Recapping 2018: Washington Nationals Edition | The Process Report

Recapping 2018: Washington Nationals Edition

With the end of the regular season comes a time for reflection for the majority of baseball fans. What went right? What went wrong? You probably have a few ideas where your teams fell short or exceeded expectations, but what about a completely emotionless point of view? Throughout this season I have shown what batter and pitcher production looks like when we regress balls in play to look more like what the players should have seen using exit velocity and launch angle. The offseason will be no different as I take a team by team look at how the season fared for the team, while going a little deeper on a handful of players from each. The order will mirror the final team rankings running in reverse order so you can expect to find some depression leading to elation here. It’s going to take some time, but I would like to get one to two of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts. Here’s a link to the report for this club from last offseason.

Past:

30 – 21: BAL CWS MIA TEX KCR SFG SDP DET MIN CIN

20 – 11: ARI LAA PIT CHC SEA ATL NYM TBR COL PHI

10 – 1: MIL TOR STL WAS

With all their recent success it is easy to forget that the Washington Nationals, née Montreal Expos, were horrifically bad for quite some time. The Houston Astros get a lot of the recent credit for bottoming out to build through the draft, but it was the Nationals that blazed this trail on the way to grabbing two generational talents in the draft. Payroll, pegged to 2018 dollars, has aggressively accelerated over these past several years as the team found themselves having to pay for the good players they developed, while bringing in a few more to round things out. That has mostly brought a ton of success, albeit harbored within the confines of the regular season. It cannot be argued that the team has been a perennial juggernaut as three-year averages have placed the team around 90 wins over the past half-decade. While much of the focus will be upon the player they are saying goodbye to, Bryce Harper, there is still the nucleus of a very good team, and the financial resources to continue to plug whatever holes emerge. Let’s dig into how 2018 fared.

In the last review we saw a St. Louis Cardinals team that was a bit unbalanced in favor of the bats. The Nationals got to a similar level of aggregate production, but in a much more well-rounded way. Both the pitching and the bats showed solid production, but over the course of the season it looks like the arms started failed to hold up their end of the bargain. That shouldn’t overshadow the incredible start to the season they showed over the first two months, but the middle showed a bunch of slippage, and despite a nice bounce back the end close left a lot to be desired. Some of this can be chalked up to injuries to guys like Stephen Strasburg and Sean Doolittle, but those guys can be penciled in to miss time every year. More so, it was a lack of a “next man up” that hurt the team during those stretches after years of turning future talent into present has left the team bereft of depth. Dabbles in free agency can and have added to the top, but a bridge is only as strong as its supporting girders. The rust displayed beneath the surface continue to be the difference between good and great.

Some pitchers strike a ton of guys out with a walk issue or dominate one side of the plate at the detriment of the other. Another well-filled group might pitch at a high level, but are a good bet to miss time. Some can do all of those things, but give up loads of hard contact. Many have a good year that stands out from a more ordinary career. Almost none of them can do everything well. That is why Max Scherzer stands amongst the elite as a perennial workhorse that isn’t just out there filling innings. He strikes everybody out without walking many. He draws better than average contact when batters do put it in play. He does it year after year combining high effectiveness with tons of volume. This past season saw one weird stretch in the middle where he looked like a mortal, yet still average pitcher. It was driven by a massive drop in strikeouts and then as quickly as the sun poked out for batters it was right back to dreadfully dark days. The blip merely showed that every single pitcher is going to go through a lesser stretch. The rest of the season he looked like the dominant ace that you expect, and should continue to for the near term. Someday he won’t be this good, but the Hall of Fame beckons for one of the best of all time.

Max Scherzer

A couple of stout relievers, Sean Doolittle and Matt Grace, proved very useful in leverage. Doolittle was in a class by himself with incredible production that he still managed to outperform. He runs some of the best strikeout to walk ratios in the league, and he gets a ton of off-balance pop ups when it is put in play. A toe injury caused him to miss around two crucial months down the stretch, which adds to the list of injuries that have derailed otherwise promising seasons. Grace dealt with his own issue as he missed around a month and a half of the early part of the season with a groin issue. Strong performance ensued upon his return, though he’s more of a soft contact getter than a strikeout menace. Avoiding the walk is a strong part of his skillset, and pairs nicely with the weak contact he routinely generated. The soft contact didn’t show up as ground balls so it’s likely he could be prone to underperformance at times with all those balls on a line.

Sean Doolittle

Matt Grace

Another player that is no stranger to the disabled list is Stephen Strasburg. He missed most of June, July and August this past season with myriad shoulder concerns, and didn’t look like his typical Ace self, for the most part. The spike in the later portion stands out starkly with solid performance throughout the rest of the season. He can still sit dudes down with the best of them with a rest that encroached, eclipsed, and oscillated around 30% to go with an average walk rate that started to get out of control by the end of the year. That walk bump coincides, at least partly, with his much better exit velocity restriction after he came back from the last stint on the disabled list. This might give us a better idea of what he is capable of when everything is right, but going into any season it seems a given that he’s going to go through some stuff. Seeing the rebound is at least encouraging that he seems to have been able to get through, if not over, this most recent flare up.

Stephen Strasburg

It is fair to say that the bullpen here wasn’t as thick as some of the other very good teams, and that this was likely the biggest reason for a very good team to fail to make the playoffs. Justin Miller looked like a diamond in the rough when he first came up, but the strikeout rate plummeted in short order, and while he got a bunch of pop ups he also saw quite a few no doubt homers. Ryan Madson was another high leverage reliever before getting traded at the deadline. He looked like a fine reliever for much of his tenure, though showed a persistent gap compared to his higher actual results. Much of the disconnect is likely due to how hard the ball was hit off of him. He avoided the nitro zone pretty well, but all those hard hit liners added up to considerable damage.

Justin Miller

Ryan Madson

Filling out the back of the rotation were league average pitchers Jeremy Hellickson and Tanner Roark. Hellickson’s initial incredible results weren’t backed by the data all that much, and it wasn’t long before he was in line at an even higher level. While both perspectives hugged it out the rest of the way he settle in as an average or better pitcher once he got over that blurb. The early gap coincides with very strong strikeout to walk performance, but there was likely a contact cost as he also ran higher exit velocities during that time. The spike stands out for having all of the contact with none of the strikeouts so it’s quite likely this was an adjustment period that mostly worked out well despite getting beat up pretty well for a bit. While Hellickson did a solid job to avoid racking up pokes Roark was not so fortunate as his nitro zone is littered with bombs. There was some more variance in his strikeout rate with a couple spikes above the average, but mostly living at the below average level that Hellickson established. An oft-bad strikeout rate mellowed out to almost nothing to close the season, but it came at a time when he was putting the ball in the air more frequently. That was ok when the exit velocity was down, but as it came up he got ripped more and more. He has since been traded to the Cincinnati Reds where he will probably have to continue to reinvent himself in a much less forgiving park.

Jeremy Hellickson

Tanner Roark

Filling the role of swingman or spot starter was Jefry Rodriguez and Erick Fedde. Rodriguez was recently moved in the Yan Gomes acquisition, though didn’t profile all that strongly this past season. The walk rate started off untenable and yet was still given the leash to spiral out of control, and it isn’t like he was running even a league average strikeout rate. He did a good job of generating soft contact, and he will need to maintain that while improving the non-contact stuff to be a viable American League contributor. All of Erick Fedde’s appearances came as a starter, and perhaps due to that he is the guy that stays to fight again. A roster spot is not guaranteed, but the strikeout improvement was a nice sight, though it came with a proportional increase in walk rate muting the effect. He does a decent job of putting his hardest contact on the ground, while mostly dancing around the no doubters. Unplayable early, Fedde showed some improvement over the course of the season, but still has some work to do if he wants to profile as even a back of the rotation starter.

Jefry Rodriguez

Erick Fedde

The last pitch worth covering here is Gio Gonzalez. Another guy that won’t be back in 2019 after a deadline deal preceded his run to free agency he looked pretty dang good over the first two months. Then things went off the rails. The strikeouts went from above average to a bit below spread over a couple of steps down on the way. The walks were mostly in check before ballooning, though they did slowly get back around the average to close things out. He saw a steady uptick in his launch angle over the course of the season, though his exit velocity was in a much tighter band. Seeing the production leap that much probably speaks to an injury issue of some kind, though he did not miss any time until a rough high ankle issue in a Brewers playoff game. Whether or not that helps him in free agency depends on how much you buy the beginning of the season. It looks fairly well justified, and makes him look like a guy that can help a contender. If the second half of his Nationals sample is what you expect going forward then it’s hard to see a team spending a whole lot for it.

Gio Gonzalez

The pitching was the stronger unit for the Nationals, but the bats were no slouches, either, collectively coming in close to forty runs above average. The expectations like the Nats as an above average offense for much of the season. There was an initial inability to get to all of their average or better expectations, and it was shortly followed by the worst prolonged stretch of the year. The second half had a much better tale to tell with consistently above average performance. The actual rarely fell short over this stretch being either in line or even better indicating the sticks were solid. The early sluggish start might have been the difference between playoffs or not. The lineup featured some true everyday starts, some obvious platooners and too many plate appearances for some of the weaker performers pushed into action once injuries take hold. The Nats have had stars galore, and even a couple of wunderkinds on their way to that level, but after years of trading future for present the depth has thinned to the point that Washington has to run out subpar players once inevitably injuries hit. We have seen the New York Mets do a good job to patch up a similar issue this winter, but despite losing Harper the Nats have mostly continued to focus on the starter more than the guy behind him.

The team rode two star level hitters, though the slightly brighter light, Bryce Harper, has likely played his last game for the only franchise he has known. Harper shows a well-rounded skillset that more than makes up for a worse than average strikeout rate by walking at nearly double the league rate. Pairing that walk rate with very hard contact, however, is what makes him one of the best sluggers in the game. That he does all this while showing very little platoon split is another big differentiator as most lefties struggle with their same-handed counterparts. Over the season you can see him falling well short of expectations early, but still around the average or better. Nagging injuries early brought him back to Earth with both perspectives falling in line with a trough below average. He took off from there, though, with a wonderful second half that was marked by a return to lower strikeout rates and obscene walk rates like the start of the season. The middle shows a long stretch where the strikeouts got away from him a bit, and the dramatic changes in walk rate hint at a guy trying to adjust between passivity and aggressiveness in an effort to keep pitchers honest. You can see a fall off in exit velocity during that stretch, too, though like the strikeouts it would return to higher rates. The spray chart shows what a nightmare he can be with tons of hard contact and a lot of it at the kind of angles that can lead to damage. One of the very best hitters in the game will soon be one of the richest people in the country, but only one fanbase will be able to lay claim to him soon.

Bryce Harper

With Bryce Harper garnering so much of the spotlight it is easier for Anthony Rendon to flank around and complete the pincer. Rendon was the perfect complement to Harper who drew so much of his production from patience and power. Rendon puts a ton more balls in play due to his very strong strikeout avoidance. The walk rate fluctuates from below average to a bit above, but you get the sense that he is able to barrel the ball even if that happens to be early in the count. The production did show a mid-season dive that coincides with a dramatic fall in exit velocity that never really got back to the same levels as the first half. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t contributing, though as you can see he was able to close the season on a near constant escalation. Every hitter goes through slumps so his should be no surprise, and the fact that he was still looking like an average or better guy says a lot about his floor. The exit velocity not coming back may have been related to playing through an injury, but for an everyday player that sort of thing is inevitable. Like Harper in this season past he will be embarking on what could be his final voyage sporting the curly W.

Anthony Rendon

Joining the two crusty old vets was a breath of fresh air in Juan Soto. Pressed into duty earlier than anyone could have imagined, Soto proved more than ready for the Show. His production was consistently above average with a bit of a dip in his second to last month. He put to bed thoughts of the grind wearing him down by being able to finish on one of his best stretches of the year. He combines a lot of Harper’s walk ability without having to pay nearly the premium with his strikeouts. There was a late spike that coincided with a bump in exit velocity, perhaps, showing that he might be trying to fiddle a bit in the face of sophisticated pitching plans. With so many remarkable things to say about the precocious youngster the most important might be a demonstrated ability to handle lefties. If that continues you’re looking at an everyday star player who play nearly all of this season without even being able to buy a round.

Juan Soto

Just as he was starting to see his actual performance catch up with his good expected production Ryan Zimmerman went on the shelf with an oblique issue. Then stayed there for over two months to get the thing right. When he came back he again showed just how good of a hitter he can be with borderline elite production, but like so many times before it would not last as he came back down the mountain even faster than he went up. He would end the season a couple of days early due to a back issue that likely didn’t develop overnight. So it goes for a very nice hitter that just hasn’t been able to stay on the field throughout his career. You cannot fault the club for not having a plan since they brought in Matt Adams the previous offseason just for this reason. He got off to an auspicious start, but turned a flirtation with mediocrity into a full-fledged fling. The Nats had to be thinking that between these two they could build a very good player, and they weren’t wrong as these two combined for about as many runs above average as Soto, but once Zimmerman hit the shelf the team could no longer hide Adams from lefties, and things unraveled from there.

Ryan Zimmerman

Matt Adams

A couple of other vets that can be penciled in to miss time are Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton. The former was coming off microfracture surgery, and therefore not even a sure bet to ever play again. He finally arrived in mid-June and raked for the next two months before getting sent to the Chicago Cubs in mid-August. Murph-dawg showed he still has all the hitting ability in the world, and should have an excellent season hitting in Coors in 2019. Never a great defender, the knee surgery has led to virtually unplayable defense at the keystone, but he should be able to gut it out at first base. Eaton showed a nice bubble early on before settling back in as an average hitter, though a solid run of overperformance down the stretch likely shows that his legs were back under him after a career of getting beaten up. The exit velocity tail off was noticeable, but he looks like much more of a spray hitter now than the guy that put up close to thirty homers in his last two years prior to the Nats trading for him. They have gotten a shell of that former very good player, but there is still time to make good, and plenty of slack in the outfield with Harper moving on to greener pastures.

Daniel Murphy

Adam Eaton

Hard to believe that with so many batters covered so far we have yet to stumble upon one that was worse than average. That trend continues with shortstop Trea Turner, who unlike the last few players put in a full shift this year with only Francisco Lindor racking up more plate appearances. Not bad for a guy who missed a ton of time owed to a broken wrist in the year prior. As mentioned, he was a bit better than average, but only wildly so in the very beginning. The rest of the season was around the average, occasionally a little better, occasionally a little worse. The utter lack of walks over long stretches holds him back from being an above average hitter, but it helps that he also avoids the strikeout pretty well. That means a ton of balls in play and you can see that in the spray chart that is about as full as we have seen. The second half of the season saw softer contact, but that isn’t the worst result considering how often he gets the ball out on a line or a hard grounder that has a chance to split defenders. He can hit the shallow end of the nitro zone, but does most of his damage between the defenders. It’s a good approach considering just how incredibly fast Turner can bust it down the line, and once on he’s off to the races more often than not.

Trea Turner

The black hole at catcher between Matt Wieters and Pedro Severino was a severe limiting factor on the offense, but just as important was the long leash given to Michael A. Taylor and Wilmer Difo. These are your traditional fourth outfielder and utility infielder so the bar at the plate is pretty low as long as they can fill in adequately in the field. The problem is when a rash of injuries hit and these guys are forced into more than selected play. Smarter teams are turning away from having set players like this for the very reason that they aren’t all that good if you need them to be. Being a good defender means Taylor only needs to hit around the average to be useful, and he does that a good bit of the time, but he strikes out a ton and rarely walks so there will always be extended down spells. Similarly, Difo’s ability to play all over the infield leaves a low bar at the plate, but he doesn’t do much there with very weak contact that tops out with liners over the infield. It’s not so much that these guys are awful, but that a legitimate contender was stuck having to continue to run them out there despite the team having a real need for offense at various times. It highlights the lack of depth that should be seen as a real need when so many veteran players are being relied upon to be not only good, but healthy. Injuries are going to happen so the very best teams are making sure that if one option isn’t working out they’ve got plenty of others.

Michael A. Taylor

Wilmer Difo

 

Below you will find the rest of the prominent players from this past season and how they broke out in four different ways. I will save the commentary here as the charts speak for themselves once you’ve got an idea of what you’re looking at, and by cutting down on the verbiage it allows for looks at more players. Each chart looks at a rolling 100-plate appearance (or ball in play) average with the top left showing each player’s true and actual wOBA* over the course of the season. Top right shows the rolling strikeout and walk plus hit by pitch rates, and the bottom left shows the exit velocity and launch angle combinations for every ball in play. Lastly, the bottom right quadrant shows each player’s exit velocity and launch angle over the course of the season. Feel free to start a conversation on twitter if you have any questions or want to talk about any of these players. More than happy to have those chats.

Mark Reynolds

Howie Kendrick

Matt Wieters

Pedro Severino

 

Wander Suero

Brandon Kintzler

Sammy Solis

 

 

 



Leave a Reply

#layout { padding-left:20px; }