Thursday, June 11, 2015

Negatives and a few Positives

The Nationals escaped New York with a win yesterday and limp into Milwaukee having won only 3 of their last 12 games. Luckily, the Brewers are giving the Phillies a run for their money in the race to last place. Hopefully, that’s a recipe for a turnaround this weekend.

Now, I could do what a lot of writers do in situations like this, which is to go back in time and find stretches where good teams have struggled at the same or worse rate than the Nationals are currently struggling. that would of course be true, but it works both ways. Given the nature of the game of baseball and length of a season, good teams have terrible stretches and terrible teams have great stretches. By the end of the season, the cream usually rises to the top, though. Now, I have a financial background, so one way I approach the highs and lows of a season are to think of the Nationals as a stock. If you do your research and project the company’s share price to rise over a year, you shouldn’t overreact to a temporary dip or a spike in the trading price. No stock’s trading history shows up as a steadily rising line, and no baseball team steadily builds to their ending win-loss record. Rather, you get the same dips and spikes in performance you see in the stock market. Luckily for us, projecting the performance of baseball teams has proven to be easier than projecting the stock market, and so we have some pretty solid “research” to fall back on. Consider this your usual reminder that despite all these ups and downs, the Nationals at their core are a good team. Fangraphs projects the Nationals to still hit 89 wins and the 3rd best record in baseball once the season comes to a close in September. That’s good enough for an 87.8% chance at making the playoffs.

Of course, you can’t totally predict baseball. Balls bounce in funny ways, players improve or decline in talent, and injuries do happen. The Nationals seem to be dealing with all three of those in spades at the moment. A couple of the major offenders:

Ryan Zimmerman:
I have to assume that Zimmerman’s struggles (currently stuck in a slump with a .209/.265/.346 line) are directly tied to his foot injury. By all accounts, plantar fasciitis is a painful injury and one that is difficult to get over without extended rest. That injury seems to be sapping his power. He his hitting groundballs at the highest rate of his career and though his BABIP of .228 would seem to indicate better things on the horizon, Zimm hasn’t exactly been squaring up the ball and hitting it hard of late. His spray chart (via FanGraphs) for this year really shows the reason for his struggles:
There is a striking lack of balls pulled to the outfield. Sure, Zimmerman has always been great at going the other way, but this season, the only balls he has been able to pull have been grounders he’s weakly rolled over on. It really shouldn’t be all that surprising that Zimmerman is struggling to turn on the ball with authority, he is playing on less than 2 feet, essentially. Until he figures out how to deal with the pain effectively, I’m not sure he will be able to turn on pitches like we are used to seeing out of him, and that's trouble.

Ian Desmond:
Desmond ranks 18th in WAR (according to FanGraphs) among MLB shortstops. A big reason for that has been his horrendous defense to start the year. Offensively, his .291 wOBA ranks him 11th. People love to complain about Desmond, and he has given the haters plenty of ammunition so far this season. However, there is no doubting what Desmond is as a baseball player. He will strike out a fair share (his 26% strikeout rate isn’t far off his career norms) and though he hasn’t flashed his usual power on a consistent basis yet this year, I expect it to show up sometime this summer. Add it all up and you get one of the top shortstops in MLB. A major reason Desmond ranks so highly is that the shortstop position as a whole is seriously lacking for offensive firepower. Now, you might read that as a further indictment on Desmond, but consider who you would rather have manning the position. Other playoff hopeful teams have a much bigger hole at short, like the Yankees with Didi Gregorious, the Rays with Asdrubal Cabrera, and the Dodgers with the player formerly known as Jimmy Rollins, to name just a few. I don’t think Nationals fans would be much happier if the Nationals were somehow able to swap those guys in place of Desmond. And don’t get me started on the “Player To Be Named Later” who isn’t officially a National yet (aka Trea Turner). For all the promise he might show, he hasn’t faced major league hitting yet and, while he has hit well enough in the minors, has generally been older for his level of competition. Like it or not, Desmond is getting penciled into the lineup every day this season.

Anthony Rendon
Two Bag Tony is back! But his swing is still somewhere outside of Hagerstown. It’s easy to forget, but Rendon is still in Spring Training mode. Yes, his knee and side may be healthy, but he is still getting his timing back. It’s only a matter of time, but to expect him to drop back into the lineup with only a handful of rehab at bats under his belt and perform at his MVP level of last year is setting the bar too high. Rendon will come around, it’s just going to take a few weeks.

The Bullpen
The biggest eyesore for the Nationals this year has clearly been the bullpen. Storen is keeping up his Mariano Rivera impression, sure, but the rest of the pen is struggling to find its stride. Guys like Treinen and Barrett have shown flashes of excellence, only to follow that up with futility. I’m sure Rizzo is working the phone lines, seeing who is selling and which players are available. With the installation of the Wild Card team, however, the majority of teams see themselves as playoff contenders are not in sell mode. There are a couple teams that may be looking to deal, but those teams don’t have many bullpen pieces that would represent an upgrade over what the Nationals already have. Until the number of sellers on the market increases (which likely won't come until after the All-Star break), the Nationals will have no choice but to keep trotting out the young guys and hoping they can put it together.

After all the negative, let’s not forget that there are definitely some bright spots. Bryce Harper continues his takeover of the world, Danny Espinosa keeps on raking from both sides of the plate, and Max Scherzer builds his Cy Young case. You can’t count on all three of those guys to keep the astounding paces they have been setting, but some of those negatives we looked at are just as likely to improve. Hopefully, the negatives turn into positives before the positives regress. And here's to hoping it all comes together against the lowly Brewers this weekend.

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