Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

The Nats won Game 1 of their NLDS series against the Cardinals, 3 runs to 2, on a dramatic two-out RBI single by rookie Tyler Moore. But let’s rewind and remember how they got there.

Michael Morse reached on an error. Ian Desmond singled, putting runners on first and second and nobody out.

Danny Espinosa then, inexplicably, bunted. Many of us in Nats town scratched our heads (which were already raw from pulling our hair out in clumps all game). Why the hell would Espinosa bunt? On the radio, Slowes and Jaegler wondered if perhaps Morse had missed a sign–was that a safety squeeze? A suicide squeeze? What the hell was going on?

After the game, Davey Johnson said he had called for a straight sacrifice bunt, figuring it was the best way to win. (Upon hearing this, I’m sure that Bob Brenly, giving small-ball analysis for the TBS television feed, achieved orgasm).

But did it really give the Nats a better chance to win? Let’s look at the numbers. Before the sacrifice bunt, the situation was runners on first and second, nobody out. Looking that situation up in our handy run expectancy matrix , we see that in that situation, the Nats had a run expectancy of 1.556. That is: when you look at all the times that situation has occurred in baseball between 1993 and 2010, the team in that situation scored, on average, 1.556 runs.

After the sacrifice bunt, the situation was runners on second and third, with one out. That drops the Run Expectancy slightly, to 1.447. So, did the sacrifice give the Nats a better chance to win? Strictly speaking, no. But the drop in run expectancy isn’t big enough, really, to get all that upset about it–especially if all you’re trying to do is get one run over and tie the ball game.

Where things really got dicey was after the Kurt Suzuki strikeout. That made it two outs, runners on second and third: a run expectancy of 0.626–a huge drop from 1.447!

That puts Tyler Moore’s pinch-hit RBI single into perspective. When we watched it, it felt deleriously unexpected–that’s because it was.

Incidentally, I wish TV broadcasters kept a little base/out state run expectancy figure off in one corner of their broadcast. It would be an excellent bit of additional information.

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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.