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.

Rendon doesn’t play second base yet

This is, of course, an obvious statement. The Nats third-base prospect, currently with AA Harrisburg, doesn’t play second base yet. He didn’t play second base as a collegiate ballplayer at Rice. And, although the Nats intend to have him take reps at second base and shortstop, that’s not the same as playing second base.

Why am I wasting your time repeating the obvious?

Because the Nats played awful infield defense in this weekend’s series with the Reds. Ian Desmond was charged with a staggering six errors. Chad Tracy had another.

The vagaries of the rulebook meant that Danny Espinosa escaped without an error–but is still largely responsible for the margin of defeat in Sunday’s loss, when, in the sixth inning, he chose to launch a wayward throw that failed to get the runner coming home. A run scored, leaving two runners on with no outs recorded–both of whom subsequently scored, too. That goes as a fielder’s choice in the scorebook, and it’s a terrible choice, but it’s not an error.

All these misadventures, and more, were enough to get the “CALL UP RENDON NOW” brigade active on twitter.

To whom I have this to say: you mean to tell me that, to fix a series where the main problem was lousy infield defense, you want to call up a young player with extremely limited experience playing precisely the infield positions (shortstop, second base) were all the bad defense was happening?

Wait, what?

Anthony Rendon is a talented player, and, if reports are to believed, a fine third baseman. He may yet become a second baseman or a shortstop. He is not yet that–and, until he is, you’ve got to hope that the current middle infield of Desmond and Espinosa shrug off this weekend’s performance and regain their usual defensive form.

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.

Projecting the 2013 Nationals, Part 2: Pitching and Defense

In Part 1, we announced the starting line-up. Let’s see how many runs the pitching allows in 2013. My model conservatively estimates that in 2013, Nats pitching will account for 609 runs scored against the Nats, but defense will “save” 18 runs. Thus, the model conservatively predicts that 591 runs will be scored against the 2013 Nationals.

Here’s the table for pitching:

Pitcher Name Projected IP 4-Yr Moving Avg xFIP Projected Runs Allowed TOTAL RUNS ALLOWED
Stephen Strasburg 180 2.56 51.20
Gio Gonzalez 190 3.81 80.43
Jordan Zimmermann 190 3.71 78.32
Ross Detwiler 180 4.44 88.80
Dan Haren 190 3.37 71.14
Rafael Soriano 70 3.6 28.00
Drew Storen 70 3.46 26.91
Tyler Clippard 70 3.54 27.53
Ryan Mattheus 70 4.48 34.84
Craig Stammen 110 3.96 48.40
Zach Duke 90 4.34 43.40
Bill Bray 65 4.19 30.26 609.25

You will notice that my initial guesses for innings pitched for starting pitchers are quite low. We’ll tweak those later, but for now, I’m going to assume that these are good enough to go by.

A similar table of the defensive statistics would be tedious to recount, so let me sum it up with a few general notes:

  • According to these projections, the three biggest defensive assets on the 2013 Nationals are Ryan Zimmerman, Denard Span, and Danny Espinosa.
  • Ryan Zimmerman should save 7.6 runs–best on the team. The high number of defensive runs saved here underscores just how important it is for the Nats to keep him healthy.
  • Danny Espinosa has been the target of a lot of fan frustration lately, especially given his struggles at the plate. His defense, however, is outstanding. The model projects that he will save 5.2 runs.
  • The newest addition to the Nats defense, center fielder (and noted icthyophobe) Denard Span, is projected to save 4.6 runs. Bryce Harper had a UZR of 9.7 as a center fielder last year, so just looking at that, you might think that Span is a lousy center fielder compared to Harper. You’d be wrong. UZR is notoriously unstable–we need at least 3 years of data to get a good sample. Span actually posted a UZR of 9.0 as a center fielder for the Twins in 2011; likewise, as Twins CF in 2012, he posted a UZR of 8.5. As you can see, the projection for Span seems very conservative–but it takes into account some bad defensive years for Span (2008 and 2009). I would expect Span actually to outperform this projection.

Right, that wraps up the top of the inning. Tune in to Part 3, where we’ll discuss how the offense looks.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

The Nats won Game 1 of their NLDS series against the Cardinals, 3 runs to 2, on a dramatic two-out RBI single by rookie Tyler Moore. But let’s rewind and remember how they got there.

Michael Morse reached on an error. Ian Desmond singled, putting runners on first and second and nobody out.

Danny Espinosa then, inexplicably, bunted. Many of us in Nats town scratched our heads (which were already raw from pulling our hair out in clumps all game). Why the hell would Espinosa bunt? On the radio, Slowes and Jaegler wondered if perhaps Morse had missed a sign–was that a safety squeeze? A suicide squeeze? What the hell was going on?

After the game, Davey Johnson said he had called for a straight sacrifice bunt, figuring it was the best way to win. (Upon hearing this, I’m sure that Bob Brenly, giving small-ball analysis for the TBS television feed, achieved orgasm).

But did it really give the Nats a better chance to win? Let’s look at the numbers. Before the sacrifice bunt, the situation was runners on first and second, nobody out. Looking that situation up in our handy run expectancy matrix , we see that in that situation, the Nats had a run expectancy of 1.556. That is: when you look at all the times that situation has occurred in baseball between 1993 and 2010, the team in that situation scored, on average, 1.556 runs.

After the sacrifice bunt, the situation was runners on second and third, with one out. That drops the Run Expectancy slightly, to 1.447. So, did the sacrifice give the Nats a better chance to win? Strictly speaking, no. But the drop in run expectancy isn’t big enough, really, to get all that upset about it–especially if all you’re trying to do is get one run over and tie the ball game.

Where things really got dicey was after the Kurt Suzuki strikeout. That made it two outs, runners on second and third: a run expectancy of 0.626–a huge drop from 1.447!

That puts Tyler Moore’s pinch-hit RBI single into perspective. When we watched it, it felt deleriously unexpected–that’s because it was.

Incidentally, I wish TV broadcasters kept a little base/out state run expectancy figure off in one corner of their broadcast. It would be an excellent bit of additional information.

The Cone of Silence Descends

In what Mark Zuckerman called “the biggest news of Nats training camp so far,” Bryce Harper has deleted his Twitter account.

I don’t need to go over all the ridiculous things Harper has tweeted over the past year.other bloggers have done a better job of that.

But what interests me most is the apparent cone of silence that has descended over Nats players’ twitter accounts over the past week. At about the time that Nats players attended a media meeting where Davey Johnson issued some stern warnings about Facebook and “Tweeter” and “a whole bunch of web sites”, Nats player twitter accounts lit up with the same message:

Follow @NationalsPR for a behind-the-scenes look at the Nationals and Spring Training 2012!

Who carried these robo-tweets? Well, Stephen Strasburg, Craig Stammen, Tyler Clippard, and Edwin Jackson reproduced it verbatim. Closer Drew Storen varied the wording a bit. This blogger is aware of only two Nats players in major league camp in Viera who seemed to evade this apparent pronouncement from Nationals PR: Danny Espinosa, and Jesús Flores. I wonder if these two escaped because of Nats PR’s oversight, though. Espinosa hasn’t tweeted since September. Flores’s background image still shows him in his Navegantes del Magallanes uniform–maybe the PR hacks don’t read enough Spanish to know that Flores is active on Tweeter.

Has there been a team-wide social-media blackout? Likely not. Flores, Storen, and Jackson continue to be their gregarious selves on Twitter. But the sudden intrusion of the team’s PR apparatus on player Twitter accounts seems to point to a Nationals organization that is much more interested in the careful management of its public image.

Perhaps this is what the League and the Union meant when they agreed that “all players would be subject to a social media policy.” The summary of the 2011 Collective Bargaining agreement is very terse on the subject, acknowledging only that such a term exists, but not fleshing out any of the regulations to which players would be subjected.

For as much as Harper’s tweets and his front-running ways may have annoyed me, personally, it’s tough for me to see this as anything other than a warning to other players: tone it down before the social-media rules let us force you to tone it down. Players–and fans and writers–will take notice.

Reason, Passion–and Reasonable Expectations

If you read Spanish at all, read this post over at Línea de Fair. It discusses baseball, the philosophy of science, semiotics, Sabermetrics, and the experience of being a fan all in a single post. One paragraph in particular caught my attention (translation is mine):

The baseball fan and the baseball analyst–sometimes the roles are confused, but both are delighted to see a good ballgame–try to explain the logic of the game and to predict what might happen next in the same way that man used to try to find the reason why the sun rose every day, or why the rain fell. The dynamism and insight of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR, by its English initials) has generated new explanations, very much in vogue these days, which have been the origin of a feverish debate similar to that between the Apollonians and the Dionysiacs….

The author points to a divide in the philosophy of science between those who believe that reality can be described by the application of reason (Apollonians) and those who doubt that human reason can possibly explain the whole world (Dionysians). This is a tension that I as baseball fan feel very strongly.

On the one hand, there is a certain unknowable, aesthetic quality to baseball. When I see Danny Espinosa leap and pluck a line drive out of the air, turning as he lands to double off the runner taking a lead off first base, I am watching something no less beautiful or graceful as a ballet. But even though I might witness that play at Nats park with twenty or thirty or forty thousand of my closest friends, not one of them will feel quite the same way as I do when I see it. We can communicate those memories to each other, and compare them, but those emotions are really ours alone. And no matter how many times Debbi Taylor (or her successor) asked the Nats’ hero of the day to describe what was going through his mind as he made a game-changing play, neither Debbi nor anyone watching will ever really know how it felt to make that play. That’s a wholly subjective, unknowable experience. Our emotional bond with baseball is made of countless such memories–each of them precious, each of them irreplaceable, and each of them utterly incommunicable.

But then, I spend an awful lot of time perusing statistics. The cynic might suggest that this kills the joy of going down to the baseball game at all. After all, stats don’t tell stories as much as they open windows into specific questions: Which is the most effective pitcher? Who bats better, overall? How good is this player’s defense? Indeed, on this blog, I’ve tried to use my rudimentary grasp of statistics to open a window on the 2012 Nationals season yet-to-be.

All of this mucking about with cold rationality has affected me as a fan–but, I think, for the better. I started my 2012 projections project because I was sick and tired of hearing all the emotional overreactions to the Prince Fielder free agency drama on my twitter feed. The Nationals, so it went, were going to be world-beaters with Fielder and terrible without him. That looked like a proposition I could test, so I did, the best way I could.

As FDR might have said, the only thing Nats fans have to fear is “Fear itself: nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” My calculations put the Nationals anywhere between 84 and 86 wins–on track for their best season since arriving in DC. And, even in a “doomsday scenario” without Adam LaRoche, the Nats look to get anywhere between 79 and 81 wins.

Think about what that means. It means that the worst I can expect from the 2012 Nationals is that they’ll have an even chance of winning any given ballgame on any given night. As a fan, that’s all I can reasonably ask for, anyway. If that’s the worst I can expect, I can put my unreasoning, unjustified terror aside and enjoy the visceral joys of watching Espinosa and his teammates doing beautiful things on a baseball field. It might not be a perfect synthesis of reason and passion, but I’ll take it.