SweetSpot: Stephen Strasburg

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 21, 2014

We're starting to see a little clarity. I think. Check the standings, playoff odds and remaining schedule at the Hunt for October page.

1. The A's with their biggest win of the season.

Of course, they needed their biggest win after weeks of biggest defeats. The Oakland A's entered extra innings against the Phillies knowing the Seattle Mariners had already lost, so they had a chance to increase their lead over Seattle to two games while maintaining a half-game lead ahead of the Kansas City Royals. Oakland's much-maligned bullpen tossed 4.2 scoreless innings -- kudos to Bob Melvin for letting closer Sean Doolittle pitch two innings -- and then Josh Donaldson hit a two-run walk-off home run to dead center to give Oakland the 8-6 win. As the Oakland announcer says, "The A's finally got a hero today." It may provide the lift they needed to get them into the wild-card game. Oakland finishes with three at home against the Los Angeles Angels and four at the Texas Rangers.

2. Hisashi Iwakuma, meet the wall.

On Aug. 19, Iwakuma tossed eight scoreless innings to beat the Philadelphia Phillies and lower his ERA to 2.57. King Felix was getting all the attention for the Mariners but Iwakuma wasn't far behind. But since then, he has been a disaster. On Sunday, he got knocked out in the fifth inning, unable to hold a 3-1 lead and the Houston Astros eventually rolled to an 8-3 win. In his past six starts, he's 2-3 with a 9.12 ERA, raising his season number to 3.54. The Mariners are now 1.5 games back of the Kansas City Royals for wild card No. 2. (Or one game, if you want to count that suspended game as a loss for the Royals, which you really shouldn't do until it's official, one way or the other, because this is baseball and crazy things can happen.)

With Chris Young also looking like he's done, Lloyd McClendon is going to have to think of some desperate measures for his pitching staff this week. That means more than just quick hooks for his starters, but maybe even trying a couple of bullpen games -- starting Tom Wilhelmsen or another reliever, for example. It doesn't help that the Mariners will have had just one day off in September and now have to travel to Toronto and then back home to face the Angels to wrap the season.

3. Pirates playing for wild-card home-field advantage.

Pittsburgh essentially eliminated the Milwaukee Brewers with a 1-0 victory behind Vance Worley's eight scoreless innings and also pulled into the wild-card lead with the San Francisco Giants at 84-71. Edging out the Giants is important: The Pirates finished 51-30 at home and are 33-41 on the road. The Pirates won the season series over the Giants, so they get the tiebreaker if the clubs finish with the same record. While Pittsburgh is still just 2.5 behind St. Louis for the NL Central, they finish with four in Atlanta and four in Cincinnati, so they need a good road trip to win that home-field edge, let alone catch the Cardinals.

4. Matt Kemp just about wraps up the NL West.

Kemp went 4-for-5 with a home run and four RBIs in an 8-5 win over the Cubs. Kemp since the All-Star break looks a lot like 2011 MVP candidate Kemp: .310/.374/.594. Oh ... Yasiel Puig is also starting to heat up: .419 with two home runs and four doubles over his past 10 games. The Dodgers took three of four in the series, with only a bullpen collapse on Saturday preventing the sweep. The lead over the Giants is now 4.5 games with the Dodgers hosting the Giants on Monday through Wednesday, the Giants obviously needing a sweep to have a shot at the division title. The pitching matchups: Jake Peavy versus Dan Haren, Madison Bumgarner versus Zack Greinke and Tim Hudson versus Clayton Kershaw. (Catch the final two games on ESPN.)

5. Stephen Strasburg may have locked up Game 1 of the division series.

Strasburg threw 84 pitches in seven scoreless innings in a 2-1 win over the Marlins and speculation out of D.C. has Matt Williams selecting Strasburg as his Game 1 starter for the playoffs, even though Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann and Tanner Roark all have lower ERAs. Strasburg is 5-1 with a 1.88 ERA over his past eight starts, with 49 strikeouts and just seven walks in 52.2 innings. He's topped 200 innings for the first time, but his fastball velocity has held strong, 94-95 mph and touching 97-98. After being benched two years ago, he still hasn’t made his first postseason start. I can’t wait.

Five things we learned Monday

September, 16, 2014

Check the standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedule on the Hunt for October page.

1. "That's what speed do." A few years ago, Kansas City Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson, talking about his ability as one of the fastest players in the game, coined the phrase "That's what speed do." It's kind of a popular thing for Royals fan to quote although it's never quite caught on on a national level. Hey, it's the Royals. Well, it may be reaching a tipping point after the wheels of Dyson and fellow pinch runner Terrance Gore inspired a dramatic ninth-inning comeback as the Royals scored twice with two outs to beat the White Sox 4-3. Here's Dyson on second base with two outs, running on the pitch, and scoring as the ball bounces to the backstop; love the excited Royals announcers quoting Dyson. And here's Gore on second base after Norichica Aoki doubled. He's also running on the play and scores the winner on Lorenzo Cain's infield hit.

What a turn of events for the Royals, who trailed 3-0 entering the bottom of the seventh. By that time, they knew the Tigers were on their (likely) way to a win over the Twins. Considering Sunday's bullpen fiasco created by manager Ned Yost, it was looking like doom-and-gloom time in Kansas City. So give them credit for coming alive late against the White Sox bullpen. Give Dyson credit for stealing third on his run -- a base that didn't seem all that important to risk with two outs -- especially considering he got picked off second in a similar scenario last week. As I wrote when Dyson got picked off, there are times you can throw the numbers out the window and just say either the player makes a play or he doesn't. Dyson made a big play.

This is one way the Royals have to manufacture runs. They're last in the AL in home runs and last in walks. They're not a good offensive team. But they have speed, ranking first in the league in steals, and FanGraphs rates them as the second-best baserunning team in the majors behind the Nationals (some of their speed advantage is negated by the likes of Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, two of the worst baserunners in the league). It's not a big statistical advantage -- plus-7.8 runs above average entering Monday -- but as Monday showed, there are moments in games where speed can be the deciding factor.

The night got even better when the Mariners lost, so the Royals are two up on Seattle for the second wild card, just one game behind the A's and still 1.5 behind the Tigers. (You know the caveat: The Royals are losing to the Indians in that suspended game.)

2. Kudos to Don Mattingly. The Dodgers' skipper didn't fuss around with Roberto Hernandez, yanking him in the fourth inning of a 2-2 game with the bases loaded. With lefty Charlie Blackmon up, Mattingly went to southpaw Paco Rodriguez. Blackmon doesn't have a huge platoon split, but his OPS against lefties was 70 points lower entering the game. Hernandez doesn't have a platoon split this year but has in the past. With all the extra relievers that September provides, there was no need to keep Hernandez in there as you probably would have before rosters expanded. The player still has to execute and Rodriguez got the groundout. The Dodgers went on to break it open with an 11-3 win, but it was a move that shows Mattingly understands that you can manage September differently from April through August.

Oh ... and the Giants lost, so L.A.'s lead in the NL West is now up to four games.

Oh ... if Hyun-Jin Ryu can't make it back for the playoffs because of his sore shoulder, is Hernandez really the team's No. 4 starter right now?

3. Stephen Strasburg with another gem. Christina Kahrl touched on how the Nationals are winning with roster depth and not on the backs of the heralded duo of Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But Strasburg has put together four straight solid starts now, with no walks, 28 strikeouts and just six extra-base hits allowed. His average fastball velocity those four starts: 95.7, 95.6, 95.9 and 95.3. This doesn't look like a guy tiring down the stretch.

One note, however: The past two starts came against the Braves, next to last in the NL in runs; the one before that came against the Phillies (in D.C.); and before that against the offensively impaired Mariners at Safeco. So I'm not quite ready to declare Strasburg has turned the corner from his inconsistent ways. Still, a good sign.

4. Good night, Yankees. Wait, did I write this on Sunday as well? As blog contributor Katie Sharp tweeted after the Yankees' 1-0 loss to the Rays, the Yankees have scored six runs in their past five games, their fewest in a five-game span since June 30-July 4, 1997. By the way, Derek Jeter got the day off. Understandable and needed. Jeter has completely wilted down the stretch, as much to blame as any player for the Yankees' struggles. Over his past 21 games, he's hit .145/.189/.169. And has still been hitting second in the lineup. Shame on you, Joe Girardi, for putting the individual over the team.

5. Tired Hisashi Iwakuma. Felix Hernandez hasn't been quite as dominant of late and Iwakuma has definitely not been sharp. Over his past five starts, Iwakuma has allowed 22 runs in 21.1 innings. On Monday, the Angels pounded him for seven runs in 3.1 innings. The big blow was Albert Pujols' three-run double with two outs in the third -- after Iwakuma had retired the first two batters of the inning. Now two games behind the Royals, the Mariners' playoff odds have dropped to 31 percent -- this after climbing over 50 percent heading into Saturday's game (with King Felix starting). But three straight losses and now it's a tough climb back.

For the Angels, Matt Shoemaker keeps winning, Mike Trout keeps hitting and they've won 11 of 12, averaging 8.2 runs per game in that stretch.

Nationals' delivery on promise a team thing

September, 16, 2014

Some ways of winning you find yourself liking better than you expected. Five and a half months ago, most of us anticipated the Nationals would win the NL East, so now that Washington is on the cusp of clinching, there isn’t any drama. It’s done. For weeks, it’s been a matter of math and shrinking odds.

Admittedly, the Braves made a better-than-expected showing with a cobbled-together rotation, but the Nationals should clinch at some point this week, which provides time to reflect on how and why they did it. This is why I’d argue it has been more fun to actually see them do it than you might've expected from a slam-dunk preseason favorite.

[+] EnlargeNationals
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesIan Desmond and Wilson Ramos are among the many guys who have put the Nationals on top in the NL East.
For example, if you thought they’d win because of their much celebrated young duo of nascent superstars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, guess again. Both have been good, but Strasburg isn’t the Nats’ best (or second best) starter, and Harper hasn’t been as important to the Nationals’ success in the lineup as Adam LaRoche or Anthony Rendon or Jayson Werth.

So set aside the guys such as Strasburg and Harper who get the most headlines. If you had to peg the “worst” player in the Nats lineup, whom would you peg? Wilson Ramos? Catchers with an OPS north of .700 don't grow on trees -- not these days. Ian Desmond? Asdrubal Cabrera? Those are both useful players with whom you can win, as the Nats have.

Take Desmond at shortstop, one of the last legacies from the franchise’s Expos incarnation, a third-round pick out of high school in 2004. His prospect status languished as he spent the better part of four years bouncing between Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg before he finally broke through with a reminder that, in time, youth will be served. If you look at what he doesn’t do -- generate positive numbers in advanced defensive metrics or walk -- you might underrate him. He’s durable and has already notched his third straight 20-homer season while playing a solid shortstop.

Instead, the Nats are an interesting success story because of their depth and because of the number of guys who put them over the top. It’s even more interesting when you consider how many analysts have been critical of the decisions to sign Werth and LaRoche. Some might still lament getting three years of control of center fielder Denard Span in a deal with the Twins for hotshot pitching prospect Alex Meyer. But in the end, this is a concentration of talent that has used financial muscle via free agency and accumulated value from more than a decade of scouting.

That isn’t the only thing that has worked out well, even if the current management regime can’t claim all the credit. Whether getting Doug Fister from the Tigers or stealing Wilson Ramos from the Twins, there’s plenty to brag about. Betting the upside on Werth in his 30s has worked out well for the Nationals, as David Schoenfield noted recently. Reviewing his seven-year, $126 million deal at the midpoint, it certainly looks much better than the B.J. Upton contract (five years, $75 million), a deal many celebrated and a lot of smart folks liked at the time and a deal that has almost no chance of working out, now that Upton’s on the short list of worst regulars in baseball. LaRoche? It used to be fashionable to bash him as a mediocrity; these days he's a solid sure thing the Nats can bet on.

That is not to say the Nationals will have it easy from here on out. They still have important questions to ask and answer -- and two weeks to find answers before they head into October.

Perhaps the biggest question involves their former starting third baseman. As Ryan Zimmerman tries to work his way back from the DL, he went through a full workout Monday at instructional league and will play a simulated game Tuesday. If he can come back in time to get a week or so of everyday play in the majors, the Nats might be able to determine if they can move Anthony Rendon back to second base and start Zimmerman at third or if they’ll have to settle for Zimmerman spot-starting at first, left and -- should they make it -- DH in the World Series. It’s a nice problem to have.

Less enjoyable will be sorting out what they’re going to do with former closer Rafael Soriano. Handed a four-run lead in the ninth inning Monday, he brought the Braves back into the game by allowing two runs to score. Since his latest save Sept. 1, Soriano has allowed six runs and blown two saves in his past 4 1/3 IP across five games. He’s allowed 10 baserunners. He’s giving Nationals fans the willies, and if Matt Williams had any hair left, it would have long since gone grey. Drew Storen came in to clean up the mess, notched his fifth save in five appearances and demonstrated there is no “committee” solution to Soriano’s struggles as a closer -- the job is Storen’s.

The question now might be whether Soriano is worth a postseason roster spot. That might sound extreme, but if he doesn’t show anything in the next two weeks, would you invest the space in keeping him around? They’ll be adding someone from the rotation -- probably Tanner Roark -- to the pen, and with Tyler Clippard and Aaron Barrett around, it isn’t like they’re short of quality right-handed arms for setup work. It might come down to a choice between Soriano and third lefty Jerry Blevins.

The Nationals will be better off if Soriano can put people’s minds at ease in the meantime. He didn’t Monday night, but thanks to the margin they’ve built to clinch shortly, they’ll be able to afford him the time to get back in gear. Those are the benefits you win for yourself when you deliver on the expectation that you’d win going away -- and then you do.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
With the pennant races heating up, I'm thinking of trying this each morning the rest of the season: Sort of a quick-hitting look at some key results from the previous night and what may mean or not mean. Let's see how it goes.

1. Oakland's rotation isn't carrying the A's.

Scott Kazmir got bombed on Sunday night (10 hits and seven runs), although the A's still won the series from the Angels, winning two of three and getting better results from Sonny Gray on Friday and Jon Lester on Saturday. Jeff Samardzija made his first start for the A's on July 6 and Billy Beane later added Jon Lester; nonetheless, the A's are just 22-20 since Samardzija's debut. Don't point fingers just at the offense; the rotation has a 4.00 ERA since then, 17th in the majors and just ninth in the American League. The offense, meanwhile, is fourth in the AL in runs scored since July 6, averaging 4.38 runs per game. True, that's down from 5.0 runs per game through July 5, but good enough if the starting pitching was performing better.

2. Brewers' rotation depth is paying off.

Who would have thought that it would be Milwaukee's depth in the rotation compared to St. Louis' that could pay off in the long run? Mike Fiers allowed two hits and two runs in seven innings in a 4-3 win over Pittsburgh and is 4-0 with a 1.29 ERA in four starts filling in for Matt Garza. His success isn't unprecedented; remember, he had a solid rookie season in 2012 before collapsing last year. But he had pitched well in Triple-A (2.55 ERA, great peripherals), suggesting he had turned things around. Analysts have had a hard time believing in him due to his lack of fastball velocity but he keep hitters off-balance and has a deceptive delivery. Rookie Jimmy Nelson has been solid in his eight starts (4.15) as well. Meanwhile ...

3. Cardinals may have to reconsider Justin Masterson's rotation slot.

Masterson had another bad start for St. Louis, lasting just three innings in a 7-1 loss to Philly. He's 2-2 with a 7.53 in five starts with the Cardinals (and John Lackey hasn't been great either, with a 5.40 ERA). Among 124 pitchers with at least 100 innings, Masterson is 124th in OBP allowed -- .388. Considering that Adam Wainwright's second-half ERA has risen from 1.83 to 4.70, with a corresponding decline in strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.26 to 1.76, and it's amazing the Cardinals remain just 1.5 games behind the Brewers. The Cardinals may have to stick with Masterson, as there isn't a clear option to replace him unless they want to give Carlos Martinez another shot (unlikely) or rookie Marco Gonzalez, who struggled with his control in three earlier starts.

4. The Nationals are the best team in baseball right now.

I had Washington No. 1 in this week's Power Rankings, over the A's and Angels (who lost ace Garrett Richards for the season). They pounded the Giants 14-6 to win that series. Earlier in the week, they completed a stretch of five walk-off wins in six games and they're 17-5 since Aug. 2. All season, we've been waiting for the Nationals to click; they're finally clicking. If there's minor cause for concern, it's the continued inconsistency of Stephen Strasburg. Coming off back-to-back one-run outings, the Giants knocked him out after four innings and five runs. If you're Matt Williams, how do you line up your playoff rotation? I have to think Strasburg, at best, goes after Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann.

5. The Yankees aren't dead yet.

Brian McCann delivered a dramatic two-out, full-count, pinch-hit three-run homer in the 10th inning to give the Yankees their second walk-off win in three days and their fourth win in a row. The Yankees continue to play above .500 ball despite getting outscored; they're minus-34 runs on the season and they're 12-9 in August while getting outscored 81-77. They have a chance to become the first team ever to finish above .500 in consecutive seasons while getting outscored both years. We can analyze that any number of ways, but the Yankees keep finding ways to win; in shorthand, they win the close games (21-16 in one-run games) and lose the blowouts (10-18 in games decided by five or more runs). This week will be interesting: A seven-game road trip against playoff contenders Kansas City (one game), Detroit (three) and Toronto (three). The playoff odds for the Yankees remain slim -- 8.8 percent to win the division, just 3.3 to win the wild card, so the analytics suggest their best path to the postseason is a Baltimore collapse.

I don't see that happening, but we've all learned never to count out the Yankees when the lineup card suggests they're not very good.

Nationals starting to live up to expectations

August, 15, 2014

Do the Nationals have the NL East won? It's worth asking now, because with a six-game lead over the Braves after their latest victory over the Mets on Thursday night, we might end up with the Nats walking away. That would no doubt be especially sweet for Matt Williams in what has already been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster of a season, but as the season nears the three-quarter mark, I would suggest it's remarkable that we've been able to talk about the Braves as a plausible rival this far into the season.

The number of things that people get hung up on about the Nationals is legion, especially as a traditionally sports-crazy town warms to theme of a team that gives it something to talk about day after day. Williams and Bryce Harper, mixing it up with the press and saying stuff that both of them probably shouldn’t? That’s just Fourth Estate hijinks at their best, the stuff of easy headlines and team media relations staff nightmares. They don't add up to much in terms of the things that have been telling us the Nats are going to win all along.

Take the way in which we can fidget over how star players aren't performing up to an ideal. As David Schoenfield wrote last week, Stephen Strasburg has failed to dominate the way you'd expect according to metrics like FIP, but as he pointed out, that's in part because of some easily identifiable problems, like how he’s pitched with men on base. That’s not only something you can diagnose, ideally, it's something you can fix. And, if not, heck, he wouldn't be the first guy with plus stuff and some fly in his statistical ointment. Nolan Ryan had an annoying tendency to have a worse real-world ERA than FIP for some of the same reasons.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIBryce Harper has ripped two homers in a week. Is it time to stop worrying about him this year?

Or take Harper's homering a second time this week on Thursday, leading Williams to say his swing looked more free than it has at any previous point this season. It's easy to fret over the performance this season as Harper has struggled through injuries, as my old Baseball Prospectus colleague Jonah Keri did for Grantland on Wednesday. And here again, that's diagnosable because of the expanding spread of statistical resources we have at our disposal, and, as Jonah noted, against something like what you can suss out of this year's hard-hit average from Harper, you have the rest of Harper’s career to look back on, which generated big projections, big expectations and a lot to look forward to. That didn't go away just because the kid got hurt and played through it, not if the underlying talent is still there. It just means his final season line won't be pretty.

And then there's Ryan Zimmerman's injuries, availability and his eventual position, and Gio Gonzalez doing less well this year, or Jordan Zimmermann's stack of frustrating non-decisions, or the bullpen having a bad week or two since the All-Star break, highlighted by Rafael Soriano blowing a couple of save opportunities. Put all of that together and you have no end of reasons to get worked up and start talking about why this team won't win … except when I look at all of those guys, all of that talent and so many of them parked in the middle of their peak seasons, and I think those are all things they can iron out by October because, once there, nobody's going to remember or worry about what Harper's May looked like if he's right by then, starting now.

All of that talent adds up to a run differential that is pushing plus-100 (at plus-89 so far) and an expected record of 71-48, five games better than they are. That's a pole position, not just a poll position, a level of performance that you might think is pulling them toward where they ought to be. Yet nobody on the Nats is having what I think any of us would call a career year. But they won't need it to win the NL East going away.

In contrast, without getting into the Braves in any depth, by run differential alone -- having allowed four more runs than they've scored -- they're essentially a team that you should expect to play .500 ball (60-61), and they are playing .500 ball (61-60). Is that about what we might have expected after they had to cobble together a rotation on the fly during the spring? Yes, I suspect it was. Is that about where they'll wind up? If they do, I'd consider it a moral victory.

But the Nats? They won't have to settle for that. They'll be winning the victories that count in the standings and living up to what so many of us predicted for them back on Opening Day.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

On Tuesday, Stephen Strasburg was locked in a pitchers' duel with Henderson Alvarez of the Marlins, the game tied 0-0 in the sixth inning. Strasburg had pitched well although he wasn't necessarily dominant -- finishing with four strikeouts in seven innings -- and at this point faced Giancarlo Stanton with a runner on first and no outs.

Strasburg felt good about his fastball on this night and would use it more often than in any other start this season. But Jordany Valdespin had singled sharply up the middle on a 96 mph heater to start the inning, and Strasburg fell behind 2-0 to Stanton, missing with a fastball and a curveball.

He doesn't throw as hard as he did before his Tommy John surgery, but Strasburg still owns one of the fastest heaters in the game; his average fastball velocity is sixth best among qualified starters. He reared back and fired a four-seamer at 96 mph, but right down the middle of the plate. Stanton fouled it off; the look on his face suggested he was thinking he should have clocked that one 500 feet.

Strasburg got away with that pitch but not the next one, a curveball that didn't bite much and hung out over the plate. Stanton drilled it down the left-field line for an RBI double, the only run Strasburg would allow in his seven innings of an eventual 3-0 loss to the Marlins.

A couple of Strasburg's numbers to consider:

1. Among 93 qualified starters, he ranks 72nd in OPS allowed in plate appearances ending with a fastball. Batters are hitting .318/.364/.418 against his fastball, with 10 home runs. Jason Vargas is just above him in OPS allowed; Roberto Hernandez is just below him.

2. Among those 93 starters, when faced with a hitter's count, Strasburg ranks 92nd in OPS allowed, ahead of only Jason Hammel. In 104 such plate appearances, batters have hit .476/.567/.726 off him.

This is what Ben is referring to: Entering Sunday's game, Strasburg leads the National League in strikeouts and ranks third in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings, behind only Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw. Strasburg ranks sixth in the majors in strikeout percentage minus walk percentage. The five guys above him are Kershaw, Chris Sale, David Price, Felix Hernandez and Masahiro Tanaka. Three of those guys have an ERA under 2.10, Tanaka was at 2.51 when he was injured, and Price is at 3.11 even though he leads the American League in home runs allowed.

But there's Strasburg with a 3.55 ERA, which ranks 46th among qualified starters.

He racks up strikeouts, limits walks and doesn't give up an unusually high number of home runs. His fielding independent pitching number -- which looks at strikeouts, walks and home runs, factors a pitcher has more control over than hits allowed -- is 2.84, giving him the sixth-largest negative difference between ERA and FIP among starters.

Is it just bad luck? The major league batting average on balls in play is .295, but Strasburg's BABIP against is .350, the second highest among qualified starters (only Edwin Jackson's .353 mark is higher). FanGraphs' version of WAR says Strasburg has pitched with bad luck and values him at 3.1 wins above replacement, 15th among starters. Baseball-Reference values him at 1.2 WAR.

Normally, we would suggest Strasburg has pitched with some bad luck; BABIP often fluctuates year to year, and Strasburg had a .266 BABIP last year. This year, the balls appear to be finding holes.

However, those numbers listed above kind of go hand in hand. When behind in the count, pitchers like to throw fastballs. Strasburg's fastball has been hit relatively hard this season. Thus, when behind in the count, Strasburg has really been hit hard. Of those 104 plate appearances referenced above, 77 ended with a fastball and batters hit .453.

Another set of Strasburg numbers:

Bases empty: .242/.285/.378
Men on: .297/.341/.429

Bases empty: .216/.276/.332
Men on: .258/.317/.385

From 2012 to 2014, opponents have hit .310 against his fastball with runner(s) on base and .268 when the bases are empty.

While it's normal to allow a lower average when the bases are empty, Strasburg's difference is rather dramatic. The overall MLB marks are .245 with the bases empty and .255 with runners on. Strasburg actually throws his fastball a little less often with runners on, so this isn't simply a case of him throwing too many heaters and batters sitting on them. But it could be a case of him trying to hit the corners when the bases are empty, since there is room for error, and grooving too many fastballs with runners on.

The fastball to Stanton is a good example of what may be going on. Stanton fouled it off, but it was not only down the middle but also straight as an arrow with no movement. Big league hitters can hit 96 mph fastballs without movement.

Against the Marlins, Strasburg's fastball command wasn't great. He walked only two batters, but several times his fastball would ride away from left-handed hitters (or, less often, into right-handed batters), often well out of the strike zone. I'm not sure whether this was an attempt to get more movement on the pitch or he was just flying open a bit, causing his shoulder to drag slightly behind and the ball to drift. When behind in the count, however, his fastballs were too often up in the zone and over the plate. He got away with it in this game, but clearly this is when he gets into trouble.

Strasburg's fastball doesn't really have a lot of deception. Hitters seem to pick it up well, and since he throws only (or mostly) a four-seamer, he doesn't get as much action as he would from a two-seam fastball.

It's possible that Strasburg has pitched with some bad luck this year, but there are also indicators that his ERA is higher than his FIP for reasons other than bad luck and bad sequencing.

As the strikeout numbers indicate, when he does get ahead in the count he has deadly wipeout pitches with his curveball and changeup. But his fastball isn't a great pitch. Until his command of it improves or he can more successfully paint the corners or develop a two-seamer with movement, Strasburg won't develop into that ace we keep expecting him to turn into.
Two weeks ago, the Washington Nationals were 25-27. Now they've won nine of 11, are 34-29 and riding some amazing starting pitching. The pitching staff as a whole has allowed more than two runs just twice in those 11 games -- four runs both times -- and the starters have allowed more than two runs just once (and two of those four runs that Stephen Strasburg allowed on June 4 were unearned).

Here's the collective line for the rotation over those 11 games:

77 IP, 55 H, 14 R, 10 ER, 73 SO, 6 BB, 3 HR, 1.17 ERA

Focus on that walk column. When Doug Fister walked Brandon Hicks leading off the seventh inning on Tuesday, it snapped a streak of 51 consecutive innings Nationals starters had pitched without issuing a walk. Sure, the first part of this stretch came against the Phillies and Padres, but they also just beat the Giants 9-2 and 2-1 with two games left in the series (followed by another big series in St. Louis).

Fister has quietly been effective. After allowing seven runs in his first start returning from the DL on May 9, he's gone 5-0 with a 1.83 ERA. Strasburg has a 2.04 ERA since April 20 (although that's helped by seven unearned runs). Jordan Zimmermann scuffled early but is coming off back-to-back dominant, scoreless outings, including a 12-strikeout shutout against the Padres in which he registered nine of the K's with his fastball.

Oh ... and the bullpen leads the majors with a 2.20 ERA.

Remember that the Nationals have suffered through their share of injuries to position players. On Opening Day, the lineup featured Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche. That's the only time all four have played. Three of the four have played together just 15 times ... and Ramos left Tuesday's game with tightness in his right hamstring.

Injuries certainly aren't an excuse, especially considering Ramos, Zimmerman and Harper also battled injury issues last season, but it's fair to point out that Nationals haven't been operating on all cylinders yet. The bench hasn't been the disaster it was last season, but backup outfielder Nate McLouth, signed to a $5 million contract to provide depth has hit .179 with one home in 106 at-bats and Jose Lobaton and Kevin Frandsen have given sub-.300 on-base percentages.

Bryce Harper -- who may play center field when he returns from his handy injury with Zimmerman in left -- is expected back in late June or early June. He told the Washington Post a few days ago that he'd like to play center when he returns:
I really have no idea what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it. I think everyone knows I love center field. That’s where I like to be. My numbers are a lot better in center field. I feel good there. But you know, of course we have Denard Span, who’s one of the best center fielders in the game, if not the best.

As that article points out, Harper's defensive metrics were actually very good in center when he played there as a rookie in 2012, while being below-average in left. Span rates about average in center over the past two seasons. Considering the uncertainty of Zimmerman's ability to play third due to his shoulder, I would say the Nationals' best team features Zimmerman in left and Harper in center. Span can rotate in as needed, with Zimmerman also playing some first base for LaRoche against lefties.

Getting Harper back shouldn't be viewed as a problem. Have more flexibility will be a good thing for manager Matt Williams. I don't view the switch from Harper to Span as hurting the defense and, if anything, it allows the Nationals to be stronger defensively at three positions (Danny Espinosa at second over Anthony Rendon; Rendon over Zimmerman at third; and Harper over Span).

And a better defense could make the starters even better.

Not good news for the rest of the NL East.

Cole vs. Strasburg provides Pirates hope

May, 25, 2014

Sixteen pitchers have been taken No. 1 overall since the institution of the amateur draft in 1965. Prior to Saturday’s first-ever matchup of Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole, there had been only 10 duels between former No. 1 overall picks. The last such game took place August 21, 2012, when Luke Hochevar went up against David Price. In that game, both pitchers tossed eight scoreless innings as the Royals prevailed 1-0 in 10 innings.

Given the rate at which young pitchers have been struck down this season (while certainly not forgetting Strasburg’s own Tommy John experience), it’s a treat when we can anticipate a meeting such as this. One could only hope Cole and Strasburg could deliver something close to that Price/Hochevar.

Beyond being a showcase of two of the top young pitchers in the National League, Saturday’s Nationals/Pirates contest pitted two teams with playoff aspirations coming into 2014, but also two clubs that have struggled through the first quarter of the season. The Nationals sat at .500, having suffered significant injuries to Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez. But Strasburg, despite a 3-3 record, had been superb, with a 2.42 FIP while striking out 28.2 percent of all batters -- each statistic good for third-best in the league. His 3.38 ERA could be attributed to a lousy .358 BABIP -- the third-highest rate in the National League.

For the Pirates, winning their prior three games still left them at 21-26, seven games behind the NL Central-leading Brewers. Failing to retain A.J. Burnett after 2013 placed a lot of initial pressure on the likes of veteran journeymen Edinson Volquez and Wandy Rodriguez; the latter was designated for assignment earlier this week. Pirates starters other than Cole this season had a combined record of 3-17.

Cole himself had been a bit “hit-unlucky,” as an increase in his ground-ball rate to 53 percent had been undermined by a .317 BABIP. He’d also seen his homer-to-fly ball rate nearly double, from 8.1 percent as a rookie to 14.9 percent this year. But with Francisco Liriano (0-4, 4.86 ERA, 1.45 WHIP) tumbling back to earth after a 16-win season, Cole has become the de facto ace of the staff.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarStephen Strasburg came out firing strikes, but wound up the eventual loser in a mound showdown between first overall picks.

In the game, Strasburg sailed through his first six innings, throwing 61 of 91 pitches for strikes while yielding only four hits and striking out six. The only tally against him through those frames was a fourth-inning solo homer by Neil Walker.

In contrast, Cole was in trouble as early as the third inning, needing 27 pitches in that inning alone (including a battle with Anthony Rendon that featured five 3-2 fouls before a walk on the 11th pitch of the at-bat). With one out in the fourth, Cole tried to double up on changeups to Ian Desmond, and Desmond launched the second of those into the left-field seats to open the scoring.

Cole also seemed to be having trouble with the strike zone of rookie umpire Gabe Morales, who was in only his 10th major league game behind the plate. With two outs in that same inning, Cole threw two back-to-back two-strike pitches to Nate McLouth that appeared to claim the plate, only to be called balls. The following pitch saw Cole finally retire McLouth on a grounder to second, but Cole landed awkwardly finishing his delivery, and limped off the mound as the inning ended.

Cole nevertheless came back out for the fifth, but labored some more in hitting a batter, walking another and allowing two singles. The 32 pitches in that frame left him at 98 pitches going into the sixth. He regained some normalcy in the sixth, pitching around a walk to McLouth to end his night having thrown a career-high 112 pitches, and getting a no-decision for his trouble.

However, he had kept the game within reach of the Pirates’ offense. They retook the lead in the seventh off of Strasburg, with pinch hitter Jose Tabata’s sacrifice fly driving in Russell Martin and Josh Harrison’s single plating Starling Marte, who had doubled two batters after Martin. After that, the Pirates bullpen set the Nats down with no ball leaving the infield over the last three innings, and Pittsburgh had its 14th one-run victory of the year, 3-2. For the Pirates, a start like this from Cole had to be encouraging. He clearly labored at times but still gave the team six innings and a game Pittsburgh could win -- and did.

Looking forward, the Bucs bullpen, which was a crucial component of their 2013 playoff team, is going to have to match or exceed their performance this season. They threw the second-most innings in the National League last season (545⅔) and compiled the second-best ERA (2.89). With their three perfect innings tonight, their collective ERA is 2.82 (fifth-best) and they've pitched 156.2 innings, fourth-most in the league. For the Pirates to contend, they'll need Cole to continue to excel, even when he doesn't have his best stuff. But they’ll also need to find him some starting pitching help. Brandon Cumpton is rejoining the rotation as Rodriguez's replacement, but Liriano must start to show even a semblance of his 2013 performance.

As for Strasburg versus Cole after one good game, what about a rematch between these two top guns? Mark your calendars for August 15-17, as that is the next time these two clubs might offer us this particular pitching matchup.

Diane Firstman blogs about baseball at Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot network affiliate. You can follow her on Twitter at @dianagram.

Jimenez, Peralta at top of mound efforts

May, 3, 2014
Lots of storylines around the majors on Friday night, as you would expect. With all due respect to Starling Marte (walk-off homer against Toronto) and rookie Jose Abreu (11th homer of the season equals the total of the Kansas City Royals), however, the five most noteworthy performances of the evening occurred on the pitching mound.

1. Ubaldo Jimenez was nothing short of brutal in five April starts, but the big right-hander finally picked up his first win with the Orioles. He did so in dominating fashion, twirling 7 1/3 scoreless innings, while allowing just three hits and one walk in a 3-0 shutout of Minnesota.

More encouraging for Baltimore fans: Jimenez struck out 10 Twins. Before Friday night, he had been walking too many batters (17 in 27 1/3 innings), and the drop in fastball velocity (1.6 mph below last year’s fastball) continues to be worrisome, but the Orioles need an effective Jimenez if they want to stay atop the American League East.

2. Wily Peralta did it all himself in Cincinnati. Not only did the Brewers' right-hander pitch eight shutout innings, but Peralta also doubled in both of Milwaukee’s runs in a 2-0 win. Those RBIs were the first of Peralta’s career.

Milwaukee boasts the best record in baseball at 21-9; its 12-3 mark away from Miller Park is also the best in the league. We are just two days into May, and the Brew Crew has already opened up a six-game lead in the NL Central (9.5 over the last-place Cubs and Pirates).

[+] EnlargeMike Minor
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsBraves lefty Mike Minor took the loss in his season debut Friday night despite pitching well over six innings.
3. Much ink has been spilled about the early brilliance of Atlanta’s pitching, but you have to think that Mike Minor’s return to the Braves couldn’t have come at a better time. Minor was effective over six innings, permitting two runs on seven hits while striking out four (both San Francisco runs scored on solo homers). Of course, that performance wasn’t enough to out-duel Tim Lincecum, as the Giants won 2-1.

Minor has been Atlanta’s best pitcher since the 2012 All-Star break (87 1/3 IP, 2.16 ERA in the second half of 2012; 13-9, 3.21 ERA in 200+ innings last year). With the clock (possibly) striking midnight on Aaron Harang, and the club now mired in a four-game losing skid, Minor’s return to the top of the Atlanta rotation is welcome indeed.

4. Tom Koehler entered the season as Miami’s fifth starter after going 5-10 with a 4.41 ERA as a rookie last year. On Friday, Koehler pitched seven scoreless innings, holding the Dodgers to three hits in a 6-3 Marlins victory. The win was Miami’s seventh in a row at home; its 13-4 home record is the best in baseball. Also, don’t look now, but the win permitted the Marlins to climb above .500 for the first time since April 9.

Koehler is 3-2 with a 2.41 ERA on the season, but he seems like a good bet to return to Earth any time now. He has issued free passes to almost four batters per nine innings, and that 24/16 strikeout-to-walk ratio does not inspire confidence that he can continue to outperform his peripherals (4.41 FIP, for example).

5. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the best pitching matchup of the night: Cliff Lee vs. Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg pitched six strong innings, giving up three unearned runs in the first before settling down; he was lifted by manager Matt Williams after only 83 pitches. Lee had a typical Cliff Lee performance, allowing one earned run over seven innings. Things got a little testy in the fifth, when Lee got into a bit of a shouting match with Washington’s Denard Span, after which each player’s posse emerged from his respective dugout to mill around on the field before order was restored.

Finally, we didn’t really need more proof that you can’t predict baseball, but Lee and Strasburg provided it. Lee had issued four walks in his first six starts. He hadn’t walked a pitcher in three years. So what happened tonight? Yep, Lee walked Strasburg on four straight pitches.

You gotta love baseball.

Chad Dotson writes for Redleg Nation on the SweetSpot Blog Network.

After badly underachieving for the first four months a year ago and playing themselves out of postseason contention, the Washington Nationals were looking forward to a fresh start and some more positive karma under new manager Matt Williams.

Other than leading the major leagues in errors and devastating thumb injuries, they have yet to distinguish themselves in a way they might have hoped.

The Nats suffered a blow two weeks ago when All-Star Ryan Zimmerman fractured his right thumb diving into second base on a pickoff play against Atlanta. Zimmerman’s thumb is in a splint, and the Nationals say the original four- to six-week prognosis still applies, which means he’ll probably be back sometime in mid- to late May.
[+] EnlargeRyan Zimmerman
AP Photo/Jason GetzWhen Ryan Zimmerman returns from the DL, he'll come back to a lineup without Bryce Harper.

He’ll return to a lineup without Bryce Harper, who will undergo surgery Tuesday to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb and is expected to be out until at least early July.

All the Nationals need now is for Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond or Adam LaRoche to hurt a thumb sliding into first base, and they’ll be three-fourths of the way to a cycle.

The injury is yet more fodder for critics who say Harper is “all hype” and doesn’t belong on the same planet with Mike Trout. That’s unfair, of course, but it’s still been a strangely off-kilter spring for Harper. After looking ready in the Grapefruit League, he struck out 10 times in his first 21 regular-season at-bats and pronounced himself “pretty lost right now.” Then Williams benched him for jogging out a ground ball, of all things. And there was that surreal moment last week when Harper smoked the ball in his first two at-bats only to gift-wrap an out for the Angels by trying to bunt for a hit in a big spot with a man on base.

Regardless of Harper’s meager power numbers at the time of his injury, his absence will hurt a Washington lineup that’s off to a strong start. The Nats rank second to Colorado in the National League with 115 runs scored and a .731 OPS, and Harper looked as if he might be poised to go on a roll with a season-high four RBIs Friday against San Diego. Now he’ll be replaced by Nate McLouth, a handy guy and a solid defender who won’t provide much thump.

The injuries will test the Nationals' fortitude and resilience, but any team with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann in the rotation is going to win its share of 2-1 and 3-2 games. Tanner Roark has been a revelation, and Doug Fister will complete his rehab assignment shortly and make it an even stronger contingent.

But this season clearly isn’t going to be the joyride that everyone expected when the Nationals were anointed as the clear NL East front-runner in spring training. For starters, the division is stronger than a lot of people expected. The Braves are off to a terrific start, and they’re about to get a boost from the return of Mike Minor to the rotation. They’re also 18-7 against Washington since the start of the 2013 season, and some people think they’re in the Nationals’ heads.

The Phillies just returned from a 6-4 West Coast trip, and Chase Utley is looking awfully spry. Terry Collins always gets the best out of the Mets, who have a solid rotation from the first through fifth slots. And the Marlins have a chance to be trouble, as well, if they can figure out a way to improve upon that 2-10 road record.

In late March, when ESPN released its “expert” predictions, 40 of the 44 folks surveyed picked Washington to win the NL East (with only four prognosticators going with Atlanta). Twelve of those 44 picked the Nationals to win the World Series.

Suddenly, Williams has to deal with the absence of Zimmerman, catcher Wilson Ramos and Harper and the potential for some flagging morale in the clubhouse. It might be time for him to deliver a pep talk to ensure the Nats don't fall victim to a case of “here we go again”-itis.

And while Williams is at it, he might want to mix in some remedial sliding lessons.
There's certainly no shame in losing to Adam Wainwright. When he's commanding his fastball to the corners and dropping in that big curveball, the 1927 Yankees with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig would have trouble beating him.

It's one thing to lose to an ace like Wainwright, but it's another to go down like the Washington Nationals did on Thursday night: one lone infield hit to Wainwright until there were two outs in the ninth; four errors, to add to their league-leading total; 192 pitches thrown; one wild pitch, one hit batter and a whole bunch of fans who left Nationals Park early.

This is supposed to be one of the best teams in baseball? The Nationals looked like the '62 Mets in this one. By the seventh inning, I expected to see Marv Throneberry triple into a double play.

Of course, every team has a game like this at some point during the season. There are more than a few teams who would like to own the Nationals' 9-7 record. Still, this game exposed some concerns about the Nationals, namely, their defense, their arguably overrated rotation and their inability to beat good teams.

[+] EnlargeDanny Espinosa
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsDanny Espinosa made one of four errors by the Nationals in their loss to the Cardinals on Thursday.
Yes, the Nats are 9-7, but they’re 3-0 against the Mets (who, granted, are off to an 8-7 start) and 5-1 against the Miami Marlins, but 1-5 against the Atlanta Braves and now 0-1 against the St. Louis Cardinals. In those seven games against the Braves and Cardinals, they've been outscored 40 to 16.

If that sounds familiar, I take you back to 2013, when the Nationals went 6-13 against the Braves and 0-6 against the Cardinals. Against the five National League playoff teams, they went 14-31 while being outscored 181-125. The Nationals went 86-76 only because they beat up on the hapless Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Marlins, and they did much of that damage in September, once those three clubs had long since packed it in. If we're supposed to take the Nationals seriously, don't they need to start beating the good teams?

That vaunted Nationals rotation. It had a 3.60 ERA last season. That's good. I mean, it was only sixth best in the NL, barely better than the Mets (3.68) and only a little better than the Marlins (3.87). Of course, the Mets didn't get to face the Mets and the Marlins didn't get to face the historically awful Marlins offense, but 3.60 is pretty solid. Many thought it would be even better this season: They brought in Doug Fister to replace Dan Haren, and Stephen Strasburg should be better and Jordan Zimmermann just needs to do what he did in the first half last season (12-4, 2.58 ERA) over a full season.

That hasn't happened early on. Fister hasn't pitched yet; the depth from Taylor Jordan, who started Thursday, and Tanner Roark hasn't materialized; Strasburg has struggled with runners on base; Zimmermann had a blow-up start. The Nationals have a 5.21 rotation ERA, second worst in the majors.

It's probably good news that the Nationals are 9-7 when the rotation has struggled to this degree. Sure, there's undoubtedly some bad luck in there -- the .348 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) the starters have allowed is also second worst in the majors -- but they're also 28th in average innings per start and 25th in walks per nine innings. They're also first in strikeouts per nine, but strikeouts are nicer when they come with run prevention.

OK, most of us still believe in the rotation. And they'll have a lot of games against the Marlins and Phillies to look good against.

The defense, however, has been the biggest disaster of all. On Thursday, shortstop Ian Desmond made a fielding error and a throwing error, raising his season total to seven; second baseman Danny Espinosa dropped a throw from Desmond; right fielder Jayson Werth dropped a fly ball. That's 20 errors in 16 games. Ugly.

OK, errors aren't everything. You can make up for errors with good range. But they look bad, and, sometimes, sloppy baseball feeds off itself. The pitchers have to throw more pitches and work out of more jams. That leads to earlier exits and puts more strain on the bullpen.

Again, one game. In September, it will be forgotten. Heck, it might be forgotten by next week. But I won't forget until I start seeing the Nationals do some damage against better teams. Ask yourself this: How would we view this team if it played in the NL Central instead of the NL East?

Tales of Saturday's aces

April, 5, 2014
They say one badge of a true ace is finding a way to succeed when you don’t bring your premium stuff or pinpoint location to the mound.

In the case of Jose Fernandez, the stuff is always premium, with a fastball that touches the upper 90s when he pumps it up, a slider that makes right-handed batters weep in torment and a sharp curveball that he’s not afraid to throw on any count. He’ll even drop in an occasional changeup, just to turn batters' brains to mush worrying about a fourth pitch.

[+] EnlargeJose Fernandez
AP Photo/Alan DiazMiami's Jose Fernandez (2-0) lowered his ERA to 0.71 with Saturday's win against the Padres.
The Padres’ approach in Fernandez’s second start of 2014 appeared to be: Wait him out, hope he’s a bit wild, maybe draw some walks and get a couple of timely hits to push across some runs or at least run up his pitch count and get to the Marlins’ bullpen early. Of the first 11 batters, only Jedd Gyorko and pitcher Andrew Cashner swung at the first pitch. The patient approach sort of worked, as Fernandez didn’t have the command he had an Opening Day, when 73 of his 94 pitches were strikes. Through the first three innings Saturday, Fernandez had thrown 56 pitches and walked two batters in the third inning that loaded the bases with one out. It looked like a short night was in order.

But his pitch to Seth Smith shows why Fernandez is a pitcher who relies on more than just stuff. The 21-year-old knows how to pitch. He usually throws a four-seam fastball, but against Smith he threw a first-pitch, 89 mph sinker that Smith pounded into the ground for a 4-6-3 double play.

That was pretty much it for the Padres. Fernandez regrouped, found his command and threw seven pitches in the fourth, 10 in the fifth and 14 in the sixth, allowing him to pitch into the seventh inning. He left with two outs in the seventh, after striking out Alexi Amarista (who reached when the curveball got away from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia). Fernandez’s final line in the Marlins’ 4-0 victory looked like another dominating gem: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 SO. But this is one of those games in which an ace overcame a shaky beginning.

Through two starts now, Fernandez has allowed one run and eight hits in 12.2 innings with 17 strikeouts. Going back to last season, he’s allowed more two runs just twice in 20 starts, and those two times he allowed three runs.

Fernandez, who weighed as much as 260 pounds in high school (perhaps a reason he fell to the 14th pick in 2011), spent the offseason biking as much as 600 miles per week on his $9,000 Specialized S-Works Venge bike. Listed at 240 pounds as a rookie, Fernandez is now a svelte but still powerful 220 pounds. He’s poised, confident, in terrific shape and developing the mind of an ace to go with his all-world right arm. Two starts in and he looks like a guy who will be the best pitcher in baseball in 2014.

* * * *

Stephen Strasburg is still trying to find the consistency that Fernandez seems to have found. He struck out 10 batters in six innings on Opening Day but still gave up four runs, as three of the five hits he allowed to the Mets came in the first inning, including a three-run homer.


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In his second start, against the Braves at home, his final line looked like a pitcher who got shelled -- eight hits, three walks and six runs in 4.2 innings. To be fair, his defense let him down, as two errors led to three of the runs being unearned, and there were some soft hits in there. But while Fernandez was able to get that double-play ball, Strasburg couldn’t escape a jam in the fifth inning, when the Braves scored four runs. After Freddie Freeman walked, Strasburg gave up two soft liners and a ground single to load the bases. He started Dan Uggla with a curveball in the dirt and then came back with another curve that Uggla grounded sharply into left field for a two-run single. Bryce Harper’s throwing error allowed the runners to move up to second and third for Ryan Doumit.

Strasburg is a strikeout pitcher and needed one here, with the Nationals down 4-2. Against the switch-hitting Doumit, he fired six fastballs in a row -- ball, called strike, foul, ball, ball, foul. It was a curious pitch selection, especially after he got the count to 1-2, because against left-handed batters in 2013, Strasburg’s fastball wasn’t a great strikeout pitch. In 223 plate appearances against lefties ending in fastballs, he struck out just 23 batters (and walked 28). Of 416 swings on his fastball by lefties, just 56 were missed. So Doumit hung in there. Strasburg did finally come in with a 3-2 curveball, but Doumit looked like he was sitting on it and lined it over a drawn-in infield for an RBI single. The sixth run came on a sac fly after Strasburg had been yanked.

In comparing Fernandez to Strasburg, the big difference comes with runners on base. Last year, Strasburg allowed a .184 average with the bases empty compared to .245 with men on. Fernandez was .176 with the bases empty and .191 with runners on.

Saturday night's games showcased that difference. Fernandez got out of his jam and settled down; Strasburg didn't. If the two entered the season regarded essentially as equals as Cy Young contenders, it's Fernandez's poise and pitchability that right now makes him the better ace.

* * * *

Felix Hernandez once had a fastball that matched Fernandez and Strasburg. But those days are in the past. He's now a wily veteran who turns 28 on Tuesday (can he really be that old already?) and his fastest pitch against the A's on Saturday was clocked at 92.3 mph. But Hernandez spots that fastball, usually on the black, and backs it up with one of the most devastating pitches in the game, a hard changeup that comes in at the knees and seems to take a 90-degree turn straight down at the last split-second.

Hernandez threw 23 changeups against the A's with an average velocity of 88.6 mph, not that much slower than his fastball, which makes it doubly tough for hitters to pick up. The A's did nothing against it: 15 swings, five misses, eight foul balls, one ground ball out and one fly ball out. The effectiveness of that fastball/changeup combo can be seen in the two jams Hernandez worked through.

In the fourth inning, the game still 0-0, Jed Lowrie singled with two outs and Brandon Moss doubled on a pop fly that shortstop Brad Miller lost in the sun. That brought up Yoenis Cespedes. Hernandez went 89 mph fastball right on the outsider corner, a slider off the plate that Cespedes missed, then another fastball right at the knees that Cespedes, perhaps looking for that changeup, swung through. In the sixth, Coco Crisp tripled with one out, bringing up Josh Donaldson. Slider for a strike, a foul tip on a changeup, a 92 mph fastball inside. With the count 1-2, Donaldson probably expected the changeup -- he had struck out earlier in the game on one. He got one that fell off a table. Swing and a miss, Donaldson nearly screwing himself into the ground. Hernandez then got Lowrie to pop up -- changeup, curveball.

Hernandez lost his shutout on Lowrie's home run in the ninth, but this game exemplified the King at his best: four pitches that he'll throw on any count, with precision and a plan and deception. It's a beautiful thing.
Stephen Strasburg started two days ago, but I wanted to get this out there. Strasburg has added a slider to his repertoire, to give him another weapon against left-handed batters. He threw the pitch three times in two innings in his Tuesday start, saying "I wanted it to look as much like a fastball as possible, so if I get a little bit of movement, that's all I'm really looking for. I'm not going to dump my other offspeed pitches for it. It's just going to be something to keep them from cheating to the fastball as much."

Strasburg's main offspeed pitch against left-handers has been his curveball ... and it's been an effective pitch for him. Left-handed batters hit just .113 against it (6-for-53) with 32 strikeouts in 56 plate appearances. In fact, as Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information pointed out, Strasburg was pretty effective overall against left-handed batters in 2013:

Opponents' batting average: .218 (sixth-best among 57 qualified right-handed starters)
Opponents' OPS: .629 (fifth)
Well-hit average: .101 (first)
Swing-and-miss pct.: 45.6 (25th)
Chase pct.: 28.8 (21st)

As the numbers suggest, Strasburg was good at inducing weak contact but only middle-of-the-pack in generating misses. Why? Left-handers seem to have little trouble picking up his fastball. They hit .254/.351/.415 against it in 2013, but with 28 walks and just 23 strikeouts in 223 plate appearances. The curveball and changeup are effective when Strasburg gets ahead in the count but lefty hitters can still attack the fastball. Thus, the development of the slider and Strasburg's hope that it resembles his fastball.

The bonus if the pitch develops into a weapon: Strasburg could be even more devastating against right-handed batters, since a good slider is a wipeout pitch against same-side hitters. Righties hit .197/.258/.294 against Strasburg in 2013; that was the fifth-lowest batting average allowed and seventh-lowest OPS for those righty-versus-righty matchups among starting pitchers.

Strasburg posted a 3.00 ERA in 2013 in 183 innings. It seems odd to say about a guy who has one of the fastest fastballs in the league, but throwing his fastball a little less often may actually be a good thing. I'm thinking this is the year that ERA dips well below 3.00, the innings top 200 and Strasburg gets into that Cy Young mix.

Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper had surgery this week -- bone chips in his elbow for Strasburg, knee surgery for Harper. The operations are being sold as relatively minor procedures and both are expected to be ready for spring training.

Still, you don't like to hear of any type of surgery for a pitcher and Harper is pretty young to be having knee problems. Remember, he was a catcher until the Nationals drafted him.

I think it's fair to raise two questions here: (1) Will Strasburg and Harper ever reach their potential? (2) Will the Nationals be as good again as they were in 2012?

The first question can't be answered. We simply don't know, but their injuries show that many things can get in the way of greatness.

As to the second question, my immediate thought is, sure, this is still a fairly young team with a strong rotation. After playing mediocre baseball the first four months, they finally righted the ship and went 16-11 in August and 18-9 in September, but it was too late. They finished 86-76, four wins behind the Reds for the second wild card.

Buried in those numbers, however, are some issues. They played the Mets, Phillies and Marlins a lot down the stretch and went a combined 37-20 against those three teams overall. Against the rest of the major leagues they went 49-56. It's entirely possible all three of those teams will be improved in 2014. Against the five National League teams that made the playoffs, the Nationals went 14-31. You don't want to read too much into head-to-head records, but it's safe to say that it's hard to spin 14-31 into a positive.

So how do the Nationals get better in 2014? The bench was awful in 2013 and the bullpen not as lockdown as 2012, but benches and bullpens are unpredictable. The back of the rotation wasn't good in 2013 but maybe Ross Detwiler bounces back and Tanner Roark and/or Taylor Jordan continue to outperform their prospect projections, or the team brings in a free agent starter, one who performs better than Dan Haren did. But Jayson Werth is unlikely to play better in 2014, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman are unlikely to play better and Denard Span's final numbers were actually very Denard Span-like. Maybe Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez prevent a few more runs.

That leaves a full season from Anthony Rendon and improvement from his rookie slash line of .265/.329/.396.

And Strasburg and Harper. More innings from Strasburg. A healthy and better Harper.

The foundation for a good club is still here. But we can no longer assume, like the Nationals did back in September and October of 2012, that this is a powerhouse franchise that is going to be in the playoffs year after year.

It's been a much quieter year for Stephen Strasburg in his first season following The Shutdown, although not one without news and not one without questions.

While the Nationals have been a colossal dud, Strasburg has pitched at a level similar to 2012. You can view that as a positive, because it's a very high level of performance. Or you can view it as a minor disappointment if your expectations were that Strasburg would win the Cy Young Award and rise to a new plane of dominance.

Comparison time!

2012: 28 GS, 159.1 IP, 3.16 ERA, 3.50 R/9, .230 AVG, .649 OPS
2013: 25 GS, 156.0 IP, 3.00 ERA, 3.58 R/9, .210 AVG, .600 OPS

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
David Banks/Getty ImagesWill Stephen Strasburg be able to get past durability questions?
In some ways, improvement: tougher to hit, lower OPS allowed, higher average innings per start -- 6.2 versus 5.7 (this would give him 175 innings over 28 starts, 16 more frames than last year). On the other hand, his runs-allowed-per-nine-innings mark has remained constant.

Strasburg's strikeout rate -- while still excellent -- also has dropped a bit, from 30 percent to 26 percent, while his walk rate has remained essentially unchanged. Some of that decline in strikeouts could be attributed to a desire to be more efficient in his pitch counts and to produce more ground balls; he has been slightly more efficient (15.6 pitches per inning versus 16.4) and he is getting more grounders, so I wouldn't be too alarmed about the strikeout rate, especially since it does rank ninth among qualified starters -- just ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez.

Despite all those positives, I can't classify Strasburg as an ace just yet, although we all have various definitions of what that means. The goal for starters is to prevent runs and pitch deep into games. He ranks 22nd among MLB starters in ERA and lower if you look at runs per nine innings since he's allowed nine unearned runs. He's also just 41st in innings pitched -- 42 innings fewer than Kershaw, not that any pitcher compares favorably to Kershaw these days. He's had his bumps, missing two weeks with a strained forearm in June, and then the weird start five days ago when he plunked Justin Upton in the first inning -- likely as retaliation for the Braves' throwing at Bryce Harper -- but then threw three wild pitches in the second and got ejected after throwing behind Andrelton Simmons.

Strasburg had another bump Thursday when he took a 4-1 lead into the ninth against the Cubs, looking for his second career complete game, but he was unable to finish it off, as the Cubs scored three runs and knocked him out when Donnie Murphy hit a game-tying homer with two outs. I liked Davey Johnson's decision to leave him in the game that long, even if it didn't work out (the Nationals did eventually win 5-4 in 13 innings).

There are a couple of things Strasburg can improve on. Over the past two seasons, he's allowed a .206 average with the bases empty, .242 with runners on base. A lot of power pitchers allow a higher average with men on base -- Yu Darvish is 39 points worse, David Price is 25 points worse, for example -- but guys such as Kershaw and Hernandez don't see much if any drop-off.

Most importantly, however, remains the command of his fastball against left-handed batters.

Let me show you a couple of heat maps. First, his batting average allowed to left-handed batters off his fastball in 2013:

Stephen StrasburgESPN Stats & InformationStrasburg's batting average allowed in various zones against left-handed batters.

As you can see, he's pretty effective when he gets the fastball inside.

Now, a second heat map, this one of his fastball location against left-handed batters:

Stephen StrasburgESPN Stats & InformationStrasburg prefers to work the outside edge of the plate with his fastball.

So, he is more effective pitching inside ... but more often pitches to the middle or outside part of the plate. I'll let the experts decide whether this is an issue of command or mechanics, but as good as Strasburg's breaking stuff is, you still have to use the fastball to set up those pitches. Eight of the 15 home runs he's allowed have been off fastballs to left-handers -- in fact, all eight of the home runs he's allowed to lefties. For the season, in plate appearances ending with a fastball, lefties have struck out 19 times but have drawn 23 walks and are slugging .452.

Look, these aren't Joe Blanton numbers or anything here. We're nitpicking over a very good pitcher. Questions about his durability still exist -- will he get to 200 innings this season? -- and he should eventually get better at pitching to both sides of the plate. Strasburg remains a dynamic young talent, but you do wonder whether he's been passed up by Matt Harvey and even Jose Fernandez.