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Who should fill in for Jonathan Papelbon as the Nationals' closer?

Who should fill in for Jonathan Papelbon as the Nationals' closer?

When Jonathan Papelbon landed on the DL for the first time in his career, the Nationals faced a tricky question.

With the team reportedly looking for bullpen help already, the injury to their closer -- albeit one who was struggling of late -- was a blow to an already shaky bullpen.

Two games have passed, and the Nats went with Shawn Kelley, who has experience closing games with the Yankees. 

Here are Kelley's splits:

After Kelley, the Nats best options are, in no particular order, Felipe Rivero, Sammy Solis, and Blake Treinen. Who's the best option? Is there a best option?

Rivero's splits:

And now Solis:

And finally, Treinen:

So, the Nats have some intriguing options.

On the surface, Kelley looks like the best option. His 13.11 K/9 is best among the group, as is his K%, BB%, WHIP and FIP, just to name a few. All four of these relievers have thrown somewhere between 21-28 innings this season, so their numbers are comparable.

For those who are into such things, Kelley's fastball (91.9) averages about 4 mph slower than Treinen and Rivero (95.0 and 95.3, respectively) and 2 mph slower than Solis (93.5). 

How are batters hitting against the four of these guys? Here are Kelley's contact numbers:

And Rivero:



Considering both Treinen and Solis have Z-Contact%'s in the high 80s, the two lowest SwStr% and BB% above 12 percent, it's not terribly risky to assume that neither are going to be the first choice. Blowing a tie-game in the top of the 9th and taking the loss on Tuesday night probably doesn't do wonders for Solis' chances, either. 

Rivero and Kelley's contact numbers are fairly similar, with Kelley taking the slight edge. 

In your perfect world, your closer throws hard and Rivero does just that. Despite having a fastball in the mid-90's, he's actually throwing it less: he threw it 76% of the time last year vs 59% of the time this year. He's sacraficing that fastball usage for a new changeup, which he's increased usage of by almost 18% (4% to 22%).

Despite adding another pitch, the Rivero's numbers have actually taken a step back this year. His Hard% has gone up almost 10%, and his HR/FB ration skyrocketed from 4% to 20%. Rivero's contact % is down, but when batters are hitting Rivero, they're doing more damage than they did last year. He stranded 73% of batters last year; this year he's hovering at around 56%. 

Kelley only throws fastballs and sliders, and he throws each about 50% of the time. At 17%, his SwStr% is three percentage points higher than at any point in his career. Because of that, naturally, his Contact% is also pacing to be the best of his career.

For the first time in his career, batters are swinging at over 50% of his pitches, and they're doing it mostly by chasing pitches outside the zone. While his Z-Swing% has stayed relatively consistent in the 67-68% range, his O-Swing% has gone from 32% last year to 38% this year. Batters are also hitting only 18% of his pitches for line drives, the lowest since 2010. 

In the end, minus some sort of trade for an Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman type pitcher, Jonathan Papelbon is the Nats closer when he returns from the DL. Papelbon has been consistently good in the role and durable up until now.

Even despite his recent struggles, there's no one else in the Nats bullpen who has the makings of someone who would repalce Papelbon going forward. As a stopgap, Shawn Kelley looks to be the smart pick -- not just because of his "experience" closing games in the past, but because the numbers say he's the best choice. 

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Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It’s tough to blot out the sun and joy in south Florida. Friday was an exception. The temperature dropped into the 60s, clouds won the day and if West Palm Beach can be labeled dreary, the title fit on Friday as the wind whipped around.

The poor weather forced the Nationals into a truncated workout before their first game of spring training. Typically, the Grapefruit League opener for each team would be a signifier of the creeping regular season. It’s not a thing. Certainly not a thing, thing. But that will be the case Saturday night when Max Scherzer faces the still-reeling Houston Astros.

The week has not been kind to the Astros. Meanwhile, the Nationals have mixed goofing around with standard practices.

Houston absorbed shots from multiple players, notably including Atlanta outfielder Nick Markakis, who said every Astros player “needs a beating,” which prompted Houston manager Dusty Baker to retort Markakis must have had his Wheaties that morning. Earlier in the week, a fan ran up and banged a garbage can when José Altuve and others were taking batting practice, then took off.

Washington was busy with a cabbage race on National Cabbage Day and mercilessly pelting the head of its public relations director with water balloons on his birthday. Music played, Scherzer tussled with Starlin Castro, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton when throwing live batting practice, and Howie Kendrick held a rematch with Will Harris for the first time as teammates.

No one talked about death threats, which Houston outfielder Josh Reddick did on Friday when mentioning some of the social media backlash he is managing. No one on the Nationals’ side prompted hi-jinks from fans. The air horn signalled when to move, modern rap or the gravelly of Chris Stapleton bellowed from large speakers, and everyone generally went about their business.

The question about Saturday is if anything out of the ordinary will happen. What if Scherzer loses command of a pitch in his first outing and hits an Astros player? Who decides intent? Baker is so concerned about retaliation against his players, he publicly called on the league to warn other teams. Commissioner Rob Manfred said he did as much when talking to a large chunk of managers at his annual spring training press conference. Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA, said Friday the issue remains on the minds of the Astros.

“When you have comments publicly that suggest certain things may happen on the field, it’s hard to ignore those,” Clark said.

Clark spent roughly four hours meeting with Astros players on Friday. A large “2017 World Series champions” sign was one of the few things above the 6-foot-8 head of the players’ union. He said Houston players were “contrite and direct” in their discussions with him and they were concerned about “making sure the game is in the best place possible moving forward.” Clark’s comment came at lunchtime the day after the Nationals went through a parade through downtown West Palm Beach to yet again celebrate winning last season.

Houston will not play its regulars Saturday. Washington will play a few. Joe Ross will pitch after Scherzer. Everyone will watch Carter Kieboom in the field at third base. Baker and Martinez should cross paths. In the stands? Who knows? Every stadium is filled with metal garbage cans and beer vendors.

“I’m hoping that on our side, I can’t tell you anything about the Houston Astros or what they’re going to do or whatever, but for us we act professional, we go about our business and we get ready for the season,” Martinez said. “Go out there and compete and just get ready to play.”

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As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

The unwritten rules of baseball say that when your team is wronged or disrespected by an opponent, it’s on the pitching staff to retaliate.

Whether spoken aloud or not, that rule will be put to the test this season when the Houston Astros play out their 162-game schedule. From AL West division rivals to clubs that lost to Houston in recent playoff series, teams from across MLB are trying to grapple with the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that’s dominated the sport’s headlines for most of the offseason.

After many players came out voicing displeasure with MLB’s decision not to punish the players involved with the cheating scheme, Las Vegas sportsbooks put out an over/under total of 83.5 for the number of times the Astros will be hit by a pitch in 2020.

NBC4 Washington’s Lindsay Czarniak spoke with several members of the Astros on Friday about whether opposing teams would try to retaliate for their use of technology to steal opposing pitchers’ signs in real time during their World Series run in 2017 and parts of the 2018 season.

“I’m not concerned about that,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We’re grown men out here and whatever happens, happens. We just go out there and be professional and play the game.”

In 2019, there were 1,984 hit batters, or an average of just over 66 per team. Only one team, the New York Yankees, exceeded that total of 83.5 (they had 86 batters hit by a pitch). But despite MLB cracking down on pitchers intentionally hitting batters and handing out stiffer penalties for pitchers suspected of doing so, the number of hit batters has been on a steady incline the last half-decade.

In fact, the number of hit batters has increased every season since 2015. There were 1,602 batters hit by pitches that season, an average of 53.4 per team. That makes the 2019 total a 23.8 percent increase over the figure from five years prior.

Houston was right at the league average last season, watching its hitters take pitches of themselves 66 times. While the threat of disgruntled players deciding to take matters into their own hands looms, the Astros are preaching the same company line about only focusing on themselves.

“We can’t worry about that,” starter Lance McCullers told Czarniak. “That’s something that a lot of players have been speaking out about. We’re not sure if those players [are] speaking that way because they want to sound a certain way, they want to be portrayed a certain way. We can only worry about what’s in this locker room at that’s something that Dusty has really been preaching to us.

“We just got to go out there and we just got to play baseball and whatever comes along with this season we’ll address it and we’ll deal with it then.”

These comments also come on heels of MLB issuing a memo to teams laying out a new process umpires will be using to determine if pitchers are intentionally hitting batters during games. The umpires will now discuss the pitch in question among themselves before anyone is tossed, with managers being held more accountable. The change is reportedly not related to the Astros but comes at a convenient time for them and MLB.

That all said, 83.5 is still a high number for bettors to consider. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, but the Astros would most likely be among the most-hit clubs in baseball if they do approach that total.

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