Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ten Burning Questions: Spring Training

For each of the last three seasons, I've previewed spring training with what I was looking at. What are the key questions? What needs to be resolved? You see some recurring themes: Is Patterson an ace? How much does Guzman suck?

This year's not really different. And although I think that a lot of the questions surrounding the team are just puffery -- that when you take a hard look at the roster, the questions are essentially already answered -- it's nice to know that a certain other group of them don't revolve around crapbags like Logan or Endy. The team has a better supporting cast, and there's a hope for something a bit bigger, if not this year, then next. On to the questions...

1) How is Patterson's Curve?

Everyone focuses on Patterson's velocity. As I bleated over and over last year, that doesn't really interest me. Sure, it's an indicator, but, to me, the key for his health and success has always been that curve ball. As we saw with Bergmann, you can have a great fastball, but if it's not accompanied with a quality breaking pitch, you're going to get hit.

If you remember back to '05, it was that hard, sharp breaking curve that was a deadly compliment to that high, riding fastball. Look high when he throws the curve, and you're dead. Look low for the curve, and you miss the fastball. Those two pitches compliment each other in that not only do they change the timing of your swing, but they change the plane.

If his arm and elbow are healthy enough to snap off those yakkers, he can be what he was in '05, a 1A pitcher. But if he can't throw them -- or if his mind holds him back and they're not as sharp -- it won't be as pretty. His fastball's good enough on its own for a 4.00 ERA. If that curve works, he's in the 3s.

2) How are Hill's breaking pitches?
While certain scribes salivate over the sinker, it's not the darting action that makes that pitch -- it's his complimentary breaking pitches. Hill reported forearm pain in his throwing arm last season, and said it was something he battled through. It got worse, of course, once his mechanics got screwed up a bit because of the injury to his leading shoulder.

Think about the action of the sinker. It doesn't just dart down. It also has a bit of a jamming action in on the hands of right-handed batters. It's slight, but it helps batters to "miss-hit" the ball. But if that's all he throws, the batters can adjust.

When you pair that with a good breaking pitch -- be that a curve that dives down further, or a slider with action more on a horizontal plane -- it keeps the batters honest. Righties can't cheat 'inside' and low to get the diving sinker when there are alternate low pitches to contend with. If the strike zone is a clock face, the sinker comes in at 5, the curve at 7, and the slider about 8:30. That's a lot of adjusting a batter has to do, even if he knows they're all going to be low in the zone.

And against lefties, those breaking pitches are essential, serving as effective jamming pitches -- the soft-tossers equivalent of the high hard one -- to prevent those guys from diving out and poking the sinker to the opposite field.

Is his elbow healthy enough to keep him throwing those pitches? I'm not sure his sinker's good enough with out 'em.

3) Will FLop be able to dislodge the boot from his butt?
When this team has a message to send, do they! I half expected to see a billboard off 395 one day from the Nats advertising "Felipe Lopez is a dissapointment! -- oh and buy tickets; they're going fast!" We get it. He stinks. He had a bad season. He has potential. He didn't smile. Blah blah blah.

The coup-de-grace was taking him to arbitration over a $300K difference. That's less than the decals on Bowden's Segway cost. If that's not a giant FU, I'm not sure what one is.

The point is it's basically tough love. The team KNOWS that it needs Lopez if they're going to take a step forward. Although he's an all-world lousy shortstop, he's the best shortstop on the roster. I know they're still talking about him as the second baseman, but I have less confidence in Guzman's ability to hold down the job than I have in Langerhans' chances of winning the batting title.

If you throw out last year, Lopez is a solid, not spectacular, middle infielder. He gets on base a little. Hits for a little bit of average. Runs a bit. Has pretty good speed. Lots of little things add up, even if he's probably not going to hit those 25 or so homers like he did that one year.

If you look at his isolated numbers -- that is, his OBP and SLG minus the batting average part -- you see that he really wasn't all that different last season. The difference for him was that he had a few fewer singles drop in. Could be bad luck. Could be malaise. I dunno. But the point is that if he gets, say, 20 more hits to drop in next season, you're going to be talking about what a good leadoff guy he is.

The door is open for him in spring training if he works hard and plays well. Will he?

4) Can Guzman repeat?
Bowden's folly has six months to prove that he wasn't a mistake. $12 million has bought six homers and a .294 on-base percentage. "But but but," I can hear you saying, "he hit .400 last year! He's good!"

sigh

Let's again look at those isolated numbers. His isolated-obp and isolated-slg aren't really all that different from his career numbers. That's a gobbledygook way of saying the opposite of what I said with Lopez: he just had a lot of singles falling in. And if you think really hard, you'll recall lots of infield grounders making their way past the infielders when he was at the plate. Sure, he gets credit for those. They happened. They helped the team. But are you going to bet on him doing that again this season?

His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) -- what he does when he puts bat to ball -- was a career high by 20 points, beating out his '01 season when he actually finished 16th in the MVP balloting. It beat his career average by sixty points. He's going to regress. And even if he falls back to his "MVP" season, it's going to be a big drop.

Throw in that he -- to my eyes at least (and most of the defensive stats) -- is a pretty lousy shortstop and... well... I'm going to bet that he won't be the starting SS by the time the season ends.

5) What's the rotation going to look like (at first)?
In general, I think there's too much focus on who makes the rotation as if 1) that's the rotation you're going to go with all year; 2) you're not going to need additional pitchers 3) something else which I've forgotten. I've used the depth chart model for the rotation this offseason, and I'll stand behind that. It's useful for sorting through what the options really are.

At any rate, if Hill and Patterson are healthy, they come north. Unless he falls on his face like he did last year, Tim Redding -- the forgotten man this spring -- is likely to head north because of his option situation. (He's gotta be out, right? or have enough service time to make things difficult.) Now, if he craps the bed like he did last spring, he could be sent to the minors, especially with that $1 million contract. Perez, if he pitches ok in spring, has an inside track. Typically his type of contract includes a release clause if he doesn't make the team out of spring. (That's how Colome made it over Saul Rivera at the last minute last spring.) If that's the case, he probably takes the 4th spot.

That leaves one spot for Bergmann/Chico/Lannan/someone else. I'm not sold on Bergmann's long-term ability to stay healthy and effective. (short version: he needs breaking pitches to be good, but he can't throw breaking pitches because of his elbow.) It'd be hard for the team to just give up on Chico after "leading" the team in innings (thanks to all those 4- and 5-inning outings) last season. But he probably could use some more seasoning. Lannan? The team doesn't owe him anything this spring, so unless he turns into '93 Maddux, we'll see him mid-season, I'd bet.

So when you break it down, there really aren't that many options, and really not that many chances for the kids... at first. We can talk about Mock and Clippard and the rest, but unless one of those guys gets hurt, the team has to use their option status to keep them in the minors to be the first wave of replacements. You can send down Lannan without losing him, but if you tried that with Perez, who knows?

6) Can Dukes be a model citizen?

Damned if I know. I hope so. But who the hell knows. At least the media in this town isn't going to be poking him with sharp sticks like they would in some other places.

I still wish one of them would ask Bowden if he'd let Dukes babysit his children, which is what he asserted after the similarly maligned Jose Guillen (boy, does that seem like ages ago) had his own press conference.

7) Who's on first?
This is another one of those questions, which is being asked, but I think already has its answers. Given everything you've heard Acta say about the importance of on-base percentage over the last two seasons, and given DY's horrid defense, is there really a scenario where DY gets the majority of the starts? Manny's not stupid. He knows that Johnson is the better player.

So NJ gets most starts. DY starts against tough lefties. He fills in for the 10% of the season that NJ misses with nagging injuries. And DY gets 100 or so ABs as the top PHer. That's what? 400 ABs over the course of a season? There's plenty of PT for the both of 'em while leveraging their strengths.

8) Detwiler to the pen?
Just more bleating from Bowden... there's just no room for the guy, and most of those roster spots are already locked up. Cordero, Rauch, Ayala, King, Rivera, Colome, Schroder. Colome sticks because of his contract. The only option there is King, but Acta seems to want a LOOGY. If Detwiler (or someone else like him) is going to make it, it's going to be at Schroder's expense, which assumes they're taking 7 relievers in the first place. I like the idea of starting a pitcher out as a swingman, but I'd rather Detwiler get at least one season of experience in the minors!

9) Who rides the pine?
Here's another case where there might technically be unanswered questions, a closer look shows that there's not.
8 position starters and an (for sake of argument) 11-man pitching staff means 6 bench spots.
OF: Dukes, Mackowiak
C: Estrada
IF: Harris, Belliard/Lopez
Corner: Dmitri

Edit: I forgot about Aaron Boone! I REALLY don't know how they're going to squeeze all those players in now!

That's it. Any questions?

The only catch would be if they wanted to carry 12 men on the pitching staff... then you've got a logjam. (I'd bet they'd be less likely to take 12 because of this, which makes the whole Detwiler thing above even less likely...)

Rule 5ers? no chance. Pete Orr? no chance. These contracts really make all the decisions for them.

10) Do the stats matter?
I'll just copy what I wrote back in '06. Update the players in your mind as you read!
Not very. Spring Training stats are dangerously misused. Batters don't come to the plate too much in the thirty or so games they play, and they're not always facing the best pitchers or fielders. Spring training is more about scouting than stats. The team's personnel need to look and see how a hitter is doing. Is he making hard contact, hitting line drives that are being caught? Has he lucked out with a few bloop singles? Unforunately, those are things that aren't really clear from the box scores. We have, at best, an incomplete picture. At worst, a misleading one.

Same goes for pitchers. Sometimes they're facing minor league lineups. Sometimes they're just working on one pitch, throwing nothing but a changeup, trying to learn a new grip. The team knows what's going on, but we can't, unless one of the writers fills us in.

Most importantly, don't worry about wins and losses. They never reflect how a team will actually do. It usually seems like the team with the most veteran Triple-A lineup does the best -- in which case, I expect Ruben Mateo and George Lombard to lead the Grapefruit League in hitting, and the Nationals to be in first place by the end!

One thing that I do find valuable, though, is K/BB ratio for pitchers. It's not a perfect measure, but it gives you an idea of a pitcher's control, as well as how good his 'stuff' might be. Even if he's giving up runs, if he's still striking out batters, it means he's doing something right. Patterson's numbers last spring were quite good. That might be one way to sort out the starter's logjam.

17 Comments:

  • Who's "Harris" the back up infielder? Did they re-acquire Brendan Harris somehow? I just checked the 40 man roster and the non-roster invitee list and didn't see a "Harris."

    Details for the clueless please.

    By Anonymous Sec 314, at 2/20/2008 11:31 PM  

  • Willie Harris.

    He played mostly left, but he's been a 2B most of his career.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 2/20/2008 11:33 PM  

  • Thank you for having a crack at Ryan L. Much appreciated.

    By Anonymous Gus, at 2/21/2008 12:17 AM  

  • Great analyses, Chris. Now, get your own Segway.

    By Anonymous Friend of STAN, at 2/21/2008 7:07 AM  

  • "The only option there is King, but Acta seems to want a LOOGY."

    On what are you basing this statement? Has Acta ever come out and said "I want a LOOGY in my bullpen"? Or are you saying this because last year when Acta had a LOOGY he used the LOOGY a lot in LOOGY situations? How about this: Detwiler is a lefthander. Also, as a presumptive starting pitcher eventually, he is (or will be expected to become) someone who is capable of going several innings at a stretch and who is equally effective against righties and lefties. Therefore, he could be the anti-LOOGY. If he's already in the game, he eliminates the need to bring in the LOOGY. If he's brought in in a LOOGY situation, rather than being pulled after facing the one batter, he stays in the game. So, if Detwiler stays on the team to pitch from the bullpen, I could easily see King as the one who gets cut to make room for him.

    By Blogger An Briosca Mor, at 2/21/2008 8:04 AM  

  • I hope Dukes has enough sense to turn his life for the better, but talk about high maintenance, sheesh.

    By Anonymous Tulsa Fan, at 2/21/2008 8:09 AM  

  • Acta -- last year -- expressed a preference to have a LOOGY out there.

    So Detwiler's only chance because of the other pitchers and their contracts would be at the expense of King.

    Sure, Detwiler could be used as a super LOOGY, if you will, but what Bowden was talking about was more of a long man role, someone who comes in in low-pressure situations to help ease him into the bigs.

    Acta would likely still want a LOOGY for those 7th/8th inning situations, especially with so many tough LHB in this division.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 2/21/2008 8:09 AM  

  • My list:
    1 - Will Patterson grow his mullet back? Will Redding grow his "doormat" beard back?
    2- Will Hill ever "smile" or admit he did "well"??
    3-Will FLoppie enjoy playing ball again, instead of being all mopey?
    4-Will Guzzie be in tip-top shape?
    5-Why do people think youngsters can "learn" to pitch in the ML by facing AAA batters? Chico will not get better down there, his first 30 starts in ML are amazing similar to Glavine's first 30. Glavine stayed in the ML and improved. So should Chico (but only if The ChicoSphere returns)
    6- Dukes subbing in for Lastings in CF will enable the Nats to put in the "Heavy Jumbo OF", Wily MO 245, Dukes 250, Kearnsie 225 (official). Just gotta keep Nick for going for any "tweeners" or he'll get killed.
    7-Nick's such a pure hitter it'd be a same to bench him.
    8-Detwiler needs Ray King's old Foreman Grill and put the beef on, and pitch 140 IP. Can't do that in the ML as a dern reliever.

    By Anonymous VladiHondo, at 2/21/2008 8:38 AM  

  • Will Ray King truly become the next Mike Stanton by being traded late in the year?

    By Blogger WFY, at 2/21/2008 8:48 AM  

  • Two quick things..
    One, thank you thank you thank you for stating the obvious, which is going against the company line. Nick Johnson CANNOT sit for Meat. His OBP is the priority, but his defense seals the deal. I got so sick of seeing Meat playing 7 or 8 innings last year. What good is his bat, if he's only gonna get three plate appearances a game?
    Two, props to VladiHondo for stating another obvious. Bring back the Matt Chico-sphere!

    By Blogger Phishisgr8, at 2/21/2008 9:28 AM  

  • I so miss the Chico-sphere.

    By Blogger Ironic Goat, at 2/21/2008 9:29 AM  

  • Great post, Chris. My question about the Young/Johnson situation is whether they'll trade Johnson if he shows he's healthy this spring. The quotes in the paper from . . . seems like everybody, including DY, Nick and Bodes, suggests that if both DY and Nick are healthy, that a trade is likely. I'd love it if they kept both guys as you've suggested, and dumped Boone or Harris, but Nick might very well bring a high-level pitching prospect.

    By Blogger Art L, at 2/21/2008 9:30 AM  

  • On the 1B question, perhaps the thinking is a different kind of platoon.

    Instead of the straight righty/lefty platoon, it would be more of a job share . . . NJ would get off a day game after a night game, he'd only start three in a row or something like that. It would look more like how catchers are rotated . . . a workhorse #1 catcher plays what 120 games a year. Mediocre #1 catchers play like 100 that'd be about right for NJ. Plus NJ would be a great late inning defensive replacement, that would put him in another 30 or so games this year.

    This is a roundabout way of saying that a trade is NOT inevitable.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/21/2008 10:00 AM  

  • Outstanding analysis as usual, Chris.

    Great food for thought regarding the bench. Harris is the only name that surprised me, though as you point out he'll probably be gone for Boone.

    I do hope that you're wrong about Guzman. Of course there will be some regression to the mean, but putting numbers aside, if you watched him in person last year during his brief healthy stretch he was a completely different batter. It wasn't just about a few more singles falling in. He was hitting a lot of balls harder, where the previous season it seemed like he could barely dribble a ball to the first baseman.

    Not predicting he'll be an all star. Just holding out some hope that he doesn't regress his way out of a job.

    By Anonymous Let Teddy Win the Presidents Race, at 2/21/2008 11:00 AM  

  • That's a good point on Guzman. It was in my mind, but never made it to the keyboard.

    Still, he's not going to hit as high as he did last year on balls in play... and any regression turns him into a .290/.310/.370 kind of guy.

    Eh... won't kill you, but he's not really helping you.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 2/21/2008 11:04 AM  

  • Does anyone have any idea about who the Nats would get for NJ or DY? Which team would be the most likely trading partner? A team that needs a PH, DH or a 1B?

    By Blogger Jeff, at 2/21/2008 11:38 AM  

  • By Blogger Sneakers hobbies, at 11/01/2009 8:14 PM  

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