Don’t Count on the Nationals

Beyond the Pittsburgh Pirates’ tremendous start to the season, the struggles of the Washington Nationals have been arguably the most surprising story lines of the first half of the 2013 regular season. Going into the season, many pundits picked the Nationals to be the powerhouse of the National League and possibly all of baseball, but the Nationals’ offense has really struggled to this point. In 2012, the Nationals’ offense was one of the most powerful lineups in the National League, as it ranked 2nd in the NL in HRs, 5th in Runs Scored and 3rd in SLG Percentage in route to a 98-64 finish. However that production has greatly fallen off in 2013, as the Nationals rank just 10th in HRs in the NL, 14th in Runs Scored and 13th in Slugging Percentage in route to a 39-39 record thus far. Despite such a dramatic drop in production, most experts warn that once the Nationals find their groove they will be the team to beat in the NL and likely overtake the Braves as NL East leaders.
While the offense’s underproduction has drawn the most attention, the Nationals’ pitching statistics have also fallen off from 2012, despite strong performances from Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals have gone from a solid 3.34 team ERA in 2012 to a more average 3.61 team ERA. This drop in pitching is not very drastic overall, but it has been compounded by the Nationals’ inability to produce runs at their former rate.
When looking at a few of the players that make up the Nationals’ lineup, it is apparent they are performing right where you would expect based on the career numbers. Danny Espinosa began this season very poorly with a .158/.193/.272 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line before being demoted to Triple-A. Espinosa has never been a high batting average or high OBP hitter, but his power at a middle infield position has always made him a valuable asset. However, this season he has just 3 HRs in 158 ABs and his contact and walk issues have continued, as his K% sits at 28.1% so far this season and his BB% is at a career-low 2.4%. Rookie infielder, Anthony Rendon, has stepped in at 2b very successfully with a .354/.402/.485 slash line, but it remains to be seen if he will be so successful as the season continues. The real concern for Anthony Rendon is that his Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) sits at an unsustainable .420, which suggests he has been very lucky and will likely see his overall batting average decline. The Nationals have seen similarly poor production at catcher, where Kurt Suzuki has struggled to fill-in for the injured Wilson Ramos. Despite his $6.5 Million salary, Suzuki’s .214/.280/.305 slash line is no surprise, as his batting average has decline for four straight years and his OBP has dropped for five straight years. While Ramos is the superior hitter and owns a career .267/.331/.432 slash line, he has battled injuries his entire career, with just one full season at the big league level. The greatest reason the Nationals’ lineup has struggled to hit as many HRs this season is that they replaced power-hitting Michael Morse with light-hitting Denard Span. In 2011, Morse led the Nationals with 31 HRs, and in 2012, Morse hit 18 HRs in during an injury shortened season. However, in 2013, Span has hit to just a .257/.310/.344 slash line with no HRs; whereas, Morse has hit 11 HRs with a .251/.313/.454 slash line.
The Atlanta Braves currently lead the division by 5.5 games, thanks in part to having the best pitching staff in the Majors, based on ERA. There are no signs that the Braves will slow down, as they continue to hit HRs, with the 2nd most in the NL and the Braves’ strong pitching is also likely to continue as they were 4th in the NL in ERA in 2012. The Nationals certainly are not out of the race in the NL East or the Wild Card race, but they will need some quality additions at the Trade Deadline, and even then it will be a difficult run to the Postseason. It seems that the Nationals are performing where one would expect given the track record for many of the players.

Making the Case for Matt Carpenter

After Mike Matheny named Matt Carpenter “the best second basemen in the league,” many pundits questioned Matheny’s assertion. Carpenter is a former fringe prospect, who opened some eyes in Spring Training 2011, but did not make an impact at the MLB level until 2012. In 2012, Carpenter served as a super-utility player with games in at 2b and all four corner positions – 1b, 3b, LF, RF. While his defense was sub-par, Carpenter’s offense was very impressive with a .294/.365/.463 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line with 6 home runs in just 296 ABs. In an effort to increase production at 2b and give Carpenter more playing time, the Cardinals experimented with Carpenter at 2b in a full-time role during Spring Training 2013. During the spring, Carpenter proved he was ready for a more expansive role at 2b.
Now that the season is more than 40% complete, it is time to accept that Carpenter is among the top second basemen in the league. Carpenter leads all MLB second basemen in WAR, Runs, OBP and OPS. Despite being a horrible defender as a utility infielder in 2012, Carpenter leads all MLB 2nd basemen in Fielding Runs Above-Average based on UZR.
In order to demonstrate how far Carpenter has climbed, we will compare Matt Carpenter with Brandon Phillips, who has long been regarded as the best 2nd basemen in the National League. When comparing the two 2nd basemen, it is important to remember that both batters hit in different spots in the order. Carpenter has been the lead-off hitter for the Cardinals for the majority of the season, and Phillips has been the cleanup hitter for the Reds for the entire season. Prior to the season, Phillips made it clear that the only thing he cared about when batting cleanup was driving in runs, and he has been successful in that regard with 56 RBI and 10 HRs so far this season. However, driving in runs is one of the few areas where Phillips has outperformed Carpenter. As mentioned above, Carpenter has fulfilled his obligation as a lead-off hitter by leading all MLB 2nd basemen in runs scored and OBP, which is .071 points higher than Phillips‘s OBP. Although Carpenter’s Home Run and RBI production do not equal Phillips’s production, Carpenter has out-slugged Phillips by .019, which has helped Carpenter accumulate a 145 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) compared to Phillips’s 107 wRC+. Even when comparing the defensive success of both 2nd basemen, Carpenter grades out as a superior defender to Brandon Phillips, who is a very highly regarded defender.
There is no reason to believe that Carpenter’s offensive production will begin to slide either. His incredible plate discipline has helped him have the best BB/K ratio in the NL at .82 and his walk rates are right where they were last year, so this is nothing new to him. While many people may warn that Carpenter’s Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) is unsustainable at .356, he carried a .346 BABIP through all of last season. This season’s BABIP looks just as sustainable as his Line Drive% is up 4% to 27.8%, which is good for 2nd in the MLB. Also, based on his previous production, only his defensive statistics look unsustainable, but the sudden defensive success can also be attributed to playing the same position on a consistent basis. Even if his defense does not last, it seems clear his offensive production at a largely defense-first position has made him one of the top 2nd basemen in the league.

Scouting Report, Gerrit Cole

With the news that Gerrit Cole will make his Major League debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday, we take a look at his scouting report in order to determine if he is ready for the jump to the Majors. Cole was the 1st overall pick in the 2011 Amateur Draft and after just over one full season in professional baseball, he will make his Major League Debut. The big right-hander is still just 22 years old and stands 6’4”. In 2012, his first full professional season, Cole pitched across three levels including High Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A. Cole dominated High Single-A with a 2.55 ERA and a 9.3 K/9 through 13 starts. After a promotion to Double-A, he continued his dominance with a 2.90 ERA and a 9.2 K/9 through 12 starts. The Pirates rewarded his strong performance with a promotion to Triple-A, in which he received just one start, but earned the victory with 7 strikeouts in 6 innings. Cole began the 2013 season in Triple-A and has been effective, but not dominant. His ERA this season is 2.91, but his K/9 has dropped to just 6.22 and his BB/9 has spiked to 3.71, which suggests he is not missing as many bats. Cole throws a 4-seam fastball, slider and change-up. Cole’s fastball sits in the mid-to-upper 90’s and he can easily top 100 mph. He does not have great command of his fastball, but he can survive mistakes in location because of the velocity. The fastball has good life when he keeps it low in the zone and does not overthrow it. Cole’s slider is easily his best out pitch, which features great movement on two planes and tremendous movement to his glove side. He throws his slider very hard, as it usually sits in the upper 80’s. His fastball and slider are already plus pitches, but his change-up is not developed enough to even be considered an average pitch. He throws his change-up in the low-to-mid 80’s, which is a tremendous velocity differential. Cole really struggles to keep the change-up down in the strike zone. The pitch has slight arm-side sink, but it is not enough to miss bats when he misses up in the zone. Cole has a smooth delivery that generates a lot of velocity from his lower half. He is able to get over his front side well, which allows him to get good extension. He takes his arm slightly behind his back, and he is unable to get his arm back into position by foot strike. The other concerning part of his delivery is that he pulls his head off-center, which puts a lot more strain on his arm, especially with his low ¾ arm slot. Right now, Cole possesses two plus pitches, but needs to improve his command in order to reach his potential as a #1 starter. I do not see him as a front of the rotation starter unless he develops an average third pitch and improves his fastball command. Until he makes these adjustments, Cole’s ceiling will remain as a mid-rotation starter.

Anthony Cacchione

The Phillies Must Walk More

Note: This compares the 2011 season of 162 games with the 2012 and 2013 season, which total a combined 222 games. When comparing counting statistics, the 2012 and 2013 totals are combined, so they will be greater than the 2011 totals.

How have the Phillies gone from a 102-60 team in 2011 to a team with a 111-111 record since the beginning of the 2012 season? One of the greatest reasons is that the Phillies’ lineup has drawn fewer walks since the beginning of the 2012 season and is in the bottom third of the MLB in many walk related categories. In 2011, the Phillies finished with the best record in baseball in large part due to the best rotation in the Majors, but also because of an offense with an on-base percentage (OBP) ranked 11th in all of baseball. By contrast, the 2012-2013 Phillies have played just .500 ball and have seen their OBP fall to 21st in all of baseball.

The Phillies’ General Manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., has been outspoken about how he feels about walks. In March of this season, Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Amaro Jr. as having said, “I don’t care about walks. I care about production. To be frank with you, I’ve said this all along. All of the sabermetricians and all of the people who think they know exactly what makes a good club… to me, it’s more about run production and being able to score runs and drive in runs.” However, the Phillies’ run scoring has fallen off since their dip in walks. In 2011, the Phillies ranked 13th in runs scored with 713, but since 2012, they have ranked just 21st with 900 runs. That drop in run production coincides with the Phillies’ decline in walks. The Phillies have gone from 8th in walks in 2011 to 25th between 2012-2013. The Phillies’ lineup has also seen its discipline drop dramatically, as they have gone from 3rd in BB/K in 2011 to 16th since the beginning of 2012. Their BB% has also fallen from 8.6% to 7.3%, which ranks just 25th in all of baseball. 

While there is clearly more that goes into run production than just walks, many other statistics have remained nearly identical among the three seasons. The most direct way to drive in a run is by hitting a home run, so it is a good statistic to examine when looking at a team’s run scoring. The 2011 Phillies hit 153 HRs, which ranked 18th. Since 2012, the Phillies have slightly improved to 17th in the Majors with 219 HRs. Their batting average has been identical between 2011 and 2012-2013, as it has ranked 16th each of the last three seasons with a .253 average each year. The Phillies have even improved defensively. Based on UZR, the Phillies ranked 16th in all of baseball in 2011 and 12th from 2012-2013. The greatest difference between the 102 win Phillies of 2011 and the .500 Phillies of 2012-2013 is that they are getting on base at a much lower rate. While their offense has improved or stayed constant in other areas, the lack of walks has adversely affected the team’s run production, which has fallen to 21st in the MLB.

After the Phillies saw their walk rate slide from 8.6% in 2011 to 7.4% in 2012, Amaro Jr. chose to add two players that have lower than a .320 career OBP. Both acquisitions were among the most significant moves of the offseason for the Phillies. Amaro Jr. traded Vance Worley and top pitching prospect Trevor May for Ben Revere. Revere profiles as a top of the order hitter because of his speed and lack of power as he has yet to hit his first Major League home run, despite nearly two full seasons in the Majors. On top of his lack of power, Revere gets on-base at just a .315 clip for his career and an even worse .290 OBP this season. The other addition the Phillies made was signing free agent Delmon Young. Young is a former top prospect, who has failed to develop the plate discipline to fulfill his immense potential. Young carries a .316 OBP for his career and this season it stands at just .286.

Even in 2011, the Phillies were not in the top 5 in most walk related categories, but they cannot afford to remain in the bottom third of the league. While scoring runs must be the goal for every offense, walks are an important part of that process. The Phillies need to return to the top third of the league in walks before they can expect any improvements from their offense.

Anthony Cacchione