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Entries in Washington Nationals (19)

Tuesday
Feb252014

Criticism Aside, Harper Keeps Improving

Bryce Harper is 21 years old, launched more home runs during his age 19 and 20 seasons (42) than any hitter since Tony Conigliaro a half-century ago, and racked up as many Wins Above Replacement over that period (nine) as Ty Cobb. Yet, for all of Harper's early-career accomplishments -- or perhaps because of them -- we like to nit-pick his performance. Can Harper, limited to 118 games last year due to a left knee injury, learn to avoid brain-rattling outfield collisions while retaining his competitive fire? Why hasn't he joined fellow phenom prospect Mike Trout among the game's truly elite? Was it really such a good idea for Harper to challenge Jesus Montero to an eating contest during the offseason? (He lost, apparently.)

With the focus on Harper's playing style and off-field plate discipline, some might have overlooked his across-the-board offensive improvement in 2013. Harper boosted his batting average (from .270 as a rookie in 2012 to .274), on-base percentage (.340 to .368) and slugging percentage (.477 to .486) while also sharpening his strike-zone control (his walk-to-strikeout ratio climbed from 0.47 to 0.65). His park-and-league-adjusted OPS spiked from 18 percent above average to 33 percent above average. By any measure, Harper's bat became even more lethal in 2013.

How, exactly, did Harper post arguably the best offensive showing by an age-20 corner outfielder since Tony C? Here's a closer look at his gains in controlling the zone and clubbing pitches deeper into the gaps.

No More Trouble with the Curve

Harper increased his OBP by nearly 30 points thanks to a more refined plate approach in 2013. After walking in 9.4% of his plate appearances as a rookie, Harper drew ball four 12.3% of the time last year. Granted, pitchers tiptoed around the Nationals slugger, throwing him fewer pitches in the strike zone last season (41.2%) than in 2012 (42.3%). Only Pablo Sandoval (37.2%) got a lower rate of in-zone offerings among players batting at least 400 times in 2013. Still, to Harper's credit, he did a better job of laying off those pitches tossed off the corners and in the dirt.

Harper chased less often no matter the pitch type, but he made the biggest strides in containing himself versus curveballs. While he chased hooks at the fifth-highest clips among all National League hitters in 2012, Harper displayed above-average discipline in 2013.

Harper's chase rate by pitch type, 2012-13

 

Harper lunged at plenty of low-and-away curveballs as a rookie. Last year, he let pitches thrown below the knees go by. His chase rate on low curves plummeted, from 45.6% in 2012 to 28.3% in 2013.

Harper's swing rate vs. curveballs, 2012

Harper's swing rate vs. curveballs, 2013

Fewer punchouts 

Harper also connected on pitches more often last year, paring his strikeout rate from 20.1% to 18.9%. While he whiffed more often against changeups, he more than offset that uptick by making more contact versus fastballs and breaking stuff. Once again, Harper improved most against curveballs.

Harper's miss rate by pitch type, 2012-13

 

Deeper drives, More Pull Shots

At first blush, Harper's already-impressive pop didn't improve much from 2012 to 2013. His Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) barely budged, from .206 to .212. Dig a little deeper, though, and Harper looks primed to hit bombs and blow kisses more often in 2014.

Harper swatted fly balls an average of 273 feet as a rookie, which was slightly above the MLB average (269 feet) and in the same range as second basemen Jose Altuve and Neil Walker. Last year, Harper hit fly balls an average of 285 feet -- the same as David Ortiz and Joey Votto, and farther than Trout (281 feet). That helps explain why Harper's home run per fly ball rate climbed from 15.7% to 19.2%, cracking the top 20 among MLB hitters.

He also put the ball in play to the opposite field less often in 2013 (28.5%) than in 2012 (36.8%), instead cranking more pitches to center field and the pull side. Like many hitters, Harper does more damage when he pulls the ball (career .853 slugging percentage) or lines a pitch to center field (.564) than when he goes oppo (.484). With Harper hitting deeper -- and more frequent -- shots to center field and the pull side, he could top 30 homers next year.

Bryce Harper isn't at Mike Trout's level, at least not yet. And yeah, he does need to stop face-planting into fences. But let's not forget that he's already a star-caliber major leaguer despite being the same age as this year's top college prospects, and he's constantly improving. Let's stop nit-picking, and enjoy the beginnings of an inner-circle Cooperstown career.

Monday
Feb242014

Ian Desmond Sacrifices Patience for Power

Between the talk of Jordan Zimmermann potentially being the best pitcher in Washington's rotation, whether Stephen Strasburg can finally reach the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career, expectations for first-year manager Matt Williams and Bryce Harper's new favorite tee-shirt, one storyline has quietly evaded headlines this spring at Nationals' camp: Ian Desmond's reported rejection of a multi-year contract extension. Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post first reported the story in a reader chat online, citing that the proposed deal may have surpassed the $90 million threshold.

While Desmond and the Nationals were able to work out a two-year contract extension to avoid arbitration last month, the 28-year-old shortstop is still on track to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season. Considering this, it makes little sense for Desmond to turn down such an offer, if only because his stock has never been higher. His last two seasons have been very productive, posting a .812 OPS and .285 average (first and second-best among shortstops with 1,000 plate appearances since 2012), which has helped earn him back-to-back silver slugger awards. He's been reliable as anyone with the glove, moreover, posting a .849 revised zone rating that tops all qualified shortstops over the past two seasons, according to FanGraphs.

But make no mistake: It's been Desmond's bat that's transformed him into one of the most complete shortstops in baseball. And the key factor behind his offensive coming-out party has been his aggressiveness at the dish.

Desmond's Isolated Power Relative to Pitch Location, 2010-2011

Desmond's Isolated Power Relative to Pitch Location, 2012-2013

Desmond's first two full seasons (2010-2011) with Washington were less than overwhelming, generating a .261/.303/.375 slash line with in 308 games (markedly below the league-average .267/.323/.386 line for qualified shortstops in that span). He was patient at the plate in these two seasons, offering at just 46.9% of all pitches thrown to him (compared to the 45% league average swing rate); however, he drew walks in just 5.2% of his plate appearances, which was well below the 8.7% league mark in that span. So while Desmond's patience was encouraging, he wasn't drawing enough walks to justify such a low swing rate.

Dramatic changes in this respect have come to fruition over Desmond's last two campaigns, however. In his most valuable season to date in 2012, the former Expos third-round draft pick increased his swing rate to 54.4%, a dramatic spike from the 45.1% rate he posted in 2011. Consequently, his slugging percentage that season rose to .511 (a career-best) and his walk rate actually remained at a steady 5.5% over both seasons. Last season, Desmond held back a bit more, pulling the trigger 50.3% of the time and, wouldn't you know it, his SLG% dropped to .453.

So from swinging at a combined 46.9% of all offerings between 2010-2011 to 52.1% from 2012-2013, Desmond's .374 SLG% in the first span jumped to .480 in the next. The driving force behind this increase was easily his aggressiveness early in counts, offering at 41.9% of first-pitches in his plate appearances in his last two seasons compared to 30.9% from 2010-2011. Conversely, his swing rate with two strikes has ever so slightly decreased from 59.3% previously to 59.1% over his most recent two campaigns.

What we're seeing here is an offensive transformation for Desmond. He's becoming more aggressive at the plate, especially early in counts, and becoming better at holding off in two-strike counts. Now, his offensive game plan is more oriented toward power than patience in a Washington lineup that's already one of the best in baseball. And that's a scary thought.

Monday
Jan132014

Umps Not Buying Stephen Strasburg's Fastball

Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals avoided arbitration on Friday, agreeing to pay the now 25-year-old right-hander $3.975 million next year according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman. In terms of value, 2013 was Strasburg's best season -- posting 3.1 wins above replacement after generating a 3.00 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over 30 starts. These were modest improvements from his 2012 campaign, where he posted a 3.16 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 28 starts before being infamously shut down by his club in the heat of a pennant race. Strasburg was worth 3.0 wins that season, so it's not out of the question to assume he would've been worth more had his season not come to a decidedly screeching halt.

Yet for as impressive as Strasburg's statistics have been to this juncture of his career, one cannot overlook the regression of his strikeouts -- which have been arguably the most dominant aspect of his game. Last season, Strasburg punched out opponents in 26.1% of their plate appearances against him, enough for the seventh-best mark among qualified starters. Two seasons ago, that number was an astounding 30.2%, which was the best among starters who tossed at least 150 innings. Dialing back the time machine even further, Strasburg's strikeout rate from 2010 (his rookie season) to 2011 (the year he was shut down after five starts) stood at 32% -- the sixth-highest mark in baseball among all pitchers with 90 innings during that span.

Why have Strasburg's strikeouts decreased 5.9% since his entrance into the league four years (yes, it's been four years already) ago? Advanced scouting reports and exposure to his stuff may have at least something to do with it, and there's that whole Tommy John surgery thing that may certainly play a role. But more than anything else, I think it's the fact that umps aren't favoring his fastball quite as much.

Comparing called-strike rates on Strasburg's fastball since 2010

stras2 on Make A Gif

Umps have progressively called fewer out-of-zone strikes on Strasburg's heater since his debut.

Strasburg's heater garnered a 13.7% called strike rate when located out of the zone over his 17 starts between 2010 to 2011. This was not a particularly lofty number, admittedly, as the league average mark was 12.2% over that span. But in 2012, that number decreased to 10% (lower than the 11.8% league average) and fell even further to 9.3% last season. Most of those called strikes have occured on the 'backdoor' portion of the plate to left-handed hitters or inside on righties, but as we see, that significantly decreased in frequency over the past two seasons.

What makes this decrease even more perplexing is that Strasburg's fastball velocity has decreased -- albeit minimally-- over the past three seasons, averaging 96.8 MPH in 2010-2011, 95.6 in 2012 and 95.3 in 2013. As my colleague David Golebiewski pointed out in his brillliant piece on Justin Verlander (if you haven't read it, you should), there tends to be an "inverse relationship between fastball velocity and called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs -- the slower you throw, the more called strikes you get." Of course, this is more of a general statement and therefore isn't applicable in all cases, but we see that Strasburg is bucking the trend a bit in this respect, as his fastball velocity has decreased yet he is tabbing fewer out-of-zone called strikes.

What does it all mean?

Strasburg's progressive strikeout decrease has everything to do with him receiving fewer out-of-the-zone called strikes with his fastball. As the graph above shows, the fewer called strikes he receives with his heater, the less punchouts he is able to compile with it over time. Conversely, this has contributed to his increasing walk rate with the offering.

I've included a logarithmic projection for the first and second half of next season in the graph to get a sense for how (less) productive the pitch might be in the immediate future. Based off my findings, Strasburg fastball is on track to receive roughly an 8% out-of-zone called-strike rate by the end of next season, and could very well walk more batters (just over 10% in the projection) with the pitch than he strikes out (just under 10% according to the data). To put that into context? The league average starter's fastball generated a 15.9% strikeout rate and 8.4% walk rate last season.

Are umps not favoring Strasburg's fastball because it's lost some of the "flash" it showed during his 2010 campaign? We may never know. What I do know, however, is that this is concerning. A 25-year-old power arm once dubbed the best pitch prospect of his generation shouldn't see his strikeouts decreasing at this high of a rate.