A New Challenge Awaits...

Posted by Dave Nichols | Monday, October 03, 2011 | | 8 comments »

I started what eventually became Nats News Network on March 14, 2007.  It was originally titled Bottomfeeder Baseball Blog, and I attempted to write about the Nats, Orioles, fantasy baseball, Capitals and other stuff.  It was not very good and nobody read it.  About that time, I also started writing about the Nats and Caps at DC Sports Box, and I would lke to thank Al Santos for allowing me that great opportunity.

In October 2008, I started my hockey blog, Caps News Network.  In December, I changed the name and format of the baseball blog to what you see now, Nats News Network.  Just before opening day 2010, the Nats invited us and four other blogs to apply for credentials based on a very specific set of guidelines.  We were extremely excited to find out the Nats accepted and approved our application and we will be eternally grateful to Stan Kasten, John Dever, Mike Gazda and Bill Gluvna for taking a huge leap of faith and opening the press box to independent media outlets.

And that's how we end up here, today, having completed our second season as credentialed media covering the Washington Nationals.  Hopefully you're still with me, because here comes the big news.

After five seasons and 1,472 posts, I am retiring Nats News Network.  I've decided to combine my two blogs, pick up coverage of the other sports in town, and start an on-line sports page covering all of D.C. sports.  You can find the new site at http://www.districtsportspage.com/.  It's a monumental challenge for me, but I won't be alone.

I have recruited some of the finest local independent journalists to help me with the project.  I will manage the Nats/MLB content for the site, and each sport/team will have a page editor who will guide content for those teams.  We'll have staff writers to write game stories and analysis.  We'll have several contributors; folks that have their own blog but will occasionally post for us too.  We'll continue to have fantastic photography from not only staff photographer Cheryl Nichols, but our good friends Brian Murphy and Anthony Amobi too.

Also, Cheryl's Off the Field column will be coming with us, so if you're looking for the latest player appearance in the community, player birthday of photo gallery of a special event, it'll all be on the new site.

Hopefully, we'll continue to have you as well, reading and commenting on our material.

Please visit our new site.  Tell us what you like, what could be better, and what you might like to see.  It's still a work in progress, but we're excited to get it out there and give folks in the DMV another outlet to get local sports news, analysis and opinion.

Thanks for making Nats News Network what it was.  What started as a vanity project became something so much bigger, bigger really than I or anyone could have expected. Thanks, as always, for reading. 

2012 Nats Roster: Who Should Stay and Who Should Go?

Posted by Dave Nichols | Friday, September 30, 2011 | , , | 11 comments »

I went through this exercise last year with pretty good success, so we'll do it again.  Let's take a look at every player on the 40-man roster and evaluate if/how they fit in for 2012.

ABSOLUTE KEEPERS

Ryan Zimmerman, 3B:  The Face needs to have a good, healthy season in 2012 as he becomes primed for his free agent season in 2013.

Danny Espinosa, 2B:  The rookie went cold in July/August but picked it back up in September.  He never wavered with his glove work though.

Michael Morse, 1B/LF:  Where Morse ends up in the field is a bigger question than where he hits in the order, as he's established himself as the team's clean-up hitter.  Due big raise in arbitration.

Jayson Werth, CF/RF:  The $126 million man had a decent enough second half (.255/.345/.426 with 10 homers post All-Star break) to think he could maintain that production next season.  Forget about justifying the contract though.

Wilson Ramos, C:  The young catcher already hold Nats record for homers at the position.

Stephen Strasburg, RHSP:  His start on the last day of the season is what Nats fans will dream about all winter long.

Jordan Zimmermann, RHSP:  If Strasburg is the No. 1 starter, Zimmermann is No. 1-a.  His control (already good) just needs to catch up to his command (elite) and we'll see more swing-and-misses.

Drew Storen, Closer:  43 saves in 48 attempts is, uh, pretty good.  Closers on bad teams are overrated.  This team might not be a bad team next season.

Tyler Clippard, Set-up:  Potential injury from being overworked the last two seasons is the only concern about Clippard, the Nats lone All-Star rep in 2011.

Sean Burnett, LHRP:  Burnett mostly returned to form in the second half (1.80 ERA post All-Star), but his K-rate of 5.2 per nine was down by 3.7 from his previous year.  That screams injury.

Henry Rodriguez, RHRP:  The guy terrifies you every appearance because you don't know which Henry is going to take the mound.  He's a singular talent but enigmatic.  Needs to learn not to over throw the slider.

KEEPERS/TRADE BAIT

John Lannan, LHSP:  Lannan might have some of the best trade value of anyone on the current big league roster.  His solid, steady production at the back of the rotation shouldn't be underestimated.

Ian Desmond, SS:  Desmond cut his errors down this season by one-third from 2010.  If he could make the same improvement offensively... Was decent in the leadoff spot down the stretch, any wonder the offense looked better late?

Jesus Flores, C:  The still young catcher proved his health, now he just needs to see more pitching to get his stroke back.  Will play in the winter ball for after missing last two seasons.

Roger Bernadina, OF:  The versatile outfielder has double-digit power and speed, but there are some in the organization that have soured on him ever becoming a full-time Major Leaguer.

PROBABLE KEEPERS

Rick Ankiel, CF:  His value as a defensive replacement and left-handed power source off the bench could be valuable to a contending team.  His value as an everyday center fielder is as low as any full-time player.  But the organization loves him, so I expect him to the lefty bat off the bench next season.

Todd Coffey, RHRP:  Did a mostly very good job as a guy coming into the sixth or seventh innings with the game in doubt and was always available.  There's a place in the game for arms like his.

Ryan Mattheus, RHRP:  Injured for most of the second half, but showed enough to think he can contribute.  But he's already had major shoulder surgery and the injury concerns linger.

INJURED

Adam LaRoche, 1B:  His shoulder injury and resultant surgery was more extensive than thought at the time.  He's got a long rehab in front of him (see: Flores, Jesus) and whether the Nats think he'll be ready for opening day will go a long way in determining the make-up of this team.

Cole Kimball, RHRP:  The hard-throwing reliever underwent season-ending shoulder surgery July 13 and won't be ready next season until the All-Star break at the very earliest.

Elvin Ramirez, RHRP:  The Nats liked this Rule 5 player's arm in spring training, but has been shut down all season with shoulder surgery in May.

THE BIG DECISION

Ross Detwiler (LHSP), Brad Peacock (RHSP), Tom Milone (LHSP):  If the team retains Lannan and Wang, there will be one spot left in the rotation for one of these three to claim, unless Rizzo also buys another free agent starter.  Detwiler had the advantage of getting a few more starts than the other two this year, but all three impressed in the chances they got down the stretch. 

All three look like Major League pitchers, and each has their particular "extra" that makes them appealing to the Nats: Detwiler has the first round pedigree, Peacock the funky delivery and wicked knuckle-curve and Milone has unfailing accuracy.  But they all have their limiting factor as well: Detwiler has release point issues, Peacock doesn't have a third pitch and Milone can't break glass with his fastball.

BACK TO THE MINORS

Chris Marrero, 1B:  Marrero's status will be directly impacted by LaRoche's.  If LaRoche can't start the season, Marrero could very well find himself in the opening day lineup.  The power, which was his calling card as an amateur, has to show next year.

Steve Lombardozzi, 2B:  Impressive minor league season, unimpressive Major League cup of coffee.  He's a hard worker, decent defender and very patient at the plate, but I still don't see the tools out of him that says "Major League".  Maybe he sticks as a utility guy.

Yunesky Maya, RHSP:  They paid him too much to release him, so look for another year of Syracuse shuttle out of Maya.  He certainly will not live up to his billing -- his fastball is just too flat to succeed in MLB.

Atahualpa Severino, LHRP:  If he Nats are on the verge of becoming a contender, they are going to want a second lefty in the pen with Burnett, but they'll probably look outside the organization for one with experience.

Corey Brown, OF:  Came on late this season in Syracuse, maybe the ankle injury he sustained in spring training lingered longer than anyone imagined.  Regardless, next season is his make-or-break year.

Bryce Harper (OF), Matthew Purke (LHSP), Anthony Rendon (3B): None made an appearance for the Nats this season, but we're willing to bet all three will at the end of next season.

ON THE FENCE

Chien-Ming Wang, RHSP: Wang's story of rehabilitation and perseverance is remarkable. It would seem Wang has as much invested in D.C. as the Nats have in him, so a deal could come together pretty quickly unless Rizzo wants to upgrade the "veteran starter" position he seems to have carved out in this rotation.

Collin Balester, RHRP:  I love Bally, let me just put it out there.  But there's something in the way the Nats use him in the Majors that leads me to believe they don't have very much faith in him.  He thrived in Syracuse knowing he was going to pitch two out of three days, but once in the bigs he'd sometimes go a week between appearances.

Craig Stammen, RHRP:  Stammen was productive as a starter for Syracuse this year, but used out of the pen, to good results, with Washington.  Could find himself in the "long man" role in the pen next year.

Tom Gorzelanny, LHP:  Gorzy started strong in the rotation, struggled, was sent to the pen, and proved valuable as the long lefty.  Can they do better than him in that role next season?

NOT RETURNING

Pudge Rodriguez, C:  Pudge is a role model, exemplary citizen, extra bench coach and wants to come back.  But Pudge the player also wants to get to 3,000 hits and play four more years.  I don't think he'll get a multi-year deal anywhere this off-season, certainly not here.

Livan Hernandez, RHSP:  Never say never.  The ageless one also expresses a desire to stay here, even volunteering to pitch out of the pen.  But the Nats have better, younger, cheaper options available to them now.  He's been a loyal soldier.

Alex Cora, INF:  He can still play defense anywhere in the infield, but he just can't hit a lick.

Laynce Nix, LF:  A nice first-half turned into a miserable, injury plagued second half.  It's his career story.

Jonny Gomes, LF:  I still don't understand why they traded for Gomes.  They can't offer him arbitration to potentially get a second round pick for him because at this point he'll absolutely take the offer.  He's NRI material at this point in his career.

Brian Bixler, UTL:  The guy can play almost anywhere on the field, but speed and grit only take you so far.

Doug Slaten, LHRP:  He used to be serviceable.  Whether his injury robbed him of action on his fastball or whatever, he really stunk it up all season long.

ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Davey Johnson, Mgr:  I think the job is Davey's if he wants it, and by all public accounts he seems to.  The Nats have to go through a formal interview process to comply with MLB's minority hiring practices since Davey was a mid-season "emergency" replacement, but that seems a formality.  Rizzo loves Davey, Davey wants to return, he's on the payroll either way since he'd be retained as a consultant if he isn't the field manager.  It seems a slam dunk to me.

WHAT I WOULD DO

The Nats need to address the top two spots in the batting order.  They need to find a high OBP guy, and with Werth playing decent CF defense in September, they aren't limited in only looking for players in center, though long-term that would be preferable.  If Desmond's gains of the second half are real, he and the new OBP guy can be slotted in the 1-2 spots.  It's possible the Nats slot Desmond and Werth 1-2 and go after a slugger to hit behind Morse though.

Whether or not Wang returns, I think the rotation is in real good shape.  I'd spend my money on the high-OBP outfielder.  Problem is, it'll probably come through trade since the best OFs on the market this year are Carlos Beltran, Coco Crisp, David DeJesus, and Jason Kubel.

For the third year in a row, the D.C. Chapter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association announced their player achievement awards.  It's worth a look to go over to the website and see how the group voted.

Here were my picks (winner in bold; my votes for first, second, third):

Goose Goslin MVP (Michael Morse):  Morse, Jordan Zimmermann, Tyler Clippard.  With the dearth of offense this season, Michael Morse was a savior in spikes.  He emerged as a legitimate clean-up hitter this season and was one of the most valuable hitters in the National League.

Walter Johnson starting pitcher (Jordan Zimmermann):  Zimmermann, John Lannan, Ross Detwiler.  Zimmermann punished the strike zone in his first full season after Tommy John surgery.  He still had a few games where the swing-and-miss pitch was missing, but he was a machine in getting batters out while pitching in the strike zone.

Firpo Marberry relief pitcher (Tyler Clippard):  Clippard, Storen, Todd Coffey.  This in no way takes anything away from the excellent job that Storen did at the back of the bullpen, but Clippard was called upon in any number of situations, from starting innings clean to coming in with the bases loaded and no outs.  He pitched the Nats' highest-leverage innings all season long and did so almost without fail.

Sam Rice hitter of the year (Morse):  Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond.  Hitter of the year award is supposed to take into consideration all-around hitting, situational hitting and base running.  The Nats just don't have an all-around hitter better than Zimmerman, despite having been hurt for two months.  Despite Werth's low average, his OBP and power ratios weren't too far off his career norms.

Frank Howard slugger of the year (Morse): Morse, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos.  Morse was the unanimous winner in this category, and for good reason.  He homered in his last three games to get over the 30-homer plateau and will be due a huge raise in arbitration this off-season.

Joe Judge defensive player (Danny Espinosa):  Espinosa, Zimmerman, Ankiel.  Espinosa might have trailed off on offense in the second half, but he never took it into the field with him.  He was consistently excellent and give the Nats more range and arm at second than they've ever had before.

Mickey Vernon comeback player (Zimmermann):  Stephen Strasburg, Chien-Ming Wang, Jesus Flores.  There was no shortage of comeback players for the Nats this year, and most voters forgot that Jason Marquis was even on this team this season.  But no story is bigger to the success of this franchise than the return of a healthy Stephen Strasburg.  The season-ending 10-strikeout game will linger in the backs of Nats fans minds all winter long.

Josh Gibson humanitarian (Ian Desmond):  Desmond, Storen, Zimmerman.  No player gives more of his time in the community than Desmond, though Storen gives him a run for his money.  Zimmerman's foundation's gala attracts a lot of attention too.

Minor League POY (Bryce Harper):  Harper, David Freitas, Tom Milone.  This voting was ridiculously close, with one point separating Harper and Brad Peacock, whom I did not vote for.  Harper destroyed Single-A and struggled a bit to start at Double-A, but was seriously heating up when he pulled his hamstring, ending his season.  Looking forward to the Arizona Fall League.

Biggest surprise?  Ryan Mattheus.  He over-performed what I expected in a big way.
Biggest disappointment?  Jayson Werth.
Will Zim re-sign before end of 2012?  No. I think this one goes the long route.
Which players on the 40-man won't be back?  Cora, Pudge, Gomes, Nix, Slaten, Livo, Gorzy, Bixler, Balester, Ramirez, Bernadina, Severino.
Favorite Pro Writer:  Mark Zuckerman.  Facts, stats, opinions.  Mark puts it all out there.
Favorite Non-Pro Writer:  Patrick Reddington.  His volume of work is unparalleled.

STRASBURG STRIKES OUT 10 IN SIX ONE-HIT INNINGS

In an appropriately fitting way to end the Washington Nationals' second-best season record-wise since the move from Montreal in 2005, the man they expect to lead them even higher, right handed starter Stephen Strasburg, was simply dominant in a 3-1 win over the Florida Marlins, striking out 10 in six innings, limiting the home team to one hit and two walks in their final game at Miami's Sun Life Stadium.  

The Nats won their 80th game, going 17-10 in the month of September, equalling their June record for their hottest months of the season.  The Nats finish in third place in the N.L. East for the first time since the move, 3 1/2 games ahead of the fourth place New York Mets.

Strasburg was simply sensational, using all of his pitches in a masterful performance.  The Marlins got one base hit, a sawed-off bloop single from Gaby Sanchez in the second inning.  In fact, the second inning was the only frame Strasburg allowed any base runners at all.  A lead-off walk by Mike Stanton ended up as the front end of a double play, and center fielder Bryan Peterson walked behind Sanchez' single.  But Strasburg was able to get catcher Brett Hayes to pop up to shortstop Ian Desmond to end the inning.

He did not allow another runner.

According to PitchFX, Strasburg threw more change-ups and curveballs than in any of his previous four starts the season.  He got 15 swinging strikes spread across all four of his pitches, and threw 54 of his 79 pitches for strikes.  He averaged 96-MPH with his four-seam fastball.

Perhaps his most dominant inning was the fourth as he struck out the side, with both Greg Dobbs and Mike Stanton watching strike three on curveballs.

The 23-year old righty accumulated 24 innings in his five 2011 starts, allowing four earned runs on 15 hits and two walks, striking out 24.

Strasburg left to handshakes and back slaps after the sixth, and was followed to the mound by Ryan Mattheus, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, who earned his 43th save of the season.  Storen was supposedly off-limits today, as he told media before the game he was unavailable, so he must have been feeling better by the time the bottom of the ninth rolled around.

The Nats picked up two runs in the fifth on Ian Desmond's one-out single, driving in Ivan Rodriguez and Steve Lombardozzi, and a solo insurance run in the eighth on Roger Bernadina's RBI single, plating Alex Cora, who had tripled in his at bat.

Wednesday's season-ending win might be little more than window dressing on a campaign that was more successful record-wise than almost anyone would have predicted, especially considering the Nats finished the year 14th in batting average in the N.L., 13th in on-base percentage, and 11th in slugging. 

But crossing the 80-win threshold is a symbolic achievement for an organization, team and fan base that have had more than their fair share of tough times in the past six years, including back-to-back 100-loss seasons, the Smiley Gonzalez affair, countless Philly Phan invasions, and in successive years losing their two best pitchers -- foundations for the franchise -- to the dreaded Tommy John surgery.

Strasburg's re-emergence this September gave the Nats a much-needed boost after slogging through a lousy July (11-15) and August (12-15).  His appearance Wednesday was the exclamation point on the Nats successful season and gives a glimpse to Nats fans of the promise of the future.
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THE GOOD:  Um, Strasburg.  Man is he going to be fun watching next season.

THE BAD:  Chris Marrero went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, hitting clean-up today.  Neither Ryan Zimmerman on Michael Morse played on the last day of the season.

THE UGLY:  Jayson Werth went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, hitting third.  Werth ends the first year of his seven-year, $126 million contract .232/.330/.389 with 20 homers and 58 RBIs.

THE STATS:  5 hits, 2 BBs, 8 Ks.  2-for-3 w/RISP, 3 LOB, one GIDP.  No errors.

Revisiting My Michael Morse Projection

Posted by Dave Nichols | Wednesday, September 28, 2011 | , , | 4 comments »


At the end of spring training, I published a post entitled "Nats News Network's 2011 Predictions Edition", and followed that up the next day with "The Great Michael Morse Debate", where I predicted that Michael Morse would be the Nats "Biggest Disappointment" in 2011.  That opinion wasn't necessarily based on his projected performance, but Nats fans expectations for Morse heading into the season.

Here's what I said in the predictions post:
I just don't see anything in his history, other than his resemblance to Jayson Werth, that leads me to believe he's going to break out this year any more than he did last season while they were managing his at bats. If he duplicates last year, I'll be happy and surprised.
The next day, I published my 2011 projection for Morse, based on the information we had at spring training and his career ratios:
My official projection for Morse: 380 plate appearances, .272/.337/.461 with 17 home runs. And even then, I'm being optimistic compared to most available independent projections.
I was optimistic against independent projections.  Baseball Prospectus had Morse with 302 plate appearances and .277/.341/.458, 15 homers and 41 RBIs.  Baseball Forecaster had Morse for 325 plate appearances and .268/.320/.463 with 15 homers and 47 RBIs. 

Since he's out of the lineup for today's finale, Morse's final line (not withstanding a pinch-hit chance) is .303/.360/.550 with 31 homers and 95 RBIs in 571 plate appearances.  Did he out perform my projection?  He sure did.  He outperformed every single independent projection as well.  But if you look at the HR/PA rate instead of the raw numbers, we're not that far off.

His earned HR/PA rate in 2011 was .0538.  My projection was .0447.  If you extrapolate my rate over his actual plate appearances, the projection would have been for 25.7 (26) home runs, so my projection for playing time was off more than his production.

In Morse's career before this season, his HR/PA rate was .0306 (21 homers in 685 PAs).  In the minors, it was .0227 (69/3039).  Last season, it was .0511 (15 homers in 293 PAs).  So this season Morse produced at a rate he's never accomplished before in his career.

So how did Morse outperform his projections?  His walk rate was down.  His K rate was up.  His BABiP was above league average, but right on his career average.  His platoon numbers are negligible.  His line drive percentage, HR/fly ball percentage, everything else is all in line to how he performed last season, which is slightly elevated from his career numbers.

So what was different?  Simply playing everyday.  He finally found himself healthy and in an organization that overlooked his shortcomings on defense and let him play, first in left field (where he was very below average defensively) then at first base, taking over for the injured Adam LaRoche, where his range was quite suspect, but other than that handled himself pretty well.

Will he continue to produce at this rate?  That's very hard to say.  He's already at the point where the affects of age will start becoming evident.  Some players age better than others.  But we can really only expect peak play through the very early 30's and Morse will be 30 at the start of spring training.

Morse made himself a lot of money this season and will be due a huge raise in arbitration this off-season.  It will be interesting to see how GM Mike Rizzo treats Morse's salary and contract status the next two seasons.  Because if he keeps up this production, when he becomes a free agent at the end of the 2013 season (along with Ryan Zimmerman), he'll be looking at a big, multi-year deal at the age of 32, just like the player Morse believes he most resembles, Jayson Werth.

GAME 159 REVIEW: Nats Clinch Third Place with 6-4 Over Marlins

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, September 27, 2011 | , , , | 3 comments »

When they needed him most -- and just like he has all season -- Michael Morse came though.  Trailing 4-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth, Morse jacked his 30th home run of the season, leading the Washington Nationals not only to a 6-4 win over the staggering Florida Marlins, but a clinch of third place for the first time for this franchise since the move in 2005.

The Nats record is 79-80 with two games remaining, keeping their dream alive of an over-.500 record for the first time since the move.  Washington has won 14 of their last 18 games to close the season on a strong, competitive note.

Morse's blast made a winner of Atahualpa Severino, his first win in the big leagues.  Henry Rodriguez, fresh of his "Nintendo"-like appearance the other night, gave up a hit in an otherwise uneventful bottom of the ninth for his second save of the season.

Nats starter Tommy Milone didn't have his best start of the season, allowing seven hits and a walk over 4 1/3 innings.  He departed with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth.  Craig Stammen took over and allowed an inherited run to tie the game at three on a wild pitch, but escaped further damaged, inducing a couple of pop ups to end the inning.

Ian Desmond had another big night out of the leadoff spot, going 2-for-4 with a walk and three runs scored.  He also stole a base, one of five on the night for the Nationals against Marlins catcher John Buck.

The Nats have made a remarkable run at the end of the season to elevate themselves into third place for the first time in their brief tenure in D.C.  It's difficult to make too many judgments based on September baseball, but the series they took against the Braves, who are fighting for their playoff lives was impressive enough.  And no matter the circumstances, the Nats always have trouble with the Marlins, who own a 10-6 record against the Nats this season.

Still, it's refreshing to see the team playing as hard and as well as they have in September, especially with the troubles this franchise has had in the past playing out the string.  It's a testament to the talent base -- and the club's leadership, primarily the field manager -- that these Nationals aren't settling for the end of the season.
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THE GOOD:  Ian Desmond.  Since being inserted at the top of the Nats lineup on Aug. 17, he's hit .299/.335/.437 with four homers, 12 RBIs and 23 runs.

THE BAD:  Danny Espinosa went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts.  But he did walk twice as well, so not all bad.

THE UGLY:  Todd Coffey had a rare bad outing, giving up a hit and walk tot he only two batters he faced.  Sean Burnett was able to bail him out in the seventh.

THE STATS:  10 hits, 6 BBs, 8 Ks.  3-for-11 w/RISP, 10 LOB, 2 GIDP.  E: Werth (8).

NEXT GAME:  Tuesday at 7:10 pm against at the Marlins.  John Lannan (10-13, 3.73) faces Javier Vazquez (12-11, 3.77).

"I think he grew up a little bit today." Davey Johnson, on starter Ross Detwiler.

Detwiler delivers in another impressive performance. (photo by Cheryl Nichols)

In his previous start, left-hander Ross Detwiler held the Philadelphia Phillies down for 7 1/3 innings, giving up no runs and just three hits over that period.  What would he do for an encore?  Taking on an Atlanta Braves team fighting for their playoffs lives, Detwiler threw six more shutout innings leading a surging Washington Nationals team past the Braves 3-0, before an appreciative crowd of 37,638 in the last home game of the season at Nats Park.

The Nationals now stand 2 1/2 games above the New York Mets, with three games remaining, for third place in the N.L. East.  With a record of 78-80, if they can somehow continue the hot streak they've been riding for three weeks and sweep the Florida Marlins this week, the Nats would finish above .500 for the first time since the move in 2005.

The Nats have won 13 of their last 17 games.

Wilson Ramos and Michael Morse provided all the offense, as each homered to support the cause.  Morse's two-run shot in the seventh was his 29th of the season and prompted a curtain call from the enthusiastic Nats fans.

Morse earned a curtain call for his two-run home run, his 29th of the season. (photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Detwiler cruised through the first two innings, retiring six straight Braves batters.  But all of a sudden in the third inning, Detwiler lost it.  Catcher David Ross lined a single to center.  No. 8 hitter Jack Wilson worked an eight-pitch walk.  Then Detwiler issued a four-pitch walk to pitcher Mike Minor, when the opposing hurler was trying to sacrifice.

But the lanky lefty was able to compose himself.  Two lazy fly balls and a grounder to third ended the inning, stranding all three Braves runners.  Detwiler didn't run into any more problems completing his six innings.  Overall, he gave up just four base hits and walked two, striking out four.  It was a composed and impressive performance from a young pitcher that seems to be maturing before our eyes.

After Detwiler departed, Henry Rodriguez (3 Ks), Tyler Clippard (2 Ks) and Drew Storen (1 K) threw three innings of perfect baseball to seal the win.  Storen recorded his 42nd save of the season.

With all the excitement of Brad Peacock and Tom Milone's progress through the minors and brief success in the bigs at the end of the year, Detwiler's been something of a forgotten man in the rotation.  He's quietly gone 4-5 now with an even 3.00 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 15 games and 10 starts.

Manager Davey Johnson said after the game those that are writing off Detwiler for next season are making a big mistake.  "There's a lot of guys hungry for this rotation.  The effort that you're seeing is outstanding.  He's definitely in the picture to be in the starting rotation [in 2012]."

"I've seen [Ron] Darling, Sid Fernandez and [Rick] Aguilara, young pitchers with great promise that took longer [to develop].  I know Det had a number of starts last year, but what he's done this year, from being in the bullpen... to back in the rotation, he's pitching to good hitting ballclubs and done okay, held his head above water.  This was probably the biggest game of the year for him, going against this club.  To hold them down to zilch... was a great effort."

The Nats now take back to the road for the final three games of the season in Miami, to close out Sun Life Stadium as a baseball facility.  The Marlins, who will be rebranded the Miami Marlins as part of the agreement the team has with southern Florida lawmakers for public financing of the new stadium, have always been a thorn in the Nats side, this season winning 10 of the 15 games the teams have played thus far.

Regardless of the outcome in Florida, the Nats have already picked up nine games over what they finished with last year, a remarkable 19-game improvement -- so far -- over the last two seasons.  Anything they pick up in Florida is gravy at this point.  But a sweep would complete an utterly improbable run for the .500 mark that has seen the Nationals go 15-9 so far in September.

Small steps.
______________________________________________

THE GOOD:  Michael Morse's home run was to deep right center and provided cushion in the close game.  He went 2-for-3 with a walk.  Wilson Ramos' homer, his 15th of the year, was a line drive shot into the flower bed just above the wall in left field.

THE BAD:  With the Braves losing two of three to the Nats, and the St. Louis Cardinals win over the Chicago Cubs, Atlanta finds their once eight-game lead over the Cards down to one with three games remaining.

THE UGLY:  Chris Marrero had a tough day, going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and six men left on base.

THE STATS:  9 hits, 2 BBs, 8 Ks.  0-for-10 w/RISP, 8 LOB, zero GIDP.  No errors.

NEXT GAME:  Monday at the Florida Marlins at 7:10 pm.  Tommy Milone (1-0, 3.32) faces Anibal Sanchez (8-9, 3.67).



Chris Marrero disappears after chaing after foul ball. (photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Zim made Gold Glove caliber spin-and-throw in ninth inning. (photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Pudge giving thumbs up to fans after last home game (photo by Cheryl Nichols)

The Arrogance of Anecdotal Sportswriting

Posted by Dave Nichols | Friday, September 23, 2011 | | 4 comments »

I have now read so many reviews and critiques of the "Moneyball" movie, I feel like I've seen it already.  Of course, I read the book so I know how it turns out.

The latest "review" I've read isn't a review at all, since it's author, like me, hasn't seen the movie yet.  Of course, he claims he won't see it out of principal.  Jason Whitlock is a veteran sportswriter, currently employed by FoxSports.com.  His bio on his column pretty much sums up what his goal in writing is these days.
Jason Whitlock writes about the sports world from every angle, including those other writers can't imagine or muster courage to address. His columns are humorous, thought-provoking, agenda-free, honest and unpredictable.
Whitlock starts his column by stating that it's not intended to be a shot at Bill James, Billy Beane or Michael Lewis, but then goes on to take shots at all three.  He further mocks those that evaluate and analyze the sports we watch using sabremetrics, statistics, computers and science.  He theorizes that analytical evaluation is "ruining sports."

I suppose Whitlock has never seen the "statistics" that say more people are watching -- and betting on -- football, and attending Major League Baseball games, than ever before.

Whitlock goes on to bring up a discussion about the greatest football player/quarterback in history, who he believes to be John Elway, and invites the readers to engage him in a debate about the subject.  Just don't bring stats to the discussion, because he won't have any of it.  Nope; in his world, everyone is entitled to an opinion, as long as it's based on anecdotal evidence, where "leadership" and "guts" mean more than yards per passing attempt or completion percentage.

I understand his reasoning behind this type of evaluation.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no matter how they formulate it.  Opinions based on anecdotal evidence are hard to argue against since the subject of the debate is so amorphous.  It's easier to win an argument when there's no correct answer. 

But Whitlock can't say John Elway is his favorite NFL player in history because that shows bias, though that's really what he means when he says that Elway was the greatest ever.   Because everyone knows the Greatest Quarterback in NFL History was Johnny Unitas.

It's one thing to keep your head in the sand and continue to write from a purely anecdotal standpoint.  It's completely another to lash out and criticize those that write analytically.  Or, for that matter, read anything written analytically.  I suppose if Jason Whitlock wants to retard his growth as a sports writer and avoid advancements in how we analyze the athletes that play our games, that's his business.  But don't insult me because you choose to remain ignorant.

Whitlock acts like it's an either/or proposition, and that's his failing mistake.  To him, you either argue anecdotally or analytically, and if you argue analytically you're ruining the games.  Nothing is further from the truth.  The best writers (and, for that matter, player personnel evaluators) take everything into consideration.  Part of the knock on "Moneyball" (and I suppose the basis of thought behind the principles therein) was the degradation of old-school scouting types.  These opinions need to be taken in consideration with the analytical evaluation.  It's all part of the complete package.  Anything less is short-changing the evaluation.

Statistical analysis helps us better understand how our games work, why certain players are more successful than others.  Anyone can write about the who, what, when and where.  But it's the why and how that are the most important aspects of journalism.

There used to be a time, in the not-so-distant past, the time that Jason Whitlock cut his teeth as a journalist, that most people got the entirety of their sports knowledge from the morning newspaper. The games weren't on television, few people could afford to go the games in person, and there was no such thing as "Sports Center." Sportswriters were minor gods back then, delivering their sermons from on high (from the press box), as they were included in the small circle of insiders that were deigned worthy to actually *gasp* speak with the heroes from our athletic battlefields.

Now, with 24-hour sports networks, fantasy sports, on-line stats services, websites that provide both raw numbers and thought-provoking analysis, and instantaneous news delivery devices on social media, literally anyone can become a sportswriter. They even give a few of the amateurs credentials these days.

Here, then, is the real crux of the matter in Whitlock's own words:  
"We’re about 10 years away from a computer program that will write stats-based opinion pieces on sports."
Whitlock is afraid for his job.  He instinctively understands that his failure to adapt to an ever-widening knowledge base about the sports he's paid to write intellectually will do nothing but hasten his obsolescence.

In my opinion, that day can't come soon enough.

So that happened.


The Washington Nationals continued to play some of their best baseball all year, as Brad Peacock pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings to lead the Nats to a 6-1 win over N.L. East champs -- and bitter rivals -- the Philadelphia Phillies.  The victory completes a four-game sweep in Philadelphia, and moves the Nats to within three games of .500 with six left to play.

The Nationals have won five in a row and 11 of their last 13 games to go to 76-79, with a three-game home series against the Atlanta Braves over the weekend and a season-ending three games series in Miami against the Marlins next week to close out Sun Life Stadium as a baseball facility.

Rollins.  Victorino.  Utley.  Ibanez.  Ruiz.  They were all in the lineup last night that Peacock (2-0, 0.75) fairly dominated.  He allowed just one hit -- an infield single to third -- and two walks, striking out two in 5 2/3 innings, needing just 69 pitches in the process.  Peacock was followed by a parade of relievers that kept the Phillies down, at least until things were well out of hand.

Perhaps the best move of the night came in the bottom of the ninth, when after Doug Slaten retired two lefties to start the frame, manager Davey Johnson came out to lift Slaten to bring in a right-hander, Todd Coffey, to face pinch-hitter John Mayberry.  What was left of the 45,000-plus crowd booed the 68-year old skipper mercilessly for making a pitching change with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of a then 6-0 ballgame, and Johnson relished the entire scenario, lifting his outstretched arms -- palms up -- skyward as if to soak it all in as he left the field, chuckling all the way.

The move, unfortunately, did not have the desired affect in the game, as Coffey gave up a double and single to lose the shutout, but he did get Ben Francisco to pop up to end the game, to more booing for the N. L. East Champions.

The Nats lived off the two runs they pushed across in the third against Roy Oswalt (L,8-10) for most of the night.  Ian Desmond drove home Rick Ankiel on a pop-up double to right center and came home on a Roger Bernadina single.  Bernadina later doubled in the eighth to plate Desmond (2-for-4) again and Michael Morse -- after a visit to the mound -- pounded a 3-2 offering from Oswalt into the center field bullpen for a three-run insurance shot.

Sure, the Phillies had nothing to play for.  But the Nats are trying to finish strong and put a pretty bow on their second-best record since the move in 2005.  No matter who was occupying the uniforms or how much attention they may or may not have been paying, sweeping the Phillies -- in Philadelphia no less -- is sweet music to the long-suffering denizens of NatsTown.

Let them boo.
_____________________________________________________

THE GOOD:  Desmond and Bernadina both had two hits, scored three runs and drove in three between them in the first two spots in the order.  Dare to dream.

THE BAD:  Laynce Nix went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. 

THE UGLY:  Oswalt.  He pleaded for one more batter after Bernadina's double and a walk to Ryan Zimmerman in the top of the eighth.  Be careful what you wish for.

THE STATS:  7 hits, 2 BBs, 6 Ks.  3-for-9 w/RISP, 2 LOB, 1 GIDP.  E: Zimmerman (11), Bernadina (1).

NEXT GAME:  Friday at 7:05 pm agaisnt the Atlanta Braves.  Stephen Strasburg (0-0, 1.29) faces Tim Hudson (15-10, 3.19).

Nats Magic Number

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, September 22, 2011 | , , | 3 comments »

I'm sure if I've computed this wrong plenty of folks will jump all over me, but the Nats magic number to clinch third place in the division is five with seven games remaining.  Any combination of Nats wins and Mets losses equal to five will allow the Nats to finish in sole possession of third for the first time since the move in 2005.

The Nats currently hold a 2 1/2 game lead over the Mets, and the fact that they'll play one game less this season than the Mets, due to the washed out game with the Dodgers, actually helps the Nats in their quest for sole possession of third place.  The Nats have played 154 games and should have eight remaining, but due to the cancellation of that game, have just seven left.  

The formula for the "Magic Number" is:
(Games Remaining + 1) - Difference in the loss column
The Nats record, after winning four in a row and eight of their last 10 is 75-79.  The Mets (losers of eight out of 10) sit at 73-82.  Therefore, (7+1) - 3 = 5.

I know it's not the most significant thing out there, the Magic Number for third place.  But you might as well have something to play for, right?

Finishing .500 isn't mathematically impossible either, but the Nats will have to go 6-1 in the rest of their games to accomplish that lofty feat.  Should they do so, they will have put together an 18-9 record for the month of September, besting their June record of 17-10 for their best month in franchise history since the move.

By the way, the Nats have already clinched at least an even record against the Phillies this season.  In addition, they went 4-2 against St. Louis, 3-3 against Milwaukee and 7-8 against Atlanta with three games left at home with the Braves.  So it's possible that the Nats will finish with a winning or even record against three of the four teams in the N.L. playoffs.

Small steps.

This four-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies means absolutely nothing to the home team, as they have already clinched the N.L. East title.  But to the Washington Nationals, every game they play is another step toward respectability, and with eight games left they sit just four games below .500, courtesy of sweeping a day-nigth doubleheader from the Phillies, by the scores of 4-3 and 4-0.

In the day game, Ryan Zimmerman entered as a pinch-hitter in the top of the 10th inning and delivered an RBI single to score Michael Morse, who walked and had taken second on a passed ball by rookie catcher Erik Kratz.  Drew Storen gave up a hit and a walk in the bottom of the frame, but made the run stand up for his 49th save of the season and made a winner out of Tom Gorzelanny (4-6, 4.09), who gave up a hit and a walk in his scoreless inning of work in the ninth.

Tommy Milone deserved a better fate, as all the scoring came after he left the game.  The rookie lefty tossed six innings of shutout ball, giving up just four hits, striking out two and walking none.

In the nightcap, Ross Detwiler was dominant, allowing just three hits and one walk over 7 1/3 innings, striking out three, leading to a 3-0 shutout of the division champions.  Detwiler (3-5, 3.30) didn't allow two runners in any inning up until the seventh, when a walk and hit batter put two on with two out, but he got John Mayberry, Jr. to fly out to end the frame.  Henry Rodriguez pitched the eighth and Storen came back out for the ninth for his 40th save of the season.

Danny Espinosa hit his 20th home run of the season off Cliff Lee in the second inning, and the Nats scored single runs in the sixth and seventh innings for the margin of victory.

The Nationals refuse to go into this good night.  They have won eight of their last ten games and are 11-8 overall in September, after so many early-fall failings of the past.  With eight games remaining their record is 74-79, just four games below .500, and they sit one game up on the New York Mets for third place in the N.L. East.  In fact, they currently have the ninth best record in the entire National League. 

These achievements may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but for a franchise, organization and fan base that haven't had much to cheer about since the move in 2005, they represent incremental progress toward the ultimate goal of being truly competitive.  Small steps, but steps none the less.

GAME 151 REVIEW: Wang Strong as Nats Hold off Marlins 4-3

Posted by Dave Nichols | Sunday, September 18, 2011 | , , , | 0 comments »

Until he ran out of gas a little bit in the seventh inning, Chien-Ming Wang was his ground ball inducing best Sunday, getting seven such outs on the day. And with increasing confidence in his slider, throwing it more as a swing-and-miss pitch with two strikes, the Taiwan native also struck out five without walking a batter in the Washington Nationals 4-3 win over the Florida Marlins, before 26,581 at Nats Park.

Wang was sharp from the very beginning, allowing just one base runner — a single to Marlins pitcher Brad Hand — through four innings. Even after allowing a solo shot to Gaby Sanchez to lead off the fifth, Wang settled right back down, retiring the Marlins in order to finish off that inning.

Wang pitched out of a littel trouble in the sixth. A two-out single by marlins right fielder Mike Stanton put two on, but Wang got 1B Greg Dobbs to bounce out to first to get out of the jam.

In the seventh, Wang met his demise. He had two outs with the Marlins No. 8 hitter, backup catcher Brett Hayes, coming to bat. But Wang left a sinker too high in the zone and Hayes lined the pitch into the left field stands, making it a one-run game.

Manager Davey Johnson went to old reliable, Tyler Clippard, to end the inning, getting pinch-hitter Vinny Rottino to ground to third.

Clippard then had a 1-2-3 eighth and Drew Storen threw a perfect ninth inning for his 38th save of the season.

The win was the Nats 42nd at home this season, setting a team record for most home victories since the move in 2005.

Washington got two RBIs from Marrero, a sacrifice fly in the second and a ground rule double to rigth in the fourth to pace the Nats.

But that was about it from the offense, as the Nats managed just five hits on the day, two from Ryan Zimmerman.

Ten games remain to the 2011 season. The Nationals need one win to tie their previous second best mark since the move, and every win after that is gravy. One thing is for certain though. For maybe the very first time in their brief history in D.C., there is legitimate cause for optimism for the future of these Nationals.
___________________________________________

THE GOOD: Clippard and Storen. 2 1/3 perfect relief innings with three strikeouts. That’s the definition of shut down.

THE BAD: The Marlins defense. The centerfielder botched a routine ball in on a easy line drive to allow the Nats second run to score, then the right fielder made a pretty terrible play on Marrero’s ball, which maybe could have been caught, before it bounced into the stands for the ground rule double.

THE UGLY: Jayson Werth. 0-for-4, and looked at 92 MPH right down the middle to end his last at bat.

THE STATS: 5 hits, 1 BB, 8 Ks. 2-for-6 w/RISP, 3 LOB, zero GISP. No errors.

NEXT GAME: Tuesday in Philadelphia. Game 1 at 1:05 pm features Ross Detwiler (2-5, 3.76) against Kyle Kendrick (8-6, 3.22). Game 2 at 7:05

GAME 149 REVIEW: Marlins’ Vazquez Shuts Out Nats 3-0

Posted by Dave Nichols | Saturday, September 17, 2011 | , , , | 0 comments »

Javier Vazquez dominated Nats in 3-0 shutout. (photo by C.Nichols)
Javier Vazquez was once a very good pitcher. Lately, he’s been on a bit of a roll, resurrecting some of the skill that once made him one of the toughest pitchers in the league. Last night, he continued that roll, dominating the Washington Nationals, shutting them out on five hits, delivering a 3-0 victory to his Florida Marlins.

Over his last 10 games, dating back to July 27 against these same Nats, Vazquez has once again been one of the best starters in the league, pitching to a 4-2 record with a 1.70 ERA, allowing combined 60 hits and walks in 69 innings pitched. In his last four starts (4-0), covering 29 innnings, he’s allowed one earned run and struck out 27.

Vazquez was in control all game, needing just 104 pitches to throw the complete game shut out, striking out seven and not walking a batter. All five hits allowed were harmless singles, and the Nats got runners into scoring position in just two innings. Both times they did, however, the Nats helped Vazquez out.

In the second, Rick Ankiel hit a one-out single and took third on a Danny Espinosa base hit into the left-center field gap. But center fielder Bryan Peterson cut the ball off from going to the wall, and fired a strike to second base to nail Espinosa trying to the extra base for the second out of the inning. Chris Marrero then flew out to end the threat.

The Nats got back-to-back singles by Ryan Zimmerman and Laynce Nix to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning, and manager Davey Johnson sent in Brian Bixler to pinch-run for Nix. Vazquez then struck out Ankiel and Espinosa. Marrero looked at two balls, but on the second ball, Bixler strayed too far off first and was pegged by catcher John Buck.

“As a base runner, you just have to be aware,” Johnson said of Bixler’s gaffe. “You can’t get off there too far. You want to be moving toward second, but you’ve got to be scuffling back [after the pitch].”
Vazquez did not put another runner on base in the final two innings. “Obviously, he was hitting his spots,” Johnson said of Vazquez. “He threw a lot of fastballs. I don’t know the count, but he got away with pitching up a lot. With a guy like that, you gotta get on his fastball.

“He pitched basically that whole game with his fastball, from my point of view. He got up [in the strike zone] when he wanted to and he stayed down when he wanted to. By and large, he got most of his outs with his fastball.”

John Lannan earned "quality" start despite three walks. (photo by Cheryl Nichols)
Vazquez’ effort made a loser out of John Lannan (9-13, 3.68). Lannan was credited with a “quality” start, limiting the Marlins to three earned runs over six innings. But he pitched in trouble all evening, putting 11 runners on base — eight hits and three walks. In contrast to Vazquez, who needed 104 pitches over nine innings, Lannan needed 96 to get through six.

Washington is now 4-9 this season against their chief nemesis, and courtesy of the Mets win over Atlanta, are back in a tie with New York for third place in the N.L,. East, with a 71-78 record.
_____________________________________________

THE GOOD: Craig Stammen gave the Nats two solid innings of hitless relief, striking out three.

THE BAD: Roger Bernadina got the start in left. He made a really nice sliding catch early on that would have eluded Michael Morse, saving at least one run, but he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, hitting second in the order.

THE UGLY: The base running. Espinosa tried to do too much in trying to take that extra base in the second as he was out easily with the play in front of him. I don’t know what Bixler was thinking. He had a man in front of him at second and he was half-way there when Buck threw down to first. When you only manage five hits — and cant draw a walk — off the starting pitcher, you just can’t give away outs on the bases. But this team has been doing that all season long.

THE STATS: 5 hits, zero BBs, 7 ks. 0-for-3 w/RISP, 3 LOB, zero GIDP. E: Desmond (23)

NEXT GAME: Saturday against the Marlins at 7:05 pm. Stephen Strasburg (0-0, 1.13) faces Chris Volstad (5-12, 5.31).


(photo by Cheryl Nichols)


Washington Nationals rookie left-hander Tommy Milone is a control artist, rarely walking more than a batter per game. In fact, in his 24 starts for Triple-A Syracuse this season, he walked exactly one batter per game while striking out 9.4. Those are impressive numbers for any Triple-A pitcher, let alone one that has a hard time reaching the upper-80′s with his fastball.

Thursday, Milone’s pinpoint control was maybe a little off, but he made up for that with being nearly unhittable, allowing just three base hits over 5 2/3 innings, limiting the New York Mets to one runs (scored after he left the game), in the Nats 10-1 rout of their National League East rivals.

The win is the Nats fifth in a row and sixth in their last seven games. Not only did they sweep the Mets in the four-game series, but also leapfrogged them into third place in the division.

Milone was stellar. He allowed a double to the first batter he saw, Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada, a single to Angel Pagan in the fourth — who he promptly picked off — and a two-out single to David Wright in the sixth. After that hit, manager Davey Johnson came out with the hook after just 73 pitches with the Nats holding a scant 2-0 lead at the time.

Collin Balester relieved and yielded a run-scoring double to Jason Bay that hit off the top of the wall in left field. The run was charged to Milone, the only blemish against his record. Balester was able to work out of the inning though, and for the rest of the afternoon, a parade of Nats pitchers kept sitting down Mets hitters.

On the other side, the offense went to work for Milone to secure his first MLB victory, scoring once in the seventh, three time in the eighth and four more in the ninth inning. By that point, much of the 22,205 at Citi Field had either left for cover from the rain that started to fall, or had just plain left.

The hitting star of the day was shortstop Ian Desmond. The second-year player has been on somewhat of a tear recently, but none more so than Thursday, as he went 5-for-6 with three RBIs. His big day pushed his season batting average — which had dropped as low as .215 at one point this season — up to .251.

With 13 games remaining, the Nats sit at 71-77. They need two wins to equal the second best season record since the move, which seems like a formality at this point. With the Mets, losers of their last six games, seemingly collapsing, it doesn’t seem a stretch to now anticipate a third place finish in the East.

Is winning a bunch of games in the last three weeks of the season really that big of a deal? Not really. But when you step back and take a look at things as a whole, a third place finish would represent progress, internally for the organization and across the baseball landscape in general.
_______________________________________________________

THE GOOD: Desmond. Sure, he picks the day I write an analytical piece about him to have his best day as a big leaguer.

THE BAD: Jayson Werth. He went 0-for-5 on a day the Nats had 14 hits and scored 10 runs.

THE UGLY: Henry Rodriguez. The number of walks he gave up (3) was bigger than the number of outs he recorded (2). Thankfully, Todd Coffey came in and cleaned his mess up.

THE STATS: 14 hits, 5 BBs, 5 Ks. 5-for-14 w/RISP, 11 LOB, 0 GIDP. No errors.

NEXT GAME: Friday against the Florida Marlins at 7:05 from Nats Park. John Lannan (9-12, 3.65) hosts Javier Vazquez (10-11, 4.13).

The "Real" Ian Desmond?

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, September 15, 2011 | , , | 6 comments »

I've been a proponent of Ian Desmond in this space since before he got called up to the Major Leagues.  The opinions of the Washington Nationals brass of the lanky shortstop are almost legend, going back to when former GM Jim Bowden compared him (favorably) to Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.  Current GM Mike Rizzo thinks nothing less of him, and field manager Davey Johnson is an advocate as well.

Talking about the switch to move Desmond back into the leadoff spot in the order, Johnson told reporters earlier this week (via MLB.com's Bill Ladson), "He was trying to shoot the ball [to right field] too much," Johnson said. "He has a lot of power. I want him thinking more about hitting the ball where it's pitched -- get doubles, get out in front a little bit and drive it. He has been doing that.

"I like him leading off.  I know he feels real comfortable about it. I remember when I had that conversation with him. His on-base percentage was terrible, but he was trying to do too much. He was expanding the zone. But I also wanted to know what he thought. He said, 'I think I could be a great leadoff hitter.' So I said, 'If you think that, show me.'"

"I put him in the leadoff spot, and he showed me that he can be more patient and be the kind of hitter [I expect him to be]. ... In the last month, he has shown the real Ian Desmond."

Ladson noted earlier in his article that Desmond has hit .279 with a .330 on-base percentage since the All-Star break.  In a smaller sample size, since Johnson inserted Desmond back into the leadoff spot in the order Aug. 17 (which is, after all, the proposition we're discussing), Desmond has hit .292/.328/.451 with four doubles, four homers and seven RBIs.  He's also 3-for-6 in stolen base attempts in those 27 games.

The other thing to consider is Desmond's BABiP in August was .358, well above his season mark of .306, which is perfectly average.

Now, we can debate about whether a .328 OBP in such a small sample size is even worthy of discussion, but baseball decisions have been made on less before. 

What's worse, Desmond's free-swinging has only gotten worse as he's gotten older (K/BB rates: '09 -- 2.80, '10 -- 3.89, '11 -- 4.00) and his inability to take a walk (he's walked five times in 27 games since being re-inserted into the leadoff), means that any gains he's seen in OBP are propped up by his hit rate of late, which BABiP tells us is being fueled by luck during this stretch.

Of course, none of this takes into account his defensive value, which is a discussion for another day.

Like I said, I like Ian Desmond.  I think he could be a valuable part of this team and offense if he cut down on his swing, cut down on the strikeouts, used the whole field and utilized his speed to get on base.  In my opinion, his free-swinging, reach for the fences approach is a detriment to him being a productive Major League hitter, especially if the Nats are considering him for the leadoff spot in the order.

For the 2011 season, Desmond is hitting .245/.290/.352 in 140 games, including his "hot" streak of the last month. For his career, Desmond has hit .258/.300/.386 in 315 games. In six seasons in the minors over 638 games, Desmond hit .259/.326/.388.

In the last 27 games, Desmond has hit .292/.328/.451 with a .358 BABiP.

Which is the real Ian Desmond?

Nationals Install "Safety Netting" at Nats Park

Posted by Dave Nichols | Wednesday, September 14, 2011 | , , | 3 comments »

According to eyewitness accounts and this post by The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg, the Washington Nationals have installed poles along the fences down each base line at Nats Park to hold up what a team spokesperson described to Steinberg as safety netting during batting practice.  The poles appear to be a good 20 feet high and run from the corners of the camera wells at the far end of the dugout to at least 3/4 of the way down the fence.

According to Steinberg in a follow-up tweet, the poles and netting will all be removed before the games.

From a Nats team spokesperson to Steinberg:
“The Nationals are constantly looking for ways to make sure that our fans have a safe and enjoyable experience while at Nationals Park,” a team spokewoman e-mailed me. “This is in part due to the event that happened in Texas and our ever-vigilant quest to find safe solutions for any potential ballpark hazards.”
The "event... in Texas" the spokesperson refers to was a fan that died falling from the outfield stands over a 20-foot high wall onto a concrete walkway, after reaching for a ball specifically tossed in his direction by Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton.  The incident, while tragic, was completely avoidable and did not involve a batted ball.  The area the Nats are putting up the fencing has a three foot wall, at most.

I'm all for safety, and if the number of incidents of fans getting injured during BP around Major League Baseball warrants this type of reaction, then MLB should mandate it across baseball and not leave it up to the discretion of individual teams. 
 
But it seems to me more players are injured during BP than fans.  Earlier this year, Detroit Tiger reliever Al Alburquerque was hit with a line drive and suffered a concussion, and just last homestand, Houston Astros reliever Sergio Escalona severely sprained his ankle when he stepped on a teammate's glove chasing after a ball.

One thing "safety netting" during batting practice will certainly prevent is fan interaction.  If these nets are up during batting practice, as a by-product the time honored tradition of getting an autograph before the game will now be severely limited at Nats Park.

Nationals Announce 2012 Schedule

Posted by Dave Nichols | Wednesday, September 14, 2011 | , , | 0 comments »

Via press release:
The Washington Nationals today released their 2012 schedule, which includes 81 home dates, beginning with Washington’s 79th home opener since 1901 on Thursday, April 12 vs. Cincinnati and is highlighted by a three-game interleague visit from the New York Yankees and holiday matchups against the San Francisco Giants (Independence Day) and Chicago Cubs (Labor Day). The Nationals begin the 2012 season on the road on Thursday, April 5 at Wrigley Field.

The Yankees last visited The District, June 16-18, 2006, but the Nationals won the final two contests to claim the series, which was played at RFK Memorial Stadium. The visit will be the Bronx Bombers’ first to Nationals Park.

The Nationals receive three visits apiece from all National League East rivals, including seven weekend sets against the Philadelphia Phillies (May 4-6), New York Mets (August 17-19), Atlanta Braves (June 1-3, July 20-22) and the newly-named Miami Marlins (April 20-22, August 3-5, September 7-9.

The Nationals-Orioles series at Nationals Park (May 18-20) kicks off the 2012 version of the Battle of the Beltways, as the two neighbors square off six times, with each club hosting three games. The Nationals reciprocate with a three-game visit to Oriole Park from June 22-24.

In addition to the annual home-and-home series with the Orioles and the aforementioned Yankees series, a three-game visit from the Tampa Bay Rays, June 19-21, concludes the Nationals Park portion of the 2012 interleague slate. Washington will also make interleague treks to Boston (June 8-10) and Toronto (June 11-13).

Nationals fans will enjoy 12 homestands in all, only two of which last longer than seven games. Nationals Park will twice host 11 games in 11 days: April 12-22 (Reds, Astros, Marlins) and August 29-September 9 (Cardinals, Cubs, Marlins).

Local baseball fans will notice a concentration of home dates both early and late in the season, as the Nationals will play 11 of their first 17 games at Nationals Park before capping the ’12 campaign with 10 of their final 16 games played at home.

July and August—with 13 apiece—contain the most home games in a calendar month, while April has the fewest (11).

Washington’s 2012 regular-season concludes at home on Wednesday, October 3, in a 1:05 p.m. tilt against the Phillies.

All dates and opponents on this schedule are subject to change.

GAME 146 REVIEW: Stammen Earns Win, Scores Winning Run

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, September 13, 2011 | , , , | 0 comments »

Craig Stammen has filled a lot of roles for the Washington Nationals over the last couple of years.  Rarely has offensive catalyst been in his job description though.  But last night he not only earned the win in relief pitching 1 1/3 hitless innings, he also started the winning tally with a one-out single in the seventh and came around to score on a Ryan Zimmerman base hit, giving the Nats a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish, defeating the New York Mets for the second straight night.

The win is the Nats fourth in their last five games and raises their record to 69-77, matching their win total from last season with 15 games remaining, and pulls them to within one of the third place Mets.

Stammen was called on by manager Davey Johnson in the bottom of the sixth after lefty Doug Slaten put the first two batters of the inning in a tie game on base via five pitch walk and 2-2 hit by pitch.  Stammen pitched out of the jam by striking out 1B Nick Evans, getting a soft ground ball from C Josh Thole and coaxing a pop out to short from pinch-hitter Mike Baxter.

In the top of the seventh, with one out and none on, Johnson let Stammen bat for himself and he hit a grounder that deflected off Evans' glove and went into right field for a single.  He took second on an Ian Desmond single, and after a fielder's choice erased Desmond at second, Stammen carried the tie-breaking run in on Zimmerman's ground ball single through the left side of the infield.

The right-hander walked Jose Reyes to lead off the bottom of the inning, but got the next batter to pop up his bunt attempt.  At that point, Johnson started a parade of relievers than included Atahualpa Severino, Todd Coffey and Sean Burnett, all of whom did their jobs and earned holds.  Drew Storen allowed a pair of two-out singles in the ninth, but struck out Lucas Duda on three sliders, each more wicked than the previous, to seal the victory and earn his 36th save of the season.

The Nationals picked up their other two runs in the top of the sixth on RBI doubles by Rick Ankiel and Michael Morse.

Nats starter Chien-Ming Wang had an interesting evening, allowing nine hits in his five innings of work, but just two runs.  He struck out four and did not walk a batter.  Wang would have fared even better, but RF Jayson Werth misplayed a base hit into two runs in the fifth inning, as he was over-aggressive trying to set up for a throw home and simply didn't handle the ball.

The Nats overcame the miscue though and inched ever closer to catching the Mets for third place in the division, a feat that has not been accomplished by this franchise since the move in 2005.  It's not a particularly lofty goal, but you gotta start somewhere, and you get the feeling that everyone involved in the organization would really like to get over that hump and show the rest of the baseball world that they are, indeed, making progress.
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THE GOOD:  Ian Desmond picked up two more hits out of the leadoff spot.  He's had four multi-hit games in his last ten.

THE BAD:  Werth's play in right.  It was an innocent enough base hit that he just rushed to get set up on.  Instead of making a throw to try to prevent one run, he ended up allowing two.

THE UGLY:  Wilson Ramos had a rough night, going 0-for-4, grounding out to short three times.

THE STATS:  11 hits, 2 BBs, 9 Ks.  2-for-6 w/RISP, 9 LOB, 1 GIDP. E: Werth (7).

NEXT GAME:  Wednesday against the Mets at 7:10 pm.  Brad Peacock makes his first MLB start (0-0, 6.75) against Mike Pelfrey (7-11, 4.66).

NATS NOTES:  Ankiel nabbed Thole at home with a tremendous throw from center field in the bottom of the fifth in a scoreless game.  It was Ankiel's ninth outfield assist of the season.