Thursday, August 8, 2013

Fundamental Baseball

In yesterday's Washington Post, columnist Thomas Boswell skewered the Nationals' poor quality of play throughout the season, writing about several ways in which the team has played below its talent level thanks to some very bad fundamental baseball. Boswell is spot on with many of his observations, although he left out some components that could very well use a more thorough examination. Let's break down what he identified as the main issues and analyze some things he may have left out.

"Their bench, strong last season, has been horrible, with six key players combining for an abysmal .521 on-base-plus-slugging percentage through Tuesday night in more than 1,000 trips to the plate."

The holdover substitutes from last year have seem to have all gotten clobbered by the Regression Monster in 2013. Those players would be: Kurt Suzuki, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina, Chad Tracy, and Jhonatan Solano. A breakdown of their individual slash lines in each season is revealing:

Suzuki: .267/.321/.404 in 164 PA (2012); .218/.276/.311 in 263 PA (2013)
Lombardozzi: .273/.317/.354 in 416 PA (2012); .249/.259/.315 in 223 PA (2013)
Moore: .263/.327/.513 in 171 PA (2012); .151/.195/.283 in 113 PA (2013)
Bernadina: .291/.372/.405 in 261 PA (2012); .181/.247/.275 in 163 PA (2013)
Tracy: .269/.343/.441 in 105 PA (2012); .176/.208/.294 in 106 PA (2013)
Solano: .314/.351/.571 in 37 PA (2012); .167/.211/.222 in 38 PA (2013)

Granted, each of those numbers taken individually is a fairly small sample size (particularly Solano, the team's third catcher). Together, however, those are damning numbers. Each of those six guys contributed at or above the level of an acceptable major league regular in 2012, and all of them have been sub-replacement level players in 2013. On the one hand, bench players are very similar to relievers, subject to wild year-to-year swings in performance (although it is odd that every single one came up boxcars in 2012 and snake eyes a year later). On the other hand, it was perfectly reasonable to expect continued growth and development from the young up-and-comers in the organization, particularly Moore but to a lesser extent Lombardozzi and Bernadina as well. After all, Moore was turning 26, and the ten home runs he hit in those 171 plate appearances last year were merely reflective of the power he showcased in consecutive 31-homer seasons in the minors in 2010-11. Lombardozzi, meanwhile, had gained manager Davey Johnson's trust to the point that he was rumored to be a viable candidate to unseat Danny Espinosa as the starting second baseman (and when Espinosa struggled, he certainly got his chance to do so, only to be supplanted by converted third baseman Anthony Rendon). And Bernadina seemed to have made a leap at 28 from "solid fourth outfielder" to "potential trade chip as a starter on another team." So while regression as a whole could certainly be expected, those players have greatly disappointed on an individual level.

Their fifth starter was a disaster for 100 games.

I'm going to go ahead and assume that Boswell was referring to Dan Haren and his gopher-itis (21 in 112 innings so far) that has contributed mightily to a 5.14 ERA, certainly not what the Nationals were expecting for their $13 million investment. Since returning from the disabled list three weeks ago, Haren has pitched better, with only one bad outing in his five starts (five earned runs off of as many hits - two of them home runs - in five innings against the Pirates). But for those first two and a half months, Haren was often dreadful.

Their second baseman’s career imploded.

This is undoubtedly true. You could live with Espinosa's high strikeout totals (355 across 2011-12) when he was providing some power out of the seven hole (.408 slugging in those two seasons) and sparkling defense at second (or shortstop when Ian Desmond sat). This year, however, Espinosa hit .158/.193/.272 in 44 games (47 strikeouts against just 4 walks) before the team mercifully put him on the disabled list and then sent him down to Syracuse. Although it doesn't explain the disappearance of whatever plate discipline he had, a large part of Espinosa's struggles this year (his power outage, for instance) can be tied to an injured labrum, which he did not have surgery on last winter. This brings up a larger question which Boswell ignored; what is up with the Nationals' training staff?

After all of the hoopla regarding the team's bubble-wrap protection of Stephen Strasburg and his innings count last year, the team has shown no such level of concern towards some of their position players in 2013. A bad shoulder causes a lot of problems: it hurts your throwing (ask Ryan Zimmerman, of whom more later) and slows your bat speed, reducing both your contact ability and your power. Why not encourage a guy with a torn labrum to either a) have surgery and fix it or b) play less often while receiving treatment to help heal it? The other strange handling job by the training staff concerns, of course, Bryce Harper, who was slowed in May by bursitis in his knee thanks to doing his best Pete Reiser imitation. Bursitis requires rest first and foremost, yet the training staff allowed a headstrong 20-year-old to attempt to play through it, whereupon he almost immediately aggravated the injury further by running into another wall and had to be shelved for a month. Before he got hurt the first time, Harper was the Nationals' best hitter, putting up a sparkling .344/.430/.720 line. Since then? A much more pedestrian .233/.320/.426. Could this drop have been prevented by a better approach from the training staff?

General Manager Mike Rizzo’s biggest team-tweaking decision, trading for Denard Span, proved misconceived, subtracting offense from a team that has plummeted in scoring.

This basically amounts to swapping Michael Morse for Span, a move which has undoubtedly helped the defense (Morse is a pretty atrocious outfielder) while not providing the expected results on offense. Last year, in 106 games, the Beast hit .291/.321/.470 with 18 bombs. Span, who sported a career .357 on-base percentage entering his age-29 season, was expected to be a table-setter at the top of the lineup. However (coincidentally also in 106 games), he has hit a meager .260/.312/.359 with an abominable number of easy rollers to second base. That lack of production at the top of the lineup (Span wasn't dropped from the leadoff spot until just a couple of weeks ago) has hurt the entire team's offense, which has gone from having a team OBP of .322 a year ago to just .299 now, a figure which is better only than the effective minor league rosters in Houston and Miami. But to the Nats fans who miss the Beast and keep saying he would be the panacea to all of the team's woes with the sticks, I say no, he would not. Morse has hit .242/.302/.442 in Seattle while missing a ton of games due to injury, as he has every season of his career except for 2011. He would make little to no difference on this team.

No, I think the issues are perhaps a little more systemic, throughout the organization. You see that .299 OBP at the major league level. Well, what about AAA Syracuse? They're sitting at .317, ahead of only Gwinnett and Louisville in the International League, and lower than every Pacific Coast League team except New Orleans. AA Harrisburg? .320, eleventh in the twelve-team Eastern League, and tied for 20th among the 30 AA teams across three leagues (the Southern and Texas Leagues are the other two). You have to drop all the way to Potomac, in the high-A Carolina League, to find a team even remotely close to the upper half of its league in on-base percentage (the P-Nats lead the Carolina League with a .347 figure). Part of this organizational weakness is due to the fact that the Nationals' system has been stripped of most of its high-level talent in recent years; Harper and Rendon are now in the majors, and the only other top-flight hitter on the farm is Harrisburg outfielder Brian Goodwin, currently ranked 70th among all MLB prospects (and hitting .251/.354/.399 this year for the Senators). Might the organizational approach to teaching hitting skills also be to blame?

Let's look, for instance, at the major league players that the Nats have developed themselves. If you're counting guys who have spent at least most of a season at the major league level, you're considering Zimmerman, Harper, Rendon, Moore, Lombardozzi, Bernadina, Espinosa, and Desmond. Their career OBPs are, respectively, .352, .349, .310, .275, .294, .310, .303, and .316. The average OBP in all of baseball this year is .317. So among players developed by the Nationals, only Zimmerman generational talent Harper qualify as above average at getting on base. I'm not saying that walks are all-important, but avoiding making outs is the single most important offensive skill (however you do it). The Nationals, on the surface at least, do not appear to be very good at developing that skill in their young hitters, save Harper and Zimmerman (who both came pretty fully developed).

Several of the Nats’ best hitters, including Bryce HarperJayson Werth and Ian Desmond, are having good seasons, when healthy, by most stats — but, on the entire roster, only Wilson Ramos has really strong RBI totals.

To this I say, who cares? RBIs are entirely context-driven, in that you need guys on base in the first place in order to be able to drive them in. Hardly anyone is getting on base, thus there are scant RBI opportunities. In a related story, Werth leads the team with 54 RBI, a little more than half as many as league leader Paul Goldschmidt (90). Of course, when the team does get guys on base, the hitters behind them do a terrible job of driving them in; the Nationals are hitting just .236 with runners in scoring position for the year, ahead of only Miami, Houston, the Cubs, and (surprisingly) Pittsburgh.

But another huge Nats problem, and the one that absolutely must be solved before anything really good can happen, is that they play the game badly at the fundamental level night after infuriating night. The Nats think, correctly, that they are talented. But bad baseball always beats talent. The Nats aren’t winning because the way they’ve played, they don’t merit it.

Aha! Here we are. This is the point of the whole column, and it is entirely correct. They have been sloppy in the field and at the plate, making errors (77 of them), failing to cash in runners, screwing up sacrifice bunts (which I hate, but as long as you're going to waste outs, do it properly), trying to hit three-run homers with the bases empty, and on and on.

On Monday, the Nats lost, 3-2, because Stephen Strasburg, who had fabulous stuff that night, allowed an uncontested steal of second that turned into a two-out run. Strasburg still can’t hold runners, refuses to divide his focus and has yet to trap a single runner who has “timed his move” by simply stepping off the rubber.

This is true. Strasburg has allowed a Tim Raines-esque 85% success rate on stolen bases for his career, although the sample (29 for 34) is admittedly small. Still, a pitcher whose slowest offerings run in the mid-80s should not be allowing guys to run on him whenever they want. It's something you see in games, as Boswell pointed out; you hardly ever see Strasburg throw over to hold a runner, and never does he step off the rubber to throw off the runner's timing.

It’s time for Zimmerman to find out where his arm strength stands and stop playing shallow, thus minimizing his range, then throwing quick-release lobs to first base with the arc of a junior high game. Avoiding the issue does not help the Nats figure out their future at first, second or third base. He can gun it adequately before the game. So suck it up and let it go in the game.

This will deserve its own column at some point, but suffice to say that Zimmerman is looking at a probable move across the diamond to first base at some point in the next year or two if he can't trust his arm to make throws from deep down the line a la Manny Machado or Evan Longoria (remember, Zimmerman used to be that caliber of a third baseman with the glove). You can see it during warm-ups between innings, as Zimmerman will take four or five hesitant, choppy steps before throwing to LaRoche, although he pulls his first baseman off of the bag much less now than he did in April and May.

The Nats really are a talented, hard-working team with a good clubhouse and decent people. But they’ve been rattled, pressing, joyless and awful at fundamentals since April. They should reduce their season to a manageable goal: Play smart, focused baseball as a group, work to improve individually and have a reasonably loose and enjoyable time while you’re doing it.

This is important. There seems to be a sense that this team has expected, since last winter, to simply win the division as a matter of course, and they have not set themselves up to do the little things that require extra focus but help teams win more games. It hasn't helped that their whip-smart manager has puzzlingly turned into a garden variety push-button manager (particularly with his bullpen) along the lines of Charlie Manuel in his final season, nor has it helped to lose two of the team's best and hardest-working players (Harper and Werth) for long stretches without capable substitutes. While the Nationals almost assuredly will not be playing in October this year, they can play better fundamental baseball for the last six weeks of the season and set themselves up to bounce back in 2014 and back up the talent on paper with play in the field.