Thursday, October 28, 2010

Espinosa off to slow start in Puerto Rico

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Danny Espinosa is off to a slow start in his stint with Leones de Ponce of the Puerto Rico Baseball League.

Through four games, Espinosa is 4/17 with no extra base hits or walks, giving him a perfect stat line of .235/.235/.235

It was reported by Byron Kerr that Espinosa choose to play Winter Ball in Puerto Rico due to the high doses of breaking balls he'd see from the pitchers; so far, Danny is getting a first hand lesson in how hard breaking balls can be to hit.

Through 17 at bats, Espinosa has already struck out six times, or 35% of his at-bats. Strike outs, of course, are nothing new for the explosive infielder, as Espinosa posted 30 in just 103 major league at-bats in 2010. If an education in breaking balls is what Danny was seeking, he certainly has found it in Puerto Rico.

While struggles through a small number of at-bats is nothing to get too worked up about, something that may pique the interest of Nationals fans is the fact that Espinosa has played exclusively at SS for Ponce, so far.

Is Espinosa playing SS, and not 2B in Winter Ball a sign of things to come for the Washington Nationals, or is it a function of roster size and who's capable of playing what position for Leones?

If Espinosa is playing SS because the Nationals have asked him to, one has to wonder about the future of current SS Ian Desmond. Is a position switch in the works for the two young infielders, or is Mike Rizzo possibly working on a trade that involves Desmond or Espinosa?

Only time will tell, but the situation is definitely worth keeping an eye on moving forward this winter.

- - - -

Danny Espinosa isn't the only National talking part in Winter Ball; Pat Listach, the Nationals Third Base Coach is managing the club while 1B Chris Marrero and pitchers Jeff Mandel, Patrick McCoy, Hassan Pena and Cory VanAllen are also part of the roster.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Here's to you, class of 2006

"Vroom-Vroom... I look so stylish on my tricked out Segway!"

Bustling around to-and-fro today, I started to think about the future plans of Mike Rizzo and what he might have in-store for the Washington Nationals during the 2010-2011 Hot Stove season.

Picturing Cliff Lee donning the newest Nationals jersey, I dreamed of a future that involved shut out after shut out, clutch hit after clutch hit from Zimmerman and Dunn; I dreamed a winner.

Alas, I was awoken from my peaceful state with the harsh realities of what may lie ahead. The Nationals are heading into the offseason facing the prospects of losing their second best hitter (Dunn), a year without their ace in the making (Strasburg) and a collection of talent that is solid, but aging (Willingham, etc.) or younger guys that may never be more than your everyday AAAA type (Bernadina, et. al).

In a sheer panic, I raced to my favorite destination on the internet, Baseball Reference, and looked to find some answers as to why the Nationals were in the unenviable position they currently reside.

To my surprise, or lack their of, I was able to determine in just a few minutes of research that the Nationals "are who we thought they were" because, until recently, they have failed to produce talent through the annual MLB draft.

No year is more damning evidence of the Nationals failures in the drafting process than to take a look back to the draft class of 2006.

To date, the Nationals are the only team to have not produced a single major leaguer from the 2006 draft class. There is incompetence, and then there is the 2006 Washington Nationals draft class.

The class reads like a who's who of failed former prospects, and high school busts. Taking a look at the first 10 rounds, this is the motley crew that awaits.

1.15 - OF - Chris Marrero
1.22 - RHP - Colton Willems
2.15 - RHP - Sean Black
2.26 - OF/RHP - Stephen Englund
3.15 - SS - Stephen King
4.15 - LHP - Glenn Gibson
5.15 - LHP - Cory VanAllen
6.15 - RHP - Zechry Zinicola
7.15 - RHP - Samuel Brown
8.15 - C - Sean Rooney
9.15 - LHP - Joey Rosas
10.15 - RHP - Marcus Salmon

Beautiful, is it not?

From those first 11 picks,

- Four did not sign (Black, Brown, Rosas, Salmon)
- Three are in AA (Marrero, Zinicola, VanAllen)
- One is in A ball (Rooney)
- One is in low A (King)
- One is in Short Season ball (Gibson)
- One has been released (Englund)

And finally, Colton Willems the 22nd pick in the draft, and he of the $1,450,000 signing bonus, has already retired.

Retired millionaire at the age of 21, must be nice.

And who might be responsible for such a deluge of talent you ask?

Well, it's our good friend Jim Bowden. The less said about Mr. Bowden, the better.

Now that the bad news is out of the way, is there any hope that members of the class of 2006 may eventually find their way to the bright lights of "The Show"?

Why, yes, yes there is.

1st round pick, 1B Chris Marrero - For all his warts, Marrero is looking like a player that may eventually carve out a role on an American League team as part time DH/1B.

12th round pick, RHP Cole Kimball - Kimball, a hard throwing righty, was recently clocked at 97 MPH in an appearance in the Arizona Fall League.

18th round pick, RHP Adam Carr - currently participating in the Arizona Fall League. Average relief prospect that will likely find his way to the back of a major league bullpen in the coming years.

33rd round pick, 1B Tyler Moore* - Put on the map thanks in large part to a Jose Bautista-esque second half to the 2010 season to claim the Carolina League Hitter of the Year award. Moore, already 23, must prove in 2011 that the second half of 2010 was more than just a fluke.
* - Moore did not sign with Nats in 2006, but was drafted again by Nats in 2008 as 16th round pick.

41st round pick, RHP Brad Peacock - Broke onto the scene this year by cruising through A ball and holding his own in AA. Currently, Peacock can be found dominating hitters in the prospect rich Arizona Fall League.

- - -

So, when you start to fret about the latest rumors of Mike Rizzo signing a high priced, past his prime free agent, or his desire to keep the current outfield rotation intact, remember this; no matter how bad things get, nothing will compare to the disaster that was the 2006 Washington Nationals draft class.

Here's to you Class of 2006, your level of futility will never be matched again.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Matt Murton, Where Art thou?

Does anyone have the phone number for Matt Murton? If you do, could you give it to Mike Rizzo?

Murton, a 29 year old, just recently set the single season hit record in Japan by posting
214 hits, the previous record of 210 hits was held by none other than Ichiro.

Matt Murton was once a highly thought of prospects; drafted in the 1st round by the Boston Red Sox in 2003, Murton was then traded along with
Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs on July 31, 2004. Seeking a chance at every day playing time, Murton posted a .296/.365/.455/.820 OPS in 830 at bats from 2005-2007. Those numbers, while perfectly acceptable for a starting OF’er were not enough to keep Murton in the majors, or, in the Cubs organization.

In 2008, Murton was traded to the Oakland A’s as part of a six player deal. Murton’s stay in Oakland was brief as he was traded in the 2008-2009 offseason to the Colorado Rockies. Not content to rest on his above average MLB numbers, Murton proved his worth by hitting .324/.389/.499/.888 in 373 AB’s at Colorado Springs, the Rockies AAA ball club.

How did the Rockies re-pay him? They released him in December of 2009 to let Murton pursue a career overseas as a member of the
Hanshin Tigers of the Nippon Professional Baseball league. As previously mentioned, Murton, just like he has done at every other stop, hit the cover off the ball posting a monster .349 AVG with a .894 OPS.

So, how does a guy like Matt Murton constantly get overlooked by scouts and GM’s alike? The simple answer is, he doesn’t hit for power. In 952 career AB’s, Murton has only posted 29 HR’s, or, a HR every 33 at-bats. If you put Murton’s numbers through a 162 game season, he’s going to hit about 12-15 HR’s. Not ideal for a guy that’s a corner OF’er.

What Murton lacks in power, he makes up for in an otherwise solid skill set. Murton can hit for AVG (career - .289), has a solid eye (career - 8.8 BB%) and he plays a very good defensive OF as seen by his
career 25.8 UZR and 16.7 UZR/150.

Murton is the perfect fit for what Mike Rizzo looks for in a player. He’s a solid hitter, he plays above average defense, and, he shouldn’t cost a ton to lure back stateside with a promise of a job in RF heading into 2011. Most certainly Murton would not cost as much to bring back to the majors than someone like
Yunesky Maya who signed a 4 year, 8 million dollar deal with the Nationals this past July.

Matt Murton never got a fair shot at everyday playing time in America; it’s time Mike Rizzo gave him one.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The beginning of the end of Mike Rizzo?

News continues to swirl out of the nation’s capitol that the Nationals are just smitten with Tampa Bay Rays 1B Carlos Pena. With the impending free agency of current 1B Adam Dunn, the Nationals are apparently looking to upgrade their defense at the least defensive intensive position on the field. (yeah, I don’t get it either).

Over the past three seasons, Dunn has performed as a slugger should, he mashes the ball, gets on base and drives in runs. Since 2008, Dunn is third in baseball in HR’s (116), second in walks (315) and ninth in RBI’s (308).

The problem Rizzo has with Dunn, according to those in the know, is his belief (incorrect as it may be) that Dunn is nothing but a statue at 1B who somehow, through magical powers cost the Nationals more runs a game with his defense than the runs he produces with his bat. Clearly, this is a silly notion, but it’s one that is held by Rizzo. While the Nationals won’t change GM’s (yet) they are apparently interested at the idea in bringing in Carlos Pena, a guy that is two years older than Dunn, already on the decline physically, can’t hit, and is of questionable repute in the field… basically, the perfect Mike Rizzo player; cheap and trending downward. (See Kennedy, Adam and Rodriguez, Ivan)

Since Pena’s career year in 2007 when he hit .282 with 46 HR’s and 121 RBI’s, Pena has been on a sharp decline. In 2008, Pena hit .247 while Slugging .133 points lower than he did in 2007. In 2009, Pena’s average slipped to .227, a full .055 points lower than his career high in 2007. In 2010, the wheels fell off for the 32 year old. For the year, Pena hit a whopping .196 with 28 HR’s and a SLG% of .407. To put in perspective how massive the drop has been for Pena, his 2007 OPS, which was 1.037 was .305 points higher than his 2010 OPS of .732, the difference in OPS nearly equals his OBP for 2010 of .323.

Dunn, on the other hand, continues to trudge along putting up season after season of stats that most hitters can only dream of. Since 2007, Dunn has hit .257/.382/.533/.915, with 156 HR’s and 414 RBI’s. Pena? .238/.368/.516/.884. The disparity between the two only grows the further you get away from 2007.

Dunn - .236/.386/.513/.898
Pena - .247/.377/.494/.871
Advantage – Dunn

Dunn - .267/.398/.529/.928
Pena - .227/.356/.537/.893
Advantage - Dunn

Dunn - .260/.356/.536/.892
Pena - .196/.325/.407/.732
Advantage – Dunn

Clearly, it is impossible not to understand the massive difference in offensive skill sets the two possess.

The question is not whether Carlos Pena is a better hitter than Dunn, because he is not. Nor is the question whether Adam Dunn is a better fielder than Pena, because he is not. No, the multi million dollar question is this; does the upgrade Carlos Pena brings in the field over Adam Dunn make up for Dunn’s advantage at the plate?

Quite obviously the answer is a resounding NO.

For all the talk of Pena being this great fielder, where’s the proof? In his eight years at 1B, Pena rates out as a below average 1B, just like Dunn. There is not one defensive metric that you can find that says Carlos Pena is above average. Pena sports a negative DRS (-3), UZR (-16.2) and TZ (-45) score. If you break his numbers down into what is an average year for Pena in the field, you come up with following results:

Pena -.375 DRS/Year
Pena -2.7 UZR/150
Pena -5 TZ/Year

As you can see, while none of the systems totally agree with the value of Pena in the field, they all cast him as a negative net fielder in the range of -1 to -5 runs a year. Eight years of data cannot be explained away as statistical flukes. The fact of the matter is, for all the talk of wanting to bring Pena in to shore up the defense, he’s still a below average 1B just like Dunn. Factor in the massive difference in their offensive capabilities and it’s enough to cause one fits of intense anger.

For comparisons sake, Dunn’s stats after one and a half years at 1B are as follows;

Dunn -13 DRS/Year
Dunn -8.7 UZR/150
Dunn -7 TZ/Year

Those numbers drastically change if you only factor in 2010, where Dunn played 1B full time, for the first time in his career and had an offseason to practice;

Dunn -8 DRS (2010)
Dunn -3.1UZR (2010)
Dunn N/A TZ (2010 – Numbers haven’t been released yet, but judging on the drop of 5 runs for both DRS and UZR, we can guess that Dunn’s TZ would be -2 for 2010)

As you can see, at most the difference between Dunn and Pena is less than anyone with an agenda a mile long would have you believe.

Adam Dunn is vastly superior to Carlos Pena at the plate. Carlos Pena is a slight upgrade to Adam Dunn in the field. Overall, Adam Dunn is the better player.

If there’s one thing I could ever ask my reader(s) to take away from my blog, it is this simple truth;

Carlos Pena isn’t just a downgrade from Adam Dunn, it’s career suicide for Mike Rizzo.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Livan Hernandez and Cliff Lee: Opposites attract (success)

Photo courtesy of Scott Ableman

Livan Hernandez enjoyed a comeback season for the ages in 2010 when he burst back upon the scene with the Nationals posting the lowest ERA (3.66) and WHIP (1.32) of his career since 2004. Beyond those numbers, Livan also had the fortune of posting a team high in wins (10), innings pitched (211.2) and strikeouts (114). To call 2010 a successful year for Livan would be putting it lightly.

To be frank, even the most ardent Washington Nationals fan had to be surprised to see the old warhorse that is Livo resurrect his career one start at a time.

Dazzling hitters with a BP fastball and a brutally slow curveball, Livan pitched like a man that knew his best years were behind him. What he lacked in terms of raw ability, Livan made up for with about as much guile as someone could possibly acquire through years and years of pitching.

When one takes a longer look at Livan’s stats for 2010, you would find that not much has changed for the 35 year old (allegedly). He still doesn’t generate swings and misses 4.6% (2nd lowest total in all of baseball), he still prefers outs via the fly ball and, as always, he racks up the innings with his rubber arm.

So, what changed for Livan in 2010 that he couldn’t achieve in 2005 through 2009? Well, we’ll get back to that in a second; but first, lets take a look at a pitcher that’s about to enter free agency as the most coveted arm in the entire class, Cliff Lee.

Clifton Phifer Lee, or to those of us that are close with him, Cliff, is a 6’3” left handed pitching machine. Currently property of the AL West winning Texas Rangers, Lee is at the pinnacle of his career, poised to score one more massive contract while the going is good. Side note - Lee was originally drafted by the Nationals (Expos 4th Rd – 2000) and then dealt away in one of the most lopsided trades in history.

Unlike Livan, Cliff still has enough giddy up on his fastball (91.3 MPH – average) that he can still blow the occasional hitter away. While Livo survives with his loopy curveball, Cliff punishes hitter with a devastating cutter, an equally tough curveball and a developing changeup that has many a baseball analyst swooning over it.

While Livan had a career revival in 2010, Cliff is in the midst of his heyday. Two years ago he won the AL Cy Young by going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA. Last year Lee posted a 14 win season with a 3.22 ERA but finished the year strong by going 5-0 in the postseason while singlehandedly carrying the Phillies to the World Series. This year, more of the same as Lee posted the highest pitching WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in all of baseball at 7.0, nearly half a game better than the second best pitcher, Roy “no-no” Halladay at 6.6.

Now that we know the back story on Livan and Cliff, let’s take a look at what made each the success that they were in 2010.

Lee, the ultimate marksmen, posted the second highest K/BB ratio in the history of the game at 10.28, that is, for every walk he allowed, he struck 10.28 batters in the meantime. Livan, on the other hand only managed a paltry ratio of 1.78. Quite the difference, but that’s not where Cliff and Livan diverge from each other the most.

Fangraphs, a think tank for fans that love stats, posts a stat called Zone%. Zone% is the percentage of the total number of pitches thrown that end up in the strike zone*, no matter the outcome (ball, strike, foul, ball in play, etc. etc.).

Lee, as you might have surmised by his massive K/BB rate, leads MLB in the number of pitches that reach the strike zone at 56.6% Livan on the other hand, throws the least number of pitches in the strike zone at 38.3%.

As hard as it may be to believe, Cliff Lee locates his pitches in the strike zone a whopping 18.3% more often than Livan does. That’s not just shocking, that’s bordering on historic.

With the discrepancy in zone% so high, one has to wonder how two pitchers, polar opposites of each other, can succeed.

The answer? First strike percentage.

As with zone% Lee also leads the majors in first pitch strikes at 69.8%. While Livan is not nearly at Cliff’s level, his 58.5% is still plenty respectable (league average is 58.8%).

First strikes are crucial. Cliff and Livan know this, and both do a good job at securing the ever important 0-1 count advantage. In 2010, batters hit (.273/.387/.437) after gaining a 1-0 count advantage. When the hitter fell behind 0-1, the tables were turned considerably in the pitchers favor (.227/.269/.346). Clearly, getting ahead 0-1 in the count is paramount to the success of any pitcher looking to make a long career in the majors.

In what can only be described as one of those indelible quirks that makes the game of baseball so great, Livan Hernandez and Cliff Lee succeeded in the exact opposite manner of one another.

Before I send this blog to print, I want you, reader, to think back to June 23, 2010. Stephen Strasburg was just coming off his first major league loss to the Kansas City Royals when a lively discussion broke out in the post game show between (Former) MASN color commentator Rob Dibble and MASN analyst Ray Knight. Their argument, was Stephen Strasburg throwing too many strikes for his own good?

Rob, a former All-Star closer, found the notion of throwing too many strikes to be preposterous, and Ray, a former All-Star Third baseman, pointed out that when a hitter can’t expect a pitch to always be in the strike zone, it makes batting tougher. What followed was an epic bitch fit between two men clearly frustrated with how the 2010 season for the Nationals was turning out. For your viewing pleasure I’ve included the video from that night.

Truth is, Rob and Ray, as Livan and Cliff have shown in 2010, it doesn’t matter if you throw strikes 60% of the time or 40% of the time, all that matters is you follow the simple pitching credo “Get ahead in the count 0-1, and the rest will take care of itself”.

* - Strike Zone as defined by the electronic Pitch f/x system, not the actual zone of an umpire