Ground Rule Trouble

We have issues with walls

Ep. 9: Leslie looks over a cliff and Paul tries not to push her

In this episode Paul and Leslie discuss the Nats season opening, who’s hot and who’s not in MLB, why the Angels owners are evil, and plumb the depths of Colin Cowherd’s stupidity.

After facing The Dark Knight, is the Joke(r) on Strasburg?

I’m sorry for the title. I just…sorry.

Anyone who was watching the much ballyhooed pitching match up between the Washington Nationals Stephen Strasburg and the New York Mets Matt Harvey saw the surface results of the game:  Harvey dominated while Strasburg could not contain the Mets’ offense in the 6-3 Mets’ victory.

What might not have been so obvious was the peculiar way that the Mets were able to score those six runs.  No, I’m not talking about the Ian Desmond error that lead to four runs in the top of the 3rd inning (3 of them unearned), rather I’m referring to the fact that the Mets were able to score six runs against Stephen Strasburg and serve him with the loss—all without the benefit of an extra base hit.

As I said in a previous piece Stephen Strasburg tends to give up harder contact and more extra base hits then one would expect from a pitcher with his caliber of “stuff.” So it would stand to reason that if he’s not giving up those extra base hits, he’d probably fare quite well in a start…except that he didn’t.

The first thing we should do is look at the pitching line for Strasburg from the game:

Date Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA StS 2B 3B WPA RE24
Apr 9 WSN NYM L,3-6 L(0-1) 5.1 9 6 3 3 5 0 1 5.06 5 0 0 -0.282 -4.39
WSN 5.1 9 6 3 3 5 0 1 5.06
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/11/2015.

As discussed earlier, the first thing that should stand out to you is that the Mets had nine hits against Strasburg, and every one of them was a single.  The other thing that stands out for me is the fact that Strasburg had only five strikeouts, low for someone who led the NL in SOs last year. Also, that of the 95 pitches Strasburg threw, only five of them were swings and misses.  This number is quite low for a pitcher with Strasburgs’ stuff, especially for a pitcher with Strasburgs’ swing and miss off-speed offerings that contrast well with his mid 90s fastball.  The other thing I’d point out is the three walks that were given up by Strasburg and a (not pictured) HBP.

So we have no extra base hits in a game for the Nats hurler, how common is this?  Well I looked back on the last three seasons and found twelve other instances where Strasburg gave up four or more hits without allowing an extra base hit.  I cut it off at four hits because, to me, if he gave up less than four hits it probably was a fairly exemplary start for him and there was little chance for a bump in the road, and in my brief parsing of the game logs this played out according to script.

I found 12 other times where Strasburg gave up 4 or more base hits without allowing an extra base hit—5 in 2012, 5 in 2013, and 2 in 2014.  Here’s the pitching lines from all twelve of those outings:

2014

Date Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA StS 2B 3B WPA RE24
Apr 25 WSN SDP W,11-1 W(2-2) 7.0 7 0 0 2 11 0 0 4.24 13 0 0 0.183 3.22
May Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA StS 2B 3B WPA RE24
May 7 WSN LAD W,3-2 W(3-2) 7.1 7 2 2 2 6 0 0 3.42 12 0 0 0.137 0.81
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/10/2015.

2013

Date Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA StS 2B 3B WPA RE24
May Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA StS 2B 3B WPA RE24
May 21 WSN SFG L,2-4 7.0 5 1 1 3 7 0 0 2.66 13 0 0 0.349 1.88
May 26 WSN PHI W,6-1 W(3-5) 8.0 5 1 1 0 9 0 1 2.49 14 0 0 0.430 2.65
August Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA StS 2B 3B WPA RE24
Aug 5 WSN ATL L,2-3 7.0 5 2 2 1 9 0 0 3.01 16 0 0 0.120 1.19
Aug 11 WSN PHI W,6-0 W(6-9) 9.0 4 0 0 1 10 0 0 2.83 12 0 0 0.280 4.11
September Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA StS 2B 3B WPA RE24
Sep 8 WSN MIA W,6-4 W(7-9) 6.0 4 4 4 2 7 0 1 2.96 5 0 0 -0.104 -1.29
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/10/2015.

2012

Date Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA StS 2B 3B WPA RE24
Apr 5 WSN CHC W,2-1 7.0 5 1 1 1 5 0 0 1.29 8 0 0 0.198 2.36
Apr 16 WSN HOU W,6-3 W(2-0) 6.0 6 2 2 1 5 0 0 1.42 9 0 0 0.056 0.88
Apr 28 WSN LAD L,3-4 7.0 5 1 1 0 9 0 2 1.12 14 0 0 0.186 2.19
May Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA StS 2B 3B WPA RE24
May 20 WSN BAL W,9-3 W(4-1) 5.0 4 3 1 1 8 0 0 2.21 12 0 0 -0.064 -0.60
August Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA StS 2B 3B WPA RE24
Aug 15 WSN SFG W,6-4 W(14-5) 6.0 4 2 2 4 7 0 0 2.91 9 0 0 0.056 0.54
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/10/2015.

Let’s start small and work our way up to big when it comes to some of those previously mentioned stats.  First you’ll notice that the nine singles that Strasburg gave up is two more hits than he’s ever given up without give up an extra base hit (he did this twice previously, both in 2014).

Next we’ll look at the strikeouts.  Remembering that Strasburg led the NL in SOs last year and had a 10.1 SO/9 rate, his less than a K per inning shows him below his average 2014 form.  These five SOs also are tied for his lowest SO total in any of the games where he did not allow an extra base hit (he matched this twice in April of 2012, some of his first action in the season following his TJ surgery).  Not only did he not have very many SOs, but he he tied for the fewest swinging strikes (5) with any of the other twelve starts (September 8, 2013, his second worst start of the thirteen by WPA).

Strasburg also gave up a ton of free passes in Thursdays’ contest.  He had three walks (one which started the 3rd inning rally) and a HBP of Lucas Duda (which continued that 3rd inning rally and by WPA was the 4th most important play of the game).  This matches his August 15, 2012 performance when he allowed 4 BBs, but in that performance he had more SOs (7) and gave up less hits (4) than he did in the start in question.

The other thing that I found interesting was his RE24 (for an RE24 explanation look here) rating for each of the starts.  RE24 is normally more useful for relievers than it is for starters, but in the game against the Mets, Strasburg had a fairly hideous -4.39 RE24.  In the other 12 starts where he did not allow an XBH in only two of them did he have a negative RE24, and in both of those games his negative RE24 (-1.29 on September 8, 2013, and -0.60 on May 20, 2012) was less than a third than it was this week.  Those two games were also the only ones in which his WPA was a negative, and again his WPA in those two games was less than half as bad as it was in his first start of 2015.

Finally I’ll draw your attention to a less modern stat, but one that I think was indicative of this overall trend I have ben outlining:  In his start this week we find the only time in the 13 games we’re looking at that Strasburg took the loss.  In the other twelve instances were Strasburg did not surrender an XBH, he won eight and had a no decision in the other four, although the Nationals did eventually lose three out of his four no decisions.

Conclusion time:  In the end, what I took from this start was Strasburg did something that normally puts him in prime position to have not only a good performance, but a good final outcome for the Nationals—prevent the other team from having an XBH.  The problem in this specific case was he did other things that blunted the benefit of holding the Mets to nothing but singles:  He had very few swinging strikes (something he’s quite good at), very few SOs (something he’s elite at), and a lot of free passes (something he’s becoming elite at for a pitcher with his SOs).  To me, this says this start was more of an aberration for Strasburg—he was able to limit the type of hard contact that normally sinks his starting ship, but he was not able to have his truly plus swing and miss stuff that allows him to wiggle out of situations that lead to runs (thus causing that cringe worth RE24). 

My conclusion this is a bump in the road for Strasburg, a perfect storm of negatives that swamped his boat of weak contact, and thereby made it a hopefully forgettable start for the Nationals’ hurler.  Maybe his start Tuesday will show whether or not this is the beginning of a trend, or merely the wrong collection of negatives while facing one of the best pitchers in baseball. Hopefully for all the fans in the District they get more of the starter they need instead of the starter they deserve (I had to say it!).

Ep. 8: Opening Day Overreactions, and Leslie makes Paul feel like less of a man…

Ep. 8: Opening Day Overreactions, and Leslie makes Paul feel like less of a man…

Listen and comment!

Ep. 7: Paul tries to strike out on his own, and the dog doesn’t like it…

Here’s Ep. 7 for your listening pleasure!

 

Ep. 6: 25 man issues and Ruben Amaro Jr. asks the Wizard for a brain.

Listen to this!

 

Ep. 6 is on!

 

Ep. 5: Leslie gives out mental images we all can’t unthink…

In this episode, Leslie discusses bizarre injures, Will Ferrell, and MASN’s Dan Kolko in a dress.  Paul discusses baseball.

Episode 5: Leslie gives out mental images we all can’t unthink…

Why replacing Denard Span isn’t so easy.

The past week plus has revealed a few cracks in the Nationals juggernaut, particularly when it comes to the injury front.  While Yunel Escobar’s back, Anthony Rendon’s knee, and Drew Storen’s bizarre hamate bone injury all provide some level of concern for the Half Street hopefuls, I posit it may be the injury to lead-off man Denard Span that could cause the biggest hiccup in the march to the NL East crown.

As you can see in this table from Baseball Reference, Span really shouldered the lead off load in 2014:

BOP Name G PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO HBP BA OBP SLG OPS W L
1 Denard Span 145 666 608 184 39 8 5 37 50 64 2 .303 .356 .418 .774 88 57
1 Anthony Rendon 12 52 47 14 2 1 2 8 3 5 1 .298 .346 .511 .857 6 6
1 Michael Taylor 6 23 23 5 3 0 0 3 0 10 0 .217 .217 .348 .565 3 3
1 Nate McLouth 2 8 7 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 0 .000 .125 .000 .125 2 0
1 Scott Hairston 2 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 1 1
1 Nate Schierholtz 1 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .500 .500 .500 1.000 1 0
1 Tyler Moore 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 1 0
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/16/2015.

The easiest answer for who will replace Span in the Nationals roster is Michael Taylor, whom Baseball Prospectus lists as the #3 prospect in the Nationals’ system.  Taylor can certainly fill in for Span in center field, where his plus speed really plays, allowing him to “cover both gaps” with “plus range” according to BP’s evaluation.  This speed can also translate to the offensive side of the game, but he has shown throughout his minor league career that he has contact issues.  Keith Law over at ESPN thinks it might take two MLB seasons for Taylor to post “adequate” OBPs.

This is what troubles me:  While Taylor seems to have a lot of upside at the plate and on the bases (most pundits peg him as a 20/20 candidate with a full seasons of MLB PAs) every season of his professional career, except for 2013, he has more SOs than hits (and 2013 he only had 3 more hits and a healthy 131 SOs).  Across his three levels of competition last year Taylor had 161 SOs and a 30% SO rate.  Even worse, at the MLB level he has a 40% SO rate, although over a tiny sample size.

Ignoring the older assumptions about needing speed at the top of the lineup, most statistically minded people today look for high OBP at the top of the line up (so someone is on base to be driven in by the middle of the order).  I know, I can hear all of you that just looked up Taylor’s stat line from last year and saw he had a .396 OBP at the AA level.  That combo of speed, defense, and time spent on the bases screams for a lead off center fielder type right? Well…

The problem with Taylor’s “breakout season” last year (don’t read the air quotes as me thinking he didn’t make significant progress by the way) was that his BABIP of .421 in AA Harrisburg, where he put up the majority of his numbers, is .086 higher than he previous career best BABIP.  The .333 BABIP he put up in the majors sits exactly between the .331 and .335 BABIPs he put up the previous two seasons, giving weight to that being much closer to his career norm. Although this might not be a complete explanation, his abnormally high BABIP last year could be a clear indicator that some of his increased production was due more to luck than to a skill increase or approach improvement.

To me, Taylor can be the short term answer in 2015 for the Nationals in center field until Span is back from his abdominal issues, but not in the lead off spot.  He could fit nicely in the 7-hole where his pop and speed, but low contact rates, don’t leave so many empty bags in front of the Nationals big bats.

So what is the solution to the Nationals lead off conundrum?  I think there are two answers, with one being slightly more problematic than the other:  Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth.

Let’s start first with Rendon, who last year had a really special season and finished 5th in NL MVP voting.  Rendon has very solid on base skills, as displayed by his .351 OBP and his NL leading 111 runs scored.  He also is very sneaky fast, not only did he have 17 steals last year, but his 85% success rate shows that he not only runs, but he’s smart when he runs and rarely gives away chances on the base paths.  Rendon spent that vast majority of the 2014 season in the two hole, and was excellent in that role.  He passes the old school “bat control” test for the two hole hitter, but also has solid on base skills and has the ability to drive the ball to all fields.  Personally, I feel his opposite field gap approach he regularly displayed last year really served him well at that spot in the line up.

The issue with Rendon in the lead off spot is…he’s no longer in the two hole spot.  In all seriousness I think he could do quite well at lead off, but he just slots so well in the second spot in the line up that moving him out of that position starts to create a domino effect that weakens the middle of the Nationals lineup with everyone else moving a spot further up.

As for Werth, he in my mind really stands out as the best solution at lead off until Span is back.  Over the last three years he has averaged a .393 OBP, easily the tops on the Nationals.  During the 2012 campaign, Werth had 170 PAs in the lead off spot, and posted a .388 OBP during that span.  Last year that would have been thirty two points higher than Span’s OBP in what was a career year for the thirty one year old.  In the past Werth has stated he has a clear preference for not being the lead off hitter, yet what he has done in that spot is hard to discount.

Of course there is also an issue with slotting Werth into the lead off position for Opening Day:  He’s hurt as well.  Recovering from surgery on the AC Joint in his shoulder, Werth has just begun a throwing program and light hitting work and is questionable for Opening Day.

In the end, the best lead off hitter for the Washington Nationals is the one the planned to enter the year with: Span. With him occupying the top spot, all the other Nationals bats can slot into a more ideal position in the order, but until he straightens out his abdominal issues I think you’re more likely to see Rendon in the lead off hole, and Matt Williams has said it probably comes down to Taylor, Rendon, or Nate McClouth.  I think I have shown though that it will take something Michael Taylor has not yet displayed in the majors to have him perform as the table setting engine that drives the Nationals’ car towards an NL East crown.

Statistics taken from Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus.

Ep. 4: 2-seam dreams and the Anti-Rinaldi

Ep. 4: 2-seam dreams and the Anti-Rinaldi: In this episode Spring Training starts and injuries are discussed, Leslie stops being a complete wet blanket, and Paul talks about an article he wrote (look at the post below) that Leslie actually read!

Episode 4

Stumping for Strasburgs’ 2-seamer

In his excellent article on Stephen Strasburg’s contact conundrum, ESPN’s Tony Blengino puts forth a compelling argument for what is holding Strasburg back from becoming a truly elite pitcher of his generation: When he allows contact, an inordinate amount of damage is done with those batted balls in play (BIP).

Blengino shows that while Strasburg is exceptional in his K rate (he was in the 97th percentile and only Kershaw was ahead of him as an NL qualifying starter), and his BB rate (71st percentile) is quite stout–especially when considering how many K’s he racks up–he manages to give up a disturbing amount of damaging contact.

Strasburg’s high K/low BB profile leads to a more than respectable FIP (2.94 in 2014). He led the NL in K’s last season, and had his lowest walk rate in a season where he pitched over 150 innings (1.8BB/9). While he HR/9 rose to to 1.0, in the categories that he “controls” according to FIP, he is a superior pitcher.

The problem for Strasburg, as Blengino points out, is that though he limits contact quite well, when a batter is able to put bat to ball, a surprising thing happens: Strasburg’s heroic stuff looks more than mortal. Blengino was able to tabulate the “relative production” for the BIP for Strasburg’s 2014 season, and then normalized that for park factors, recalculated what those BIP would have done in a neutral setting, and compared them to the rest of the qualifying pitchers in MLB.

The figures showed production on his line drives was 5% above league average, the production on his ground balls was 28% above league average, and the production on his fly balls was a whopping 32% above league average. When he is compared to other “elite” pitchers possibly vying for post season awards, Strasburg is the only one that allows above average production on every batted ball type, and most of this upper crust of the pitching world don’t allow above average production on any type of BIP.

Blengino believes he has zeroed in on the problem when he says Strasburg has, “a knack for finding the fat part of the bat.” Basically when Strasburg misses within the zone, he misses in the middle of the plate, which is obviously a recipe for strong contact. Blengino postulates Strasburg’s issue is not control (throwing balls or strikes), but command (where those strikes specifically go in the zone).

I tend to agree with Blengino, but I don’t think he completely encompasses the entire issue for Strasburg. He has found what is occurring, and maybe a portion of the why, but I think he has missed a key component, especially on Strasburg’s fastball.

When he came up to the majors, and through his 2012 season (the infamous year of the “Shutdown”) Strasburg threw two types of fastballs: a straight 4-seamer and a 2-seam sinker. As you can see in this chart from Brooks Baseball, in 2011 he threw his 4-seamer 54% of the time and his 2-seamer 19% of the time. In 2012 he hurled his 4-seamer 49% of the time and his 2-seamer almost 16% of the time. What you can see here though is Strasburg had an issue keeping his 2-seamer in the zone, sometimes by design, and sometimes not.

image

Fans who watched Nationals games in that 2012 season would see Strasburg struggle at times to throw his 2-seamer for strikes because there was so much horizontal movement on the pitch it would oftentimes run right out of the zone into the right handed batters’ box.

Fast forward to the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Strasburg now was throwing his 4-seamer a consistent 57.5% of the time, and his 2-seamer an anemic 3.5% over those two seasons—a drop of 14% in usage rate when compared to 2011-12.

What does this portend for him? Well, Blengino argues Strasburg lacks a “go to…ground ball generation skill” or a way to “significantly minimize contact authority for one or more of the major BIP types.” My theory is a renewed use of his 2-seamer—that is, a controlled renewed use of his 2-seamer, would give Strasburg both that “ground ball generation skill” and a way to “minimize contact authority” because his 2-seamer has a horizontal movement component second only to his devastating change-up and 33% or more movement compared his 4-seamer. Not only that, but his 2-seamer has a far lower ratio of what Brooks Baseball deems “grooved pitches.”

In short, if Strasburg can harness the greased horizontal running pig that is his sinker, he will open himself up to reduced contact both in frequency and in damage, and, as Blengino has clearly demonstrated, that will catapult him into rarified air amongst pitchers of this generation.

Ep. 3: Leslie doesn’t read what Paul writes

Episode 3 is up…

In this episode Leslie taps into her inner Jeremy Schapp, Spring Training stories are discussed, and Paul finds out Leslie might not have really read his article when she proof read it…

Find it on iTunes, or here:

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