Citizens of Natstown

Your Independent Source for Nats News and Opinion

An Appreciation of Dusty Baker Through 18 Games

The 2012 Washington Nationals were 14-4 through their first 18 games before finishing the month of April at 14-8. It was the best start in the brief history of the Washington Nationals and everyone remembers how the 2012 regular season turned out. The Washington Nationals were the best team in baseball and the division race was never really all that close despite our mid-season fits of panic. 2016 is off to much the same start record wise but this is a very different Nationals team. 

The early 2012 Washington Nationals struggled to score runs, and there best offensive weapon was the wild pitch. They were beating the teams they were supposed to beat like the 2016 Nationals but they were doing it because of great starting pitching and the other teams incompetence. John Ryan Murphy throwing away a bunt attempt that was heading foul was a bit of 2012 Nats leaking through but the Nats also scored five other runs in that game one of them being a ninth inning pinch hit home run by Bryce Harper. The 2012 Nationals were the twelfth ranked team in run production in the NL in the month of April. The 2016 Washington Nationals are currently eighth in the NL in runs scored per game. It's a slightly better offense and one that certainly looks to be scoring more because of their own skill than the 2012 team.

 The 2016 Washington Nationals are also good at preventing runs. They have gotten stellar starting pitching and the defense has been much better than anytime in the past. It is hard to say how much of this is owed to Dusty Baker but my estimation would be it's a fair amount. Davey Johnson wasn't a preparation manager and Matt Williams talked about doing a lot of things but never really did them. So far in the 2016 season the Washington Nationals are showing up to games ready to play and not beating themselves with defensive errors. It is in these small but important things that show up over the course of a season that separates an experienced manager from one in over his head.  

In 2014 Matt Williams was handed the keys to a Ferrari and asked to drive straight. Not much went wrong and he accomplished that task until the playoffs. Matt Williams big mistakes in 2014 came with dealing with Bryce Harper and as it would later turn out handing too much control over to Jayson Werth. Dusty Baker from the beginning has let it be known that he and he alone is in charge of the Washington Nationals clubhouse. It's hard to say how much of an impact this has on winning but I'd imagine it's much better to show up to a healthy working environment than the toxic one created by Matt Williams. Even in 2014 not everything was peaceful. There were unnamed veterans and Kevin Frandsen throwing Bryce Harper under the bus and questioning his position on the team. Bryce Harper's play has erased a lot of that but Dusty Baker has never even let the question arise as to who this team revolves around. 

Dusty Baker doesn't manage by the book or by The Book. He has always done his own thing and he's been very successful doing it. His critics never bother to question themselves or their thinking and wonder how Dusty Baker has been so successful for so many years and with so many different teams. Seeing it up close it is apparent. Dusty Baker comes across as a players manager but is as strict and rule oriented as any hard nosed manager. His players buy in to scheduled days off, charting pitches, and whatever else they do to be prepared to play every day. This is the most focused and prepared Nationals team I've ever seen and the entire 25 man roster is involved on a weekly basis. Matt Williams was given the keys to a Ferrari and wrecked it. Dusty Baker has his critics and his flaws, but he at least knows how to drive stick.  

The New Daniel Murphy

This offseason, although they never officially said so, the Nationals placed a clear emphasis on trying to bring in some more contact hitters, guys who profiled completely differently from the standard Nationals hitter. To those ends, they brought in Daniel Murphy who had a career 88.8 percent contact rate and Ben Revere who has a career 91.8 percent contact rate. Murphy also was a free swinger, with a swing rate of 49.4 percent in 2015, a combination that made him unique among Nationals players.

However, no one told Daniel Murphy the Nationals' plan when they signed him, because during his time in Washington he's been a completely different hitter. He's mashing home runs, doubles and even triples like he's Bryce Harper while taking a walk in 12.5 percent of his plate appearances, double his career high. Through 14 games he's been one of the best hitters in baseball and nothing like the regular Murphy.

If that sounds familiar, it's also what he did through the first rounds of the playoffs in 2015. Back in October most chalked it up to a lucky fluke. Some who follow the Mets more closely said he made a change in his swing, which has carried over to this year. Here I've created a side-by-side gif of Murphy hitting a double in 2015 and a triple in 2016 on pitches both up and over the middle of the strikezone.

 

While his hands might be starting very slightly closer to his body, the overall swing seems identical, so I don't think that's the change. It seems Murphy's increased power hasn't come from his swing, but rather from his approach.

And the change might have come in those same "flukey" playoffs. In September 2015, Murphy was still putting up his usual plate discipline numbers with a swing rate of 48.5 percent and a contact rate of 92.1 percent. But then something changed in October, Murphy saw 108 pitches (less than 1/20th the amount seen in a regular season), and he swung at just 43.4 percent and made contact with only 84.3 percent. Not huge differences, but a difference nonetheless.

A difference that has seemingly been kept up through 2016, where he has so far swung at just 44 percent of pitches seen and made contact with only 79.1 percent, a substantial drop from his career high just last season. According to David Procter who helpfully tweeted me, Murphy admitted in a MASN interview that he has made a conscious decision to swing less and try to only make harder contact.

 

So has it worked? Hard to say, since Murphy's only had 57 plate appearances and has a wRC+ 20 points higher than Bryce Harper's 2015, something unlikely to last. And if it does last, you really have to wonder why it took him seven years to make the change. His underlying batted ball numbers aren't much help either, his average batted ball velocity is exactly the same in 2016 as it was in 2015, 90.6 miles per hour. FanGraphs says his hard contact rate has increased by 5.6 percent over last year, but it's still too early to put much stock in that, if you should at all.

What we do know is that this change has ruined the Nationals' plan to increase lineup diversity. In 2015 the Nationals as a team swung at 46.4 percent of the pitches they saw and made contact on 77.3 percent of their swings, 2014 those numbers were 44.7 percent and 78.9 percent. You might also recognize those numbers as almost exactly what Murphy has put up. Apparently he's a big subscriber to the When in Rome saying.

Player Preview: Jose Lobaton

Jose Lobaton was all but guaranteed a returning role as the Washington Nationals’ backup catcher once the Nats signed him to a one-year deal for just under $1.4 million this past December.

Known to be much more of a defensive asset rather than a contributor from the batter’s box, Lobaton made just 155 plate appearances last season, during which he recorded a .199 batting average and .279 on-base percentage. Offensively, both output and the number of opportunities afforded Lobaton have been in steady decline since 2013, a year in which he pulled a .249 batting average in 311 appearances.

But, when the Nats acquired him along with southpaw Felipe Rivero and outfielder Drew Vettleson in a deal that sent right-hander Nathan Karns to Tampa Bay, they praised Lobaton’s work behind the plate – namely, his ability to frame pitches and buy strikes.

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Player Preview: Jonathan Papelbon

Well here we are less than a week from Opening Day and Jonathan Papelbon is still a National. Back at the end of September I'd guess few would expect that to be the case, however we had a good idea after the Drew Storen trade in January that he would be sticking around for another year.

And with those sentences let's move on from the already well-discussed topic of Papelbon's transgressions last season and on to a proper preview of what we can expect from him on the mound this year.

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Player Preview: Jayson Werth

Jayson Werth's 2015 season was his 5th year in D.C. after signing the fabled $126 million contract before the 2011 season. Werth had the unfortunate luck of getting injured early on in the season after getting nailed in the wrist with a 92 mph fastball. The result of his injury was a fractured wrist and being out of action until the end of July. Prior to that, Werth had been struggling a bit at the plate regardless. In the 27 games Werth played prior to getting hit with a pitch, he was batting .208/.294/.287, well below what can be expected of the veteran outfielder. Werth was fortunate in the fact that he wasn't out for the whole season, but there were other issues he would face during the season.

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Player Preview: Yusmeiro Petit

The evolution of the modern bullpen has made Yusmeiro Petit one of the last few swing men in baseball. Petit can work out of the bullpen for an inning, as a long reliever, or make a spot start when needed. While versatility is being valued among position players it has been devalued in pitchers. Gone is nearly all uniqueness of relievers and the modern reliever is a tall, broad shouldered, fastball slinging strikeout machine. nearing extinction is variety of ground ball specialist, fork ball specialists, junk hurlers, and swing men. Yusmeiro Petit is the last of a dying breed and he could be the glue that holds the Nationals bullpen together. 

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Player Preview: Wilmer Difo

Little is known about where Wilmer Difo came from, but what is known is he burst on the scene and would not be forgotten. At some point in his career as a minor league player Difo became a prospect. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when this happened but it may have something to do with his .315/.360/.470 batting line at Hagerstown in 2014. Difo continued that hot hitting in 2015 at Potomac and earned a surprise call-up mid-season. 

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Player Preview: Rafael Martin

Whenever Rafael Martin’s name is mentioned in discussions of 2016 predictions, two possible narratives should come to mind. 

The first – and preferred scenario for Nationals fans– is a tale that would more closely resemble a movie screenplay than a real-life story of “how to make it in baseball.” 

The second – and, arguably, more likely – narrative is one of an everyday John Doe who had just the right amount of talent to catch the eyes of baseball scouts, but who lacks the experience and development needed to shut down batters on the main stage.

Before laying out either scenario, one has to acknowledge how amazing it is that Martin’s name is even relevant in baseball today. And, should the fairytale play out, the Nationals could benefit from the ultimate underdog’s story. 

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Player Preview: Stephen Drew

One of the perhaps underrated pieces to the Washington Nationals’ infield repair job is none other than Stephen Drew. 

Signed in early January to a one-year, $3 million deal carrying up to $1.25 million in incentives, Drew represents insurance for the Nats, a team known for battling multiple injury bug outbreaks year after year. 

That’s not to forget Drew’s own gruesome battle with injury recovery. There was that fateful day of July 21, 2011, on which the only thing more gut-wrenching  then the direction Drew’s ankle bent on a slide into home plate was the manner in which he instinctively pulled said ankle back into place

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Pitching Depth Player Profiles

Depth is always an issue in the major leagues, as a 162 game season played over 183 days causes more than simple wear and tear on players. Over the last five seasons, the Nats have used at least 20 batters and 18 pitchers every year in the big leagues, averaging 21.8 batters, 21.2 pitchers, and 43 players total per season. For this reason, it’s important for us to look beyond projecting the 25-man roster (or even the 40-man roster) and look at AAAA-type players, MiLB free agent signings and Rule 5 draft picks. 

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Player Preview: Clint Robinson

Given 126 games and 352 plate appearances Clint Robinson excelled by the standards of a 30 year old rookie and bench player, hitting .272/.358/.424, good for a 115 wRC+ and 0.4 fWAR after the harsh positional adjustment of first base. That placed him 12th in the NL among first basemen with at least 250 plate appearances, just ahead of fellow left-handed, defensive deficient Pedro Alvarez and even the injury-hampered Zimmerman.

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Player Preview: Blake Treinen

Who is Blake Treinen?

Earlier this offseason, the 27-year-old right-hander joined the likes of Major League Baseball Hall of Famers in a rare category for athletes – a Jeopardy category, that is.

Recognized for the velocity of his sinker – which, as the clue stated, has been known to hit the 100 MPH mark – Treinen’s name has been tossed around a bit this offseason as a possibility to fill a hole in the starting rotation.  Recently, however, that has looked less and less likely, as manager Dusty Baker has all but declared Treinen will start the season out of the bullpen.

Setting aside what the current starting rotation might be, there are a number of reasons Washington should delay any moves to transition Treinen to a starting role. 

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Player Preview: Oliver Perez

Perez then spent some time relearning his pitching mechanics and how to get people out in the minor leagues. He was picked up by the Nationals 2 days after being released by the mets and put at Double A Harrisburg. He started 15 games there and relieved once. In 2012, the Mariners picked up the lefty on a minor league deal. Perez earned a nod back up to the big club in Seattle as a reliever on June 16th and he would go on to pitch 29 and 2/3 innings as a Mariner with a 2.12 ERA and a 2.93 FIP. Given the good performance, the Mariners brought him back for a second season where he would have his best year yet as a reliever. Perez had a 12.57 K/9 and a 3.26 FIP over the course of 53 innings in 2013. 2014 and 2015 saw continued success for Perez for the Diamondbacks and the Astros.

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