What the Hell is the Matter with Tyler Clippard?

Nothing.

Of course, you might have expected me to say that, since this is a post in the same spirit as last year’s “What the Hell is the Matter with Drew Storen” post.

Fine, I get it. It’s kind of hard to like Tyler Clippard right now. So far in 2014, Clip has recorded 4 meltdowns–and it isn’t even May yet. He recorded 8 meltdowns in all of 2013.

And I can see how you might yearn for the good old days–back in 2012, when the Nats were shutting everybody down, Clippard was awesome, right? Clippard’s 2013 seemed disappointing by comparison, and his 2014 is off to a truly awful start. Maybe you wish that Rizzo had traded him, and not Lombo.

Well, I’ve got news for you: if you thought Tyler Clippard was a great reliever in 2011–he is still the same guy he was in 2011.

We know that Clip is mainly a two-pitch reliever–fastballs and changeups. So far in 2014, his fastball averages between 92.8 (Fangraphs) and 93.8 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour. His change up has averaged between 81.4 (Fangraphs) and 82.3 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour.

Back in the “good old days” of 2011, Tyler Clippard’s fastball averaged between 92.6 (Fangraphs) and 93.3 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour. The changeup in 2011 averaged between 80.8 (Fangraphs) and 81.3 (Brooks Baseball) mph. Would you look at that: no difference.

Here’s the thing about Tyler Clippard: he’s a fly-ball pitcher. Over his career, he has a fly-ball rate of 57.2%. In 2011, he had a fly-ball rate of 60.1%.  In 2013, he had a fly-ball rate of 55.8%. If a batter puts the ball in play against Clippard, there’s a better than even money chance that it’s going to be up in the air.

Now, if you’re a fly-ball pitcher, the thing you want to do is to try and keep the ball in the yard, if at all possible. Clippard does a reasonable job of this. He has a career HR/FB rate of 9.1%–that is, of all the balls batters put in play, about 60% of those will be in the air. And of the ones hit in the air, about 9% of them are going to leave the yard. Live by the fly ball (easy F8s!), die by the fly ball (HR, meltdown, blown save, etc.).

So far this year, Clippard’s HR/FB rate is preposterously high: 25%. “CUT THE BUM,” I hear you howling. But look: in the good old days of 2011, Clip’s  HR/FB rate was 9.5%, and I didn’t hear anyone calling for his head then. And in 2013, Clippard’s HR/FB rate was 9.4%.

If there’s an anomalous year in Clippard’s performance, it’s 2012, where he had a HR/FB rate far below his career average (6.8%). In spite of that, he posted a lower-than-you’d-think ERA of 3.72, with a FIP of 3.31. And yet, Clippard still notched 32 shutdowns in that year, while recording 10 meltdowns.

Don’t take my word for it:

So, I repeat: If you thought Tyler Clippard was an awesome reliever in 2011–and, really, you did–then you need to relax about how he’s started out in 2014. He’s still the same Tyler Clippard.

If his HR/FB rate stabilizes above 10% by about June though…maybe start panicking.

 

This has to be the year.

I’m not going to write about how Washington beat the Nats in the home opener yesterday. I already went ballistic about that on twitter.

So, instead, I’m going to write about why you should be “all-in” (God, I hate that expression) on the 2014 Nats. No, it’s not because my projection has them winning 96 games.

Rather, it’s because of this article in the Post. In it, Adam Kilgore talks to Nats principal owner Mark Lerner. What Uncle Mark says  about the Nats payroll going forward is not very encouraging:

“We’re beyond topped out,” Lerner said. “Our payroll has skyrocketed to like $140 million. It’s in the papers. I don’t think we can go much further with the revenue streams that we have.”

* * * *

“We take it one at a time,” Lerner said. “We’ll look at it after the season as far as what we can do. We went into this thing, it’s a business. We’ve got to run it smartly. We’re not going to do something where we’re losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Anybody can understand that. We’re going to be smart.”

 

First of all, the Nats payroll is not “like, 140 million.” According to Baseball Reference, in 2014, the Nats have committed $135.8 million in guaranteed salary in 2014. That’s a lot of money, but it’s not 140 million. The difference of $ 4.2 million could have gotten you another Nate McLouth, say. Or one year of Hyun-Jin Ryu as a left handed starting pitcher. So it’s not chump change.

But things start getting hairy, fast. Let’s look at the young core and see where the trouble might come from:

  • The Nats bought out Ian Desmond’s remaining arbitration years this offseason in a two-year, $17.5 million dollar deal. That means, barring an extension at the end of 2015, Ian Desmond will hit the open market in 2016.
  • Likewise, the Nats bought out Jordan Zimmermann’s arbitration years. He’s under contract for 2014 and 2015, for a total of $24 million. Barring an extension, he will also become a free agent in 2016.
  • The Nats have opted instead to go year-to-year with Stephen Strasburg. In 2014, he’s owed $3.975 million. He would remain arbitration-eligible until 2017, at which point he, too, will become a free agent.
  • Drew Storen is also year-to-year, and still arbitration-eligible after this year. He’s making $3.45 million this year. He will become a free agent in 2017.
  • Bryce Harper’s free agent days are a long way away. In 2014, he’ll make $0.9 million. (That’s right, less than one million dollars) He’s under contract through 2015, after which he’d be eligible for arbitration. He won’t become a free agent until 2018, by my count.

What’s it going to take to keep all of these guys around? I don’t know. But we can make a few guesses.

Desmond is the second-best shortstop in the National League, behind the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki and ahead of the Braves Andrelton Simmons. Both of those guys are under long-term contracts, so it’s worth looking at them. In 2011, the Rockies gave Tulo a 10-year, $157.75 million dollar contract. The Braves just extended Andrelton Simmons for 7 years at $58 million, heavily back-loaded. It’s not unreasonable to think that Desmond would demand Tulo-type money on the free agent market. So, 10 years, $160 to $170 million. Call it $16.5 million a year for 10 years. That bill comes due in 2016.

Jordan Zimmermann is likely going to hit the open market. What’s he worth? It’s harder to find comparables for pitchers. But recent research over at Beyond the Box Score tells us that a Win Above Replacement is worth about $7 million a year these days. Jordan Zimmermann is a pretty good pitcher. He’s worth about 3 wins above replacement a year. Fine. That’s $21 million a year right there. That bill also comes due in 2016. We can do the same for Storen. He’s worth about a third of a WAR every year. So call it $2 million a year, coming due in 2016, too.

Same deal with Strasburg. He’s worth anywhere between 3 and 4 WAR a year. Say we believe the hype. Fine. That’s anywhere between $21 and $28 million a year, starting in 2017.

And Harper? His West Coast analog, Mike Trout, just signed a 6-year $144.5 million extension with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County California. The new contract takes effect in 2015, comes with full no-trade protection, and works out to an average annual value of $24 million a year. Harper’s going to want that kind of money, and if the Nats won’t give it to him, the Yankees probably will (thus fulfilling Harper’s lifelong dream of wearing Yankee pinstripes) .

So the young core that, all together, costs the Nats $22.3 million in 2014 will cost something on the order of $88.5 million a year, collectively, in 2018.

Seen in the context of Lerner’s “payroll limit” talk, here’s what it means for you, Nats town: if you like these nats–that is, if you like these players and enjoy seeing them on the field together, enjoy them while you can. There is no way–none–that the current ownership group is going to tolerate a payroll spike of that magnitude.

Remember, the Lerners acquired the Nationals franchise from MLB for $450 million in 2006. I’m not aware of any details as to the club’s finances, but it’s pretty safe to assume that the acquisition was heavily debt-financed. It’s a sound business practice to take on considerable debt to buy a business, then transfer the debt to the business. So the Nationals, as an organization, probably have a lot of debt service to pay every year. That acts as a brake on profits and investment in the business (in this case, players).

This is to say nothing about the continued swindle that is the MASN deal, that sees Nats TV dollars shipped to Baltimore. Of course, it’s also speculated that the Lerners (or the Nats, it’s not clear) are getting kickbacks to prevent them from pursuing the MASN matter more vigorously.

So look out onto that field and dream big, Nats town. Dream hard. Dream as if your very ability to dream depended on it. Because soon, this team that Rizzo built, that we all came to see? It will be gone. As Denard Span so famously said on Twitter just before Opening day: it’s our time.

 

Link

Pitches Illustrated

This is an excellent little site/cheatsheet illustrating how various pitches look from the catcher’s batter’s perspective. These diagrams assume a right handed pitcher. For lefties, imagine them (roughly) in reverse. 

For extra fun, print this out and read Stu’s excellent piece on Strasburg’s opening day pitch selection. It looks like Strasburg’s new slider is part of a plan to start busting left handed batters down and in. Contrast this with Strasburg’s previous approach against lefties: the changeup running away from the batter. 

In old-timey pitch classification, this gives Strasburg both an “in-shoot” (slider) and an “out-shoot” (changeup) against lefties. If you’re a DC baseball fan and believe in baseball reincarnation, this is a good thing. Guess who else had this kind of repertoire?

The ball that bothered the Naps [Cleveland Indians, managed by Napoleon "Nap" Lajoie] yesterday from Johnson’s delivery was a fast high inshoot that broke just in front of the plate. He had all the Cleveland batsmen guessing on this ball. If it failed to break, it cut the plate at about the height of the batsman’s breast letters. When they swung at it, however, it seemed to lift over the handle of the bat. This ball, breaking properly, is practically impossible to hit squarely, and will fool the cleverest stick artist in the business. Johnson’s speed, of course, is a factor in all of his work, his curves taking their swing viciously just before reaching the batting area.

 

Not bad, Strassy. Learn from the Big Train.

Predicting the 2014 Nats: Once More Into The Breach

I’m going to cut to the chase. I project the 2014 Washington Nationals to win 96 games.

I caught a lot of static last year when I predicted the 2013 Nationals to win 98 games and take the NL East.

They won 86, of course. Bryce Harper hit a wall–literally. That cost about 100 plate appearances, which had to be allocated to a series of bench players that were, frankly, terrible. Adam LaRoche was not the hitter we knew from his amazing comeback season in 2012.

The one thing I can’t do in my projection system is anticipate playing time. I have tried to correct for that factor this year. Last year, I assigned each of the starting 8 batters the average number of plate appearances that a batter in that NL would face in a year.

That, I have decided, is an error. Looking over at defense, I had also picked a total number of games that I expected each player to play at each position. The defensive projections are based on UZR per 150 games–which means I had to reduce the number of plate appearances for each starter accordingly.

Looking at it again, I had to further discount the number of plate appearances for each starter to the extent that I expected them to miss time. Notably, I have assumed that Adam LaRoche will miss around 20 games, and Jayson Werth will miss around 30–not unreasonable, given their respective ages and injury histories.

Going through and discounting each batter in that way, we come down to a projection of 677 runs scored in 2014. That’s up from 656 runs scored in 2013. Having more Bryce Harper helps, not to mention more of Wilson Ramos.

On the other side of the ball, we have one of the more interesting problems already. Doug Fister’s lat injury is incredibly worrisome. Our latest information is that he will be out another two weeks, and then probably have his innings severely limited for a while. In this optimistic scenario, then, we end up with 160 innings for Fister.

I have picked Taylor Jordan, rather than Tanner Roark, as the probable “fifth” starter. That means Roark’s innings are limited to 60–which should cover the time I expect Fister to be out. Fister’s innings deficit is consumed further with a heavier workload for Detwiler (who I expect to come in as a “piggyback” reliever to allow Fister to build innings)..

Taylor Jordan, incidentally, cannot be counted on to pitch more than 170 innings this year. That’s 120% of his previous high in innings pitched at all levels, in line with organizational rules.

I’m projecting 190 innings for Strasburg, too. I don’t think that’s out of line, given Zimmermann’s progression from the same surgery.

There’s nothing much to report on the defensive end. So, given the pitching and the defense, I see the 2014 Nats allowing 564 runs.

I’ll have more details out over the next couple of days so that I can make this a bit more transparent. But I’ve been so busy with other stuff (y’know, the day job), that I haven’t been able to devote my full attention to these projections.

I really expected this to be worse. I really did. But, fundamentally, I think the 2014 Nats are the same talented bunch we expected to see in 2013. The only thing they’ve got left to do is show up and show us.

Jhonatan Solano: I Know What You Did Last Winter

Note: This was originally supposed to appear on Nationals 101 as a “Who Should Be the Backup Catcher” kind of post. With the Nats trading pitcher Nate Karns to Tampa for José Lobatón and two minor leaguers, this post has been overtaken by events. Still, it would have been a shame to let this go to waste.

In the winter of 2011-2012, The Onion played for the Tigres del Licey, the powerhouse of the Dominican League. He made 36 appearances, batting .with a slash line of .221/.308/.317. In 2012-13, Solano was back with Licey, making 12 appearances, batting .333/.400/.583 with 3 doubles and 2 HR–small sample, but maybe an improvement.

Ever since, he has played closer to home, in Colombia, in the decidedly less well regarded Colombian League for his hometown Caimanes de Barranquilla. How’s he doing? In 3 appearances, he’s 3 for 11, with 1 double. That’s .273/.363/.364–this, in a league that features only two big-leaguers: The Onion and his brother, Donovan. Oh, and the Caimanes? They went 10-32.

The good news is that The Onion has been consistent. Wherever he’s been, he’s been the same slap-hitting catcher that we’ve come to know in the Nats organization.

The bad news is that he’s made only 3 appearances for what can only be described as a shambolically bad Caimanes team this winter. That’s bad on two fronts. First, here’s a guy who usually plays 20-30 games a winter down to six. What happened? Injury? News is pretty scarce out of the Colombian League. Second: Solano used to play in the Dominican league, a league studded with talent. Even if he never hit very well, at least he got a chance to catch guys who had been or might have a chance at becoming big leaguers–in 2011, he would have had a chance to catch former Nats greats Jesús Colomé and Atahualpa Severino, as well as Ubaldo Jiménez. In Colombia he has caught…well, nobody.

I love Solano, and he’s a very easy Nat to root for. He has one of the greatest “how I got to the Show” stories in baseball. But looking over his last few winters’ worth of work makes me pray even more fervently for Wilson Ramos’s continued good health.

Postscript: Jhonatan Solano is called “The Onion” in English. Some have attempted to back-translate this into Spanish by calling him “Cebolla,” which is literally “onion.” But I hate giving male ballplayers nicknames that are female nouns, so I call him “El Cebollín”–the little onion.

Imported from Detroit

The Nats traded Lombardozzi, Krol, and minor-league pitcher Robby Ray for Detroit starting pitcher Doug Fister. It’s official. 

I can’t even begin to process this trade. It was so unexpected. And, on its face, it is amazing.

Here’s what the Nats acquired in Fister. Since 2009, Fister has an ERA of 3.53 and a FIP of 3.68.  That would automatically give him the second-best FIP among Nats starters–only Strasburg is better. His repertoire means that he induces more ground balls–and since 2009, he has a ground ball rate of 49.3%. That would be the highest among Nats starters. He has 1.81 BB/9–the lowest walk rate of any of the Nats pitchers. He has a slightly worse strikeout-to-walk ratio than Jordan Zimmermann (Fister: 3.46 K/BB, JZ 3.64 K/BB).

And consider that Fister has performed very well over the years as a ground ball pitcher with an infield that is sometimes comically inept: the Tigers were 9th in the AL in UZR, mostly because of a lack of range.

Now imagine Fister dealing groundballs with the Nats infield–a defense that, even with its woes in 2013, was still a good dozen runs better than the Tigers. Imagine a still-more efficient Nats infield, armed with the knowledge of the tendencies of opposing hitters, reinforced with better advance scouting and more intelligent defensive alignments. Imagine Ian Desmond gunning down runners.

Imagine it and smile, Nats town, because that’s the promise.

Yeah, I like this trade.

Now if only Rizzo would sign Robinson Cano and sign Rakuten Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka….

Blind Spot

I’ve been busy working my day job, as it were, and haven’t really been able to write anything here. I haven’t felt like I have had much to add to the general postseason hangover for Nats fans.

I have, however, been watching the World Series. I’m starved for baseball–any baseball–and this particular Series gives me the opportunity to root unabashedly for the Pete Kozma to lose. That’s good.

Unfortunately, it also obliges me to listen to the mindless blather of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver on Fox–easily the worst baseball broadcast most fans will see in any given year. Buck’s stilted cadences (more suited to the NFL than baseball) and McCarver’s senile witterings annoy the hell out of me, a baseball addict. I imagine they would drive casual non-fans (for whom the World Series is the only Series) away from the game forever. And that’s before the shameless commercial hucksterism, product-placement, awkwardly forced jingoism, and the endless in-game sideline reports!

About those sideline reports: They’re recorded between innings, but broadcast while the game is actually in progress. They disconnect the viewing public from what is actually happening in favor of what someone thinks about what just happened, which seems wrong. Besides, there is nothing that the booth can ask a manager between innings that cannot be better asked (and answered) after the game.

Not content with invading the dugout, the Fox broadcast also “floods the zone” with not one but two dedicated “sideline reporters:” the beautiful Erin Andrews and the reliably dapper Ken Rosenthal.

And yet, with all of this reporting power, they still manage to miss opportunities to bring genuine insight into the game.

One moment in particular bothers me. In the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 3, with the score tied at 2, a runner on first, and nobody out, Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow delivered a pitch that just barely grazed Carlos Beltran’s elbow guard. Beltran made some minimal effort to avoid the ball, but he showed his elbow to the umpire, who awarded him first base. Beltran, the hit batsman, made his way to first base, where he was greeted by Red Sox first baseman (!) David Ortiz. As Junichi Tazawa trotted in from the bullpen in relief of Breslow, The Fox cameras caught Beltran and Ortiz in the middle of an animated discussion. There was much gesticulation.

It did not escape my notice:

Indeed, Fox had a parabolic microphone operator nearby, just up the first-base foul line, who could have aimed his microphone at first base. The lively discussion continued, but Tim McCarver and Joe Buck paid it no mind. It’s not like on-field microphones never pick up interesting conversations between players, you know?

Then it occurred to me that Beltran (from Puerto Rico) and Ortiz (from the Dominican Republic) might not have been speaking English. So, even if the parabolic mic had been able to record their conversation, nobody in the Fox broadcast could have possibly been able to understand it or comment upon it.

Think about that for a minute. In 2013, there were  1,408 Major League baseball players. 327 of them were born in Spanish-speaking nations or territories (Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, Venezuela). That’s 23% of the population–just under one in four major leaguers.

Of those 327 Major Leaguers born in Spanish-speaking countries, I count 7 on the World Series rosters.

And yet Fox Sports did not have at its disposal one reporter, sideline or otherwise, that might have shed some light on exactly what Ortiz and Beltran were so animatedly discussing at first base. Not one. Ken Rosenthal, fine baseball reporter that he is, doesn’t speak Spanish. Erin Andrews doesn’t speak Spanish either–hell, I’m surprised she can even feign interest in baseball, given her NCAA football roots. Joe Buck can’t speak Spanish. And Tim McCarver? McCarver can barely speak English.

The absence of a bilingual reporter, to me, amounts to a kind of journalistic malpractice. Fox had every opportunity to improve and enrich its coverage with a bilingual sideline reporter– It could have borrowed from its Spanish-language affiliate, Fox Deportes. By failing to do so, they passed up at least one potentially fascinating story in a tremendously fascinating World Series.

And it’s not like the capacity doesn’t exist. James Wagner of the Washington Post is bilingual, and his knowledge of Spanish has tremendously enriched the Post’s coverage of the Nationals, allowing him to speak to players like Wilson Ramos or Rafael Soriano in a language they can understand.

The linguistic blind spot manifests itself in other ways, too. The Cardinals and the Red Sox are playing in the World Series–but for every other organization in the Major Leagues, it is time to turn to off-season player development. Yes: winter ball. But players on MLB 40-man rosters cannot participate in the Caribbean Winter Leagues without a Winter League Agreement.  The Winter Agreement for this season was not finalized until October 12, one day after Opening Day in Venezuela. This was, in effect, a lockout that prevented MLB players from reporting to their Winter League teams–a story totally ignored by the English-language baseball press.

Baseball is certainly America’s Pastime. But if your organization’s mission is to bring the Pastime to America and make them understand it, you do your readers/viewers/listeners a great disservice if you don’t speak all of its languages.