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Nats reward Zimmermann

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Nats reward Zimmermann

If there are still any detractors out there for the Nationals' plan to shut down Stephen Strasburg in September, perhaps these words from Jordan Zimmermann following another stellar pitching performance Wednesday night will help change their minds.

"I definitely feel stronger another year after surgery," said Zimmermann, now nearly three full years removed from Tommy John surgery. "Last year was hit-or-miss. I didn't know how I was going to feel. But this whole year I've been feeling great. I haven't had any aches or pains. So, knock on wood, I hope that keeps going."

The Nationals certainly hope Zimmermann keeps this up, because what he's doing right now is out-pitching everyone else from their star-studded rotation, not to mention out-pitching just about every other hurler in the big leagues.

With six more scoreless innings -- helping pave the way for a 4-3 victory over the Mets -- Zimmermann continued both his streak of consistent quality work as well as his recent streak of sheer excellence on the mound.

That's now 17 quality starts for Zimmermann in 19 games overall, every single start lasting at least six innings. And over his last five outings, he's now 4-0 with an 0.84 ERA.

In short, the right-hander is getting stronger and better each time he toes the rubber, earning more and more praise from his teammates and manager.

"I mean, he's a man out there," Davey Johnson said. "No doubt about it. He has a great presence. He knows what he wants to do. There's no muss, no fuss. He says: 'Here, hit it.'"

What the Nationals are witnessing right now is the ascension of a top prospect into an elite major-league pitcher. Zimmermann now owns the sixth-best ERA in the majors at 2.35, not to mention the most quality starts.

The Nationals always knew Zimmermann had this in him; the timeline was just delayed by his 2009 elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Zimmermann wound up missing most of 2010 while rehabbing the injury. He returned strong last season but as he pointed out was "hit-or-miss" from start to start, then was shut down at the end of August with his innings count at 161 13.

These days, the 26-year-old is healthy, experienced and strong. And as his numbers start looking better and better, the rest of the sport is beginning to recognize the top of the Nationals' rotation doesn't include only All-Stars Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.

"I can't say enough about him," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "He's quiet and goes about his business, but he's turning into a No. 1 for anybody."

The only knock on Zimmermann this season has been something completely out of his control: A lack of run support, leading to a dearth of wins. That has finally begun to change over the last month, with the Nationals scoring an average of 6.4 runs during each of his last five starts.

LaRoche provided the key support on Wednesday, turning a scoreless game in the sixth into a 2-0 advantage when he launched an opposite-field blast into the Red Porch seats. That put Zimmermann in line to earn his seventh win and get his record over .500 for the first time since -- get this -- he was 2-1 during his rookie season.

"I'll buy him whatever he wants, a steak or something," Zimmermann said of LaRoche.

Informed of his teammate's offer, the veteran first baseman replied: "I'll take him up on that steak."

It appeared for a while that 2-0 lead would hold up, but as it turned out Zimmermann and the Nationals needed Steve Lombardozzi's two-run double in the seventh at night's end.

That's because closer Tyler Clippard, one night after blowing a two-run lead to the Mets in the ninth inning, nearly did it again. Entrusted with a 4-1 lead this time, he served up a homer to David Wright on his very first pitch, then another solo shot to Jason Bay with two outs.

Up came Jordany Valdespin, the man whose three-run bomb Tuesday night cost Clippard his first blown save since he took over closer duties, but there was nothing for the crowd of 31,660 to worry about. Clippard calmly struck out the pinch-hitter, and the Nationals' 18th one-run win of the season was in the books.

They now lead the Mets by a full 8 games in the NL East, with a chance for a sweep Thursday afternoon. And after a wild, extra-inning finish in Atlanta, they now lead the Braves by 4 12 games with a big, four-game weekend series between the two clubs looming.

Not that the Nationals were focused on the standings late Wednesday night. They were just happy to get their unsung right-hander a much-deserved victory.

"Zim was outstanding," Johnson said. "He just continues to go out there and put zeroes up. Glad we scored in the bottom of that inning, get him the win. He's pitched well enough to be 12-2 or something."

For now, 7-6 will have to suffice.

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Here's how the Nationals outfield could sustain the loss of Bryce Harper

Here's how the Nationals outfield could sustain the loss of Bryce Harper

If the Nationals can’t re-sign Bryce Harper, don't expect them to go searching for a high-priced free agent like Michael Brantley to replace him. 

(A note: This is still an if! We haven't closed the door on Harper staying in DC.) 

The Nationals already have a promising in-house solution if Harper walks: Victor Robles.

Robles is currently rated as the fourth-best prospect in baseball, according to MLBpipeline.com. Robles has played 34 games for the Nationals over the last two season including 21 in 2018.  His slash line this September was .288/.348/.525 with three doubles, three home runs, a triple, and 10 RBI.

Of course there's upsides to known quantities like Brantley - even if he comes with injury concerns: He hit .309 last year with 17 home runs and 76 RBI last season. In 2014, he finished third in American League MVP voting. He had a slash line of .307/.385/.506 with 45 doubles, 20 home runs, and 97 RBI. The following season, Brantley led the Majors with 45 doubles. 

If you can’t stand batters that strike out, Brantley is the guy for you.

In 613 plate appearances in 2018, Brantley struck out just 60 times. His 9.5 strikeouts per 100 at bats was tied for second-best in the MLB. By comparison, Harper’s strikeout ratio in 2018 was 24.3%. As a team, the Nationals finished tied for sixth in fewest strikeouts per game (7.96). Additionally, Brantley led qualified hitters in contact rate (90.9 percent) and swinging-strike rate (4.0 percent) in 2018. 

But even with all that, there's some question marks here if the Nats opt to swap Harper for a slightly lower-priced free agent: Brantley is a left fielder.

Over his career, Brantley has spent some time in center field but has not played there since 2015. What would the Nationals outfield alignment look like if they signed Brantley? 

Of the 112 games Juan Soto started with the Nationals this past season, all 112 were in left field. Adam Eaton’s strongest defensive position is right field. The likely answer would be move Soto to right field (where he played in the minors), Eaton to center, and keep Brantley in left field. Eaton was the Nationals’ Opening Day centerfielder in 2017.

So while a team like the Phillies may be looking to spend the money on an outfielder like Brantley, if Harper doesn't return, don't expect the Nationals to enter the market. 

At least not while their prospects look so promising.

MORE ON MICHAEL BRANTLEY

 

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Explaining my National League ROY ballot

Explaining my National League ROY ballot

This was tight. Really tight. A category for the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. A category for the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

Sorting through 16 categories showed Acuna and Soto should have split the National League Rookie of the Year award. It also showed me a narrow advantage for Soto, which is why I voted him first, Acuna second and Dodgers starter Walker Buehler third. Once the votes from other members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were added, Acuna won, Soto was second and Buehler was third. It wasn’t close. It should have been.

First, a thought about the general process here: Writers take this seriously. Once assignments for the awards are distributed, we start to talk about them in the Nationals Park press box. Even non-voters hop in on the conversation. Sympathies are relayed to those who have an extremely tight choice, as I did this season and last when I voted for MVP (I’m big in Cincinnati thanks to my Joey Votto selection).

I outline specific categories, talk to opposing players and managers and watch as much as possible in order to come to a conclusion. The only thing easy about voting for ROY this season was the chance to see the leading candidates often since one played here and the other is in the division.

I used 16 categories to largely determine my vote. They were as follows: OPS, OPS+, Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Prospectus WARP, OBP, WRC+, SB, HR, late-and-close OPS, 2 outs RISP OPS, BB:K ratio, WPA, “Clutch”, WOBA, and an overall defensive mark.

There’s no perfect formula here. But, when looking through those, Soto took nine, Acuna six and one, Fangraphs WAR, was even. That, coupled with Soto doing this in his age-19 season as the league’s youngest player (Acuna was just 20, so, like everything else the leader’s advantage here is slight), and talking to others in the league, prompted me to vote for Soto.

Again, the gaps were minute. Baseball Reference’s WAR formula favored Acuna. Fangraphs had them even. Baseball Prospectus put Soto clearly ahead. Soto was significantly better in late-and-close situations. Acuna was better with two outs and runners in scoring position.

If Soto had a distinct lead anywhere, it was via command of the strike zone, which is currently his premier talent. His walk and strikeout rates were both superior to Acuna. When asked about Soto, opponents and teammates alike brought it up.

However, Acuna is the better defender and baserunner. Points back to his favor.

Soto was intentionally walked 10 times signifying what opponents thought of dealing with him. Acuna was intentionally walked just twice (though his spot in the order has some influence there).

This ping-ponging of qualifications could go on.

What the National League East has is two of the best players in baseball. Not just young players at this stunningly low age, but two of the best. Soto was fourth in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS in the National League when adjusted to be among the qualified leaders (an explanation from Baseball Reference: In order to rank the player, the necessary number of hitless at bats were added to the player's season total.). Acuna was eighth in slugging under the same adjustment.

The 2019 All-Star Game is in Cleveland. Expect both to be there and this to be just the beginning of them being measured against each other.

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