Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Sky is Falling Says Chicken Little

First, the bad news. The Nationals dropped two of three to the NL West leading Dodgers while the Mets swept the Rockies. That leaves the Nationals only three games over .500 and 3.5 games back of the Mets in the NL East. Until this week, projection systems still liked the Nationals’ chances of claiming the NL East title. Now, though, the Mets have the edge with an estimated 59.9% chance of winning the division compared to the Nationals 40.1% chance (all estimates via FanGraphs). The Nationals are also considered a long, long shot for the Wild Card berth, with a 5.3% chance, brining their odds of making the playoffs to only 45.4%. Worse odds than a coin flip.

Of course, the on field performance has been even worse to watch than the projections, and if you are actually watching projections change, you need to get a better hobby. Jayson Werth is back. But he left his bat somewhere in Buffalo, maybe along with the big tip he left. Right now, he is hurting the team significantly just by being in the lineup most days. He doesn’t have power now and, following yet another wrist injury, won’t going forward. He’s struggling to make hard contact and, while he has been good at working long at bats, he’s walking at his lowest rate in over a decade. At 36 years old, his defense can’t justify him playing, either, as he's racking up negative value there, too. When the Nationals had a comfortable lead, it was a nice thought to let Werth work through his return from the DL in the lineup everyday in the hopes that he would round into form by the playoffs. The Nationals no longer have that luxury. Werth is not only dragging the team down by being in the lineup, he’s keeping more productive players off the field. I don’t know what Danny Espinosa said to piss off Matt Williams recently, but the fact that he can’t get on the field consistently is the most underrated part of the Nationals collapse. Giving the trio of Rendon, Escobar, and Desmond one day off a week gets Espinosa in the lineup 3 times a week. Letting him fill in one other day every day for whoever needs a night off gets him in nearly every game. He was the 2nd most valuable position player for the Nationals in the first half. It makes no sense to keep him off the field.

Finally, a couple other quick downers. Joe Ross had his first real struggle of a start at the big league level. I’ve been saying for a while that he’s been performing above his true talent level, and he really hung some pitches against the Dodgers. Sure, you could make the argument that he got some unlucky bounces/defense behind him, but some of the meatballs he threw could also have landed somewhere other than a glove. Ross is getting into uncharted territory in terms of innings pitched. His 126 innings pitched this season are already a career high. The Nationals need to keep riding Ross in the rotation, but we may be approaching the point of diminishing returns as Ross’s arm starts to fatigue. Of course, Bryce Harper is now nursing a sore knee. It goes without saying that if Bryce misses any time, you can start setting some October tee times.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though! Some players are rounding into form. Ryan Zimmerman returned from the DL and hasn’t stopped hitting. Strasburg looked good in his first start back from another DL stint. Rendon hasn’t been hitting as well or with as much power as he did last year, but he is not as lost at the plate as Werth. Even Ian Desmond is coming around. The Nationals are 3.5 games back, but the team still has 6 head-to-head games versus the Mets. If they can stay within striking distance, those two series keep the door open for the Nationals to fight their way back into this race. After this current west coast swing ends, the Nationals make only 3 more road trips for15 games total (with 9 of those coming against the non-Mets NL East aka the dregs of the NL). The Mets also have 3 road trips but will be on the road much longer with 26 total games as the away team remaining.

Now the projections may sound bleak when you consider that the Nationals were favored in the division for almost the entirety of the season. However, the projections still don’t fully buy into the Mets and actually give the Nationals the best shot at the division title of all second place teams. Below are all the teams in similar position to the Nationals (i.e. trailing the division leader by under 5 games):

TeamGBDIV OddsDivision Leader
Yankees0.538.5%Blue Jays
Rays4.52.7%Blue Jays

As you see, the Nationals have far and away the best odds of a second place team, especially when you consider that the team with the second best odds, the Yankees, trail the Blue Jays by only 0.5 game.
One of the reasons the projection systems doubt the Mets down the stretch is the concern over the innings their young triumvirate of starting pitchers have already accumulated and figure to accumulate down the stretch. Matt Harvey has the biggest history of the three, hitting 178.1 innings in his 2013 season. Except he missed the whole 2014 season due to his Tommy John surgery, so logged zero innings last year, and is already at 148 innings this year. Jacob deGrom has been healthy, but he also set a career high in innings pitched last year with just under 180 innings. He’s at 147 innings this season, so has about 5 starts left before he hits that mark again. Finally, the least experienced of the three is Noah Syndergaard. He threw only 133 innings last year, his career high, and is at 128 currently. Relying on three young pitchers can be exciting and inspire confidence in the future. However, pitching is anything but a static skill. Pitchers change over time and, young pitchers especially, wear down over the course of a long season. The Mets, before they leap-frogged the Nationals into first place, had made noise about going with a 6 man rotation to conserve their young stars or even shutting them down altogether if they were to drop out of the playoff race. Whether the Mets limit the innings of their starters or let them pitch above and beyond their previous workloads, it’s going to make a difference as the playoff race winds to a close.

Lastly, take the Phillies. No really, take them (thank you, thank you, I’m here 24/7). They were the worst team in major league baseball for the first half of the season. Then they went out and traded away their Cy Young caliber starting pitcher, one of the top relief pitchers in the game, and a starting outfielder for good measure during July. After playing to the league’s worst record in the first half of the season (with Cole Hamels and Papelbon), they went and rattled off a 16-7 record so far in the second half, as one does while getting rid of one’s best players. No one is going to look at those results and claim that the Phillies are a playoff caliber team, obviously. But it just goes to show that even a team performing at literally the worst level in baseball can get hot for a couple of weeks. For the Nationals, or the Mets for that matter, one run like that in August/September will seal the NL East.

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