Quick. Tell me who Player A is and who Player B is:
Would you guess that Player A is Tyler Clippard, post-All-Star break, and Player B is Drew Storen, post-All-Star break? If you are a die-hard Nationals fan, dollars to doughnuts, yes. Perhaps to a more casual fan, the selective exclusion of stats like saves and innings pitched may have obscured the identities. Anyhoo, the point of this blind résumé review is not to suggest that Tyler Clippard’s days as the closer of the Nats are numbered, or that they should be. Just to highlight that the margin for error is not quite as spacious as it once was.
Tyler hit a bit of rough patch in July, sporting a 5.79 ERA (three consecutive appearances in mid-July accounted for most of the damage and both of his blown saves for the month), and while the August ERA has been better (3.60), a surging walk-rate and morbidly obese 6.13 xFIP (regressed, expected ERA independent of fielding) suggest that Clipp should consider himself fortunate to have blown only one of his save opportunities. And if you don’t like numbers, you only have to peer down a inch or two for visual evidence (praise Roger!).
It should be noted that peering under the hood at Storen’s numbers does reveal a little leaking oil coming from the recently repaired luxury sedan, though with the caveat that we are looking at things only after seven innings of work. Drew’s walk rate of 6.43 BB/9 equals his k/9 rate, and that is not good. And his xFIP sits at an ugly 5.27. Plus, just watching him, he has hung some pitches that deserved far worse fates then they received (thank you baseball gods!).
So, what to take away from all this number crunching? The pessimist would say that the Nationals have gotten lucky, that with their closer and former closer turned primary setup man struggling so much, they are fortunate to have only blown three saves. And while there is perhaps a kernel of truth in that thought, the optimist (that would be me!) would counter by saying that you can’t forecast a gloomy future on the basis that it should have been ugly yesterday but it wasn’t, so it must be tomorrow. That is, the historical performances of both Tyler and Drew, and their skill sets, are the controlling factors for how today, tomorrow, and the rest of the season will play out. On the basis of those factors, the Nats should actually get much better play from both pitchers. And if that is the case, it may not matter which résumé Davey Johnson pulls for his closer position. Both will be outstanding and more than fulfill the requirements of the position.
That’s what the Marlins broadcasters said at the end of this afternoon’s 4-1 victory over Miami, after Stephen Strasburg spun six strong shutout innings in leading the Nationals to a series victory. Oh, and because the swordfish, and not the diva marlin, is his favorite large saltwater fish, he threw in a two-run single for kicks and giggles. Keep rolling along!
Game ball(s): Strasburg. After his two-RBI single in the bottom of the second, Carlos Lee was overheard saying to Stephen at first, “.363. You’re batting .363? I tell all the ladies I weigh 363. Sigh.”
Goat(s): Ricky Nolasco. Stat-heads (and yes, I am oftentimes one) have said for years that Nolasco is a better pitcher than his numbers have shown. He has gotten unlucky, they say. Well, either God has a sick sense of humor, or it is just the case that Nolasco is just not that good of a pitcher. When reached for comment, God said, “Nolasco pitches. I laugh.”
Bryce Harper is still only 19: Drew Storen. With Tyler Clippard needing a day off after making appearances the last three days, Storen came in with a three-run lead and shut the door on his first save of the season. He hung a few pitches, but all in all, looked pretty good for only his ninth game of the season.
Current Record: 65-43
As soon as Stephen Strasburg walked the first two batters of the game, I knew it was going to be a very short day on the mound for the young ace. Although he escaped the first inning unscathed, after a three-run bottom of the third and 67 total pitches in 106 degree heat, Strasburg succumbed to the brutal elements, leaving the game in the hands of Chien-Ming Wang, and that’s never a good thing. Trailing 3-2 at the time, by the time Wang left the game two innings later, it was 7-2 Atlanta and for all intents and purposes, the game was over.
Game ball(s): Mother Nature and the Atlanta Braves pitching staff. It was a matter of survival yesterday with such extreme temperatures and Atlanta’s staff did just enough to hold on to a 7-5 victory.
Goat(s): Mother Nature and Wang. Congrats Mother Nature! You are the first to take home both a game ball and a goat award from the same game. Guess that’s what happens when Al Gore and Tony Hayward are on the nominating committee. And Wang. What to do about you? I’m sure the Nationals had designs on trading you, but with a brutal 7+ ERA and 2+ WHIP, the only place you really deserve to be shipped to is Triple-A Syracuse. And with the returns of Henry Rodriguez and Drew Storen looming on the horizon, I wouldn’t be making dinner reservations too far out in DC if I were Wang.
Bryce Harper is still only 19: Adam LaRoche. The notoriously streaky LaRoche had a woeful time at the plate in June, but with yesterday’s 2 for 3 effort, he is now 5 for 16 in his last 4 games with 2 home runs and 5 RBIs. Let’s hope this is a sign that a big July is in store.
Current Record: 44-32
I guess Edwin Jackson caught wind of my post yesterday morning and just plain decided that he didn’t want any part of a plagiarist’s future book. Okay, probably not. But he was on his game last night, leading the Nationals to a 3-1 victory over the Orioles. Interesting tidbit I picked up reading various articles this morning: Three months into the season and Washington has yet to post a double-digit scoring effort. I imagine that’s why a 3-1 winning line score seems so familiar. Later today, Ross Detwiler will take the mound in an effort to take the weekend series. With Jake Arrieta and his 5.83 ERA taking the mound for the Orioles, perhaps we will see an end to that streak today???
Game ball(s): Jackson, Mike Gonzalez, Sean Burnett, and Tyler Clippard. The Nats are 3 1/2 games up in the NL East almost exclusively as a result of their brilliant pitching staff. Imagine if the team ever starts hitting? Cue John Lennon.
Goat(s): Jim Riggleman. One year ago yesterday, Riggleman abruptly resigned in the midst of a contract squabble with the team. I wonder if Jim is finding that he is able to stretch his dollars better with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos?
Bryce Harper is still only 19: Well, this is certainly interesting: Tyler Clippard to remain closer even when Drew Storen returns. It has been quite the changing narrative surrounding Clippard’s usage this season, starting with the team not wanting to pull him from his setup role when Storen went down during Spring Training to now not wanting to pull him as closer when Drew returns. Parsing Davey Johnson’s words though, he was careful to leave the door open for a swap, if Clippard were to slip up and Storen were to flash dominance in a setup role. For now, I can’t argue that isn’t the correct course of action. Drew is the Nationals’ long-term closer, but coming off of a bum elbow, there is no sense in rushing him back into ninth inning duties before he finds his groove, especially when Clippard has been outstanding himself.
Current Record: 41-28
From Mike Axisa over at FanGraphs comes a look at the Nationals and what their potential needs may be to continue their run.
I’m not sure I’m on board with the Nationals needing to augment their bullpen, especially assuming (I know, I know) Drew Storen comes back healthy. I know a team can never have enough good arms, but in the grand scheme of things, the much greater priority for Washington is how to generate more offense. Axisa does make it clear adding an impact bat should be priority number one, though I’m not keen on a lot of the names he throws out in the article, especially at the catcher position. In my mind, if your are in the market for offense, then go for offense. Pretty much anyone the team could get to replace Jesus Flores wouldn’t offer much in the way of a run-creation upgrade. Focus on a corner outfielder and heaven help us, get Ryan Zimmerman’s bat going.
As little fun as it was to realize checking the box score when I got home how close Brad Lidge came to blowing Washington’s home opener against the Reds, in that brief moment, a smile managed to cross my face. In that flash of panic, a thought came to me. I have absolutely no control over the travails of Brad Lidge and when and how often he will puts Nats victories in peril this season. But as someone who has to write a headline every day, his name is heaven sent.
Writing musings aside, I have to say that at this juncture, with Drew Storen undergoing “minor”* elbow surgery, I would go with Henry Rodriguez as the Nationals closer. I know. He is prone to walks like Michael Moore is prone to cupcakes. But not much more than Lidge, who owns a career 4.17 bb/9. Rodriguez? 5.6. Granted, 5.6 is higher by a decent margin. And there is some risk in that. But at this point in their two careers, H-Rod also possesses more dominant stuff, an repertoire led by a fastball that can hit triple-digits, a good slider, and an improving change-up that averages 92.5 mph per FanGraphs and actually has been his best pitch in the early going (3.8 pitch value** on FanGraphs).
Meanwhile, Lidge is handicapped by being basically a one-pitch pitcher. His fastball hasn’t been dominant or evenly terribly good in years, with its velocity dropping from an average 95.8 mph in 2007 to 89.9 mph this season. Not surprisingly, 2007 was the last time Lidge’s fastball had a positive pitch value according to FanGraphs. So Lidge calls more and more upon his slider to get hitters out. While his slider is still a dominant pitch (2.08 career pitch value), unless you are Mariano Rivera, you can’t consistently get outs in the ninth inning against major leaguers with just one pitch.
So, if I had to choose between two pitchers with a penchant for walks, I would cast my lot in with the chap with a deeper and better arsenal capable of stranding those runners on the base paths. And that would be H-Rod.
Game ball(s): Gio Gonzalez. His debut with the Nats was well, poor. But his home debut made up for the clunker, as he dominated over seven innings, allowing only two hits and striking out seven in the process.
Goat(s): I think I nailed Lidge sufficiently to the cross above.
Bryce Harper is not as far off: Adam LaRoche, who once again delivered with two hits and two runs driven in.
Current Record: 5-2
*Show me a minor elbow surgery for a pitcher and I will show you a minor heart attack for a fat man.
**Pitch value is more of a descriptive statistic than a predictive one. It attempts to tell you what a pitcher’s best pitch is and the numbers I quote represent the number of runs saved over 100 pitches of the type mentioned. For more, read on here.
Never has 2 for 2 on season predictions felt worse. Davey Johnson’s statement to the press, quoted in the post’s title, says it all.
Last season, the nation’s capital nearly saw something happen it hasn’t witnessed in a long time – someone breakeven. That someone, or something, was the Washington Nationals, who by finishing 3rd in the standings posted their best finish ever in the National League East Division at 80-81 (one rain-postponed game against the Dodgers was never made up). Not since their 81-81 inaugural season in 2005 have the Nationals come so close to a .500 finish, and last year they had Livan Hernandez soaking up 20 percent of the starts. Thus, it was no surprise this off-season that GM Mike Rizzo’s major initiative was to upgrade the starting rotation, while shoring up one of baseball’s best bullpens.
While the consensus is that the Nationals lineup has holes, especially an inability to get men on base (more on that tomorrow), many pundits are still predicting that the Nationals will contend for a playoff spot on the basis of a retooled rotation and strong bullpen. Let’s breakdown the pitching staff and whether it is truly playoff-caliber.
Stephen Strasburg – After making only 5 September starts post-Tommy John surgery, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding how Strasburg 2.0 will fare. Does his velocity reportedly being down a tick matter? How quickly will he recover his pin point control, which usually is a short-term casualty of the surgery? And will he recover his ability to induce ground balls at close to a 50 percent clip (it was near 40 percent last season, albeit in a very small sample). Despite these unknowns, the safe money is still on a sub-3 ERA, even with several bumps along the way.
Jordan Zimmermann – The second member of Washington’s Tommy John club, it is not unreasonable to think that Zimmermann may be the best pitcher on the staff this year. He possesses four plus or near-plus pitches and impeccable control; if he can just bump up the strikeout rate a tad, there doesn’t appear to be much between Zimmermann and elite status.
Gio Gonzalez – While I suspect that the Nationals overpaid for Gio, I think a move to the National League will help to continue to mask some of his warts (cough, walks way too many, cough). And while undoubtedly he represents an upgrade, I expect Gio’s ERA to be closer to 3.8 than 3 this year, which will leave many more sharing my suspicions at the end of the season.
Edwin Jackson – He looks almost every part the front-line ace he was supposed to blossom into all those years ago in LA. But he has settled into who he is, which is a strong #4, decent #3 starter, who eats innings with the promise of a sub-3 ERA but rarely the results because he is a bit too hittable and a bit too generous with the free passes. However, since the Nationals are slotting him in as their fourth starter, at $10 million this season, DC has seen plenty greater wastes of money.
John Lannan/Chien-Ming Wang – The final spot in the rotation ostensibly belongs to Wang, but since Wang’s constitution is about as strong as Carl Pavano’s manhood (I keep my promises), Lannan will start the season in his place. Both are about as exciting as a bologna sandwich, but since two sandwiches are better than one, the only way you can hate on this combo for less than a combined 12 wins is if you hate America.
Drew Storen – There is little doubt that Storen is an elite closer. Drew’s slider makes right-handed hitters buckle and cry like John Kruk ordering cake. But his tender elbow makes me worry that the Washington Tommy John Club Card is going to get another hole punched. And if that happens, the status of the bullpen’s excellence will come very much into question.
Tyler Clippard – At some point, probably this season, Clippard is due for a bit of regression. He’s good, but not quite sub-2 ERA good. Plus, he’s been ridden more than Seattle Slew the past 2 years, which makes me worry (hey, I’m an auditor) about his ability to remain on the mound and effective, which is so vital to the Nationals season this year.
The Rest – One of the best things about the Nationals pitching staff this year is the depth of their bullpen. With the addition of Brad Lidge joining the likes of Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, and Ross Detwiler, the Nationals have a very strong mix of righties and lefties, short and long-men who can bring a lot of peace to a manager’s mind. And there is even bigger upside if we all just close our eyes and click our heels three times…
If (and it is a big one) Rodriguez could ever find a bit more control, he and his triple-digit heat would quickly vault to near-elite status. If Burnett can bump his k rate back up close to 1K/IP, the Nationals could well lock down left-hander batters. And if Detwiler can continue to claw his way back to his first-round draft promise, the Nats would possess the league’s best swing-man and an obvious upgrade to the bologna sandwich combo.
While expecting all or even one of these wishes to come true is foolish, even without the leaps, it is fair to expect this bullpen to be one of the reasons the Nationals have a decent shot at a playoff spot.
To realistically compete for the NL East crown or a wild-card spot, the Nationals will have to make at least an 8 win improvement on last season. And despite all the preseason optimism, that’s not going to be easy. The good thing is that the pitching staff appears to be talented enough, and perhaps more importantly, deep enough, to carry out their end of the bargain. I’m realistic enough to expect that at least one of the arms the Nationals will be counting on will not nearly live up to expectations (Storen and his sore elbow and Gio and his penchant for free passes come to mind). However, strictly on the basis of the pitching staff, the Nationals do appear poised to make a run at the playoffs. Will the rest of the team make that run a successful one? Find out tomorrow as we preview the hitters and make a final prediction for the season.
All Mike Morse does is hit home runs. Well, not actually, but after last night’s dramatic walk-off, he has hit four in four games and is positively scorching. For a team desperate for offense, Morse’s hot streak could not be coming at a better time.
And well last night, like many nights before it, was one of those nights. Prior to Morse’s game-winner, the Nats were only able to scratch out three hits and a single run, only to see it all vanish in the blink of an eye courtesy of a game-tying Jason Bartlett home run. Thankfully, Morse responded in kind to the message, sending the Nationals home winners, 2-1 over the Padres. Now that the Nationals are back in the win column, let’s see if they can build a little momentum and take game two of the series, first pitch which is a little more than a half-hour away.
Game ball(s): Mike Morse and his boom-stick.
Goat(s): Drew Storen. It hasn’t been a good week for Storen, who posted a messy outing earlier in the week against the Brewers and then his first blown save of the season last night. Still, the peripherals look good. He will be just fine.
Bryce Harper is a long ways off: Danny Espinosa. The average is awful, but he keeps churning out the counting stats with his seventh home run and fourth steal of the season last night.
Current Record: 22-28
Last evening, before the start of the Nationals series opener against the Florida Marlins, I happened to come across this nugget buried at the bottom of Jon Heyman’s latest column:
Perhaps the Nationals ought to consider locking up manager Jim
Riggleman. Washington has stayed afloat without its best pitcher
(Stephen Strasburg) or best position player (Ryan Zimmerman).
Kudos to Riggleman.
As if on cue, the Nationals then went and gutted out a 3-2 extra innings victory over the Marlins, despite whiffing an incredible 15 times.
I’m not going to pretend that it was all pretty to watch. It certainly wasn’t. But coming off a sweep at the hands of the Phillies, the Nationals needed a victory in the worse way, and got it thanks to a dominating relief effort from Tyler Clippard, yeoman’s work to plate the winning run in the top of the tenth, and a little Harry Houdini from Drew Storen and Sean Burnett to close out the game.
Lately, I have wondered how the Nationals can be expected to win games with an offense demonstrably missing its best piece (the Nationals are currently next to last in batting average in baseball, hitting only .226) and other critical pieces either struggling and/or hurt (LaRoche) or just plain struggling (Desmond and Espinosa). Well, we saw how last night, with a scrappy offensive effort and another superlative effort from the Nationals pitching staff.
As Riggleman said after the game, “We kept scratching and clawing.”
Game 32 Natties
Game ball(s): Tyler Clippard. Two innings. Six batters. Six strikeouts. Wow.
Goat(s): John Buck. The Marlins catcher missed a sign while on third in the bottom of the fifth on a non-bunt by Ricky Nolasco, resulting in Buck, and potentially the winning run, getting tagged out in a rundown.
Bryce Harper is a ways off: Jordan Zimmermann. Another sign of life from Zimmermann, whose six strikeouts represented a season high. Still waiting for a breakout performance, but maybe the increasing whiffs are a sign it is near.
Current Record: 15-17