Holding Court: How to Make the Playoffs in Ten Days

Here is how the Nats can make the playoffs:
The team is 6.5 games back with 36 games to go. But they have 6 head-to-head games against the Mets, including the final 3 of the year October 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. If the Nats can make up 3.5 games between now and the 2nd of October, they will have the opportunity to win their way into the playoffs by taking 4 straight from New York – the final 3 games of the regular reason and then the tiebreaker game. 
Okay, so not great, but bear with me.
The next week in a half is critical. Nats have 10 against the Marlins, Cards, Braves and the Mets have 9 against the Red Sox, Marlins, and Phillies before the Mets come to Nats Park on Labor Day for the first of two 3-games series. 
The Mets will at worst go 6-3, probably 7-2 if not better, which means the Nats will probably have to go 8-2 (or even 9-1) to make up ground. So they can lose one to the Cards and then one of the other 9 games. Maybe. They *could* be 5 back going into the Labor Day series. Win the series and they are 4 back – only a game away from the number that keeps them alive – 3. Then they just have to pick up one game on the Mets over the next 21 games  to get the equivalent of being down 3-0 in a 7-game series. (They’d have to be only 1 back to not have to sweep the series to force the tiebreaker.)
That’s a very difficult scenario for a pretty slim chance at the playoffs, but it’s not nothing. 
Consider the last 9 games: the Nats have gone 7-3 with a run differential of +14 but lost a game in the standings because the Mets went 8-2, outscoring their opponents by 23. It could be worse. The new batch of injuries doesn’t help, but now Matt Williams is out of excuses not to play Danny Espinosa and Trea Turner. We’ll see if those of us who have been calling for more of them are right. Rendon and Strasburg are finally alive and kicking and Bryce keeps doing Bryce, so who knows. 
In summation, for the Nats the make the playoffs they need to pick up a game and a half before Labor Day then go at least 5-1 against the Mets. Even then, they still have to make up another game during September just to get the chance to win four straight to win the Division.
Probable. No.
Possible. Maybe not.
But it’s enough to postpone the season autopsies. For now.
Baby steps to Labor Day. And remember – this is the fun part.
“Buy the ticket. Take the ride.”

I don’t like Jonathan Papelbon (and I don’t have to)

Let’s get this straight:


I don’t like Jonathan Papelbon. I don’t know the man, i don’t pretend to know the man, I wouldn’t presume to know if he is a good or bad person. I do know how I feel about him though, and I don’t like him. I’m not impressed with his crotch grab, I don’t think much of a guy who has two entrance songs for closing, and while I can understand a guy wanting to protect his payday, I’m not a huge fan of a guy who insists on being the star of the bullpen wherever he goes.

I don’t think this is an “out of context” situation. My gut tells me this is who Papelbon is. I don’t think this is a Yunel Escobar situation, where we can all hope (and that hope has been validated so far this year) that his transgressions of youth were just that. I think there is a very good chance that “Pap” (ugh, do I have to get used to writing that?) is a jerk.

At tension with this my dislike is that, well, he’s a good pitcher, and there is a good chance he’s made the bullpen better.

That doesn’t mean you have to like it, or I like it, or I’m going to try and convince you to like it. Baseball, at its core, is there to entertain you. It’s why the guys play, it’s why you watch. We can all be a baseball poet about it, but baseball is here to kill 3 hours of your day and give you something to talk about at the water cooler. You’re supposed to be enjoying yourself, and if you’re not you’re probably doing something wrong.

Adding a guy like this to the team sours it for me because I don’t like jerks. I like to think we can populate a sport with guys who aren’t jerks and we’d still enjoy it. Fantasy, I know. That doesn’t mean the feeling won’t change, or subside, or go away entirely once he starts pitching. I don’t know the answer to how I really feel, or how you should feel. I don’t have to have a hot take on how great/devastating this is for the team. I wouldn’t dare to pretend to know how this would affect the clubhouse (and i think any speculation one way or the other is dangerous, stupid and wrong).

I have some thoughts that I have organized though.


We’ve Done This Before….This Spring

There is a certain song and dance we all do when a new player comes to town. It’s a mix of hurt feelings (cuz it means our guys aren’t good enough), not really knowing a lot about the player coming in (Projection! Xenophobia! Tribalism!), and having a fixed idea as to what the team needs and doesn’t need (Cuz even folks who rip armchair managers are armchair managers).

We do these things because we all are pretty stupid, self included, and our caveman brains divide things up into very simple to understand directives that we apply to everything. But that’s another post for another day.

In the Spring, the Nats didn’t need a starting pitcher at all, but adding Max Scherzer happened and its been probably the most enjoyable thing about the Nats this year (this side of Bryce Harper, anyway). You can pretend it didn’t happen, but there was a litany of “Overpaid/We don’t need him/Rizzo is an Idiot/and What an Insult To Jordan or Straburg who deserve to be the ace” comments and thoughts and tweets from many, many people.

That’s all largely gone away. It really helps that Max Scherzer seems to be a billion times cooler and nicer than Papelbon, but I think there is evidence that stacking better players on top rather than looking for players to support the players we have is an approach we’ve seen before, and one that is working right now. (tho I do think its fair to ask if Papelbon is actually that much better of a closer than Storen.)

For a Trade, It was a Good Trade


I think its pretty clear that Papelbon wasn’t the Nats first choice.

This is a list of Relief Pitchers, by WAR, since 2011. You can hate WAR all you want, but its the metric I’m using to get a grip on the situation. The top two relievers are Kimbrel (12.1) and Chapman (10). Papelbon is 6th (8.0) Tyler Clippard is 17th (5.0) and Drew Storen is 25th with 4.0. You can argue that if Storen wasn’t hurt in 2013 (commonly thought of as his head-case year) and if the Nats hadn’t given his job to Rafa Soriano, he probably could be up a bit higher-but I don’t think he’d be 6th.

According to Svruluga, to get one of the top two closers you needed to give up more than one player that is likely starting as soon as next year. To get Tyler Clippard you needed to give up a young prospect A ball pitcher. To get Papelbon, a guy who is 3 WAR better than Clippard over the same period you had to give up a slightly more advanced prospect and the Phillies sent some money along to boot.

I may dislike Papelbon. Papelbon may not work out. But as far as trades on paper go, the Nats did really well for themselves.

This Is Nothing To Do With Drew Storen…But it all falls on him.

Read James O’Hara who is a much better and clearer writer than me.

I will add that I think a lot of Drew Storen’s success came from Tyler Clippard setting him up. We don’t have managers that pitch their closers against the hardest parts of the line-ups, we have managers that pitch closers in the 9th. It is incredibly helpful to have a guy who is as good a pitcher in 8th as is in the 9th. That’s two Storen caliber guys covering 6-7 batters, not one crappy guy and one good guy in the 8th and 9th.

You don’t get to win games if you don’t get through the 8th inning. Those three outs are just as important as any other three outs in the game. You need them all. Period. End of Story. Keep your “closer mentality” and “tougher cuz of the pressure” crap out of my feed-pitching the 8th is not easier than pitching the 9th, so stop it. You need as many good pitchers in the bullpen as you can find, and you fit them in where you can.

So Storen becomes the new Clipp and there is no disgrace in that. Rather than all of saying how this is a demotion for Storen and it is insulting to him (which I understand), let us simply chose not to insult Storen. Let us recognize he is the same pitcher he was yesterday and nothing has changed. If anything, let us throw recriminations on a system that artificially inflates the value of one pitcher over another based on which inning he pitches in. This is a great opportunity for Nats fans to get behind a set up guy and really appreciate what they do.

Don’t hate the player, hate the Nth Inning Guy mentality.

What are you going to do, not root for the Nats?

At the end of the day, the Nats added a guy who is good at baseball and, at worst, is a total jerk. This isn’t like a guy who was accused of committing a crime or some truly morally reprehensible act. He’s just, probably, a jerk-just like a lot of people. Including baseball players. Including many Nationals, actually. Including many Nationals you probably didn’t even know were jerks. We’ve all almost certainly rooted for a guy who is a jerk and didn’t know it. Which is to say, at some point you can’t let jerks ruin a good thing you enjoy watching. And if it is going to ruin it, better to jump off now than stick with it because this is just going to keep happening for as long as you watch baseball.

Seriously. Not to get all tough guy on you, but are you going to get into the fetal position and cry all day about this? You know who’s not doing that is Drew Storen, and this affects him a thousand times more than you do. Ultimately, there needs to be an aspect of putting ones lower garments on and getting out of bed to face the day. We are here, whether we like it or not-and frankly, it is not even close to the end of the world or all that bad.

It’s just baseball, and there is no crying in baseball. Just pitching, hitting, and (ugh) the occasional crotch grab (and really, to be fair, who hasn’t wanted to make an obscene gesture at a bunch of Phillies fans?)

Love it or leave it, I don’t imagine I’ll be turning off Nationals games anytime soon. So I plan on getting used to it.



Holding Court: Is Ian Desmond Cooked? Or Will Twitter Save Him?


Ian Desmond has two weeks to resemble some form has his recent self. By then Anthony Rendon *should* be back. So should Jayson Werth. Maybe even Ryan Zimmerman. The trading deadline of July 31st is also in two weeks. Convenient. If the Nats had a big division lead they would have the luxury to let Desmond play his way out of whatever it is this is. But they don’t.
The top priority for this team is getting @ouij a new hat winning the World Series, not Ian Desmond’s next contract.
He’s had 350 plate appearances in 85 games (prior to Saturday’s games) and with 14 games left in July, he’ll have about 400 PAs by the end of the month. The next 50 or so at-bats won’t change his terrible numbers (.209/.254./.332, -0.9 WAR) much but they can at least be an indication of progress. What does progress look like? Fangraphs has a great article breaking down his troubles – swinging and missing high fastballs, a past sweet spot  – so progress would be less Ks and more extra-base hits. If he can show any sort of progress in those two areas, his experience and leadership make it worth the gamble to let him try to improve by the playoffs.
But if not, it’s time to bench him. Danny Espinosa has put up the numbers Ian Desmond was supposed to (.255/.331/.433, 2.2 WAR) so he’s the one that should keep playing. Yunel Escobar has put up the numbers expected of him (.325/.372/.423, 1.4 WAR) so he should keep playing. Once Rendon and Zimmerman come back, someone will have to sit.
If Desmond doesn’t show some kind of turn around, and maybe even if he does, I think the better bet would be to let Zim and Rendon play their way back into shape than to sacrifice ABs from them to give to Desmond. At some point he is what he is. Maybe next year will be different. But the priority must be this year. And this year he’s been terrible.
The falloff in his play happened after he left Twitter. Now he’s back. If it’s not Twitter, then it’s because he’s slowing down. Let’s hope it’s Twitter. 

Holding Court: Throwing at People

  “There is only one basic principle of self-defense: you must apply the most effective weapon, as soon as possible, to the most vulnerable target” – Bruce Lee

I was not raised to always walk away from a fight. I was raised to first walk away from a fight.

Ian Desmond was hit by a pitch in the top of the with a base open in the top of the 5th leading 5-2. This followed a 2-out double by Danny Espinosa that followed a 2-out homer from Wilson Ramos that followed a 2-out walk to Bryce Harper.

That’s what “the perfect time to hit a guy” looks like.

Anthony Rendon was hit by a pitch after Denard Span stole Second with no outs in the 6th with the Nats now up 6-2. It would be the bum Jimmy Nelson’s last batter of the night.

The situation makes this somewhat debatable but considering Nelson was getting his head kicked in, and already had the taste for blood, this seems like a tantrum beaning.

The bum Jimmy Nelson hit Desmond because his awfulness had become upsetting and he would rather pitch to Taylor. (Taylor, of course, made him pay.) He hit Rendon because he could. He was mad, he was getting yanked, and nothing happened when he hit Desmond.

Joe Ross is a rookie making only his second start above AA on a night the bullpen needed a break. He gets a pass for leaving his hitters out to dry. But then some random bullpen fodder takes a cheap shot at the best player in baseball? Casey Janssen is not an expletive deleted rookie.

They hit Harper because they didn’t want to see him again. They hit him because they got away with hitting Desmond and Rendon. They hit him because it worked for the Reds. And the Braves. And the Cards. And the Phillies. The Nats are not a team that answers cheap shots and it’s not a secret. Walking away ain’t working. Jayson Werth is already on the DL from a HBP. Even with Harper’s monster year, this team is barely over .500 and not in 1st Place. They can’t lose him too. But they might. Because taking cheap shots at Bryce Harper has always been ok. Max Scherzer can’t pitch every inning. He’s the only guy who’s wanted to step up and now the team might lose him too if he does what Ross and Janssen, and Treinen and Thornton, and Gonzalez and Strasburg, should have done.

I was raised that if you can’t walk away from a fight, then you’d better win it.

I was raised to play baseball the same way.

Opinion: On Matt Williams And Bullpens

Let us put aside yesterday’s debacle. I believe that was just “one of those games” that happens to every team at least once a year. 

Matt Williams has rendered my “Get to Know Some Nats: Bullpen” preview moot. Why bother knowing the pros and cons of any of these players? Their genetic make-up, the pitches they use, their past failures and successes- all meaningless in the face of the only featureMatt Williams cares about: Which inning he thinks they ought to pitch in.

The follies and foibles in Managin’ Matt Williams bullpen “plan” have been written about far and wide, and fully rehashing them here isn’t going to be hugely helpful. Here is my new favorite Nats writer, Jim Meyerriecks detailing the time Matt Williams went far afield and got lucky. Here he is just a few days later, when the luck didn’t hold up. If you want to know what each of these pitchers can do, you should read his post because it is an excellent summary of the strengths and weaknesses of the bullpen. I’m not saying Jim would be a better bullpen manager than Matt Williams…but I don’t have a particularly good reason to think he wouldn’t be, either.

And that’s just it: As Half-Street Heart’s blog post points out, there isn’t anything confusing or crazy about the Williams bullpen: if anything it is too straight forward. There is no hope that Williams is trying something new or different, and only the slimmest of hope that he thinks maybe, just maybe, a guy like Blake Treinen might ultimately, suddenly, for no good reason, eventually be good against left handed batters.

No, Williams bullpen management is the Billy Goat Tavern Restaurant of bullpen management. The customer might call for a steak with a beer, or an omlette with orange juice, but they’ll get a cheeseburger, pepsi no coke until Dan Akroyd runs out of cheeseburgers.

Matt Williams world doesn’t have match-ups, lefties, righties. He has starters and Nth Inning Guys, where Nth is a particular inning and a particular pitcher is in charge of that inning. At most, the formula has a slightly different track if the team is winning. No thought is given to winning by how much, if the game is tied, if they are losing but close – let alone who is due up in the half inning, who is on the opposing team’s bench, or where the Nationals pitcher is due to hit the following half inning.

It’s not even managing. It’s just… it seems lazy.

Williams exhibits one of the worst qualities a manager can have with regards to the bullpen: He appears disinterested in how it works, only that it should work. When it doesn’t work he can only point at it and say “well it should be working.” He is the most unhelpful mechanic ever. He is the Best Buy Geek Squad or Apple Genius Help Desk Guy that could just give a flying squirrel that your gadget doesn’t work. He’s done all the things he’s been told he should do.

He assigns roles that do not play to the strengths of the pitchers he has, and when they fail it is not on him. Aaron Barrett is a 7th inning guy gosh darn it, and his job is to get guys out in the 7th inning.

This is a bit like hiring a trademark lawyer to be your criminal defense attorney. This is expecting a high school Spanish teacher to just step in and teach Japanese.

For a manager who has made getting to know the guys a priority (indeed, the single hardest thing about his first year of managing) he’s dismissed the most salient details about the bullpen players: How they pitch. Maybe he knows who Xavier Cedeno’s favorite band is, but he has no clue when to use him in a game.

Who knows: Maybe that’s the by product of being a consistently good player. Maybe he simply believes by pushing people and running them out there you find out if they got it or they don’t. Maybe he supposes that’s how people develop.

And maybe they will. But this isn’t Matt Williams Vocational School for Wayward and Orphaned Pitchers. It’s the Major Leagues. Some pitchers are good with lefties, others righties, a few can handle both. I don’t think Mike Rizzo did Williams any favors by trading away Tyler Clippard (a rare pitcher who did very well against all kinds of batters in all kinds of situations) or Jerry Blevins (a very good guy to get lefties out), but to be fair Matt Williams didn’t exactly use them very well either. Why should he have the nice toys if he can’t play with them properly?

Well, because its a super important year. The Nats, like last year, are going to win a ton of games. As the year goes on the score is going to cover up Williams decision making because the margin for error won’t be so close. But the margin is going to be pretty close for the next few weeks, which is a pretty good mirror for how games in October are. Weekend Nats vs. Phillies is probably a similarly tight match to Full Strength Nats and Dodgers/Cardinals. Right now you’re getting a look at what the Matt Williams Nats look like when they are not head and shoulders better than their competition: Something that is bound to come up again in the NLSomethingOrOther Series.

Maybe you think this is all overblown, not such a big deal, and I’m a big-typing blogger with no baseball experience that doesn’t know ships from shinola. And that may be. I’m willing to admit that I, perhaps, am too entrenched in my position to see the full scope of evidence clearly. I might be giving Matt Williams too hard a time.

But no one is picking up the sword on behalf of Matt Williams bullpen use. No one is arguing that he’s making good choices with the bullpen. Time after time there is no reasonable reason to justify a decision he made, and generally there are several good reasons not to have done what he did. I’m trying to make that argument to myself now and I have no idea where to start.

This early in the season sample size is too small to quibble with results, but it is plenty big enough to quibble with process. Make no mistake, this first week has been a test for the Nats on their road to a championship. The biggest roadblock to the Nationals achieving their ultimate goal is probably injury. Second, and nearly as devastating, is the self-inflicted injuries visited upon the players by Matt Williams. In the spring I asked if he could grow as a manager, and the early returns do not look good.

Friday Wrap-Up: NATS COLUMNIST BINGO!!?!?!

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Let’s not bury the lead. There will be lots and lots of Hot Sprotz Taeks about the Nationals this week because they lost a few baseball games. In fact, there have already been a few, and James O’Hara did a great job of taking them down. Read that. It’s really, really well written.

Still, even the might O’Hara cannot turn back the tide. He’s just one man cursing at an ocean that will eventually crash a wave of nonsense right on his head. All of our heads, actually. So rather than do that, here is a handful of Nats Columnist Bingo Cards I made on the Internet. Read a columnist, listen to a radio host, and play along. Mark your card and report back when you get a hit :)

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The Nationals didn’t fare as well as hoped against the New York Mets this week. The reason for losing is simple enough: The Nats in two of the three games gave up more runs than they scored. The Mets benefited from a surprisingly good performance from Bartolo Colon, and a much less surprisingly excellent performance from Matt Harvey. The Nationals had two great performances of their own from Scherzer and Zimmermann, but without their top three hitters in the lineup, the Nats offense sputtered. Much will be made of their 3 total hits with runners in scoring position (both came after being down 6 runs late on Thursday). I’m a thinking that the team’s meager 180/232/315 doesn’t exactly speak to an offense that stalled but barely got going.

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