Rendon doesn’t play second base yet

This is, of course, an obvious statement. The Nats third-base prospect, currently with AA Harrisburg, doesn’t play second base yet. He didn’t play second base as a collegiate ballplayer at Rice. And, although the Nats intend to have him take reps at second base and shortstop, that’s not the same as playing second base.

Why am I wasting your time repeating the obvious?

Because the Nats played awful infield defense in this weekend’s series with the Reds. Ian Desmond was charged with a staggering six errors. Chad Tracy had another.

The vagaries of the rulebook meant that Danny Espinosa escaped without an error–but is still largely responsible for the margin of defeat in Sunday’s loss, when, in the sixth inning, he chose to launch a wayward throw that failed to get the runner coming home. A run scored, leaving two runners on with no outs recorded–both of whom subsequently scored, too. That goes as a fielder’s choice in the scorebook, and it’s a terrible choice, but it’s not an error.

All these misadventures, and more, were enough to get the “CALL UP RENDON NOW” brigade active on twitter.

To whom I have this to say: you mean to tell me that, to fix a series where the main problem was lousy infield defense, you want to call up a young player with extremely limited experience playing precisely the infield positions (shortstop, second base) were all the bad defense was happening?

Wait, what?

Anthony Rendon is a talented player, and, if reports are to believed, a fine third baseman. He may yet become a second baseman or a shortstop. He is not yet that–and, until he is, you’ve got to hope that the current middle infield of Desmond and Espinosa shrug off this weekend’s performance and regain their usual defensive form.

Advertisements

Harp-ocalypse Now.

I watched a snail…crawlin’ on the edge…of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering…along the edge…of a straight…razor…and surviving.

Truer words were never said about the Nats’ (lack of) offense.

Nats town is reeling. In the midst of a two-game losing streak (this is what passes for a catastrophe for the 2012 Nationals), the Nats place Ryan Zimmerman on the 15-day Disabled List for a shoulder injury. But Nats fans scarcely had any time to react, because the next news item was even more shocking:

Bryce Harper was called up from Syracuse. He will make his big-league debut tonight at Dodger Stadium, batting seventh, and playing left field.

Am I surprised? Yes. I had guessed that Harper would make his debut much later–at home against the Rays on June 19th.

Some might think that this is a desperation move by the Nats. That might be part of the story. The Nats score only 3.55 runs per game–and, if you take away the two occasions where they scored 7 runs, the Nats would only score 3.16 runs per game. Current Nationals left fielders (Bernadina, Nady, DeRosa, and Lombardozzi),  are batting a combined .161 this year–positively Matt Stairs-like! Even though Harper is only batting .250/.333/.375 so far at AAA Syracuse, almost anything is an improvement over what the Nats have now.

And, realistically who else could it have been? Let’s go through the Nats’ 40-man roster, shall we?

Zimmerman is out on the DL. So if you were looking for a one-for-one replacement, you’d want someone in the system who can play third base, who might have some offense. Anthony Rendon? Well, even if he were ready (remember, he’s only at high-A Potomac), he’s not available because of that awful ankle injury. That leaves Syracuse Chiefs third baseman Carlos Rivero, who has not exactly been crushing International League pitching (.236/.250/.309). Your best bet for a third baseman is probably someone already on the big-league roster. From what I saw last night, Lombo can play a pretty decent third base. So can Chad Tracy, if necessary.

OK, so now we can bring up an outfielder. Who’s available? Other than Harper, the only available outfielder on the 40-man roster is AA Harrisburg’s Eury Perez, who’s got some speed and pop. But so far he’s batting .225/.266/.247 in the Eastern League–not exactly what the Nats would be looking for in terms of big-league offense.

That leaves Harper, batting an underwhelming .250/.333/.375 at AAA Syracuse–that suspiciously low SLG number is not very reassuring, although there is some evidence that he’s feeling a bit more hitterish lately.

Many in Nats town–myself included–were wondering whether this was the moment we would see Tyler Moore, renowned murderer of International League baseballs, get the call. There were reports that Moore had been spending some time in left field to prepare him for this possibility. Moore is actually hitting better than Harper at the moment: .278/.354/.556.

But although Harper hasn’t been an outfielder for very long, he has at least been playing left field a lot more than Moore has. That, to me, would give Harper a very slight advantage in terms of getting called up.

Assuming Zimmerman’s DL stint is not an eerie repeat of 2011 Adam LaRoche (which began with a brave face, then a trip to the disabled list, then season-ending surgery), the Harper call-up is ominous for the members of Nats bench–the “Goon Squad.”

Because of the injury to Michael Morse, left field has been Goon Squad turf all season thus far. The offensive production hasn’t been pretty. If Zim comes back, and Harper is at least halfway competent, one of the goons is going to be terminated. With extreme prejudice.

Looking at the Bullpen: Shutdowns and Meltdowns

Not even in my most optimistic moments would have said that the Nats would win two in a row out of the gate! As I write this on Easter Sunday morning, the Nats are sitting pretty, sharing first place atop the National League’s Eastern Division with the Mets (the Mets!).

And all this despite a lackluster debut for Gio “the Motown Kid” Gonzalez. The Nats won yesterday behind the unexpected heroics of former Hiroshima Carp Chad Tracy, and some absolutely phenomenal pitching from the “B” bullpen, with Craig “Matinee Idol” Stammen in long relief, followed by Ryan “Firework” Mattheus, Tyler Clippard, and some pitching from Hot Rod that was pretty frickin’ bueno.

The Nats’ late-inning heroics aren’t great to my stomach lining, though. I’ve been wondering how I could better quantify the feeling I have when relievers come in. I attempted this earlier, of course, when I introduced my heartburn index–but I’m now convinced that the heartburn index doesn’t give a complete picture.

Fortunately, FanGraphs has ridden to the rescue again, with a new, and, I think, extremely helpful, pair of statistics for measuring relief pitcher performance: Shutdowns and Meltdowns. As the proponent of the new stats explains them:

Shutdowns (SD) and Meltdowns (MD) are two relatively new statistics, created as an alternative to Saves in an effort to better represent a relief pitcher’s value. While there are some odd, complicated rules surrounding when a pitcher gets a save, Shutdowns and Meltdowns strip away these complications and answer a simple question: did a relief pitcher help or hinder his team’s chances of winning a game? If they improved their team’s chances of winning, they get a Shutdown. If they instead made their team more likely to lose, they get a Meltdown. Intuitive, no?

Using Win Probability Added (WPA), it’s easy to tell exactly how much a specific player contributed to their team’s odds of winning on a game-by-game basis. In short, if a player increased his team’s win probability by 6% (0.06 WPA), then they get a Shutdown. If a player made his team 6% more likely to lose (-0.06), they get a Meltdown.

Shutdowns and meltdowns correlate very well with saves and blown saves; in other words, dominant relievers are going to rack up both saves and shutdowns, while bad relievers will accrue meltdowns and blown saves. But shutdowns and meltdowns improve upon SVs/BSVs by giving equal weight to middle relievers, showing how they can affect a game just as much as a closer can, and by capturing more negative reliever performances.

Nats fans are by now intimately familiar with WPA, thanks to the hard work of Federal Baseball. The squiggly-lined graphs he pots after every game show the ebb & flow of the game as measured by WPA. A “Shutdown” happens when a reliever bends the line towards the Nats’ favor. A “Meltdown” happens when a reliever bends the line in favor of the opponent. The Shutdown/Meltdown stat pair thus give us a good indication of whether a reliever is helping or hurting his ballclub–which is kind of neat!

So what does that mean for the Nats bullpen in 2012? Using my standard measuring interval (2008-2011 seasons), here’s how the pitching staff looks:

 Name  Holds  Saves  Blown Saves  Shutdowns  Meltdowns  Heartburn
 Brad Lidge  9  100  16  92  28  6.85
 Tyler Clippard  64  1  18  77  35  5.22
 Sean Burnett  54  8  9  63  42  5.62
 Drew Storen  13  48 7  59  22  4.34
 Henry Rodriguez  13  2  4  13  13  8.51
 Tom Gorzelanny  7  1  2  12  5  6.01
 Ryan Mattheus  8  0  0  7  6  5.63
 Craig Stammen  2  0  0  5  2  4.09

A few things jump out at me at once:

  • Since 2008, Brad Lidge is unquestionably the Shutdown King of the current Nats bullpen. The 100 Shutdowns mean that he left his ballclub in a better position to win after his appearance than before one hundred times–and only made them worse 28 times. This makes me wonder whether Philadelphia unloaded him more because of his relatively high heartburn factor than any other measurable quality as a relief pitcher. On the other hand, Lidge’s ridiculous 2008 season may have gone a very very long way towards inflating his stats here. In any case, Lidge was pretty good on opening day this year.
  • We all know that Tyler Clippard is an awesome relief pitcher. He was an all-star in 2011. But now we have a clearer idea why. He’s second only to Lidge in shutdowns since 2008, and leads the staff in Holds.
  • Sean Burnett has collected 63 shutdowns since 2008–apparently, while I was averting my eyes in terror. The more I study him, the more I am forced to conclude that I have been terribly unfair to Burnett over the past few years.
  • We also now have a better idea why Drew “Batman” Storen is such a good reliever. He hasn’t been relieving nearly as long as Lidge, but he’s already accumulated 59 shutdowns. His 2.68 Shutdown/Meltdown ratio is second only to Lidge’s.
  • Henry “Hot Rod” Rodriguez is, by this set of measures, not even nearly in the same class as Storen or Lidge. 13 Shutdowns and 13 Meltdowns, giving him an abysmal SD/MD ratio of 1.00–the lowest on the staff. I’m still hoping that he will improve during 2012 and pitch to his potential, though.
  • Tom Gorzelanny has a shutdown/meltdown ratio of 2.40. That’s fourth, behind Lidge, Storen and Stammen. I guess he really is better as a reliever than as a starter? Then again, he’s only recorded 12 shutdowns, total–so maybe we don’t know enough about him to judge.
  • I was expecting a tighter correlation between high shutdown numbers and low heartburn index numbers. That’s not what we see. Lidge, for instance, ought to give me more heartburn than his shutdown numbers suggest. Mattheus looks pretty bad next to his heartburn near-equivalent Burnett–but then, Mattheus hasn’t had all that many chances yet.

If the Nats’ starting rotation can routinely get through 6 or 7 innings, there are enough high-shutdown arms in the bullpen to keep the game in hand. This is very encouraging news for the rest of 2012.