This has to be the year.

I’m not going to write about how Washington beat the Nats in the home opener yesterday. I already went ballistic about that on twitter.

So, instead, I’m going to write about why you should be “all-in” (God, I hate that expression) on the 2014 Nats. No, it’s not because my projection has them winning 96 games.

Rather, it’s because of this article in the Post. In it, Adam Kilgore talks to Nats principal owner Mark Lerner. What Uncle Mark says  about the Nats payroll going forward is not very encouraging:

“We’re beyond topped out,” Lerner said. “Our payroll has skyrocketed to like $140 million. It’s in the papers. I don’t think we can go much further with the revenue streams that we have.”

* * * *

“We take it one at a time,” Lerner said. “We’ll look at it after the season as far as what we can do. We went into this thing, it’s a business. We’ve got to run it smartly. We’re not going to do something where we’re losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Anybody can understand that. We’re going to be smart.”

 

First of all, the Nats payroll is not “like, 140 million.” According to Baseball Reference, in 2014, the Nats have committed $135.8 million in guaranteed salary in 2014. That’s a lot of money, but it’s not 140 million. The difference of $ 4.2 million could have gotten you another Nate McLouth, say. Or one year of Hyun-Jin Ryu as a left handed starting pitcher. So it’s not chump change.

But things start getting hairy, fast. Let’s look at the young core and see where the trouble might come from:

  • The Nats bought out Ian Desmond’s remaining arbitration years this offseason in a two-year, $17.5 million dollar deal. That means, barring an extension at the end of 2015, Ian Desmond will hit the open market in 2016.
  • Likewise, the Nats bought out Jordan Zimmermann’s arbitration years. He’s under contract for 2014 and 2015, for a total of $24 million. Barring an extension, he will also become a free agent in 2016.
  • The Nats have opted instead to go year-to-year with Stephen Strasburg. In 2014, he’s owed $3.975 million. He would remain arbitration-eligible until 2017, at which point he, too, will become a free agent.
  • Drew Storen is also year-to-year, and still arbitration-eligible after this year. He’s making $3.45 million this year. He will become a free agent in 2017.
  • Bryce Harper’s free agent days are a long way away. In 2014, he’ll make $0.9 million. (That’s right, less than one million dollars) He’s under contract through 2015, after which he’d be eligible for arbitration. He won’t become a free agent until 2018, by my count.

What’s it going to take to keep all of these guys around? I don’t know. But we can make a few guesses.

Desmond is the second-best shortstop in the National League, behind the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki and ahead of the Braves Andrelton Simmons. Both of those guys are under long-term contracts, so it’s worth looking at them. In 2011, the Rockies gave Tulo a 10-year, $157.75 million dollar contract. The Braves just extended Andrelton Simmons for 7 years at $58 million, heavily back-loaded. It’s not unreasonable to think that Desmond would demand Tulo-type money on the free agent market. So, 10 years, $160 to $170 million. Call it $16.5 million a year for 10 years. That bill comes due in 2016.

Jordan Zimmermann is likely going to hit the open market. What’s he worth? It’s harder to find comparables for pitchers. But recent research over at Beyond the Box Score tells us that a Win Above Replacement is worth about $7 million a year these days. Jordan Zimmermann is a pretty good pitcher. He’s worth about 3 wins above replacement a year. Fine. That’s $21 million a year right there. That bill also comes due in 2016. We can do the same for Storen. He’s worth about a third of a WAR every year. So call it $2 million a year, coming due in 2016, too.

Same deal with Strasburg. He’s worth anywhere between 3 and 4 WAR a year. Say we believe the hype. Fine. That’s anywhere between $21 and $28 million a year, starting in 2017.

And Harper? His West Coast analog, Mike Trout, just signed a 6-year $144.5 million extension with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County California. The new contract takes effect in 2015, comes with full no-trade protection, and works out to an average annual value of $24 million a year. Harper’s going to want that kind of money, and if the Nats won’t give it to him, the Yankees probably will (thus fulfilling Harper’s lifelong dream of wearing Yankee pinstripes) .

So the young core that, all together, costs the Nats $22.3 million in 2014 will cost something on the order of $88.5 million a year, collectively, in 2018.

Seen in the context of Lerner’s “payroll limit” talk, here’s what it means for you, Nats town: if you like these nats–that is, if you like these players and enjoy seeing them on the field together, enjoy them while you can. There is no way–none–that the current ownership group is going to tolerate a payroll spike of that magnitude.

Remember, the Lerners acquired the Nationals franchise from MLB for $450 million in 2006. I’m not aware of any details as to the club’s finances, but it’s pretty safe to assume that the acquisition was heavily debt-financed. It’s a sound business practice to take on considerable debt to buy a business, then transfer the debt to the business. So the Nationals, as an organization, probably have a lot of debt service to pay every year. That acts as a brake on profits and investment in the business (in this case, players).

This is to say nothing about the continued swindle that is the MASN deal, that sees Nats TV dollars shipped to Baltimore. Of course, it’s also speculated that the Lerners (or the Nats, it’s not clear) are getting kickbacks to prevent them from pursuing the MASN matter more vigorously.

So look out onto that field and dream big, Nats town. Dream hard. Dream as if your very ability to dream depended on it. Because soon, this team that Rizzo built, that we all came to see? It will be gone. As Denard Span so famously said on Twitter just before Opening day: it’s our time.

 

Blind Spot

I’ve been busy working my day job, as it were, and haven’t really been able to write anything here. I haven’t felt like I have had much to add to the general postseason hangover for Nats fans.

I have, however, been watching the World Series. I’m starved for baseball–any baseball–and this particular Series gives me the opportunity to root unabashedly for the Pete Kozma to lose. That’s good.

Unfortunately, it also obliges me to listen to the mindless blather of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver on Fox–easily the worst baseball broadcast most fans will see in any given year. Buck’s stilted cadences (more suited to the NFL than baseball) and McCarver’s senile witterings annoy the hell out of me, a baseball addict. I imagine they would drive casual non-fans (for whom the World Series is the only Series) away from the game forever. And that’s before the shameless commercial hucksterism, product-placement, awkwardly forced jingoism, and the endless in-game sideline reports!

About those sideline reports: They’re recorded between innings, but broadcast while the game is actually in progress. They disconnect the viewing public from what is actually happening in favor of what someone thinks about what just happened, which seems wrong. Besides, there is nothing that the booth can ask a manager between innings that cannot be better asked (and answered) after the game.

Not content with invading the dugout, the Fox broadcast also “floods the zone” with not one but two dedicated “sideline reporters:” the beautiful Erin Andrews and the reliably dapper Ken Rosenthal.

And yet, with all of this reporting power, they still manage to miss opportunities to bring genuine insight into the game.

One moment in particular bothers me. In the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 3, with the score tied at 2, a runner on first, and nobody out, Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow delivered a pitch that just barely grazed Carlos Beltran’s elbow guard. Beltran made some minimal effort to avoid the ball, but he showed his elbow to the umpire, who awarded him first base. Beltran, the hit batsman, made his way to first base, where he was greeted by Red Sox first baseman (!) David Ortiz. As Junichi Tazawa trotted in from the bullpen in relief of Breslow, The Fox cameras caught Beltran and Ortiz in the middle of an animated discussion. There was much gesticulation.

It did not escape my notice:

Indeed, Fox had a parabolic microphone operator nearby, just up the first-base foul line, who could have aimed his microphone at first base. The lively discussion continued, but Tim McCarver and Joe Buck paid it no mind. It’s not like on-field microphones never pick up interesting conversations between players, you know?

Then it occurred to me that Beltran (from Puerto Rico) and Ortiz (from the Dominican Republic) might not have been speaking English. So, even if the parabolic mic had been able to record their conversation, nobody in the Fox broadcast could have possibly been able to understand it or comment upon it.

Think about that for a minute. In 2013, there were  1,408 Major League baseball players. 327 of them were born in Spanish-speaking nations or territories (Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, Venezuela). That’s 23% of the population–just under one in four major leaguers.

Of those 327 Major Leaguers born in Spanish-speaking countries, I count 7 on the World Series rosters.

And yet Fox Sports did not have at its disposal one reporter, sideline or otherwise, that might have shed some light on exactly what Ortiz and Beltran were so animatedly discussing at first base. Not one. Ken Rosenthal, fine baseball reporter that he is, doesn’t speak Spanish. Erin Andrews doesn’t speak Spanish either–hell, I’m surprised she can even feign interest in baseball, given her NCAA football roots. Joe Buck can’t speak Spanish. And Tim McCarver? McCarver can barely speak English.

The absence of a bilingual reporter, to me, amounts to a kind of journalistic malpractice. Fox had every opportunity to improve and enrich its coverage with a bilingual sideline reporter– It could have borrowed from its Spanish-language affiliate, Fox Deportes. By failing to do so, they passed up at least one potentially fascinating story in a tremendously fascinating World Series.

And it’s not like the capacity doesn’t exist. James Wagner of the Washington Post is bilingual, and his knowledge of Spanish has tremendously enriched the Post’s coverage of the Nationals, allowing him to speak to players like Wilson Ramos or Rafael Soriano in a language they can understand.

The linguistic blind spot manifests itself in other ways, too. The Cardinals and the Red Sox are playing in the World Series–but for every other organization in the Major Leagues, it is time to turn to off-season player development. Yes: winter ball. But players on MLB 40-man rosters cannot participate in the Caribbean Winter Leagues without a Winter League Agreement.  The Winter Agreement for this season was not finalized until October 12, one day after Opening Day in Venezuela. This was, in effect, a lockout that prevented MLB players from reporting to their Winter League teams–a story totally ignored by the English-language baseball press.

Baseball is certainly America’s Pastime. But if your organization’s mission is to bring the Pastime to America and make them understand it, you do your readers/viewers/listeners a great disservice if you don’t speak all of its languages.

This Shit Is Over

Head for the exits, Nats town. This shit is over.

I can’t offer you any analysis, or even any comfort. The Braves just swept the Nats, kicking them down the stairs and the standings. The Nats are fifteen and a half games behind the Braves.

As of tonight, CoolStandings.Com’s monte carlo simulations [What's that? here's a wiki entry]  have pretty much spelled the end of the Nats playoff chances: The Nats have a less than one-tenth of one percent  chance of winning the division, and a 1.9 percent chance of getting into the wild-card play-in.

This shit is over.

Yet, I’m probably going to keep coming to the park. I love baseball too much to stay away. The worst part of this is that I’ve got four weeks of utterly meaningless baseball to endure until September call-ups–a chance to look at a few minor-leaguers I never got a chance to see this year.

I’m still going to root for the Nats, same as I always do. But I can’t expect them to do the impossible. Right now, I am hoping that they finish a game above .500. That’s all.

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.

A quick thought on Independence Day

As you celebrate Independence Day, think of this.

Yasiel Puig. Yu Darvish. Yoenis Cespedes. Hisashi Iwakuma. 

Just a few of the international free agents the Nats did not (or could not) sign. Perhaps with a market-rate TV rights deal in place, they could have done so. But, because of the MASN deal, the Nats don’t even get close to half of their TV revenue–the bulk goes to the Orioles.

 

The Illusion of Control

Image

Image courtesy Nationals101

I had scarcely posted my latest projection on Twitter when I got hit by a barrage of tweets asking me to adjust the relief pitching innings.

That led to another discussion as to whether I had too many innings in total. The revised model has a total of 1475.2 IP for the whole Nats staff. That’s a lot of innings.

But I’ve decided to freeze my projections at 98 wins, and 1475.2 innings, because, at this point, I feel like I’m tinkering at the edges.

The hard thing about doing this, I find, is that as I keep running the model, something else comes up that I think I can control for. Pretty soon, I’m drowning in complications.

The whole exercise reminds me of a flyer I saw once in the Old Building of the London School of Economics. The flyer was promoting a special lecture that was to be given on “The Illusion of Control in the Social Sciences,” and it had an illustration of a man, hunched over, buried in charts, graphs, data tables, volumes of historical statistics, adding-machine-tape, etc. The point was that we can model and predict, and in doing so, we may fall prey to the notion that we can actually control the universe we’re trying to observe. Of course, that’s not entirely true.

Schadenfraude ist die schönste Freude

In the dark, cold, pre-dawn of the morning after Black Friday, I consoled myself by musing on the vagaries of chance:

But every so often, just enough randomness comes along. Maybe the ball doesn’t leave your hand clearly. Maybe the ball strikes a pebble. Maybe it’s cold, or maybe it’s too hot, or maybe it rained too much or not at all. Something you didn’t expect will change the path of that ball. You should have gotten it; you didn’t.

Even as I meditated on the randomness of baseball, St. Louis players and fans were already reading too much into the events of Game Five:

After the Cardinals’ epic collapse in Game Seven of the NLCS, it was suddenly the turn of the Team of Destiny to meditate on the vagaries of chance, and consider that perhaps they were, after all, as much Fortune’s victims as her favorites.

Or not.