Tagged: Washington Nationals

Happy Feet – A Look at Bryce Harper’s Last Second Adjustment

While last night’s Washington Nationals game against the St. Louis Cardinals will be remembered for the almost no-hitter for rookie starter Michael Wacha (and rightfully so), there was an interesting side story in the 7th inning, courtesy of Bryce Harper.
 
Jimmy, roll the tape:

 
(Click to unleash the gif)
harper_wacha
 
Did you see it? Did you notice the last second hop/skip/jump in the box towards Wacha before he swung at a 96 MPH fastball?
 
Here’s a different angle of the swing, which really gets the point across:
 
(Click to unleash the gif)
harper_wacha2
 
First of all — wow. In a game determined by milliseconds, Harper takes something already tough to do and laughs in the face of it, making an adjustment as Wacha is throwing a pitch. A 96 MPH FASTBALL.
 
Second — why? My thought is that Harper was guessing changeup — Wacha’s biggest secondary pitch, and one that was especially good last night in his 8.2 innings of one-hit ball. His 32 changeups last night came in at a 62.5% strike rate and a 15.6% whiff rate. When you also consider that Wacha threw just three curveballs and one cutter, you get a better appreciation of Harper’s mindset in this at bat. Already down in the count 1-2 and knowing he wasn’t going to get anything breaking, he assumed he wouldn’t get something hard, so he set up in his usual fashion in the batter’s box, then scooted up to get to that assumed changeup before it darted out of the zone.
 
Here’s a plot of the pitches he saw in the at-bat; as you can see, Harper was one step ahead of Wacha as far as getting that changeup, eventually striking out on the pitch:
 

 
Pretty darn impressive. To not only be able to move the feet, keep your swing mechanics intact while doing so, look for and react to a changeup, but then get a high-90’s fastball, and still be able to catch up to it enough to just foul it off is all sorts of amazing and impressive. But you know what? It’s been done before.
 
Remember Hal Morris?
 
halmorris
 
While his church league softball batting stance wasn’t as egregious as Harper’s, Morris also employed a foot shuffle before getting the bat through the zone. With a .304 batting average, relatively low 12.3% strikeout rate, and 14.6 fWAR over a 13 year career, Morris was surprisingly effective with the approach. Also to note is while Harper all but leaped towards Wacha with his swing, Morris’ was more of a shuffle up towards the plate, with a small step towards the pitcher; small difference, but an important one.
 
While the end result wasn’t terribly desired — Harper ended up striking out — it nonetheless was an interesting look at Harper’s approach and how he is able to not only make adjustments, but make them in real-time; a very rare feet feat.

Advertisements

Spanning Is the New Santangeloing: A Brief Review of Washington Hit Streaks

There have been many impressive offensive feats performed in the last few weeks by the Washington Nationals in the midst of their hot streak, which now has them four and a half game out of the last Wild Card spot, currently held by the Cincinnati Reds. Arguably the most impressive of said feats is the 24 (and counting) game hit streak by center fielder Denard Span, which is good for fourth in Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos history, right behind just-retired Vladimir Guerrero and current teammate Ryan Zimmerman, and has propelled the Nats to a 19-7 record during the streak.   Here’s how Span’s streak looks:
 

Rk Strk Start End Games AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SO BB SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS Tm
1 Denard Span 2013-08-17 2013-09-13 24 101 16 38 5 2 2 7 12 6 2 1 .376 .413 .525 .938 WSN
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used Generated 9/14/2013.

 
Not too shabby, eh?   Now, let’s take a walk down (recent) memory lane and take a look at how Span’s production — batting average (BA) and on base plus slugging percentage (OPS) — during his hit streak compares to similar Nats (as in Washington, not Montreal – sorry Canada!) hitting streaks. Moving forward, I am only considering hit streaks of 15 games or more, courtesy of Adam LaRoche, Cristian Guzman, Span, Ian Desmond, HDIB? great Nick Johnson, and Zimmerman:
 
WSN 15+ Game Hit Streaks By BA and OPS
 
Not surprisingly, Span’s batting average is reasonably high, with his OPS reasonably low compared to his fellow Nats streakers, which makes sense, given Span’s lack of power and so-so (for a top of the order hitter) on base percentage. Fair enough.  
 
Something’s missing.  
 
I seem to recall an 18 game hitting streak in there somewhere, in the annals of Washingreal history.  
 
Ahh, yes, F.P. Santangelo told me many many times over the course of Span’s hitting streak once he had an 18-game hitting streak.  
 
Ribbing aside, let’s take a look at Nats 15+ game hitting streaks — along with Santangelo’s 18-gamer — again by batting average and OPS:  
 
WSN 15+ Game Hit Streaks By BA and OPS (and FP)
 
OK, cool — we see some interesting trends here, namely, these guys are going out of their minds not only with their batting averages, but their overall power. Now, let’s break down OPS into its constituent parts — on base percentage (OBP) and slugging percentage (SLG) and add that to AVG and OPS and then look at these streaks in comparison to each player’s career averages for these four stats, yes?  
 
Difference Between Hit Streak and Career AVG, OBP, SLG, and OPS
 
With this, we see that while Santangelo’s hitting streak was impressive, it is definitely the outlier in comparison to the other streaks; his streak production was in such great contrast to what he normally accomplished hitting-wise, even when compared to his fellow streakers. Conversely, Span’s hitting streak, as well as Johnson’s, more closely trend with their career averages.  
 
What does this mean? Probably nothing; while it would be easy to say that the differences between streak averages and career average is some reflection of each player’s inherent hitting talent, that is a bit of a slippery slope and something that the data as presented can’t really speak to. Variables such as opponent defense and even pitching match ups all cloud the data enough to not warrant too many brash statements made about the data here. What is interesting are Zimmerman’s streaks and how he went about each — while some were driven more by his ability to make contact and not much else, others were marked by his ability to generate runs with his swings.  
 
Taking one more step back historically, how does the Washingreal data compare to other teams?  
 
Let me tell you, with the help of Baseball Reference’s Play Index. Looking at the modern era — 1916 to current day — I provide below the number of 15 game or more hitting streaks for each organization. I then averaged them over the years of interest to give an idea how frequently over the franchise’s modern era a big hitting streak occurs:
 

Team Yrs 15+ H Streaks Strk/Yr
STL 93 170 1.83
BOS 94 170 1.81
DET 96 171 1.78
CLE 94 166 1.77
MIN 97 162 1.67
NYY 95 155 1.63
COL 20 31 1.55
TOR 36 54 1.5
BAL 96 142 1.48
SEA 35 49 1.4
TEX 52 72 1.38
LAD 97 132 1.36
MIA 20 27 1.35
SFG 96 127 1.32
CHC 96 125 1.3
OAK 97 125 1.29
CWS 97 123 1.27
CIN 97 121 1.25
LAA 52 63 1.21
ARI 15 18 1.2
KCR 43 51 1.19
ATL 93 109 1.17
MIL 44 51 1.16
PHI 97 111 1.14
WAS 42 42 1
HOU 51 50 0.98
SDP 44 43 0.98
NYM 51 42 0.82
TBR 15 8 0.53

 
Not that Span’s streak wasn’t impressive enough, but the data provided, especially the table above, confirms how special the streak is to the organization; these kinds of streaks, while seen more frequently in the last few years, thanks to Zimmerman, haven’t been a hallmark of Washingreal hitters, to say the least. Between that and the context of Span’s streak — in the middle of a wild card run in the waning days of the season — only adds to the enjoyment of the streak and its importance to the success of the Nats’ 2013 season.

Wasting Away: Adam LaRoche’s Slimming Offense

The 2013 season has been a lost one for the most part for Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche. Lost, not only from a production perspective, but also when it comes to his weight, as it was brought to light that his medication regimen for his attention deficit disorder has caused a tremendous amount of weight loss in the last month or so, causing him to cut back on his pregame activities in order to save energy.

With the alterations in medication and batting practice routine seems to have come a bit of a power outage for LaRoche — since August 1, ALR has hit four home runs in 130 plate appearances and in general, has produced scant power. In spite of the drop in homer production, LaRoche still appears to be relatively productive — does the sudden weight drop drastically affect LaRoche’s numbers this year, or compared to his previous years averages?

With an assist from Fangraphs, we can find that out. First, two tables. The first looks at ALR’s numbers in August in three different ways — across his career, his career best 2012 season, and this season — the second is the same thing, just for September and October. I picked these due to them roughly paralleling the length of time LaRoche has felt that he was losing weight and possibly energy due to his meds.

Is 2013 such a huge anomaly for LaRoche?
 

Season Split BB% K% LD% AVG OPS ISO BABIP wRC+
2012 Aug 8.7 % 14.3 % 18.8 % 0.239 0.691 0.150 0.247 87
2013 Aug 12.5 % 20.2 % 27.5 % 0.233 0.737 0.167 0.262 96
Career Aug 9.9 % 21.1 % 19.1 % 0.294 0.891 0.232 0.332 132

 

Season Split BB% K% LD% AVG OPS ISO BABIP wRC+
2012 Sept/Oct 9.8 % 18.7 % 22.7 % 0.324 1.057 0.342 0.333 182
2013 Sept/Oct 23.1 % 15.4 % 25.0 % 0.316 0.883 0.105 0.375 153
Career Sept/Oct 8.4 % 24.3 % 23.2 % 0.293 0.888 0.243 0.350 128

 
By the looks of it, not really — in fact, ALR appears to be righting the ship, if the handful of Sept/Oct at bats for 2013 are anything to hang your hat on. While the sample size is limited, his 2013 walk rate (BB%), strikeout rate (K%), and batting average on balls in play (BABIP) betters his career and 2012 averages, to name a few. Looking back at the August numbers, while he did definitely a drop in numbers due to the weight loss, it wasn’t anything precipitous.

Looking at the raw data, it nothing really jumps out at you — yes, LaRoche is having a rough stretch, but nothing that hasn’t been seen previously in career. Let’s now look at his productivity with some help from PITCHf/x and Brooks Baseball.

With this first graph, we look at ALR’s plate approach across his career in the hopes of answering whether his recent weight woes has made him change his approach at the plate:
 

 
In general, 2013 has seen LaRoche be a little more even keeled with his approach, but as of late, has shown some passiveness, especially with breaking and offspeed pitches. Is this in response to some sort of innate admission that he doesn’t have the energy/power to get to a particular pitch or a part of the strikezone to drive the ball? Or, perhaps it’s a reflection of pitchers pitching him differently, trying to take advantage of a weakness in his approach or swing.

The next two charts can help answer some of this. The first is a look at the percentages of pitches ALR has seen over his ‘career’ by month. I write ‘career’ simply because it only includes seasons where PITCHf/x data were available. With that disclosed, how are pitchers working LaRoche?
 

 
There aren’t too many huge trends popping up across LaRoche’s career. However for this season, we do see a good jump in the number of hard pitches — fastballs (twoseam, fourseam, and cut) and sinkers — along with a concomitant drop in breaking pitches in August and September versus earlier months.

How has LaRoche responded? This next chart shows if he is missing pitches via whiff rate:
 

 
While he seems to be handling hard stuff just fine and making good contact (low whiff rate), LaRoche does seem to be swinging and missing quite a bit as of late on the increased number of offspeed pitches sees. With the weight loss, he also seems to be whiffing a little more as of late on breaking pitches, but overall, does seem to be doing a decent job of handling the offspeed pitch in 2013. In general, LaRoche does appear to do a better job of connecting with pitches of any type as he ages.

OK, so he’s getting his cuts and save for some rough going with offspeed offerings, is putting the ball in play. Where’s the ball going, now that he’s had to ration his energy and swings?

First, I provide ALR’s spray chart for 2013 up until roughly when he noticed the weight loss — right around August 5th:
 

 
…and here’s what he’s done since then, a waist size or two smaller:
 

 
It appears he isn’t hitting the ball quite as far as of late, and seems to not be going the other way quite as frequently as he was before the weight loss. Also, it doesn’t appear that he is putting a good swing on breaking pitches in recent weeks and isn’t driving the ball as far as he once was.

Two more hitting charts. These look at ALR’s isolated power, pre- and post- weight loss, as it relates to his zone profile:
 

 

 
Here, we see that LaRoche’s ‘sweet spot’ for generating runs has shrunk as he has — in the last few weeks, if it isn’t in the traditional left-handed hitter’s hit zone of down and in or right down the middle of the plate, he isn’t able to drive the ball and generate some of the much-needed runs that the Nats offense in general has been lacking all season long.

While LaRoche does seem to be pulling out of his slump, what we see is that, while concerning due to where the power outage arose from, a late season drop in productivity isn’t anything new to ALR historically. Beyond that, we see that LaRoche has struggled to maintain his typical power numbers in spite of doing an admirable job of maintaining his approach and not becoming overly aggressive with his swing. Despite the lack of power, LaRoche is still making good, albeit weaker, contact.

With a medication change or tapering of his current dosage, LaRoche should be able to finish the season strong and hopefully give the Nats offense the lift it needs as it continues to knock on the door of a playoff berth.
 
 

 

Offspeed Offerings and the Effects of Release Point

Earlier in the week, Harry Pavlidis had an article in the WaPo breaking down the changeups featured by the Washington Nationals and a breakdown of each into one of four categories that evolved from whether the changeup generated lots of swings and misses (called a ‘whiffer’) or groundballs  (a ‘grounder’). If a pitcher’s changeup did both, it was a ‘double threat’ pitch and a ‘no threat’ if the whiff and groundball rates generated by the pitch were sub par. It comes as no surprise to anyone who watches Nats games that Stephen Strasburg‘s changeup is a double threat and one that Pavlidis admits to arguably being the best in baseball. Also garnering high marks but ultimately labeled a grounder type of changeup was Tyler Clippard‘s change of speed, which he pairs with a fastball that he keeps up in the zone to get batters to produce a large number of strikeouts and flyballs. This pairing as well as the part of the strike zone Clippard lives in is not a common approach to get hitters out, but Clippard’s track record is plenty of proof that it can be effective.

Getting back to the changeup, I had a look at the differences between Clippard’s and Strasburg’s changeup, looking for what made Stras’ a double threat and Clip’s just a grounder. Both fantastic pitches, but what was the secret to Strasburg’s offspeed success? While the velocity differences do show some significant disparity — Clippard’s changeup is of the ‘Bugs Bunny’ variety, with a ton of velocity bled off of it compared to his fastball, while Strasburg’s is closer to his fastball velocity, occasionally touching the low-90’s — perusing the PITCHf/x data of each brought to light another difference between the two elite Nats changeups.

First Clippard:

3hdnp

…and Strasburg:

3hdjw

What each of these gifs shows is the overlay of the release points of each of the changeups and fourseam fastballs thrown by each pitcher in 2013. With Clippard, we see a bit of a disparity between the fastball and changeup release points, while with Strasburg, we see all pitches essentially coming out of the same arm slot — both pitches are leaving Strasburg’s hand at essentially the same spot every time, making it difficult for hitters to distinguish between the two, making the changeup even more effective. It isn’t until the hitter has committed to swing at what is believed to be a fastball that they realize it’s not a fastball, but a changeup. From there, the hitter is not only victim to the change of speed, but also the arm side tail and movement of the pitch that makes Stras’ changeup so devastating. While Clippard’s changeup is no slouch, we do see two relatively distinct clusters, which can possibly make his changeup a tad easier to pick up versus Strasburg’s. Could this tiny difference in release point be the difference between a good changeup — either a whiffer or a grounder — versus a double threat? Possibly. Yet, like with so many other aspects of pitching, there’s more than one way to do things and do them well, and with the two Nats pitchers discussed, we see a difference in philosophy and approach that leads to the same result — a bad swing from a confused hitter.

Tyler  Clippard

Tyler Clippard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bunting With the Devil

There has been much ado over Bryce Harper‘s bunt in last night’s game against the New York Mets — a bunt that came with runners on first and second with no outs, in the eighth inning, with the Washington Nationals down by two runs. Much ado over the notion that Harper would resort to a sacrifice bunt, despite the notion that the situation was in his favour to take a mighty hack or two, as he is wont to do. Also much ado over the underlying theme that Harper’s struggles against left-handed pitching has left him to a last resort to put together a good at-bat — to bunt.

To bunt against Scott Rice, a journeyman rookie who, while admittedly not a comfortable at-bat for a lefty due to his arm slot and quirky delivery, is still Scott Rice, journeyman rookie LOOGY.

While many have lauded the play as a smart move, and one that shows his fastidious and superior baseball IQ, many haven’t:

I will admit that I am in the always occasionally annoying and vocal crowd that doesn’t really like the bunt overall as a smart play, I do admit that there are occasions where a bunt is a good idea; however, I do feel that it is used way too often and those occasions where it is warranted are few and far between.

Is letting one of your most productive hitters — ranked first on the team in ISO, second in wOBA and wRC+ — bunt on his own in such a situation ever a good idea?

What would you say if it was Andrew McCutchen? Carlos Gonzalez? Jose Bautista? Would that change your mind? I bring these players up because of their comparable aforementioned stats to Harper — ISO, wOBA, wRC+ — what sort of environment would you see either of those players being in, where the best alternative for them to generate a scoring opportunity was to bunt with no outs?

Let’s talk about environment for a bit. Without a doubt, the game environment is a crucial piece to this puzzle and one that Adam Kilgore, the author of the link above, admits to.  With the help of Fangraphs, here’s a table that lays out the situations at hand for each of Harper’s bunts for 2013; LI is leverage index and is a measure of the importance of the situation and WPA is win probability added, a statistic that measures how much a particular play affects a team’s chances of winning. A play with a LI over one is considered a play with high importance, while a positive WPA is good and provides some sort of benefit to a team’s win. I have also included score, inning, out state as well as the pitcher’s handedness:

Date Score Inning Out Runners LI WPA Pitcher
05/21/13 0-0 T1 0 1– 1.57 -0.015 R
05/21/13 1-2 T8 0 -2- 1.05 -0.002 L
07/02/13 0-0 B6 0 0 1.31 -0.032 R
08/10/13 4-4 B7 1 1-3 4.25 0.046 L
09/01/13 3-5 B8 0 12- 4.38 -0.023 L

…and the same thing, this time for 2012:

Date Score Inning Out Runners LI WPA Pitcher
05/06/12 1-3 B6 0 0 1.35 -0.033 L
06/12/12 1-4 T8 0 0 0.52 0.019 L
07/03/12 2-0 B3 0 0 0.58 -0.014 R
08/14/12 1-0 T4 1 1– 2.09 0.080 L
08/20/12 4-4 B7 0 -2- 1.94 -0.005 L
09/12/12 0-1 T7 0 12- 1.76 0.004 R

…and two more tables the first being for 2013, the second for 2012, just averaging and summing things up for lefty versus righty pitchers.

2013:

Runners, Total LI, Avg WPA, Avg
All 6 2.51 -0.01
L 1 3.23 0.01
R 5 1.44 -0.02

2012:

Runners, Total LI, Avg WPA, Avg
All 4 1.37 0.01
L 2 1.48 0.02
R 2 1.17 -0.01

So what do these four tables tell us? Quite a lot, actually. Here are some quick hit bullet points:

  • Harper in 2013 is bunting with more runners on base, especially against lefties
  • Harper in 2013 is more likely to bunt in later innings as compared to 2012
  • The difference in leverage situation for lefties is HUGE and has grown in 2013
  • While it is a small difference, Harper *is* providing a positive WPA when bunting on lefties
  • In general, Harper’s bunts don’t bring much to the table (very low WPA) in high leverage situations

So we have a good idea of when Harper is likely to bunt — late in the game, either tied or losing, in a high leverage situation, normally with a lefty on the mound. Just to tie things together somewhat nicely, let’s describe Harper’s lack of success against lefties thus far in 2013:

Split PA H XBH R RBI BB% K% AVG
vs L 131 21 9 2 12 14.5% 23.7% 0.196
Home vs L 62 9 0 2 6 16.1% 25.8% 0.180
Away vs L 69 12 9 8 6 13.0% 21.7% 0.211
High Leverage 31 4 2 14 9 12.9% 32.3% 0.167

One note — High Leverage here is against both lefties and righties, but adds context to the LI numbers seen previously. In general, Harper hasn’t done much production-wise in high leverage situations in 2013, regardless of who is throwing.

So where does that leave us? Where does that leave Harper? It leaves him and the Nats in a tough situation; when environment is taken into consideration, one of the their top hitters (and one of the NL’s top hitters to be exact) feels that his only resort against lefties is to square around and take one for the team and let a teammate pick him up.

It also leads to this:

Screen shot 2013-09-02 at 11.10.12 AM

The two highest leverage at bats for Harper in 2013 have come this past weekend, both against Scott Rice, both in the bottom of the eighth with runners on first and second, losing to the Mets. While both were ‘bad’ plays — both provided negative WPA — they had different results.

With one, Harper’s hustle was questioned in a loss, as he jogged to first after a weakly hit grounder. The other, a bunt in a situation that hardly ever calls for one, led to a runner scoring and eventually to a win.

While this isn’t the way most expected Harper to contribute to the offensive success of the team, right now, this is about as good as it gets for him against lefties in high leverage situations. In a September for a team fighting for a wild card spot, all of the remaining games become crucial, and the parade of lefties coming out of the bullpen to face Harper will only grow in size. Does Harper keep bunting, dancing with the alluring devil that has ever so briefly shown the bunt to be a good idea?

When you dance with the devil, you have to expect to get burnt; do the flames engulf the Nats chances of a playoff berth in the process?

***

All stats courtesy of Fangraphs

Getting Napoli’d: The Nationals Run Environment, By Inning

The Washington Nationals offense over the course of the 2013 season has been uninspiring. Uninspiring enough to inspire the firing of longtime hitting coach Rick Eckstein, and to find the Nats wallowing around .500 for most of the season and in the basement of many National League offensive categories, as I have discussed previously here at HDIB?.

August has provided a renaissance of sorts for Nats bats and has propelled the team to a 16-9 record on the wings of a 4.92 runs per game average. Somewhat lost in the shuffle is the renewed ability of Nats pitchers and the defense to suppress runs — in August, the team has allowed 3.8 runs per game, tied with June for the lowest average for the season.

Many point to new hitting coach Rick Schu as the reason for the offensive resurgence, while others look at Jayson Werth‘s fantastic post-DL run, which sees him hitting to a .355/.441/.595 slash line to go along with a 27.97 RE24 and 17 home runs since June 4th; August has been even more unreal for the right fielder, hitting .412/.505/.617 for the month.

Overall, things seem to be clicking quite nicely for the offense as well as the pitching in August, after months of what seemed to be inconsistent bursts of scoring scattered about many innings of zeroes. The offense seems to be more consistent and generating scoring opportunities on a more even keel.

Is that the case? Are things running on all cylinders, or is there something else guiding the Nats to victory?

Let’s take a look at a couple of graphs — the first looks at the Nats runs scored (RS/9) and runs against (RA/9) compared to the NL average (RL/9) for their 2013 thus far:

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 12.32.39 PM

Here, we are looking at averages per nine innings; I also took the liberty of not including extra inning data, as it can sometimes not be a true indication of a team’s run scoring or prevention abilities, due to erratic lineup switches and position players pitching and the like.

So what do we have here? In general, the best chance for the Nats to score runs is during the first time through the lineup; once players start getting into their second and third at bats, things don’t look so good with respect to generating runs. We do find a conundrum of sorts here, when you consider the team has 27 comeback wins to go along with 25 blown leads. From a pitching perspective, the late innings don’t look so hot, either. As the drop in offense in the later innings comes a propensity to give up runs. Comparing these to the NL averages and seeing that the offense and pitching are on the wrong side of the league average at the same time, we come to the realization that the disappointing season has been a team effort — no one thing can really be pinned as the ultimate reason as to why the Nats have struggled.

OK, enough of that. Let’s see if August looks any different for the Nats:

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 12.33.34 PM

With this chart, we don’t have the NL average line included because league run scoring averages by inning across month aren’t the easiest things to get your hands on; however, we do know that league averages remain fairly consistent across months, so we can be confident the line would mimic the one we saw in the first chart and will hover around 4 for the most part. More broadly, we see that the Nats are, on average, scoring more runs than they give up in five of nine innings in August, compared to only three of nine for the season overall. That tends to be a good thing. However, we also see the late innings being a bugger yet again when it comes to run prevention in August, with some pretty high runs against average in the eighth and ninth — while Tyler Clippard is as rad as it gets when it comes to relief outings, he can’t pitch them all. Looking at the offense, we see a more consistent pace when it comes to scoring by inning — the chances of a later inning outburst is seen more frequently in August compared to the season overall, which bodes well for either a laugher of a game, or a late inning comeback. While the ninth inning offense looks pretty darn sad, this average is driven by home games — when you’re ahead and playing at home, you don’t hit in the ninth inning, hence the lack of runs here. Confusing, for sure; however, it does bear monitoring, especially in away games or close games, where scoring in the ninth does become a big deal.

Let’s take a quick look at big innings for both the offense and the pitchers. Here, I define a big inning for both as an inning where four or more runs are either scored/given up; obviously, big innings are good for hitters and bad for pitchers.

Here’s what it looks like for the Nats for the season and for the month of August:

Innings Innings/Gm
Hitters, 2013 23 1.56
Pitchers, 2013 22 1.49
Hitters, Aug. 5 1.8
Pitchers, Aug. 3 1.1

Not only has August seen a more consistent offense output, it has also seen the Nats more prone to a breakout inning or two; the pitchers are also doing a better job of not letting things get out of hand, in spite of their late innings still remaining a little shaky. For those curious, the big innings (as defined here) for the pitchers were in the first, fifth, and sixth innings in August.

The upswell in runs and victories seen in the month of August for the Nats has been encouraging to see and has provided a glimmer of hope when playoff hopes are discussed — while it will still take a lot of things to go DC’s way, the effort of the club, in particular the hitters, is becoming less and less of a point of contention for fans. However, the efforts of the pitching staff and their improved ability to prevent runs should not be forgotten and should be heralded as the Nats ride this wave of success.

 

***

All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference

Closing By Committee Poll: The Results

In my previous post, we discussed the Washington Nationals and their closer situation and did a quick poll/psychology test on who people felt should be closer, based on the statistics of four relievers, Nats or otherwise. If you need to catch up and read part one, you can check it out here.

Go on, I’ll wait.

Did you read it? You didn’t, did you. It’s OK. We’ll move on without you. Thank you to the 21 folks who did vote, even if you did vote for Kenny Powers. To those who ignored my pleas for participation, all I can do is shake my head in mild disappointment:

jim-head-shake

Are you thoroughly shamed? Yeah, didn’t think so.

Undeterred, let’s move on to find out the results of said poll and see who Nats fans think has the stats of a closer.

Let’s briefly recap some things — first, I presented the statistics of four relievers. Two are previous All-Stars, two are current closers, two are non-closer short relievers, and three have 30+ save seasons under their respective belts. A little more information: two are current Nationals and two are non-Nats. So far, so good? OK, the results:

Screen shot 2013-08-24 at 5.15.48 PM

Player 1 is the resounding winner and it isn’t even close. It appears his combination of stuff, in the form of a good strikeout and swinging strike rate, and success, in the form of his shutdown/meltdown numbers, are what set him apart and led to his vote of confidence by the bullpen committee of you, the readers.

So who was it? Who are the mystery closer candidates?

Player 1 is Sam LeCure of the Cincinnati Reds

Player 2 is Jim Johnson of the Baltimore Orioles

Player 3 is Rafael Soriano of the Nationals

Player 4 is Drew Storen of the Nationals

…and ‘Other’ is the aforementioned Mr. Powers.

Are you wowed? Surprised? Ready to flame me on twitter?

Before flaming, let me discuss the fine gentlemen and the reason why I included the likes of Johnson and LeCure to the discussion.

LeCure, as we learned in my previous post, is similar in style to Storen, not only in approach/stuff, but also place in the bullpen. While from a pure talent perspective, he doesn’t have Storen’s repertoire, he does have a similar pitching style, in the fact that he uses 3-4 pitches and can throw them all for strikes with respectable command of them all. He doesn’t have Storen’s velocity; yet, both pitchers are a rare bullpen breed in using 3+ plus pitches to get batters out. They both also are victims(?) of their situations, in that their managers both manage to the save; they have a designated closer (for the Reds, it’s flamethrower Aroldis Chapman), and from there, the bullpen roles are filled in. Both managers have displayed tremendous amounts of confidence in and leeway to their closers in terms of using them only in save situations and letting them pitch their way out of jams. So, to the 6th through 8th innings, LeCure goes and he has excelled in said role. He has quietly become one of the more reliable relievers in the game and has done so out of the limelight and without much quibbling about where he pitches.

Johnson is not only similar in approach to Soriano in terms of pitching style, but also being oft maligned by his team’s fans. Known to blow a save here and there (he currently leads the AL in blown saves), he still is his manager’s guy, for the most part. While Orioles manager Buck Showalter has shown a propensity to go to the hot hand or to matchups more frequently than Reds manager Dusty Baker or Nats manager Davey Johnson when it comes to managing the ninth inning, he still has publicly confessed that Johnson is his closer. Much like Soriano, Johnson gets by more on contact in the form of a devastating two-seam fastball with a ton of movement and will not induce too many swinging strikes or strikeouts. In this situation, a closer with this approach will be more dependent upon inducing ground ball contact and relying upon his defense to bail him out of tights situations more so than a pitcher who can go to a strikeout pitch to get him out of trouble, so again, we see Johnson and Soriano paired up.

So we have a quartet with a number of similarities and a number of disparities, both within and out of their control. Remember the FIP/xFIP table from the last article? Let’s look at it now, including each player’s ERA:

  ERA FIP xFIP
LeCure 3.12 3.00 3.34
Johnson 3.51 3.94 3.77
Soriano 3.79 3.91 4.17
Storen 5.70 3.84 3.46

Let’s look at this a little closer now and compare/contrast the values here. Previously, we spoke of FIP and xFIP and their relation — when FIP is lower than xFIP, we can infer that a pitcher is pitching better than what his stats project; of course the converse of this is true when FIP is greater than xFIP.

Now, let’s add ERA into this. ERA can be affected more greatly by what the defense does behind you, so when compared to FIP and xFIP, you can get a decent understanding of how much outside forces play a role in a pitcher’s performance. With that in mind, what has each of our four guys done thus far in 2013? First, some quick associations:

LeCure: ERA > FIP < xFIP

Johnson: ERA < FIP > xFIP

Soriano: ERA < FIP < xFIP

Storen: ERA > FIP > xFIP

LeCure has not only outperformed his xFIP, his ERA shows that he might even be a little unlucky in certain instances, but only slightly. Johnson and Storen have both struggled when compared against their own expected performances (FIP > xFIP), but where Johnson has been bailed out by his defense — arguably one of the more talented in the majors — Storen has suffered from the miscues of his teammates at times. Add to it a propensity to give up home runs more so than the other three and you have in a nutshell some of Storen’s  problems this season. Soriano, while not performing to usual standards, is getting a decent amount of help from his defense (ERA < FIP); add to it a low K rate and the occasional home run, and well… I won’t belabour the point.

So what do we have in the end? Overall, there aren’t too many differences between success and perceived failure or struggles; this is where this becomes more psychology experiment than poll. In many ways, labels are just that — labels, and not true definitions or evaluations of worth. It is the perceptions of roles and general success that can sometimes blind a person to a player’s true worth or success — I perceive myself to be the closer, therefore, if I don’t close, I am not successful. My ERA is X, when it should be X-1, therefore, I am struggling. Player X is my closer, therefore, I should not use Player Y in the ninth inning. Player X is my closer, so I shouldn’t use him in the seventh in a bases loaded situation where the batter up to bat is 0 for 25 against my closer, because, it’s the seventh inning. That and no one really likes Soriano.

While my exercise here will potentially fall on deaf ears, it hopefully opens eyes to the notion that success can be found in and defined by many  different combinations of statistics and situations; it’s just a matter of being open to alterations in your perception and the notion that high performers and success come in all shapes, sizes, innings, counts, and pitch types. The fact that many felt a non-closer displayed the most closer-ish stats, even when compared to pitchers labeled as closers, just speaks to this and also speaks to the promise that is left to be fulfilled by pitchers that may not necessarily pitch in the ninth inning.