GREAT EXPECTATIONSby Steven Goldman
It's safe to say that the season has not gone as the Washington Nationals might have anticipated coming off of a 98-64 season. They enter this showdown series with the division-leading Braves five days after momentarily slipping beneath .500.
They took three of four from the Reds to get back on the winning side of the break-even mark, but their season run differential is still buried in negative territory -- if you remove the 15-0 whipping they took from the Reds back on April 5, they get to positive territory, but only by four runs.
Pitching has been a big part of the problem. Last season the Nats led the NL in ERA by starting pitchers and were third in ERA for relievers. This season they're fourth and tenth, respectively.
Gio Gonzalez and Dan Haren have been slow to get going. The latter has already allowed six home runs in 24-1/3 innings (four came in his first start); he has his old command, but not his old stuff. Pitching is a rough business, and Haren and his old Diamondbacks teammate Brandon Webb may go down as approximately the 1000th and 1001st pitchers in major league history to have the front end of a Hall of Fame career only to be slowed (or in Webb's case, destroyed altogether) by physical issues.
Gonzalez seemed to have gotten back on track in his most recent start, and Haren pitched well his last time out as well, but the latter might represent one of the few times in recent years that general manager Mike Rizzo has gambled and lost -- the other time being his decision to keep Stephen Strasburg out of the playoffs last year.
Despite Bryce Harper's spectacular start, the offense has been slow off the mark. Shortstop Ian Desmond has chipped in at .295/.313/.516 , and the catchers have combined to hit .256/.359/.487. Everyone else has run the gamut from mediocre to outright depressing, and Ryan Zimmerman, presently rehabbing a bad hamstring, can't get back soon enough.
That's a sweet haircut bro
Given his age, it would have been forgivable if Harper had picked up where he had left off instead of going Babe Ruth on us. What’s truly astounding is that you can see where he still has work to do -- he’s only 4-for-23 against southpaws this season. That drags down his overall line enough that you don’t notice that he’s hitting .429/.507/.905 against righties. As he adjusts/finds some better luck against same-side pitchers, we can only hope that the results against right-handers remain stratospheric -- Harper’s teenage heroics have earned him Ted Williams comps, but Williams’ sophomore season was of about the same quality as his rookie year. The Splinter took his great leap forward in year three -- Harper might be a year ahead of his pace. If we’re all lucky, his career will continue to diverge from Teddy Ballgame’s thereafter -- the last thing we need is a major war to deflect the kid from ransacking the record book.
Still on pitch counts
Off to something of a rough start by his standards, which is to say he’s been merely excellent, not superhuman. Continuing the "Nats Have Lefty Issues" theme, left-handed hitters have hit Strasburg rather well -- .271/.326/.387 last year, .255/.345/.431 this year. Despite this, he boasts the same ERA as in 2012, and has struck out over a batter per inning since his surprising first appearance that featured all of three punch outs. Both figures are a reminder that it's still just April, even for young pitchers that appear to be more than mortal most days.
One of the few things the Nats didn’t do well last season was take ball four. They finished 10th in the league in that category. Span won’t replace Mike Morse’s power, but as far as that narrow category goes, he’s already well on his way to exceeding his predecessor -- with 11 walks this year, Span is already closing in on the 16 Morse took in 102 games last year. He also gives the club a strong glove in center, which allows Harper and Jayson Werth to be overqualified corner men. Overall offensive productivity still waits in the wings, in part because of an uncharacteristic .200 average against left-handers (he’s 5-for-25 so far). It’s small-sample fluff to be sure, but it also suggests just how unbalanced the Nats are with Ryan Zimmerman out -- they’ve had the third-fewest plate appearances by right-handed hitters on the circuit.
All Upton your face
Decades ago, Bill James observed that teams get taken in trades when they focus on what they want to get rid of instead of what they’re going to get. The Diamondbacks were always going to get taken in an Upton trade for the simple reason that very few players develop into Justin Upton. Now, everyone has worked with someone who makes you want to go to the boss and say, "Because of this guy I don’t want to come to work in the morning" (sometimes it is the boss). Perhaps Upton was like that for the D’backs. The problem is that when your office lets someone go, he goes to work in some other, equally anonymous office (or Wal-Mart). In baseball, your ex-coworker stays on stage, getting 650 opportunities a year to embarrass you. As such, it pays to count to ten and reconsider whether the situation is really so unlivable at that. The D’backs didn’t, and with Upton only 25, they will get to repent at leisure.
The catcher of the future is here today, but he’s already 26 -- or is he? Gattis was drafted in the 23rd round out of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, which seems to suggest that Gattis is a 250 million-year-old immortal who honed his impressive power by whacking gorgonopsids over the head with his club. Old for a rookie because he was drafted late, Gattis spent years away from the game, instead experiencing "bouts with depression and drugs, a series of menial jobs ranging from valet to janitor to cart boy at a golf course. He traveled throughout the West, seeking out wandering souls such as himself and spiritual advisers who could help make sense of it all." On-base percentage and surviving the imminent return of Brian McCann await further spins of the karmic wheel, but this is a player you can root for regardless of team loyalty.
Trivia challenge: Name the three players the A’s received from the Braves in return for Hudson back in 2004. If you find yourself straining to do so, it’s due to the same reality that the D’backs are up against with the Upton trade: Trading a star for [stuff] almost never results in anything like equal value because 99 percent of [stuff] almost never develops into anything like what you’re giving up. Hudson’s next win will be number 200. Combine that with a career 3.43 ERA and someday we might be have to endure Hudson-for-the-Hall campaigns. He’s on the next tier down, among the very good rather than the immortal. That’s no insult especially considering the great handicaps he’s had to overcome, such as being a ground-ball guy pitching in front of Dan Uggla.
Nationals 'fans' are cute
"The Nationals made life miserable for the Braves long before DC became a playoff town. It was two key losses in 2011 that setup the Braves to miss the playoffs. Atlanta has had just one winning season against the Nats in the past five years, and that has helped brew a new rivalry.
The question I always ask a Nats fan is, "so which team were you a fan of in 2004? Which team were you a fan of in 2008 or 2009 or 2010 when the Nats were averaging 99 losses a year?"
There are a lot of Jonny-come-lately fair-weather fans in DC. I guess that sort of burns Braves fans, mainly because that’s what a lot of fans from northern teams called us during the 90’s. But I suppose that this is a form of new-fan-hazing, and now it’s the Natinals fans’ turn to get ridiculed. " - Martin Gandy, Talking Chop
Watch it buddy!
"No other NL East teams would even deign to consider the Nationals a rival before Washington took the division last season. Since the Braves trailed the Nats all summer and made it interesting along the way a little bit of a rivalry started to flare up, at least in the eyes of fans in the nation's capital.
I'm willing to bet most Braves fans will make some snide comment about all their division crowns and NL pennants if anyone from D.C. tries to talk about there being an actual rivalry. The Braves' PR department appears to be trying to drum something up with their recent #Gattitude take on the Nats' #natitude marketing push from last season but both sides should be ashamed of themselves for those campaigns.
Though maybe not as ashamed as the Braves should be for the "chop" and the Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-O... Since most preseason prognosticators are counting the Phils, Fish and Mets out of the race and have the Braves and Nats 1-2 in the NL East this season it's starting to build into something. Up, Up and Hey vs Harp, Span and Werth? Strasburg vs Teheran? Could be fun the next few years. There's something to it." - Patrick Reddington, Federal Baseball
Federal Baseball recap: Danny Aitch goes game-for-game with J-Z on 10 fewer pitches (although one more ER). The Nats keep hitting doubles, and overall it's a nice end to a tough series.
Talking Chop recap: Atlanta's offense continued its putrid work from yesterday, managing only five hits all night as they fell to Washington 3-1.