Washington's starting centerfielder, Nyjer Morgan, has stumbled out of the gates this spring, batting only .143 in 21 at-bats. While spring stats aren't something that should be taken very heavily, the Nationals outfielder has a sterling but troublingly short track record. Could it be possible that Morgan's brilliance in 2009 was more of a flash-in-the-pan than a breakout of a budding star?
Morgan capped off his first full major league season by putting together 212 outstanding plate appearances for the Nationals before getting hurt to end his 2009 campaign. Morgan, 28, batted .351/.396/.435 in Washington while helping to rejuvenate a club that was in need of any positive direction.
On top of his stellar offensive production in Washington, Morgan also played some of the best outfield defense in the majors. In 119 games he posted a 27.8 UZR and a 35.8 UZR/150, meaning if he had qualified he would have been the league leader in overall UZR. With the defense anchored by Morgan up the middle, the Nationals pitching instantly improved.
Despite Morgan's excellence in Washington last year, it was a small sample size in what has been a short career. What makes him so difficult to project is the fact that he lost several years of development by trying to become a professional hockey player. After receiving a college scholarship to play baseball, Morgan gave up the hockey dream and focused on playing between the lines. After being drafted in the 33rd round, the speedster didn't make it to low A ball until he was 22, and didn't make it to the majors until he was 26.
Morgan's prior major league experience had been limited, but solid overall. He consistently hit above .290 and got on base at about .350. As we saw, however, he exploded after coming to Washington.
So what made Morgan so successful in July and August?
The big outlier is his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which skyrocketed to .438 in July and .351 in August. Morgan has had a great career BABIP because of his speed, but one that high is unrealistic and unsustainable. So this is a likely cause his batting average and on base percentage jumped so much. While we were excited about Morgan's high on base percentage (.418 in July and .371 in August), his walk percentage dropped to below six percent each month. The fact was that Morgan was getting on base with his speed and his inflated batting average, not his eye.
It wasn't all luck that improved his stats though. Morgan's ground-ball percentage improved in his final two months, hitting 60.3% of balls on the ground in August compared to 45.8% in March and April. Getting the ball down and in play goes a long way for someone with speed like Morgan, and it might explain the rise in his BABIP. Morgan also benefitted in raising his ground-ball percentage by lowering his fly-ball percentage while keeping his line-drive percentage steady. This means in the month of August, 78 % of balls Morgan put into play were either on the ground or hit squarely.
Morgan also managed to hit fastballs way better in 2009 than he had in previous years. According to FanGraphs, he hit fastballs 14.5 runs above average in 2009 compared to a career mean of 3 runs above average.
It seems that Morgan's success in 2009 was a mix of fortunate luck and some legitimate improvements at the plate. Yes, he hit at an unsustainable level when he came over to Washington, however in his third season in the majors he has learned how to make solid contact and uses his speed to make himself a weapon. He won't be a .350 hitter ever again, but it wouldn't be outrageous to expect him to hit .290-.310 while getting on base around .350. His Gold Glove caliber defense should be here to stay as well.
The Washington Nationals made six roster moves to their training camp roster today, most notably dropping left-handed reliever Ron Villone. The Nationals also assigned Atahualpa Severino, Juan Jamie, Ryan Mattheus, Collin Balester and Aaron Thompson to minor league camp.
Villone, a 14-year veteran, was expected to make the club and serve as one of two lefties in the Nationals bullpen. Villone was one of the more stable relievers for the Nationals last season in an unstable campaign, in 64 appearances he posted a 4.25 ERA. Villone however struggled against fellow lefties in 2009, posting a .297 batting average against. Rizzo says that he doesn't expect this to be the end for Villone, stating that another major league club who needs a lefty will probably give him a call.
Among the six players re-assigned, Collin Balester and Aaron Thompson stick out as the most notable.
Thompson has been one of the best pitchers in camp for Washington this spring, allowing only one hit and no runs in four innings of action. You'll remember that Thompson was the piece in the puzzle that the Nats got in return from the Marlins for Nick Johnson last
In 2009, however, Zimmerman exploded by hitting .292/.364/.525 with 33 homers, 110 RBI, a 137 wRC+ and, oh yeah, a 30-game hit-steak. He won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and his cities heart. With things firing on all-cylinders for Zimmerman, the only question left to ask is, will it last? Will he continue to trend upward or is he setting himself up for a decline?
First lets look at what made Zimmerman better in 2009 than in the rest of his career.
2009 saw Zimmerman walk at the highest rate of his career (10.4%), get on base at the best rate (.364), and hit for the most power (.525 Slg.). Some may suggest that this is the result of hitting in front of a true slugger for the first time, Adam Dunn. Conventional thought says that with the power-house Dunn behind him Zimmerman will see better pitches, therefore being able to chose which ones to hack at and which one to take. The stats show however that Zimmerman was pitched to almost identically in both 2009 when he hit in front of Dunn, and 2008 when he hit in front of, well nobody.
Zimmerman saw 59.1% fastballs in 2009, compared to 59.9% in 2008. 19.1%
fastballs compared to 19.8% in 2008, 10% change up's compared to 11.4 % ect. Ec.t He saw 49.4 % of pitches in the strike zone compared to 51.5 in 2008, so it doesn't seem like the pitches he saw were any better.
Instead it seems Zimmerman improved by just swinging less often. In 2009 he only swung at 39.7% of pitches he saw, where he swung at 44.1% in 2008 and 42.5% in his career. While Zimmerman swung at less pitches inside the strikezone than throughout his career, he also chased far fewer pitches in 2009 than before; 21.3% in 2009 compared to 25.2% in 2010.
He also excelled at driving the ball when he did made contact. His back-to-back 40 double seasons in 2006 and 2007 finally translated into home run power as he topped the 30 home run plateau for the first time in his career. He also started to mash fastballs like never before. According to FanGraphs, Zimmerman registered an adjusted fastball rating of 21.0 in 2009, trumping his 0.1 fastball rating of 2009, and a career fastball rating of 3.1.
Defensively Zimmerman churned out his second stellar defensive season at third base. Long branded a future defensive gem in the mold of a Brooks Robinson, Zimmerman posted a career high UZR of 18.1 in 2009, good enough to lead National League infielders and earn his first gold glove. Those who watched the Nationals in 2009 saw that there was great room for improvement in his defensive game as well. Zimmerman struggled early on making several throwing errors and some other silly mistakes; if those get ironed out he could easily improve that already stellar UZR.
There are signs for concern though. While Zimmerman's BABIP, a good indicator of over or under performance, stayed steady in 2009 he hit a career low number of ground balls, and a career high number of fly balls. Traditionally this will indicate a drop, not a rise in production, so Nats fans should be weary if those numbers don't get back to his career averages. Zimmerman's strikeout rate also rose to 19.5% which is slightly higher than his 18.9 career percent and his overall contact percentage went down two points in 2009.
Zimmerman also struggled with hitting curve-balls in 2009. A pitch that in the past he used to post positive ratings in, he saw his Curve Ball Rating drop from 3.7 in 2007, to 1.3 in 2008, to -4.7 in 2009. Luckily for Zimm he only saw curveballs 6.9% of the time in 2009, but that number could steadily raise in 2010 after his poor performance.
Ultimately I think the numbers show that there is no reason to believe that 2009 was a fluke, but instead it was the year that a very talented 24-year-old came into his own. Zimmerman became a star in his fifth year in the league, and while he may not improve to a much higher degree with the bat in 2010, his defense may continue to blossom as the years go by.
Lets look at what the experts say, the 2010 forecasts/projections:
CHONE: .296/.365/.511, 27 HR, 98 RBI, 135 wRC+
Bill James: .288/.358/.511, 28 HR, 98 RBI, 131 wRC+
Marcel: .284/.351/.486, 23 HR, 79 RBI, 121 wRC+
Baseball Prospectus: .276/.353/.475/ 27 HR, 95 RBI, 40.9 VORP
In his second spring outing Stephen Strasburg pitched three innings of shutout baseball, striking out two while allowing two hits and walking one batter against the Cardinals this afternoon. Though the Cardinals played without stars Albert Pujols and Matt Holiday, Strasburg's performance was still impressive, throwing 28 of his 49 pitches for strikes and starting seven of the eleven batters he faced with first-pitch strikes. Unfortunately, the Nationals were unable to parlay Strasburg's strong start into a win. Tyler Clippard took the loss, surrendering five runs in one and one-third innings, and the Nationals fell to 0-10 on the spring. (For some video of Strasburg's outing, click here).
The Nationals made several more cuts friday, re-assigning catcher Devin Ivany and first baseman Josh Whitesell to minor-league camp this morning. Mark Zuckerman wrote:
"Neither move comes as a shock. Ivany, 27, has never played above Class AA but has been a mainstay in camp the last several years as an extra catcher. Whitesell, also 27, rejoined the organization this winter after being let go by the Diamondbacks and is probably slated to play first base at Class AAA Syracuse this season."
I have to disagree with Zuckerman here. While Ivey has never played above AA, Whitesell is a what I like to call a quadruple-A player. In 190 AAA games he has batted .274/.390.471 with 40 homers and 130 RBI. Those are numbers that more than deserve a shot a the big leagues. Whitesell has been a victim of several unfortunate circumstances. Injuries made his college career long, and right when he was ready to make an impact in Washington the first time around he got waived to Arizona. There he got stuck behind an aging Tony Clark. A look at his 2008 in AAA shows he more than deserved a full-time shot in Arizona last year.
2008 AAA: .328/.425/.568, 26 HR, 110 RBI no comments
"Do you honestly think that the Nationals have a shot at the playoffs in 2010?
-- Steve S., Rockville Md.
I can't answer this question right now because Rizzo is not finished trying to build the Nationals for 2010. I know they're trying to trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter. We'll see what happens before Opening Day."
This caught me a little off-gaurd as I assumed with the additions of Strasburg, Wang and Marquis, and the competition of Mock, Stammen, and Martin, the Nationals were all set rotation wise. With that this could either mean two things from General Manager Mike Rizzo. Either he is terrified that the club has already allowed 82 runs this spring training, or he wants to shock the world by making a playoff push in 2010.
The Washington Nationals made their first round of cuts today, giving veteran pitchers Shawn Estes and Eddie Guardado their outright releases while demoting six players to minor league camp. The Washington Post's Adam Kilgore Reported:
"The Nationals reduced their roster to 53 players, and by letting go six pitchers they will be able to more closely examine the pitchers contending for the final spots in the bullpen and the starting rotation.
"It's that time where you got to start getting the numbers down to a more manageable number, especially the pitching," Manager Jim Riggleman said."
Guardado's release will probably mean the end to a 17-year career where he posted a 4.32 ERA and saved 187 games. The lefty, nicknamed 'Everyday Eddie,' saved 40 games in back to back seasons 2002-2003. Estes has pitched 14 seasons in the Major Leagues posting a 101-93 record with a 4.71 ERA. Estes best year came in 1997 when the lefty went 19-5 with a 3.18 ERA.
Among the minor leaguers sent down were pitchers Victor Garate, Logan Kensing, Joel Peralta and Ryan Speir, and position players Derek Norris and Jerry Owens.
While the Shawn Estes release is not a surprise, the Guardado release caught me off gaurd. I was under the impression that they had brought in Everyday Eddie to be a bullpen mentor to the young Nationals relief pitchers. Guardado had earned a strong reputation over the last several years as being a great mentor to young closers like Ryan Franklin and J.J. Putz. Guardado had struggled however, allowing four earned runs on seven hits in two outings this spring. Regardless, one would have thought he would have at least been sent to Syracuse to be a mentor for Drew Storen.
Derek Norris was the most notable demotion among the minor leaguers. Norris is arguably the Nationals top hitting prospect and the club wants him to focus on his defensive strength behind the plate. His demotion represents a big change from the ways of Jim Bowden, who was known for bringing up his prospects for looks in spring training regardless of their readiness. Bowden of course did this to make himself look better.
Norris will look to shoot through the minors this year and put himself in position to crack the majors in camp next season.