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Second half storylines

Jul 18, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT

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After four long days without baseball (at least, anything other than the exhibition variety) the Nationals are back on the field tonight, hosting the Brewers in a nice weekend showdown between first-place clubs. Thus begins the unofficial second half of the season, the final 70-game stretch that will determine whether this team returns to the playoffs after missing out last fall, or whether October baseball simply isn’t in the cards again.

What will determine whether the Nationals get back there or not? There are any number of factors and players that will play a role in deciding this team’s fate. But here are the five most-significant ones, the top storylines of the second half of the season for a ballclub with grand visions of extending this season well beyond Game 162. We’ll count down from No. 5 to No. 1…

5. WILL STEPHEN STRASBURG STEP UP AND BECOME THE ACE, OR IS THIS SIMPLY WHO HE IS?
For the record, there’s nothing particularly wrong with who Strasburg is at this point of his career. He’s a very good pitcher, the league leader in strikeouts, capable of completely dominating an opposing lineup anytime he takes the mound. But it’s no secret that much more than that has been expected of Strasburg for some time, and he’d be the first to admit that he has not lived up to his full potential.

So, what can the 25-year-old do to take that next, all-important step? He can pitch deeper into games. Despite being tied for the NL lead in games started (20), he ranks only 10th in innings pitched (125). If Strasburg can more consistently finish the seventh inning — more specifically, if he can finish the seventh inning without giving up another run or two — he’ll put himself in position to earn more wins and improve that pedestrian 7-6 record. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll still wind up with roughly 210 innings and 250 strikeouts, both far surpassing his previous career marks.

4. THE TRADE DEADLINE
There are 13 days remaining in July, which means there are 13 days to go until MLB’s non-waiver trade deadline, which means Mike Rizzo has less than two weeks to decide if he needs to acquire any reinforcements for the stretch run.

The answer, for now, appears to be no. When healthy, the Nationals are set at every position. They’ve got eight proven starting position players. They’ve got five very good starting pitchers. They’ve got perhaps the deepest bullpen in the majors. And they’ve got a veteran bench. Would another bat be nice? Sure. But where is that guy going to play, and who is going to be removed from the roster to make room for him? Would a lock-down lefty reliever be nice? Absolutely. But who is going to get dumped in favor of such a pitcher?

There is one caveat to all this: If Ryan Zimmerman proves incapable of playing third base on a regular basis (more on him in a moment), Rizzo might feel the need to acquire a second baseman who is more of a sure thing at the plate than Danny Espinosa.

3. BRYCE HARPER’S HEALTH AND PRODUCTION
Harper was basically nonexistent through the vast majority of the season’s first half, a torn thumb ligament having shelved him for nine weeks. And since coming back June 30, he has struggled mightily at the plate, going just 6-for-40 with two extra-base hits, two RBI and 16 strikeouts.

Club officials have insisted all along they’re not concerned, because Harper simply needs time to see more pitches and get his swing in order. Which is probably true. It took Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos several weeks to get on track after prolonged stints on the DL. Harper has played in only 12 games since the injury.

But in the big picture, it is fast becoming time for Harper to not only keep himself on the field but to become the all-around player we’ve been waiting to see since the day he was drafted No. 1 overall. Did you know that since he first hurt himself running into the wall in Atlanta on April 30, 2013, Harper has played in 126 games, posting a .251 batting average, 13 homers, 51 RBI and .748 OPS? Obviously, he was playing at something less than 100 percent for most of that time. But the time has come for him to be healthy and live up to something closer to expectations.

2. RYAN ZIMMERMAN AT THIRD BASE
A potentially major crisis has been averted so far since Harper’s return from the DL forced Zimmerman back to third base. The throwing-challenged Zim has successfully handled all 26 fielding chances presented to him, including 16 throws, without being charged with an error.

Obviously, it would be naive to believe Zimmerman can go the rest of the season without making a mistake in the field. But if he can continue to hold down the fort at third base and not let runs score, the Nationals are in much better position to win more games.

But what happens if Zimmerman can’t do it, if he goes through a sudden and ugly stretch in which he launches throws into the stands and hurts his team? That’s when things get dicey for Matt Williams and Co. If Zimmerman has to switch back to left field, the domino effects will be considerable. And the end result might well be fewer wins.

1. BEAT THE BRAVES
At this point, it’s not really going out on a limb to suggest the NL East is a two-team race. Either the Nationals or Braves will win the division, with the Mets, Marlins and Phillies bringing up the rear. Washington and Atlanta come out of the All-Star break in a virtual tie (the Nats have played two fewer games) so it’s now a 2 1/2-month mini-marathon to the finish line.

What will be the biggest factor determining a division champ? How about the nine head-to-head games these two teams still face? We know all about the Nationals’ longstanding struggles to beat the Braves, but their four-game split at Nationals Park last month might have been a turning point in the rivalry.

The Nats don’t necessarily have to trounce the Braves the rest of the way. But they absolutely cannot let the Braves walk over them as they have for much of the last two seasons and expect to emerge from the wreckage as NL East champs.

108 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. Joe Seamhead - Jul 18, 2014 at 7:09 AM

    “If Zimmerman has to switch back to left field, the domino effects will be considerable. And the end result might well be fewer wins.”

    If Ryan Zimmerman moves back to LF this team will not make it to the World Series, yet he also must stay in the batting order for them to get there. Hang tough at 3rd, my good man!

    [On a side note: SJM 308, I hope you have a great time at the Strathmore on Sunday. That is an incredible listening hall. I have seen John Hiatt, a couple of times and he's a treat].

    • sjm308 - Jul 18, 2014 at 7:56 AM

      Thanks Joe
      Honestly would rather have an even better time Saturday in 308 with a big win

      Of Mark’s 5, to me #s 3 and 5 are key. If Harper and Strasburg play like we have hoped, I just don’t see us falling short. Zimm hopefully has a long leash at 3rd, our bench has to play better, especially McClouth, and I have said it before, I am more concerned that we dominate the weaker teams and I don’t care how we reach 90+ wins or who they are against. Once in the playoffs, it’s an entirely different mindset than the toil of a long season and not many teams can throw a staff of pitchers at you like our lads.

      Go Nats!

    • nats106 - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:02 PM

      Off topic, but brings back memories. Years ago I saw John Hiatt with Lowen and Navarro at DAR Constitution hall. He puts on a great show.

  2. Faraz Shaikh - Jul 18, 2014 at 7:20 AM

    What about zobrist? He can play multiple positions, including second. I don’t know about his FA status and won’t be willing to part with any of our top prospects.

    • Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:33 AM

      Zobrist’s status:
      2014 Contract Status: Signed thru 2014, 5 yrs/$23M (2010-14) & 2015 team option
      Service Time (01/2014): 6.134, Free Agent: 2015

      http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/z/zobribe01.shtml

      • Faraz Shaikh - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:05 AM

        Thanks buddy.

        reasonable price for a good, solid player. I think he would be a great addition.

        but didn’t owner say that we are at our limit for this season’s budget and may not add anyone?

      • bowdenball - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:27 AM

        The contract price for Zobrist may be reasonable but the trade price will not be (partially because of the reasonable contract price). Other teams with greater need and deeper farm systems could easily outbid the Nats.

  3. wearenationals - Jul 18, 2014 at 7:30 AM

    I agree. Strasburg needs to step up and the Nats need to make a statement with the Barves. In order to make the wildcard, the Nats have to go at least 37-32 the rest of the way for 88 wins (almost on pace as they were the first 93 games). 41 more wins may get them the top wildcard spot.

    To match 2012’s 98 wins, the Nats will have to go 47-22 for the remaining 69. Possible, but unlikely. But I can dream, yes? Eyes on the prize, boys. Go Nats!

    • NatsLady - Jul 18, 2014 at 7:53 AM

      I think it’s more than going deeper into games. It’s WHEN he does it. There are certain times (when the team has lost three in a row, when the team played a 16-inning game the night before, when the opponent is pitching a shutout, when a road trip is going lousy, when the Nats are up against really good teams) that Stras really needs to flourish in the “stopper” role.

      It’s said that what makes an Ace is his effect on games other than the one he pitches, resting the bullpen, making sure the No. 5 (the night before) and the No. 2 guy (the night after) don’t feel it’s all on them, making sure the team doesn’t get swept. That’s what I’m waiting to see, not a zillion strikeouts, but a season where, time after time, we as fans say, “Strasburg is up and he’s the one we want, the one we can rely on, rain or hot sunshine.”

    • NatsLady - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:03 AM

      BTW, I agree with Mark that Stras is a fine pitcher. Because he was a 1-1 draft pick and had an amazing debut, expectations are almost unreasonably high. You see glimpses of greatness, but very good, is, after all, very good.

    • Hiram Hover - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:51 AM

      Man, folks grade SS on a completely different curve.

      Yes, complete games are studly, and no, Stras doesn’t have them.

      But his average IP per game this season is 6.25. The average IP for the top 20 guys, in IP on the season, is 6.5 per game–in other words, in 4 games, on average, they’d pitch an inning more.

      Yes, it would be nice if he went deeper in games, but he’s going almost as deep as the very top guys as it is.

      Nitpicking.

      • Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:13 AM

        Sec 3 My Sofa – Jul 18, 2014 at 8:58 AM

        I guess that’s why almost every discussion on Strasburg starts with some variation of “These are unreasonable expectations, we know that; but we still expect them.”

        There, I moved it where it belongs.

      • Hiram Hover - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:15 AM

        The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our Stras, but in ourselves.

        Only had to move one letter.

      • Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:34 AM

        +1

      • bowdenball - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:34 AM

        +1, Hiram. Hilarious and accurate.

      • natszee - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:35 AM

        Strasburg is not considered “average” so the comparison is not relevant unless of course your trying to make the point the he is an above average, not historically dominate figure. It takes him > 100 pitches to get through < 7 innings and unless he can find ways to get OUTS, not K's, especially when his is in tough situations (men on, after an error, etc.), he will continue to be an above average pitcher, not an ace.

        The ace was selected to the all star team, Jordan Zimmermann.

      • Hiram Hover - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:03 AM

        natzee

        I think you missed part of what I wrote – I wasn’t comparing Stras to the average pitcher, but to the average for the 20 pitchers.

        It’s interesting that you mention JZim, the “bulldog” of the staff. He has 2 CG this season and Stras has 0. But Stras still is averaging slightly more IP per game than JZimm on the season, and that’s true even if you throw out JZimm’s last start, when he had to leave due to injury.

        I’m not saying this to criticize JZimm. I love both of these guys, and am glad both play for the Nats. That’s why I am going to pass on the debate about the “ace of the staff,” which is just an invitation to bash one guy in comparison to another. Thanks, but no thanks.

      • Hiram Hover - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:04 AM

        Dang it – end of first sentence should be, “average for the *top* 20 pitchers.”

      • Faraz Shaikh - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:07 AM

        Haha! Nicely done!

      • NatsLady - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:38 AM

        Yes, they do. They grade Stras on the Kershaw/Wainwright/King Felix curve because that’s the kind of raw talent he has. You see it in some games, we’ve seen it this season.

      • 6ID20 - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:11 AM

        Those averages are misleading. It is only possible to pitch 6.0, 6.1, 6.2 or 7.0 innings. There is no 6.3 through 6.9. So if a pitcher is averaging 6.5 IP/game that means he is going 7 or more a lot more often than one who averages only 6.25.

      • Hiram Hover - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:24 AM

        6ID20

        Yeah, baseball math can be confusing. To do the averages I converted to standard base 10 decimals: so “6.1” in baseball math became “6.33.”

      • Another Tyler - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:44 AM

        “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our Stras, but in ourselves.

        Only had to move one letter.”

        This is so great!

  4. ArVAFan - Jul 18, 2014 at 7:45 AM

    “October baseball in the cards. . . ”

    Freudian slip or clever comment ?

  5. Doc - Jul 18, 2014 at 7:52 AM

    Zim’s arm is the big question mark.

    He only had one throwing play in the last series with the Philthies, and while he managed to get the ball over on a few bounces, it lwas an ugly throw.

    ALR did his usual magic and grabbed it for an out.

    Nats need his bat, and his arm.

    • NatsLady - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:01 AM

      Zim’s been lucky a couple of times that he wasn’t charged with an “error.” Once he got the runner at third and rainbowed it to first, but, since you can’t assume a double play, he wasn’t charged.

      In Philly, LaRoche worked a miracle on another rainbow, as noted. At first base (later in the same game), Zim should have been charged with an error, but they gave it to Frandsen on the throw.

  6. stoatva - Jul 18, 2014 at 7:52 AM

    As it was at the beginning of 2012, the 2014 closing schedule is in the Nats’ favor. I think 92 wins is a minimal expectation. Basically, winning series at home and playing no less than .500 on the road gets them there. That sounds ambitious, but considering the caliber of their opposition, they can and should do it. But they don’t get to stumble, even for a week.

    • stoatva - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:00 AM

      PS. Totally psyched to be going to see beisbol tonight. Almost like opening day!

    • coop202 - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:59 AM

      Said it a month ago and I still believe 89 wins takes the East. Would love to take 92+ but that isn’t a baseline expectation for me…. Regardless, I don’t think the braves get there either without going 7-2 or better against us! Go nats!

  7. scnatsfan - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:21 AM

    Getting nervous about Fedde but have to believe he signs

  8. nats1924 - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:32 AM

    I still don’t understand why we do seriously consider trading LaRoche. Even tho I still question RZim’s impact at 1B, it would solve this bottle neck of a situation we have and improve our team this season.

    I’ve grown to really like LaRoche. Unfortunately, there is almost zero chance he’s with us after this season. So its a good baseball decision to see what we can get in return vs losing him via FA.

    Go Nats!

    • wearenationals - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:40 AM

      Because ALR is the best defensive option playing 1B. And defense wins championships!

      • Joe Seamhead - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:46 AM

        Trade ALR and watch what happens to the team’s ERA. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight.

      • nats1924 - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:49 AM

        i agree, and Zim at 3B is a huge liability.

        It would be devastating to see him commit an error in the 5th inning of crucial game in the playoffs.

      • NatsLady - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:42 AM

        Yes, it would be devastating for Zim to commit an error in the 5th inning of a playoff game. But the same goes for Desi, who’s been known to make an error or two. It would be devastating if Stras imploded or Soriano picked that game to blow a save. A thousand things can happen in playoff games, and because you’re playing a playoff team, the margin for error is slim. But you have to go with the best you’ve got, and Zim’s bat is up there in the list of the best we’ve got. No player is perfect, period.

    • Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:45 AM

      “I still don’t understand why we [don't] seriously consider trading LaRoche.”

      Do you mean “we” as in us, or “we” as in Rizzo? It gets brought up in here all the time. But we don’t get to trade LaRoche, Rizzo has to do that, and he would not discuss it in public. So I’m not sure what you’re asking.

      • nats1924 - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:52 AM

        ‘we’ as in the Nats. Why dont the Nats consider trading LaRoche

      • Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:54 AM

        That said, I don’t agree it would strengthen the team; I think it would weaken them considerably in the short term (2014), and probably not help much in the long term, unless they got lucky with an unusually good return.

        It’s very unlikely they’d replace his bat–certainly not with Espinosa at second–and I would doubt the net defense improves much if at all.

      • Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:58 AM

        I guess that’s why almost every discussion on Strasburg starts with some variation of “These are unreasonable expectations, we know that; but we still expect them.”

      • Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:59 AM

        You don’t know they aren’t.

    • NatsLady - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:32 AM

      Zim hasn’t looked good at first base. It’s not as easy as LaRoche makes it, and in a pennant race, that’s not the moment to substantially weaken your infield. First base is involved in every inning, whereas someone posted that a third baseman gets 2-3 grounders per game. Given that Zim’s great with bunts and in coming in for weak grounders, that gives him approximately one time per game where he needs to make a throw across the diamond. If he makes 80% of those throws (which I believe he will), you are talking an error once every five games, and a lot of those won’t cost runs.

      I thought he would be worse (and he probably did, too), so I thought he wouldn’t play 3B and Matty would have to juggle the fielders around for the rest of the season. Maybe pitchers are adjusting (if that’s possible) so there aren’t as many balls in play on the left side. Anyway, it’s working, so let it be until it doesn’t work.

  9. Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:05 AM

    Unless you have a powerful crystal ball, why would you suggest trading LaRoche who arguably is a top 4 offensive force on this team and has had a defensive resurgence this year.

    Yes, his last 10 games have been his first slump of the year, but there’s no indication he won’t come out of it strongly.

    Lets suppose you did trade ALR, what are you going to get for him? If he doesn’t net a stud 2nd baseman or 3rd baseman you just weakened the offense because you then would ostensibly be replacing ALR with Espinosa.

    The trades this team has to make is replacing Espinosa on the bench because you don’t need Danny on the bench except for late inning defense and there are other alternatives. The other change is the un-clutch Hairston. Remember, you can bring Espinosa back on September 1st. Surely Matty can manage without Espinosa for 5 weeks. Rendon becomes your backup shortstop.

    If there was a way to steal a reliever, maybe yes but that’s not a necessity and the Nats could wait till August 31 on that. I swap Treinen and Barrett just so he can work on his mechanics.

  10. Theophilus T.S. - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:17 AM

    I think Fedde signs, too, but this is a watershed moment in their relationship w/ Boras. The Nats have swallowed so much BS from Boras (“transformational athlete,” “once-in-a lifetime,” etc.) they probably realize they need an emetic. Boras can’t reasonably believe that Fedde is worth more in next year’s draft as a TJ rehab project whose arrival in the big leagues has been delayed by two years, maybe more. Or that the Nats will agree to go so far over their bonus allotment it costs them a future pick. And, from what I understand is available for Fedde without facing capital punishment, that there isn’t that big a difference between that figure and what Fedde/Boras wants. Does Fedde understand that if Boras covers his rehab the cost will come out of Fedde’s contract — meaning he will need to get hundreds of thousands more by waiting another year. The problem — one problem, at least — with Boras is that he leverages his influence by bundling his players. (Anybody really believe that Soriano wasn’t a quid pro quo for something?) If the Nats stiff Boras today — and I would take next year’s 19th pick 100 times out of 100 rather than forfeit picks — they can kiss the already glimmering chances of re-signing Strasburg or Harper goodbye. (Or have they already concluded that worse things could happen?)

    • tcostant - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:59 AM

      I think they are just waiting to deadline and will take the best deal a minute before. I’m think it will be at slot, maybe 50K more so Boras can say “he won”, but no way it be close to $3M. I think your right about all the things you say, and the cost of rehab is a great point. He’ll walk it up to the deadline and take the best deal he can get.

    • David Proctor - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:06 AM

      Boras doesn’t hold grudges in the way you are implying. He’s a businessman. Strasburg and Harper (and Rendon) will sign with whoever gives them the most money. It’s really that simple.

      • Hiram Hover - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:28 AM

        DP

        Good point. And Rizzo is a businessman too, capable of ignoring Boras’s hyperbolic spin.

      • tcostant - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:16 PM

        Yeah right. Boras holds grudges. While he might not let it get in the way of a huge contract, he might leak some thing might otherwise note.

      • David Proctor - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:18 PM

        My issue is with the notion that if we don’t sign Fedde, any chance of signing a Boras client again is kaput. Boras has never operated that way.

  11. Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:22 AM

    What Ghost said, and

    We can’t know they aren’t considering it, anyway. I seriously doubt it, but if they were, we wouldn’t know about it.

    Zim is going to be an adventure at third, he just is. He knows it, Rizzo knows it, we know it. You have to hang your hat on an IF, sometimes, and cross your fingers. IF Zim can manage to play passably well at third, just not-awful, and he keeps hitting like Ryan Zimmerman, then their chances for the playoffs are good, and that’s all you can ask. He will make errors. Will they be in a crucial spot? Maybe, and that would suck. But once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen, and everything changes everything.

    I’ve said this before, but this seems a good place to reiterate it: I believe good GMs don’t trade from surplus, they trade to fill needs. Find the guy you want, and then see if you can make a deal with what you have. This is a variation on the universal law “Never shop for groceries when you’re hungry.”

    • Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:44 AM

      One last thing on trading end-of-contract veteran stars: Alphonso Soriano is considering retirement after being cut from the Cubs. Kevin Slowey, the name most often mentioned as the trade Bowden didn’t make for Soriano, is “currently a free agent”, i.e., out of baseball, if only temporarily, maybe. The two picks the Nats got, Josh Smoker (tough luck, kid), and Jordan Zimmermann (ace), seem to be better than any trade Bowden probably could have made.

      No, it doesn’t always work out that well, but neither do trades.

    • Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:58 PM

      “He knows it, Rizzo knows it, we know it.”

      and the American people know it. ;-)

  12. natsbro - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:28 AM

    Werth is 9 for 27 with three homers and three doubles against Lohse.

    What I like to hear going into tonight..

  13. Kenz aFan - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:41 AM

    1) The Nats need to figure out how to score 4 or more runs more often if they want to get into the post-season. Right now, they score 3 runs or less 51.6% of the time (48 of 93 games), and that needs to improve in order to give themselves a better chance at improving the odds of getting into the playoffs without having to go through the wildcard game.

    2) We also need to start producing more with runners in scoring position. I’m sure I’m not the only one who hates watching them load up the bases with no outs and coming out of the inning with a single run at best, that is if they don’t blow it.

    Fix those two needs and the Nats will be playing in the World Series

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:16 AM

      Yes, Nats are tied for 23rd in the Majors with a .237 RISP batting average but they are more effective in total runs scored when they have RISP whereby they are 17th in total runs scored per game in RISP situations.

      Did you see the split-squad lineups the Nats were trotting out some nights with Lobaton, Espinosa, and McLouth in the same lineups plus all those players who are now back in Syracuse.

      Keep in mind, that for players on the DL a long time, the road back is about 12 to 25 games needed to get your timing down.

      Also, the Nats have one of the worst benches in the Majors ranking 25th in pinch-hitting BA and 21st in RBI/AB. The Nats actually rank ahead of the Braves and Cardinals when it comes to RBIs/AB in pinch-hitting. That clearly has to get better.

    • bowdenball - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:37 AM

      This season the Nationals are batting .246/.313/.385 overall and .237/.330/.372 with runners in scoring position, and have a virtually identical strikeout rate. The slightly higher OBP and slightly lower slugging % is probably just a function of playing in the NL, where opponents sometimes have the option of pitching around or intentionally walking the 8 hitter to get to the pitcher in a jam. In other words they’re basically the same hitters with runners in scoring position as they are overall.

      Every teams’ fans think their guys don’t produce enough with runners in scoring position. It’s simply confirmation bias + the fact that hitting is hard.

      • Eugene in Oregon - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:03 AM

        And take a moment to recognize what the difference in those two BAs represents: Overall you’re talking 25 hits per 100 ABs, w/RISP you’re talking 24 hits per 100 ABs. But it also means — in both cases — 75 and 76 outs per 100 ABs. Essentially the same result in terms of outs. But we remember the outs more when there are RISPs.

      • Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:27 AM

        +1. I hope MNF reads what you wrote.

      • Eugene in Oregon - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:30 AM

        Not holding my breath on that one.

    • Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:15 PM

      My +1 was intended for bowdenball’s comment, though others have said things I agree with as well.

  14. tcostant - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:53 AM

    I know today is the deadline to sign our draft picks. Does anyone know what time the deadline is? Is it midnight, 4PM, etc?

  15. Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:53 AM

    “Sec 3 My Sofa – Jul 18, 2014 at 9:22 AM: I believe good GMs don’t trade from surplus, they trade to fill needs.”

    Some would say there is only perceived surplus as baseball players aren’t warehouse inventory where supply exceeds demand and they devalue the closer they get to obselesence. Yes, there’s similarities there but the old saying that you can never have enough good pitching is true.

    Each baseball player is unique and their skill sets are never exactly the same. Even their intangibles set them apart.

    Like you said, you trade to fill needs unless you are a team out of the playoff hunt having the annual fire sale, then you trade with an eye on the future.

  16. Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:09 AM

    More on-topic, I’d have put “keeping key players, especially Ramos, on the field” somewhere on the list. Every team has injuries, sure, but it’s a key component of every team’s season, too.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:35 AM

      There are many here in this group that freak out every time a good rest interval comes up. A mere mention of sitting LaRoche with a lefty on the mound evokes the stats that he hits lefties well. So what, that’s your best opportunity to move Danny or another 2B to 2nd and Rendon to 3rd and RZim to 1st.

      Players need days off. When you have blowouts, its the perfect time to pull Ramos early. Saving him 2 innings from the crouch adds up for his durability.

      Werth more than anybody can use some strategic days off.

  17. Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 10:53 AM

    All the discussion above about Strasburg and late in game stats, here’s a sort for late in game offense.

    This is great for those who look for batters who are good late in games. This is from 7th inning on and includes extra innings sorted by OPS so clearly weights for the power hitters.

    Look who sits at #10 in the Majors and surrounded by the elite players in the game and All Stars.

    http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/batting/_/split/48/sort/OPS/qualified/false/minpa/100

    • Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:04 AM

      That’s pretty cool Ghost. You have to go all the way down to No. 19 to find another guy who didn’t make the All
      Star game, and that’s Albert Pujols.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:11 AM

        Truth to that and Angels fans thought Albert was a snub!

        I’m impessed by Marcell Ozuna of the Marlins. He is only 23 years old and he is on the fringe of being elite.

      • Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:25 AM

        And according to your chart, Ozuna has more HRs in the 7th inning or later than anyone in baseball. 10 of his 15 homers have come at the end of a game. Now that’s clutch.

      • Eugene in Oregon - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:07 PM

        Sorry, but I’ve got ask the question: Is that really ‘clutch’ or is that a function of facing relief pitchers who, in many cases, aren’t as strong as SPs? And how many of those HRs were meaningful?

      • Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:07 PM

        Eugene — oh who knows whether there’s such a thing as “clutch.” I’m not all interested in that debate. That sure is a lot of home runs in the final innings of games though. And of course, not all players face relievers at the end of games, not just Ozuna. So obviously his pronounced lead in that category can’t be ascribed to facing relievers. Rendon has 4 of his 13 in those 3 innings. Stanton has 6 of his 21. So not everyone is hitting more homers against relievers.

        In fact, I’ve heard that as bullpens get better and have more guys throwing in the mid-90s, teams would rather face a tiring starter than a 7th or 8th inning guy. Now, if you can get to the bullpen after 4 or 5 innings, that’s another story.

      • Eugene in Oregon - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:13 PM

        Fair enough.

  18. Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:02 AM

    This seems like a good time for an 18-game set wrapup post, since I managed to miss the last one on June 21.

    My last 18-game set post was back on June 1, after our 54th game:

    http://natsinsider.com/2014/06/01/game-55-rangers-at-nats/

    At that point, we sat right at .500 (27-27), having had sets of 10-8, 10-8, and 7-11. I expressed concern that if we were still at .500 after another 18 games, it would be hard to be optimistic about the season. But even going 10-8 in each 18-game set over the course of the season gives you 90 wins. One hot streak on top of that and you’re almost certainly a division winner. Fortunately, the Nats didn’t disappoint. In their fourth 18-game set, they once again went 10-8, and that included losing the first two games of the Braves series in mid-June. The Braves weren’t playing that well either, so while the Nats were 37-35 after 72 games, they were only a half game out of first place. They actually had a very nice 8-2 stretch within that set against the Phillies, Padres, and Giants, which coincided with Zim’s first 10 games back in the lineup. The Cardinals and Braves brought us down to earth. But there were definitely signs of a resurgence, and Harper’s return was on the horizon.

    In the next 18 games, starting with the two wins against the Braves and concluding with the home and home series against the O’s, we finally showed the makings of a championship team, going 12-6. The bats came alive, outscoring the opposition by 77-55 in that stretch. (That’s an average of 4.2 runs per game, by the way.) But the pitching really was the story. In only eight of the 12 wins did we score 4 or more runs. But we won four low scoring games by scores of 3-0, 3-0, 3-0, and 2-1. By the way, last year, in the first 90 games our pitching staff had only 5 shutouts. This year we’ve had 11.

    So yes, things certainly seem to be looking up. After the first 90 games last year, the Nats were 46-44, and trailed the Braves by six games. This year, we were 49-41 and tied for the lead in the NL East, as we are today going into Game 93. A key 18-game set last year spanned the All Star Break. We went 6-12, losing series to the Phillies, Marlins, Dodgers, Pirates and Tigers. After that, we trailed the Braves by 11 games and the season was basically over at the end of the July. This year, we had a good start taking the series against the Phillies before the break. Now we have the Brewers, Rockies, Reds, Marlins and Phillies again.

    Unfortunately, the Braves’ schedule is even easier. Nonetheless, after game 108, the destination of the Nats’ season could be clear.

    • Eugene in Oregon - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:39 AM

      Excellent post. I note that the Braves have an 11-game homestand coming out of the all-star break — against the Phillies (3), the Marlines (4), and the Padres (4). before going on the road for eight — against the Dodgers (3), the Padres again (3), and the Mariners (2). The Nats, on the other hand, have the three-game series at home against the Brewers, then go on the road for nine (three each against the Rockies, Reds, and Marlins). Then back home for four against the Phillies, the single make-up game vs. the O’s, and three against the Mets. I’d say advantage Braves heading into the August 8-10 three-game series in Atlanta. I don’t expect the Nats to pull away during that stretch; I just hope they can remain within striking distance..

    • Hiram Hover - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:46 AM

      Great stuff. Thanks!

  19. Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:37 AM

    “William Ladson ‏@washingnats
    RHP Jordan Zimmermann was able to practice with the Nationals on Thursday. #Nats #Nationals #MLB”

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:38 AM

      “William Ladson ‏@washingnats
      #Nats RHP Jordan Zimmermann is not going on the disabled list. He will throw a bullpen today or tomorrow. #Nationals #MLB”

    • Hiram Hover - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:44 AM

      Excellent news!

      • masterfishkeeper - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:09 PM

        Fantastic news.

  20. hitmeimopen - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    Posts in reference to Stras’ talent are all fine but none even mention his mental fortitude. That is, IMO, his failing. Adversity brings on the heebie-jeebies.

    • Hiram Hover - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:46 AM

      It speaks well of this blog that it took 60-65 comments and almost 6 hours for someone to say this.

      • Eugene in Oregon - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:03 PM

        +1

      • masterfishkeeper - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:10 PM

        +2

      • therealjohnc - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:33 PM

        +3

        It’s such a tired trope, utterly resistant no matter how much contervailing data is piled up.

      • Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:51 PM

        Likewise a kudos to the joint for getting the Post of the Day in the first inning.

        Hiram Hover on July 18, 2014 at 9:15 am
        The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our Stras, but in ourselves.

      • Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:32 PM

        +4 and yes, the Shakespeare quote was brilliant. You’re on fire today HH.

    • wearenationals - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:38 PM

      +3

  21. soonernat - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    Two quick comments:

    Strasburg’s numbers, particularly win/loss, remind me of young Nolan Ryan’s numbers. And he “developed” into a pretty good pitcher……

    Given that baseball tends to revert heavily to the mean…..and given that our recent record against the Braves (since last year) has been extraordinarily bad (certainly since the talent levels are not that different) shouldn’t we expect that Nats to go on a run against the Braves? I really think we are due!

    • Eugene in Oregon - Jul 18, 2014 at 11:46 AM

      I like your thinking.

  22. ArVAFan - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:21 PM

    Slightly off topic, but some of you who have dropped by Sec. 313 to say “hello” have met my taller friend. Well, if you look closely, you’ll see him being much more patriotic from here on out (not in 313 this weekend–we got evicted from our seats for the concert, so we’re elsewhere). He was sworn in as an American citizen this morning.

    Since he obviously had the baseball and hot dog part of America under control, we got him an apple pie. And a flag, of course.

    • Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:55 PM

      Congrats and welcome to him!

      I like to give our new compatriots a baseball in a case as a welcome gift, with the reminder that from now on, whenever they hear someone going on about “those Americans,” “they’re talking about you.”

    • Eugene in Oregon - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:10 PM

      Along those lines, I recall a French friend of mine who demonstrated that he had truly become an American when he not only fell in love with baseball, but came to prefer a 2-1 pitchers’ duel to a home-run fest.

  23. Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:22 PM

    I think this idea that the Nats absolutely have to improve their offense and score 4 runs per game is overstated. The Nats are tied for 4th in the NL (with the Dodgers) in runs scored per game at 4.16. Their pitching is second best in the NL (only the Padres are better) in runs allowed per game at 3.51. They have scored 3 runs or less in 48 games so far. The Braves have done it in 50, the Dodgers in 45, the Giants in 44, the Brewers in 39, Reds in 41 and Cards in 42. There’s not a huge difference, though it would certainly be nice if we could score 4 every game.

    What’s really interesting is how far our our pitching is taking us, even when we don’t score that many runs. Everyone knows how well we do when we score 4 runs or more — only 3 losses so far. No other contender comes close: ATL (9 losses), LAD (11), SFG (10), MIL (12), STL (13), CIN (11). But even if we score only three runs or more, there’s a difference. In such games, we’ve lost only 13 times. (Remember those three 3-0 shutouts within a span of a week in June?). All the other contenders except the Giants are well behind us in that analysis as well: ATL (18 losses), LAD (23), SFG (14), MIL (19), STL (18), CIN (21).

    As much as we like to complain about hitting, it really does seem like this team is able to compete quite well as long as its pitching keeps up the current pace. Perhaps that’s just not possible, which becomes a really good reason to improving our hitting. But for now, we can get by scoring three or more runs.

    • Eugene in Oregon - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:16 PM

      Exactly. As long as the Nats are above the NL average in runs scored, I’m happy. And a chunk of the current average goes back to the games in April-May-June when the line-up wasn’t the line-up I expect to see for the next three months (knock on wood).

  24. adcwonk - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:29 PM

    Strasburg’s numbers, particularly win/loss, remind me of young Nolan Ryan’s numbers. And he “developed” into a pretty good pitcher……

    FWIW, a lot of power-pitchers, strike-out machines, often don’t pull it together until age 26. Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson . . .

    • jd - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:35 PM

      Strasburg’s ERA in the first half was 3.46. But his FIP was 2.72 and his xFIP 2.48. In other words, his base numbers suggest a guy who should have an ERA a run lower.

  25. jd - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:47 PM

    Stra’s ERA is high because hitters are hitting .347 against him whenever they put the ball in play. This is mainly bad luck. Last year it was .263 and lifetime it’s .302.

    JZimm has a .329 BABIp compared to .271 last year and .294 lifetime.

    Expect better ERA’s and Win totals for both our aces in the 2nd half all things being equal.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:54 PM

      Those BABIP increases is now a trend based on the sample size being large enough. It keeps telling me that Weidemayer not only isn’t helping in defensive positioning, it’s actually been worse.

      Whoever was in charge of defensive shifts for the Phillies this past weekend did a very good job. The Nats would have scored several more runs if their infield wasn’t as well placed as they were.

      I see defensive range improving but you can’t get to some balls that are placed away from the defense.

      • Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:57 PM

        That’s a pretty dire conclusion to reach from indirect evidence Ghost.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:04 PM

        In small sample sizes, sure, bad luck plays a part but eventually it evens out with good luck and vice versa as you get to this large of a sample size at approx 16 starts each.

        At some point you have to look to poor range and defense which doesn’t seem to be the overall culprit except in RF with Werth and then you can look at line drive percentages which raises BABIP and that doesn’t seem to be an issue vs last year so then it comes down to defensive positioning which can be considered an issue.

        Each batter has a spray chart and within that spray chart the defensive positioning gets very precise.

      • Sec 3 My Sofa - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:04 PM

        Somehow, “FIRE THE DEFENSIVE COORDINATION AND ADVANCE COACH!” doesn’t have the same ring to it…

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:06 PM

        +1 good one Sec3

      • bowdenball - Jul 18, 2014 at 2:10 PM

        GoSM if the elevated BABIPs of Stras and Zim were due to defensive positioning issues, the entire staff BABIP would be high. It’s not; the Nats pitching staff is fight in the middle of the league in BABIP at .298.

        The obvious takeaway is that the sample size is still pretty small for individual starters because you’re only talking about 19-20 starts, leading to far more variance. then you see team-wide.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Jul 18, 2014 at 2:25 PM

        Do you think positioning should be the same for each pitcher? If you do, then you just answered the problem.

        Differences in velocity, pitch type, pitch tendencies, pitch movement, pitch location, will change where the ball goes.

        Strasburg has had 20 starts. That’s a large sample size and in order to get back to where he was last year he would need to get a BABIP in the low .200’s to get that average BABIP to where it was last year. I hope he can but I don’t see the likelihood of that happening.

  26. Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:56 PM

    A few thoughts on the story lines.

    5. Strasburg — I’d love for Stras to take it up a notch, but I’m fine with him just the way he is for this year’s pennant run. He leads the team in quality starts with 14, and only Fister has a higher quality start percentage (75% vs. Stras’s 70%). Would it be better if he went 7 innings consistently instead of 6? Sure. But we have the best bullpen in baseball so I don’t see it as all that significant. Certainly not anywhere near the top of the list of things that need to happen for the Nats to make a playoff run. I really could care less how many “wins” he gets, and neither should anyone else.

    4. Trade deadline — It would be great to see Rizzo trade for a better bench bat than Hairston. I just don’t think it’s going to happen based on his track record. We can probably muddle through for another 45 days until Souza arrives.

    3. Harper — I think this is actually the No. 1 storyline. If Harper takes off, we will walk away with the NL East. If he doesn’t, we’ll be in a dog fight. Fingers crossed.

    2. Zim — First, I think it’s been mentioned that while it’s technically true that none of Zim’s 16 throws from 3B since returning to the lineup have resulted in an error, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t made a bad throw. MLB Network has played the botched double play throw about six zillion times so far. But I’ve made my peace with Zim at 3B, and I still think MW’s decision was the right one. (Victory lap, victory lap.) His arm was going to be an increasing liability in LF, and, most importantly, the lineup without Espi is a whole lot better than a lineup without Span would be.

    1. Braves — Meh. Just split with ‘em. That’s all I ask. They don’t have our number, they don’t have Clip’s number. Play the games and win half of them and we’ll be fine. Honestly, I’d much rather be us than them at this point. Their starting pitching is suspect, their bullpen other than Kimbrel is ragged and injury prone, and they have way more rally killers in their lineup than we do. The one thing they do have is the ability to execute (defense, bunts) in the big situation. They did that last year in their series in DC and the Nats didn’t. Time for that to change.

    On to the second half!

    • David Proctor - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:11 PM

      Well I want Strasburg to get a lot of wins, because that means the team is winning.

      • Section 222 - Jul 18, 2014 at 1:36 PM

        Sure it does, but that’s not what Mark was talking about. I think you know that so I won’t elaborate.

  27. pchuck69 - Jul 18, 2014 at 2:16 PM

    >>He can pitch deeper into games.

    Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And that’s true for all of the Nationals starters, for that matter. We need them to be strong at the end of the season and into the playoffs, not running on fumes because they burned through innings in July and August.

    “Aces” who pitch 240 innings over and over and over, year after year turn into the messes that CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander have become.

Archives

NL EAST STANDINGS

W L GB
WASHINGTON 76 57 --
ATLANTA 71 64 6.0
MIAMI 65 68 11.0
NEW YORK 63 72 14.0
PHILADELPHIA 61 73 15.5
Through Friday's games

UPCOMING SCHEDULE
SAT: Nats at Mariners, 9:10 p.m.
SUN: Nats at Mariners, 4:10 p.m.
MON: Nats at Dodgers, 8:10 p.m.
TUE: Nats at Dodgers, 10:10 p.m.
WED: Nats at Dodgers, 4:10 p.m.
THU: OFF
FRI: Phillies at Nats, 7:05 p.m.
Full season schedule

Mark joins Rob Carlin and Joe Orsulak every Thursday at 4 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet for a half-hour show on the Nats, Orioles and rest of MLB. Re-airs Thursdays at 11:30 p.m., Saturdays at 9 a.m. and Sundays at 11:30 a.m.

ON THE RADIO

As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2014 schedule (subject to change)...

MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 1:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.

*All times Eastern. You can also listen to the station on 94.3 FM, 92.7 FM and online at ESPN980.com. Click here for past audio clips.

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