Saying Hello to Max…and Goodbye to Stras and JZ?

The Nats have named Max Scherzer their Opening Day starter, which makes a lot of sense. After all, they Nats are paying him an ungodly amount of money. He’s the only one on the staff that actually won a Cy Young Award.

Strasburg, the incumbent Number One, has been down with an ankle injury, so that knocks him out.

But what makes this all so interesting is a recent post on Hardball Times about success rates after Tommy John Surgery. The article looked at Major League pitchers between 1979 and 2009 that underwent Tommy John Surgery, breaking them down by age when they underwent surgery.

The prognosis for Tommy John surgeries isn’t that great. For pitchers that underwent surgery between the ages of 16 and 23, the article finds a median post-surgery MLB contribution of 93 appearances. For a starting pitcher, that’s maybe four or five years’ worth of starts.

What does this all have to do with Scherzer and Strasburg and Zimmermann?

First, it puts Scherzer’s seven-year deal into perspective. The Nats bought seven years of Max Scherzer, a pitcher who did not undergo the surgery.

They did not (yet) buy five years of Jordan Zimmermann, almost five years removed from surgery.

They have not (yet) decided to buy five years of Stephen Strasburg, four years removed from surgery.

Maybe we’ve been thinking about the Nats pitching contracts all wrong. Maybe it’s not Jordan Zimmermann’s distaste for DC traffic that’s keeping him from accepting a contract  extension with the Nationals. It seems to me more likely that Rizzo and the Nationals are unwilling to pay what they consider to be an inflated market price when they have extracted as much value as anyone is likely to get from a post-TJ pitcher.

As for Zimmermann, so, too with Strasburg, who does not suffer the indignity of having his Opening Day duties taken because of an (in)convenient injury. Again, there’s reason to believe Rizzo will be unwilling to pay Scherzer money when Strasburg has maybe a 50/50 chance of providing any value–remember, he’s coming up to that median survival time.

Besides, Rizzo already paid Scherzer money–for Max Scherzer.

This is how it, is Nats town. Given all this, my advice is to enjoy every Zimmermann masterpiece. Make every day Strasmas. Because at this rate, I’m pretty pessimistic about the chances that either of those two guys stays around. From the organization’s perspective, it might be that that this window is closing.

Nobody Beats the Rizz

I won a MASN contest and got to have a brief meet-and-greet with Nats GM Mike Rizzo before yesterday’s game. I was one of 8 fans who got to stand on the warning track by the first-base dugout and chat. Questions ranged from the state of the Spring Training facility lease (I wasn’t paying very close attention), to the amount of time Rizzo spends with the big league team (the majority of his time during the year).

I was interested in international scouting and free agency. A few things I learned in a brief conversation with the Rizz:

  • Rizzo expressed great satisfaction with the newly-rebuilt academy in the DR.
  • Livan Hernandez does a lot more than throw live BP to Nats batters. He spends at least some time in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the Caribbean. With some prompting, Rizzo half-jokingly referred to Livo as the “Cuban liaison.”
  • Speaking of Cuban players: the Nationals keep as close an eye on them as they’re permitted to. I asked Rizzo about the difficulty in obtaining good information on Cuban players. He replied that, given the number of times Cuban teams compete in international tournaments, it is possible to gain some idea about the players they are interested in.
  • I asked whether the Nationals’ sale of minor-leaguer Ryan Tatusko to the Hanwha Eagles of the Korean Baseball Organization signals a new willingness to explore the East Asian market. Rizzo replied that the Nationals maintain a scouting department for the entire Pacific Rim: “We’ve scouted the Darvishes and the Tanakas.” He went on, noting that he, himself, had 20 years of dealing with Asian players and clubs. He added, with a note of wistfulness, that he had scouted a Japanese pitcher during his time with the Diamondbacks–Nishimura, currently with the Yomiuri Giants. “I wish I had him.”

The most interesting thing about Mike Rizzo is that he seems most comfortable talking about baseball. Fan meet-and-greet sessions are pretty awkward, contrived situations, but once he got on to baseball and scouting, he was as enthusiastic as a man in his position could prudently be.

 

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….

I’m sorry, Nats Town.

I try very hard not to blog out of emotion. There’s a lot of feeling out there–mostly on sports talk radio–and not enough thinking. If you follow me on twitter, you know that I’m pretty emotional when I watch Nats games. Lately, most of those emotions are bad. 

So I want to apologize, Nats town. I’m sorry. As winter thawed to spring, I projected the Nats for an unbelievable 98 wins and the division crown. As I write this, the Nats are 48-52, in third place behind Philadelphia, and eight games back from the division-leading Braves.

I don’t think they’re going to catch up.

When I projected the Nats to win all those games, I assumed two things: the starting lineup would be healthy, and everybody was going to perform in line with their four-year trailing averages.

By this time, my model would have expected the Nats to have scored some 448 runs. They have scored only 367 to date. The disappointments are all across the board.

Let’s look at the differences:

According to my pre-season model, Jayson Werth should have 63 wRC by now. He has accumulated only 44–a difference of 19 runs over 100 games. Given his tremendous performance since his return from the disabled list, we can safely assume that his time away accounts for the difference in runs.

Injury also robbed the Nats of nearly a month of Bryce Harper’s services. By now, according to my model, he should have accounted for 59 wRC. He has accumulated only 42: a difference of 17 runs.

More perplexing is the offensive decline of Denard Span. According to my model, he should have accounted for 54 wRC by now; he only has 40, a difference of 14 runs. Every time I see him, he seems to ground out sharply to second base–a gut feeling reinforced by the fact that his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) stands at .300, down from his career BABIP of .315. Perhaps he was due for a regression in BABIP eventually? I don’t know.

The single biggest offensive failure of the Nats in the first 100 games of the 2013 season was their stubborn insistence on Danny Espinosa. We now know that Espinosa was suffering through a number of injuries that sapped him of power–his ISO (Isolated power) numbers dropped from a career .165 to .114 this year. The power outage, coupled with his high strikeout rate (28.1% this year, slightly up from his career K% of 27.1%), rendered him an offensive black hole and an automatic “out” for opposing pitchers. Had Espinosa been at least as healthy as he was in 2011 and 2012, my model expected him to have accumulated 42 wRC by now. He accumulated 4. That’s a difference of 38 runs.

Put another way: if Danny Espinosa had been as I expected him to be this year, and if the Nats had allowed exactly as many runs as they have to this point (392 runs), the Nats would be five wins better.

Put yet one more way: Danny Espinosa was so bad compared to how I projected him that the shortfall that he created in my projections is greater than the shortfall created by the injuries to Harper and Werth combined.

Espinosa’s offensive failings, we can say, helped put the Nats in a very deep hole–one that they might not manage to climb out of. Every team struggles. Nobody in the NL East seems to be winning as I write this. And yet, the Nats have fallen into third place because of their lousy start.

This wasn’t Rick Eckstein’s fault, or Davey Johnson’s, or, really Danny Espinosa’s fault. This was General Manager Mike Rizzo’s fault. His “scout’s eye” might have told him something was wrong with Espinosa. The power outage was, in hindsight, evident from the beginning and showed no sign of abating. He knew that Espinosa had at least two injuries that were likely causing his offensive struggles. And yet, for months, Rizzo did nothing, despite the fact that Espinosa had a minor-league option left.

Instead, we kept telling ourselves that it was early, that things were going to come around. For some things did come around–notably Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos (the latter of which, I should add, is 10 wRC better than my model had him at this point of the year, despite having played a fraction of the time due to an extended DL stint). But for Espinosa, it never did.

I wish I could offer some hope. I wish I could tell you that, no, the Nats offense had every chance of breaking out. I can’t. This is what we’ve got to look forward to.

I’m sorry, everybody. I’m really, really sorry.

Read These Things

In Rizzo We Trust

In Rizzo We Trust: the motto of the day in Nats Town.

I hope you all enjoyed the off day as much as I did.

No, that’s a lie. I hope you enjoyed it better than I did. I felt like I had nothing to do. I watched a Hong Kong gangster flick that was pretty good, but not nearly as fun as watching the Nats these days.

Anyway, you need to read the following things: