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
No, that’s not the title to the blog post announcing that I’m finally getting back to covering the National’s run towards the playoffs. And I really mean it this time. No, that’s what the Nats pulled off last night against the Miami Marlins, after a sloppy start put Washington behind the eight ball.
Trailing 6-4 with one out in the bottom of the eighth, thankfully, the Marlins continued their second-half spectacular implosion, with Mike Dunn botching Carlos Lee’s toss on Adam LaRoche’s sure ground-out. So, instead of two outs with no one on, Dunn proceeded to walk Jayson Werth to put two on with only one out, thus limiting the harm that came when newly-acquired Kurt Suzuki then struck out. Four consecutive hits, including home runs by Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper then totaled six unearned runs for Washington, flipping the scoreboard to a much more attractive 10-6 lead. Tyler Clippard would cough up a harmless run in the top of the ninth to secure the victory, and with it, the Nats were able to stretch their lead in the NL East over the Atlanta Braves to three games.
Game ball(s): LaRoche. Ho, hum. I guess Adam got bored with just hitting one home run a game, so he went all Doublemint on the Marlins. Last four games: 8 for 16, 4 home runs, 7 RBIs, and 6 runs scored. This is just what Adam does. He gets crazy hot for stretches. Good thing his current stretch has been the entire second half so far.
Goat(s): Dunn. I love when pitchers with a 1.63 WHIP come into a game. You bring the WHIP, you get the WHIP.
Bryce Harper is still only 19: Espinosa. He is still only 25, which has its ups (three-run home run to push the Nats into the lead) and downs (two costly errors that led to three runs). I worry about how that will play come the playoffs, but then again, you could say that about a number of Nats come October. I’m sorry. I’m an auditor. I breathe and I worry.
Current Record: 64-43
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
I know the Boston Red Sox are not the same team this season as in recent seasons, but I didn’t realize they already felt after Friday night that the only chance for a win was to try and prevent the Nationals team bus from making it to the park in time. Alas, for Red Sox Nation, for a second straight game, the Nationals did arrive in time, and unfortunately for them, Gio Gonzalez stepped off the bus, much like Stephen Strasburg did less than 24 hours before him.
It’s funny how more than two months removed from looking at the team before the start of the season, with a myriad of injuries dotting the landscape, shocking demotions and promotions, the formula for a contending season hasn’t changed: Outstanding pitching backed by solid defense and enough offense to limit the heart-wrenching 2-1 losses. Washington has largely delivered on that formula to date, riding it to the top of the NL East standings and wins in the first two games in Boston. Now if only MLB had an innings jump feature like 9 Innings Pro Baseball 2011 on my iPad, the team could already be sitting in the World Series…
Game ball(s): Strasburg and Gonzalez. If anyone can think of a better one-two punch in baseball right now, drop me a note in the comments section.
Goat(s): Me. This is more about what is probably going to happen later today than what has transpired the first two days in Beantown. I’m starting Jordan Zimmermann in my fantasy league today. I’m sorry.
Bryce Harper is still only 19: Bryce Harper, for his monster debut at Fenway Friday night, and Tyler Clippard, for bringing stable dominance to the back-end of Washington’s bullpen.
Current Record: 34-23
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.
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