Sunday, June 6, 2010

Nationals Most Likely to Crater

Here at the one-third point of the season, the Nationals are still within spitting distance of .500, though they're slumping lately. Fans are wondering how long they can retain respectability. Here's my look at the Nationals' roster, ranked from most to least likely to significant drop off from their performance so far in the second two-thirds of the season. (Note: I started writing this post early last week, so some of the numbers are a couple days behind.)
1. Ivan Rodriguez
Pudge is putting up his best OBP and wOBA since he led the Tigers to the World Series in 2004. And yet his line-drive rate is the lowest of his career, he's hitting groundballs on a whopping 57% of balls in play, and yet his BABIP is .361. And even when he was a great player, he never took walk. He's also 38 and on pace for about 450 plate appearances, and he's already on the DL with back issues. Hope you enjoyed it while it lasted.
2. Livan Hernandez
Oh, Livan, what a lovely illusion. The 84-mph fastball, the Bugs Bunny curve ball, the shit-eating grin and "I'm the man" slow-walk to the dugout after a 1-2-3 inning. If only this was really the real you. Alas, Livan is striking out fewer hitters than he ever has, a minuscule 9.3%. He's stranding 90.8% of runners, allowing a .213 BABIP, and giving up homers on 9.1% of flyballs. That last number is a bit lucky, but the first two are just silly. If his ERA only doubles from here on out, consider that a positive outcome.
3. Scott Olsen
The good news is that he played catch yesterday. The bad news is, that's the good news. His strikeout rate this year has bounced back to a workable level, and he's getting more groundballs and swings on pitches out of the zone than he ever has. But his velocity is still two ticks below where it was when he was good. The bottom line is that some guys' bodies just can't hold up under the strain of the unnatural act of pitching. For whatever reason, Olsen looks like one of those guys, and that's been the case for almost four seasons.
4. Alberto Gonzalez
After failing in an extended audition as a starting middle infielder last year, Gonzalez could have easily ended up as a victim of the numbers game in spring training and spent the year in Syracuse. But he managed to hang on as a utility infielder and 25th man, and he's turned that opportunity into a .326 / .383 / .395 line in 48 scarce plate appearances. He's also played overall solid defense, enough to put him on pace for 1.5 wins above replacement, even if his playing time doesn't increase. This was enough to really help patch the Zimmerman injury, but the best thing for the Nationals would be to make sure Gonzalez doesn't have a chance to see those numbers decline.
5. Josh Willingham
Josh Willingham is a good player. But he's not an MVP candidate. For the second year in a row, however, he's posted early-season numbers that would have put him right in that conversation, if he played for a better team. Right now, he's tied for 3rd in the NL with 2.1 WAR, trailing just Chase Utley and Jason Heyward. One thing you can count on with Willingham is consistency--almost every year he's finished around his career average of .265 /.368 / .482. He probably will again, and that will mean a prolonged slump at some point. And that would fit his pattern. For his career, his OPS is 62 points lower in the second half than the first half.
6. Matt Capps
Capps has pitched really well this season. If anything, his peripheral stats suggest he's been a little unlucky, with his BABIP way up at .362. He's gone back to throwing his slider less and his fastball more, which could be a function of feeling fully healthy, or it could just be that he's getting back to a better strategy. Still for any pitcher, it's hard to be perfect in save chances, as he was through his first 16 opportunities. And I'm still a bit skeptical that he can maintain his career-best strikeout rate of 19.8%. He's doing it by getting more guys to chase pitches out of the zone, but will that catch up to him as the scouting reports spread and the sample sizes grow? I tend to think it will. Overwork is also a concern.
7. Tyler Clippard
Did someone mention overwork? Clippard's 36.2 innings trails only Matt Belisle's 37 innings for the league lead in relief innings. He's on pace for over 108 innings, and that's not going to happen. So even if he keeps getting the same outcomes, his contribution will shrink. I've noted before that he's been lucky on strand rate, BABIP, and HR/FB rate, and hes actually been pretty terrible on allowing inherited runners to score. But the key rate for him in the dominant 28.8% strikeout rate. Regardless of what else happens, if he keeps missing bats like that, he'll be good. He just won't be this good.

8. Luis Atilano
Atilano has done well for himself, putting up a 5-2 record and a 4.24 ERA. But to keep succeeding, Atilano needs a better off-speed pitch than he has now. There are just very very few pitchers in the history of the game who have succeeded over time while striking out fewer than 10% of batters faced. The scouting reports will catch up, and it could get ugly. You have to like the kid's poise out there, but with Strasburg, Wang, and now maybe Zimmermann waiting in the wings, plus a possible trade in the works, Atilano will need an injury or two to stay around anyway.

9. Cristian Guzman
Guzman is doing what he always does--swinging at everything, taking walks in a microscopic 3.6% of plate appearances, and providing little in the way of power. But, because of a .378 BABIP that's 71 points over his career rate of .307, he has a .323 batting average and .349 OBP. Given his consistent walk rate, strikeout rate, and ISO power rate, Expect him to finish around his 2009 line of .284 / .306 / .390--those numbers are ok for a bench guy, but it'll take a lot of slumping to get back to those numbers. That's assuming he doesn't have a shoulder flare-up send him to the DL.
10. Miguel Batista
He's survived for 33 innings with a 4.09 ERA, while walking more batters than he strikes out. He's this year's Julian Tavarez, and I don't expect him to be here by the end of August.
11. Nyjer Morgan
Morgan has been a disappointment to the people who put too much stock in the small sample size last summer, but really this is probably about who he is. He's actually been ok at the plate. His walk and strikeout rates are similar to what he did last summer. His line drive rate is up. Fewer balls are falling in, but about what you'd expect. It's the fielding and baserunning that's really hurt. Last year he seemed like a real find in center, but this year we've seen the funky routes and bad jumps that made Pittsburgh stick him in left. And he's been a disaster on the basepaths with 9 caught stealings in 21 attempts, plus 4 pick-offs. So he could improve in those areas, but he could also slump at the plate. It's not impossible to imagine him finding his way to the bench if the sloppy play continues.
12. Drew Storen
Storen has a blistering 15:3 strikeout to walk ratio in his 16.2 minor league innings. Since coming to the majors, he's had some bumpy command, already walking 5 in 9 innings. By all indications that will not continue, but the fact is that he hasn't pitched nearly as well as his 2.00 ERA would suggest. Expect more growing pains.
13. Sean Burnett
Burnett has pitched well, and this could certainly continue. Two things to watch for: 1. as Riggleman is forced to dial back on the innings for Clippard and Capps, Burnett may have to face more righties. Second, Burnett right now is striking out 22% of batters faced, which is a big jump from what he's ever done before (career rate: 14.9%). We'll have to see a bigger sample before deciding he's really gotten better at missing bats.
14. Roger Bernadina
Bernadina isn't doing enough to show he belongs in the big leagues. I don't expect him to be worse than he's been, but if he doesn't get better, he shouldn't be here at all.
15. Ian Desmond
Desmond's defense is just what we were told it would be. Good range, good arm, lots of errors. So far it balances out to about average, maybe a little better. His bat is struggling. His plate discipline has really regressed. His OBP is down to .309, and he's not getting pitches to drive.
Adam Kennedy
16. Craig Stammen
Stammen will never ever strike out enough hitters to be a good major league starter, but if you're getting 50% ground balls, you're going to keep the ball in the yard and survive. Stammen gets hit really hard (24% line drive rate), but manages to hang around replacement level. Of all the guys here, this is the first guy who I would bet would improve. He may not get the chance after Strasburg arrives, but he's better than a 5.88 ERA pitcher.
17. Tyler Walker
I feel like Tyler Walker has been really unappreciated this year by Nationals fans. He's got a 5.40 K:BB ratio, which is a fantastic number. If he'd been on last year's team, he'd have been the closer for sure. He probably won't keep pitching this well, but I expect to see him in higher leverage situations. Walker could be a key for the Nationals going forward.
18. Adam Dunn
Power, walks, strikeouts, sun up, sun down. He hasn't killed them with the glove either, which is nice.
19. Wil Nieves
Nieves shouldn't be playing this much at AAA, much less in the big leagues. But with a .186 / .213 / .267 line, even he's bound to get at least a little better. Right? Right?
20. Willie Harris
Harris has a terrible .184 / .284 / .391 line, but he'll be fine. His ISO power is over .200, and he's still walking in 10.7% of plate appearances. It's impressive how he's remade himself as a player, and whether it's because of an injury or performance, he'll find his way back into the lineup soon enough.
21. Ryan Zimmerman
He just keeps getting better. He's one of the best players in the league. Take it to the bank.


ckstevenson said...

Where do you see the lines between the destined to suck more, about where they are at, and expect more goodness?

And, given your assessment especially for their respective positions, where do you think this puts us relative to the rest of the NL East?

Based on this review, I think you're giving us a giant flashing red warning sign that says "bad times ahead" yes?

Steven said...

If I was a betting man I would say 1-10 will be worse, 11-16 should stay about the same, and 17-21 will be better.

mike said...

How is Scott Olsen likely to crater? His FIP is actually better than his ERA. His BABIP is higher than average. Chances are just as likely he gets better (assuming he is healthy). Your dig at him not being able to handle the stress of pitching the past 4 seasons is so wrong. Last year was the first time he had any injury problems. 2 of the 4 years that he supposedly was injury prone had him start 33 games and throw 176 and 201 IP. Hardly injury prone. His velocity isn't even down 2 ticks. It's right around his career average and inline with most of his career except for 1 season.

Why don't you admit that you were so wrong about the Olsen/Willingham deal. I remember the sensationalist headline that the Nats got 2 declining players while the Marlins got 3 improving players. Look how that turned out. The 2 Nats players have improved while the Marlins players cratered. Also, I love how in your Armando Galarraga post you were so quick to point out that he was the #5 or 6 prospect in an Expos system that was weak which shouldn't mean much because that system was an embarrassment. Yet at the same time you bashed the Willingham/Olsen trade because Smolinski was the #25 prospect in a strong farm system. I don't care how strong your system is, when you are ranked #25, you are not a legit prospect. That probably translates to #12-15 on the Nats system which means he isn't much of a prospect especially considering the Nats received one of the better hitting OF.

Eric said...

What is the name of the baseball principle that says a Catcher's defensive reputation improves as his hitting ability declines?

There is a similar principle in political circles that basically says the more pessimistic the appraisal of a candidates chances (regardless of party) the higher the perception of said consultants accuracy.

I think we need the same concept in baseball blogging, maybe call it the "Needham Effect" where the more you malign the performance of your teams players the more respected you are in the blogosphere, regardless of the accuracy of your predictions or the merits of your analysis.