October 2010

30 Players in 30 Days: Jason Marquis

Jason Marquis Opening Day.JPGIt only took one word for Jason Marquis to describe the 2010 season–“weird.” His choice word is pretty accurate considering all the oddities and career firsts he faced this season.

From 2007-2008, Marquis won 23 games for the Cubs, trailing only Ted Lilly and Carlos Zambrano in wins. He compiled six consecutive seasons of double-digit win totals from 2004-2009, the only pitcher in the National League to do so. His 80 wins during that time were third in the NL, behind only Roy Oswalt and Carlos Zambrano. He was the only player in the Majors whose club has reached the postseason each of the last ten seasons. From 2004-2007, he pitched at least 190 innings each season. He’s been the epitome of a reliable, healthy pitcher throughout his career. That’s exactly why the Nationals signed him to a two-year, $15 million contract this past offseason–not to mention the veteran leadership he can bring to a young rotation or his reputation as one of pitching’s best hitters.

Fast forward to this year and a lot has changed. His ERA spiked, he underwent elbow surgery that landed him on the DL for three and a half months and he registered just two wins the entire season.

It didn’t take long for Marquis to realize he wasn’t steering towards the season of his dreams. In his first three starts, he went 0-3, allowing 19 runs in 8.1 innings. At his lowest point, he faced seven batters and allowed seven runs without recording a single out. That would be his last game before having bone chips removed from his elbow and transferring to the DL. But he doesn’t judge his season by the atrocities of April. “I judge it off all my starts I made after the surgery,” Marquis said. “The numbers are what they are, but I was pitching hurt coming out of Spring Training. So I don’t judge it off of how I was before the surgery. That’s the first time I went through a situation like that. I had to battle back. Start by start, day by day, I started feeling more and more like myself. I worked hard to get better, and the work has paid off.”

Upon his August return, Marquis salvaged the year by going 2-6 with a respectable 4.29 ERA, striking out eight in one appearance and seven in another. He did not garner a decision in his final two starts, but he worked six innings in both games, allowing a total of three runs. This is still the guy who manufactured wins in St. Louis and Chicago, who helped lead teams to the postseason year after year and who won the Silver Slugger Award in 2005. One tough year is not going to change that. Expect Marquis to come back matured and more resilient than ever in the final year of his contract.

30 Players in 30 Days: Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper 3.JPGBryce Harper has been labeled the Lebron James of baseball. So in case you didn’t watch “The Decision: Part II,” Bryce Harper is taking his talents to the desert and
will join the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. It was a decision–influenced by Harper’s talent–and made by General Manager Mike Rizzo and his staff because they didn’t want him to be idle for the next two months after he held own in the Instructional League. Yeah, there are drawbacks but Rizzo believes the benefits will easily outweigh the possible cost: struggling.

Harper proved he can play in the Florida Instructional League. He batted.319 (15-for-47) with four doubles, a triple, four homers, 12 RBI and seven walks. Harper–who led Washington’s Instructional League squad in homers, RBI and walks–posted .407 on-base and .702 slugging percentages en route to a stellar 1.110 OPS (OBP+SLG).

Now, this isn’t the Instructional League–the AFL offers the top-talent that is knocking on the door of the Majors–but Rizzo isn’t concerned.

“There is a high level of baseball going on,” Rizzo said. “Two months of this guy working out, practicing and playing will only benefit him. He is going to be fine in the [AFL].”

To ease Harper into the action they will restrict his playing time. He will join his new club on Tuesday as a member of the Scorpions’ Taxi Squad. Translation: he will work out, travel and dress normally as do members of Scottsdale’s active roster but he will only be eligible to participate in games twice a week, usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Harper will also be eligible to replace Nationals farmhands on Scottsdale’s active roster due to injury.

Part of the incentive to send Harper to Arizona is that he will be able to work extensively with Manager Randy Knorr, considered one of the best teachers in the Nationals organization, to learn the intricacies of right field. He will also work with Hitting Coach Rick Eckstein to refine his swing.

“He’s 17 years old and he doesn’t even turn 18 until Saturday,” Rizzo said. “He is very excited. What I had to decide on was: ‘Is he going to be over his head in the AFL?’ It’s a very advanced league, but I think he is going to handle it. It’s going to be very valuable to him.”

While this may seem like it is putting him on a fast track to the Majors, it isn’t. He is still expected to start the season in Single-A.

“He is going to A-ball, make no mistake about it,” Rizzo added. “He is not going to be a rushed guy. We are going to let his performance and development dictate where this guy goes.”

In other news not Harper, here are a few Nationals farmhands who performed at high levels during the just-completed Instructional League: outfielder Tyler Moore (.550, 4 doubles, 2 home runs, 11 RBI), catcher Sandy Leon (.429), outfielder Eury Perez (.357, 3 stolen bases), infielder Steven Souza (.345, 4 doubles, 2 home runs, 4 RBI), righthander A.J. Morris (0.00 ERA in 4 games, 7 strikeouts in 5.0 innings), lefthander Sammy Solis (0.00 ERA and 9 strikeouts in 9.0 innings spanning 3 games), righthander Ryan Mattheus (1.35 ERA and 6 strikeouts in 6.2 innings) and lefthander Robbie Ray (2.53 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 10.2 innings spanning 4 games).

30 Players in 30 Days: Danny Espinosa

Danny Espinosa jumping Jordan 1.jpgMichael Morse, Adam Dunn and Roger Bernadina stood at home plate waiting for Danny Espinosa to round the bases. Espinosa had just blasted a grand slam on a 1-0, 93 mph fastball to the first row of the second deck, right above the Nats bullpen in right field, to give the Nats a 12-3 lead. Right as Espinosa touched home plate, the three of them turned around and started walking to the dugout without a word, hand shake or high five for Espinosa.

Welcome to the Majors, rookie. The silent treatment never felt so good. Espinosa couldn’t help but smile as he walked back to the dugout by himself looking up at the 20,224 fans on their feet.

Bernadina was the first person to end the joke; he stopped on the first step of the dugout, turned around and patted Espinosa’s head. Espinosa was quickly engulfed by his teammates and the fans cheered for a curtain call. A pie in the face soon followed and so did hope for the future of the Nationals. “Espi,” as he is known by his teammates, finished 4-for-5 at the plate with 6 RBI–his only non-hit was a near home run.

He became the first player ever to hit at least two home runs and drive in at least six RBI in one of his first five Major League games–not in the history of the Washington Nationals, but in the history of Major League baseball. He is a switch hitter who can hit for power to both sides of the field. “It’s a big part [of my game]. They can’t just pitch me one way. I’m not just a dead-pull hitter,” Espinosa said.

What’s even more encouraging is his sound defense. He played shortstop at Long Beach State–a shortstop factory–and was drafted in 2008 and continued to play the position until he was converted into a second baseman when he was called up to Triple-A Syracuse in August. It was an inevitable move for him with the Nationals knowing full well it wouldn’t be long before he arrived in the Big Leagues where rookie Ian Desmond was already proving his potential as the Nationals shortstop of the future. Despite the change of position, Espinosa has excelled and his days as a shortstop seem to have only strengthened his ability to play with speed and agility. 

“I’m very comfortable at second base,” Espinosa said. “It’s a position I’ve played before [in high school]… It wasn’t a tough transition at all.” He also works well with Desmond and it’s hard not to see them as the middle infield combo of the future. Desmond leads with intensity and Espinosa reflects his will to try.

Espinosa could work on his consistency at the plate; he started with a bang but slowed down as his short month in the Majors progressed. He had six home runs in just 103 at bats, which translates roughly to 30-plus homers in a full-length season, but you can’t expect production that consistent from a rookie second baseman. His batting average had also dipped to .214 by the end of the season and he struck out eight times in his final 24 plate appearances–not signs of drooping ability or failed expectations, but rather, natural signs from a rookie who will continue to have ups and downs in his first full Major League season.  As far as Manager Jim Riggleman is concerned, his hitting is a bonus. They just want him in the field.

What he showed in his September call up is: while his youth can be a drawback at times at the plate, it’s a definite benefit in the infield. He’s earned the chance to lose the starting spot at second next season.

30 Players in 30 Days: Joel Peralta

Joel Peralta.JPGAnother day and another post about another reliever. Perhaps it’s because this season’s bullpen was an absolute bright spot for a team that struggled to produce offense. They racked up 545.2 relief innings in the process–the most in the Majors–and maintained a 3.35 ERA, the fifth best in the Majors. The season started out with a bang under the capable arms of Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps. But when Clippard started to fade in mid-June and Capps was traded to Minnesota, the bullpen as a whole could have taken a major tumble. It didn’t. Joel Peralta was one of the reasons why.

As bullpen mate Miguel Batista put it, “Peralta came out of nowhere to be our miracle worker.” Well, he didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. He came out of Triple-A Syracuse where he was having a stellar spring, saving 20 games without a single blown save and compiling a 1.08 ERA before he was called up to the Big Leagues on June 21. But he did work a few miracles.

Opposing batters averaged just .170 against Peralta, good for the lowest BAA on the team’s pitching staff. In 49.0 innings of total work this season, Peralta accumulated 49 strikeouts. It was the first time in his career the 34-year-old has averaged at least a strikeout per inning. He allowed just 30 hits, giving up the fewest hits per inning of any Nationals pitcher, while also ending the season with a miniscule 2.02 ERA. And he works quickly–he averages just 15.0 pitches per inning, less than Strasburg, Storen, Slaten, or for that matter, any Nationals pitcher with a last name beginning in “S.”

Peralta only earned one decision on the season, and he had to wait a long time to get it but it was worth the wait. On October 3, he was credited with the win in the National’s final game of the season, a 14-inning duel against the Mets in which he pitched 2.0 innings of scoreless ball, walking none and fanning three. It was his first Big League win since 2008.

Peralta is a free agent but if Jim Riggleman’s words are any indication, he’ll be back again next year. When asked what the team needed to do in 2011, Riggleman responded in part: “Strengthen our strength, which is our bullpen…We may be going to the bullpen even earlier, because we have another guy or two down there to go along with Clippard, Peralta, Sean Burnett, Drew Storen and Doug Slaten.” Will he return? It sure sounds like it.

30 Players in 30 Days: Tyler Clippard

Tyler Clippard golfing.jpgTyler Clippard is a golfer by day and pitcher by night. He doesn’t get to golf as often as he would like during the season–he is lucky if he can get a round or two in each month–but every time helps. Golf is his medication during the laborious 162-game season. For how wildly different the two sports are, there are a few core similarities between them, most notably the mental aspect. For as cliché as it is to use the phrase “mental toughness,” the mental side of the game is an integral part of both sports. It is that same I-will-conquer-this-mountain mindset that Clippard employs in golf and baseball to get out of sticky situations–be it a sand trap or a bases loaded jam. He gets his competitive juices flowing on the golf course during the offseason and it carries over to the diamond in the spring.

Clippard had a sensational start to the season and led the Majors with seven wins on May 14 but he started to struggle in June: he went 0-3 with a 10.80 ERA (10 IP/ 12 ER) with seven walks and a .432 BAA in 11 appearances from June 17 until the All-Star break.

The All-Star break couldn’t have come at a better time for Clippard. He was ready to forget about the previous month. He wanted a new start–the back nine and a fresh set of holes. In his first bullpen session after the break, Pitching Coach Steve McCatty informed him that he was throwing too hard. His fastball jumped from the low 90’s to 95 but the increased power didn’t translate into success–for what he gained in speed, he lost in control. It is the same give and take relationship in his golf game.

Tyler Clippard golfing 1.jpg“I can hit it a little further,” Clippard said, “but hitting it a little further means every now and then the ball’s going to go a little left or a little right when your swing speed’s faster and things like that.”

He changed his approach after the bullpen session and got back to square one but more importantly back to being under control. In the process, he became one the Nats’ most reliable relievers in the second half of the season, posting a 2.75 ERA (39.1 IP/ 12 ER) with 54 strikeouts and a .182 BAA. He allowed just three runs in 24 appearances in August and September.

Clippard lead all MLB relievers and Nationals pitchers with 11 wins. He was second amongst MLB relievers in innings pitched (91.0) and strikeouts (112), trailing only Carlos Marmol of the Cubs. Clippard became the first DC-based pitcher to notch 100 strikeouts in relief and he is the first NL relief pitcher to record a double-digit win total since Todd Jones combined on 11 wins for the Reds and Phillies in 2004.

“His change-up is very good,” Pitching Coach Steve McCatty said. “It’s hard to stay on it. It looks like a fastball and then what he does so well is after he slows you down enough, he throws 91-92 mph. But when you have that kind of change-up, it makes the 91 mph fastball look like 98 mph.”

Deception and determination is his style in golf and in baseball. There is always a batter to get out and a bunker to get out of but Clippard isn’t fazed by either task. In fact, he seeks them out.

In the “year of the pitcher” the Freakonomics blogs tries to find who stole all the runs in Major League Baseball. It is worth checking out. 

30 Players in 30 Days: Sean Burnett

Sean Burnett in Atlanta.jpgA win-loss record of 1-7 doesn’t suggest excellence but Sean Burnett had an excellent 2010 campaign. He was arguably the best among all Washington relievers, despite ending the season with the aforementioned record.

In fact, coming into the last full week of the season, Burnett was winless.  “For him to have such a great year and not have a win, we were talking about that in the bullpen,” Drew Storen said. “We didn’t want to jinx him, but we were like, ‘He needs to get one,'” which finally happened on September 26 when Burnett pitched two hitless innings and recorded three strikeouts against the Braves. Of course, it wasn’t the first time Burnett had pitched extremely well during the season–it was simply the first time the performance resulted in a win. On 15 other occasions this season, Burnett pitched an inning or more without allowing a hit, and in 58 of his 73 appearances, he did not allow a run–proof that win-loss record can be highly deceiving.

Burnett looked as sharp as ever in 2010, striking out 8.86 batters every nine innings–the most in his Big League career, while walking only 2.86 batters every nine innings–the least in his Big League career. He also stranded more runners than ever before, leaving 81.4 percent on base. (For the record, he debuted for Pittsburgh in 2004 and has since pitched nearly four complete seasons in the Majors.)

Burnett was adamant against being tagged a left-handed specialist–he was drafted in 2000 as a starter and converted to a reliever in 2008, so being confined to limited innings against lefties only sounded like a further demotion. He worked hard in the offseason to strengthen his repertoire against righties and came out strong–so strong that right-handed batters had averages almost 100 points less (.182) than left-handed batters (.273) against him.

His pitching this season should cement him as next season’s top setup man. He may not be best suited as a closer, due to his pitch-to-contact style and a fastball that tops out in the low 90s. However–he could be great. He recorded three saves this year and has shown one doesn’t have to be considered ideal or fancy to get the job done.

“He’s not getting nearly the credit that he should,” Storen said. “A lot of times, it’s kind of boring watching him pitch. He just does well every time. He goes in there and throws good pitches. It’s not flashy. He does his job. That’s something that’s great about him. He’s kind of not well known. And he should be for what he’s doing for us this year.”

30 Players in 30 Days: Michael Morse

Michael Morse hitting.jpgNote: This marks the second day in a row that we are writing about a Michael on the team. And the second day in a row we are writing about a player who came to the Washington Nationals directly from the Seattle Mariners. Coincidence… I think not.

Doubters, listen up: Michael Morse can be an everyday player.

That’s exactly what he proved the last month and a half of the season, when Josh Willingham’s season ended with knee surgery and a permanent spot opened up in the outfield. During that time, Morse led the team with a .929 OPS (On-base percentage plus slugging percentage). He also finished the season with a .289 batting average that trailed only Ryan Zimmerman and collected 41 RBI and 15 home runs in just 266 at bats. For a little comparison, Zimmerman tallied 25 home runs on 525 at bats and Willingham recorded 16 home runs in 370 at bats. It almost sounds like he belongs in the middle of the lineup with the rest of the power hitters–at times in September, he looked like the most consistent player at the plate.

Defensively, he has yet to dazzle at any position but his strength lies in his versatility. He came to the Majors as a shortstop, but has since played every other infield position, and all three positions in the outfield. If he can get consistent playing time at a single position, he may be able to grow into an average or even an above-average fielder.

“You get opportunities, like Mike had been getting, and you take advantage of it,” Manager Jim Riggleman said of Morse’s late-season performance. “It’s a beautiful thing. That’s why he was out there. He has a lot of tools. The ball jumps off his bat, and he is driving in runs. He is really taking his game up [a notch], taking advantage of the opportunities he has received.”

Morse never doubted his own ability to play every day, despite spending time in the Minors five of the six years since making his Major League debut in 2005. “I feel like I’ve settled in, especially in the field,” he said. “I feel like I do belong as an everyday player.”

If Morse’s bat continues to pop and the balls continue to fly, Riggleman will find a way to ensure his name is on that lineup card day in and day out come springtime.

30 Players in 30 Days: Miguel Batista

Miguel Batista and Miss Iowa 10.jpgOn July 27th, an anxious crowd waited for Stephen Strasburg to emerge from his warm-up bullpen session, ready to take the mound that night against the Atlanta Braves. Instead, it was Miguel Batista who made that pregame walk from the ‘pen to the dugout with Pitching Coach Steve McCatty. Boos resonated throughout Nationals Park when the PA announcer made it official: Miguel Batista would be the night’s starting pitcher thanks to an inflamed right shoulder that bothered Strasburg during warm-ups.

Batista himself couldn’t believe that the home crowd would boo its own starting pitcher–this isn’t Philadelphia–before he had even thrown one pitch. But that one start, his only start of the season amongst 57 other relief appearances, would define Batista’s entire year. No one remembers that he gave up five runs in 1.2 innings of relief on Opening Day to begin his career with the Nationals, good for a 27.00 ERA. They remember him giving his best Strasburg impression. They remember that he pitched 5.0 shutout innings of three-hit ball while recording six strikeouts. They remember the priceless Miss Iowa reference.

Everyone remembers the comment: “Imagine if you go to see Miss Universe, then you end up having Miss Iowa.”

He later clarified, saying, “People started booing me, and they hadn’t seen me throw a pitch yet. It’s like you hear ‘Miss Iowa,’ and you say, ‘Iowa?’ And then you see her up close and you say, ‘Wow, she’s gorgeous.'”

He could write a book from the one-liners and quotes he’s used throughout his 23 professional playing years. In fact, he has already written two books–a novel and a book of poetry. He’s a philosopher at heart. You ask him a couple yes or no questions and you get a 30-minute commentary on anything from Socrates to Ozzie Guillen. And the man brings a saxophone on away trips.

As unique as he is off the field, he is just as unique on the mound. His value lies in his ability to be used in a variety of situations–now mostly as a long and middle reliever, but he was also once a consistent starter for Arizona and Seattle and an effective closer for Toronto and we, of course, saw what he could do as an emergency starter with ten minutes of prep time this year.

 He said of that infamous July game, “I just tried to give the people what they came to see. They came to see a 20-year-old and ended up having [someone] almost 40. They were expecting 10 strikeouts on the bump, but I’m too old for 10. I tried to give them the best I could, stay in the game, make the guys swing the bat because I knew I was limited on my pitches.”

He is consistently giving the best he can. He is a free agent and it is anyone’s guess if he will be back. But it is a safe bet that next year, he will be a reliable part, and probably the most versatile part, of someone’s bullpen.

30 Players in 30 Days: Adam Dunn

While Nationals Park may be empty and the players are back home with their families, Notes from NatsTown is not about to take a break just because the season is over. We’re here to give you your Nationals fix to hold you over until next spring. Is it spring yet? Starting today, we will run 30 Players in 30 Days–except not really 30 days because we will only post them on weekdays.

Adam Dunn high five.jpgPossibly the greatest question mark of the Nationals offseason revolves around Adam Dunn’s future. We don’t know what the future holds but we think Yogi Berra was right when he said, “
It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” We can look at the past though. So in our first segment of “30 in 30,” we’ll look at what Dunn has meant to Washington baseball for the past two years.

 “He’s not a cheerleader but if there is still such a thing as a leader by example in this game, he is it,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s a pillar in the clubhouse.”

On the field, Dunn has transformed himself from a defensive liability in the outfield to a sound first baseman, most of the time. According to the Ultimate Zone Rating, he was the worst fielder in the Majors last season with a -37.1 UZR–translation: he cost the Nats 37.1 runs. He improved that to a -3.2 UZR in his first full season as a first baseman, evidence that Dunn still needs to improve but proved he can be a productive first baseman.

While Dunn’s defense may still be in question, what he can do with the bat is certainly not. He is one of the best offensive first basemen in the game. Dunn’s 38 home runs tied for second in the NL and marked the seventh straight season he has hit 35-plus long balls. He’s the only Major Leaguer to do so in every season since 2004. That’s consistency. This is also his fourth straight season collecting 100-plus RBI, but more impressive than hitting the century mark is when he hit those RBI. Dunn tied for third in the NL with 29 go-ahead RBI this season, which include providing the go-ahead runs in both of Stephen Strasburg’s first two Major League starts. Oh, and let’s not forget the go-ahead runs in Luis Atilano’s first two Major League starts too. Oh, and all four were on Dunn homers and resulted in four Curly “W’s”. That’s consistency. Dunn missed just four games the entire season and has played 152-plus games in seven consecutive seasons–only Ichiro Suzuki has played in more games since 2004. That’s also consistency. You get the point.

His teammates have already given him a vote of confidence. “He’s a huge part of our offense. He drives in runs. He hits home runs,” Jordan Zimmermann said. “His defense at first has gotten so much better. He’s an all-around great player.”

Asked how it would feel to lose Dunn, Drew Storen admitted, “It would be tough because he’s such a good guy to have in the clubhouse. Obviously, the numbers, the power in clutch situations, speak for themselves. But I think not having him around in the clubhouse would be the thing I miss the most.”

In his final at-bat at Nationals Park this year, fans gave him a standing ovation while cheering, “Sign Adam Dunn!” The cheers remained even after he struck out for the fourth time that day.

“It’s really good to feel wanted,” Dunn said. “I mean, who doesn’t want that feeling? You really can’t put that kind of thing into words. That’s special.”

So now we just wait and see what happens.