Let's spend a couple of paragraphs talking about the nonsensical focal point of Monday's 8-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves. Andrelton Simmons was on first base with two outs and Freddie Freeman at the plate when Doug Fister made his first of two errant pickoff throws in the game. The ball got away from Ryan Zimmerman, but Danny Espinosa made a terrific play to run it down and get the ball to Yunel Escobar with Simmons still a good three steps from the bag at third. Simmons took two more strides and went in spikes high on a really dirty play, kicking Escobar's glove and slicing up his hand.
It was a dirty play. It was unprofessional and uncalled for. It was the type of play where Simmons put both himself at risk for a leg injury and put Nats third baseman Yunel Escobar at risk of injury. The Nats had plenty of reason to be upset about it. They retaliated by bringing in their softest throwing reliever to hit Simmons on the hip with an 89 MPH fastball later in the game. "Matty-ball" became "Gibby-ball" and used the same tactics that led to a ton of internet memes about his former bosses in Arizona. Ian Desmond had a perfect opportunity to eliminate the free baserunner Williams gave the Braves, but let a tailor made double play ball get through his legs and helped spark a two run rally that put the game away. Hey.... At least we know that someone in the Nats clubhouse is gritty now, right?
Now that we're past that nonsense, let's talk about a few things that should have been the focus after last night's game.....
The Nats committed four errors
Nobody seems to be immune. Bryce Harper made his first error of the season in the first inning, bobbling a routine play on a single by Freddie Freeman. Even after letting the ball get away, a good throw to second base would have had Freeman, but the throw in to second base was off line. It technically did not lead to an unearned run since Nick Markakis would easily have gotten to third base and scored on a sac fly by A.J. Pierzynski. If, even after the bobble, Harper had made a throw that was on line at second base, that Pierzynski flyout would have been the third out of the inning. You can't assume the out at second, though.
Doug Fister joined the party with two uncharacteristic plays with runners on first base. We talked about the first one above, which led to a dirty slide by Simmons and injured Escobar. He ended up throwing a pickoff attempt away again an inning later that advanced Jace Peterson from first to third in front of a suicide squeeze by Eric Young Jr. that scored him. We'll have more on Fister later, so let's not dwell on his defense other than to say that he wasn't throwing the ball where he wanted when he threw to home plate or first base.
Ian Desmond had been showing some signs of life defensively. He'd gone a whole seven games without making an error! Alas, that streak came to an end. Gibby-ball made its appearance in the seventh inning when Rafael Martin hit Simmons. Martin then got a dream of a double play ball off the bat of Chris Johnson, hit less than a step to Desmond's left. Desi fanned on it, leading to two more unearned runs on the ledger. Wilson Ramos also short-hopped a throw to second later in the inning where a good throw would have had Johnson by two steps. It wasn't an error, but it was a failure to convert an out... Johnson scored a batter later.
No.... Let's not talk about the defense. Let's talk about Andrelton Simmons' slide.
The Nats mustered just two runs on four hits against an up and down guy
Now 35, Eric Stults is coming off of his two most productive seasons in the major leagues. He was a Petco guy.... a veteran lefty fly ball pitcher who snuck his way into a regular rotation spot because the Padres have a massive ballpark and were really just trying to find some stopgaps until some of their prospects developed. When San Diego decided to go for it this offseason, they non-tendered Stults and granted him free agency. Even pitching in the most spacious ballpark in the league the past two seasons, Stults had a 4.10 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP.
Prior to arriving in San Diego (at 32 years of age), Stults was an up and down guy.... a guy who was basically on a shuttle bus between AAA and the majors. He debuted with the Dodgers in 2006, but never made more than twelve appearances in any single big league season until 2012. He's actually thrown nearly as many innings in AAA (605) as he has in the majors (651) and his AAA ERA of 5.01 should tell you everything you need to know about how important he is to the Braves future.... He's not.
Here is Eric Stults' line from last night: 6.1 IP, 2 R, 4 H, 3 BB, 3 K
When scrolling through last night's game thread, I expected to see a bunch of "Cy" Stults comments. It's kind of a tradition around here. I'm sure it goes back quite a bit farther than this, but I do know that we've used that moniker a lot with Mets' starter Dillon Gee, among others, in recent years. I only saw one "Cy Stults", which was a bit surprising. Here are my feelings about the mocking "Cy" (whoever) thing right now.... We need to stop using it. Why?
The Nats have just faced three consecutive guys who have shut them down who could easily earn that mocking "Cy" moniker. Dan Haren hasn't had a good year since 2011. Tom Koehler is a fringy back of the rotation starter. Stults is an up and down guy who will probably be DFA'd as soon as the Braves feel that one of their young starters is ready to take over his spot. The Nats have scored four runs against that trio in 18.2 innings over the past three days.
Until the Nats can start proving that they can beat up on even the back end starters of the world like they're supposed to, we can't laugh ironically that the Nats are facing a mediocre pitcher having a career day. Once in a great while, these things happen. If it happens twice in a week, you have to start looking in the mirror. When it happens three days in a row, it's time to stop looking at the pitching and point the finger at the guys those pitchers are facing.
Still.... Andrelton Simmons slide is what we should be talking about, right?
Doug Fister and his (lack of) command
Doug Fister will never be a big strikeout pitcher. He doesn't have a big fastball. His off-speed pitches don't have any type of vicious bite on them that gets a lot of hitters to chase pitches out of the zone. He relies on getting a lot of ground balls and locating his pitches where he wants to in order to induce weak contact from hitters. He's really struggling in that area so far this season.
A lot was being made both during the game and after the game about how Fister's fastball velocity seems to be down a bit. Brooks Baseball didn't really see it that way.......
|Pitch Type||Velo (Max)|
|FT (Two-seam Fastball)||86.7 (89.2)|
|FF (Four-seam Fastball)||87.3 (87.3)|
|CH (Changeup)||80.7 (85.1)|
|CU (Curveball)||73.0 (75.0)|
|FC (Cutter)||82.8 (86.0)|
They had Fister's average fastball velocity at 86.7 MPH and maxing out at 89.2 MPH. Per Fangraphs, Fister's average fastball velocity in 2014 was 87.9 MPH, so we're certainly not looking at a drastic drop in velocity compared to what we saw just last season. The location is a different story.....
To be fair, we're looking only at the final pitches of at bats against Fister, but it still tells us a bit of a story. For a pitcher so reliant on the ground ball, we're seeing an awful lot of at bats against Fister end on pitches that are around belt high. This led to an 8:12 ground ball to fly ball ratio in Monday's loss, which is pretty much the opposite of what we want to see from Fister. Living in the strike zone is fine... even for a pitcher who doesn't have an overpowering fastball. If Fister is leaving those pitches up, though, he's liable to continue to struggle.
Yeah, though... Andrelton Simmons slide was the story.
Some big picture stuff
I saw someone going off on twitter last night about how Matt Williams is supposed to be a motivator.......
No one has accused Matt Williams of being a batting order, game management, or bullpen genius. He's supposed to be a motivator. WELL? WELL?— Nationals 101 (@Nationals101) April 28, 2015
That pretty much sums up how I feel, too. Williams' tactical ability as a manager has been anything but impressive over his first 182 regular season games (excluding the playoffs where.... well.... some of you read my thoughts on his tactical decisions in the playoffs last year!). He guided the team with the most talent in the National League to the most regular season wins in the National League last season, so that made it difficult to be overly critical. He's now faced with a team that is every bit as talented as last year's squad, but can't seem to do any of the things that a successful ballclub does right now.
They can't hit. They can't field. Even the pitching is starting to stumble a bit. Williams has two things he's supposed to do well. Well.. one, really, but I'll break it down into two parts.
He's supposed to motivate the ballclub, which he sure doesn't seem to be doing a very good job of. Players who are motivated and focused don't continually botch routine plays in the field. The occasional error is going to happen, but errors where Ian Desmond looks too disinterested to take a hop to his left and Bryce Harper nonchalantly tries to pick up a lousy single in right field aren't things that should be happening when players are focused solely on trying to win a ballgame.
He's also supposed to be strong at managing the personalities in the clubhouse and getting the players to buy into a team mindset. The steam that was coming off of Stephen Strasburg in the dugout after his defense let him down twice this weekend (and his offense scored... well.... wait... no, they didn't score in that game) sure made it look like there could be a developing rift in the clubhouse. Gio Gonzalez looked absolutely numb on the mound after the team botched a rundown that would have ended an inning, but instead kept the bases loaded with two outs in front of Adeiny Hechavarria's triple. Yeah.... the team sure seems to be gelling.
It's OK if Williams is a below average tactical manager who has other strengths that make up for his lack of tactical prowess. If he doesn't have an answer to help turn things around in the areas which are supposed to be his strengths, I sure hope that leash starts getting shorter. This team has been a tire fire so far. It is early, and Williams keeps saying it's early... over and over again. It's time to come up with some other response. You can't win a division title in April, but you can dig yourself such a big hole that you can lose one. The Nats are doing just that.
For sticking around until the end, you get a little music video which describes my feelings on how the Nats season has gone so far....