The Nats fell to 8-17 this afternoon, done in by small-ball self-destructiveness, yet I find this team eminently watchable and competitive enough to keep my interest. They dropped two-of-three to the division-leading Mets in the weekend series, but every game was tidy and competitive.
One month into the season, and we find the amply mocked starting rotation has comported itself, well, if not decently then also not as the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever did suck. The starters are fourteenth in the National League in ERA, but you could say some parts have been better than the sum. While, on the whole, John Patterson has flatlined, Jerome Williams has stumbled (and sprained), and Matt Chico has broken in with two spoonfuls of erratic (though Friday's start was a substantial improvement), Shawn Hill has been poised and Jason Bergmann has been electric. Hill, who has not wavered once in five starts, has a 2.76 ERA; Bergmannmade it four in a row today, surrending the game's lone run (on a Carlos Beltran homer to right) but lowering his ERA to 1.78 since his opening start walkfest.
Hill's success was not exactly unforeseeable. No one sees a Cy Young Award in his future, but the Canadian righthander was a decent bet to be a steadying influence on the rotation, assuming he could stay healthy. So far, he has, and he's exceeded expectations. Hill's sinker really bores in, and he's learned to freeze opponents with a two-strike tailing fastball.
But what about Bergmann? Well, to tell you the truth, I liked him as a reliever. I saw a minor league backstory with a pretty clear chapter separation. His control seemed to hold him back as a starter; converted to relief, he shot up the ladder pretty rapidly. Even after these four starts, I'm still not sold on him as a starting pitcher, but I'm stubborn sometimes. Still, I'm also curious and I wonder if a hot April is a harbinger of things to come. The simplistic answer is Sometimes yes, and sometimes no; I suppose I could settle for that and stop playing. But I have an extra twenty minutes at hand, so I thought I would research the matter.
What follows is a very simple study. I do not claim it has predictive value, and its holes are of obligatory Mack Truck dimensions. But the study is probative of one thing: whether, as a group, starting pitchers who finished the year poorly began the year poorly.
Scanning the yearly ERA leaderboards, I tracked down every National League pitcher who had an end-of-season 5.00 ERA or worse between 2000-06. Well, that's not exactly true; I left out Coors Field home parkers, fearing they would mess up the data somehow. So, more accurately, I tracked non-Colorado five-plus pitchers since 2000 and tallied their April statistics.
I don't want to overstate the results, but generally speaking, the pitchers who ended the year poorly began the year poorly. Does this mean Jason Bergmann is scot-free for the rest of 2007? Hardly; like I said, I don't want to overstate these figures, which add up to over 800 innings pitched but are still susceptible to some serious noise -- LimaTime2000, for instance. Furthermore, some notably craptastic pitchers had nice Aprils over the course of this sample. These include Josh Fogg in 2005 (18.1 IP, 5 ER), Ismael Valdez in 2004 (22.1 IP, 6 ER), Matt Kinney in 2003 (29 IP, 8 ER), and Jimmy Anderson in 2001 (29.1 IP, 9 ER). Moreover, the pitchers used in this mini-study all hung around long enough to quality for the ERA title; thus, any pitchers who started out hot but folded quickly thereafter or came down with serious injury were excluded. Rather than resort to another transition, let's conclude a book contract isn't coming my way any time soon.
In broad strokes, what Bergmann has done in April is very encouraging. He made the rotation as an injury replacement, and he was a second false step away from a ticket to Columbus. But he's still with the big team after the first month. Whether he's simply buying time or has in fact turned the corner, one cannot deny he's been a pleasant revelation thus far.
* * * *
In a suprise move, the Nats recalled Kory Casto from Columbus a couple weeks after demoting him. Casto hit .324 with four homers in 10 International League games, so we can deduce the front office was satisfied with Casto's post-demotion performance.
Casto's arrival adds another complication to the left field mix, perhaps at the expense of platoon starter Michael Restovich, who has gone hitless after a hot start. (Either of the reserve infielders, Josh Wilson or D'Angelo Jimenez, is also rumored to be a possibility. One would think Wilson's inability to lay down a ninth inning bunt today might not help his cause.) The NL East is a lefty-heavy division; thus, Restovich had a recent run of starts against portsiders, but he failed to take advantage. The complementary effect was relegating lefty-swinging Chris Snelling to a bench role. Although I cannot blame Manny Acta for adopting a platoon arrangement given the spate of lefty starters his team faced, Snelling's production probably suffered from the spotty play. He's continued drawing walks (.368 on-base percentage), but his batting average has dropped to .217, and that figure is likely a large reason why Casto is back.
From the beginning, the organization (perhaps Acta himself) has seemed to regard Snelling as a bench player. Perhaps that is the best role for him, and perhaps Casto will jump-start a struggling offense in this second look.
The Nats' lineup, by the way, is highly dysfunctional. For the first month of the season, the top three spots are getting on base at just under a .300 clip. This might explain why the two-hole has scored five runs and why the leadoff spot is on pace to score 61 runs over the course of a 162-game season. Well, that and the third and fourth spots both slugging under .400, too. The only truly positive batting order position has been the five-hole, where Dmitri Young initially and now Austin Kearns have thrived. Ryan Church (.289/.385/.506), the team's best offensive performer thus far, has tried his best to pump up the sixth and seventh slots, but scuffling catcher Brian Schneider (.192/.291/.260) has counteracted Church's production at both spots. And then we get to the eight-hole, which as the team's highest on-base percentage, supported in majority by Snelling's batting eye.
If I sound critical, maybe I shouldn't, because I can't provide much of a remedy other than Hit better. Ronnie Belliard was a short-term fix in the two-hole, and he has ignited the offense here and there with some free-swinging. He's not the long-term answer there, and while Snelling's OBP is a neat theoretical fit, Doyle's done little other than draw walks. OBP is Life and all, but this is a club with a .345 slugging percentage. So it's probably worth it to see if Casto can put a charge into the ball upon his recall; I'm not saying to bury Snelling, but just remember Casto is powered by a tell-tale vaguely-articulated mechanical fix ("keeping his hands back"). So you know Casto is getting the first shot once he rejoins the team.
I'll say this: better Casto (or Snelling, or Restovich, or . . . well, just about anyone) than Robert Fick or, heaven forbid, Dmitri Young in left.