Why Nate McLouth makes sense for the Nationals
The Nationals probably overpaid Nate McLouth, but not by much, and they were smart to do so. McLouth’s deal which has not yet been finalized and will not be announced tonight calls for him to make $10.75 million over the next two years and includes a club option for 2016. More than $5 million for a fourth outfielder sound heavy? Maybe. A better question: Who cares?
The Nationals are too good and have too much money to give substantial playing time to replacement-level players. That, as much as any single factor, is what ruined their season last year. (Ruined being a relative term; they did win 86 games.) McLouth protects them from outfield injuries that will likely arise and gives them a left-handed threat off the bench.
And, actually, hold on a second. Is the contract really an overpay? McLouth was worth 2.5 wins above replacement last year for the Orioles, per FanGraphs. He figures to see a sharp decrease in playing time his 593 plate appearances may well be cut in half. Even if McLouth’s production and playing time fall, he’ll probably still be a one-win player. One executive said teams have been paying roughly $6 million per win on the free agent market this winter.
And so McLouth’s deal seems to make sense from a perspective of pure value. More so, it makes sense because of how he fits and what kind of insurance he provides. Benches, mostly, are filled with two kinds of players: guys on the verge of earning everyday jobs, and guys on the verge of the minor leagues. The Nationals had too much of the latter last year. McLouth gives them one of the former. He’s more of a fringy third outfielder than a fourth outfielder: 96 OPS+, 12 homers, 30 stolen bases in 2013 with a good glove. That’s exactly the kind of player the Nationals needed.
An addition like McLouth makes much less sense in the dead of winter than in the grind of midsummer. In December, it looks like the Nationals are paying $5 million for an overqualified pinch hitter. If injury strikes and he’s the Nationals’ everyday right/center/leftfielder for a month, it suddenly looks like a bargain.
As we all know but seem to lose track of once winter arrives players get injured. Jayson Werth has not played 130 games since 2011. Bryce Harper played 118 games last year. Denard Span missed nine games last season, but with the Twins Span played 128 games in 2012 and 70 in 2011.
Last year, the Nationals scrambled. Tyler Moore started 30 games in the outfield, and Roger Bernadina got 25 starts; they combined, with the Nationals, for -1.4 WAR. Steve Lombardozzi started 20 games in left field last season, and he accounted for -0.7 WAR. This is no knock on Lombardozzi, because he does a lot of stuff well. But he is an infielder who hits for no power, and should not be masquerading as an everyday corner outfielder. That kind of player should not cannot be playing one-eighth of a team’s games in a corner outfield spot if it considers itself a contender. Especially not one with the financial clout of the Nationals.
With McLouth in the fold, the Nationals have taken a major step to ensure that does not happen again. If an outfielder goes down, McLouth would be a capable fill-in. He and Scott Hairston, a right-handed hitter, would form a very nice platoon. The Nationals have options on the bench now; last year, they had Band-Aids that wouldn’t stick.
McLouth would not be a bench player for every team, but for the Nationals he will be. That is the kind of bench player good teams need, the kind of bench player rich teams can afford. The Nationals are both, and now they’ve got one of those players.
Nationals agree to terms with outfielder Nate McLouth
One of the Nationals’ biggest weaknesses last season was the woeful lack of production from their reserves, and they attempted to address just that Friday afternoon, when they agreed to terms on a two-year deal with free agent outfielder and left-handed hitter Nate McLouth, according to a person familiar with the deal. McLouth spent most of the past two seasons nearby, serving as Baltimore’s primary left fielder last season. He is capable of playing all three outfield positions and filling in every day should a starter suffer a long-term injury, a need the Nationals couldn’t fill when Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth each missed a month last season.
McLouth, 32, a nine-year veteran, played 146 games for the Orioles last season and posted a .258 average, .329 on-base percentage and .729 OPS. McLouth boasts a career .334 on-base percentage and won a Gold Glove for his center field play for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008. For a speedy 5-foot-11 player, McLouth has some pop, too. He hit 12 home runs in 2013, and hit 46 between 2008 and 2009 when he played everyday. This winter, the Nationals sought a left-handed hitter for the bench that could provide some power and get on base.
The deal hasn’t been officially announced by the team and is pending a physical. The agreement was first reported by Fox Sports. According to the Baltimore Sun, McLouth’s deal is worth $10.75 million for two years. There is a club option for 2016 worth $6.5 million, according to an ESPN report, which could push the package to $17.25 million. That’s expensive for a fourth outfielder, but the Nationals suffered in 2013 when they didn’t have a proven backup outfielder. Werth missed 33 games last season and Harper missed 44. Werth will be 34 next season and the last time he played over 130 games was in 2011.
While the bench was a strength in 2012, the Nationals’ fill-ins were among the worst in baseball in 2013. As a whole, the Nationals bench hit .207 and posted a .606 OPS, in the bottom third of the majors. Chad Tracy, Roger Bernadina and Tyler Moore all struggled. The Nationals traded for Scott Hairston during the season to address their woes against left-handed pitching and even tried David DeJesus for four days before shipping him off to Tampa Bay. The Nationals were so pressed for outfield depth that they used Moore again in the outfield and Steve Lombardozzi started 2o games in left field. After they traded their best pinch hitter, Lombardozzi, to Detroit in the Doug Fister deal earlier this week, the Nationals had even more of a need to address their bench.
McLouth is a Michigan native and was selected in the 25th round of the 2000 draft by the Pirates. He debuted five years later at 23 and spent six seasons with the Pirates while overlapping with Adam LaRoche from 2007 to 2009. McLouth’s best season was in the 2008 when he was named to his lone all-star game, earned a Gold Glove and posted a .276/.356/.497 triple slash line with 26 home runs and 94 RBI while mainly hitting leadoff. McLouth was well-liked in Baltimore and known as a hard-nosed player.
McLouth is familiar with the National League East as he was dealt to the Atlanta Braves in June 2009 and spent parts of three seasons there. He played no more than 85 games in a season in Atlanta and had a .699 OPS during his time there. He re-signed with the Pirates in 2012, was released in late May and then joined the Orioles where he enjoyed a career resurgence. The Nationals organization has ties to Pittsburgh and McLouth, notably through assistant general manager Bryan Minniti, who spent nine years with the Pirates before coming to Washington in 2009.
Under new manager Matt Williams, the Nationals also hope to become a more aggressive base-running team and McLouth fits the mold. McLouth stole 30 bases and was caught just seven times last season; in 2012, he stole 12 bases and was caught once. According to FanGraphs.com, McLouth was one of the best runners in baseball last season. He registered 6.1 runs above average (BsR) in 2013, the 13th highest total in baseball, and far better than any of the Nationals’ current players. Desmond notched a 3.3 runs above average and stole 20 bases in 2013.
McLouth is expected to join a Nationals bench that likely will include right-handed-hitting players Hairston and Moore, switch-hitting Danny Espinosa and a backup catcher such as Jhonatan Solano. Jeff Kobernus, Corey Brown and Zach Walters could also compete for spots in spring training.
Advanced defensive metrics suggest McLouth is better suited to play the corner outfield spots. Should Werth suffer an injury, for example, the Nationals could platoon McLouth and Hairston at a position, alternating based on the left-handed or right-handed pitcher and match-up.
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.
How Doug Fister does it
Everything Doug Fister does, from 60 feet, 6 inches away, serves to deceive. His towering height makes you think power, but then he throws a fastball that may not get pulled over in some states. With his long arms, if you are a right-handed hitter, the ball looks like it was released from somewhere behind his ear. When you start to swing, the ball careers from your hips to your ankles, just enough movement for you to drive it into the ground.
When the Nationals acquired Doug Fister this week from the Tigers, they added a starter who in the past three seasons has been perhaps one of the 10 best in baseball. Last year, he won 14 games and punched up a 3.67 ERA. He defies the current standards of dominance big strikeout totals and high-90s heat and still manages to excel.
How? With the help of Harry Pavlidis’s breakdown of Fister’s repertoire, we can see how one of the slowest-throwing starters in baseball can also be one of the best.
The disparity between Fister and the typical elite starter can be seen even within his own staff. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and, to a lesser degree, Jordan Zimmermann are all strikeout artists, power pitchers who miss bats with big velocity and vicious movement. Fister relies on his 6-foot-8 frame, a sinking fastball that rarely cracks 90 miles per hour and bushels of groundballs.
The key to his success comes from a style he has honed to suit his strengths. Everything starts with his fastball, a sinker that averaged 88.8 miles per hour last season. The pitch barrels at the hitter at and dives as it reaches the plate. It looks hittable until a hitter swings and mashes it into the ground.
“It’s definitely a bullet point in my pitching perspective,” Fister said. “I’m going out there trying to induce groundballs, induce bad contact as early in the count as possible. My job is to get through seven innings and keep zeroes on the board for our offense to get out there and swing it. If I can get that done, that’s my main focus. If I can get past that, that’s icing on the cake and I’m excited about it. But it’s one of those things, I want to get groundballs. I want to use our defense, utilize the talent that we have out there. That’s always been one of my main goals. For me, I’d be foolish not to attack that way. My main pitching sequence is a sinker. I try to attack with that.”
Fister’s height gives him a unique and puzzling look for batters. He throws from a three-quarters delivery, but at 6-foot-8 he can still throw on a downward plane. He has the best of both worlds: his arm slot allows for wicked movement, and the angle he gets forces hitters to drive the ball into the ground.
It also explains how he thrives with a fastball that average 88.8 miles per hour last year, 115th out of 128 starters who threw at least 120 innings. His three-quarters delivery helps hide the ball, and his extended reach gives hitters less time to react. His long arms effectively tack on extra velocity, no matter what the radar gun reads.
“He’s got one of those sinkers that obliterates the inner half of the plate,” said Mark DeRosa, a now-retired right-handed batter who faced Fister last year with the Blue Jays. “It’s got so much movement on it that half the time to three-quarters of the time the ball, if you take, it ends up being a ball but it looks so appetizing for 55 feet that you go after it. I would assume that Ryan Zimmerman is going to be getting a heck of a lot of groundballs when he’s on the mound.”
Fister’s sinker may be his calling card, but it overshadows an excellent 12-to-6 curveball. Fister is not a strikeout pitcher by choice, but when he needs a whiff, he can often get it with his curve.
Last season, opposing hitters missed 43 percent of the time they swung at Fister’s curve, which ranked sixth in the majors. You know how nasty Stephen Strasburg’s curveball can be? Batters whiffed 40 percent of the time against it, just behind Fister’s.
Fister will throw his curve about 20 percent of the time, and it is his main offspeed weapon against right-handed batters. Against left-handed hitters, Fister also uses a cutter and a changeup that behaves like a slower split-fingered fastball. Those pitches, like the sinker, are intended to induce grounders and not necessarily miss bats. He rarely uses them against right-handed hitters, but they act as equalizer against lefties, who have an easier time picking up his sinker.
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Fister also excels at the margins. A former college basketball player, Fister has the athleticism to field his position well. He also focuses on holding runners and has, incredibly, allowed only 16 stolen bases in his entire career.
He squeezes value out of the things a pitcher does when he isn’t firing the ball to the plate. It can be difficult to figure exactly how Fister stacks up so many outs, but then making things hard on you is how Fister operates.
A deeper look at Rafael Soriano’s first season as Nationals closer
In his first season in a Nationals uniform, Rafael Soriano came to represent many things. He symbolized the Nationals’ win-now philosophy, a splashy $28 million addition late last offseason to a bullpen that appeared already set. He was also often the punching bag for the failures of the bullpen; his blown saves and seemingly aloof personality contributing to the team’s disappointment 2013 season.
Soriano’s first of two guaranteed seasons in Washington had mixed reviews. Like any pitcher, he had his peaks and valleys. His demeanor on the mound -- drawing in the dirt and talking into his hat before his first pitch, and the signature untucking of his shirt after a save -- belied his personality. Some of his production was good -- a 3.11 ERA, 68 appearances, 43 saves (tied for fifth in baseball) and 2.3 BB/9 -- but some wasn’t. He blew a career high six saves, the hits he allowed per nine innings jumped from 7.3 in 2012 to 8.8 in 2013 and his strikeout rate fell dramatically from 9.2 to 6.9. He will be 34 next season.
Thanks to the help of Pitchf/x guru Harry Pavlidis, we took at deeper look at Soriano’s season. How effective of a closer was he? Why did it seem like he had so few 1-2-3 innings? An examination of detailed statistics leaves us with a few conclusions: Soriano is an aging pitcher whose stuff, understandably, is losing velocity and effectiveness. He struggled with his slider much of the season and, during tough stretches, was fighting his own command, leaving pitches up in the strike zone. And although his walk numbers weren’t bad, it felt like he had an uncanny ability to walk a batter at an inopportune time and then cough up a crucial, save-blowing hit after it.
Below is a chart with a ton of information on closers who notched 30 saves in 2013. It is perhaps too much information to digest in one passing but each statistic is worth considering in context of the others so we’ll break it down one by one.
Soriano was on the lower end of the scale of effectiveness in this group. In terms of batters faced per inning pitched (BFpIP), Soriano was near the bottom of this group with an average of 4.16. Greg Holland, the Royals’ 28-year old closer and hard-throwing right-hander, led the group with 3.81 batters faced per inning pitched. He was closely followed by Minnesota’s Glen Perkins (3.83) and Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel (3.85), perhaps baseball’s best closer. There could be any variety of explanations but the most obvious one is that those three pitchers have a combination of excellent arms, stuff and control. And because of it, they could accomplish the most basic principle of pitching: get outs and limit baserunners.
So just how effective, or ineffective, was Soriano? How many of his 68 appearances in 2013 were clean? For these purposes, clean innings are defined as appearances in which a pitcher faces three batters and gets three outs. An inning is still regarded as clean if, for example, the pitcher gives up a hit or walks a batter but still gets out of the inning cleanly, such as with the help of a double play, outfield assist, caught stealing or pick-off.
In 2013, Soriano had only 21 clean appearances and 20 clean saves. Only 31 percent of his appearances were clean, which ranks in the lower half of this group. Oddly enough, Soriano had a clean save rate of 47 percent, which ranks in the top half of the group. (Perkins paced all closers in both categories with an astounding clean appearance rate of 46 percent and clean save rate of 61 percent. That’s reliability.)
In terms of clean saves, Soriano actually outperformed his expected performance. The line in the graph below is the expected performance based on the batters faced per inning of the group. Each dot is each player’s actual performance, with Soriano as the dot circled in red.
Now, look at where Soriano falls in terms of clean appearances in the chart below. He falls in line with his expected performance, which is near the bottom, based on the batters he faced per inning. In simpler terms: Soriano was better at getting quick and clean innings in save situations than he was at getting clean innings in non-save situations.
One theory for this difference, suggested by Pavlidis, could be simply be random variance from season to season which can’t likely be sustained. But another theory could be Soriano’s mentality and pitching in non-save situations. On July 25, bench coach Randy Knorr, acting as manager for the ejected Davey Johnson, didn’t like how Soriano was throwing the ball in the ninth inning of a non-save situation that he inherited. So Knorr yanked Soriano after allowing two runs and putting two more men on and replaced him with rookie Ian Krol.
Some of the numbers in 2013 support that notion, albeit based on a small sample size. Soriano had a 2.55 ERA over 17 2/3 innings of non-save situations but a 3.31 ERA over 49 innings of save situations, which doesn’t support that theory. (A caveat: the large difference in innings is a major factor.) Soriano, however, may just have been more lucky. In those save situations, he held opponents to a .645 OPS. In non-save situations, he was hit harder, a .729 OPS. Over his career, there isn’t much different between the two scenarios: a 2.63 ERA and .582 opponents’ OPS in save situations as opposed to a 2.64 ERA and .609 opponents’ OPS in non-save situations.
But why was Soriano so ineffective and inefficient? The last four columns of the first chart give clues.
Soriano was 33 during the 2013 season and, with age, fastball velocity declines. Velocity isn’t everything for a pitcher but more speed means a larger margin for error. According to Fangraphs.com, Soriano’s velocity has steadily declined from 94.6 mph with the Braves in 2007 to 92.6 and 92.2 in 2011 and 2012 with the Yankees. In 2013, Soriano’s fastball averaged 91.9 mph. Soriano’s cutter is factored into that average because, according to him, he has a variety of fastballs, including a cutter, when he alters his grips.
Soriano’s fastball was among the slowest of the group but that’s not solely an cause of ineffectiveness. Edward Mujica, who has reportedly agreed to a deal with the Red Sox, relies almost exclusively on a splitter, which averaged 86.4 mph last season, and not a traditional fastball but still had a dominant first half of the season before he faded. The great Mariano Rivera’s cutter averaged around 91 mph last season, and has hovered around there for nearly five seasons, and he has thrived. Sergio Romo, of the Giants, doesn’t normally throw his fastball harder than 88 mph but he still gets plenty of swings and misses.
That is where Soriano struggled last season: missing bats. Holland led the entire group with a 39.3 percent swing and miss rate (shown on the chart as 0.393 whiff/swing). He was followed by Reds’ flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman (38.5 percent) and Angels’ Ernesto Frieri (33.6 percent). Soriano, on the other hand, was dead last with a 19.6 percent swing and miss rate. This is an indicator of the effectiveness of the pitcher’s stuff and Soriano’s stuff just wasn’t good as normal in 2013.
Throughout the season, he admitted to losing feel of his slider and that it lacked its traditional hard bite that missed bats. He noticed a flaw his mechanics; he wasn’t getting his arm high enough in his delivery and the lost confidence led to a career-low usage of the slider According to Brooksbaseball.net, opponents slugged .364 against Soriano’s slider in his career but last season they slugged .531 against it, the highest mark against any of his pitches.
Part of the problem -- but perhaps also a reason for success, too -- may have been Soriano’s ability to throw strikes. He was fourth best in the group with a 45.1 percent in-zone rate. A lot of his pitches were in the strike zone, and that’s actually lower than rates earlier in his career. The problem is that hitters were making more contact with his offerings, likely because of frequent high strikes and less sharp stuff. According to Fangraphs.com, Soriano’s opponents made contact with his pitches 81.5 percent of the time they swung in 2013 compared to his career norm of 75.6 percent. Some pitchers, like Frieri, can miss a lot of bats while throwing a lot of strikes: a 48.5 in-zone percent and a 33.6 swing and miss percentage, which is probably a dangerous combination long-term.
Despite being hit more often, Soriano seems to have gotten away without major damage. Opponents’ slugging percent when they made contact with any of his pitches was .459, around the middle of the pack. When opponents made contact with other pitchers’ stuff, such as Frieri or Padres’ Huston Street, they caused major damage to the tune of a .618 and .556 slugging percentage, respectively. Joe Nathan, who recently agreed to a two-year deal to be Detroit’s closer, had a measly .331 slugging percent against because opponents simply couldn’t make good contact with his stuff when they did connect.
Soriano’s issues in 2013 may have had more to do with stuff, mechanics and command than pitching approach. He has thrived in the past by throwing a lot of strikes and did well, to some extent, last year by doing the same. When his stuff was flat, he got hit hard. When he left pitches up in the zone, he got hit.
Soriano has logged relatively little wear and tear on his arm because of his unusual career path and previous injuries; he has averaged only 47 innings a season over 12 years. But even then, at 33, a decline is stuff is natural. Other older relievers have thrived late in their careers. Despite losing velocity over the years, Nathan is still one of the most effective closers in baseball at 38. Rivera closed until he was 40. Pittsburgh’s Jason Grilli had a career renaissance as a closer at 36. History shows that Soriano can still be an effective closer and he was during stretches of 2013 with his low 90s fastballs and array of pitches. It’ll just take some improvements.
Nationals still looking for a lefty, interested in Eric O’Flaherty
If the Nationals do not sign a left-handed reliever off the free agent market, it will not be for lack of a broad search.
The latest name to add to the list of southpaws the Nationals have expressed interest in, a person familiar with the situation said, is Eric O’Flaherty, a dominant Braves reliever coming off elbow reconstruction surgery.
The Nationals have not yet given him an offer, but they have maintained dialogue with O’Flaherty, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball for the Nationals’ preeminent NL East rival. The Nationals are one of six teams to have shown interest in O’Flaherty.
O’Flaherty would come with nontrivial injury risk. Last May, O’Flaherty, who will turn 29 in February, underwent Tommy John surgery on his lefty elbow. In 2014, he would have to sit out until early-to-mid May.
Even if O’Flaherty will miss a month, his signing could represent great value. If not for surgery, O’Flaherty may well have drawn interest as a closer on the free agent market. Now, though, he is seeking only a one-year deal to re-established himself as a backend reliever.
Over the past four seasons, O’Flaherty has punched up a 1.68 ERA over 193 innings, averaging 54 appearances despite not pitching after May 17 in 2013. He steamrolled the Nationals, allowing them to hit .181 against him over his career. He faced the Nationals 21 times over the past three years and did not allow a single earned run.
O’Flaherty joins a long list of possible targets for the Nationals, whose need for a lefty reliever grew more start after they included Ian Krol in the package that acquired Doug Fister from Detroit.
The Nationals had dialogue with both Manny Parra and Javier Lopez before they re-signed with the Reds and Giants, respectfully. They have also shown interest in Boone Logan, Scott Downs, J.P. Howell and Oliver Perez, according to a people familiar with the situation. (The interest in Downs, whom the Braves traded for last year to replace O’Flaherty, was first reported by MLB.com.)
“We think that’s one of the things we have to address,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said Tuesday. “We have in-house options there. I think we’re better suited going into spring training with our left-handed bullpen than we did last year. But it’s something that we’re looking into the free agent market or the trade market and trying to upgrade. It’s a spot that we feel that we have to upgrade at. That said, I think we have some in-house options that can perform at a high level for us.”