November 2012

Year of the Rookie

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When Bryce Harper was called up to the Major Leagues on April 27, he became the favorite in many eyes to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award, well before he ever stepped on the field. The hype that has surrounded Harper since his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16 year-old has been entirely overwhelming and unprecedented in the sport’s history. But they don’t give awards for hype – such honors have to be earned. And, whether Reds and Diamondbacks fans agree or not, Bryce Harper earned the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year.

Bryce Harper fought off a strong field to win 2012 NL Rookie of the Year.

First, some respect for his competition. Todd Frazier was very impressive, coming out of relative obscurity when Joey Votto was injured to post a .273/.331/.498 line, slugging 19 home runs and notching 51 total extra-base hits. Wade Miley, the Arizona hurler, came up huge with 16 wins and nearly a 3.9/1 strikeout-to-walk rate over almost 200 innings in his first full campaign. Both are worthy candidates, and either could have been Rookie of the Year, had it not been for Harper.

To start, there are the now-20 year-old’s overall numbers. He collected more home runs (22) and extra-base hits (57) than Frazier, while also stealing six times as many bases (18/3). His .270/.340/.477 overall line was slightly weaker, but he ripped through September and October at a .330/.400/.643 clip, finishing far stronger in the season’s final month than either Frazier (.176/.235/.257) or Miley (2-2, 5.40 ERA). And perhaps the biggest difference was that Harper did all of this while playing above average defense at one of the game’s toughest positions.

While Frazier actually compiled a negative dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) of -0.2 at first base, third base and left field (according to Baseball Reference), Harper notched a dWAR of 1.4, leading to an overall WAR of 5.0, nearly twice Frazier’s 2.7 total. And while measuring pitcher WAR against position player WAR is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, Miley’s was 3.2, just for frame of reference. The point is, Harper’s all-around excellence defined his season as being greater than a simple look at his slash line.

But if you love raw offensive stats, he led in plenty of categories there, too. Harper paced all NL rookies with 98 runs scored, 17 more than his next closest competitor and 43 more than Frazier. His nine triples were also best, even one more than AL Rookie of the Year winner Mike Trout. Even if you discount the intangibles and individual moments – like his steal of home off Cole Hamels on national television – Harper had an impact on the game in 2012 that few, if any, could match.

All that’s left now is to wonder just how much better he might be next year.

2012 Player Review: Danny Espinosa

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The Washington Nationals enjoyed unprecedented success in 2012, recording the best record in Major League Baseball. The team relied on the contributions of many different players, whom we will catalogue throughout the offseason as we look ahead to the 2013 campaign. A new week brings a new player, as we round out the Nationals keystone combination with a deeper look at Danny Espinosa.

A young player’s second full season is often considered his first real test as a Major Leaguer. After turning heads as a rookie – swatting 21 home runs and finishing sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting in 2011 – Danny Espinosa faced the task of a league adjusting to him, challenging his weaknesses. Following some early struggles, the 25 year-old made his own adjustments, finishing the season strong. When the dust had settled, though, Espinosa’s second campaign replicated his first almost as closely as humanly possible.

Espinosa celebrates after his game-winning home run on August 4.

After 658 plate appearances in 2011, Espinosa logged an identical 658 this season. He walked 11 fewer times in 2012, but notched 12 more hits, upping his extra-base hit total from 55 to 56. His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage were all within .012 in one direction or another of his rookie marks. After falling just three stolen bases shy of a 20-20 season in 2011, he was instead three home runs shy this year, but set a new career mark, swiping exactly 20 bags. He also led the team in doubles with 37, two more than Adam LaRoche and one more than Ryan Zimmerman.

The switch-hitter continued to be more consistent from the right side of the plate, notching an OPS more than 80 points higher, but his home run rate was nearly double from the left side, where he hit 14 of his 17 bombs on the season. Perhaps his most memorable longball of the year, though, came from the right side, powering a dramatic, late-inning comeback to beat the Marlins on August 4 at Nationals Park.

One of the more underrated parts of Espinosa’s game, though, is his defense. Combined with Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and LaRoche, the foursome comprised arguably the strongest infield defense in the National League, if not the entire sport. The rangy, strong-armed second baseman could replace many Major League shortstops and did, in fact, take over that spot for the Nationals when Desmond missed a month with an oblique injury.

Espinosa played some of his best baseball of the year during that stretch, batting .313/.366/.527 with eight doubles, six home runs, 21 runs scored and 19 RBI over a 32-game stretch from July 16-August 15 during which the Nats went 22-10. The middle infielder will hope to build upon his second-half success in his first arbitration year in 2013, the same way that Desmond did in his third full season in the Majors. Washington retains team control over Espinosa through the 2015 campaign.


2012 Player Review: Ross Detwiler

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The Washington Nationals enjoyed unprecedented success in 2012, recording the best record in Major League Baseball. The team relied on the contributions of many different players, whom we will catalogue throughout the offseason as we look ahead to the 2013 campaign. With Election Day behind us, we move to our favorite, politics-based nickname on the team, The National Det himself, Ross Detwiler.

With all the breakout seasons from various members of the Nationals in 2012, it can be easy to overlook just how good Ross Detwiler pitched. In fact, most fans have probably forgotten by this point that John Lannan was expected to occupy Detwiler’s place in the starting rotation until the final day of Spring Training, when the announcement was made that Detwiler had earned his place as the number five starter. And while Detwiler yielded his starting spot temporarily to Chien-Ming Wang upon the latter’s return from the Disabled List, he didn’t remain in the bullpen for long, finishing the year back in the rotation.

Detwiler quietly proved to be a reliable starter in Davey Johnson’s rotation.

The key for Detwiler was finding the right balance of his two fastballs – a lively four-seamer that runs up in the mid-90s and a sinking two-seamer a couple miles-per-hour slower – and his developing off-speed pitches. He found that balance over his best stretch of the season from June 12 to August 2, a period in which he threw 49.2 innings with a 2.17 ERA, and 29 strikeouts to just 11 walks. While the southpaw has never been an overwhelming “strikeout pitcher,” he learned to pitch to contact to a greater degree this season. That helped him to his first career 10-win campaign, along with a huge performance in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.

Detwiler posted very similar overall numbers to those in his 2011 campaign, allowing 8.2 hits, 0.8 homers and 2.8 walks while striking out 5.8 per nine innings (8.6/1.0/2.7/5.6 in ’11). He lowered his WHIP ever so slightly from 1.26 to 1.22. His .241 batting average against ranked 14th among qualifying starters in the National League, just ahead of Ryan Vogelsong and Edwin Jackson, and also lower than rotation-mate Jordan Zimmermann.

Off the field, Detwiler and Jackson happily adopted the moniker of “The Other Guys” during the season, as the two members of the rotation happy to stay out of the wake of publicity surrounding Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Zimmermann. His easy-going, light-hearted personality allowed him to stay even-keeled through the rotation debates and the ebbs and flows throughout the year.

Although Detwiler pitched just 66.0 Major League innings in 2011, his combined total, including his Triple-A workload, was 153.1 frames. He topped that by 11.0 innings in 2012, not signifying a significant increase, but obviously held up fairly well at the end of the year, if Game 4 of the NLDS was any indication. Detwiler’s left arm should be well prepared to handle another increase in innings as a full-time starter in 2013, when he will enter his first year of arbitration. The Nationals have the 26 year-old southpaw under team control through the 2015 season.


Good Things Come In Threes

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Awards season has never meant as much to the Washington Nationals as it does this year. As you may have heard, a trio of Nats were named finalists Wednesday night for several prominent National League awards by the Baseball Writers Association of America: Gio Gonzalez for Cy Young, Bryce Harper for the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year, and Davey Johnson for Manager of the Year. Whether or not those three take home their respective awards next week, their nominations as finalists are indicative of the tremendous seasons they all had.

LaRoche, Strasburg and Desmond each took home their first Silver Slugger Award.

There is another set of awards – for a completely separate trio of Nationals –doled out earlier tonight. Washington earned three Silver Slugger nods, the first such awards taken home by any Nationals since Ryan Zimmerman’s second straight honor in 2010. This year, while Zim was denied by a tremendous season from Padres third baseman Chase Headley, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Stephen Strasburg each took home the hardware as the best hitter at his respective position in the National League.

LaRoche’s selection was a no-brainer. He led all qualifying NL first basemen in hits (155), home runs (career-high 33), RBI (100), slugging percentage (.510) and OPS (.853). It may surprise some to know that the Silver Slugger is the first of the nine-year veteran’s career, but at a premium offensive position like first base, the competition is always stiff. LaRoche can place it on the mantle next to his Gold Glove, also the first of his career, which he was awarded last week.

Desmond’s win may be even more impressive, given the time he spent both on the Disabled List and playing at less than 100 percent this year. Despite playing as many as 32 games fewer than some of his fellow position-mates, Desmond led NL shortstops in home runs (career-high 25) to go along with a .292 average, .511 slugging percentage and .845 OPS. With his continued development over a full season next year, this could be just the first of many awards for the 27 year-old.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the three, though, is Strasburg, who entered 2012 batting just .038 (1-for-26) with 10 strikeouts in his Major League career. He made significant strides at the plate, compiling a .277/.333/.426 line with a league-high four doubles, one home run and seven RBI. Strasburg even batted .308 with runners in scoring position, as he developed into yet another offensive weapon at the bottom of the lineup.

2012 Player Review: Ian Desmond

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The Washington Nationals enjoyed unprecedented success in 2012, recording the best record in Major League Baseball. The team relied on the contributions of many different players, whom we will catalogue throughout the offseason as we look ahead to the 2013 campaign. Our list continues with the emerging talent up the middle, Ian Desmond.

We’ve written several times in this space about the candidacy of Adam LaRoche as the Most Valuable Player, not just for the 2012 Nationals, but for the entire National League. However, if any Washington position player could challenge LaRoche for that title, it would be the Nationals 2012 breakout star, Ian Desmond.

Ian Desmond emerged as an NL All-Star and clubhouse leader in 2012.

After flashing signs of his potential during a 2009 September call-up (where he went .280/.318/.561 with seven doubles and four homers in 82 at-bats), the shortstop’s numbers fell short of those levels in his first two full Major League seasons. All of that changed in 2012, though, as the 27 year-old saw his talents at the plate and in the field come together to land him an All-Star selection. Despite playing through an oblique injury that hampered his production towards the end of the season’s first half and sidelined him for nearly a month in July and August, Desmond still posted career highs in hits (150), doubles (33), home runs (25), runs scored (72) and RBI (73). His OPS+ of 126 was higher than Ryan Zimmerman’s, Bryce Harper’s and Jayson Werth’s, ranking just slightly behind LaRoche for the team lead.

For some greater perspective on the caliber of Desmond’s season, consider the following. Despite playing just 130 games, he was one of only seven National Leaguers (and the only National) to post a 20-20 season, joining reigning MVP Ryan Braun, Carlos Gonzalez, Jason Heyward, Andrew McCutchen, Hanley Ramirez and Jimmy Rollins.

Gio Gonzalez flashes his favorite clubhouse shirt, depicting Desmond as a super hero, cape and all.

And while his overall numbers were solid in their own right, Desmond seemed to come up biggest whenever the pressure was turned up. Until Werth’s thunderous, walk-off home run ended Game 4 of the NLDS, Desmond’s come-from-behind, game-winning blast with two outs in the ninth inning on May 2 to beat the Diamondbacks was Washington’s lone walk-off home run of the season. The shortstop also drove in 31 of his 73 RBI (42.5%) with two outs, including three from the eighth inning on in a rousing, 12-inning victory over the Mets on June 5.

And then, of course, there was the defense. After committing 34 errors in his first full season in 2010, Desmond cut that number to 23 the following campaign and again down to 15 this year. His improved consistency, along with his proclivity for highlight reel plays, earned him a Gold Glove finalist nomination. Desmond’s pure athleticism and reflexes led to tremendous plays like the one below, also part of that June 5 performance:

He showed off his range as well this year, with diving grabs like this one in September:

Desmond carried his success into the postseason, staking claim as Washington’s most consistent hitter in the NLDS. He batted .368 (7-for-19) in his first taste of playoff action, continuing to emerge as a leader for this young Nationals squad.

As a player just entering the prime of his career, there is no reason to believe Desmond’s 2012 season was a fluke, and if he is able to play a full season in 2013, the Florida native will have a chance to improve upon the benchmarks he set this year. As he enters arbitration for the first time this year, he remains under team control for the next three seasons, giving Nationals fans at least that much time to watch him continue to grow into his full potential.

2012 Player Review: Mark DeRosa

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The Washington Nationals enjoyed unprecedented success in 2012, recording the best record in Major League Baseball. The team relied on the contributions of many different players, whom we will catalogue throughout the offseason as we look ahead to the 2013 campaign. Our list continues with veteran utilityman Mark DeRosa.

Statistics can tell us a lot in baseball, perhaps more so than in any other sport. Of the American “Big Four,” it is certainly the game that relies most heavily upon the numbers, over a large sample size, to determine success or failure, at least in the regular season. However, some players carry value in ways that are not generally quantifiable, bringing knowledge and expertise or even setting the tone of a clubhouse in a way that makes the players around them better. Mark DeRosa is one of those players.

Though he made just 101 plate appearances in 2012, DeRosa had a major impact on the Nationals clubhouse.

A 15-year Major League veteran, DeRosa enjoyed his greatest success over a three-year span from 2006-08, playing for the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs. He carried a .291/.368/.453 line while playing every position outside of the battery, providing a valuable, interchangeable piece for his managers. While his production on the field hasn’t reached those levels since a pair of surgeries on his wrist, he was still the top target on Davey Johnson’s offseason wish list heading into Spring Training in 2012.

Why DeRosa? He was on Johnson’s World Baseball Classic squad back in 2009, and left an indelible mark on the manager. Back in Spring Training, it was DeRosa – not a fellow hurler, or pitching coach Steve McCatty – who pulled Gio Gonzalez aside after a rough inning to make him aware of a mechanical flaw in the lefty’s delivery. Gonzalez would not allow another run the rest of the afternoon. Before Game 4 of the NLDS, it was DeRosa who spoke to the team, ad-libbing a colorful interpretation of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous The Man In The Arena speech. Johnson acknowledged his veteran utility man’s importance in that afternoon’s press conference.

“DeRosa’s been kind of a spokesperson the guys have looked up to,” Johnson said. “He’s been in [postseason] situations. He’s a real good baseball man.”

The upbeat veteran helped set the tone for Davey Johnson’s young team.

DeRosa is a free agent heading into 2013, and is, as of yet, unsure if he will return for another season. After the end of the season, he shared his thoughts on his uncertain future.

“I’m kind of in a weird state,” he told reporters. “I don’t know if this is the last time I put on a uniform. I don’t know if I’m okay with that yet. We’ll see. I’ll go home and listen.”

Whenever DeRosa’s playing days are done, it would not be surprising to see him transition into another side of the game, whether as a manager or broadcaster. An Ivy Leaguer (he was a two-sport star at the University of Pennsylvania), his intelligent, charismatic, witty delivery seems tailor-made to fill either the long summer nights in the booth or the ears of the next generation of players from the end of the dugout.

Halloween NATITUDE Contest Winners

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First off, we hope everyone has recovered from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and that you all were able to enjoy Halloween. Second of all, we had an overwhelming number of fantastic, NATITUDE-chocked submissions on Twitter for this contest, and had some tough decisions to make for our winners. Without any further ado, here are our three runners-up, each winners of a Nationals Postseason Prize Pack, including a postseason issue of Nationals Magazine, hat and t-shirt.

Runner-Up #1

Making excellent use of our stencils, @MinnTandy brought Teddy to life for Halloween.

Runner-Up #2

Taking his pumpkin-carving skills into his own hands, @Joebsball submitted his own Werth-y entry.

Runner-Up #3

While learning the alphabet, @SingleSuburbian’s class put an extra emphasis on the Curly W.

And now (drum roll, please), our Grand Prize Winner of the Highland Mint National League East Champions Photo Plaque, including a commemorative coin and authenticated infield dirt from Nationals Park…

With a superb display of ingenuity and NATITUDE, congratulations to @31RyanSmith (and your little one) on your very cute, very inspired victory.

Thanks to all who participated, and stay tuned to @Nationals for future opportunities to Ignite Your NATITUDE all offseason long and win great prizes!