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The Weekend Takeaway
The fourth week of the season is late enough to press the panic button, right? The sample size of innings and plate appearances isn’t at the point of being statistically significant (when is it ever, amirite?), but usually, teams’ particular strengths or weaknesses are made at least partially clear by this point. So yeah, I’m pressing it, for the Nationals. To be fair, it’s more “intense discontent,” than “panic,” but even the latter feeling is one that this team didn’t expect to feel at any time this season.

You’ve read about it everywhere: This team, with its super-rotation and lineup stacked with proven offensive weapons, was a universally popular pick for the division title. Pretty much every publication, from BP to Seventeen, chose the Nationals to win the N.L. East. And no pick as slam-dunk as that ever fails, right? Just look at the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and Oregon football team in this year's national championship game.

Well, the Nationals were swept this weekend by the Marlins, which is not an auspicious result. In game one, Jordan Zimmermann and Mat Latos duked it out for six eerily similar innings (Zimmerman’s final line: 6 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4K; Latos’ was 6.1/6/2/1/4) before Martin Prado singled off Aaron Barrett in the bottom of the eighth for the go-ahead run.

On Saturday, Stephen Strasburg continued his trajectory toward mediocrity, giving up four runs in six innings and losing to Tom Koehler, who shut the Nats out over 7 1/3. Per brooksbaseball.net, Strasburg only generated five whiffs from the 95 pitches he threw in the start, which is, well, unsettling. Throughout his career, Strasburg has gotten approximately 25 percent whiffs with his changeup; on Saturday, he threw the pitch 15 times, and got one. He’s averaged around 7 percent whiffs with his fastball; he threw that pitch 64 times and got one swinging strike. Are numbers like these indicative of trends in the movement of Strasburg’s pitches? Let’s check it out:

Ya know, not really. Strasburg’s sinker seems to be dropping less, but his fastball, curve and changeup are on line within an inch with their past iterations. The difference, as I see it, is coming in the location of the pitches. Let’s compare this so far unimpressive season with 2012, Strasburg’s best by WARP (4.5.). That year, Strasburg’s fastball had a zone percentage of 53.1 and a swinging strike rate of 7.1. This year, that pitch’s zone percentage is 67.9 and its swinging strike rate is 3.2.

The numbers with Strasburg’s changeup are similarly startling. That pitch was in the zone just 24.6 percent of the time in 2012, but it resulted in a swinging strike 27.3 percent of the time. However, this year it’s been in the zone 40 percent of the time, and the swinging strike percentage has gone down to 20 percent. (The curveball has garnered swinging strikes 7.7 percent of the time this year, down from 12.8 in 2012. However, that pitch has found the strike zone less often than it did in 2012, bucking the trend a bit.)

Strasburg is simply not the swing-and-miss pitcher this year than he was in the past, and when the PITCHf/x metrics on his pitches’ movement don’t suggest a loss of bite, one can reasonably assume the problem is with location and sequencing. And easier fix, one would hope, but one whose urgency is no lesser.

Anyway, back to the series, and to a larger problem for the Nationals: On Sunday, Dan Haren held them to three hits and two runs in five innings, which completed the sweep for the Marlins. When you’re getting shut down that hard by a guy whose Twitter handle pokes fun at his soft-tossing tendencies, it’s time to evaluate the state of your offense.

The Nationals do not currently have a player hitting above .300. The closest is Yunel Escobar, at .292. Jayson Werth’s average currently sits at .171. Ryan Zimmerman’s is .205. Bryce Harper’s .944 OPS is a nice boost. This much is clear: The hype on the Nationals heading into the season rested on their supposed super-rotation, with as many as four potential Cy Young Award winners, but the offense was supposed to be better than the bottom five in baseball.

Will they regress upward? I’d eat the keyboard on which I’m currently typing if they didn’t. (Mind you, I’m not shaking any hands on any bets here.) The ever-closer return of Anthony Rendon, and the corresponding luxury of being able to boot Danny Espinosa or Dan Uggla out of the lineup should make offensive conditions more favorable in Washington. But time is flying, and if the Mets keep playing like they are, that seven-game advantage they hold over the Nationals might not go away as fast as the preseason favorites would like.

Quick Hits from the weekend
As protests erupted in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, a man who died following spinal cord injuries sustained while in police custody, the discontent encroached on Orioles Park at Camden Yards.

Before Saturday night’s Orioles-Red Sox game, stadium officials closed a busy entry gate to the ballpark, which was blocked off with metal barriers and a sizable police presence. The game started on time, though the Baltimore Sun reported what appeared to be a less-than-average turnout.

However, in the middle of the ninth, as the game neared extra innings, fans were asked to remain inside the park, and the gates were closed.

They were reopened at approximately 10:00 p.m., around the time of the final out, though protests were still going on in the city.

After taking a 7-5 loss in Friday’s series opener, the Orioles responded with an extra-innings victory on Saturday and an 18-7 laugher on Sunday, where the Orioles stroked 20 hits as a team, with 16 coming from the last six spots of the lineup. It was an uninspiring weekend for Boston, except for…

***

Brock Holt! The less-hyped, probably less-talented version of Mookie Betts (a small, agile outfielder/infielder) hasn’t accrued the plate appearances to qualify for the leaderboards, but in 40 PAs he’s hitting .457, with a 1.113 OPS. He’s struck out as many times as he’s walked (4) and he hit this three-run shot on Friday.

Holt got two more hits on Sunday and walked three times. Could Holt’s early success be due to wild BABIP inflation? Yeah, most likely. His was .464 as of Saturday, and it certainly didn’t go down after Sunday’s game. But Holt’s profile could work in his favor, or at the very least stave off the most severe regression. As of Saturday, he had swung and missed at 2.7 percent of pitches he saw, and he didn’t have any whiffs on Sunday.

That metric is also destined for regression, because right now Holt is on pace for around the 10th-best season ever recorded, in terms of swinging-strike rate. Guys who have recorded full-season rates around two percent include Luis Castillo, Marco Scutaro and David Eckstein, against whom Holt doesn’t match to a T, but who certainly have their fair share of similarities with the former Rice Owl. Whatever happens, Holt is an invaluable utility piece for the Red Sox, especially while Shane Victorino recuperates from a strained hamstring.

***

Dallas Keuchel is pitching like the 3.24 FIP, 1.9 WARP season we saw last year isn't the best he's got. The bushy-bearded left-hander held the A’s to two hits in nine scoreless innings on Friday to put his ERA at 0.62 on the year, good for second-best in baseball. Keuchel’s success defies a number of peripherals, most notably his very pedestrian 18:11 K/BB ratio, and his 2.99 FIP is likely more indicative of his present skill than his eye-popping ERA. Heck, on Friday, Keuchel threw 64 strikes to 42 balls, which is by no means a great balance. Also, there’s the .165 BABIP. Also, the 91.7 percent of batters left on base. How lucky can one guy get?!

Well, luck isn’t the whole thing. Tony Blengino at Fangraphs wrote on Keuchel a few weeks ago, but I’ll try to sum it up: He’s as extreme a groundball pitcher as they come, and he’s continued that tendency so far, producing grounders 69.2 percent of the time in 2015. And they’re weak grounders, too, making him more resistant to the BABIP shenanigans that can befall contact-oriented guys, especially those producing a lot of grounders. As Blengino found, the average velocity of the grounders that Keuchel allowed was lower than any other qualifying arm in the American League in 2014.

Keuchel was true to form on Friday, inducing 14 groundouts to six fly outs, which was actually his worst rate of the season. That game sort of went off the rails once Keuchel left: Marwin Gonzalez doubled home a pair of runs in the top of the 10th, then Josh Reddick did the same for Oakland in the bottom of the inning. Reddick actually tried to score when the cutoff throw home got past Hank Conger, but Reddick was out by about 10 miles when Luke Gregerson got the ball back to Conger.

Houston got three runs in the top of the 11th, and while Marcus Semien’s two-run homer for Oakland made things a bit dicey in the bottom of the frame, the combined efforts of Pat Neshek, Tony Sipp and Chad Qualls closed the game out for the Astros.

The Astros hit Kendall Graveman hard on Saturday to seal the series win, and though the A’s had a two-run lead with closer Tyler Clippard on the mound in the top of the ninth on Sunday, Evan Gattis doubled Jake Marisnick and Jose Altuve home to give Houston a 7-6 victory.

Gattis’ double, which was a laser over Sam Fuld’s head in center field, came on a pitch that was higher than the crowd at a Sublime show.

Luke Gregerson got the save to give the Astros the win and the series sweep, and Houston, strangely enough, is in first by 2.5 games in the A.L. West.

Defensive play of the weekend

This is my favorite play of the year. Sorry Andrelton, Kevin and Nolan. I love the way that Gordon went into the stands because that’s where the ball was, rather than just using the seats as a crash pad. I love the way he bowls over the dude in the Konerko jersey, who sort of disappears into the void before popping into frame a few seconds later. I love how Gordon’s glove, with the ball inside, is the first sign of him we see after the catch.

This is baseball, directed by Gareth Evans.

What to Watch on Monday
Mariners wunderkind Taijuan Walker goes up against the Rangers, which is lucky for Walker, because they can’t hit, but also lucky for the Rangers, because Walker can’t pitch, at least not yet this season. The young right-hander got demolished by the A’s and Dodgers in his first two starts, giving up 14 earned runs between the two. His third start, against the Astros, was better, but Walker’s control continued to be an issue, as he walked four batters, in 5 1/3 innings. (Although he also struck out eight, so at least he had the “effective” part of “effectively wild” working for him.”) It’s pretty obvious what went wrong in that first start, at least, for Walker: His fastball averaged 94.1 mph and topped out at 95.8; his splitter averaged 88.9 mph and topped out on 90.4. Against the Astros, Walker averaged 96.7 with the fastball and topped out at 99, and while his splitter wasn’t markedly different, his cutter had more velocity and horizontal bite. So, Taijuan: Let it rip! The control will figure itself out. Maybe.

***

The previously scorching-hot Mets cooled off a bit with in their series loss to the Yankees, but they’re still 14-5 heading into a three-game set with the Marlins in Miami, who are kind of hot themselves after stymieing the Nationals for three games. New York will counter the Marlins’ Jarred Cosart with Dillon Gee, who’s definitely been the weakest link in the Mets’ otherwise very strong rotation, having allowed 21 hits in 17 2/3 innings, though he did score a mention in an Action Bronson song, so he’s got that going for him.

***

If unmitigated disasters are your thing (and really, whose aren’t they) then the Brewers are up there with Jane the Virgin as must-see television. Pretty much the only good thing in Milwaukee this season apart from the always choice fried cheese curds has been Jimmy Nelson, who gets the start against the Reds. Nelson has held opposing teams to 10 hits in 20 innings pitched, benefiting from the addition of a nifty knuckle curve, which J.P. Breen described in depth today. Will Nelson continue his dominance of the Reds, who he held to three hits in eight innings in his last start, or will he succumb to the vacuum of mediocrity and disappointment centered somewhere in Miller Park? Find out tomorrow! (Or don’t, because Corey Kluber is scheduled to be pitching an hour earlier.)

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danrnelson
4/27
"Trajectory to mediocrity" is a pretty big leap after four starts for Strasburg, unless it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

And his five whiffs per 95 pitches might be unsettling in a large sample, but he also had 11 whiffs in 95 pitches in the previous outing. We probably need to wait a while before we label anything broken with Strasburg.
Pernellius
4/28
Could be a bit of dead arm.
Cronfordox
4/28
guess we know the answer to the question about nelson's start by now.....!! wish i had known the answer before i streamed him........*crushed*
dsilvers
4/28
There is always a bit of fear when you see a guy go into the stands like Gordon did. Is he going to land on his ribs and break one, or mess up his shoulder landing on it?

On the other hand, I love to watch Gordon play- he is usually reasonably smart about it, but he plays full tilt, whether it is going into the stands, going to the wall (or into/over it), whatever it takes.

Until that play, Arenado's catch was tops on my list this year. It is early yet and we have already seen some sick defensive plays...