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.

This Shit Is Over

Head for the exits, Nats town. This shit is over.

I can’t offer you any analysis, or even any comfort. The Braves just swept the Nats, kicking them down the stairs and the standings. The Nats are fifteen and a half games behind the Braves.

As of tonight, CoolStandings.Com’s monte carlo simulations [What’s that? here’s a wiki entry]  have pretty much spelled the end of the Nats playoff chances: The Nats have a less than one-tenth of one percent  chance of winning the division, and a 1.9 percent chance of getting into the wild-card play-in.

This shit is over.

Yet, I’m probably going to keep coming to the park. I love baseball too much to stay away. The worst part of this is that I’ve got four weeks of utterly meaningless baseball to endure until September call-ups–a chance to look at a few minor-leaguers I never got a chance to see this year.

I’m still going to root for the Nats, same as I always do. But I can’t expect them to do the impossible. Right now, I am hoping that they finish a game above .500. That’s all.

Bad Company

Drew Storen has been optioned to AAA Syracuse.

This is a hard post for me to write, because I’ve been a huge Drew Storen fan since, well, ever. I’ve wanted him to succeed. I‘ve been a shameless Drew Storen apologist, even in the darkest moments.  But with Ryan Mattheus coming off the disabled list, and only twenty-five spots left on the active roster, someone had to go down. Drew Storen had an option year available. He has also had a disappointing year–so he had to be the one to go.

There’s going to be an awful lot written about Storen’s demotion, and even more said about it. The most pointed words probably come from fellow reliever and sometime roommate Tyler Clippard:

He hasn’t had to deal with a lot of adversity. He came up and had unbelievable stuff. He had success right away. Came in last year, coming off of a surgery, and pitched huge games for us in a  98 win season. Picked me up when I was struggling in September. Picked our team up in the playoffs. Had one bad game. Eight months later, you get to a point where he’s struggling and you turn the page on him, you send him down. It’s not necessarily turning the page on him because I think he needs to go down and regroup, get out of this environment, take a deep breath and regather himself.

You know by now that I don’t like getting into ballplayer’s heads. I sit in the upper deck. I’m lucky if I can track the movement of the ball, let alone look into a man’s heart, mind, or soul at that physical and psychic distance.

If Storen needs to get back to something, perhaps this chart has some of the answers:

This chart tracks the sheer number of swings and misses generated by each of Storen’s four main pitches: the four-seam fastball, the sinker (two-seam fastball), the slider, and the change-up.

Between 2012 and 2013, you will note the sharp increase in swings and misses generated by his changeup–a pitch that he began throwing far more often. There is a corresponding drop in the number of swings and misses generated from both fastball varieties and from the slider–with the largest decline coming from the slider.

This puts in graphical form something that even upper-deck dwellers have begun to suspect: Storen’s slider–memorably described by Bob Carpenter as the “killer slider” on so many occasions–has lost much of its lethality.

If we take the number of line drives as a rough proxy for the number of times batters really squared up and made good contact, that should tell us more. Let’s look at the total number of line drives generated for each ball in play for each pitch, from the second half of 2012 through this month:

Oof. Look at that. Sharp increase in hard contact off the slider. A look at his pitch selection data reveals that he’s throwing, proportionally, more sliders than ever:

So what we have here is a pitcher throwing more of a pitch that is ever less successful. Storen seems to want to throw that slider a lot, even if he knows that it’s getting hit hard. This is not a recipe for success. What’s gone wrong with Storen’s slider?

First: it’s not as hard as it used to be: notice that it’s about 2 miles per hour slower this year than it was last year:

Second, it’s dropping a bit more: surely this is good? Yes and no. Some of the increased drop will be due to the drop in velocity we’ve already seen. If we look at it’s dragless vertical movement plus gravity, compared with release velocity, we note that the slider drops about as much as it ever did–except that now it’s just, well, slower. That’s not good. 

 

 

 

Third, it’s not, well, sliding as much as it did last year:

If there’s any hope here, it’s the emergence of Storen’s change-up as a weapon. Notice: it’s the only one of his pitches that is fooling more batters this year, rather than fewer. That’s something positive. And if Storen hopes to come back to hear the adoring crowds at Nats park howl his name ( DROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! ), then I hope for his sake that he goes down to Syracuse and works on the fastball/changeup combination that seems to be working.

While he’s down there, he could probably stand to work on his slider. He was a much more effective pitcher with a harder, more violent, more lethal killer slider. This year’s softer, milder slider has gotten him into trouble.

And whenever he’s ready, I’ll be back in the upper deck, waiting for him to return as the fine reliever that I know him to be.

 

[Edit: I had initially mis-interpreted the vertical movement graph, which led me to look at dragless horizontal movement plus gravity, which actually underscores the point better. Storen’s slider is dropping as much as it used to, but not because of any breaking motion…it’s dropping just becuase it’s slower. That’s an appealing target for a hitter, no?]