Another year, another NLDS loss for the Nationals

I wrote this in October 2016:

Here we are.  Again.  Another division championship ultimately means nothing as another team celebrates on the Nationals home field.

Now we’re here again.  Another Game 5 loss at home, again by one run.  It’s harsh to say, as I did last year, that the division title “means nothing.”  Winning the division is always an achievement.  But now it’s four attempts–and four failures–to win a playoff series.  It’s getting old.

This was an epic series with some pretty epic moments, but let’s start with Game 5, one of the most infuriating games imaginable.  Consider the Cubs scored scored on:

-A ground ball

-Another ground ball

-A passed ball

-4 runs in one inning off the best pitcher in the league, including one off a strikeout/passed ball/throwing error and one off a hit batter following a catcher interference–all with 2 outs

-A ball Jayson Werth lost in the lights

-Another ground ball

Also, the Cubs had six walks.

Meanwhile,

-Trea Turner was thrown out at home

-Ryan Zimmerman left 7 men on base by striking out 3 times

-Zimmerman didn’t score from first base on a double hit over the left fielders head with 2 outs

-Matt Wieters left the bases loaded by flying out after Dusty Baker decided not to pitch hit, when Adam Lind and Howie Kendrick were available

-Jose Lobaton was picked off at first base, ending an 8th inning rally with the tying run on 2B

To be fair, the Cubs made a ton of mistakes too–the Nats did not have monopoly on sloppy baseball.  But if this team played even a moderately fundamental baseball game, they’re on a plane to LA tomorrow.

Series are not lost in one day, however.  This team was in a do or die situation because their bats failed to show up in Game 1 and 3.  A baseball team cannot score 0 runs in one game, 1 run in another, and then give up 9 runs in another and expect to win a 5 game series.  These short series are unforgiving and leave no margin for error, as the Nationals know by now.

It’s all so infuriating because this is a huge waste.  They wasted Harper’s heroic home run in Game 2.  They wasted Strasburg’s epic performance in Game 4.  They wasted Michael A. Taylor’s grand slam at Wrigley and 3-run homer in Game 5.  Most importantly, the wasted a potential World Series run with the top three pitching ERAs in the league and an explosive lineup.  This was likely the most dangerous and complete Nationals team yet, and they didn’t get any closer than the previous versions.

There is a whole offseason to think about the player failures and managerial decisions that led to this outcome.  But for now, I’m tired so I’ll leave you with the same thing I wrote exactly one year ago.

The Nats came close, but not close enough.  The best part is we get to do it all again.  Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training next February. 

Advertisements

Who decided to start Tanner Roark over Stephen Strasburg and why?

If I were the type of person to pray about baseball, I would have prayed for rain.  Instead, I spent all day studying the Chicago weather reports like I normally do the Nationals Baseball Reference page.  Sure enough, nature gave us a reprieve.  A rain delayed Game 4 meant a chance for the Nats to start Stephen Strasburg on full rest rather than Tanner Roark.  Yesterday, I imagined lightly hit fly balls off Roark getting carried over the fence by the Wrigley Field wind.  Today, I pictured Strasburg striking out 10 Cubs in route to a series-saving win to force a Game 5.

We got the rain, but Dusty is starting Roark anyway.  Calling this decision a roll of the dice doesn’t even begin to describe the fallout if the Nats lose a Roark-started Game 4.  This is a season-defining and possibly tenure-defining move by Dusty Baker.  Strasburg is the ace with a $175 million dollar contract.  He is rested and available.  The possibility of the season ending with him sitting on the bench, unused, is unthinkable.

At first, this appeared to be another shaky decision from a manager already operating with a postseason credibility deficit.  The Nats lost a late lead in a 2-1 Game 3 loss without either of their best relievers seeing the mound.  Starting Roark instead of Strasburg seemed like another questionable inside-the-box move from a manager who doesn’t seem to grasp the win-or-go-home mentality of the MLB postseason.

But then something odd happened at the press conference where Dusty announced Roark would start.  Baker couldn’t explain the decision.  First, Strasburg threw a bullpen session on Tuesday, so he wasn’t available on Wednesday.  Then, starting Roark was always the plan because they have full confidence in him.  Then, Strasburg was “under the weather” and there was mold in the hotel (you couldn’t make this stuff up).  Then, the team later felt the need to clarify that Strasburg threw his bullpen on Monday and could pitch on Wednesday but won’t because he is ill.

Perhaps this is Dusty being Dusty.  He doesn’t always give the clearest answers in press conferences, mainly because he’s been on this damn Earth longer than you and he doesn’t feel like he has to explain himself.  Maybe there’s a combination of factors, which led to the multiple explanations.  Maybe Dusty is just stubborn and dead set on making a huge mistake and everyone–club included–is trying to save face.  Or perhaps this a false flag operation, and everyone in Nats management is laughing their asses off right now.

The most troubling of all is that Dusty couldn’t adequately explain the decision because he didn’t make it.  Did Rizzo dictate it?  Did Strasburg or–gulp–Boras pull the plug?

I’m asking a lot of questions right now because I don’t have answers.  There’s a disturbing pattern of this franchise prematurely exiting the playoffs while their best weapons remain in the arsenal.  History has been repeating itself this series.  For Dusty’s sake, and ours, I hope it doesn’t happen again.

Nationals Trade Analysis: Doolittle, Madson for Treinen, et al

The biggest fallacy of the 2017 Nats season–and I’ve heard this opinion from Washington Post columnists to random fans at the ballpark–is that the team needed a “closer.”  They didn’t need a closer; they needed an entirely new bullpen. The Nats’ biggest problem is so thorough, one Mark Melancon or Zach Britton wouldn’t solve it.

The Nationals have worst bullpen ERA and batting average against in baseball. The Nats have a 6.28 ERA in the 9th inning. The team’s 5.14 8th inning ERA is merely an upgrade from dreadful to bad. These raw numbers only scratch the surface. Nats starting pitchers have pitched the most innings among all teams, surely a symptom of Dusty Baker trying to squeeze extra innings from the starter every night. The leaky bullpen has lengthened games and sapped team morale. The almost-nightly ritual of bullpen incompetence has had a cumulative negative effect on an otherwise immaculate Nats season.

There’s currently one pitcher–Matt Albers–whose performance this year has consistently been above embarrassing–and I’m not sure I trust him in October.

This season’s annual bullpen upgrade (Melancon in 2016, Papelbon in 2015) will be an overhaul. They won’t be renovating the kitchen, they’ll be tearing down the house and building a new one.

The question wasn’t whether the Nats would be buying relievers in bulk, but how deep in their system they would reach to pay for it. My fear was that Nats’ backs were pressed so hard against the wall they’d have to trade their future, notably mega-prospect Victor Robles or another blue chip like Juan Soto or Erick Fedde. My assumption, though, is that Rizzo called teams until he found one that didn’t demand those names. In frequent trade partner Billy Beane, he found one.

Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson are exactly what the Nats needed. Neither of them are Andrew Miller, but they’re professional relievers with reliable stuff who won’t embarrass the franchise. They’re the type of players who should have been on this roster to begin the season. Rizzo tried to build the 2017 Nats bullpen with duct tape and chicken wire, when he should have called a licensed contractor. There are no shortcuts to building a pennant winner and Rizzo was arrogant for thinking he could do it.

As usual, the Nats paid the right price. Blake Trienen is expendable. Trienen showed promise in a prominent setup role in 2016, but he simply couldn’t make the transition to pitching in the 9th inning, where his lack of command and poise became a liability. Treinen’s devasting high-90’s sinker still gives me hope he could one day be a dominant reliever. But a pitcher who can’t be trusted to pitch this October is a luxury this team can’t afford. Maybe the A’s can salvage him. Good luck.

By trading 2016 2nd and 3rd picks Sheldon Neuse and Jesus Luzardo the Nats gave up value but avoided mortgaging a Top 100 prospect, which they rarely do. Mid-level prospects are what Rizzo will be cashing in this season. If you’re a Nats prospect just outside the Top 100, expect your name to be called. More trades are coming. Like any large renovation project, this one will be done in phases.

Drew Storen deserves nothing more than your icy indifference 

DDBifc_XcAARI-H

Nationals fans are notoriously polite. Struggling players don’t get booed. Opposing ones rarely get heckled. It seems like any Nats starter who makes it past the 5th inning gets a standing ovation–an absurd tradition if you ask me, but I’ll gladly err on the side of politeness and tact. Nobody wants to be Philly fans, who routinely embarrass themselves with crass behavior.

The only opposing player who routinely gets booed is Pete Kozma, but that’s almost done in a wink-wink joking kind of way. I doubt anyone actually carries real animosity towards a marginal player like Pete Kozma…which leads us to the player on the other side of Kozma’s notorious hit in the 2012 playoffs–Drew Storen.

Storen returns to town this weekend with the Cincinnati Reds and he’ll likely be cheered by Nats fans who don’t know any better. He’ll be booed by a few too. Most won’t react in any way.

Boo if you want. If you’re not a booer, that’s fine. Just don’t cheer, because no one who has ever worn the Nationals uniform deserves it less.

Of the five worst moments in Nationals history, Drew Storen is personally responsible for at least four of them. His 9th inning meltdown in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS is undoubtedly the worst moment in modern franchise history and it’s a direct result of Storen not doing his job. In you can stomach it, go back and watch a replay of that game. Storen blew the save because he lost confidence in his stuff. He started nibbling. Like so many of his greatest failures, it was a mental breakdown rather than a physical one.

But it’s not because of the blown save Storen deserves your enmity–it’s his attitude in the face of failure. After being replaced as closer in the 2012-13 offseason, Storen chose not to embrace his new role and instead pouted for a significant portion of the 2013 season. He was so unusable as a pitcher the team was forced to send him the minors. The Nats missed the playoffs that year, in case you forgot.

Storen temporarily rebounded and began the 2014 playoffs as the team’s closer. He blew his chance again in Game 2, ruining Jordan Zimmermann’s masterpiece.

Storen was again effective during the first half of the 2015 season, but the team still needed bullpen help to hold off the surging, then-second place Mets. After surveying all his limited available options, Mike Rizzo chose to trade for Jonathan Papelbon and move Storen to the setup role, where he could have been very valuable. Storen should have embraced his role for the good of the team. They needed him. Again, Storen chose not to embrace his new job, and instead demanded a trade the Nationals couldn’t afford to make. And again, Storen let his disappointment affect his performance on the field. In the season’s most critical series against the Mets, Storen melted down. In a save situation, he started missing the catcher’s glove by feet, not inches. It was remarkable to watch. The next night he grooved a game-winning home run to Yoenis Cespdeses, effectively ending the Nats season.

This is not a track record Nats fans should salute. Storen’s on-field failures can be forgiven; his quitting on the team in a pennant race cannot. There have been plenty of model citizens and teamplayers who’ve come and gone who deserve your respect and should be thanked and recognized when they return to town–Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmerman to name a few. Storen is not on that list. His priority was not the team’s success and, by extension, the fans, who deserve a winner after so many decades in the baseball wilderness.

If you want to remember Drew Storen, remember the last time he wore a Nats uniform–slamming his locker in frustration, breaking his thumb and prematurely ending his season. Remember his last action as a Nat–an immature, entitled, and selfish one that materially hurt the team. Stand and cheer Storen if you want, but if you do, that’s what your cheering for.

Why is the Nationals bullpen so bad?

At the dawn of the 2014 season, the Nationals made their last, best offer to re-sign shortstop cornerstone Ian Desmond.  He turned it down.  After that season–with only one year to go on Ian Desmond’s contract–Mike Rizzo went out and traded one of his best assets for a young shortstop named Trea Turner.  It’s worked out quite well, and Turner is likely to man the shortstop position for the Nats well into the next decade.

It’s an example of foresight and planning.  General Managers aren’t just responsible for the current team–they’re responsible for next year’s team too.  And the one after that.  GM’s who neglect the future will eventually be fired, and they should be.  The Nationals had a gaping hole at shortstop after Desmond let the team know he wanted to go to free agency.  Mike Rizzo went out and fixed it.  It wasn’t an accident; it was a conscious choice to build for the future.  It’s a good illustration how the Nationals have been able to maintain their contending status years after experts thought their “window” would close.

This track record of success only makes the 2017 bullpen that much more puzzling.  The foresight demonstrated in other areas simply hasn’t translated to bullpen construction.  This year’s bullpen is a Frankenstein’s Monster of futility.  It’s a collaboration of raw prospects (Koda Glover, Enny Romero), journeymen castoffs (Ollie Perez, Matt Albers), and guys who just haven’t developed (Blake Treinen).  It’s a crew you’d expect a rebuilding team to throw together, not a defending division champion expecting another playoff appearance.

Great bullpens aren’t build in a day, and they’re usually not built in one offseason.  Like the rest of the roster, it takes years to come together.  You know, foresight.  Planning.  This offseason, 2016 closer Mark Melancon signed with San Francisco after the Nats were outbid.  Letting him go was probably the right move.  Melancon is on the wrong side of 30 and the Giants gave him a ton of money (Melancon, by the way, is already on the DL).  The Nats also tried to bring in Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.  He eventually re-signed with LA for a truckload of money.  Each of those failed attempts to fix the bullpen seems logical.  You don’t want to break your payroll with an age 30+ closer.

The question, though, isn’t whether they should have signed one of those guys, it’s why this team is in the position where one or two lost bidding wars puts the bullpen on a path to failure?  This isn’t a matter of the Lerners not spending enough on the bullpen.  It’s more complicated than that.  This bullpen is the result of a series of miscalculations, mistakes, and misplaced priorities over time.

Adam Eaton is a great player and his trade will continue to benefit the Nationals well into the future.  But he didn’t come cheap; the Nationals gave up some of their best minor league assets to acquire him.  This was a choice.  They could have devoted those prospects to get bullpen help.  Andrew Miller–quite possibly the best relief pitcher alive right now–could have been traded for last season at that price.  Instead the Nats targeted Melancon at a cheaper price–and he is now gone.  Last offseason, the Nats traded Drew Storen, a relief pitcher himself.  I was ok with this–Storen and his bad attitude needed to go–but there was no corresponding move to replace him.  The closest thing was sending Yunel Escobar to LA for reliever Trevor Gott, who is currently somewhere in minor league purgatory.  Perhaps the Nats felt they didn’t need to replace Storen because they had Jonathan Papelbon.  Papelbon, acquired in lieu of other more effective closers in 2015 because he was cheaper, wore down last year, causing the Nats to chase Melancon in the first place, giving up a young reliever Felipe Rivero who is pitching very, very well in the Pirates bullpen right now.

There’s no one decision that led to this debacle.  The above track record is only the tip of the iceberg–unmentioned are the dozens of lower and mid-level transactions where serviceable relievers possibly slip through the Nats fingers.  Every signing or trade the Nats make for a position player is another missed opportunity to address the relief pitching.  It’s a matter of priorities.

This leads to the biggest problem.  The Nats system simply isn’t producing the relievers needed to staff a bullpen.  A pitching staff isn’t built through free agency; the bulk of the players come from down below.  A few weeks ago, I wrote how the team needs to change the way they think about pitchers and their development.  In it, I suggested then-AAA starter Jacob Turner could be an option in the bullpen.  The other night he pitched 4 innings of scoreless relief.  Whether he becomes a valuable reliever this season is unknown, but it’s a step in the right direction.  My recommendation still holds: the Nats need to be more creative.  They also need to take bullpen construction more seriously because their current ad-hoc approach isn’t working.

One way to fix replay: eject managers for lost challenges

It’s not a secret that I hate replay.  I am by no means a baseball traditionalist entirely opposed to change.  I simply think the existence of replay makes the game worse by adding delay while providing little tangible benefit.  Replay exist to “get the calls right,” but more often than not, managers challenge calls they know to be right or plays that are too close to know for sure.  There’s no downside to a lost challenge, and huge upside to a won challenge.

It’s all infuriating to watch.  Managers often challenge calls in the 7th, 8th, or 9th inning because they have a challenge left to burn.  A call the manager would ordinarily let stand in the 1st inning suddenly becomes something worth sending to the replay booth in New York because the game is almost over.  Fans have to sit there and watch umpires stand around wearing headsets at the point in the game where it already begins to drag due to frequent pitching changes.  Late-game “Hail Mary” replays also illustrate the biggest paradox of the system.  It exits to ensure an obviously wrong call doesn’t stand (think Armando Galarraga’s non-perfect game).  Yet, the close call that could go either way–thus a play less worthy of a challenge–take the longest to review as replay officials parse every possible camera angle.

Aside from acting as a safety net to prevent a Galarraga perfect game mishap, replay has achieved one other positive result.  Managers rarely argue with umpires anymore since they now have a more productive outlet for their disagreements.  Some traditionalists may lament this, but I don’t.  It, too, was a waste of time, since managers hardly ever succeeded in changing the umpire’s mind.  Managers argued for catharsis or to “fire their team up.”  Earl Weaver made arguing with umpires part of his brand, and his ejection record reflected that.

Since replay started to poison Major League Baseball, I’ve brainstormed ways to discourage unnecessary challenges.  Recently, MLB imposed a 30-second time limit for managers to challenge.  This doesn’t solve the problem; in fact it might make the problem worse since managers now have less time to know whether their challenge is a worthwhile one.  Here’s my solution.  If a manager loses a challenge, he’s ejected from the game.  If you waste our time with a pointless challenge, go to the showers.  This might sound harsh, or even unfair since replay often returns unexpected results.  But that is entirely the point.  Replay is there to fix obvious mistakes.  It’s not a late-game dice roll when things aren’t going your way.  I’m more convinced now more than ever MLB needs to dis-incentivize a bad replay challenge.  Publicly humiliating a manager who wastes our time is a good start.

Nationals need to be creative to solve their bullpen problems

In 2009, the Nationals drafted a guy named Stephen Strasburg with the first overall pick. Nine picks later, they selected a guy named Drew Storen, a relief pitcher from Stanford* with the idea he could make the major leagues quickly and become a closer.

I always hated that pick, and not because I expected Storen to blow two playoff series and otherwise be a head case and malcontent. I simply think 1st round picks should be “high ceiling” selections and relievers are inherently volitile and unpredictable who live very short MLB shelf lives. A good rule of thumb: if you can’t imagine the guy winning multiple Cy Young or MVP awards, don’t pick him. 

At the same time the Nationals were drafting Strasburg and Storen, another young pitcher started 24 games just up the road in Frederick, VA. His name was Zach Britton and he was the best reliever in baseball last season. Britton was drafted as a starter and worked his way through the Orioles farm system. He even started 46 games in MLB as such. In 2014, the Orioles permenantly gave up on him as a starting pitcher and a bullpen star was accidentally born. 

Twenty-five picks after Storen, the Orioles selected a young shortstop named Mychal Givens, who was converted to a relief pitcher in 2013 after a few offensively challenged seasons as a position player. Givens is now a very effective reliever in the Orioles bullpen right along side Britton. 

The two teams’ approaches to relief pitcher development couldn’t be more different. The Nats tend to pigeonhole their pitchers into two categories of relievers and starters. Aaron Barrett started zero games above the New York-Pennsylvania league (low A). Koda Glover didn’t start any. Same with Storen. Treinen and Solis both started games in the minors, but were converted to the bullpen relatively quickly in the majors. Meanwhile, starting pitching prospects often come and go without a stop in the bullpen. Some are “blocked” in AAA because there’s no “room” on the major league roster (AJ Cole, Taylor Hill, Austin Voth, and ironically Jacob Turner who was drafted the pick before Drew Storen in 2009). Some are traded away because the Nats can afford to trade their starting pitching “depth” (Reynoldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, Nate Karns).  

The Nationals have struggled this season to find enough reliable arms to fill their bullpen. Last offseason, they were priced out of (or priced themelves out of) free agent options that might have helped like Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen. This requires the team to be more creative. Perhaps continuing to pigeonhole pitchers as “starters” and “relievers” is part of the problem. Zach Britton didn’t become Zach Britton until the Orioles threw up their hands and gave him a shot in the bullpen. Same with Andrew Miller, a former starter who the Red Sox converted to a reliever in 2012. The Nats may be tempted to look far and wide for bullpen solutions, but the answer might be right in front of them. 

* the original version of this post said that Drew Storen went to LSU, not Stanford. I am an idiot. Carry on.