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Washington Nationals Series Key: Get the lefties out

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The Atlanta Braves come to town for a three game set starting Friday night. The Braves have been trouble for the Nats the past few years, winning 25 of the 41 games since the start of the 2013 season. While there have been a lot of changes to the Braves squad this season, primary Nat-killer Freddie Freeman remains.

The Braves will bring a predominantly left-handed lineup to town for their upcoming series in D.C. Their left-handed hitters hit an insane .470/.520/.606 in 66 AB against the Nats in Atlanta last week.
The Braves will bring a predominantly left-handed lineup to town for their upcoming series in D.C. Their left-handed hitters hit an insane .470/.520/.606 in 66 AB against the Nats in Atlanta last week.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Nationals played a three game set in Atlanta a week and a half ago.  While the offense sputtered against AAAA starter Eric Stults in the first game, the Nats did go on to take two out of three in that series.  It was a bizarre change of pace from what we've seen throughout most of the season, as the Nats outscored Atlanta 30-24 in that three game set.  Even though the Nats will face the same three starters they did in Turner Field, I wouldn't bet on the Nats averaging ten runs a game in their upcoming series.... I certainly wouldn't bet on the Braves averaging eight runs a game either.

How did the Braves average eight runs per game anyway?  Atlanta is averaging 4.46 runs per game on the year, which is exceeding expectations quite a bit for a lineup that's really built around Freddie Freeman and a bunch of complementary hitters.  The Nats are allowing about 4.20 runs per game on the season, which is probably a bit higher than we anticipated.  Still, apart from the obvious small sample size answer, it's a bit surprising to see that a league average offense went off for eight runs a game against one of the league's better pitching staffs.  Sure... A.J. Cole's horrendous debut was tossed in there, but the Braves still scored twelve runs when Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann took the hill.

Let's start with the obvious Freddie Freeman principle.  I'm not knocking Freeman when I say that he's superhuman against the Nats and merely really good against the rest of the league.  It feels like Freeman bats .800/.850/2.000 against the Nats, but it's not necessarily that ridiculous.  He's hit .337/.386/.513 in his career against the Nats, which is just a little better than his overall .288/.366/.469 career line.  Freeman did his usual thing against the Nats in that series in Atlanta, going a ridiculous 8 for 13 with two doubles, four runs, and an RBI.

He had to have some help if the Braves plated 24 runs in those three games, though.  Most of the left-handed hitting Freeman's help came from his fellow southpaws....

  • Nick Markakis went 4 for 12 with three walks, a double, and five runs
  • A.J. Pierzynski went 6 for 11 with a double, a walk, and eight RBI (yes... he hit behind Freeman)
  • Kelly Johnson went 5 for 11 with a double, a homer, and five RBI
  • Even Jace Peterson got in on the action.  Peterson went 5 for 10 with a walk, two runs, and two RBI
  • Switch-hitting Alberto Callaspo was a pest, too.  He went 3 for 9 with a double, two walks, two runs, and an RBI

As you can see above, six of the Braves regulars in the lineup (counting Pierzynski as a regular, since he's seen the bulk of the playing time over Christian Bethancourt so far this season) are either left-handed hitters or switch hitters.  Those six hitters combined to go a cool 31 for 66 with seven walks, six doubles, and a homer (.470/.520/.606) when these two teams met in Atlanta.  Left-handed hitters drove in 18 of the Braves 24 runs.  They scored 20 of the Braves 24 runs.  (No... the numbers don't add up, but Eric Young, Jr. supplied a run and an RBI off the bench).

I wonder what the key to this series might be....

Game one starter: Gio Gonzalez

Seeing as how Gio will be the Nats lone southpaw to start in this series, we would expect that he'll neutralize the Braves' heavily left-handed lineup a bit more.  That might not quite be the case, though.  Gio has been fairly platoon neutral throughout his career.  In fact, lefties have hit him just a tad better than right-handed hitters...

Total vs L 1102 .234 .312 .372 .305 103 283
Total vs R 3658 .229 .316 .352 .300 382 820

That's not much of an edge, but it is an edge.  Right-handed hitters have an OBP that's four points higher against Gio, but lefties have a five point edge in batting average and a twenty point edge in slugging percentage.  This could be because Gio is a pitcher who relies heavily on his curveball and changeup as his secondary offerings.  The curveball can be a weapon against hitters from either side of the plate.  The changeup tends to be more effective against opposite handed hitters.  Gio doesn't throw a slider, which tends to be a primary tool for left-handed specialists.  Regardless, Gio is off to a bit of a weird start in 2015.....

2015 vs L 39 .324 .359 .378 .319 2 5
2015 vs R 94 .281 .372 .469 .366 11 26

He hasn't been particularly effective against lefties or righties.  Right-handed hitters have a big edge in the slugging and wOBA departments.  Lefties are batting .324 against him, though, so it's not like he's beating up on same handed hitters.

Unlike Fister or Zimmermann, there's not something easy to explain why he's struggled outside of small sample size.  His velocity is actually up a touch (92.3) compared to last season (92.1).  Gio has struggled with his control a bit more than he did last season, but it's not like he's ever relied on his control as much as Zimmermann or Fister anyway.  He's always been a bit more of a power pitcher.  While I'll bring up sample size, noise, and regression to the mean with the other two pitchers, it seems an even more likely explanation for Gio's early struggles.

Game two starter: Doug Fister

Fister has dealt with a dropoff in his velocity.  He's also struggling a bit with left-handed hitters (and dominating RHH a bit more than he has for most of his career).  Let's have a look.......

Total vs L 2333 .257 .302 .398 .306 115 405
Total vs R 1867 .255 .301 .354 .291 83 278

We'll actually see that opposing managers have stacked their lineups with lefties against Fister throughout his career, though it hasn't been all that effective a strategy.  He's faced nearly 500 more left-handed hitters over the course of his career than right-handed hitters.  Left-handers have slugged better against Fister by 44 points, and they do have a fairly significant wOBA edge based on that.  However, their on-base performance against Fister barely gives them an edge at all.  Unfortunately........

2015 vs L 91 .274 .337 .450 .337 7 9
2015 vs R 42 .225 .268 .289 .247 2 5

Again, it's difficult to say whether or not his early season dropoff in velocity is a factor here.  Regardless of what the problem is, lefties are mashing Fister this season.  They're not mashing him quite as much as they're mashing Jordan Zimmermann, but they're batting .017/.035/.052 better against him this season than they have in his career.  At the same time, he's balanced this out a bit by performing considerably better against right-handed hitters than he has throughout his career.... but (there's always a but) opposing teams stacking up their lefties against Fister is working so far in 2015.  Assuming this is just some early season small sample size noise, those numbers should start normalizing a bit.  If the fact that his velocity is down is hurting him, he could be in for a long season.

Game three starter: Jordan Zimmermann

Zimmermann has fairly typical platoon splits over his career.  He's a right-handed pitcher, so we would expect that lefties might perform a little better against him.  Here are his career splits:

Total vs L 1921 .256 .307 .391 .307 112 362
Total vs R 1881 .236 .280 .373 .287 76 399

They're pretty reasonable.  Lefties have a .020/.027/.018 edge in their triple slash line over right-handed hitters against Zimmermann in their careers.  2015 has been a different story so far......

2015 vs L 65 .361 .400 .459 .380 3 10
2015 vs R 79 .213 .256 .257 .234 3 12

Yes... Small sample size applies, but lefties have been eating Zimmermann alive so far this season.  As opposed to the career numbers above, lefties have a .148/.144/.202 point edge over right-handers in their triple slash line.  Zimmermann's velocity has been down a bit, but this has to be more small sample size noise than anything else.  He's been fine against right-handed hitters early on and his velocity looked a little better last time out.  Hopefully those splits start regressing to the mean a bit starting Sunday.

If I were Fredi Gonzalez...

Atlanta does have some right-handed hitters to complement their predominantly left-handed lineup.  Chris Johnson was a BABIP-inflated batting champ a few years ago.  Jonny Gomes is the prototypical lefty killer (.056/.073/.085 better vs. LHP in his career than he is against RHP).  Cameron Maybin is probably their best defensive center fielder and is actually off to a pretty decent start.  Bethancourt will probably start a game at some point this series to spell Pierzynski.

All of the above players could be useful, but I'm not sure I'd use them much in this series.  Zimmermann and Fister should bounce back against left-handed hitters, but they're struggling against them right now.  Gio has times where he can be more tricky against right-handed hitters than he is against lefties compared to most LHP.  I'd probably play Maybin and Bethancourt on Friday, but I'm not sure that the Braves will gain an edge if Gomes replaces Kelly Johnson or Chris Johnson replaces Callaspo (a switch hitter who will bat right-handed anyway).  I'd keep stacking those lefties as much as possible.

If I were Matt Williams

I would keep Blake Treinen in the bullpen until Monday.  Aaron Barrett certainly won't have the platoon edge against the Braves' best hitters either, but he doesn't have nearly as drastic splits as Treinen.  I would also take advantage of the fact that I had three lefties in the bullpen right now.  Matt Grace, Sammy Solis, and Matt Thornton should all be ready to see a few high leverage spots in this series.

As always, be on the lookout for Brendan Sheridan's infographic and dc Roach's more thorough preview covering the pitching matchups, entire lineups, and bullpen later in the day.  Let's go win another series!