We start a series (provided it doesn't rain too much) with the Washington Nationals tonight. The Nationals are 28-22, good for first play in the NL East (how come every team we play lately is leading their division?).
I sent off some questions to Patrick Reddington, manager of Federal Baseball, SB Nation's Nationals blog. I left it very late to send him the questions, so I owe him special thanks for turning it around so quickly.
What is going on with Stephen Strasburg?
Hopefully the Nationals and Strasburg get a better idea of what's going on today when he's scheduled to see the team doctor. No word yet from the Nats, but the Strasburg we've seen so far this year is not the pitcher anyone expects him to be. Fangraphs.com's Jeff Sullivan had a great article looking into what's gone wrong this season that focused in on his numbers out of the stretch. Strasburg's talked about an ankle injury this Spring leading to him altering his mechanics to some degree. He's been working on straightening them out, but there's clearly something going on when runners reach base again him.
He goes from a .259/.314/.455 line with the bases empty, to .398/.457/.553 with runners on and .387/.419/.593 with runners in scoring position. How to explain this? I'm sure (and GM Mike Rizzo and manager Matt Williams have said) that the Nationals have been watching film and working things out, but so far they haven't figured out what's wrong.
Until another back-related issue (left trap tightness) forced him to the DL this weekend, I was convinced it was just something mechanical with his delivery out of the stretch. We'll soon see what the doctors find, and if it is actually something physical that's causing all the issues. He's had no elbow or shoulder issues, the velocity is still there, it's just command seemingly, an inability to keep the ball down and hit his spots thus far.
At the opposite end of the scale Bryce Harper is hitting like he is channeling Barry Bonds. What has caused the change?
I think the biggest difference for Harper this year is that he's finally 100% healthy (before he was hit in the back this weekend by Tony Cingrani this weekend) after two years (2013-14) in which he dealt with a serious knee injury which eventually required surgery and a torn UCL in his thumb last year which also had to be surgically repaired.
He returned from the thumb injury last season, but wasn't himself at the plate until late in the season when he really took off and especially during the postseason when he started crushing pitches again. He's picked up where he left off in October this season and in May took it to a level everyone who has been watching him was waiting to see if he could reach.
I think his patience and eye at the plate have been the keys for him this season.
He's laying off pitches out of the zone and he's shown a willingness to take walks if he doesn't get a pitch to hit that wasn't necessarily there in previous seasons.
How are our old friends Yunel Escobar and Casey Janssen doing?
Casey Janssen just came back so I haven't really gotten a good feel for what he's got left, though I'm hoping for the pre-sickness Janssen from the beginning of last season when he put up pretty good numbers. The Nationals will have gotten a good deal on him if he's anything like that pitcher this season.
Yunel Escobar has been a shocking revelation for me so far this season. My brother is a Braves fan so I watched him come up with Atlanta and kind of lost track of him over the years until the Nationals acquired him this winter, so I was not sure what to expect, but a .313/.371/.391 line going into this series is more than I was hoping for from him.
Mike Rizzo talked after the deal about writing his defensive issues from last season off to injury, and he's been solid at third base so far this year, filling in for Anthony Rendon, when he was supposed to play second according to what they said when he was acquired.
I love the fact that he doesn't strike out much and, though he's been a little hotheaded recently, getting tossed from a game this weekend for arguing balls and strikes when the Nationals were already a man down with Harper unavailable, he's been much better than I expected so far. He has moved wherever the Nationals have asked him so far, which they've spoken openly about appreciating. All good from him thus far.
You also have a Michael Taylor, but not the Michael Taylor that was in the Roy Halladay trade. This one is a rookie outfielder. What's his role? Is he likely to stick with the team?
Taylor broke out sort-of unexpectedly last season, after a few solid campaigns in the Nationals' system, and he's kept it up thus far in a brief call-up last season and filling in for Denard Span and Jayson Werth when they've been out of the lineup this year. The Nationals appear to view him as their future center fielder at this point and that future time might be sooner than later with Denard Span set to hit free agency this winter. Taylor's got tremendous speed and some shocking power considering how wiry he looks at his age. He's a strong defender with a good arm in the outfield. He's talked about working to cut down on the strikeouts which is the one glaring hole in his game so far, but that's something they can hopefully cut down on with more at bats in the majors. He impressed when he had a shot with Span out early this season and with Werth down until (at least) August, he's going to get another long stretch to impress.
Ryan Zimmerman is having a rough start to his season. Do you expect a bounce back? Is he likely to lose his job?
There's no danger of Zimmerman losing his job in my mind, mostly because the other options (Tyler Moore, Clint Robinson in the majors, Matt Skole as the top first baseman in the minors) are not going to push him out of a job.
The bat isn't there for Zimmerman so far this season, but he fractured a thumb early last season, and missed most of the year after he injured his hamstring as well, so I'm guessing that he's still getting his timing and power back. He's also been dealing with something plantar fasciitis-ish with his left foot which might be affecting him at the plate.
What's really impressed me is his smooth transition to first base this season after they had to move him over from third when his shoulder wrecked his throwing over the last couple years. It was tough to watch him throw from third so it's nice to see he's adjusted to a new position, especially considering how much of his 6-year/$100M extension is left.
Can you give us a scouting report on Matt Williams as a manager? What's his strengths and weaknesses?
What I like about Williams so far is his ability to communicate and help out hitters. Bryce Harper and Williams have talked a lot about their ongoing discussions on hitting and Harper's credited him with helping him out. Though it got a lot of negative press last season, I also liked when he pulled Harper from the lineup for not running out a grounder last year. I think that sent a clear message that no one is above the team and they're all expected to follow through with what they agreed to do as a team. Williams seems to be a good motivator and has shown a willingness to step up and back his players when necessary.
As for the weaknesses, I haven't been thrilled with his decisions on pitchers. I didn't like the decision to lift Jordan Zimmermann in the NLDS last October, but I'm trying to forget that series. More importantly, on an everyday basis, I'd prefer that he match up more late in games then go with relievers in fixed roles, and that's something that he's shown a willingness to do this season on occasion though injuries and some struggling relievers have limited his options at times.
I was a big Davey Johnson fan, probably more out of respect for his long history in the game at a time I'd only read about previously, and I'm not as in awe of Williams as I was with Davey, but so far, two years in, I like what I've seen from his as a manager.