Spring Musings for the (World Series Champion) Washington Nationals

On Castro’s launch angles, Sanchez’s hard-hit percentage, and other stats that may slip through the cracks.

I’m beginning to come out of hibernation from a fall and winter spent celebrating the Washington Nationals’ first World Series championship. I had the privilege of seeing the Wild Card game that started it all last year, easily my favorite of dozens of Nats games I’ve seen since coming to D.C. in 2012.

But, much like the team and its fierce competitors (led by Max Scherzer, he of the broken-nose game), I’m ready to move on and root for a 2020 repeat. Nats fans have surely read about some of the big storylines of this winter and spring:

This post answers none of those questions. As reporters and fans debate those interesting and important topics, I wanted to share some thoughts and open questions that not as many folks are considering at the moment. Nonetheless, they matter deeply to the lineup, rotation, and bullpen (respectively), and could make or break the Nats at the margins as they attempt to become the first MLB team to repeat as champions since the 1999–2000 Yankees.

The Nats made a well-regarded but low-key upgrade at second base this winter when they signed (former Cub, Yankee, and Marlin) Starlin Castro to a two-year deal. Castro put up impressive numbers in 2019, but whether he is a break or bust for the Nats depends on whether he plays like he did in the first half of 2019 vs. like he played in the second half. Take a look at the splits:

  • 1st half: .245 AVG/.272 OBP/.336 SLG, 6 HR, 34 RBI, 62 sOPS+ (this measures OPS+ relative to the league, and a 62 sOPS+ means Castro was 38 percent worse than league average for this split)
  • 2nd half: .302/.334/.558, 16 HR, 52 RBI, 131 sOPS+

Big difference. Castro was 38 percent worse than league average in the first half of the year, and 31 percent better in the second half. He simply raked from July through September. If Castro’s first half had matched his second half, this is what his season could have looked like (and, for good measure, I compared it to Anthony Rendon’s real season last year):

  • Castro hypothetical: .302/.334/.558, 34 HR, 104 RBI, 88 R, 38 2B, 4.2 WAR
  • Rendon: .319/.412/.598, 34 HR, 126 RBI, 117 R, 44 2B, 6.3 WAR

Now, Castro is no Anthony Rendon (and he never will be), but if he keeps raking in 2020 he could go a long way towards making the Nats miss Rendon a little less.

There’s some reason for optimism, too. Check out Castro’s career stats at Nats Park (albeit over just 36 games and 159 plate appearances):

  • Castro at Nats Park: .336/.358/.513, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 136 tOPS+ (this measures a player’s OPS+ in a split relative to his average, meaning Castro is 36 percent better at Nats Park than he is on average)

Castro’s tOPS+ at Nats Park is the fourth-best among all ballparks he has played at.

The key for Castro’s sustained success may be keeping his launch angle well above league average. Review this chart below (from MLB’s Baseball Savant) and you can see why Castro had the best offensive half of his career last summer.

The second half of 2019 was the first time Castro had a sustained launch angle higher than league average. If he can keep his launch angle high, he’ll undoubtedly keep getting extra-base hits and home runs at rates higher than his career average.

Regardless of his offensive contributions, though, Castro is poised to be an upgrade in at least one spot for the Nats: second-base defense.

In 2018, Wilmer Difo led the Nats in games played at second base, and scored a 1 in Outs Above Average (OAA) at second. OAA is Baseball Savant’s measure of how good an infielder is relative to league average, with a negative score being worse than average and a positive score being better. So, Difo was roughly league average at second in 2018.

In 2019, Brian Dozier started at second, and the results on defense were pretty atrocious. Dozier had -6 OAA, only in the sixth percentile of all MLB fielders who played enough innings to qualify. Ergo, he was one of the worst fielders in baseball.

Castro, on the other hand, had 8 OAA at 2B (and 10 overall) with the Marlins in 2019, good enough for the 96th percentile of MLB fielders. In short, he was one of the best defenders in the game last year— and primarily at second base.

Castro is sure to offer an upgrade at defense, and may offer a significant upgrade from Dozier and Difo on offense — that is, if the second-half Castro shows up. Given he may be hitting from the five-spot in 2020 (behind Soto), Castro’s success may make or break the Nats’ lineup.

Last postseason, Anibal Sanchez briefly became a surprise hero for the Nats and gave them a fourth ace in the rotation. In Game 3 of the NLDS, Sanchez threw five innings against the fearsome Dodgers lineup, allowing four hits and one run while striking out nine. He left the game after five innings with the Nats up one, before the bullpen coughed up the lead. Then, in Game 1 of the NLCS, Sanchez set the tone for the Nats’ four-game sweep of the Cardinals by throwing 7.2 shoutout innings (and carrying a no-hitter into the 8th inning).

Sanchez’s regular season numbers didn’t quite match his postseason heroics. He finished the year with a 3.85 ERA (but a higher 4.44 FIP, often seen as a more accurate read of a pitcher’s performance). Indeed, the Nats’ Sanchez signing looked like a bust in early May, after he started 0–4 with a 5.91 ERA.

Take out that month of April, though, and Sanchez’s year looked real good:

  • May: 1–2, 1.65 ERA, 2.63 SO/BB
  • June: 3–0, 2.76 ERA, 6.25 SO/BB
  • July: 2–0, 3.72 ERA, 2.00 SO/BB
  • August: 2–0, 3.81 ERA, 1.92 SO/BB
  • Sept & Oct: 3–2, 4.06 ERA, 3.00 SO/BB

So, which Sanchez do the Nats get in 2020? The May/June, Game 1 of the NLCS Sanchez who looked like a fourth ace? The April Sanchez who wouldn’t last long in a rotation? Or something in the middle, like the August/September Sanchez of last year who pitched, quite frankly, like Nats fans would expect their fourth starter to pitch?

The answer to that question may rely on two factors: Sanchez continuing to prevent hitters from making hard contact with his pitches, and manager Davey Martinez limiting Sanchez’s pitch count.

Sanchez’s success in 2018 (with the rival Braves) and 2019 (with the Nats) were in large part due to his ability to prevent hitters from hitting the ball hard. Hitters’ exit velocity on batted balls against Sanchez were in the league’s 86th percentile in 2019, and the hard-hit percentage against him was in the 96th percentile — meaning Sanchez yielded some of the softest contact in the National League. Sanchez’s percentiles here were similar in 2018, another great year for the veteran starter. Soft contact generally means less hits and more outs.

As for pitch count, here were Sanchez’s 2019 splits based on whether a lineup was facing him for the first, second, or third time in a game:

  • 1st: .209 BAA/.262 OBPA/.325 SLGA, 62 sOPS+ (meaning Sanchez was 38 percent better than league average the first time through an order)
  • 2nd: .235/.315/.387, 83 sOPS+ (Sanchez was 17 percent better than league average the second time through an order)
  • 3rd: .288/.352/.571, 127 sOPS+ (Sanchez was 27 percent worse than league average the third time through an order)

If Martinez can limit Sanchez to two times through an order, he may help the veteran righty retain his 2018–2019 success from the back end of the rotation. That requires a solid and dependable bullpen, though, which brings us to…

The Nationals’ most important new signing of the offseason was former Astro reliever Will Harris. The 35-year-old, who owns a 2.36 ERA, 2.99 FIP, and 175 ERA+ over the last five seasons with the Astros (309 games), will set up for Sean Doolittle, follow Daniel Hudson, and could give the Nats a strong 7–8–9 set in relief.

But unlike the playoffs, when Davey Martinez rode his starters, Hudson, and Doolittle game in and game out, the Nats can’t throw out their three best relievers for 162 games each this year. That raises the question of who will take up the four to five remaining slots in the bullpen. Those choices, and how effective they end up being in 2020, will determine whether the Nats’ bullpen looks nearly as ugly as last year, or turns the corner and becomes an asset for a contending team.

Looking at the Nats spring training roster, I see roughly eight guys competing for the last four or five slots:

  • Wander Suero was the Nats’ workhorse last year, appearing in nearly half the team’s games (78 total). His 4.54 ERA actually masks a 3.07 FIP, suggesting Suero was far more effective than his traditional stats would imply. I think Suero makes the team, and could even develop into a solid sixth-inning option for the Nats. (Spring so far: 4.2 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 3 SO.)
  • Austin Voth may be the odd man out in a fifth-starter battle with Joe Ross, and if so the Nats would have to put him in the bullpen or risk losing him through waivers because he’s out of minor league options. Voth was effective in the bigs last year, throwing 43.2 innings over nine games (eight starts) to the tune of a 3.30 ERA (3.79 FIP, and 140 ERA+). He’s been impressive in spring so far: 7 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 SO.
  • Erick Fedde would also be an odd man out in a fifth-starter battle with Ross and Voth, but he has minor league options remaining and could be sent down to AAA. He wasn’t particularly strong with the Nats in 2019, pitching to a 4.50 ERA (and ghastly 5.34 FIP) across 78 innings. He could receive a callup, though, if one of the Nats’ four incumbent starters go down. (Spring so far: 7.1 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 7 SO.)
  • Roenis Elias seems likely to make the team, if only because he is the only viable non-Doolittle lefty in camp right now and the Nats could use a lefty compliment to Doolittle. He had a 3.96 ERA in 48 games last year, but that covered up an ugly 5.07 FIP. The key for Elias may be reducing his reliance on the fastball. In his stellar 2018 with Seattle (2.65 ERA, 3.08 FIP in 51 innings), Elias used his four-seamer 32.6 percent of the time (and batters hit .246 against it), his curveball 24.2 percent of the time (and batters hit .159 against it), and his changeup 21 percent of the time (and batters hit .234 against it). In his pedestrian 2019 season, Elias used his four-seamer 50.7 percent of the time, but batters hit .316 against it. Batters hit less than .200 against each of his other three pitches (curve, changeup, sinker), but he used those far less often than the fastball. (Spring so far: 5.1 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 3 SO.)
  • The Nats traded for Harper! Well, Ryne Harper of the Twins, in their only major trade of the offseason. A late bloomer by baseball standards, the 31-year-old Harper made his debut season last year with the Twins, and pitched to an effective 3.81 ERA (3.66 FIP and 121 ERA+) in 54.1 innings with the American League contender. Harper stood out for his excellent control, placing in the top four percent of the league in walk rate. Other advanced statistics were not so great, though: he was in the 34th percentile for exit velocity, and the 41st percentile for hard hit percentage. And his first half (2.92 ERA in 39 games) was much better than his second (5.71 ERA in 22 games). Harper may make the team though, on strength on his command. (Spring so far: 5.1 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 4 SO.)
  • Tanner Rainey, who the Nats acquired from the Reds after the 2018 season in a Tanner R. for Tanner R. trade, joined Suero in having a surprisingly effective season as a non-household name for Nats fans. Rainey had a 3.91 ERA (4.37 FIP, 118 ERA+) in 48.1 innings in 2019. Rainey was excellent at preventing hits — his .194 xBA (expected batting average against) was in the top five percent of the National League. However, when Rainey gave up hits he gave up good ones — the hard-hit percentage off him, 43.9 percent, was in the worst three percent of the league. If Rainey can keep avoiding bats, though, he could join Suero as a dependable sixth-inning option. (Spring so far: 4 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 2 SO.)
  • A little like Castro, Hunter Strickland is a tale of two players, though over a longer time period. From 2015–2017, Strickland was one of the best relievers in the game: 195 games, 2.75 ERA, 3.25 FIP, and a 148 ERA+. From 2018–2019, Strickland looked like a shadow of his former self: 77 games, 4.52 ERA, 5.07 FIP, and a 91 ERA+. Can Strickland recapture his mid-2010s magic? So far, spring is not looking good: 5 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 8 SO.
  • My dark horse candidate for a Nats bullpen spot in 2020: James Bourque. The 26-year-old has thrown less than a full inning in his major league career, but he has put impressive spring numbers so far: 5 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 8 SO. Clearly the Nats are interested, as they’ve thrown him more than almost any reliever so far in spring. But can Bourque translate good spring and minor league numbers to the bigs? He had a 4.22 ERA in 47 AA and AAA games in 2019, and a 1.70 ERA in 41 A+ and AA games in 2018. That’s hardly an indicator of future success in the major leagues. Bourque is one to watch.

Assuming the Nats put five relievers on their roster, in addition to Hudson-Harris-Doolittle, I’d guess Suero, Elias, Rainey, Voth, and Harper make the team. Fedde and Bourque have minor league options remaining, and Strickland has looked downright bad so far this spring. Regardless of who makes it though, this cast will be key to taking the burden off Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Sanchez in the regular season. They’ll also be key to avoiding overload for Hudson, Harris, and Doolittle.

Let’s be real though: almost anything would be better than a 5.66 team bullpen ERA, which is what the Nationals won the World Series with last year. Onward and upward!

Writing about policy, politics, baseball, and more. Born/raised in CT. Proud D.C. resident. Raisin Bran Crunch enthusiast. Always tired.

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