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.

 

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.

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 Limits of Prescience

A thread over at the Washington Nationals Fan Forums pushed back against some of my projections here and raised a few points that I neglected to address in my 2012 projections.

Margins of Error

Interesting projections but the missing piece would be an estimate of how much of a margin of error there would be for both the offensive and defensive estimates that would provide a range for the expected number of wins as opposed to a hard number.

This was a serious omission on my part. All projections have a certain degree of uncertainty built into them, and I really should have discussed the degree of uncertainty built into mine.

I took my method for calculating the projected runs allowed by pitching and defense from this site. The author tested this method against 7 years of complete season data from 2002 through 2008. As he writes:

I found the R^2 value. Not to oversimplify things too much, but this value basically shows what percentage of the variation can be accounted for by the model. The value ranges from 0 (worthless) to 1 (perfect). For my 210 data points, I had an R^2 value of about 0.78 (i.e. 78% of the variation).

That means that my defense and pitching runs allowed projections should be good for plus or minus 22%. That gives a lower bound of 482.84 runs allowed and an upper bound of 755.20 runs allowed.

If we assume that my offensive predictions are correct (a problem I’ll get to in a second), that means the 2012 Nats will win anywhere between 68 and 103 games

I know that’s an immense difference. I’m not sure how I could close that gap. UZR doesn’t account for pitcher or catcher defense, for instance. But even then, I think the method at least gets us in the ballpark.

The offense numbers are a lot more troublesome. I haven’t been able to do any real regression analysis to determine how good my model is–I simply haven’t had the time.

On the other hand our offense has way too many question marks to estimate the total number of runs scored with enough precision to come up with a meaningful value that can be used in a secondary projection as you did in calculating our win total.

Any type of future projection is likely to involve more than a little handwaving. Here, I’ve drawn an arbitrary line: all players included in this analysis are players on the Nats’ 25-man roster as of January 27, 2012, some 23 days before pitchers and catchers are due to report at Viera.

Individual Players and the Projections

Will Werth stay Werthless?

2011 Jayson Werth was astonishingly bad. I’m going to believe that his 2011 numbers are aberrations and not indicative of a “new normal.” I’m fairly confident that the 4-year average from 2008-2011 is a fair picture of what kind of player Werth is now–somewhere between his Philly days and the debacle of 2011.

Will Desmond, Ramos, and Espi improve or stagnate?

As far as Desmond and Espinosa, I have no idea. I don’t think I have nearly enough data about them to make any predictions going forward. Ramos, however, gets a nice bump from more playing time and more PAs. His wRC/PA isn’t terrible, so that’s to be expected.

Will Morse fall back to Earth?

I’m going to go ahead and say No. As I said in Part 3, Morse’s modest offensive outputs in 2008-2010 might make you think that he’s going to crash down to Earth in 2012. But, remember, I’ve taken a four year average of his wRC/PA over the same period. Giving Morse 600 plate appearances in 2012 gives a projected wRC of 97.00: exactly the same as his breakout 2011 “beastmode” year. Indeed, even if we throw out Morse’s 2011 season, running the same calculation over data from 2008-2010 yields a projected wRC of 90.00: Seven runs short of our prior projection and of the 2011 total, but still enough to make him almost as good as Ryan Zimmerman (projected for 90.69 wRC). Indeed, all of this taken together seems like pretty persuasive evidence that “beastmode” has been lurking inside him the whole time, and only needed to see enough PAs.

Will Zimmm get hurt again? Will LaRoche bounce back?

My response: Dammit, Jim, I’m a baseball fan, not a doctor!. I have really no good way of figuring out La Roche’s prognosis post-surgery, nor can I really know anything about the state of Zimmerman’s joints and muscles. The only real response I have here is that the four-year interval I picked should be fair to both men in terms of their expected production.

Who plays centerfield?

Again, I had to draw an arbitrary line and go with who was in the organization as of the day I began compiling the statistics. That means that for now, we’re looking at a DeRosa/Bernadina platoon in center field. This might not be ideal, but I didn’t want to mix players who weren’t officially in the organization into these projections. Blown Save, Win, however, has attempted to address the center field question in a recent post, where he suggests that perhaps the short-term answer is Rick Ankiel. I’ll have to go back and study this, obviously.