Monday, April 13, 2009

What We Learned from Week One

It's probably best for Nationals fans to think of this season as another learning experience. We are learning how to be patient, all the various ways a team can lose a ballgame, and of course we're learning which of our young players will and will not be a part of the first great Nationals team. Here's my take on what we learned from week one:
  • Austin Kearns might once again be a useful baseball player. In 23 plate appearances, he walked 5 times and had 3 hits, including a double and a homer, good for a .348 OBP and .389 SLG. Those aren't world-beating numbers, but the fact that 2 of his 3 hits went of extra bases combined with his good spring gives me hope that he's healthy and ready to put 2008 behind him. He's always had good plate discipline and on-base skills, and so far this year he's leading the team swinging at just 12% of pitches out of the zone. If you look at all his numbers last year, it was really the .099 ISO power that really jumps out at you, and chances are in hindsight it was the elbow more than anything.
  • Still, Elijah Dukes should be out there every day. Forget potential. He's our best player right now. Dukes in his 18 plate appearances got on base at a .444 clip with 5 base hits, a double, and 2 walks. The team was all worked up over his strikeouts this spring, but his 25% K-rate in the first week was right in line with what he did last year. His plate discipline isn't quite there yet, as he swung at an un-Elijah-like 36% of pitches out of the zone and as a result drew walks in just 11% of his PAs. With consistent playing time he should knock 15 points or so off the first rate and add 3-4 to the second. He also played better defense than Kearns, besting him 0.9 to 0.0 in tiny sample-size UZR stat for week one and ringing up an outfield assist.
  • Trouble may lie ahead for Cristian Guzman. Yeah, I know he's hitting .429. But his .545 BABIP is the epitome of small sample size weirdness. My concern is that he's been much more of a free swinger and making less contact than in any season in his career. He's swinging at 38.1% of pitches out of the zone, compared to 27.9% last year, with a 78.6% contact rate, compared to 88.3% last year. As a result, he's striking out at a 21.7% clip, which if he keeps that up will reduce him to replacement level in no time. And of course he's yet to take a walk. It's just one week in, but this isn't how Guzzy can maintain success.
  • So far, this year's Odalis Perez/Tim Redding surprise has yet to emerge. The last two years we've lucked out with dumpster-diving castoffs giving surprisingly tolerable performances in the rotation. This year, it feels like chickens are coming home to roost, as Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera are doing not one bit better than the pessimists predicted. There might not be a Perez or Redding on this team, which could be scary.
  • Ryan Zimmerman is still a slow starter. He's got himself a 3% walk rate, a 28% K-rate, and a .241 OBP. The good news is that he's hitting for power, as 5 of his 6 hits have gone for extra bases.
  • Lastings Milledge is still young. Leave him alone. If you ever want this team to get better, you'll have to endure growing pains with young, talented players. It appears he's actually trying too hard to play to his new role as a lead-off man, as he's swinging at just 40.2% of the pitches he sees, down from 49% in his career. I want him to be more selective, but it's the pitches in the zone he's letting go by. He's swinging at 28.3% of pitches out of the zone, compared to 31.7% last year, meanwhile he's swinging at just 53.7% of pitches in the zone, way down from 67.1% for his career. Dare I say he needs to be more aggressive, and Manny might do him a favor to take him out of the lead-off spot, since it just seems to be messing him up.


Will said...

Really? I would have said the opposite about Kearns. He's proven that he's nothing more than marginally useful. A .737 OPS is absolutely unacceptable for a corner outfielder.
Put that on top of his competition and I don't see any place for Kearns in this team. I'd rather have Willingham PH, and Willie Harris come in as a defensive substitution.

Anonymous said...

I think Millege could be a part of the Nats future, but I don't think he deserves to be a part of the present. He certainly should not be in CF or hitting leadoff right now. His routes to the ball in the first week looked like a drunk bumblebee trying to find a flower to land on. I don't think the Nats should trade him, but some more time in AAA honing his defense and pitch selection would do him some good. That would make rom for our true best player, present and future (Dukes), in CF and help Millege come back later this year (or next) with more confidence, better skills and a chip on his shoulder to play with.

With all that said, that was a heck of an effort to make that catch while falling into the wall in CF this afternoon.

Steve Shoup said...

Steven what are your early impressions on Nick? Defensively he's been great but I worry about his bat. He's still taking pitches well but he doesn't seem to always be able to catch up to the ball.

Steven said...

Will--useful to someone, not the Nationals. He's in the best 60 corner outfielders in MLB.

Steve--Nick looks great to me. He doesn't have many XBHs yet, but they will come. He actually hasn't walked much and isn't commanding the strike zone as well as he usually does in the small sample size of one week. But I'm not worried at all. He's just so good.

Anonymous said...

In other news after Jesus Flores grounded out with the bases loaded we have now had had 16 PA with the bases loaded. We're 1/15 with a walk. Throw in a GDP and we have made 15 outs and driven in 2 runs in that situation over the first 7 games.

I'm not sure what we can learn from this. Maybe shame?

Michael said...

Well said on all points.

Jon said...

Steven: I can't disagree that Guzman is going to fall off, and I do agree with you about him being a bottom of the order hitter, but why and how are you using BABIP for him as a hitter? I thought that stat was more for pitchers' luck? Thanks.

redcottageaudio said...

Isn't Odalis Perez still available? Couldn't the old Odlis Perez be the new Odalis Perez? Seems a lot better than the new Scott Olson

Anonymous said...

Jon - I know your comment wasn't directed at me, but I thought I might be able to point you in a direction.

Here's an old article from Hard Ball Times that can give you some information:

Groundballs 9952 7208 72%
Flyballs 7845 6179 79%
Line Drives 4082 1050 26%
Total 21879 14437 66%

45% of batted balls were groundballs, 36% were flyballs and 19% were line drive

If you look at Cristian Guzman last year


LD: 22.5%
GB: 52.9%

Baseball-Reference uses numbers that are slightly different but they break down better so we'll use those.

518 AB last year where he put the ball in play. He hit ground balls 53.1% of the time which is 275 ground balls. He grounded out 199 times. So last year he hit .276 on ground balls. Which based on the data provided by HBT means he was pretty much right on the money for what you'd expect on ground balls. He hit .175 on fly balls, little below the expected average. He then hit .769 on line drives, slightly above average.

So from one point of view the key to Guzman's success last year was that he was able to hit ground balls at a rate of about 8% above the average while hitting line drives about 4% above average. His BA/BIP last year was .337, so he wasn't particularly lucky as the article says basically the league average is 1/3.

But this year thus far he has gotten a hit on 63% of the balls he put in play. That number just isn't sustainable based on the fact that the league expected average is almost half that.

Hope that helped.

Jon said...

Guy, thanks. Helped big time.

Jon said...

Its a good thing Mike Rizzo has the patience with Milledge that the fans don't... er, wait a minute... darn it.