Nationals

No. 25 K-State dives into start of Big 12 play

201212311519551627932-p2.jpeg

No. 25 K-State dives into start of Big 12 play

Kansas State coach Bruce Weber was asked whether he thinks his No. 25 Wildcats are ready for the start of Big 12 play, and his answer didn't exactly fill anybody with confidence.

``I don't think you know until you get there,'' he said.

Weber has already gone through an up-and-down nonconference slate, getting blown out by Michigan and Gonzaga before upsetting then-No. 8 Florida. So perhaps it's no surprise Weber doesn't know exactly what to expect from Saturday's game against No. 22 Oklahoma State.

``I thought we had made some progress up to the Florida game, and then you have some setbacks with traveling and the injuries,'' said Weber, whose team scattered for a holiday break and then had trouble returning to Manhattan because of lousy weather.

When players did return, some of them were nursing injuries.

Starting point guard Angel Rodriguez has been dealing with tendinitis, and backup guard Martavious Irving had his knee lock up in practice. Weber is hopeful both will be ready when the Wildcats (11-2) play the Cowboys (10-2), but he won't know until game time.

``We need them,'' Weber said. ``We can grind and fight without them, but if we are going to be really good, we need those guys. It would be nice to have both of them healthy.''

Especially considering the way Kansas State played without them.

The Wildcats plodded and muddled and shuffled through an uninspired win over Missouri-Kansas City in their first game after the holidays, and then needed a big second-half charge to put away South Dakota in their final tuneup for Big 12 play.

Neither time did they look anything like they did in beating the Gators.

``We learned a lot,'' said senior Rodney McGruder, who has had to shoulder an even greater scoring role without his two backcourt makes. ``It's just about how to get shots without guys creating for you and things like that. It's been a switch up in the offense.''

The offense has been the biggest hurdle for the Wildcats to overcome this season.

Under former coach Frank Martin, Kansas State ran half-court sets in which every player on the floor had a prescribed role. But when Weber was hired, the Wildcats began to implement his motion offense, a more free-flowing system that involves constant cutting and moving.

Predictably, the results early on were disastrous.

Passes were sent sailing out of bounds, three guys would bump into each other on the same spot on the floor, nobody was crashing the boards on offense - and Weber was left to stand on the sideline, raise his arms in frustration and ask, ``What was that?''

Slowly, the Wildcats started to get things figured out, and they looked like a fluid machine against Florida. But then injuries set in and the past couple weeks have been ugly at best, and now the Cowboys are visiting for an important Big 12 game.

``I'm ready. Our team is ready,'' said junior guard Shane Southwell. ``They're a really good team. I don't know if they are still in the Top 25 after their loss, but they played well and they honestly should have won that game. It is a big game and I am ready to play.''

Indeed, the Cowboys are still ranked after their 69-68 loss to No. 10 Gonzaga on Monday night. Their only other loss came against Virginia Tech early in the year, and North Carolina State and Tennessee are among their victims this season.

The game could play a big part in how the Big 12 shakes out.

While sixth-ranked Kansas remains the heavy favorite to win its ninth straight conference championship, the league is wide open after that. Kansas State and Oklahoma State are among a handful of teams vying for second place, with an eye on at least challenging the Jayhawks.

``They're a great team. We just have to come out and bring it,'' McGruder said. ``They're coming into our home and we have to protect our home court. I look forward to it.''

Quick Links

5 things you should know about new Nationals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera

usatsi_10801156.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

5 things you should know about new Nationals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals traded for Royals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera this evening. 

Not only did the Nationals trade for Kelvin Herrera, but they did so without losing Juan Soto, Victor Robles, or Andrew Stevenson. The first two were never in any real danger of being traded for a relief pitcher who will be a free agent at year's end, but the Nats escaped only giving up their 10th and 11th ranked prospects:

On the surface, this deal looks exceptional for the Nationals. Herrera is another back-of-the-bullpen type that only further deepens the Nats' options in that department. Here are a handful of things you should know about the Nationals' newest pitcher:

1. Herrera's strikeout "issue" is complicated 

Herrera, like many other closers over the last half-decade, has made his name in strikeouts. He topped out at a 30.4 percent strikeout rate in 2016, and has a 23.4 percent clip for his career. His K% this season sits at 23.2 percent, which is both higher than last season and lower than his career average. 

People will look at his dramatic K/9 drop as a red flag, but "per/9" stats are flawed and not generally a worthwhile stat to build an argument around. A pitcher who gets knocked around for five runs in an inning -- but gets three strikeouts -- can have the same K/9 of a different (much more efficient) pitcher who strikes out the side in order. 

2. Herrera has basically stopped walking batters 

His career BB% sits at 7.1 percent. His highest clip is nine percent (2014, 2015) and his lowest was a shade over four percent (2016). 

This season, he's walking batters at a two percent  rate. In 27 games this season, he's walked two batters. Two! 

3. The jury seems to still be out on how good of a year he's had so far

Analytics are frustrating. On one hand, they can serve wonderfully as tools to help peel back the curtains and tell a deeper story - or dispel lazy narratives. On the other hand, they can be contradictory, confusing, and at times downright misleading. 

Take, for instance, Herrera's baseline pitching stats. His ERA sits at 1.05, while his FIP sits at 2.62. On their own, both numbers are impressive. On their own, both numbers are All-Star level stats. 

When you stack them against each other, however, the picture turns negative. While ERA is the more common stat, it's widely accepted that FIP more accurately represents a pitcher's true value (ERA's calculation makes the same per/9 mistakes that were mentioned above). 

More often than not, when a pitcher's ERA is lower than his FIP, that indicates said pitcher has benefited from luck. 

Throw in a 3.51 xFIP (which is the same as FIP, but park-adjusted) and we suddenly have a real mess on our hands. Is he the pitcher with the great ERA, the pitcher with the Very Good FIP, or the pitcher with the medicore xFIP? 

4. He was a fastball pitcher, and then he wasn't, and now he is again

Take a look at Herrera's pitch usage over his career in Kansas City:

In only three years, he's gone from throwing a sinker 31 percent of the time to completely giving up on the pitch. That's pretty wild. 

Since 2014, he's gone to the slider more and more in every year. 

His current fastball usage would be the highest of his career. He only appeared in two games during the 2011 season, so those numbers aren't reliable. Going away from the sinker probably helps explain why his Ground Ball rate has dropped 10 percentage points, too. 

5. The Nats finally have the bullpen they've been dreaming about for years

Doolittle, Herrera, Kintzler, and Madson is about as deep and talented as any bullpen in baseball.

Justin Miller, Sammy Solis, and Wander Suero all have flashed serious potential at points throughout the year. Austin Voth is waiting for roster expansion in September. 

The Nats have been trying to build this type of bullpen for the better part of the last decade. Health obviously remains an important factor, but Rizzo's got the deepest pen of his time in D.C. 

MORE NATIONALS NEWS:

Quick Links

MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

capture_reirden.png
USA TODAY Sports

MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

Will Todd Reirden replace Barry Trotz as head coach of the Washington Capitals?

Based on what GM Brian MacLellan said Monday, it certainly sounds like it’s Reirden’s job to lose.

“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or someone else.”

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and we’ll make a decision based on that,” MacLellan added. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. And if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MacLellan said he isn’t sure exactly when the interview with Reirden will take place. The front office needs a few days to regroup. It’s also a busy stretch in hockey’s offseason. In the coming two weeks, MacLellan will direct the NHL draft in Dallas, monitor development camp in Arlington and then call the shots when free agency begins on July 1.  

“We need to take a breather here but I think Todd is a good candidate for it,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to sit down with Todd and have a normal interview, head coaching interview. I think most of our discussions are just casual. It’s about hockey in general. But I’d like to do a formal interview with him and just see if there’s differences or how we’re seeing things the same and if he’s a possibility for the head coach.”

Reirden, 46, spent the past four seasons on Trotz’s bench. He was elevated to associate coach prior to the 2016-17 season after coming up just short in his pursuit of the head coaching position in Calgary.

Reirden’s primary responsibility on Trotz’s staff was overseeing the defense and Washington’s perennially potent power play.

Prior to joining the Capitals in 2014, he was an assistant coach for four seasons with the Penguins. And before that, he spent a couple of seasons as the head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ top minor league affiliate.

A native of Deerfield, Ill., Reirden also had a lengthy professional career that included 183 NHL games with the Oilers, Blues, Thrashers and Coyotes.

Asked what he’s looking for in the Caps’ next head coach, MacLellan said he’s looking for a forward-thinker, a strong communicator and a players’ coach.

Reirden is all of those things.

“Someone that's up to date on the modern game,” MacLellan said. “Someone that's progressive, looking to try different things. Someone that has a good relationship with players. They communicate, can teach, make players better. It's becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in not fully developed products and we need a guy that can bring young players along because more and more we're going to use young players as the higher end guys make more money.”

One of the side benefits of elevating Reirden is the fact he already has a strong relationship with many of the current players, meaning there won’t be much upheaval as the Caps look to defend their championship.

“It could be a natural transition,” MacLellan said. “But once we sit down and talk face to face about all the little small details in the team, I'll have a better feel for it.”

MacLellan said a decision on the other assistant coaches—Lane Lambert, Blaine Forsythe, Scott Murray, Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi—will be made after the next head coach is named.

MORE CAPITALS COVERAGE: