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Washington Nationals series preview: Breakout double play combo a key to Giants success

The Washington Nationals will try and take some vengeance against the team that eliminated them from the 2014 postseason this weekend when the San Francisco Giants come to town.

Brandon Crawford has emerged as the best shortstop in the National League this season. The Giants will need him to sustain this success in order to have a shot at defending their World Series title this October.
Brandon Crawford has emerged as the best shortstop in the National League this season. The Giants will need him to sustain this success in order to have a shot at defending their World Series title this October.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few seasons, we heard about the San Francisco Giants and their supposed even year magic. The Nats were unfortunate enough to see this first-hand last season as they lost three one run games to San Francisco and bowed out in the NLDS. The wildcard Giants followed that series with wins over the Cardinals and Royals as they won their third World Series title in five years.

After winning the World Series in 2010 and 2012, the Giants missed the playoffs the following year. They're currently not in playoff position in 2015, but they're just 1.5 games behind the Cubs for the second wildcard spot. As San Francisco showed us last season, all you have to do is make the tournament. San Francisco has gotten their expected strong contributions from stars Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, but they've certainly had to overcome some losses to stay in the hunt.

  • Pablo Sandoval signed with the Red Sox over the offseason.
  • Their second best projected hitter, Hunter Pence, hasn't been able to stay on the field. He's played in just 18 games so far this season.
  • Jake Peavy has made just two starts this season as he's been dealing with back problems for most of the year. He'll return on Friday.
  • Matt Cain made his first start of the year on Thursday.

We can toss in a few players who have underperformed if you'd like as well. After coming out of nowhere for the Marlins in 2014, Casey McGehee turned back into a pumpkin this season, batting just .213/.275/.299 in 49 games before being DFA'd. After three years of being a steady performer when healthy for San Francisco, Angel Pagan has dropped off the map so far in 2015, batting just .266/.302/.321 while providing significant negative value with the glove.

With nearly a quarter of their roster either underachieving or injured, the Giants have had to rely on some players overachieving to stay in the hunt....

  • Norichika Aoki was solid in his first three big league seasons, but he's suddenly found a new level in San Francisco. The 33-year-old outfielder is batting .317/.383/.385 for the Giants while providing a plus glove in a corner spot. Of course, Aoki is currently on the disabled list with a knee injury.
  • 24-year-old third baseman Matt Duffy has taken the reins at the vacated third base spot. Sandoval left, and has been subpar in Boston (-0.5 fWAR). McGehee turned back into Casey McGehee. Duffy has hit .294/.339/.476 while providing plus defense at the hot corner. He's slugged 8 HR in 250 plate appearances, which more than doubles his home run total from 2014 between AA and the majors (481 PA).
  • Chris Heston, who Minor League Ball's John Sickels had listed among "others" when he did his top twenty Giants prospects for 2015, has taken advantage of the opportunity that some injuries have provided for him in the rotation. Heston has been terrific for San Francisco, going 8-5 with a 3.78 ERA (3.29 FIP) and an 80:26 strikeout to walk ratio in 97.2 innings.

Those three players have all been nice finds for the Giants, but let's take a closer look at their double play combo, which boasts San Francisco's two biggest breakout performers of the first half.

Brandon Crawford: .270/.346/.434, 11 HR, 38 Runs, 47 RBI, 4 SB, 132 wRC+, +4.4 Defensive Runs Above Average

The defense hasn't been a surprise. Crawford is in his fifth big league season and has been one of the better defensive shortstops in the league since he first got the call. Crawford has accrued 35 DRS over the years and has been positive each season. Throughout his career, Crawford has been a plus defender with an average bat, a good eye, and a little pop.

Over the past three seasons, Crawford has hit .248, .248, and .246, so batting average has never been his strong suit. He's improved his walk rate in each of the previous three seasons, so his OBP has risen slightly from year to year (.304, .311, .324). This season, his average has been hovering about 25 points higher than the (pretty consistent) baseline that we've seen from him in recent years. It doesn't appear to be BABIP-fueled, as his .312 BABIP is just five points higher than it was in 2012 and 2014.

Where Crawford really appears to have improved is with his power game. Some of this is probably a bit of a mirage, though there have been signs over the past couple of years that his power game was on the rise. Crawford has already surpassed his career high with 11 home runs this season (previous was 10 last year, in 564 PA). He also finds himself two thirds of the way to his career high in doubles (17 so far, 26 is his career high). Crawford's ISO currently sits at .204, which is 61 points higher than his career best performance in the category in 2014.

Some of this is probably real as well, though. Crawford has steadily improved his offensive game in each season since reaching the majors. As mentioned above, while his batting average stayed fairly consistent the past few years, his walk rate rose (steady OBP improvement). His ISO has taken a similar path, as he's improved from .101 to .114 to .143 over the past few seasons.

While the degree of his improvements this season is pretty high, he's also at the point on his career arc (age 28) where we would expect him to be hitting his peak. In 2015, Crawford has gone from being a plus defender with an average bat to the best all-around shortstop in the National League.

Joe Panik: .316/.384/.463, 6 HR, 41 Runs, 30 RBI, 3 SB, 143 wRC+, +3.2 Defensive Runs Above Average

In the 2014 postseason, Panik was our winner of the Babe Descalso award. It was probably a bit of an unfair award to bestow on Panik, who did seem to have more of a future than the utility man who went nuts on the Nats in the 2012 NLDS. Panik was a legitimate prospect who just hadn't proven much in the majors and came through with some big at bats in the NLDS last year.

Unlike Crawford, there's not much of a track record to go on here. Panik took over the second base job at midseason last year and was actually a pretty fantastic empty batting average hitter. As a rookie in 2014, Panik hit .305/.343/.368 with 1 HR in 287 PA. He figured to develop a little more power, possibly turning into a 10-15 homer guy who could hit for average and provide a solid glove at second base.  He's done that quickly.

In just his second year in the majors, Panik finds himself batting .316/.384/.463 with 6 HR and 3 SB so far this season. He's improved his walk rate in his second big league season, nearly matching his walk rate as he ascended through the minors. His .344 BABIP doesn't necessarily seem sustainable, but it's almost exactly where it was in his rookie season last year (.343).

With the first half nearly over, Panik has now played in 150 big league games and notched 620 plate appearances.  This is roughly a full season's worth of work for the average big league regular. In those 150 games, Panik has compiled a .311/.365/.417 line. That would be tremendous for a corner outfielder, much less a second baseman with a plus glove. Panik currently leads all NL second basemen with a 143 wRC+ and 3.2 fWAR. It's safe to say I won't be comparing him to Babe Descalso again.

Pitching Matchups

Jake Peavy (0-2, 9.39 ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (5-4, 4.41 ERA) - This certainly looks like it should be a favorable matchup for the Nats. Peavy is making his return from the disabled list, and was absolutely brutal in his first two starts this season.

Madison Bumgarner (8-4, 2.99 ERA) vs. Stephen Strasburg (5-5, 5.49 ERA) - This is easily the marquee matchup of the weekend set. Bumgarner carried the Giants on his back for the entire 2014 postseason, although the only team that got to him was the Nats. Strasburg has looked strong since his return from the disabled list, and will need to have a big outing for the Nats to win on Saturday.

Ryan Vogelsong (6-6, 4.19 ERA) vs. Jordan Zimmermann (6-5, 3.16 ERA) - I'll note that Vogelsong's velocity has been back down in the 90 range this season, which is where it has hovered since 2012. Some of you may remember that Vogelsong started the clincher in the NLDS against the Nats last season, and was topping off in the 94 MPH range in that game. He resumed throwing 90 in his subsequent starts in the postseason. It was... weird. Vogie is eminently hittable, so the Nats bats should have ample opportunity to give JZ some support in the Sunday night game.

I'll go out on a limb and say that the Nats take two out of three here.