Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Have We Learned So Far?

I started this post on Tuesday...

With 10 games in the books, the Nationals are 5-5, putting them on pace for 81 wins for the first time since the Vinny Castilla era.

Rats. Gotta start over.

With 11 games in the books, the Nationals are 5-6, giving them a .454 winning percentage that extended for a full season would give them 74 wins, easily their best win total since Alfonso Soriano was hitting bombs into the Anacostia River over at RFK.

Dang! I keep trying to write a post about how the Nationals are doing better than expected, but I guess I forgot during my hiatus that you can't sleep on these moments. They go by fast!

OK, so the Nationals are now 5-7, giving them a .416 winning percentage, which would give them 68 wins--about the same as last year, but still better than the serious backsliding I was predicting.

Of course, Manny Acta's Indians look like locks for the AL Central championship, and the Red Sox are on pace to challenge the Cleveland Spiders for the all-time worst record in MLB history. Shoot, if the season had ended yesterday, the AL playoff teams would have been the Orioles, Indians, Rangers, and Royals. So let's not get too carried away with a 12-game sample.

Still, here are a few developments that might actually mean something--and shed some light on whether we're looking at another run-of-the-mill bad team or another 100-game loser.

Hands down, the most important event of the young season is that Ryan Zimmerman got hurt. An abdominal strain sounds minor, and he might miss just the two weeks. But muscle strains like this can sometimes linger--or lead to worse injuries. This is the second time Zimmerman has strained an ab this year, so it's not crazy to worry about this becoming a nagging issue all year.

The big picture here is that Zimmerman is so good--a near-MVP player the last two years, even if the voters don't notice because the Nationals are so bad--and that their replacement options are so horrendous. Losing Zimmerman's 7 wins above replacement is one thing. But you're going to lose another WAR or 2 by playing Jerry Hairston or Alex Cora every day. Bottom line, losing Zimmerman for an extended period is the biggest single event that could put the Nationals in line for yet another #1 overall pick.

The second thing I'm seeing that matters is that Mike Morse appears once again to be Mike Morse. No, we don't want to make too much of a 12-game sample. But when you have a guy with a long-term track record like Morse's, it's his brief run of success in 2010 that quickly starts to look like the aberration.

For years, Morse's problem was that he just couldn't make enough contact for his raw power to materialize. Last year, he got his K rate down to a reasonable 24.1%, and as a result he put together the first extended period of major league productivity of his life. This year he's back to a Wily Mo-esque 33.3%. Don't hold your breath, Morse fans. He might go on another hot streak, but it's far more likely that pitchers have adjusted, and he has no ability to make a counter-adjustment, and this is just who he is.

Really, the Wily Mo comp is a pretty good one. Look at Pena's hot streak with the 2007 Nationals, followed by his 2008 cratering, and you have more or less a mirror image in Mike Morse today.

We've also learned that Jayson Werth is still a pretty fantastic player. Of course, Alfonso Soriano was pretty good his first year in Chicago too. Enjoy it now, and don't say you weren't warned.

Since people say I'm too negative: here's something cheery: Tyler Clippard is a beast, striking out 32% of the batters he's faced. And as I've written before, Jim Riggleman is doing a brilliant job using him in max leverage situations and refusing to allow the save stat to dictate his reliever usage. Of course, Clippard is on pace for 95 appearances and 126 innings pitched. Sooner or later the Nationals starters need to start going at least 7 innings with some regularity. Don't get distracted by the shiny ERAs in the mid-3s for most of the Nationals starters. They can thank Clippard for stranding all their runners.

Alas, Ian Desmond has picked up right where he left off last season--striking out five times more often than he walks and making errors by the bushel. Actually, things have gotten worse so far this year, if that's possible. He's whiffing even more often, and his three errors put him on pace to go from 34 to 39 errors, if he plays as many innings this year as he did last year. It's way too early to give up on Ian, but the trend-line here ain't good. Don't be shocked if he's in Syracuse and Danny Espinosa is playing short at this time next month.

And then fwiw here are a few small sample size things that probably don't matter:

Wilson Ramos has walked 4 times already. He's always been a Guzman-esque hacker, so this is a big change. Last year he walked twice in 82 MLB PAs. He walked only 12 times in 295 PAs against AAA. At 23 years old, he's certainly young enough to develop a more advanced approach. I don't expect him to become the second coming of Nick Johnson, but if he could go from being a guy who walks 3% of the time to a guy who walks 8-9% of the time, that would really change his long-term offensive profile.

Danny Espinosa's been impressive. His fielding range is fantastic, and he's already drawn 7 walks on the season. He even got a double off Cliff Lee last tonight.

Jason Marquis is getting 46% groundball outs and he's whiffing 21% of batters faced. The second stat certainly won't continue (his career rate is 13.4%), but first one might, and if it does and he stays healthy, he'll help.


Unknown said...

You're a depressing, half glass empty kinda guy...don't think you're a particulary skilled writer either. So this will be the first and last time I read this pile.

Steven said...

Flaming me in blog comments is so 2008. Haven't you discovered Twitter yet?

XaK Bausch said...

What are the prospects of Espinosa moving over to SS and somebody like Lombardozzi getting a shot at 2B if this keeps up?

I've never seen Espinosa at SS but he played it through college and the minors. Desmond seems to have established himself as nothing special and just based on Lombardozzi's walk rate I'm guessing he could do better than a .308 OBP. Seems like it'd be a net positive.

Steven said...

Espinosa has always been a SS and moved to 2B to be able to team with Desmond. That move is easy.

As for Lombardozzi? If he has a real good year, I could see him getting a Sept. call-up and making a few starts in front of dozens in Nats Park the last week of the season. But he'd have to have a really good year to get even that chance.

If we're dreaming on scenarios like that, I'd rather root for a break-out year from Jeff Kobernus. His ceiling is higher than Lombardozzi's.

But really if Desmond craters and get sent down, you're looking at a steady diet of Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston. That's why they're here.

Harper said...

I'm assuming the first commenter was trolling for a "who released you?" joke. Satisfied?