To use the words of Washington Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo, he will be performing an autopsy on the team’s 2022 season. It’s the perfect time to do it while the body is still warm, but is he the right person to do this? After another starting pitching fail last night, it is easy to see that the starting pitching was the most likely contributor to the cause of death in 2022. You could probably say that 70 of the team’s 107 losses were the fault of the starting pitchers along with contributing factors.
“First of all we’re going to do an autopsy of the organization after the season,” Rizzo said on Tuesday.
In accounting, they talk about independence and a separation of duties. You would never ask the CFO of a company to perform an external audit of his company. Think of Enron. Would you want a surgeon who kills his patient to also perform the autopsy? Of course not.
As general manager, Rizzo has to take a lot of the blame for the roster construction. To put Joan Adon in the Opening Day starting rotation was a major depth issue — and to see him make 14-starts with a 1-12 record and a 7.10 ERA, you have to wonder what Rizzo was thinking.
The final starter’s ERA for the team was an atrocious 5.97 for this 2022 season, and the worst in Nats’ history. This, at a time when ERA was trending down in baseball. This really gave some credence to the FIP numbers that was touting Patrick Corbin as being better than what he was showing in the results because the Nats poor defense really did make the pitching look worse than it was.
Trust me, the pitching was bad enough, but it looked even worse with the constant misses by fielders. Corbin improved to a 2.84 ERA in six starts from August 21 to September 20 to give some hope that he could pitch well with competent fielding. His final start was a stinker, and there was a whole lot of ugly in there for the first four months of his season, especially when you consider his final ERA was 6.31. But Corbin’s FIP was 4.84 which seemed to be much more of what Corbin can be…which is a #4 of #5 pitcher.
Basically the entire pitching staff was a conglomeration of #4 and #5 pitchers, and there lies the problem. The team needs better pitchers. That has to be the Captain Obvious statement of the year.
The defense improved making the pitchers look better, but the overall starting pitching was horrible, and besides the pitchers themselves taking most of the blame, pitching coach Jim Hickey did what to improve things? To watch Josiah Gray (5.02 ERA) and Erick Fedde (5.81 ERA) come into Spring Training with the same repertoires was disappointing. In the offseason, we wrote that Gray needed a sinker and had to ditch the 4-seamer that was the cause of his horrific 2.3 HR/9 rate. Finally, late in the season Gray added a sinker but continued to throw that 4-seamer.
Gray’s pitch chart illustrates how he just does not locate that 4-seam fastball, and the only run he gave up in his final start of the season was a home run off of the 4-seamer. The sinker was working for him, so why throw the 4-seamer? That’s a coaching issue.
For Fedde, he was the Nats best pitcher in the first half of the season, but that was like being first in a group that finished in last place in a race. Fedde had an arm injury that landed him on the 15-day IL and he never looked right when he returned. He still needs a good changeup in his arsenal and has not perfected it yet. It is hard to see that the Nats can coach up the former 1st round draft pick. Right now, it is hard to see that he can stay in the starting rotation unless he shows up in Spring Training with an improved repertoire of pitches.
The way to improve this pitching staff is to sign competent starting pitchers, and do a better job of pitching development in the minor league system where pitchers are coming through the ranks with a full arsenal of pitches. At the MLB level, you need a great pitching coach.
A lot of the blame has to go on the defense which was a -47 Defensive Runs Saved. That means they didn’t save runs as the number is negative. They gave up 47 more runs than the average league defense. That was an extra .29 runs per game just attributed to bad defense. By the math, that is an extra 4-5 losses right there. The difference between being 55-107 and 60-102 is what that poor defense might have done at a minimum but it never accounts for the extra wear and tear on a pitching staff and the team overall. It probably cost the team much more than 5 extra losses when you consider the intangibles.
Thanks to the improved defense for the final 46-games of the season, the Nats were second to last in that stat — and not dead last like they were for the first four months of the season. An incredulous -34 runs were just from the shortstop position, and -9 runs they attributed to poor defensive positioning which is another analytics/coaching “fail” for this team.
The decision by Mike Rizzo to put Luis Garcia at shortstop was a failed mission from the start due to his track record in the minor leagues. Not that Alcides Escobar who held down the spot before Garcia was much better, it was just making something bad — worse. Then you had Maikel Franco at third base as a negative defender, making the left side of the infield a real problem.
It was addition by subtraction when Juan Soto was traded as he was a -10 OAA in right field for the Nationals. Most of it felt like it was a lack of effort, and here’s why: Soto improved immediately when he was dealt to San Diego. For the final month of the season, he turned into a league average defender in the month of September after a -2 in August which was his acclimation period to a new home stadium. But can’t you blame some of Soto’s lack of effort in D.C. on his manager for allowing him to put in minimal effort?
Hats off to Ildemaro Vargas for turning in Gold Glove defense in his two months with the team, and after the trade deadline, Victor Robles was excellent. He was slightly above league average from April through July, then found another gear in August and September.
If this team cares at all about defense at all, the choice is clear who should start at third base in 2023. Keep in mind that Carter Kieboom ranked lower than Franco as a defender at third base. Kieboom was the lowest ranked third baseman in 2021 at a -13 OAA, another Rizzo fail that he was the team’s choice to start. Even if Vargas isn’t hitting, he gives you Gold Glove defense in a league that will never recognize him above Nolan Arenado, but who cares, Vargas was so good at the hot corner that his defense will help his pitching staff.
“[Kieboom] is going to compete for a third base job,” Rizzo said on Tuesday. “He knows what he has to do in the off-season to get better to come to Spring Training ready to go.”
To repeat the same mistakes has been a criticism on Rizzo. While he isn’t saying that Kieboom will start on Opening Day for the Nats, it gets me nervous when Rizzo is supposed to be a scout, and a scout’s eye should tell you that Kieboom should be a second baseman or an outfielder. He is not a third baseman.
“This isn’t a try-out camp. This is try to play the best team overall to win the game and win the pennant,” were the infamous words from ex-manager Baker when he was with the Nats and was skeptical of playing a rookie named Trea Turner.
“Who else do I have?” Baker said about Danny Espinosa. “That’s my answer. I mean, you can give me somebody better, then I can play somebody instead of him. You know, certain times you have certain people on your team and that’s what you’ve got.”
Great points from Baker although he was wrong about Turner, he was right that you have to play guys who are ready to play and contribute. Manager Dave Martinez can only play the 26-players he is given on his roster. When given Vargas, Joey Meneses, and Abrams in August, he played them, and the defense improved. If you want to take a step backwards with Kieboom, force that round peg in the square hole and you will be right back to where you were with Garcia at shortstop and a complete failure.
Bad defense is mostly preventable. The other choice for the Nats is Jake Alu who was ranked as the best third base defender in all of the minor leagues. Rizzo never promoted him in late September to a big league call-up. The opportunity was to see what you have like he did with Meneses and Vargas and others, and we never got the opportunity to see Alu.
Normally baserunning would not be a major negative factor for a team, but the first half of the season the Nats were ranked last in baserunning and by the end of the season still could not improve enough to get out of the hole they dug for themselves. The Nats made 21 outs at homeplate and while all teams have outs at the plate, Gary DiScarcina made some poor decisions in the first half of the season as the team’s new third base coach. Credit to him, he improved markedly over the second half of the season. In total, the team had 51 outs on the bases total and compared to 2021 with 14 and 46 respectively was far worse as a team in 2022. Too many TOOTBLANS and rookie mistakes.
The team stranded 6.78 runners per game which ranked 16th in the Majors, but the Nats were last in the Majors at a run scoring rate per baserunner at 27 percent. Consider the league average is 30 percent so the disparity is not much off of the average, but only one playoff team was under the average and that was the Seattle Mariners. Run scoring rate does not include home runs so consider this is a combination of baserunning and coming through in RISP opportunities.
Part of the issue is the Nats hit into 140 doubleplays in 2022 to lead the Majors on the offensive side and that is not a good stat to lead in. Again, part of that is about team speed, and mostly has to do with the team’s hitting with launch angle, and groundball predictability. The Nats finished 19th in the Majors in RISP hitting at .248.
The team speed issue can certainly be seen in the Statcast sprint speed leaderboards. Getting back to a more athletic team with better speed helps in baserunning and defense by theory, but good baserunning is more than just speed.
There are so many items that can go under this heading. Some like the team only had two walk-off wins this season (both in September), but suffered five walk-off losses. You would hope that was more of an even number instead of a -3. The team finished the season with zero grand slams, and had 134 opportunities. Maybe it was the .592 OPS in bases loaded spots that hurt the worst where they just didn’t take advantage of those spots enough.
All-in-all, the debate at this time of the year after a failed season is assessing who to blame. It has to start with the players then a tough look at the coaches, and manager, and front office.
If you look at the projected WAR versus actual WAR on FanGraphs, only Lane Thomas (+1.1 actual) came close to meeting his pre-season expectations for the 2022 position players, and every other Nats player finished well below their projection. Nelson Cruz was projected at +1.7 and finished at -0.8. That’s a whole lot of under-performance. That is where it starts and ends with the personnel. Maybe Keibert Ruiz would have reached that +2.4 if he wasn’t injured for the final month of the season. He finished at a +1.7 WAR and averaging nearly +0.5 per month.
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. That should be Rizzo’s mantra on his wall instead of “You’re either in, or you’re in the way” which is painted on the wall that leads from the Nats’ dugout to the clubhouse in the Nationals Park.
The only free agent or player on an option that the team should consider retaining is Erasmo Ramirez. The rest should be addition by subtract if the team does a good job in off-season acquisitions.
Going into Spring Training the outfield needs an upgrade in LF, and you can pencil in Victor Robles in CF and Lane Thomas in RF. How’s about pending free agent Joc Pederson in LF? He finished 14th in qualified OPS in all of baseball and kills right-handed pitching. Alex Call would seem to have the inside track as the fourth outfielder with an open slot for a fifth outfielder.
At catcher is Ruiz, and hopefully the team has a better option for his back-up. With Ruiz playing 5-of-7 games a week, the team needs to hope they can do better at the back-up but all indications seem to point to Riley Adams as the back-up.
The starting pitching is the stress point of this team. How can you count on Cade Cavalli and MacKenzie Gore at this point? You know the team will stick with Corbin, and Gray for two of the five rotation parts. The team really could use two new free agent pitching upgrades if this team really wants to improve.
The bullpen will return most of the key parts from the 2022 team. Ramirez is the one player headed to free agency that Rizzo should try to extend or re-sign. Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Mason Thompson, Jordan Weems, and Paolo Espino are all team-controlled for 2023. That is 6-of-8 bullpen arms if Ramirez is retained. The team needs some left-handers in the bullpen, and that should be an off-season focus.
With a league average defense and the return of Keibert Ruiz, the team should avoid losing 100-games even if they don’t make an upgrade to the pitching staff. The key will be to improve the starting pitching staff with some free agent acquisitions as well as a left field upgrade. A tweak or two in the bullpen and on the bench, and then we can see what this team can do while we wait for some of the youth of the team to rise to the top. Cavalli and Gore can hopefully be big contributors to the pitching staff, and Alu and top prospect Robert Hassell III from the minor leagues at some point in 2023 can help the team.
There are some interesting names on the free agent charts, pick a few. We will talk incessantly over the off-season about the roster construction for the 2023 Washington Nationals.