The Nationals’ relatively promising road trip has spiraled into a stretch barely short of a disaster. Losing in the situations the Nats have found themselves in can be less than fun, and so, in order to combat such gloom, all of the player’s amusing off-field exploits are recapped here:
Koda Glover’s ascent up the Washington Nationals minor league ranks is continuing, as the right-hander made his debut at Triple-A Syracuse on Tuesday.
With the scoreless inning from that outing, Glover’s season totals across three minor league levels include a 2.18 ERA and 12 K/9 rate over 33 innings pitched. While the Nationals knew that they may have found a potential prospect upon selecting Glover in the eighth round of last year’s draft, his performance this year has exceeded the highest of expectations.
I had the pleasure of being in San Diego this weekend for the Nationals’ series with the Padres. In the midst of Saturday night’s game, though, my enjoyment of the beautiful weather, scenic ballpark and momentary Nationals’ lead was shattered by a gentleman sitting behind me in a Padres jersey. This gentleman, you see, was talking smack about Bryce Harper. Now, I enjoy good smack talk, even if it’s about Nationals players. But it has to be smart smack talk. This particular Padres’ fan was comparing Bryce Harper to Mattt Kemp because, as he put it, they both are hitting .250 and Kemp has hit more home runs. You will be proud to hear, The Nats Blog readers, that I didn’t react with anger or aggression at this mistaken Padres’ fan, although I really wanted to. No, I did what any good millennial would do and tweeted about it instead.
It’s taking superhuman strength to not turn around and correct the Padres fan behind me who thinks Harper is overrated
— Joseph Seib (@seibj10) June 19, 2016
Now, this anonymous Padres fan wasn’t wrong in citing Harper’s batting average and home run total in the sense that he obviously had those stats correct. What he missed and what got me upset is that said Padres fan didn’t see or didn’t understand the bigger picture. Thanks to Harper’s .406 on base percentage (a higher OBP than Daniel Murphy, owner of a .367 batting average, by the way) he’s still a top 30 player in all of baseball by FanGraphs’ WAR. Matt Kemp, the comparable player in the eyes of everyone’s favorite Padres fan, has only a .274 OBP. Combine that with terrible defense in right field and he has actually been worth negative WAR. So take that, Padres fan!
There is some bad news, though. Since the Cubs series when Joe Maddon infamously intentionally walked Bryce 173* times (*estimated), Harper has been struggling. He’s hit for only a .246 batting average since that May series with an ISO of .127 — more fitting for Ben Revere than Harper. He’s been tentative on pitches in the zone, swinging at fewer pitches in the strike zone than ever before. Bryce is making more soft contact than normal and hitting more ground balls as a result. Especially concerning, he’s struggling to handle four seam fastballs. After hitting .322 against four seamers in 2015, Harper is struggling to a .189 batting average against the pitch. What’s more, it looks like pitchers have found an area of the zone to attack Harper: up and away. Harper is very obviously a low ball hitter, so pitchers usually keep fastballs up in the zone against Bryce. Since that Cubs series, though, they have focused on the outer corner of zone with the hard stuff (graphic courtesy of BaseballSavant.com):
And pitchers have been successful doing so, as Harper’s sub .200 batting average suggests.
Ready for the good news? There are signs to suggest that this is a temporary slump and Bryce is close to turning things around. The biggest sign is that Bryce is not chasing pitches out of the zone, pressing to get out of his slump as he has done in the past. In fact, he’s swinging at noticeably fewer pitches out of the strike zone and cut down on his total swing and miss rate. As a result, his OBP is still stellar, which means he’s still getting on base at close to a .400 rate in the midst of this slump. On top of that, Harper’s BABIP is a career-worst .260, miles off of his career rate of .322 and his .369 BABIP last year, so he’s been on the wrong end of some batted ball luck. On top of all that, Harper’s struggles with fastballs up in the zone are new thing this year. Last season, although he was a better hitter against pitches down in the zone, he still hit for a solid average against fastballs up in the zone.
It doesn’t seem likely that the league has found some huge hole in Harper’s swing and has solved the puzzle of how to pitch to Bryce Harper. In fact, the Padres found out how attempting to attack Harper up in the zone with fastballs can backfire. Thursday night, Erik Johnson followed his scouting report and threw a fastball in the upper corner of the zone. Johnson made the pitch he wanted:
Instead of flailing away, Harper drilled it down the left field line for a home run.
Yes, Bryce has been in a slump. Yes, the league has found a short term plan of attack that has been successful against Harper. Yes, Bryce has been tentative and hasn’t been able to square up the ball as consistently as fans are used to. But he’s clearly gotten some bad bounces. He’s not swinging and missing more. And he’s adjusted to the league’s new approach against him. If opposing teams are willing to keep betting that Harper will struggle against fastballs, Nats fans should be happy to be on the other end of that wager.
Two weeks ago, our very own Zach Spedden wrote about some internal options the Nationals might have if they wanted to replace Jonathan Papelbon in the closer’s role. Many Nats fans got their wish in a perverse way when Papelbon went on the DL on June 14th, pushing every other reliever into a slightly more demanding role to compensate. Since then, the relief corps has proven alarmingly thin. Regardless of whether or not the Nationals choose to replace Papelbon in the ninth inning, acquiring a reliever for any role seems like it could be the team’s top priority by the August 1 trade deadline.
The first complication with this exercise is considering which teams are going to sell. The standings can change quite a bit in a month and a half, and quite a few teams are close enough to a Wild Card berth to keep hope alive for now. So instead of speculating on losing streaks, I will focus on two pitchers to whom the Nationals have been connected frequently: Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman.
Both Chapman and Miller are unusual cases, though for very different reasons. Miller only recently became a reliever, but is now 31 and has a 1.87 ERA since the start of 2014, along with a stupefying 15.1 K/9 and stingy 2.3 BB/9. He is under contract for two more years at $9M each after 2016, so he could be the long-term answer at closer the Nationals have sought since the franchise moved from Montreal. But given his ability and contract, he will fetch a hefty price in any deal.
The New York Post’s Joel Sherman notes that the Nats are not likely to move über-prospects Lucas Giolito, Trea Turner, and Victor Robles, though he wonders if Miller is attractive enough to land one, perhaps when paired with speedy center fielder Brett Gardner. But the Nationals reportedly considered the trio untouchable at last year’s trade deadline, and Robles has since raised his stock even higher, while Turner and Giolito have held steady as two of baseball’s best prospects who figure into major league plans very soon. It’s quite hard to see any of the three going anywhere. That would leave flamethrowing righty Reynaldo Lopez, who has struck out 45 and walked three over 23 2/3 innings in his last four full starts, and 2014 first rounder Erick Fedde, who has 48 strikeouts and 12 walks in 49 innings at High A this season, as the top trade chips. They may not be enough to nab Miller, but they could intrigue the Yankees for Chapman.
Though Chapman, famed for touching 103 miles per hour, has been just as successful as Miller recently, he will come at a much lower price for two reasons: he is a free agent at the end of the season, and — much more importantly — he was questioned in a domestic violence incident in the offseason after allegedly choking his girlfriend and shooting a gun in his garage, which resulted in a 30-game suspension. General manager Mike Rizzo has long sought after Chapman, and Dusty Baker, who managed him in Cincinnati, publicly defended him this offseason.
Discussing what it means to acquire a player punished for domestic violence requires an article much longer and more thoughtful than this one. I could not possibly do it justice without dedicating an entire post to it, so I will minimize the role of my opinion and hew towards what I think the Nationals might do.
Chapman got off light for a terrible act, though even a heavy punishment from MLB would not have redeemed him in the eyes of many. Adding Chapman would alienate and rightfully anger many fans, but the same was true of keeping Papelbon last offseason. Rizzo backed off his pursuit of Chapman last offseason after the allegations against the closer became public but said their interest was on hold only “until we find out how things happened,” which does not sound like a categorical condemnation of his actions. Rizzo has shown that he is unafraid to make a move that will upset fans, but Papelbon’s actions are child’s play compared to Chapman’s. The Nationals’ interest in Chapman will depend almost entirely on how Rizzo weighs his crime, and that is a question only the GM can answer.
In a little less than a month, the All-Star Game will be here. That means that, in just a few weeks, the All-Star rosters will be announced, bringing an end to the overhyped, over analyzed, and over maligned process that is selecting the American and National league teams.
When I watched Jayson Werth‘s epic post-game interview where he referred to Jonathan Papelbon as the “DC Strangler,” I couldn’t help but think to myself, man, this is a great team. They seem like they are having a blast out there
That got me to thinking: What makes a successful team, and do the Washington Nationals have those same traits?
The Nationals won a lot of games this week. Like, a lot. Which inarguably got pretty boring, so they spiced things up with these off-field endeavors:
Next week, the All-Star games will take place at the Low and High-A levels of the minor leagues. The Washington Nationals will be well represented at these games, as the Hagerstown Suns and Potomac Nationals are sending intriguing groups of prospects to their respective contests.
Only a few months ago, large portions of the Nationals’ fan base were coming up with ways to ship Wilson Ramos out of DC and drawing up fictitious trade proposals for the Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy to “upgrade” the catcher position. It’s hard to blame them. Although Ramos was finally able to stay healthy in 2015, he posted the worst offensive season of his career and one of the least valuable seasons from a catcher in all of baseball. I would assume that those disbelievers have now seen the light as Ramos has turned into one of the most potent players in the big leagues in 2016, including a game-tying single in the ninth in Wednesday’s win over the Cubs.
So far this season, he leads nearly every major offensive category for catchers. He’s first in batting average, on base percentage, slugging, wOBA, home runs and RBI. He’s second in FanGraphs’ WAR calculation (behind Lucroy). You would be hard pressed to find an offensive statistic where Ramos isn’t one of the top catchers in the league. The narrative as to why Ramos has rebounded so well isn’t hard to see: he got LASIK surgery this offseason. Ramos claims he is now seeing the ball better than he ever has before. But is it really that simple? Let’s eyeball the statistics and determine if we can see signs of a player seeing the ball more clearly.
Judging by Ramos’ control of the strike zone in 2016, it certainly appears that he can see the ball better. Ramos currently has the lowest strikeout rate of his career at 12%, down from his 20% rate last year. He’s no longer allergic to taking a walk as he’s now walking at a 7% clip, his highest rate since 2012. Those aren’t flukey changes, either. Ramos, formerly a free swinger, is now a more patient hitter. He’s majorly cut down on swings at pitches outside of the strike zone and has been slightly more selective at pitches in the zone. Those kinds of changes indicate that Ramos has been better about waiting for a pitch to hit. He hasn’t been missing those pitches very often as he’s swinging and missing only 8% of the time, a marked improvement over the 12% swinging strike rate from 2015.
A more selective Ramos is a much better hitter. In 2015, Ramos struggled against all types of pitches but the fact that he couldn’t hit a fastball was the most telling sign of his struggles, hitting only .250 against the pitch. He’s really turned that around this year, now walloping fastballs with a batting average over .355. On top of that, he no longer fails against sliders, now hitting .333 against the pitch after hitting only .187 last year. That’s a sight for sore eyes in DC.
By being selective, Ramos has been able to hunt out pitches to hit with power. He’s already launched 10 home runs and is only seven dingers away from setting a new career high in that category. The most encouraging sign for Ramos’ power may be that he has hit bombs to all fields. He has one to center field and three to right field, taking pitches in all parts of the strike zone out of the park.
If Ramos is now seeing the ball better at bat, which the stats appear to back up, then he should also be seeing the ball better from behind the plate. Ramos, despite his previous Gold Glove nomination, was not a good receiver. He consistently rated poorly by catcher framing metrics that measure the number of borderline strike calls catchers can earn for their pitchers. More often than not, Ramos was not only not getting extra strike calls but his movements behind the plate actually turned pitches in the strike zone into balls in the eyes of the umpire. Ramos now rates as a neutral pitch framer, a major improvement in an area of weakness for the Buffalo. That improvement would suggest that Ramos is also seeing the ball better as a catcher, which allows him to sync his movements up with each pitch to entice the umpire into calling more pitches as strikes.
To recap, Ramos is now laying off more pitches out of the zone and making better contact on pitches in the zone. He’s taking walks and punishing pitches he used to struggle with. He’s even improved his pitch framing abilities. All of those improvements can potentially be linked to better eye sight. Looks like there may be something to this LASIK storyline after all.
While Ramos has been playing at an All-Star level so far this season thanks at least in part to LASIK, the chances of him keeping this pace up are not so clear. That league leading batting average is propped up by a BABIP over .340, a not totally unreasonable BABIP but one that seems high for the not-so-fleet of foot Ramos. The new found power is also a cause for concern. Before Tuesday night’s game, Ramos was hitting groundballs 54% of the time. Finding a successful power hitter who hits most of his balls on the ground is hard to do. In fact, Ramos currently has the third highest groundball rate of hitters with 10 or more home runs in 2016. Only Ryan Braun of the Brewers and Eric Hosmer of the Royals have double-digit home runs to their name but higher groundball rates than Ramos. On top of that, only five of the 73 players to have surpassed the 10 home run mark this season have groundball rates over 50%. It’s not to say that Ramos can’t continue to succeed with this strange batted ball profile, but it would make him a very unique player.
Of course, Ramos has been a unique player this year. There are plenty of other ball players who have had LASIK without a huge bump in results (looking at you, Dan Uggla), but the numbers do seem to back up the narrative that Ramos is hitting better because he’s seeing better. For Nats’ fans, that’s an encouraging conclusion that implies Ramos may be able to keep this up for rest of the year. I don’t have the foresight to predict Mike Rizzo’s moves, but it’s certainly an argument for keeping Ramos around beyond 2016.
The three-day Major League Baseball draft concluded on Saturday, and the Washington Nationals came out of the proceedings with an intriguing crop of prospects. Overall, this class should give the Nationals some depth, particularly when it comes to the infield and pitching.
Early rounds saw the Nationals put a heavy emphasis on position players, headlined by top pick Carter Kieboom. Kieboom, the brother Nationals’ catching prospect Spencer Kieboom, came into his senior year as one of the more intriguing high school hitters in the class, and produced a strong year at Walton High School.
Currently a shortstop, Kieboom seems likely to add size to his 6’2,” 195 lb. frame, leading some to question whether he could move to third base down the road. However, scouting director Kris Kline has said that the Nationals drafted Kieboom with the belief that he could stay at the position long term.
Though the tops this year’s crop of position players, Kieboom is not the lone highlight. Sheldon Neuse, a third-rounder out of Oklahoma, possesses the basic skillset of a major league third baseman and should hit for above average power. Nick Banks and Daniel Johnson made for a pair of college outfielders to be selected in the top-10 rounds, while the Nationals also nabbed two college catchers in Tres Barrera and Joey Harris.
Right now, the Nationals have a fairly deep crop of players at catcher, but the justification and draft and perhaps signing both Barrera and Harris is evident. Firstly, the Nationals’ catchers at the full-season minor league levels — from Pedro Severino at Triple-A Syracuse to Low-A Hagerstown’s Jakson Reetz — come with their own question marks, and with the Nationals likely to add pieces to the major league team at the deadline, catcher could become a position from which they are able to leverage a deal. It remains to be seen if Barrera or Harris will develop enough offensively to emerge as bona fide prospects, but both should add depth to an already strong position.
Other position player prospects to watch include infielders Jacob Noll and Paul Panaccione, along with high school outfielder Jordan McFarland. Already listed at 6’4,” 225 lbs., McFarland’s size has raised some doubt about his long-term viability, but reports say that he could turn out to be an above average left fielder with a solid arm and good power. The Nationals will look to lure McFarland away from his commitment to Arkansas.
On the pitching front, the Nationals’ first choice was Florida right-hander Dane Dunning. A college junior, Dunning has intrigued observes with his fastball, which reports cite for its excellent movement in the 92-93 mph range, though it has hit 95 mph. His changeup has also received high marks, though some feel that his ceiling as a starter will be limited if he does not develop a quality breaking ball. If he does sign, which he said he intends to, Dunning could move quickly.
The pick that might have garnered the most buzz was Jesus Luzardo. The left-hander had Tommy John surgery this March, but has flashed a fastball that can touch the mid-90’s. The Stoneman Douglas High School product has a commitment to Miami, and it seems likely that the team will go over the $635,800 slot value for the pick.
In the 38th round, the Nationals tabbed Noah Murdock, a 6’7” high school right-hander who is committed to Virginia. As they will with McFarland, the Nationals will have to persuade Murdock to enter pro ball rather than try to boost his stock in the college ranks. Among the other pitch prospects to watch include Morgan Cooper, a 34th-round pick out of Texas who just finished his first season since having Tommy John surgery. Cooper should highly pursued by the Nationals, though as my colleague Andrew Flax has already noted, the team will have be resourceful to sign the right-hander.
Texas A&M right-hander Kyle Simonds generated headlines with a no-hitter against Vanderbilt in May, and may wind up providing good value for a 14th-round pick. NC State’s Ryan Williamson — the 15th round selection — may also emerge as a solid selection beyond the 10th round, though he is also set to undergo Tommy John surgery.