5 against the Atlanta Braves the Nationals are well on their way to losing the season series. The Braves only have to go 5-8 in the remaining 13 games to take the season series from the Nationals and that it is a lot better than the 9-4 the Nationals would have to go. The fact of the matter is the Nationals are already doomed.

Winning one run games, always scoring the runner from third with less than two outs, and winning season series against division rivals is something every World Series team of the last 100 years has done. Sense I’m too lazy to look up the last 100 years we’ll go with the last ten and I’ll prove that no World Series team has ever lost a season series to a division rival ever.

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The Nats Struggles Against the Atlanta Braves

If you’ve been a baseball fan for any amount of time I can guarantee that you’ve been asked by a casual baseball fan why something happened or was the way it was and you shrugged your shoulders, threw your hands in the air, and said, “It’s baseball.” In a sport so good at giving us numbers for everything and with smart people working all the time to give us even more numbers there still exist that which cannot be explained. The real explanation for the Nats struggles against the Braves or other un-explainable matters of the game could simply be sample size issues.

The Nats have played the Braves six times and have looked significantly worse against the Braves than any other team they’ve played. It isn’t even that the Braves are a significantly better team than the Mets or the Marlins. When the Nats play the Braves they just play worse. I am certain the Nats early season defensive struggles will be highlighted by beat writers and talking heads today but 10 of the Nats 13 errors have come against the Braves, and let’s not even talk about the number of outs on the bases or runners left in scoring position. Some of that has to do with the Braves excellent defense and good pitching, but not all of it.

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Playoff teams and records

There are two things wrong with this post. One, it’s way too early to say anything about the playoffs. Two, all publishing conventions scream not to publish posts on Saturdays. But after seeing one too many people saying something akin to the following:

I decided I had to act fast, so here we are. Let’s get this over with. Continue reading

Wilmer Difo is Here to Steal Your Bases

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This is Willem Dafoe, not Wilmer Difo
Photo via NNDB.com

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This is Wilmer Difo, not Willem Dafoe.
Photo via Glenn Gaston, Auburn Citizen

You probably don’t know who Wilmer Difo is. Hell, I barely know who Wilmer Difo is. The middle infielder is not an especially sexy prospect given his lack of power (five career HR in 231 games) and propensity to make mistakes in the field (70 errors in 1022 career chances, .932 fielding percentage).

Difo has made himself interesting, though. He caught my eye by stealing two bases in each of Hagerstown’s first two games of the season this year. With a career OBP of .342 buoyed by a mature-for-his-age control of the strike zone (11.4% BB rate and 13.3% K rate), he raises the eyebrows of stat guys like myself. His 76 stolen bases in 100 total chances (that’s a 76% rate for those of you who didn’t major in math) show off both the raw speed that scouts love (76 SB!!) as well as the efficiency that stat guys love (76%!!). With Difo, there isn’t a superstar in the making, but there is enough to like about him for both sides of the prospecting aisle. Continue reading

The Nats hit too Many Home Runs

If I told you by averaging 5.44 runs a game the Nationals were third in the NL in that category you would think that is a good thing. You’re wrong. The problem with the Nationals offense is they’ve also hit the second most home runs in the league. That means the Nationals rely on the home run to score runs.

Let’s get one thing straight. Scoring runs is good. What is bad about relying on the home run is it isn’t the most honorable way to score runs. The home run represents all that is wrong with modern America. Think about it for a second. Now that you’re done wearing down your fragile mind let me explain.

By its nature the home run is the most selfish act a baseball player can commit. In one swing they score a run, get as many RBI as base runners (including themselves), add to their batting average, and they increase the SABRnerd stats of OBP and SLG. With all these letters and numbers in one swing you’d think a home run were some algorithm designed to run Obamacare.

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On Ryan Zimmerman and Third Base

Michael Young switched positions three times; Chipper Jones moved to left field in 2002 and back to third in 2004; Albert Pujols did not have a set position until 2004; Miguel Cabrera just switched positions for the fourth time in his career. There is a long list of very accomplished players who have moved because their team or career depended on it. Ryan Zimmerman will soon join that list, and will be better for it.

Zimmerman committed his first error of the season (a routine throw to first base in the third inning) during the first game of the season in New York. While it was disconcerting as Zimmerman struggled with his throwing in 2013, it did not sound any alarms.

Those alarms went off full-blast when Zimmerman was removed from last Saturday’s game versus the Atlanta Braves in the sixth inning when he complained of shoulder pain after committing another throwing error that allowed Andrelton Simmons to reach base on what should have been a routine out. While the fallout from Zimmerman’s absence (he only has one at-bat since Saturday) has been relatively subdued, it is no less alarming and changes how Zimmerman and the Nationals should plan for his future.

Zimmerman is in the first year of his six-year extension and remains one of the franchise’s centerpiece players, so any notion that he can, or will, be traded are misconceived. Players like Zimmerman are awarded long-term extensions because their general manager and ownership agree to support them when they suffer lumps in their career such as the one he is currently dealing with; he has reached a point at his career where the Nationals will accommodate his interests with equal consequence as the rest of the organization.

That does not change that the Nationals have a serious dilemma for the remainder of the season. Plans to eventually move Zimmerman to first base were actualized last offseason when manager Matt Williams told Zimmerman to purchase a first base glove and to anticipate playing roughly 15 games at the position this year. But incumbent first baseman Adam Laroche’s hot start this season has quieted those plans. A free agent next year, the likelihood of Laroche’s return is all-but-nonexistent now that Zimmerman’s condition is known, but the possibility for a big year has not stopped the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell from writing that the Nationals should still consider trading him midseason to move Zimmerman across the diamond.

This all assumes Zimmerman can no longer play third base. Revising his announcement Monday that Zimmerman has arthritis, Williams said that he has a degenerative shoulder condition. Zimmerman is not going on the disabled list, and will rejoin the lineup Wednesday night. Because it is his right shoulder, he should still be able to hit, and has not demonstrated any difficulty doing so early in the season. The problem is his defense, which has ranged from sneaky-bad to abhorrent. Even when Zimmerman cut down on the throwing errors in the second half of 2013, his mechanics remained heavily flawed and his arm strength missing, problems that have resurfaced even though the Nationals claimed he would be able to rebuild his throwing strength after a healthy off-season.

Williams announced that Zimmerman is working on yet another change to his mechanics, but even if it restores his arm-strength, there is little doubt he will be playing first base by 2015. Similar to Boston’s Mike Napoli, who has a degenerative hip condition, the Nationals will need to build a regimen around preserving Zimmerman’s shoulder as long as possible. That means no unnecessary wear and tear: less batting practice, fewer pre-game grounders, and eventually, not throwing across the diamond. A degenerative shoulder is different from a structural injury like Danny Espinosa’s torn rotator cuff, which healed itself with time. Years of playing third base have taken its toll on Zimmerman’s body; it will be relevant for the rest of his career and will likely affect his quality of life after his playing days are over.

None of this means the Nationals are in imminent danger. Zimmerman has still been able to hit for power despite his shoulder problems. Napoli, who was diagnosed before the 2013 season, had one of the best years of his career and received a three-year extension from the Red Sox headed into his age-32 season.

Criticism of the plan to move Zimmerman to first base stems from the notion that he is less valuable at a position with more depth around the league. However, Zimmerman’s offensive numbers would still have been top-10 at first base in 2013, and it stands to reason his offense would improve from playing the less strenuous position. That criticism also unfairly assumes Zimmerman would be a liability at first base. Zimmerman is as athletic as anyone who has covered first for Washington in its 10-year history, and 97 of his 135 career errors (72 percent) have been throwing errors. Moving him to first means less throwing and fewer assists; reducing the strain on his shoulder and not only improve his defensive numbers (he has committed the third most errors in baseball since 2012) but making him an overall more valuable player.

While Zimmerman is in better position now than he was this time last year, when he committed 10 errors in nine games leading to 11 unearned runs and a 2-7 team record, the baseball gods have told him his days at third are numbered. The Nationals and Laroche have a $15 million mutual option for 2015, his age-35 season. If declined, Zimmerman will earn only $1.6 million more to play first base in his age-30 season. At first base, he will rarely have to throw the ball and the Nationals will likely configure their defense so he does not receive the ball on cut-off plays from the outfield.

While moving to first base likely will eclipse his value as a star player, it is necessary for the team to remain competitive long-term. There is no reason he cannot be a Gold-Glove caliber player at first base, or at least be trusted on defense again; at third, he is a liability and in decline.

Apr 7-13, 2014 Weekly Nationals Forecast Outlook

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WASHINGTON NATIONALS BASEBALL WEEKLY FORECAST OUTLOOK

VALID: April 7-13, 2014

GAMES | 8-10: vs MIA, 11-13 at ATL

FORECAST: Excellent weather ahead 3 game stretch between the Nats and Marlins, maybe a little cloudy for the Tuesday game, but sun and nice clear skies look to dominate for the Wednesday and Thursday games. the next chance of rain comes on Friday, but the Nats will be in Atlanta.

Forecast by: Josh Owens, issued 4/8/14 1:45pm

Nationals Weather Service, sports forecasting division of Maryland Weather Center

The Marlins are Better than you Think but Not that Good

At 5-2 the Marlins are off to a fast start and while their rotation is full of young talent, the line-up was what was supposed to be lacking. The Marlins offense so far has scored the most runs in the majors, but much of that offense is a mirage. Casey McGehee is not a 1.092 OPS hitter. McGehee wasn’t even in MLB last season and had to play in Japan. In 2011 and 2012 McGehee’s promising start to his career vanished as he put up an OPS of .626 in 2011 and .643 in 2012. Then he was out of MLB. He is back this season as the Marlins took a flyer on him and so far he has rewarded them, but he will regress to the mean. As will several other members of the Marlins’ line-up.

As of this moment, Adeiny Hechavarria has a .393 batting average and .379 on base percentage. Hechavarria is a talented defensive shortstop but he has never been known for his offense, and with an OPS so dependent on BABIP it is bound to regress. Much the same can be said for Marcell Ozuna as neither Ozuna or Hechavarria have been good at getting on base. The lack of discipline at the plate will be taken advantage of by the better pitchers in the league and when that happens the Marlins offense is going to fall to Earth. The one good bit of news is that while many Marlins are off to a hot start, Christian Yelich is not and his offensive rebound could coincide with the other line-up members’ regression. That will help some but it won’t stop the Marlins offense from falling into the bottom half of the league.

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Average Fastball Velocity and Pitcher Performance

The other day Mitchel Lichtman, one of the authors of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, tweeted out something interesting.

The initial reaction is that it can’t be that simple. However, with the public release of PitchF/X data we have seen a number of great baseball research projects and perhaps no topic has been covered more thoroughly than average fastball velocity.

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The Nats Restructured Bullpen

There isn’t much difference between the Opening Day 2013 Nationals bullpen and the 2014 variety, but even small changes can have major impacts. Gone are Zach Duke, Henry Rodriguez, and Ryan Mattheus replaced by Ross Detwiler, Aaron Barrett, and Jerry Blevins. Add that to the incumbents Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, and Craig Stammen and the Nationals bullpen doesn’t have a bad choice. It is early in the season and perhaps the dreaded blower will emerge as the season progresses but the Nationals bullpen is full of both talent and pedigree and if all the relievers pitch to their expected averages then the bullpen will be a strength of the team.

Compare this to last season where there were definite bad choices. Henry Rodriguez was a project and a mop-up man to be avoided in a close or tied game and Zach Duke was a long reliever that lacked the stuff to even make it through three outs without surrendering multiple runs. Matt Williams could draw names out of a hat and it would be a good choice whereas Davey Johnson had pitchers that could only be used in loses and that isn’t the type of bullpen he envisioned.

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Citizens of Natstown Podcast 4/3/2014

With meaningful games having been played TJ, Huzz, and Matt are joined by Brett Bosely to talk the week in Nats news, the Mets series, the loss of Wilson Ramos, Bryce Harper’s reputation, the lineup; as well as discussing some thoughts on what to take from the small sample size of Matt Williams’ managerial style and previewing the upcoming series with the Braves.

Citizens of Natstown Podcast - Citizens of Natstown - A Washington Nationals Blog

Download the Citizens of Natstown Podcast 4/3/2014

A Look Back at Opening Day in New York

From being down to the last out, to a victory was one of the more exhilarating (and nerve racking) beginnings to a season since Opening Day 2008, and Ryan Zimmerman’s christening of Nationals Park.

The Nationals were able to overcome a game where they trailed through a majority of the eight previous innings, and took a victory over the New York Mets by a final of 9-7.

Being at Citi Field on Monday was an amazing atmosphere for all who were there, whether you were a Mets or Nationals fan. The cold breeze was no match for fans enthusiasm for the start of a new baseball season. This was certainly the case for me, as I grinded it out on the upper deck for all nine innings. It also is the day of hope, when all teams are even. It allows you to either gain or lose hope on how your season could potentially turn out.

Luckily for Nats fans, this season started out pointing in the direction of a division victory. After six brutal innings with no offense besides a Adam LaRoche bomb in the second inning, the Nationals finally woke up. In the seventh, it was bullpen problems for the Mets that were a catalyst for the Nationals comeback. Even though it seemed the strike zone shrunk in the later innings for the Mets bullpen, the Nationals used it to their advantage tying the game in the seventh. It was an Anthony Rendon double to right to score Ian Desmond, and a Denard Span walk to force in Adam LaRoche to tie the game at 5 up to that point. The first ray of hope of a win. Continue reading