WHAT IF!?!?…. The Nats *Couldn’t* Beat the Braves?

With a week left of baseball, here are the standings in the NL East (and number of games each team has left)

WAS  91-64 (7)
ATL    76-79 (7)
NYM   76-80 (6)
MIA     74-81 (7)
PHL    71-85 (6)

Now look: This is a post that I’m writing and posting now. But really its for next May when, inevitably, someone will panic. When, in defense of the National League East crown (and hopefully other trophies and awards) the Washington Nationals lose a series to…some other team…and then people freak out. But please read it now if you like.

At some point in May of 2014 (and every other May) someone (read: a lot of people) remarked on how the Nats “couldn’t beat the Braves” because they were 1-5 in their first six games. No amount of “there are 13 games left against the Braves” or ” there are 100ish games left in the season” would calm these people, or stop them from yelling at me because I didn’t see it their way. Every trope just short of “Games are more important in September” was thrown at me, the biggest of course is that “There was no way the Nats could win the NL East unless they beat the Braves.” As an aside, apparently this was a two team division. in May.

Many of these things, as expected, resolved themselves. The Nats could and did beat the Braves. The Braves were not the only team in the division as they are dangerously close to slipping to third and below .500 for the season. (This, of course, casts into doubt whether the Braves were ever the “team to beat.”)

Anyway, with the complete implosion of Atlanta down the stretch, I decided to put that last unanswered question to the test. Did the Nationals have to beat the Braves (or any individual team) in order to win the NL East?

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Where does Ryan Zimmerman Come Back To Play?

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With news that Ryan Zimmerman is on the mend, the question of where he should play when he returns (or if he returns to play at all) is one that many, many folks are already asking. It’s a two part question because it isn’t just a matter of whether he’s capable of playing, but who else you’re going to have to sit down to get him in. As I wrote about in June when Zim started playing LF, even where to put him is a two part question. The question isn’t just about getting the best hitters into the lineup, but also maximizing the teams ability to prevent runs.  “A run saved is a run earned,” as Ben Franklin probably would have said if he’d invented baseball, so putting Zim isn’t just a question of when but where.

Zimmerman can replace Harper in LF, he can replace Rendon at 3B, or he can replace LaRoche at 1B. Even the most casual Nats fan can probably identify the problem here: That’s taking three of the Nationals best offensive weapons off the board. To keep any of those three guys on the field would require moving other valuable players off the board. The Nats have 9 bats and 8 spots: A good problem to have.

Unlike June, where even a staunch Danny Espinosa defender like myself, could recognize he was a much weaker bat, the Nats now feature the surprising revelation that is Asdrubal Cabrera. From day one, he’s stepped in and has helped keep the Big Nats Machine running. Only point being here – it is not maybe as easy as it was back in June to spot the odd man out. But let’s try and do it anyway.

Let us work under the assumption that Ryan Zimmerman can play and can play roughly at what you’re used to him playing. In 53 games, Zim posted a .351 wOBA a 4.9 Off and -0.1 Def (that LF really straightened him out) for a total of 1.2 WAR and a wRC 123. If you forgot what some of these are, search the blog we wrote about them but short hand: Bigger is better in each case. Zim’s been gone for a little more than a month, so I pulled up Fangraphs stats for the Nats for the last month. While it might be more accurate to look at historical data over whole seasons to see what we expect, I think most of us (and probably the managers too) are going to be focused on “what have you done for me lately” so this seems like the probable comparison, even if some disagree about whether it is optimal or not.

So lets look at the Nats 7 position players (I’m discounting Zim replacing a pitcher or the catcher) and see how his numbers stack up against what folks have done in the last month:

Player Games wOBA wRC BSR Off DEF WAR
Rendon

26

0.414

167

0.9

9.5

1.2

1.5

Werth

26

0.413

166

1.2

9.6

-1.8

1.2

Harper

27

0.399

156

-0.3

6.4

-1.1

0.9

Span

26

0.333

111

0.6

2.1

-0.1

0.6

Desmond

25

0.319

102

1.4

1.6

0.7

0.6

Zim

*27

0.351

123

——-

2.5

-0.1

0.6

Cabrera

26

0.302

90

1

-0.2

-1.3

0.2

LaRoche

25

0.301

88

-0.7

-2

-2.9

-0.2

You’ll notice I cut Zim’s games and cumulative stats in half to put him in line with other players, but I kept his average stats the same. Usual small sample size warnings apply. Sorted by WAR, Zim proves to be as valuable as a guy like Desmond or Span (Two positions he won’t be playing anytime soon) and better than Cabrera or LaRoche, who has had a surprisingly down last 30 days.

Organized like this, the answer seems pretty obvious. You can’t put Zim exclusively in LF, Harper is absolutely on fire. Even if you move Harper to CF or RF (an ill advised move regardless this late in the season given he’s played basically no time there) You’d be taking Span and Werth out of the lineup, and they’re both hitting the cover off the ball as well. Zim to LF seems like a purely matchup based decision at this point (i.e. a lefty pitcher Harper can’t hit).

Replacing LaRoche with Zim at first seems like the easiest fix, but that discounts LaRoche as a powerful lefty and most of his season in favor of the small sample size of the last month. For lineup balance, his entire body of work, and the fact Zim hasn’t played much at first, this too seems like a purely match-up based move to make.

Zim only fits at third base, and as amazing as Cabrera as been for Nats fans he really has only been “amazing because he’s new” or “amazing because we had no expectations for him.” One might view it as an absolute shame to bench the Strudel after he’s played so well, but if you want Zim in the lineup moving him out and Rendon to second is the only way that this happens without taking out a serious bat threat from the lineup. Remember there is “plays really well” and “plays much better than expected.” Confusing the two can really trip you up, and unfortunately for Cabrera he’s in the latter.

This again, is all dependent on how healthy Zim is. If he doesn’t look like he can produce at the level he did earlier this year, all those numbers go down and the value of other players (relatively speaking) goes up. “Whip it into the home dugout” Ryan Zimmerman doesn’t rate as well as “soft toss it to LaRoche from 3B” Ryan Zimmerman does.

My guess is this week we’ll see him at third base and LF, testing him out to see how his hitting and throwing goes. If he can’t throw then none of the above matters. The Nats will probably take the “If its not broke, don’t fix it” approach to the Nats and make Zim a bench/situational player for the playoffs (God willing, he’ll get a chance to DH).

If he can throw and defend, then the calculus shifts and Cabrera moves to the bench-which is really why he came to DC in the first place. To back up the infield. No matter how you slice it, Cabrera being batting primarily right handed (but he does hit switch) and a good, but not great, offensive producer works against him starting. I wouldn’t feel too sorry for him, though. He’s made major contributions to NL East Division championship team and will certainly figure into the mix no matter how it plays out. He’s part of the team and should feel great about himself and his production for the Nats in his short time here.

2014 NL East Champs! (MANY MANY PICTURES)

 

 

 

Warning. This post is HUGE!!!!

Ejd2llAH

In case you some how missed it, the Washington Nationals won their second National League East crown in three years last night, beating the Braves in Atlanta 3-0. The Nationals are now 87-63 and have a legitimate chance to have the best record in the NL East.

 

Below the jump are all the screen captures I took of the Washington Nationals celebration on the field and in the locker room. They are behind the jump because there are like 60 of them, and it will let you visit our page without having to load all of them unless you click the post. There are some good ones, so enjoy!

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David Huzzard: The Definitive Guide on How to be a Nats Fan

One of Natstown’s more prolific and knowledgable bloggers approached me to put a post up on our blog on the nature of fandom. Any time The Huzz (of Citizens of Natstown, MASN, and We Love DC fame wants to write a post on our blog, he can.) 

This season has been a strange one in a Nats fandom. By that I mean my fanhood as well as that of Frank’s (That’s us @Nationals101), Joe Drugan of The Nats Blog, and even The Nats Archive has come under fire. (Ed: And rather cruelly too. If you’re up for it, look for examples here, here, here, here and here I guess. )

At this point I could thump my chest about having watched Matt Chico, Mike Bacsik, Garrett Mock, or whichever terrible former Nats pitcher you want to mention. (Ed: Labor Day 2006, Ramon Ortiz vs. the Cardinals)  I was even at Matt White’s one and only start for the Nats and have the rally towel to prove it. I could mention all that and somewhat just did but that is stooping to a level I don’t want to. Instead I’ll offer the definitive guide on how to be a Nats fan.
If you’ve ever watched, tweeted about, thought about, or spoken about the Nats then you’re halfway to being a Nats fan. Why only halfway? Because a fan of a team playing the Nats can do that as well.

This next statement is key.

If you self identify as a Nats fan then you are a Nats fan. It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter if you started watching the Nats in 2005 or even before in Montreal or if you started watching yesterday. If you call yourself a Nats fan then you are a Nats fan.

Get To Know A Nat 2014: Matt Thornton

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Name: Matthew J. Thornton (not to be confused with this Matthew Thornton who signed the Declaration of Independence)
Nickname(s): Matt
DOB: September 15, 1976
Twitter?:  None
From: Three Rivers, Michigan
Position:  Reliever
Hand: Lefty

With the Nats Since: August 5, 2014 when the Nationals selected him off waivers from the New York Yankees 

Just Who Is This Guy?: Thornton is a former all-star reliever (2010 All-Star) who has been in the league, mainly the American League, for the last 11 seasons. He’s pitched a total of 655 games, logging a 32-45 record with a 3.48 ERA. Thornton spent the majority of his playing career with the Chicago White Sox but has also played for the Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

During the 2004 season, Thornton made his major league debut at the age of 27 with the Mariners. He threw four innings of scoreless ball, struck out one and gave up three hits and walked one batter. He finished the 2004 season with a 1-2 record and a 4.13 ERA in 32.2 innings.

Thornton was traded to the Chicago White Sox on March 20, 2006 and performed during his tenure with the White Sox. From 2006-2012, he logged 435.1 innings, going 31-32 with a 3.25 ERA, 2.91 FIP and struck out 465 batters. During his All-Star season, Thornton threw 60.2 innings, generating a 5-4 record with a 2.67 ERA, 2.41 FIP and 81 strikeouts. He also had eight saves that season.

According to Brooks Baseball, Thornton heavily uses his fourseam fastball that tops out around 96 mph. He also throws a sinker (96 mph) a lot, and tends to throw a 90 mph change and an 84 mph curveball.

What Happened in 2013: On July 12, 2013, Thornton changed the color, being traded from the White Sox to the Red Sox. In 40 games with the White Sox before the trade, he posted a 3.86 ERA in 28 innings. He struck out 21 and issued 10 walks. With the Red Sox, he appeared in 20 games and struck out nine in 15.1 innings.

While the Red Sox won the 2013 World Series, Thornton injured his oblique in August and never fully recovered before the season was over and was left off the postseason rosters.

On November 2, 2013, the Red Sox granted Thornton his release, allowing him to sign with any team. 

What’s happening in 2014 so far?: On January 10, 2014, the Yankees penned Thornton to a two-year, $7 million deal to help bolster their bullpen. However, the Yankees decided that with the emergence of other, cheaper bullpen arms such as Dellin Betances and Adam Warren, mixed with his expensive contract, Thornton was expendable.

Thornton was actually putting together a solid season for the Yankees before the waiver claim, posting a 2.55 ERA in 46 games. He had 20 strikeouts and six walks in 24.2 innings. With the Nationals, he has appeared in three games as of August 13, 2014 and pitched 2.2 innings with a 0.00 ERA and a strikeout.

The addition of Thornton makes one of the best bullpens in baseball even more dominant. He can get batters out on both sides of the plate – right-handed batters have a .255 average against him while lefties have a .254 average against him. Thornton’s experience and veteran leadership will be valuable to the Nationals down the stretch and allow them to give some of their oft-used bullpen arms a much needed break to gear up for the postseason.

Get To Know A Nat 2014: Asdrúbal Cabrera

In an effort to give you the most up-to-date knowledge on the Nationals, here’s a look at one of the newest members of the team, Asdrúbal Cabrera.

Name: Asdrúbal José Cabrera
Nickname(s): Scroobs (Editor Note): Also, apparently, #AssCab…I’m pushing for A.Strudel)
DOB: November 13, 1985
Twitter?:  None
From: Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela
Position: Middle Infielder (primarily played SS with Cleveland but will mainly play 2B with Nats)
Hand: Throws Right, Bats Switch
With the Nats Since: Acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Indians on July 31, 2014 for infielder/outfielder Zach Walters

Just Who Is This Guy?: Cabrera is a former American League All-Star shortstop (in 2011 and 2012) who was acquired via a trade with the Cleveland Indians at the 2014 Trade Deadline. With the Nationals, he will primarily play second base, taking at-bats away from Danny Espinosa, who crushes lefties and plays stellar defensive but has a tendency to strikeout. Cabrera had a down year in 2013 that has carried over this season, but a it’s possible that the change of scenery to the National League, second base and the Nationals could jumpstart his bat and help the Nationals continue their playoff push.

Although he hasn’t played second base since 2009 when he held down the keystone for the Indians in 28 games, he has played flawless defense with the Nationals thus far. In his first game donning the Curly W on August 1, 2014 against the Philadelphia Phillies, Cabrera made a fantastic play while ranging to his left, sliding to field the ball and popping up to throw out the speedy Jimmy Rollins at first. As of August 11, 2014, Cabrera has a perfect fielding percentage in his 74 innings at second base.

During his all-star caliber 2011 and 2012 seasons where he batted .272/.335/.443 with 41 home runs, 160 RBI and stole 26 bases in 294 games, he has batted .243/.302/.392 with 23 home runs, 107 RBI and stolen 16 bases in 241 games since then. His woes continue this season, batting .245/.306/.380 with nine home runs, 43 RBI and seven stolen bases through 105 games with the Indians and Nationals.

Cabrera may be having a down year again this season, but he has the potential to do big things for the Nationals during the playoff race. He brings veteran leadership to the clubhouse as well as postseason experience, having playing during the Indians’ 2007 and 2013 playoff runs. The small things that don’t have any effect on the daily box score are potential reasons why teams bring in a player, such as Cabrera, at the trade deadline.

Let’s get to know Cabrera even further; here are a few fun facts about him. He made his major league debut against the Chicago White Sox, starting at second base and going 0-for-3 with a run scored. On May 12, 2008, Cabrera turned the 14th unassisted triple play in Major League Baseball history against the Toronto Blue Jays. Cabrera hit his first career grand slam against the New York Yankees on April 18, 2009, propelling the Indians 22-4 win. During the 2011 season, Cabrera earned his first and only Silver Slugger for the shortstop position.

What Happened in 2013: Cabrera had a down 2013 to the tune of a .242 batting average with 14 home runs, 66 RBI and nine stolen bases. He had a career high 20.3 percent strikeout rate paired with a 6.2 percent walk rate. Cabrera was worth 0.5 WAR and missed a chunk of the season, spending time on the disabled list with a strained quadriceps.

Defensively, Cabrera committed nine errors in 136 games at shortstop for the Indians, posting a .982 fielding percentage. He was known to make flashy plays at shortstop and so far at second base for the Nationals, he has made a few great plays as well. Look for that to continue.

What’s happening in 2014 so far?: In the final year of his contact, Cabrera hasn’t came close the successes that he had during his 2011-2012 seasons with the Indians. Before he was traded, he was batting .246/.305/.386 with nine home runs, 40 RBI and seven stolen bases. Through 92 games at shortstop with the Indians, Cabrera had committed 14 errors, giving him a .963 fielding percentage, 10 points below the league average of .973 percent.

With the Nationals, Cabrera has a .233/.314/.614 slash line with three RBI and a triple through eight games. Cabrera is a perfect 34-34 in defensive fielding chances. According to the rest of season ZiPS projections on Fangraphs, Cabrera is projected to hit .270 with four home runs, 23 RBI and three stolen bases and provide a 0.8 WAR.

Those projections mixed with his fielding skills and postseason experiences should provide the Nationals with a little extra push towards finishing strong in the second half.

Nats 2014 Mid-Season Review Part II: Mediocre Hitting is Poised to Get Better

At the 81 game mark, I posted a quick half review of the Nationals season thus far. Given the length at which I went on about the pitching and standings, splitting up my other thoughts seemed like a good idea. Plus, at game 81, the Washington Nationals were finally getting a few of their bigger hitters back. Giving them a chance to perform seemed like a good idea.

Here we are at the All-Star break, with the Washington Nationals only having one All-Star voted in, and only one (a different one) sent to the game. No position players were sent, or even remotely considered by the voting populace. Part of that is the Nationals are (still) not a very popular club. Part of that is the Nationals only have a few players with any national profile. Most of that is the fact that All-Stars are not selected on the basis of merits, really.

But some of it is certainly because the Nationals, for whatever else they are know or not know for, are a mediocre hitting team. While they have good hitters, they don’t have a “Big Bopper” so to speak- certainly not one that’s been playing healthy this year. As a team though, whether you want to use Weighted On Base Average, regular Batting Average, On Base Percentage, Weighted Runs Created…The Nats have been in the middle of the pack, at best, offensively. Their bats have not carried the day, at all. Indeed, if not for their being one of the most aggressive (and successful) base running teams in the league, they wouldn’t have even scored the every so slightly above average 4.16 Runs/Game (4.14 is MLB average btw) they have scored.

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