I’m sorry, Nats Town.

I try very hard not to blog out of emotion. There’s a lot of feeling out there–mostly on sports talk radio–and not enough thinking. If you follow me on twitter, you know that I’m pretty emotional when I watch Nats games. Lately, most of those emotions are bad. 

So I want to apologize, Nats town. I’m sorry. As winter thawed to spring, I projected the Nats for an unbelievable 98 wins and the division crown. As I write this, the Nats are 48-52, in third place behind Philadelphia, and eight games back from the division-leading Braves.

I don’t think they’re going to catch up.

When I projected the Nats to win all those games, I assumed two things: the starting lineup would be healthy, and everybody was going to perform in line with their four-year trailing averages.

By this time, my model would have expected the Nats to have scored some 448 runs. They have scored only 367 to date. The disappointments are all across the board.

Let’s look at the differences:

According to my pre-season model, Jayson Werth should have 63 wRC by now. He has accumulated only 44–a difference of 19 runs over 100 games. Given his tremendous performance since his return from the disabled list, we can safely assume that his time away accounts for the difference in runs.

Injury also robbed the Nats of nearly a month of Bryce Harper’s services. By now, according to my model, he should have accounted for 59 wRC. He has accumulated only 42: a difference of 17 runs.

More perplexing is the offensive decline of Denard Span. According to my model, he should have accounted for 54 wRC by now; he only has 40, a difference of 14 runs. Every time I see him, he seems to ground out sharply to second base–a gut feeling reinforced by the fact that his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) stands at .300, down from his career BABIP of .315. Perhaps he was due for a regression in BABIP eventually? I don’t know.

The single biggest offensive failure of the Nats in the first 100 games of the 2013 season was their stubborn insistence on Danny Espinosa. We now know that Espinosa was suffering through a number of injuries that sapped him of power–his ISO (Isolated power) numbers dropped from a career .165 to .114 this year. The power outage, coupled with his high strikeout rate (28.1% this year, slightly up from his career K% of 27.1%), rendered him an offensive black hole and an automatic “out” for opposing pitchers. Had Espinosa been at least as healthy as he was in 2011 and 2012, my model expected him to have accumulated 42 wRC by now. He accumulated 4. That’s a difference of 38 runs.

Put another way: if Danny Espinosa had been as I expected him to be this year, and if the Nats had allowed exactly as many runs as they have to this point (392 runs), the Nats would be five wins better.

Put yet one more way: Danny Espinosa was so bad compared to how I projected him that the shortfall that he created in my projections is greater than the shortfall created by the injuries to Harper and Werth combined.

Espinosa’s offensive failings, we can say, helped put the Nats in a very deep hole–one that they might not manage to climb out of. Every team struggles. Nobody in the NL East seems to be winning as I write this. And yet, the Nats have fallen into third place because of their lousy start.

This wasn’t Rick Eckstein’s fault, or Davey Johnson’s, or, really Danny Espinosa’s fault. This was General Manager Mike Rizzo’s fault. His “scout’s eye” might have told him something was wrong with Espinosa. The power outage was, in hindsight, evident from the beginning and showed no sign of abating. He knew that Espinosa had at least two injuries that were likely causing his offensive struggles. And yet, for months, Rizzo did nothing, despite the fact that Espinosa had a minor-league option left.

Instead, we kept telling ourselves that it was early, that things were going to come around. For some things did come around–notably Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos (the latter of which, I should add, is 10 wRC better than my model had him at this point of the year, despite having played a fraction of the time due to an extended DL stint). But for Espinosa, it never did.

I wish I could offer some hope. I wish I could tell you that, no, the Nats offense had every chance of breaking out. I can’t. This is what we’ve got to look forward to.

I’m sorry, everybody. I’m really, really sorry.

Bryce Harper, Cricketer

My good friend Stu over at How Do I Baseball called attention to Bryce Harper’s extreme front-foot batting mechanics in this post today. Go over and read it.

The upshot: “orthodox” baseball batting technique will tell you that Harper, by taking his back foot off the ground, is somehow over-committing and giving up power. As Dave Nichols said:

But, as Stu pointed out, the extreme front-foot batting mechanics aren’t unheard of. Frank Thomas did the same thing from the right handed batter’s box–and nobody ever said The Big Hurt wasn’t a good power hitter.

After comparing Harper to Frank Thomas, Stu went on to wonder:

It will be interesting to see how far Harper can take his unorthodox hitting mechanics, and how much success can be obtained with them. While many would believe that this front foot approach would make a hitter susceptible to offspeed pitches, if Harper’s two HR’s off of Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco are any indication- both were hit off of offspeed offerings – he has made the proper adjustments to make him fall victim to offspeed and breaking pitches less frequently in 2013 than he did in 2012, using these hitting mechanics.

What struck me, when looking at Harper’s home runs on Monday, was how familiar they seemed–not to baseball players and fans, but to devotees of the other great ball-and-bat sport on this planet: Cricket. To answer Stu’s question directly, the body of cricket scholarship suggests that Harper can be very successful indeed with his “unorthodox” mechanics–because, at least as they presented themselves on Monday, they were perfectly orthodox cricket batting mechanics.

Such extreme front-foot batting technique isn’t unusual in cricket–in fact, it’s extremely orthodox. Have a look at the BBC’s cricket skills pages, and you’ll see this batting technique:

The straight drive in cricket, as played by a right-handed batsman. Notice: the right (rear) foot is practically off the ground, just like Harper batting

This shot is the straight drive. Now let’s look at Harper’s home run swing [UPDATE: I erroneously ID'd the following photo as having been from Monday. Analysis still holds, but if anyone has a photo of Harper's HR swings from Monday, post it in the comments]:

Harper’s home run stroke, shamelessly ganked from Stu’s post at HDIB. Notice the similarity to the cricket shot?

Harper’s head is over the front knee–aided by the extreme unweighting of his back foot. As England Test Captain Michael Vaughn explains here:

The most important thing for me is to get your head over [your] front leg…now if your head stays mid-centre, the ball has to go square of the wicket.

[In baseball terms: if you're trying to hit off the front foot, but try to keep your head back, the ball will be pulled foul on your pull side]. Vaughn goes on to explain the role of the back foot in maintaining proper head/body alignment: unweighting the back leg forces the head to go forward naturally, putting the head over the front leg and enabling the player to hit, as we would say in baseball, a line drive only moderately to his pull side.

Notice also that Harper’s bat is surprisingly vertical when he makes contact with the ball–which recalls the orthodox cricketing advice to “show the [bat] maker’s name” as one drives through the ball.

Now, not every shot in cricket is played this way. One of the basic skills of a cricket batsman is selecting which shot to play depending on the delivery of the ball. Again, the BBC’s cricket skill pages demonstrate:

How to pick which shot to play in cricket. We are interested in the drive shots: the “off drive,” “straight drive,” and “on drive.” These are played off the front foot.

Now let’s reverse-engineer Harper’s home run swings in a cricket context. Here’s Harper’s Opening Day spray chart, from TexasLeaguers:

Both home runs land in right-center field. In cricketing terms, they would be “on drives”–driven on the batters’ side. Now, orthodox cricket shot selection doctrine says:

If you get a half volley on leg stump, you hit it back towards mid on with the full face of the bat.

Translated to baseball terms: if you get a ball on the inner third of home plate [and low: cricket balls are bouncing up from the ground], drive it to right-center field [if you, like Harper, are left-handed].

So, where were those pitches that Harper hit to right center for home runs?

Here’s the first one, a home run in the first inning: it’s number 2, obviously:

Hey, would you look at that. It’s low and on the inside third of the plate. A cricketer sees a half-volley on leg stump! How about the second one?

It’s the one marked “in play (runs),” obviously. And again, it’s on the inner third, and low. Yup, another half-volley on leg stump.

Bryce Harper’s front foot hitting mechanics may look strange to baseball fans, but he is behaving exactly like a well-taught cricket batsman would behave when confronted with balls located in that location. He judged the position of the delivery of the ball well. He selected the shot he wanted to play (the drive off the front foot). He executed his plan, and did it powerfully, scoring runs for his team in the process.

We have no evidence that Harper ever played any cricket at all. But, at least when confronted with the ball on the inside third of the plate and low, Harper seems to have solved that particular batting problem in exactly the same way that generations of cricket batsmen before him have solved it. How classic is Harper’s approach? Here’s the great Australian cricketer Don Bradman [the Ted Williams of Cricket, who actually met Babe Ruth oncedemonstrating the “orthodox” shots for British newsreels in 1930. Look at how powerfully he is able to drive the ball off his front foot at 2:36 or so. Look again as Bradman demonstrates the drive shots off the front foot, starting at 3:36. See how little weight he puts on his back foot?

And, if you don’t think this shot can be played for any power at all, here’s a supercut of the great West Indian batsman Sir Viv Richards absolutely killing a lot of cricket balls--many of the driven off the front foot in exactly the same way that Harper hits baseballs.

This, to me, is a fascinating case of the convergent evolution of two closely-related bat-and-ball games, baseball and cricket.

This has implications for the way baseball players look at batting mechanics and batting technique. There has been a huge body of scholarship built up around cricket batting over the years, and nobody has yet seen fit to study it and see what insights might be useful to baseball players. Most interestingly, there seems to be at least some movement to use quantitative optimization models to teach batsmen to get the bat to the ball as quickly as possible. I am not aware of any similar work being done in baseball–and it might not be a bad idea for a progressive baseball organization to start investigating this sort of thing.

Projecting the 2013 Nationals: Extra Innings

When I projected that the 2013 Nats were going to win 94 games, I did so with a bit of trepidation. Not only did this mean that I was projecting a performance so good that it would have been literally unbelievable only a few years before, but because I have certain doubts about the construction of my model.

As you might have gathered from the title of this post, I think my model has been systematically under-counting playing time for pitchers and hitters. In the spirit of Top of the Inning/Bottom of the Inning nature of the Natstradamus projections, I’ll deal with the pitching issues first, and then the batting problems in the bottom of the inning.

EDIT: Astute readers noted that I should have reduced relief pitcher innings by as much as I increased starting pitching innings. I have amended the relevant analysis. This results in a 98-win total. 

Executive Summary for the TL;DR Crowd: Our earlier projection wasn’t as accurate as it should have been in counting playing time: A slight adjustment in innings pitched for starters–with a corresponding reduction in relief pitching innings– yielded a decrease in runs scored by 2—but a better/more nuanced look at plate appearances by the starting line-up yielded an astonishing increase in runs scored, from 692 to 725. This revises our win projection for the 2013 Nats to 98 wins.

Innings, Limits, and Other Stuff to Tear Your Hair Out With

First, pitching. If you look back at the projected innings pitched column in my pitching runs allowed projections, you will notice that I assume that pitchers in the starting rotation will pitch about 190 innings each, with Strasburg pitching only 180. How does that stack up with reality?

  • Gio Gonzalez (199.1 IP);
  • Jordan Zimmermann (195.2 IP)
  • Edwin Jackson (189.2 IP).

Looking at things like this, it’s starting to look like our 180-inning starting rotation baseline is off by a little bit. Is it really, though? None of the top three for the Braves (Minor, Hudson, Hanson) pitched over 180 innings last year. The Phillies had Hamels (215.1) and Lee (211.0), then a sharp drop-off (injuries). The Mets had Dickey (232.2) and Niese (190.1), and then a precipitous dropoff to Santana (117.0).

Things get a bit better when we look at the Reds, whose top five were remarkably consistent as far as innings, with Cueto (217), Latos (209.1), Bailey (208), Arroyo (202) , and Leake (179).  Likewise, the Giants got a lot of innings out of their starters, with Cain (219.1), Bumgarner (208.1), Vogelsong (189.2), Lincecum (186), and Zito (184.1).

In fact, it’s the rare National League team that gets more than 180 innings from all of its top five starters–only the Giants managed this in 2012, and we all know how that worked out for them, right?

Anyway, returning to our projections: is there a better way we can match the innings expectations for Nationals starting pitchers? Maybe we can. During the height of the Strasburg Shutdown hysteria last year, I wrote that the organization has a general innings-limiting principle:

The Nats have a policy–and a remarkably enlightened one, at that–of limiting starting-pitcher workloads to 120% of the innings a pitcher had pitched the previous year, wherever those innings happened (whether as an amateur, the minor leagues, or the majors). For pitchers returning from major injuries, the innings limit seems to be about 120% of the pitcher’s previous single-season career high total innings pitched.

The conventional wisdom is that this limit may not apply to pitchers like Gio Gonzalez (age 27) and Dan Haren (age 32). Jordan Zimmermann (age 26) might have arguably “aged out” of this system, too, since he pitched 195.2 innings last year. Detwiler (age 26) might have aged out, as well, but last year’s 164.1 IP represented his professional maximum, so let’s assume we’re stretching him out more carefully and put him on the limit. Strasburg (age 24), it should go without saying, is probably under this silent limit as well.

Applying those limits, and looking at last year’s performances, we get the following:

  • Stephen Strasburg. 120% of last year’s innings for Strasburg works out to 190.2 innings for Strasburg. Plugging that into our model, that works out to 54.23 runs allowed, an increase of 3.03 runs.
  • Jordan Zimmermann. JZ pitched 195.2 innings. It would be foolish to assume he would pitch any more. Let’s assume he pitches 195 innings, then. That works out to 80.38 runs allowed, an increase of 2.06 runs.
  • Gio Gonzalez. 199 innings is a lot, but he pitched over 200 innings in the two preceding years, so I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to give Gio 200 innings in 2013. Ten more innings of Gio than in our initial model yields 84.67 runs, an increase of 4.24 runs.
  • Ross Detwiler. Detwiler’s 151 innings in 2012 was a career high for him. Increasing that by 120% yields 181 innings. Fortunately, the old model pegged him at 180 innings to begin with. We’ll leave well enough alone, then.
  • Dan Haren. Haren’s a little harder to judge. He only pitched 176.2 innings in 2012, but before his back got balky, he pitched well in excess of 200 innings for seven consecutive seasons. Various projections have him pitching as many as 218 innings and as few as 170. Let’s say he recovers form and pitches 190 innings–which is what we had in the original model. Great.

After adjusting for an increase in innings pitched, we see that the Nats give up a few more runs– 9.33 runs. That’s enough to cost them one full game in the Natstradamus projection–so that leaves them with 93 wins, instead.

Not so fast. You will notice that we’ve increased Gio’s innings by 10, Strasburg’s innings by 10, and Zimmermann’s innings by 5. That means we need to reduce relief pitcher innings accordingly. If we reduce Craig Stammen’s 110 innings to 95 innings (-6.6 runs allowed) and Zach Duke’s innings from 90 to 80 (-4.8 runs allowed), we actually end up saving about 2 runs. That keeps us steady at 94 wins for now. But how about the hitting?

Batters: Up.

The crude assumption built into the model was that every one of the starting position players got 600 plate appearances each. This is, of course, false. The ever-astute David Huzzard reminded me that the number of plate appearances varies with position in the batting order. Fortunately, Baseball Reference lets us look at exactly how many plate appearances, on average, each batting order position got in the National League in 2012. As you can see, the lead-off batter gets, on average 750 plate appearances–125% more than our model assumed! What does it look like?

Split Pa
Batting 1st 750
Batting 2nd 732
Batting 3rd 716
Batting 4th 699
Batting 5th 684
Batting 6th 666
Batting 7th 647
Batting 8th 625
Batting 9th 606
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/18/2013.

In fact, we see that in the NL, the only batting average position that gets even close to 600 plate appearances is the number 9 batter–which is usually the pitcher’s spot! Safe to say, then, that the model is broken as far as runs scored. To fix it, we need to figure out what the batting order is going to be and award plate appearances in proportion to that player’s spot in the batting order. To keep things consistent with our defensive statistics, we’ll assume that each “every day” position player appears in 150 games. With that in mind, let’s assign some plate appearances to a hypothetical order:

Player PA
Denard Span 695
Jayson Werth 678
Bryce Harper 663
Adam LaRoche 647
Ryan Zimmerman 633
Ian Desmond 617
Danny Espinosa 599
Wilson Ramos/Kurt Suzuki 579
Pitchers 561

That leaves us with some 453 plate appearances to distribute among the other bench players. Let’s assume, crudely, that we distribute them evenly among Tracy, Moore, Lombardozzi, and Bernadina, giving them 113 plate appearances each. Let’s also further assume that the “Pitchers” spots are evenly distributed among all the starting pitchers, giving each of the starting five 112 plate appearances each.

The results are shocking:

Player Name 4-year total PA 4-year total wRC 4-yr moving avg wRC/PA Projected PA Projected wRC Team Total wRC
Jayson Werth 2803 425 0.151623260792009 678 102.80
Ryan Zimmerman 2844 426 0.149789029535865 633 94.82
Tyler Moore 171 26 0.152046783625731 113 17.18
Bryce Harper 597 86 0.144053601340034 663 95.51
Adam LaRoche 2622 361 0.13768115942029 647 89.08
Denard Span 2671 334 0.125046798951703 695 86.91
Wilson Ramos 613 76 0.123980424143556 290 35.95
Ian Desmond 1849 214 0.115738236884803 617 71.41
Danny Espinosa 1428 164 0.11484593837535 599 68.79
Roger Bernadina 1150 121 0.105217391304348 113 11.89
Chad Tracy 845 85 0.100591715976331 113 11.37
Kurt Suzuki 2703 274 0.101368849426563 290 29.40
Steve Lombardozzi 448 42 0.09375 113 10.59
Stephen Strasburg 83 3 0.036144578313253 112 4.05
Drew Storen 2 0 0 0 0.00
Dan Haren 240 19 0.079166666666667 112 8.87
Craig Stammen 90 3 0.033333333333333 30 1.00
Jordan Zimmermann 166 4 0.024096385542169 112 2.70
Zach Duke 226 1 0.004424778761062 0.00
Tyler Clippard 14 0 0 0 0.00
Gio Gonzalez 84 -5 -0.05952380952381 112 -6.67
Ross Detwiler 97 -9 -0.092783505154639 112 -10.39
Ryan Mattheus 1 0 0 0 0.00
Rafael Soriano 0 0 0 0 0.00
Bill Bray 0 0 0 0 0.00
725.252999244993

That’s a huge jump in runs scored, from 692 up to 725!

Putting it Together

Having adjusted our playing-time expectations somewhat, our revised projection has the 2013 Nats allowing 600 runs, while scoring 725 runs. Running that through the Pythagorean Win Expectation Formula gives us a revised win projection for the 2013 season of 98 wins, or four more than we had initially projected. The vast undercount of offensive plate appearances made a huge difference in terms of runs scored, and added two whole wins. The increase in starting pitching at the expense of middle relief yields two more wins.

There are a few caveats, of course. Naturally, this all assumes that every player involved will stay healthy all year, and that they all perform according to their four-year trailing average performances. A realignment of the batting order will affect runs scored in very real ways: this is particularly true in the case of Bryce Harper. The current line up puts two left-handed power hitters, Harper and LaRoche, back-to-back, which may be suboptimal in matchup situations. But moving Harper down in the order will deprive him of plate appearances and run-creating chances.

I have goosebumps just thinking about this.

Projecting the 2013 Nationals, Part 3: Offense

Now we come to the fun part of the inning: how many runs does the home team score? The model projects that the 2013 Nationals will score 693 runs.

Assuming that an everyday position player will get about 600 plate appearances, and assuming that the plate appearances of the two catchers, Suzuki and Ramos, are divided evenly, we end up with a table that looks something like this:

               
  Player Name 4-year total PA 4-year total wRC 4-yr moving avg wRC/PA Projected PA Projected wRC Team Total wRC
Jayson Werth 2803 425 0.151623260792009 600 90.97
Ryan Zimmerman 2844 426 0.149789029535865 600 89.87
Tyler Moore 171 26 0.152046783625731 150 22.81
Bryce Harper 597 86 0.144053601340034 600 86.43
Adam LaRoche 2622 361 0.13768115942029 600 82.61
Denard Span 2671 334 0.125046798951703 600 75.03
Wilson Ramos 613 76 0.123980424143556 300 37.19
Ian Desmond 1849 214 0.115738236884803 600 69.44
Danny Espinosa 1428 164 0.11484593837535 600 68.91
Roger Bernadina 1150 121 0.105217391304348 150 15.78
Chad Tracy 845 85 0.100591715976331 100 10.06
Kurt Suzuki 2703 274 0.101368849426563 300 30.41
Steve Lombardozzi 448 42 0.09375 150 14.06
Stephen Strasburg 83 3 0.036144578313253 150 5.42
Drew Storen 2 0 0 0 0.00
Dan Haren 240 19 0.079166666666667 150 11.88
Craig Stammen 90 3 0.033333333333333 30 1.00
Jordan Zimmermann 166 4 0.024096385542169 150 3.61
Zach Duke 226 1 0.004424778761062 30 0.13
Tyler Clippard 14 0 0 0 0.00
Gio Gonzalez 84 -5 -0.05952380952381 150 -8.93
Ross Detwiler 97 -9 -0.092783505154639 150 -13.92
Ryan Mattheus 1 0 0 0 0.00
Rafael Soriano 0 0 0 0 0.00
Bill Bray 0 0 0 0 0.00
692.7806858275

As excited as we’ll all be to follow Bryce Harper in his quest to beat Mike Trout’s insane age-20 season, it’s instructive to look at this table. Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are projected to get 91 and 90 wRC respectively. Harper is expected to do great things–86 wRC–but it’s worth noting just how much a healthy Werth and Zimmerman mean to the Nationals line-up.

Notice also that the line-up is remarkably deep. Let’s look at it from the point of view of a possible batting order:

  1. Denard Span, wRC 75.03
  2. Jayson Werth, wRC 90.97
  3. Bryce Harper, wRC 86.43
  4. Adam LaRoche, wRC 82.61
  5. Ryan Zimmerman, wRC 89.87
  6. Ian Desmond, wRC 69.44
  7. Danny Espinosa, wRC 68.91
  8. Wilson Ramos, wRC 37.19; plus Kurt Suzuki, wRC 30.41

Those first five batters, however you order them, are pretty impressive. That should make for a much deeper line-up than we’re used to seeing here in DC.

So, what does this all mean? Tune in next time as we discuss how this all fits together in Part 4.

Corey Brown: The Future at Center Field?

As I was getting myself psyched up for tonight’s Nats game against the Phils, this tweet caught my eye:

Translated:
Corey Brown has looked like Mike Trout in the minor leagues. He’s a left-handed batter. Looks like he’ll play winter ball. Where?

Whoa. Wait. Corey Brown? Corey Brown? I mean, I liked what I saw in a couple of brief appearances with the big league club, and I was dimly aware that he was tearing up the Nats minor league system, but nobody had ever compared him to Mike Trout.

I couldn’t let a statement like that go unexamined. And, although the comparison is inapt, a quick look at the numbers suggests that maybe, just maybe Corey Brown is the Nats’ Center Fielder of the Future.

In 3 seasons (and 260 games!) at AAA (one at Sacramento, two at Syracuse)Corey Brown’s slash line is .255/.340/.463 over 1,036 plate appearances.

Mike Trout’s rise was so meteoric he spent only 20 games in AAA, posting a .403/.467/.623 slash line over a paltry 93 plate appearances. Advantage to Trout–but over a miniscule sample size.

How about their AA performances? Over 156 games and 667 plate appearances in AA, Brown posted a .298/.397.496 slash. Trout spent 91 games and 412 plate appearances at AA, posting a .326/.414/.544 slash line.

But look at those slash lines again. If we subtract the batting average from slugging percentage, we reach Isolated Power, a measure of raw power (since we throw out all the lousy singles). The gap narrows significantly: Corey Brown posts an ISO of .208 in AAA and .198 in AA, while Mike Trout posts an ISO of .220 in AAA and .218 in AA.

The difference seems to be in their strikeout rates. Trout doesn’t strike out a lot: 18.4% in AA, 17.2% in AAA, and 19.9% in his time in the big leagues so far. By contrast, Brown struck out 24.4% of the time in AA, 25.7% in AAA (We’ll throw out his big league appearances for now, since the sample size is so small).

In AAA, Brown walks 9.7% of the time and a respactable BB/K ratio of .383. This compares well with Trout’s AAA walk rate of 11.8%, but Trout trounces Brown in BB/K at .690.

Still, Brown has managed to get on base at a .340 clip in AAA. If he were to get on base at that clip in the big leagues, he would be a viable choice in the lead-off spot for the Nats. That would make him better at getting on base than any of the current Nats’ lead-off hitters.

What does all of this add up to? I guess you might say that Corey Brown is a (very) poor man’s Mike Trout–an outfielder who bats for a lot of power and gets on base at a respectable clip.

But the most important thought to carry with you into September’s roster expansion and spring training 2013 is this: Assuming Brown’s plate discipline doesn’t deteriorate, he might be the center fielder and lead-off hitter we’ve been waiting for all these years.

Pitchers & Catchers Report!

Nats pitchers and catchers officially report to Viera today!

Of course, many of their teammates have already been in Viera for quite some time, getting extra work in before the official start to spring training.

Notably, however, a few Nats have been doing a lot more with their winter vacations than that. Henry Rodriguez, along with his fellow Venezuelans Jesús Flores and Wilson Ramos, spent the winter playing in the Venezuelan League. However many off-season workouts you can do, I imagine it’s very different to be able to work on your skills in a situation where real games are on the line, in front of stadiums packed with thousands of adoring fans.

While beat writers will be busy asking other ballplayers what they did on their winter vacation–and while those other ballplayers will reply with endless variations on “I worked really hard; I’m in the best shape of my life now,” the Nationals’ three Venezuelan ballplayers can get on with their business and let their records speak for themselves. Well, what do those records say?

First, a note about the Venezuelan League season. There is a 63-game regular season, followed by a 16-game round-robin “semifinal” that determines the two teams that face each other in the final championship series. I’m only looking at regular-season statistics here. After all, that’s all I look at when I look at a player’s MLB statistics. The Round-robin and championship series phases are “post-season,” and so won’t be counted. Besides,as I said yesterday, I’m lazy. Getting proper offensive statistics would require more data entry than I have time or inclination to do.

Henry Rodriguez: Tan Capaz de Ser Feo como Fenómeno

A few days ago, I tweeted that Henry Rodriguez was going to be someone I’ll be watching carefully over the course of the 2012 season. In his time with the Nats so far, he has shown himself capable of unbelievable feats of relief pitching dominance. But to say he had some issues getting his considerable power under control might be something of an understatement:

According to SB Nation, the 10th-worst Pitch of 2011. I still cringe just thinking about this.

The Hot Rod’s 2011 season with the Nationals split the difference between those two extremes. In 59 appearances and 65.2 innings pitched, the Hot Rod recorded an ERA of 3.56, a FIP of 3.24, and a WHIP of 1.51. On average, in any given nine-inning stretch, you could have expected him to strike out 9.59 batters, and walk 6.17 of them–and give up a measly 0.14 home runs.

How did he do in Venezuela this winter? In 23 appearances and 23.2 innings pitched, he recorded an ERA of 3.80, a FIP of 3.88, and a WHIP of 1.39. On average, in any given nine-inning stretch, you could have expected him to strike out 9.39 batters, walk 6.46, and give up 0.38 home runs.

The one thing that kills Rodriguez is his walks. His walk rate crept up during the 2011 Venezuelan league regular season, and that’s not something Nats fans wanted to see. The 1.39 WHIP is lower than his 2011 MLB WHIP of 1.51, despite an increase in walk rate and decrease in strikeout rate, so it looks like Venezuelan-league batters had a harder time reaching base safely after making contact. I can’t verify this without better information, but I’m betting the sheer speed of his pitches leaves hitters making weak, late contact–they must not have been catching up to the fastball. Of course, when they do time him, they can do serious damage. Witness the increase in home run rates (although I wonder if that’s just bad luck, rather than bad pitching).

In many ways, the 2011 Venezuelan regular season has been a disappointment for Hot Rod, because in the 2010 Venezuelan league regular season, he put up dominant numbers. The numbers speak for themselves. In 21.1 IP over 18 appearances, Hot Rod posted absolutely Strasburg-like stats: 1.69 ERA, 1.84 FIP, 0.94 WHIP. Strikeouts per 9 innings? 14.00. And, most importantly of all: 3.80 walks per 9 innings. Oh, and zero home runs.

When Henry Rodriguez is locked-in, as he was in Venezuela in 2010, he’s one of the most fearsome relievers in the game, capable of totally destroying opposing batting. But when he’s not locked-in, he puts up performances that are, well, not nearly so dominant. We saw that in DC all last summer, and fans in Venezuela saw it this winter. It will be interesting to see whether Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty can work with Henry to get his fearsome power under control. If the 2010 Venezuelan League model of the Hot Rod rolls out of the bullpen for the 2012 Nats, the National League is in for a nasty surprise. But if the 2011 Hot Rod coughs and sputters to life, fans seated behind home plate should, for their safety, carefully inspect the netting, and maybe consider buying a half-smoke while Henry goes to work.

Ramos y Flores

Let’s move on to the Nats’ two botanically-surnamed catchers. In Venezuela this winter, one of them batted .332/.369/.516, with 16 doubles and 8 home runs, posting a wRC of 27. The other batted .216/.274/.273, with 2 doubles and 1 home run, with a wRC of 11. Which is which?

If you guessed that the flourishing catcher was Jesús Flores, you are right. Flores didn’t see much action with the Nats in 2011, and we had pretty much forgotten about him in DC after he was hurt in 2009. The last good look we’d gotten at Flores was in 2008, when he batted .256/.296/.402 with 18 doubles, a triple, and 8 home runs. If his Venezuelan league offensive figures are any indication of his readiness for the 2012 MLB season, I think the Nats can expect very good things from Flores. If Flores bats in 2012 the way that he did in Venezuela, we can project him to have a wRC of 34 in 2012–4 more runs than we would have expected from his recent past.

Ramos’s Venezuelan season got off to the worst possible start–he was kidnapped at gunpoint by masked men, and the freed in what was supposed to have been a fierce gunfight. Only he can know how he was affected, but his offensive production, at first glance, looks to have dropped off considerably. If Ramos bats as well in 2012 for the Nats as he did in Venezuela, I’d project him to post a wRC of 46–3 runs fewer than I have him projected this year.

But look again. During the 2010 Venezuelan season, he batted .322/.390/.567 with 17 doubles and 9 home runs, posting a wRC of 23. But, crucially, Ramos got 200 plate appearances in 2010, as opposed to only 95 in 2011. If we give him 200 plate appearances in 2011, he ends up with a wRC of… yup, 23!

How can that be? My guess: one of the components of wRC is the league average wOBA. In 2010, when Ramos put up the gaudy Venezuelan numbers, The league average wOBA was .283. In 2011, that average dropped to .275. Perhaps Ramos’s numbers (and scaled numbers) are down because the whole league’s numbers are down. Perhaps Venezuelan league pitching improved as a whole. Either way, Nats fans can be comforted by the fact that, even after everything that’s happened to him, Wilson Ramos is the same ballplayer he’s always been.

What Nats fans should look forward to this spring, however, is an emerging Catcher Controversy. Flores did very well with the Navegantes de Magallanes–look at those offensive stats! If Flores can continue to build on his Venezuelan League successes while in the Grapefruit League this spring, we might find that it is Flores, not Ramos, who ends up as the Nats’ opening-day catcher.