Monday Breakdown: The Nats' Bullpen

With Jonathan Papelbon on the 15-day disabled list with a right intercostal strain, the Washington Nationals have an even greater impetus to pad their bullpen. Citizens of Natstown's David Huzzard and Alyssa Wolice offer their takes on what the Nats should do to regain late-innings strength: namely, should the Nats take a shot at landing Aroldis Chapman? 

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2016 MLB Draft: Nats take three solid prospects on day one

The Nats lost 3-1 on Thursday evening, but it was still a productive night, as they added three solid prospects to the organization on Day 1 of the MLB draft. The addition of Daniel Murphy and the subtraction of Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann left the Nationals with back-to-back picks at #28 and #29, as well as pick #58.

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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.

© 2016 Citizens of Natstown