Sunday, September 14, 2008

Scouting Report: Nationals at Marlins (9/14)

After last night's loss, the Nationals have now lost four in a row and seven of their last ten.

I think we can stop the chatter about a late surge saving Bowden's job. The team's leadership may not have the judgment to make the necessary moves, but it's looking like we're not going to have to listen to some rap about how the team played .500 ball over the last X games of the season and therefore was probably a .500 team all along with some bad luck and injuries. This is a good thing, if nothing else because the involuntary gag reflex I get every time I hear that stuff is quite unpleasant.

Here's my take on the series finale. For more on the Marlins' offense, see my preview of game one.

Pitching Match-Up
Anibal Sanchez: Sanchez, with Hanley Ramirez part of the Marlins' booty from the Josh Beckett deal, burst on the national scene in '06 at 22 with a no-hitter and an impressive 10-win season. Throwing a low-90s fastball, plus curve, and even better change, he inspired giddiness among the dozens at Dolphin Stadium.

The excitement was premature, because his success was inflated by a .244 BABIP and 79.3% strand rate. Even more troubling was that his K/9 rate of 5.67 that year was about two strikeouts below his '05 rate.

Since then, he lost a season to a torn labrum, and this year he's struggled mightily in 8 starts since finishing his rehab, posting an ERA of 6.46. Which is the real Anibal Sanchez?

The answer, as is often the case in statistical analysis (but rarely in politics), is somewhere in the middle. As much luck as Sanchez had in '06, he's had even less this year. His '08 BABIP is .348, a whopping 104 points over his '06 number. His HR/FB rate is 15.4, compared to 6.4% in '06. And that strand rate has sunk to 67.6%. All these numbers, largely a function of things outside the pitcher's control, were all unusually good in '06 and are now all unusually bad.

All that said, Sanchez's command has been terrible. He's walking 4.85 per 9, which is surely going to get him sent back to the minors if he can't fix it. He's always been hit harder by lefties, but this year (beware! irresponsible use of small sample sizes ahead!) he's getting massacred to the tune of a 1.073 OPS by left-handed hitters. Gad zooks! That means the average lefty is hitting Sanchez like... well... no one in all of baseball has an OPS that high except Albert Pujols.

The good news is that his strikeout rate is up where the Marlins thought it might be back in '06, at 8.08 per 9. But in his last two starts he's gone a combined 4 and 2/3 innings. But he needs a good start to avoid getting yanked.

Collin Balester: It's taken a while, but the 'luck' stats have all pretty much evened out for Balester, as his strand rate has settled in 69.4%, HR/FB at 11.3%, and BABIP at .299. Those are all a skosh unfavorable, but not excessively so.

Balester's learning on the job with impressive consistency. Since his July 1 call-up, he's never gone less than 5 innings, and he's gone 6 in four of his last five starts. Yeah, the ERA of 4.86 isn't good enough to win with, but for a just-turned 23 year-old, it's more than respectable.

His success is based on his ability to get groundballs by keeping his fastball down in the zone and mixing in his improving change and occasional curve.

The improvement will come as his strikeout rate increases. He'll never be a big time strikeout pitcher, but he's at 13.6% now, and there's no reason based on his minor league numbers and his velocity that he shouldn't be able to increase that by a couple points. He can also allow find improvement by allowing fewer walks. He's at 8.5% now, which is fine, but if he can knock that down closer to 7%, that could really help him as well. Again, he has shown the potential for that kind of command in the minors, so it's not an unreasonable goal.

With a little of both, he can get himself into the low-4s or high 3s in ERA as soon as next season.

Fearless Prediction

(Season record: 28-15)
Nationals chase Sanchez early as Balester keeps the Marlins' off the board (mostly) by keeping the ball in the yard. Nationals win, 6-3.


Hendo said...

Good analysis. I'm estimating Balester conservatively for a 4.50 ERA next season, which is still good enough for a 2009 team that I'm projecting to finish (yes) above .500.

Steven said...

I wouldn't object to a high end, best case projection that has them at 82-82 next year. I wouldn't project that as a mid-point on the bell curve type most likely outcome.

Of course there's a lot of time between now and then. At this time last year we thought Matt Chico was going to be taking a "next step," etc.

Hendo said...

Just breaking even is hardly a high enough target for a team that's dropping $16MM on a shortstop who's beginning a slow but certain descent from his peak.

If they want to finish 78-84, they could do that with Seth Bynum.

Steven said...

The target is the WS, but the expectation is as low as it is because this team does things like pay Cristian Guzman 8 mil for 2 years.

But don't worry about that. Hernandez and Gonzalez will get most of the PT because Guzman can't stay healthy.

Hendo said...

My intention is to call out the organization on the Guzman re-signing and say: either ramp up to the next level, or admit (by default) that it was a stupid idea.

The latter should accelerate the head-rolling process. The former could possibly preempt it.