Tag Archives: Stephen Strasburg

End of Season Grades: The Pitchers

Everyone who writes about the Washington Nationals is likely to do some variation of this post, so I thought I should get mine in early.  I try to base my grades upon performance, NOT expectations (ergo, no downgrading Strasburg for NOT being Clayton Kershaw).  Anyway, feel free to argue with my grades, or agree if you will, in the comments.

Starting Pitchers:

Stephen Strasburg – B  Heading into the stretch run, Strasburg’s year was looking a bit shaky, but he dominated in season’s last month and ended up leading the Nats in innings pitched (by a margin of 15) and leading the NL in strikeouts.  On the other hand, he was 4th on the staff in ERA and had no complete games (and has only 1 in his entire career), which is a real deficiency in a guy who is supposed to be the staff ace and the “stopper.”

Jordan Zimmermann – A  Only a bad month of May, in which he sported an ugly ERA of 5.06, kept Zimmermann out of discussions for the Cy Young Award.  His season-ending no hitter and almost as strong a performance in Game 2 of the NLDS show him to be a pitcher who has reached the absolute the top of his game.

Doug Fister – A  It kind of got obscured by Zimmermann’s no-no, but Fister was almost as dominant in the 3-hit complete game shutout he threw just two days prior.  Had the Marlins decided to rest Donovan Solano in the first game of that Friday doubleheader, the Nats might have pulled off the unprecedented feat of having pitched two no hitters in the same weekend.

Gio Gonzalez – C+  Like Strasburg, Gio pitched well down the stretch, which in his case salvaged his season from true mediocrity.  Unfortunately, he then got the nod for the playoff rotation over Tanner Roark and once again proved that he just isn’t a good postseason pitcher.

Tanner Roark – A-  Fantastic as Roark was, his peripheral stats suggest merely an above average pitcher who had a little luck on his side rather than another staff ace.  Still, that’s a great thing for a team’s number 5 starter to be.

Blake Treinen – C+  Treinen pitched both as a starter and a reliever this year, but had far more innings as the former than the latter.  Weirdly, Treinen had a much better ERA and K/9 ratio as a reliever, but as a starter had a much lower WHIP and held opposing hitters to an OPS that was over .100 points lower.  Still, it would seem that unless he’s traded, Treinen’s future lies in the bullpen.

Taylor Jordan – F  Winning a rotation spot out of spring training, last year’s pleasant rookie surprise turned out to be a dud in his sophomore season.  Jordan pitched well in his first start, but then imploded and was demoted to AAA when Doug Fister came off the DL at the end of April.  Jordan wasn’t much better at Syracuse, and then spent the season’s second half on the DL himself.

Relief Pitchers

Drew Storen – C  In giving out postseason awards, MLB only considers a player’s regular season performance.  Since I don’t have to do that, Storen gets docked two letter grades for his awful NLDS performance after what had been an outstanding season.

Rafael Soriano – B-  It particularly grates that Soriano pitched very effectively in the playoffs, for it was his August implosion as the closer that caused Storen to be returned to the role.  I’ll bet I speak for most Nats fans when I say I’ll be glad to see the back of Mr. Shirt Untuck this offseason.

Tyler Clippard – A  I’ll be the first to say it.  Since (assuming he isn’t traded) next year is Clippard’s last with the Nats before he hits free agency and he will likely be their highest paid reliever, they should FINALLY give him the closer’s job that perhaps he should have had all along.

Jerry Blevins – C-  Acquired from Oakland via trade last offseason to be the bullpen’s lefty specialist not long after the Nats had oddly enough let lefty reliever Fernando Abad go to Oakland, Blevins had a “meh” season.  He turned in a lot of bad outings and had the worst ERA of any Nats reliever who spent the whole season on the big club roster, but righted the ship down the stretch and into the playoffs, not allowing a run after September 10th.

Matt Thorton – A-  Until Game 4 of the NLDS, Thorton hadn’t given up a run in a Nats’ uniform.  Though he was not on the mound when the runner he put on base scored what turned out to be the series clinching run, it was a heck of a time for him to allow his first one.

Aaron Barrett – C  Like Storen, the rookie pitched well in the regular season (but for a rough midsummer patch that led to a brief demotion to AAA), but then totally screwed the pooch in the playoffs.

Craig Stammen – B-  Stammen had his worst year as Nats reliever, a fact emphasized when he allowed 5 runs on 6 hits without retiring a batter in his last regular season game.  Nevertheless, he was outstanding in the playoffs, which gives him a bit of a bump up grade-wise.

Ross Detwiler – D  Former starter Detwiler did nothing after his demotion to the bullpen to prove the Nats were wrong for making the move.  Left off of the NLDS roster, Detwiler has likely pitched his last inning in a Nats uniform.

Tomorrow, we’ll do the position players.

Offense Reverts to Old Bad Habits…Nats Lose Game 1

Being your typical superstitious baseball fan I didn’t want to vocalize it by writing it here, but my greatest fear going into the 2014 playoffs was that the Nats’ offense would revert to its previous frustrating ways, namely failing to get hits in the clutch and mostly scoring via (usually solo) home runs.  It was formula that we saw all too often from this team during the first two-thirds of last season and much of the first half of this one.

Fittingly it was Ian Desmond, the Nats hitter who most epitomizes an all-or-nothing approach at the plate, who was this big goat in their 3-2 game one loss.  Up twice in the the later innings with a total of five runners on base, Desmond struck out meekly each time, doing so in the second at bat by waving at two pitches so far outside they practically crossed into the left-handed batter’s box.

Given his first chance on the big stage, Stephen Strasburg also reverted to his subpar form of earlier this season, but he was able to limit the damage and overall the pitching staff did its job by holding the Giants to just three runs (only two earned).  All it would have taken to win this game was one timely hit.  But the Nats, especially Desmond, just didn’t have it in them.

This is also why I hate the short five-game NLDS format.  We’re only one game in and already the Nats’ backs are up against the wall.  Hopefully, things will go better offensively tomorrow with me in the stadium for my one ticketed game of this series.  They have to, or the Nats will be unlikely to return from the West Coast with any more games remaining to be played this season.

The Key to the Nats’ Recent Pitching Success? It’s the Strikeouts, Stupid

bergmann

On April 11, 2010, Jason Bergmann came in as a relief pitcher in the 8th inning of the Nats’ 6th game of the season.  He struck out the only batter he faced on three pitches, giving him 299 career Ks, all with the Nats.  Three days later Bergmann gave up a two-run homer in one inning of work, lifting his season ERA to a gaudy 15.43 in just 4 appearances.  The very next day he was sent down to AAA Syracuse and never pitched in the majors again despite being only 28-years old and, get this, also being at that time the Nats’ all time career strikeouts leader.

Despite being mostly lousy during his Nationals tenure, Bergmann had been just good enough to be a mainstay of their pitching staff for their first five seasons in DC, going from reliever to starter and then back to reliever again.  To say those Nats pitching staffs didn’t miss a lot of bats is a huge understatement.  At the time of Bergmann’s demotion, John Patterson held the team’s single season strikeout record, recording 185 in their 2005 inaugural season.  One-year hired gun Esteban Loaiza checked in at number 2 from that same season with 173.  Beyond those two, however, no Nats pitcher had struck out even 150 batters during one campaign.   In 2009, for example, John Lannan somehow pitched a team leading 206.1 innings while recording only 89 Ks.  That same year nobody on the Nats’ staff managed to even hit triple digits, though rookie Jordan Zimmermann certainly would have had he not blown out his elbow that year.

There have been lots of articles recently about the ever-increasing number of strikeouts in MLB and how it has negatively affected the offensive side of the game.  And in recent times, no team has more dramatically altered the strikeout effectiveness of their pitching staff than the Nats.  By 2012, just two years after former team strikeout king Bergmann was so unceremoniously cut loose, all five Nats’ starters would record more than 100 Ks, and for the first time one of them would top the 200 K mark (Gio Gonzalez with 207).  By 2014, a fully healthy Stephen Strasburg would claim the NL strikeout crown with 242–or just 57 fewer than Bergmann recorded during his entire five-year career.

During the second half of the Nats’ first decade in Washington, GM Mike Rizzo’s philosophy of preferring hard throwers who do miss a lot of bats has completely rewritten the team record book in the strikeout category.  Eight of the team’s top 10 single season strikeout marks have been set in just the past three years.  Meanwhile, Strasburg (746), Zimmermann (739) and Gonzalez (561) have all blown way past Bergmann’s former club record of 299, and even a reliever, Tyler Clippard, has joined the Nats’ 500 K club by racking up a nifty 530.  Only ground ball specialist Doug Fister has bucked the overall recent trend.

And it doesn’t stop with the big club.  As of now, the Nats’ two top prospects, Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole, have been putting up strikeout numbers in the minors that eerily resemble Strasburg and Zimmermann, respectively.

So is the league-wide emphasis on strikeouts hurting baseball by driving down offense?  Perhaps, but in recent years it has also been a boon for the Nats and a big reason for their current run of success.

So Which Nats Team is Better Heading Into the Postseason: 2012 or 2014?

The regular season is over, but the Nats still have a few days and a wild card play-in game determining their opponent before they finally get to start on their quest to redeem 2012’s NLDS collapse.  While we wait, I thought it might be fun to compare and contrast the likely 2014 playoff roster with that of the 2012 squad to try and determine which one is truly better.

While it is true that the 2012 squad won more regular season games, this year’s bunch seized the NL East crown much more authoritatively and is riding into the postseason on a much higher note thanks to Jordan Zimmermann’s heroics.  One might also be inclined to argue that this year’s bunch has the advantage of being more experienced–to which I would argue that sometimes that’s an advantage and sometimes it isn’t.

As this is a fairly long exercise, I’m going to split it into two parts, pitchers today and position players tomorrow.  I’ll compare each aspect of the team (treating each starting pitcher slot as one position) and assign one of three values: even, slight advantage, significant advantage.  Even will = 0 points, while slight advantage will = 1 point and significant advantage will = 2 points.  Then we’ll add ’em all up at the end and see what we’ve got.  One caveat, I will NOT be including the actual 2012 playoff performances for each player on that roster in my analysis (as that would be cheating), just what the expectations were for them going in.

So here goes:

No. 1 Starter: Gio Gonzalez 2012 vs Stephen Strasburg 2014

Much like the Doug Fister trade this year, the trade for Gio Gonzalez was the most important move that contributed to the Nats’ 2012 playoff run.  Gio became the Nats’ first (and so far only) 20 game winner that year and their first pitcher to record more than 200 Ks in one season (207) while finishing 2nd in the NL Cy Young Award balloting.

Meanwhile, after having some ups and downs, in 2014 Strasburg assumed his rightful place late in the season as the ace of the Nats’ staff and its workhorse, throwing 215 innings and recording an NL leading 243 Ks.  His modest 14-11 won-loss record was reflective of his inconsistency early on, but in his last 6 starts he sparkled, putting up a Walter Johnson-esque ERA of 1.13 and looking like the true ace the Nats have been waiting for ever since he blew out his elbow four years ago.  Still, based on the totality of their respective seasons, Gio 2012 gets the nod here.

Verdict: Slight Advantage, Gio Gonzalez 2012

No. 2 Starter: Jordan Zimmermann 2012 vs Jordan Zimmermann 2014

In the battle of Z-nn vs Z-nn, let’s go to the numbers.  In 2012, JZ was 12-8 with a 2.94 ERA, and had 143 Ks against 43 BBs.  In 2014, he was 14-5 with a 2.66 ERA, and 182 Ks vs only 29 BBs.  What those numbers show is a remarkably consistent pitcher who has continued to improve as he’s gained experience.  Oh, and then there was that no-no performance in his last game of the season.

Verdict: Slight Advantage, Jordan Zimmermann 2014

No. 3 Starter: Edwin Jackson 2012 vs. Doug Fister 2014

Oh please, how much convincing do you need on this one?  I’ll make it really simple.  Jackson: 10-11, 4.03.  Fister: 16-6, 2.41.  Enough said.

Verdict: Significant Advantage, Doug Fister 2014

No. 4 Starter: Ross Detwiler 2012 vs Gio Gonzalez 2014

This one is not as cut-and-dried as it seems as Detwiler actually had a better won-loss record (10-8 vs 10-10) and ERA (3.40 vs 3.57).  The peripheral numbers, however, favor Gonzalez, especially strikeout rate (9.2 K/9 rate vs 5.8).  The 2012 season turned out to be the one (and likely only) good season Ross Detwiler had in a Nats’ uniform, but even then he still wasn’t good enough to hold off being moved to the bullpen for awhile in favor of Chien-Ming Wang.

Verdict: Slight Advantage, Gio Gonzalez 2014

Closer: Drew Storen 2012 vs Drew Storen 2014

Put the NLDS Game 5 disaster out of your mind for a moment and recognize that Drew Storen had a good second half coming off the disabled list in 2012.  Though he only won the closer’s job back in September and thus had only 4 saves, he pitched 30.1 innings with an excellent 2.37 ERA and an outstanding 0.989 WHIP.

In 2014, having again only recently regained the closer’s role, Storen’s numbers are even better (1.14 ERA, 0.958 WHIP).  He’s also matured  as a pitcher since 2012, using secondary offerings more instead of just trying to blow every hitter away.

Verdict: Slight Advantage, Drew Storen 2014

Setup Man: Tyler Clippard 2012 vs Tyler Clippard 2014

Clippard spent much of 2012 as the closer, and the fact that he began to fade down the stretch (and actually had the worst full season of his career) is the reason Storen regained that role.  Overall, his 2012 numbers look far worse than this year (3.72 ERA vs 2.21, 1.156 WHIP vs 0.995 and 10.2 K/9 vs 10.5).  Bottom line is, Clippard has been a better pitcher this year.

Verdict: Slight Advantage, Tyler Clippard 2014

Middle Relief: Mike Gonzalez, Ryan Mattheus, Sean Burnett & Cristian Garcia 2012 vs Rafael Soriano, Jerry Blevins, Matt Thorton & Aaron Barrett 2014

The late addition of Thorton really shores up what would otherwise be a questionable group for the 2014 Nats as Soriano blew up spectacularly and lost the closer’s job, Blevins sports a staff-high ERA of 4.95 and Barrett was sent to the minors in August to clear his head.  On the other hand, the 2012 group was relying on a midseason call-up retread (Gonzalez) and an untested September call-up (Garcia).  Mattheus and Burnett had been solid all year, however, which gives the edge to the 2012 squad.

Verdict: Slight Advantage, 2012 group

Long Relief: Craig Stammen & Tom Gorzelanny 2012 vs Craig Stammen & Tanner Roark 2014

These are the guys you hope you don’t have to use, but who will be vital if one of your starters doesn’t have it that night or the game goes to extra innings.  That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tanner Roark finds himself pitching some high leverage short outings.  His presence trumps the fact that Stammen had a much better season in 2012 than he had this year, and had the single worst outing of his career to close out his season.

Verdict: Slight Advantage, Craig Stammen & Tanner Roark 2014

So let’s add it all up:

2012: 2 Slight Advantage + 0 Significant Advantage = 2 points.

2014: 5 Slight Advantage = 1 Significant Advantage = 7 points.

Overall: 2014 Nats over 2012 Nats by 5 points.

Tomorrow we will evaluate the position players and the managers.

Oh, No-No He Didn’t!

z-nn

I hadn’t intended this blog to be a daily game recap blog, but since I was in attendance for Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter I thought I should write something about it.  Interestingly, I was also in attendance at RFK on Labor Day 2006 when Ramon Ortiz (yeah, I know, I know) took a no-no into the 9th inning only to have Albert Pujols hit a home run to spoil it.  Of course, about the only thing Ortiz’s effort has in common with Zimmermann’s is that they both excelled at the plate–Ortiz hit a home run in the 8th inning of his game while Jordan banged out two singles in three trips to the plate today.

I’ve heard it said numerous times that with their array of great starters the Nats were sure to have one of them throw a no-hitter eventually.  But prior to today the only one of their big guns to flirt with one was Gio Gonzalez when he one-hit the Mets last year, with that one seeing-eye single coming off the bat of pinch hitter Zach Lutz (it was Lutz’s first MLB hit AND his only hit of the season, infuriatingly enough).

No disrespect to Gio, but it was fitting that it would be Zimmermann who threw the team’s first ever no-no.  He’s been here the longest and despite winning 19 games a year ago remains behind Strasburg and Gio in terms of the attention and appreciation he gets.  Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t have the flashy strike out totals, though the 10 Ks he put up today looked pretty good.

So consider this as the Nats head into the playoffs.  In their final starts of the regular season, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Gio and Fister, their four presumed playoff starting pitchers, threw 31 innings, struck out 38 batters and walked only 3.  They also gave up only 6 hits and ZERO runs.  Not only is that a perfect ERA of 0.00, but it’s a WHIP of an incredible 0.290.  Yeah, I’d say they are ready to go.

Let the PLAYOFF games begin!

Future Shutdown Candidates: Harvey and Fernandez

MLB: Spring Training-Miami Marlins at St. Louis Cardinals

Okay, Strasburg shutdown haters, you’re about to have to step up your game if you don’t want to appear to be a bunch of hypocrites.  Because in the next two years, two teams and two ace pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery may well find themselves exactly where the Nats and Strasburg were in 2012–and amazingly they hail from the Nats’ own division.

There’s no doubt that had Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez been healthy for all of this season, that Nats would not coasted to the NL East after the Braves collapsed.  Not to say that either the Mets or Marlins would have had the horses to beat them out for the division title–neither team did–just that they would have no doubt won quite a few more games and kept things a bit more interesting.  In fact, if Giancarlo Stanton could also have avoided that beanball the Marlins might have had a chance to slip into the playoffs as a wild card team.

The fact is that the Mets and Marlins are both teams that feature a handful of decent veterans and a number of up-and-coming players, particularly good young pitchers–in other words they look an awful lot like the Nats did circa 2011.  By as early as next season, the Mets with Harvey leading their rotation along with young guns Zach Wheeler and Jacob deGroom could easily become contenders for at least a wild card spot.

For his part, Harvey is already predicting a Mets 2015 Opening Day victory, presumably with him getting the win.  But what happens if the Mets are in the hunt come September and decide the prudent thing is to do what the Nats did two years ago?  Will the New York sports media tear them apart?  Or how about if the Mets do let Harvey keep pitching (he threw a career high 178.1 innings in 2012 before blowing out his elbow), and the wear and tear of going well over 200 innings on a recently repaired elbow becomes painfully obvious in the NLDS (kind of like Robert Griffin’s knee in that 2012 Redskins’ playoff game)?  Does that same media then start screaming for Harvey to be immediately shut down?

The same scenario could play out for the Marlins in 2016 (though with Fernandez being injured earlier in the season than Harvey was last year, he might be able to log some a half-season or so worth of innings next year).  Their window to win before Giancarlo Stanton becomes free agent eligible (assuming they don’t trade him or convince him to sign an extension) will be down to exactly that one year.  Knowing that, do they ride the super talented Fernandez like a horse until his arm is ready to fall off hoping to become one-year championship wonders for the third time in team history?  Would you trust sleaze bag Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria to NOT do that, especially knowing there is no way he’ll want to pay Fernandez what he is worth when the time comes?

The point is that with the number of players undergoing Tommy John surgery skyrocketing these days this issue is going to come up over and over again with young stud pitchers needing multiple years to get back to full strength while their teams desperately need their services NOW in order to take a shot at winning that elusive championship.  Teams are going to have to decide whether to risk those valuable young assets or be patient and hope they can win in the playoffs anyway.  By ripping on the Nats for the Strasburg shutdown, the haters have boxed themselves in to a position that may be rapidly becoming untenable.

What Will It Take To Get The “Strasburg Shutdown” Haters to Finally Shut Up?

stephen-strasburg-nats

For the record, I was on board with GM Mike Rizzo’s decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012 (though as a season ticket holder who experienced the soaring high of  Werth’s Game 4 home run and the crushing disappointment the very next day, I’ll admit I wasn’t especially happy about it).  Not only was Strasburg coming back from Tommy John surgery, but his 160 innings pitched was ALREADY nearly 40 more than he had thrown in any season as a professional.  Stras was also showing signs of wearing down as September rolled around that year–in his last three starts he posted an ERA of 6.43.

Would the Nats have beaten the Cardinals has Stras been in the rotation?  Well, say he wins Game 1, and then Game 2 follows the same script–Gio walks the whole stadium but the Nats somehow pull out a win.  Then Z-nn and Jackson would have had their own bad outings in Games 3 & 4 instead of Games 2 & 3 (Detwiler would have been in the pen), so the series likely would have gone to Game 5 anyway.  Is a way-overextended Stras then better able than Gio was to hold the Cardinals down after getting the early 6-0 lead?  Does Z-nn throw smoke in the 7th inning as he did in 7th inning of Game 4 of the real series?  Does that then mean Clippard and Storen (or maybe even somebody else) get to protect a 7-1 lead instead of a 7-4 lead, resulting in an easy win instead of a crushing defeat?  We’ll never know.

What we do know is that the Nats chose not to risk re-injuring Strasburg, and subsequently he was available to be a horse this year, starting 33 games so far and throwing 209 innings already.  His 235 Ks lead the NL and his recent dominance (1.34 ERA, 33 Ks, 2 BBs in his last 5 starts), suggest an evolving ace who could match Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright pitch for pitch in the NLCS, assuming the Nats reach the second round of the playoffs.

The haters claimed that championship chances come along so rarely that a team needs to go “all in” every time one comes along.  As it has turned out, the championship “window” for this current group of Nats’ players is likely to be framed at 2012-2015 before free agency defections begin to force some retooling (not to say they won’t still have enough talent to at least contend in Strasburg’s “contract season” of 2016, assuming he’s not traded).  They are now in year 3 of that window and so far have two divisional titles to show for it (which, BTW, is one more outright division title than the franchise had won its first 42 years of existence).  The shutdown haters piled on last year when the team missed the playoffs, but as October 2014 approaches the Nats are right where GM Mike Rizzo likely figured they would be when he made the decision to protect his most important asset two years ago–not only division title winners, but a favorite to get to the World Series.

Though it still isn’t really fair, I believe nothing short of a World Series appearance with Strasburg having a dominant postseason run will finally quiet those critics down.   And if the Nats win it all, Rizzo would then be within his rights to go around to every sportswriter and teevee shouting head who dog piled on him for the shutdown and yell, “in your FACE!”

Tomorrow I’m going to discuss two other teams who soon could possibly face the very same dilemma the Nats did in 2012.  If so, will the “debate” be so heated then?