2 Up, 2 Down: Diagnosing the Nats

A bat belonging to Washington Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman is seen in the on-deck circle during the eighth inning of a baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Nationals Saturday, April 30, 2016, in St. Louis. The Nationals won 6-1. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
WASHINGTON — The baseball idiom “3 up, 3 down” is heavily overused in sports writing, particularly for quick overviews of things going well and poorly for a team. The idea of “2 Up, 2 Down” is to get into a little more detail on a couple of different players doing well for different reasons, then do the same for a couple playing poorly. Just like the first two batters of a baseball inning, 2 Up, 2 Down gives you an idea of a trend in progress, without a complete data set. Today, we’ll take a look at a quartet of Washington Nationals to try to determine if their early-season trends are aberrations, or indicative of longer term trends. All numbers are current through the games of Monday, May 2. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
1 Up: Stephen Strasburg It feels like we aren’t paying enough attention to just how dominant Strasburg has been. Since coming off the DL early last August, Strasburg is 12-2 with a 2.02 ERA and 132 strikeouts against just 16 walks in 102.1 innings pitched over 15 starts. That ain’t bad. And while he’s pitched against some subpar teams during that stretch, he also struck out 13 Mets last September, and fanned nine Cardinals Friday night. Aside from his mid-90s fastball, Strasburg has always featured a solid curveball and a devastating change-up. But he’s mixed a fourth pitch into his repertoire, one that seems to be defying classification, resting somewhere between a slider and a cutter. Some have jokingly called it a “slutter.” Look at the photo above to see where the pitch in the video below starts and where it finishes. Yoooo. I’d have swung straight through that thing, too. In fact, I’d do it again, even if he told me it was coming. But what’s interesting about this pitch is its lateral movement, with none of the traditional drop of a slider. It’s not necessarily a swing-and-miss pitch (it’s not always going to have that much tilt), but something that can definitely move off the barrel onto the end of a righty’s bat or the handle of a lefty’s. And because it doesn’t drop like his change-up does, it can live in the same general, high-80s mph zone and still have unique deception. FanGraphs shows that 14.5 percent of Strasburg’s pitches have registered as sliders this year, up astronomically from .5 percent last season. His change-up use is also up slightly, while his fastball usage has dropped (63.4% to 56.7%) and his curveball use has been chopped in half (22.4% to 12.0%). Interestingly, this has helped all his pitches other than the curveball rate out than each of the last two years by runs above average. While health is always the key for Strasburg, if he can stay on the mound and continue to employ a four-deep arsenal of pitches, he may make his final year in the Curly W his best one. (MLB.com)
2 Up: Daniel Murphy Bryce Harper is doing Bryce Harper things, but Daniel Murphy has been the unexpected bat helping carry the offense through a generally sluggish start. Coming off his absurd power-hitting production in last year’s playoffs, Murphy figured to settle back to his incredibly consistent pattern over the past four years. Murphy’s batting average hasn’t deviated more than six points from his career mark in any of the past four seasons, and his on-base percentage hasn’t fluctuated more than nine points. He’s hit between 48-54 extra-base hits each year. But through his first 24 contests in 2016, Murphy is batting 91 points above his career mark, reaching base at an absurd .439 clip and slugging nearly .600. He’s on pace to hit 123 doubles. While these paces are clearly not going to sustain, it’s worth trying to figure out by how much he will taper off. Murphy has benefited from a scorching .427 BABIP, but has a career mark of .317, still above league average. A good reason for this is his line-drive rate of 33.8 percent, well above his career mark of 23.4 percent. 39 percent of Murphy’s contact has been classified as “hard contact,” a good sign, but also part of a potentially encouraging larger trend. Murphy has pulled the ball more in recent years, with a decent correlation to an increase in hard contact. After pulling the ball more last year than at any point prior in his career, Murphy has been even more pull-happy this season. He’s adjusted to pitchers trying to get him out on fastballs inside — which has been the book on how to get him out — by turning on them, to great results so far. Per PITCHf/x values, he’s averaged 5.92 runs above average per 100 pitches against fastballs so far this year, despite averaging -0.04 RAA on that pitch in his career and posting negative marks in each of the past three seasons. Also notable is Murphy’s ground ball to fly ball rate. After consistently hitting roughly a third more ground balls than fly balls in recent years, Murphy has reversed that trend in 2016. Certainly the league will look at tape and try to make another change in approach in how to keep him off-balance, but until they do, consider this a successful adjustment that can continue to yield above average results. (MLB.com)
1 Down: Max Scherzer A few things: Scherzer hasn’t been bad, necessarily, but there are a few disconcerting signs, especially as he has faced largely punchless lineups in the early going. He was also much better in his last start, against a solid St. Louis lineup, which may be a signal of him righting the ship. Nevertheless, it’s worth looking into what has and hasn’t worked for him thus far. His .286 BABIP, while higher than last season, is still below his career average, and he continues to be hurt by the long ball, surrendering five through his first five starts after allowing 27 last year. And even after his good showing in St. Louis, his strikeout rate is the lowest since 2011, while his walk rate is the highest since 2010. While neither mark are particularly glaring, they have led to a 3.76 FIP, a full run above what Scherzer posted last year and nearly a run more than he has averaged the past three years. He doesn’t appear to be losing any velocity, but his fastball — his second-most effective pitch his entire career, behind only his nasty slider — has been battered this season. After being worth 1.05 wins above average per 100 pitches last year, it’s been in negative numbers this year, at -0.05. His change-up has also been suspect, perhaps resulting from the lowest difference in velocity between the two in Scherzer’s career, just 8.6 miles per hour so far. While his pristine May start stands in contrast, Scherzer’s April featured the lowest strike percentage (66.8) in any month since his arrival in D.C., as well as his lowest K/BB rate (2.5). Last season, Scherzer threw 516 pitches on which batters swung and missed, good for 15.6 per start. He had more than twice as many games with 20 or more swings and misses (7) than he did with fewer than 10 (3). He averaged just 12.2 in April. And he walked four batters in a start for the first time in a Nats uniform in his final April outing. Scherzer’s excellent slider has continued to be lethal, but to get back to the kind of numbers he posted last year, Scherzer will need his fastball to have both the movement and location that it did in his last start, when five of his nine punch outs came on the heater. (MLB.com)
Washington Nationals' Anthony Rendon bats during an interleague baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Friday, April 22, 2016, in Washington. The Nationals won 8-4. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
2 Down: Anthony Rendon While the Nationals have started hot without much production from Rendon thus far, he figures to be an instrumental part of their offense moving into the summer. And if that’s going to happen, they’re going to have to figure out what’s happened to his power. Rendon’s biggest asset as a hitter have always been his incredibly quick hands, which allow him to let a ball travel especially deep before pulling the trigger on a swing. He’s got a terrific eye at the plate, allowing him to work deep counts and not chase. And while his strikeout rate (12.8%) is actually the lowest of his career so far, he simply hasn’t hit the ball with any authority. He has yet to homer, has just five doubles, a .290 slugging percentage and a 0.50 ISO. In his 2014 breakout year, Rendon regularly punished fastballs. He was worth 21.6 runs above average on that pitch, a rate of 1.31 per 100 pitches. This year, that rate has dropped to -1.4, the worst of his career, even worse than the marks he posted in 2013 (0.0) and 2015 (-0.1) As a rookie in 2013, Rendon caught the same flu that struck teammate Adam LaRoche and sapped him of his power, but bounced back the next year. Last season, Rendon battled injuries all year, but was expected to be fully healthy coming into 2016. He’s looked better in the field, back to his more natural position at third base, but despite contact rates all in line with career averages, he’s not driving the ball anywhere. MLB’s Statcast exit velocity numbers suggest Rendon’s hitting the ball as hard as Jose Bautista, but the Toronto slugger’s got five home runs and a slugging percentage of nearly .500. Rendon’s .279 BABIP isn’t awful, and is above Bautista’s .254, indicating that he’s not simply getting unlucky with where he’s hitting the ball either. TL:DR: Rendon’s still hitting baseballs like he always has, but they aren’t traveling like they did when he was healthy two years ago. Whether he’s still hampered by some of the lingering effect of last year’s injuries or has yet to regain his strength, until we see him get his bat speed back to that point, there’s reason to worry if he ever will. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
A bat belonging to Washington Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman is seen in the on-deck circle during the eighth inning of a baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Nationals Saturday, April 30, 2016, in St. Louis. The Nationals won 6-1. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Washington Nationals' Anthony Rendon bats during an interleague baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Friday, April 22, 2016, in Washington. The Nationals won 8-4. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up