Reliving the 2017 Season: Washington Nationals Edition | The Process Report

Reliving the 2017 Season: 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 team. The order will mirror next June’s draft slotting 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 two to three of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts.

Past:

30 – 21: DET SFG PHI CWS CIN NYM SDP ATL OAK PIT

20 – 11:  BAL TOR MIA SEA TEX TBR LAA KCR STL MIN

10 – 1:  MIL COL NYY CHC ARI BOS

It has been a long time since the Nationals were out and out bad. Striking platinum in the draft in back to back years can do that, but the team has also spent lavishly in free agency and converted future potential into right now talent via the trade market. This is what a mature franchise looks like, and in a couple of years we might see the downside of that, but for now, the Nationals are amongst the class of the league. Several legitimate superstars on both sides of the chalk with plenty of depth, which seems to prove necessary to a club that year after year seems to fall short with injuries a big explainer. With Bryce Harper set to walk after this upcoming season the team has to feel 2018 will be their last best chance to put it all together for their first ring, but let’s first look back at 2017.

The pitching was very strong throughout the year, but especially picked up steam as it went along. In the beginning they were better than average, but by the end of the season they were about all you could ask for. Thanks to some savvy mid-season acquisitions the team was able to shore up their bullpen in back of their trio of very good starters. It’s a good thing, because by that point in the season the offense was a shell of it’s former self. They came out like a house on fire before hitting more like an average team for around a month. Things picked back up, with observed results outstripping expectations nearly across the board to and through this point. There was a steady decline over the rest of the season that left the team looking more like a fairly bad offense by the time the playoffs rolled around.

Narrative crafters will probably like to say that this is what it looks like when a team runs away with their division. The theory is that they have so little to play for that guys start going through the motions expecting to be able to flip the switch at any time, which of course, they are unable to do. It’s great copy for a film or novella, but these are professional players that are amongst the best in their field. Instead, I would point to the grind of the long season wearing out a mature team that suddenly had a lot less depth after season-ending injuries to Adam Eaton and Jayson Werth. Throw in Trea Turner missing over two months in the middle of the season and Bryce Harper hyperextending his knee with a month left in the season and you start to see why the offense sputtered mightily.

Focusing on that last little bit, however, causes us to overreact and miss that this was a fine offense. Better than average, perhaps even good for much of the season. They walk and strikeout at average rates and hit the ball at a slightly above average rate, though their observed results were considerably higher. It turns out the pitching is the driving force for the team, though. It should be no surprise since they have a plethora of household names, but I had the unit collectively worth close to 107 runs better than average. One of the best in the game. They struck out a ton with better than average walk rates and suppressed damage on contact very well.

Starting with those arms you can see the team relies upon a tried and true formula for building a solid pitching unit. Start with one of the best pitchers in the game, Max Scherzer, then add a second ace, Stephen Strasburg, and have a solid veteran like Gio Gonzalez bust out for one of his best seasons in years. The fourth starter, Tanner Roark, was essentially league average, something we have seen a lot of teams are getting from their second or third best pitcher. The fifth starter was kind of a mess as the team tried to cobble together something effective all season, but mostly falling short. Edwin Jackson, A.J. Cole and Joe Ross combined to be around ten runs worse than average, which isn’t too bad for the worst slot in the rotation.

The bullpen was also fairly stout with doubles machine Matt Albers leading the charge backed by a solid strikeout to walk rate and allowing virtually nothing on balls in play. Koda Glover was also extremely good, but missed substantial time due to injury, and you can say pretty much the same about the lefty, Sammy Solis. Those injuries led the team to prioritize the bullpen at the trade deadline. After landing their nets they received strong performances from Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson via Oakland and Brandon Kintzler burnt worms after leaving Minnesota behind. Compared to the starters the bullpen is very much a weakness, but that would probably always be the case. The team did well to shore up the weaker unit, but with little depth they are going to need some injury luck to keep this band together.

You know Max Scherzer. You know what he is capable of doing to grown men. A vast arsenal of absolutely filthy stuff is what allows him to strikeout more than a third of batters while walking less than the average. It allows those relatively few balls in play to come off the bat so weakly that he rarely has to worry about those guys behind him. It seems like every year he goes on a tear for a month and this past season was no different. You can see he got the results of a relief ace, but with the ability to throw nearly complete games on the regular, and he held that up for basically a quarter of the season. The start and end of the season were fairly similar with periods of being quite good but occasionally poking his head around the average only to run scurrying back down the hole. He closed the season on a bit of a sour note in terms of the boxscore, which hurt a couple of this analyst’s playoff teams at the wrong time, but the underlying performance still looked fairly solid.

When the team drafted Stephen Strasburg it was readily apparent that this kid was going to be special. I was lucky enough to stand behind the plate at a game in Rochester when he came to town, and it was some of the most disgusting stuff I had ever seen. Now a grown ass man it might feel like Strasburg has fallen short of the lofty expectations thrust on him by others. I don’t think that is the case. He has battled some injury issues nearly every season, but just keeps on righting the ship, getting it figured out, and then going to town on batters. This past season was no different as a rocky start to the season saw good performance intermixed with a little worse than average. His worst stretch there in the middle eventually slid down the mountain to become his best performance of the year that just kept getting better, however. There was a good bit of underperformance as real world numbers looked decidedly worse, but eventually these things corrected, such that, he was in high gear by the time the team was playing in the postseason. That is a heck of a second half he enjoyed, now if he could just do that for a full season he might make his way into the record books.

Being the third guy behind those two already mentioned must be an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand you don’t have to go face every team’s best or second best guy giving you more fruitful matchups against their softer mid-rotation. That excuses the occasional mistake as you know your team is probably going to hang a few, as well. On the other hand, though, you don’t want there to be any drop-off from those guys to your slot. That sort of eustress can be good, but it can also lead to feeling failure when it doesn’t really exist. For years, Gonzalez has been a steady pitcher that occasionally pitches a little better or a little worse over a season, but you mostly know what you are going to get. Last year he broke that mold to be quite good. Yes, he’s a step back from those other monsters, but that middle of the season is about as good as it ever gets for the majority of starters. He was really good, and the observed results were even better. It helped make up for a rather rough start to the year, and his close was a little worse taking him back to something more like an average starter, but getting this kind of production over much of the regular season from a mid-rotation guy is tantalizing.

Most fans have their stereotypes for how the rotation should work. You have the elite ace that gives you volume and production, the second guy that gives you a good bit of both, the steady third guy that maybe chooses one avenue to the detriment of the other, and then finally the fourth guy who you hope is a league average starter that maybe has as many blowups as gems. That’s about what Tanner Roark gave the club in 2017. He started out right around the average before a pronounced bad period that had even worse real results. He got better from there. The second half was very strong with only one somewhat concerning period and a whole lot to like, otherwise. He doesn’t have the name recognition or the gaudy career numbers of his rotation-mates, but Roark fills a role just fine keeping his team in games and giving them enough innings that they only need to get creative with one rotation spot. Mike Rizzo’s hair is thankful for him, and I think he’s a fine cheap buy in fantasy. Especially in leagues where the pitcher win carries any importance

After a first course of steak why not move on to the entrée. More steak. Much like the appetizer, the offense is built upon a group of household names that you know because they’ve been around awhile, but also because they can frickin hit. Harper leads the charge even though he yet again missed over a month of play. Emerging from the ashes of shoulder and back issues Ryan Zimmerman posted the best season of a career, and the best part is that it looks justified by the batted ball data. The team also boasts considerable infield production from the keystone thanks to Daniel Murphy, and the hot corner as Anthony Rendon just posted his best season of his strong career. While it was only a platoon role, Adam Lind acquitted himself very well putting up more than 17 runs above average. The team signing Matt Adams to fill the same role sounds like the fantasies of a hooplehead, so some smart team is going to get a guy that kills righties for basically nothing. Jayson Werth, Howie Kendrick and Brian Goodwin all amassed less than half a season, but provided average or better production when they were fit.

Moving down the list we come to Trea Turner, a guy that just cannot seem to stay on the field, but astounds when he does. His strikeout to walk ratio is fine, though he does tend to put the ball in play a good deal below the average. Seeing his actuals push higher isn’t a crazy notion as his world-class speed is going to turn outs into singles and singles into doubles. I think he is the prototype for breaking the model. Other regulars that can be found at the bottom include playoff hero Michael Taylor who is now selling out for power, which seems like a good call. Wilmer Difo and Matt Wieters also join this part of the list. The former sprays liners with aplomb, but probably isn’t an everyday shortstop leaving him as kind of a tweener. The latter underperformed a good bit, but even his expectations were well below the norm, such that, he could not build upon mostly fine strikeout to walk ratios. With this profile he really needs to provide value behind the plate, because they aren’t getting much when he stands next to it. The team used him almost exclusively against righties, where he approaches the average, but saw far, far worse actual results.

(Please note that I had to extend the y-axes for Harper, Zimmerman and Rendon since they broke it.)

Bryce Harper is one of the best things about the game of baseball. Many feel the same way as I, but that does not mean everyone adores the lad. His start to the season was ridiculous, but it wouldn’t last all that long as he showed a steady decline down to the mean before literally bouncing back on almost the exact same trajectory. His next peak was a little shorter than the first, but both came with outsized production on balls in play as his tremendous ability seems to turn great production into elite when everything is running on time. You can see the sharp decline over the end of the season as he tried to play through a gimpy knee. The laundry list of injuries for Harper has grown tiresomely long, but if you are a fan of the Nationals you have to be hoping that this, quite possibly his last in a Walgreens uniform, will be his best. Health is the only thing holding him back, but the ceiling is in the stratosphere.

As previously mentioned, Zimmerman has had a fairly interesting career to this point. He came into the game at the same time as other elite third basemen like Evan Longoria and David Wright, and like those guys he has had his fair share of injuries hold back his ability to contribute on the diamond. Moving him off third base, which seemed long overdue thanks to an inability to throw the ball anymore, much like Matt Carpenter, meant less wear and tear and more up and at them. Folks talk about increasing launch angle, but his was mostly in the liner zone. Instead, he just absolutely hit the piss out of the ball. Much of the season saw an exit velocity north of 90 MPH and there was a short stretch early where his average was above 95 MPH. The angles showed some volatility, but mostly ran from the low liner zone to the lower parts of the nitro zone. Oodles of extremely hard hit low liners with some of his higher angles trading a little velocity, but still sitting firmly in a good place. Check it:

When the Mets failed to retain the previously homegrown Murphy I was not alone in hardly being able to comprehend the why. When it was revealed that the ask was something like three years and $45 million dollars palms hit faces nationwide. The man was coming off a hero’s legendary tale of a postseason, he had always been a Met and the money was nothing. I bet he loves shoving it in their faces. Since then, he has done a good bit of that to every team he has faced. He showed some fortunate production early on, but with elite contact ability that allows him to hit to all fields, with power, I don’t think it should be all that surprising when Murphdawg overperforms. So later in the year, when both perspectives coalesce and turn downhill, I would not surmise that as regression, but rather, he was hiding a bit of an injury that was taking away from his God-given ability to tater a baseball. Seeing the steep incline at the end gives a little bit of hope that things got right, but offseason knee surgery certainly does give us a bit of confirmation that something wasn’t right. This nugget of knowledge brings forth a bit more risk than some might like for Murphy, and I have no idea if that risk will actually lead to a discount since he’s a good hitter in a great lineup with national name recognition. I’d prefer to see if I can deal for him mid-season if things look like they’re back to normal.

Tony Two-Bags sounds like the guy you bought shitty dimes from in middle school, but I assure you, he is not a narcotics dealer even if he does look a little bit like Serpico. Guy has always been able to hit, but the problem, even way back in college, is that he couldn’t seem to stay on the field. That information might provide some insight into this past season, where he was angelic for much of the first half. That is an MVP first half, but then returned to the pack over the second with slightly better than average production. It is hard for me to view this and now surmise that he was playing through some sort of nagging injury, who isn’t, but if he could have continued the path he was on you might have been looking at the National League’s Most Valuable Player. Instead, he will have to settle for merely very good as he joined his trio of teammates to be amongst the very best foursomes in the game.

Leaderboards

Only a few teams left now, so this look at the top and bottom 20 pitchers and hitters should give you a good feel for where everyone slots in on the extremes. Below that you will find team aggregate lines before the final table showing combined xwRAA ranks for each team.

 



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