By In Stuff

Beltway Blues

Today in The Washington Post, the legendary Thomas Boswell makes the persuasive argument that the Nationals biggest problem this year has not been injuries, Matt Williams or a crumbling bullpen. The biggest problem, he says, is that the starting rotation — which many people (yours truly included) predicted to be historically great — has been utterly ordinary.

I think Tom is mostly right, which leads to another point, but first let’s go over what the heck happened to the Nationals this year as they descended from a 96-win team that ran away with the National League East to a barely .500 team that looks up at the New York Mets.

Q: Is the offense worse?
A: No, not really.

Last year, the Nationals averaged 4.26 runs per game. They are averaging almost exactly the same number this year (4.23). They are creating runs at an almost identical pace. They have a slightly better team OPS this year.

How about if you break it up by runs scored per game.

Last year, they scored four or more runs in 52% of their games.
This year, they scored four or more runs in 52% of their games.

Last year, they scored five or more runs in 39% of their games.
This year, they score five or more runs in 40% of their games.

The offense ain’t the problem. All those injuries happened, sure, but they are scoring runs at almost exactly the same rate, in large part because Bryce Harper emerged and Yunel Escobar is helping.

Q: Is the bullpen much worse than last year?
A: In the sixth and seventh innings, they are somewhat worse, yes.

Last year, the Nationals blew four games they were leading in the ninth inning. This year, they have blown zero. Last year, they blew five games they led going into the eighth. This year, so far, they have blown four. The back end of their bullpen (shouldn’t it be called the “front end?”) has been as good or better than last year.

Here’s the problem: The Nationals are bringing many fewer leads into the eighth and ninth innings. In fact, projected over the season, they will bring 10 fewer leads into the eighth inning and 11 fewer leads into the ninth. And it just so happens they are on pace to finish with 10 or 11 fewer wins this year than they did last year. So we potentially have isolated a problem.

But why are they carrying fewer leads into the eighth and ninth? It’s easy to say that it comes down to bullpen depth, and no doubt some of it does.

But when you are talking about the middle innings, you are obviously talking about starting pitching too. We’ll get back to this in a minute.

Q: Is the defense worse?
A: Yes.

But how much worse? I like using John Dewan’s runs saved as a guide. Last year, by runs saved, the Nationals were above average defensively. Anthony Rendon was superb third baseman, Ian Desmond more than held his own at shortstop, Wilson Ramos was an excellent catcher and so on.

This year has been different. With Rendon hurt, third base has been a defensive cavern of horrors — the Nationals have gone from plus-10 runs to minus-10 runs at third base alone. Throw in some decline in other positions, and the Nationals are already 24 runs worse than they were lost year.

That’s probably cost them a win or three.

Q: How about manager Matt Williams?
A: What about him?

It’s always so hard to measure the impact of managers. One of the more popular ways of doing so is to look at one-run records. But that offers no real insight here. The Nationals’ one-run record last year was 26-22. The Nationals’ projected one run record this year: 23-20.

The Nationals were 8-9 in extra-inning games last year. They’re 5-2 this year.

There’s a powerful sense among a lot of people I know in and around the game that Matt Williams isn’t doing an especially good job. But It seems just that: A sense. You can point to any number of questionable individual moves, of course, but is Matt Williams this year that much more ineffective than Matt Williams last year? I’m not sure you can quantify that.

So where does that leave us? If asked to give you percentages why the Nationals are 10 or 11 wins worse than last year, I’d probably break it down like so — and I can tell you this is VERY scientific:

8% Injuries and general bad luck
20% Middle bullpen trouble
17% Poor defense on left side of the infield
5% The winding road that is Matt Williams
1% The Papelbon trade. Just because.
2% Building a stadium that doesn’t give a good view of the Capitol; WHO DOES THAT?
3% Allowing Teddy Roosevelt to win the Presidents race
44% The huge disappointment of the Nationals rotation

And finally we are here. How disappointing has this rotation been? Well, first we have to point out that the Nationals really did come into this year with a rotation that was drawing comparisons to the 2011 Phillies, the 1954 Indians, the late 1960s early 1970s Orioles and so on. They had the best rotation in baseball last year and they added Max Scherzer. GM Mike Rizzo was going for posterity. I thought with that rotation, the Nationals were potentially a 105-110 win team.

So, how mediocre has that rotation been?

Well, put it this way: The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 27 runs in the first inning. It’s their best inning. That means they will often take the early lead. But take a look at the earned run average difference for the second, third and fourth innings from last year:

2nd inning
2014 ERA: 3.00
2015 ERA: 3.49

3rd inning
2014 ERA: 2.06 (best in baseball)
2015 ERA: 3.56 (14th in baseball)

4th inning
2014 ERA: 3.33 ERA
2015 ERA: 5.09 ERA

Whew. That’s pretty blah. Last year, the Nationals’ starters 3.04 ERA and 1.137 WHIP was best in baseball. This year, their 3.84 ERA is ninth and and their 1.228 WHIP is eighth.

True, the Nationals have had some injuries — Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg have missed some starts — but in truth Joe Ross has filled in pretty well — without him, those numbers would look even worse. The problem is that the stars are not pitching well. Jordan Zimmermann has taken a step backward, Fister is having a nightmare season and hitters are slugging .490 against Scherzer since July 7, Strasburg can’t get any rhythm going, Gio Gonzalez keeps declining.

The Nationals’ starters as a whole are not going as deep into games. They are giving up more home runs. I do think the defensive issues are a part of the problem — this year hitters have a .314 batting average on balls in play against those starters compared with .295 last year — but it’s also clear they are just not pitching as well.

And it gets to the final thought: I have asked if this Nationals team is the most disappointing in memory. Now, I should add here that there’s still a whole month of September to go, and the Nationals could go 25-7 or something the rest of the way, win 90-plus games, take the division, and everything changes. But so far they have felt not just disappointing but legendarily so. Why? Teams disappoint all the time.

I think Tom hit upon the reason. It isn’t that we expected the Nationals to win and they’re not winning. That happens every year. No, I think the Nationals feel like something more for this reason: They are not winning BECAUSE of what we thought would be their greatest strength. It would be like the Seahawks losing this year because their defense can’t stop anybody or the Warriors losing because Steph Curry can’t make a shot.

So little about sports is truly predictable — that’s what makes it such great theater. Still, it seemed a sure thing that the Nationals would, at the very least, have a superb starting rotation. I guess that’s what anyone gets for believing in sure things.

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27 Responses to Beltway Blues

  1. If you break it down, Scherzers been good, Zimmerman’s been slightly worse than last year, though not far off career averages. Gonzales had declined to close to league average last year (104 ERA+) and has now declined below league average at 95 ERA+. Fisters been bad, but he’s also past 30, so decline could be considered predictable. Strasburgs numbers are down and he got hurt. It’s not unreasonable to think a full, healthy season might have been closer to Normal.

    In short, maybe the predictions just didn’t account for Gonzales being in decline, Fister being past his prime and Strasburgs tendency to get injured. Obviously this is hindsight, but the signs were there. Also, as Joe has pointed out before, starting pitchers are often injured and primes can be shorter than we imagine.

    • tmutchell says:

      Fister’s BABiP this year is .321, compared to .296 for his career, and his walk rate is up slighlty, although still quite good. I think he’s hit into some bad luck (or bad defense) more than anything. He’s 31. You don’t expect a healthy starting pitcher to start declining at that age.

  2. I think you overstate the case a tad. Strasburg has had an ERA of 4.35. But he’s not giving up more home runs. His K/BB ratio is 4.6 and he’s striking out over a batter an inning. His FIP is a respectable 3.33 and consistent with earlier years. He’s actually been good when healthy. but the defense has let him down and he’s been unlucky (check out the stats with RISP).

    Same with Gonzalez. A 4.11 ERA but a 3.20 FIP with a high number of strikeouts and a very low number of home runs. Scherzer’s been good (2.88 ERA) Zimmerman’s been OK (3.45). Fister’s the only one who’s been legitimately bad.

    • Bpdelia says:

      Actually strasburg was quite bad for extended stretches around the injuries. He’s pitched well in spots and very badly in spots. Fangraphs has had several articles dealing with his struggles which have been quite real and not just luck. He looks much better lately though. His pitch values were down across the board before his must recent return from injury.

    • jalabar says:

      I think the two main issues have been Strasburg’s health and the second half decline of Scherzer. He was damn near unhittable in the first half. Is it fatigue, since he averaged his highest IP/S ever? Perhaps. He had I think one complete game for his career coming into this season and has had at least three this year, including consecutive starts that happen to be perhaps the best two consecutive starts combined in MLB history. But he has been bad since at least the AS break if not before.

      And Stras has had bad luck with BABIP, bad luck with the defense behind him, and bad luck with his health. But since his last DL trip, he has seemed a lot more like the Strasburg we knew, until this back issue. He still has some of the nastiest stuff I’ve ever seen when he is on. Part of his problem in his healthy career is that folks always told him he doesn’t need to throw all out, he can take something off, save his arm, have more control and still be in the mid 90s (95-96). True. But Strasburg’s heat loses ALL of its movement when he takes something off. At 98% or less, his fastball is flat and easily hittable by better MLB hitters. When he brings it, his fastball is as lively as any in baseball, AND 97-98. And that’s when he’s at his best, and nearly unhittable. He still has ++ fastball, curve, and change. He just needs to stay healthy, stop thinking so much, and just go out and pitch.

      But right now, especially in light of Ross’ last start (buncha walks in less than three innings) or two and Scherzer’s struggles of late, they are just a bunch of barely above average pitchers struggling to throw quality starts.

  3. Boswell’s comments on the Nationals offense are misleading, because he doesn’t take context into account. Last year, NL teams scored an average of 3.95 runs per game. This year NL teams score 4.08.

    Which is to say that, by scoring about the same this year as last, the Nationals offense is declining relative to the league. Which is bad news for a team that lost to the Giants in large part because they managed to score 9 runs in 45 innings.

    • jpg says:

      This is on point. Their offensive decline is probably understated because the offense was a disaster for the first four months. Werth, Desmond and Zimmerman finally got hot in August which have propped up their season numbers. Sure Harper turning into a one man gang has masked it a bit but there’s no denying that their offense has taken huge step backward.

      wRC+ 2014/2015

      Desmond 108/88
      Werth 142/73
      Rendon 131/102
      Zimmerman 121/91
      Ramos 72/93

      And while Escobar has been a pleasant surprise (121 wRC+), he’s essentially replacing LaRoche (128 wRC+ in 2014).

      Those five guys above combined for around 18 fWAR in 2014. This year they are at roughly 2 fWAR. So while the pitching has been a disappointment as a whole, I’d still argue that the total collapse of their core position players not named Harper is the biggest reason the Nats find themselves in the position they’re in.

  4. Gesge says:

    Pretty awesome that this column runs on the same day that the Nationals suffer a gut-punch loss to the Cardinals and drop another game to the Mets in the standings. This game was probably a good microcosm of the Nats season. In the 7th inning Cardinal rally, St. Louis got their first hit when Werth and his sluglike range couldn’t get to a ball, they got their second hit when Rendon couldn’t make a play on a grounder to 2nd, and the game-winning double came on a ball hit too far for Werth and his sluglike range. Oh, and Williams left his relief pitcher in long enough to face six batters and get only one of them out (got a second out via double play).

    I remember reading earlier this season that Desmond was putting up historically bad defensive numbers. I guess he’s improved to just ordinarily bad.

  5. horse14 says:

    Here’s a question that was alluded to in the article, how much of a bullpen’s struggle in middle relief can be blamed upon a starting rotation’s failure to go deep into games? For example, do middle relievers as a staff consistently have higher ERA’s when asked to pitch say 110 innings a year in the sixth versus those that only pitch say 85 per year. Same with the 7th. Is the player termed an “innings eater” actually more valuable than I thought? Do we owe Joe Morris an apology afterall? Just kidding, sort of.

    • horse14 says:

      Jack Morris! Never meant to insult the toughest little man ever NYG #20.

    • danaking says:

      horse, that’s a good point. It’s become fashionable in some circles to say starting pitching is passe, and that teams should use something like three pitchers to pitch three innings each every third day. The problem with that is, as you suggest, not all pitchers’ arms are the same, nor their stamina. Bullpens rely on the starters to go deep-at least my current standards–to keep the wear and tear off them, and the middle innings guys are, by definition, the weakest in the pen. Exposing them too much and too often can only lead to trouble.

  6. I live in Milwaukee so I had a chance to watch the whole series with the Brewers last weekend. One thing Joe didn’t mention is that the Nationals have quit. That’s quite an indictment, I know, but they went through the motions last week against a mediocre Brewers team. Sloppy play all over the field, unforced errors, fundamental mistakes. Williams should be fired immediately.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I don’t think the Nats have quit but they have been a very sloppy, undisciplined team for a long time, going back to Davey Johnson. I think they are trying but they are fundamentally unsound, both offensively and defensively. Supposedly, Williams was brought in to instill a little of the discipline that they lacked under Johnson, but he has not done so. But his managing has made things worse.

  7. Marty Chase says:

    Nats have been mailing it in all season. Time to back up the truck…and clean house. As for the ‘legendary’ Boz, if you’d read him obver the years they should be in the midst of a multi-season dynasty right now…not facing imminent elimination. At 6 1/2 games back on Sept 1, they are history. (Only the ’78 Yankees and ’95 Mariners hae overcome a deficit that big. Last time we looked neither Bucky Dent nor Ken Griffey Jr. were on the roster.
    Something’s been wrong w/ this year’s team from the get-go. Who’s calling the shots? Matt Williams or the phenom?
    Back up the truck…get rid of Matt Williams, Jayson Werth, and Stras ASAP. Try to rebuild around what’s with more focus on defense (sloppy all season) and guys who know how to do the ‘little things’ that win ball games.

    • Bill Caffrey says:

      Looking just at deficits on Sept. 1 is misleading because it misses deficits that were smaller than 6 1/2 on Sept. 1, then got bigger later in the month, but were still overcome. The 2007 Phillies, for example, trailed by 7 nearly halfway through September. They went 13-4 in their final 17 games, the Mets went 5-12 and the Phillies won the division by a game. There’s also the 1964 Cardinals and perhaps one or two others.

  8. Ryan says:

    Meanwhile, the Nats lost another game last night because genius Matt wouldn’t use his best relievers before their pre-ordained inning.

    In retrospect, it seems like some of this should have been foreseeable. Rendon has been injured going all the way back to college, Werth is 100 years old, Ryan Zim has looked pretty much done for a while, Fister doesn’t strike anybody out and is therefore prone to ERA spikes, 2014 was a career year for Desmond, LaRoche left and wasn’t replaced in an already meh lineup, Matty W proved last year he wasn’t a good manager….there were really a lot of signs that the Nats weren’t going to be some kind of juggernaut in 2015.

  9. Andrew says:

    Bringing Washington back into the major leagues was like adding another New York franchise. Oceans of ink about how Strasberg is an all-time great, the GM’s a genius and the team is poised to make the 1929 Athletics look like the 1962 Mets. So it didn’t prove to be true? Wow. Predicting outcomes in preseason is hard enough, but when it involves a big media center I’ll take the under every time.

    • Bill Caffrey says:

      If you took the under on the media’s predictions for the Mets and Yankees this year, you’d have lost both bets.

      Also, please post a link to a single article calling Strasburg an all-time great.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        I get a bit tired of people in presumably smaller markets whining about how everything that happens is the fault of the media in the big markets. First, Washington is a media center for politics, but not necessarily for sports. It’s not as if there are 12 tabloids like NY. Second, everyone picked the Nats in the spring because who else were you going to pick? The Mets? (Big market team). Some people thought the Marlins but, really? The Phillies? The Braves? Blaming the media is absurd. And, as Bill notes, no one ever called Strasburg an all-time great; most of the stories were about why isn’t he better?

        The Nats are still well-set for the future. Harper and Rendon are young; Michael Taylor is a future star; they have young arms coming up. Zimmerman is knocking the cover off the ball now. I realize that a lot of people are gleeful that the Nats are struggling-because those evil big media markets said they were good-but I still would take their future over most teams. And it’s not as if they have never had any success.

        Having said that, they need a new manager.

  10. Gesge says:

    Nats blow a lead against the Cardinals for the second night in a row, that Janssen guy gets roughed up by St. Louis for the second night in a row, Matt Williams admits in the post-game interview that he refused to use Papelbon because Papelbon has to close games.

    He should be fired today.

  11. Doug Evans says:

    It makes you realize how special that staff in Atlanta was for all those years, even with just one WS ring. Smoltz had some injury issues, but they were all so consistant for so long. I am surprisde that Zim and Gonzalez have not been better this year. As for Strasburg, it seems he will always have injury issues!

    • Marc Schneider says:

      The strange thing is that no has tried to hire Leo Mazzone. He did coach in Baltimore for awhile but nothing since. Obviously, he had great pitchers to work with, but one would think that with their success and their longevity, someone would want to give Leo another shot.

  12. Kris Marolt says:

    — How about those Indians !!!


  13. wogggs says:

    It’s Karma for holding Strasburg out of the playoff a couple seasons ago based on the fact that they were going to win a bunch of championships so that year didn’t matter. Call it the Mike Rizzo curse.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      That’s nonsense. They did not hold Strasburg out because “that year didn’t matter.” They held him out because he was coming back from TJ surgery and it had been agreed before the season that he would have an innings limit. They were doing it to protect Strasburg. It may have been the wrong decision but it’s ridiculous to say they did it because they didn’t care about that year. No one thought the Nationals were going to be contenders in 2012. Not only that, Strasburg wasn’t even pitching well at the time they shut him down.

      Not only that, but karma is BS. The universe is random.

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