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Washington Nationals mailbag: baseball cards, nuances of the game and Luis Garcia

Washington Nationals mailbag: baseball cards, nuances of the game and Luis Garcia

It’s time for another round of the Nationals mailbag. Interesting questions this week as we all wait to see if baseball will begin this season. If you have a question for a future mailbag, send it to todd.dybas@nbcuni.com or fill out the form here.

Q: If the podcast crew were to recreate the back of a baseball card to be the most informative to fans, would you keep it the same or add /take away some stats?
Yitz Taragin

I feverishly collected baseball cards as a kid. At one point, I had every Harmon Killebrew card from his 22-year career. My parents bought me his then-expensive rookie card one year for Christmas. Why him? I still don’t know. But, there was something magical about the cards and the back of them.

They have changed over the years, much like baseball’s statistical priorities. Slugging percentage and OPS is on the back of Topps 2020 Series 1 cards. Card manufacturers, like reporters, have to balance the information they use because their audience’s statistical knowledge remains broad. Not everyone is staring at Fangraphs eight hours a day.

But, I would put games, at-bats, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS-plus, WAR and WRC+ on the card. At times, it seems we overthink the aforementioned balance between those who would instantly know those acronyms and those who do not. The latter group may be prompted to learn about them if they were displayed instead of sheltered.

Oh, and of course add a stale stick of gum.


Q: Hi Todd — thanks for the great Nationals coverage — I’m sure the lack of baseball is killing you ten times more than it is me, and I’m suffering.

I know it’s become a common refrain that the Nats did baseball a huge favor by pulling out game 7 and preventing the third World Series in a row from having a cloud over it, and I agree. But they also did Joe Torre and MLB a pretty big solid by pulling out game 6, and ensuring that the bizarre call against Trea Turner for running “out of the base path” on the way to first didn’t play a factor in the game/series outcome. Despite the attempts by Torre to provide clarity, there is a clear ambiguity in the rules, and even more so a clear departure from common sense regarding the call against Turner. A right-handed batter should obviously have every right to take the most direct route to first. If that had been a Series-deciding play there would have been an uproar second only to the trash can controversy.

I haven’t seen this addressed since the Series, and I’m really curious — were there ever any discussions at MLB about clarifying the rules regarding the legal path of runners to first base?
Jason Mahler

Hey, Jason. Thanks for reading. And, yes, we’re all desperate for baseball to come back once everyone is safe.

There has been limited discussion about this. Turner remains baffled by what he should have done. Here’s what he told us when we sat down for the podcast at Nationals Winterfest (which now seems a generation ago) and was asked if it was the wrong call:

“Wrong or right, I don’t know. But, I don’t know what else I was supposed to do. I don’t feel like I veered off into fair territory. I said many times that the batter's box is in fair territory, at least half of it, then the base is also in fair territory. So, if you’re going to run in a straight line, which everybody does, you’re going to be a little bit in fair territory. Me personally, I felt like the pitcher got rewarded for a bad throw. Usually when you make a mistake, it goes against you. Kind of went in their favor. So, it is what it is. We won. I don’t care. If we lost, I’d still be hurt about it.”

And, you’re right to point out the ambiguity in the rule. Here it is:

Rule 5.09(a )(11) Comment (Rule 6.05(k ) Comment): The lines marking the three-foot lane are a part of that lane and a batter-runner is required to have both feet within the three-footlane or on the lines marking the lane. The batter-runner is per-mitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride,reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base.

So, as this pertains to Turner, there is judgment: He was on the fair side of the lane. But, he was also right in front of the base. And, most crucial in my view, his point about the throw is correct. A good throw keeps Yuri Gurriel’s glove in an expected place and clear of Turner. So, obviously there would have been no issue there. So why was Turner penalized for running into a space he, by rule, seemingly has a right to?

It’s a tough call in the moment. It’s also tough to alter the language in the rule. I suppose they could add a caveat about responsibility for the flight path of the ball. Maybe that would help.

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Q. What's your advice for watching baseball more intelligently? Aside from listening to the Nats Talk podcast, because I already do that. :) I don't need "Baseball for Dummies", but maybe, like, "Baseball Watching 201". What should I be looking out for? What strategic things could I be noticing? In particular, how can I be a smarter observer of pitching and pitching strategy?

Thanks, and go Nats!
Katie Newmark

Hey, Katie. Thanks for listening to us dummies on the podcast.

This question immediately makes me think about the times I hear, “There’s nothing going on.” Whenever someone tells me that, I politely tell them they are not looking at the right things, so they don’t realize how much is in fact going on.

Take outfield positioning. Players are armed with cards, but a good center fielder is also moving himself with knowledge developed in-game. For instance, a step or two in either direction can happen because Stephen Strasburg is throwing more changeups than curveballs. And, this particular batter’s swing path typically drives off-speed pitches in a certain direction. Plus, the wind, etc. All this in the end can be a difference between an out and a double.

To the pitchers: They receive the same heat maps we can access on the Internet. So, their path to exploiting a certain spot against hitter X with their particular repertoire is always compelling.

For instance, Freddie Freeman hit .154 against pitches up, in and still a strike last season. But, middle in and down and in? Freeman hit .308 and .419, respectively. Further in, off the plate, Freeman also had trouble (if he swung). Which means Max Scherzer’s cutter would be a crucial pitch for him against Freeman, but only if it’s up or in and off the plate. So, Scherzer has to hit one of three places, and, if he is throwing middle or lower in, he has to cross the danger zones to get there. This is what he is referring to when he talks about “driving” his cutter in. Three inches to the right, Freeman smashes it. Three inches in, it’s a ground out to the short side of the field. And, Freeman knows Scherzer knows Freeman knows this is the case. Freeman also knows Scherzer throws a truckload of strikes. Here’s what he said last year at the All-Star Game:

“If he throws a ball to you, you know he’s setting you up for something else,” Freeman said. “That’s the hardest thing.”

Think about that conceptually: Freeman believes if Scherzer throws him a ball, he is almost exclusively messing with him. But, maybe he just missed his spot for once. Or did he?

This is the epic cat-and-mouse game which comes with repeated, high-end opponents. In this case, Freeman has a hard time. He’s faced Scherzer 45 times and has a .693 OPS. However, he’s faced Strasburg 66 times and has a 1.050 OPS. During, and after, a series, you can see how each pitches to Freeman. Often back-to-back. A guess, without going pitch by pitch, is this could be caused by Strasburg’s two primary off-speed pitches feeding into Freeman’s hot zones -- down or middle and in. He, like Scherzer, could chase the up-and-in hole with a fastball. But without a specific pitch to drive hard under Freeman’s hands, Strasburg has a more difficult time. That’s a guess, and probably just birthed a future blog post.

One other anecdote: The first time Scherzer faced new teammate Starlin Castro this spring during live batting practice, he would not throw him a curveball. Why? Castro hit a 2-2 curveball into the left field stands in the fourth inning, July 7, 2018. It’s his only home run against Scherzer, which Scherzer of course remembers.

So, watch stuff like that. Patterns, location, repeat opponents. And, the reverse is true, too. All those strikes Scherzer throws can cause the hitters to “ambush” him suddenly in the third inning or so, when they start swinging at the first pitch. How does he adjust to that?

I could go on forever here. But, those are some ideas. Hope it helps.


Q: Question about Garcia. Read a nice article about him going over his swing with Soto in spring training. He was also hitting very well to start the spring. What kind of prospect does he project out to be, especially if he improves his bat like he has thus far?
Brandon Drury

Hey, Brandon.

The Nationals are intrigued by Luis Garcia. They like his positional versatility, expect him to get bigger (he’s a 6-foot-2, 190-pound, 19-year-old) and think he has good work habits.

He was in major-league camp for a spell last spring and said he wants to be the next Juan Soto. That doesn’t mean hit at the same level. He was more talking about reaching the major leagues rapidly and staying. As you point out, he was having an excellent offensive spring (1.003 OPS). The good spring came after Garcia spent most of last season improving at the plate while playing for Double-A Harrisburg. He finished August with a .758 OPS, hit three home runs and doubled nine times. That kind of ascension suggests more power could be lurking.

However, if he wants to be like Soto, his plate discipline needs to rise significantly. Garcia struck out 86 times and walked 17 last year. He needs to fix that.

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If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

To put 50 games in context, just flashback to last season. It’s easy enough. Say it: 19-31. If the Nationals could, they would trademark those numbers together.

Fifty games is a flash. Almost a death knell to the eventual 2019 World Series champions. That’s a season over in late May. Think of it this way: Teams play around 30 games in a normal spring training alone.

The owners have pushed this number into the public with their non-counter-counter to the players’ suggestion of 114 games. Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to use the March agreement between players and owners as a cudgel. Players are refusing to take a further pay cut on top of the one already negotiated. Manfred in turn is saying, “Fine. Then we will schedule the amount of games that are in line with what you are being paid.”

In play now is the 48-game season, according to ESPN. A smidge under 50. A full blitz that would be looked back at as a farce if it’s attempted to be played in the regular way. Playing half a season in the traditional manner is probably the minimum for any legitimacy. Even then, 2020 will be awash in caveats.

The Nationals’ 2020 recovery came against restrictive odds. The manager was supposed to be fired. Some suggested trading the best players, and to do it sooner than later. Season simulations said the Nationals were done. Or as close to it as possible.

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A 50- or 48-game season would cook anyone who has a bad two weeks. Lose a frontline starter? It’s over. Have your shortstop and leadoff hitter hit on the finger by a pitch and miss three weeks? It’s over. Half a season feels like a baseball sprint. Fifty games or less defines the league’s desperation to put some pennies back in its pocket in 2020.

There is one fun idea around a 50-game season. It was hatched at Fangraphs. The premise is one big 50-game tournament. Not the usual three-game series in this town, and four-game series in that city.
Fangraphs makes the on-point mathematical argument that 50 games determines next to nothing when comparing the best in the league to the mediocre. It’s just games for the sake of games.

Since baseball is trying to wade through extraordinary times, why not attempt something extraordinary, such as the tournament?

The model used at Fangraphs included 32 teams, all 30 major-league clubs plus two futures teams, one from each league. Let’s use that premise.

Stage the whole thing in the Texas Rangers’ new park -- Texas is already saying it will allow fans. Have a loser’s bracket. Make the final a five-game series. Pay the players what was already negotiated. Pin more money to the outcome. Run it from early July to the end of September. That way, you still play through much of the summer but duck under a possible fall coronavirus spike the owners are so wary of.

No caveats about if the season was long enough for an authentic champion. This is a complete outlier. The tournament year. Players wore microphones. Some kid from Double-A struck out Bryce Harper in a big at-bat. No leagues. Everyone in the same pot. Have some fun amid an historically troubling time.

What’s not working is the public whining from both sides. The inability to make a deal. The lack of common ground. Both groups are working toward one idea: loss mitigation. A 50-game season does little of that and carries even less validity. Just ask a team that opened last year 19-31.

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MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

The latest whack of the negotiation tether ball came Thursday night when Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLBPA, issued a statement of discontent.

“In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad, Players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love. But we cannot do this alone,” it began.

Clark went on to cite the league’s most recent suggestion of a “dramatically shortened” season “unless Players negotiate salary concessions.” The league suggested a 50-game season would be reasonable for the amount of money players agreed to in salary following a late-March negotiation.

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The statement went on to refer to the league’s stance as a “threat,” as opposed to the players' proposal, which in Clark’s view, was designed to move the negotiations forward. He rattled off the various items in the union’s proposal, which was framed around a 114-game season: more games, two years of expanded playoffs, salary deferrals and the exploration of additional “jewel events” (All-Star Game, etc.).

Clark said a conference call with the MLBPA’s eight-person executive board, which includes Max Scherzer, and several other player leaders concluded “the league’s demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected.”

Clark went on to say the players are ready to compete and get back on the field.

The union’s reaction to MLB’s non-reaction is not a surprise. Players are adamant they are not taking further salary cuts. The league solidly believes salaries should -- and need to be -- negotiated if there is to be some form of 2020 season. Everyone continues to wait for a solution.

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