What the Hell is the Matter with Tyler Clippard?

Nothing.

Of course, you might have expected me to say that, since this is a post in the same spirit as last year’s “What the Hell is the Matter with Drew Storen” post.

Fine, I get it. It’s kind of hard to like Tyler Clippard right now. So far in 2014, Clip has recorded 4 meltdowns–and it isn’t even May yet. He recorded 8 meltdowns in all of 2013.

And I can see how you might yearn for the good old days–back in 2012, when the Nats were shutting everybody down, Clippard was awesome, right? Clippard’s 2013 seemed disappointing by comparison, and his 2014 is off to a truly awful start. Maybe you wish that Rizzo had traded him, and not Lombo.

Well, I’ve got news for you: if you thought Tyler Clippard was a great reliever in 2011–he is still the same guy he was in 2011.

We know that Clip is mainly a two-pitch reliever–fastballs and changeups. So far in 2014, his fastball averages between 92.8 (Fangraphs) and 93.8 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour. His change up has averaged between 81.4 (Fangraphs) and 82.3 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour.

Back in the “good old days” of 2011, Tyler Clippard’s fastball averaged between 92.6 (Fangraphs) and 93.3 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour. The changeup in 2011 averaged between 80.8 (Fangraphs) and 81.3 (Brooks Baseball) mph. Would you look at that: no difference.

Here’s the thing about Tyler Clippard: he’s a fly-ball pitcher. Over his career, he has a fly-ball rate of 57.2%. In 2011, he had a fly-ball rate of 60.1%.  In 2013, he had a fly-ball rate of 55.8%. If a batter puts the ball in play against Clippard, there’s a better than even money chance that it’s going to be up in the air.

Now, if you’re a fly-ball pitcher, the thing you want to do is to try and keep the ball in the yard, if at all possible. Clippard does a reasonable job of this. He has a career HR/FB rate of 9.1%–that is, of all the balls batters put in play, about 60% of those will be in the air. And of the ones hit in the air, about 9% of them are going to leave the yard. Live by the fly ball (easy F8s!), die by the fly ball (HR, meltdown, blown save, etc.).

So far this year, Clippard’s HR/FB rate is preposterously high: 25%. “CUT THE BUM,” I hear you howling. But look: in the good old days of 2011, Clip’s  HR/FB rate was 9.5%, and I didn’t hear anyone calling for his head then. And in 2013, Clippard’s HR/FB rate was 9.4%.

If there’s an anomalous year in Clippard’s performance, it’s 2012, where he had a HR/FB rate far below his career average (6.8%). In spite of that, he posted a lower-than-you’d-think ERA of 3.72, with a FIP of 3.31. And yet, Clippard still notched 32 shutdowns in that year, while recording 10 meltdowns.

Don’t take my word for it:

So, I repeat: If you thought Tyler Clippard was an awesome reliever in 2011–and, really, you did–then you need to relax about how he’s started out in 2014. He’s still the same Tyler Clippard.

If his HR/FB rate stabilizes above 10% by about June though…maybe start panicking.

 

Link

Pitches Illustrated

This is an excellent little site/cheatsheet illustrating how various pitches look from the catcher’s batter’s perspective. These diagrams assume a right handed pitcher. For lefties, imagine them (roughly) in reverse. 

For extra fun, print this out and read Stu’s excellent piece on Strasburg’s opening day pitch selection. It looks like Strasburg’s new slider is part of a plan to start busting left handed batters down and in. Contrast this with Strasburg’s previous approach against lefties: the changeup running away from the batter. 

In old-timey pitch classification, this gives Strasburg both an “in-shoot” (slider) and an “out-shoot” (changeup) against lefties. If you’re a DC baseball fan and believe in baseball reincarnation, this is a good thing. Guess who else had this kind of repertoire?

The ball that bothered the Naps [Cleveland Indians, managed by Napoleon "Nap" Lajoie] yesterday from Johnson’s delivery was a fast high inshoot that broke just in front of the plate. He had all the Cleveland batsmen guessing on this ball. If it failed to break, it cut the plate at about the height of the batsman’s breast letters. When they swung at it, however, it seemed to lift over the handle of the bat. This ball, breaking properly, is practically impossible to hit squarely, and will fool the cleverest stick artist in the business. Johnson’s speed, of course, is a factor in all of his work, his curves taking their swing viciously just before reaching the batting area.

 

Not bad, Strassy. Learn from the Big Train.

Imported from Detroit

The Nats traded Lombardozzi, Krol, and minor-league pitcher Robby Ray for Detroit starting pitcher Doug Fister. It’s official. 

I can’t even begin to process this trade. It was so unexpected. And, on its face, it is amazing.

Here’s what the Nats acquired in Fister. Since 2009, Fister has an ERA of 3.53 and a FIP of 3.68.  That would automatically give him the second-best FIP among Nats starters–only Strasburg is better. His repertoire means that he induces more ground balls–and since 2009, he has a ground ball rate of 49.3%. That would be the highest among Nats starters. He has 1.81 BB/9–the lowest walk rate of any of the Nats pitchers. He has a slightly worse strikeout-to-walk ratio than Jordan Zimmermann (Fister: 3.46 K/BB, JZ 3.64 K/BB).

And consider that Fister has performed very well over the years as a ground ball pitcher with an infield that is sometimes comically inept: the Tigers were 9th in the AL in UZR, mostly because of a lack of range.

Now imagine Fister dealing groundballs with the Nats infield–a defense that, even with its woes in 2013, was still a good dozen runs better than the Tigers. Imagine a still-more efficient Nats infield, armed with the knowledge of the tendencies of opposing hitters, reinforced with better advance scouting and more intelligent defensive alignments. Imagine Ian Desmond gunning down runners.

Imagine it and smile, Nats town, because that’s the promise.

Yeah, I like this trade.

Now if only Rizzo would sign Robinson Cano and sign Rakuten Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka….

Bad Company

Drew Storen has been optioned to AAA Syracuse.

This is a hard post for me to write, because I’ve been a huge Drew Storen fan since, well, ever. I’ve wanted him to succeed. I‘ve been a shameless Drew Storen apologist, even in the darkest moments.  But with Ryan Mattheus coming off the disabled list, and only twenty-five spots left on the active roster, someone had to go down. Drew Storen had an option year available. He has also had a disappointing year–so he had to be the one to go.

There’s going to be an awful lot written about Storen’s demotion, and even more said about it. The most pointed words probably come from fellow reliever and sometime roommate Tyler Clippard:

He hasn’t had to deal with a lot of adversity. He came up and had unbelievable stuff. He had success right away. Came in last year, coming off of a surgery, and pitched huge games for us in a  98 win season. Picked me up when I was struggling in September. Picked our team up in the playoffs. Had one bad game. Eight months later, you get to a point where he’s struggling and you turn the page on him, you send him down. It’s not necessarily turning the page on him because I think he needs to go down and regroup, get out of this environment, take a deep breath and regather himself.

You know by now that I don’t like getting into ballplayer’s heads. I sit in the upper deck. I’m lucky if I can track the movement of the ball, let alone look into a man’s heart, mind, or soul at that physical and psychic distance.

If Storen needs to get back to something, perhaps this chart has some of the answers:

This chart tracks the sheer number of swings and misses generated by each of Storen’s four main pitches: the four-seam fastball, the sinker (two-seam fastball), the slider, and the change-up.

Between 2012 and 2013, you will note the sharp increase in swings and misses generated by his changeup–a pitch that he began throwing far more often. There is a corresponding drop in the number of swings and misses generated from both fastball varieties and from the slider–with the largest decline coming from the slider.

This puts in graphical form something that even upper-deck dwellers have begun to suspect: Storen’s slider–memorably described by Bob Carpenter as the “killer slider” on so many occasions–has lost much of its lethality.

If we take the number of line drives as a rough proxy for the number of times batters really squared up and made good contact, that should tell us more. Let’s look at the total number of line drives generated for each ball in play for each pitch, from the second half of 2012 through this month:

Oof. Look at that. Sharp increase in hard contact off the slider. A look at his pitch selection data reveals that he’s throwing, proportionally, more sliders than ever:

So what we have here is a pitcher throwing more of a pitch that is ever less successful. Storen seems to want to throw that slider a lot, even if he knows that it’s getting hit hard. This is not a recipe for success. What’s gone wrong with Storen’s slider?

First: it’s not as hard as it used to be: notice that it’s about 2 miles per hour slower this year than it was last year:

Second, it’s dropping a bit more: surely this is good? Yes and no. Some of the increased drop will be due to the drop in velocity we’ve already seen. If we look at it’s dragless vertical movement plus gravity, compared with release velocity, we note that the slider drops about as much as it ever did–except that now it’s just, well, slower. That’s not good. 

 

 

 

Third, it’s not, well, sliding as much as it did last year:

If there’s any hope here, it’s the emergence of Storen’s change-up as a weapon. Notice: it’s the only one of his pitches that is fooling more batters this year, rather than fewer. That’s something positive. And if Storen hopes to come back to hear the adoring crowds at Nats park howl his name ( DROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! ), then I hope for his sake that he goes down to Syracuse and works on the fastball/changeup combination that seems to be working.

While he’s down there, he could probably stand to work on his slider. He was a much more effective pitcher with a harder, more violent, more lethal killer slider. This year’s softer, milder slider has gotten him into trouble.

And whenever he’s ready, I’ll be back in the upper deck, waiting for him to return as the fine reliever that I know him to be.

 

[Edit: I had initially mis-interpreted the vertical movement graph, which led me to look at dragless horizontal movement plus gravity, which actually underscores the point better. Storen's slider is dropping as much as it used to, but not because of any breaking motion...it's dropping just becuase it's slower. That's an appealing target for a hitter, no?]

What the hell is the matter with Drew Storen?

Absolutely nothing.

Let me explain: Storen’s 2013 has been pretty bad, right? To date, Storen has a terrible 5.21 ERA. His FIP is a suitably terrible 4.26. How can I possibly say that nothing is wrong, especially when compared to his excellent 2012, where he posted a 2.37 ERA and a 2.40 FIP?

Look at the batted-ball data. In 2012, Storen only gave up 2 home runs all year. In 2013, he has surrendered 3. So, the question we have to ask is: is Drew Storen broken, or just unlucky?

Fortunately, we have a tool that might help us answer that question–it is xFIP, which is just like FIP, but normalized to a league-average HR/FB rate. A quick look at Storen’s ERA, FIP, and xFIP  with Storen’s FB% and HR/FB rate since 2010 gives us these data:

  • 2010: ERA: 3.58; FIP 3.26; xFIP 3.88; 40.3% FB, 5.0% HR/FB;
  • 2011: ERA 2.75; FIP 3.32; xFIP 3.14; 35.5% FB, 11.1% HR/FB
  • 2012: ERA 2.37; FIP 2.40; xFIP 3.52; 28.0% FB, 0.0% HR/FB
  • 2013, Year-to-date: FIP 5.21; FIP 4.26; xFIP 3.95; 37.1%, 13% HR/FB

What are we to make of this? Storen’s xFIP in 2013 is up, relative to what it had been: 3.95 isn’t great. But that’s in line with his 2010 xFIP of 3.88. And curiously, during his annus mirabilis of 2012, Storen posted an xFIP of 3.52–not at all what you’d expect, given his miniscule 2.40 FIP of that year.

If anything, we should look at the xFIP data and figure that the rest of Storen’s 2013 might look a little more like 2011 than 2012. Storen’s game depends on inducing weaker contact, and that means a HR/FB rate lower than league average.

And we have further evidence that Storen, in 2013, has been inducing weaker contact. His line-drive rate is currently 16.1%, which is lower than it was in 2012 (18.3%) or in 2011 (17.2%). Likewise, his ground ball rate in 2013 of 46.8% is down from 2012 (53.7%) and–you guessed it–in line with his 2011 ground ball rate of 47.3%.

So, what does that mean? When batters put the ball in play against Storen, they aren’t squaring it up (declining line-drive rate). They aren’t putting it on the ground as much, either (declining ground-ball rate). They are, however, hitting it up in the air. That should result in quick outs to Harper, Span and (eventually) Werth. But Storen’s been awfully unlucky so far, since his HR/FB rate is higher than the league average.

Once that HR/FB rate normalizes, his FIP will get ever closer to his xFIP–that’s hope for improvement. The declining ground ball and line drive rates are even more encouraging. Weaker contact should make for even lower HR/FB rates. There’s hope for improvement there.

Looking at Storen’s peripheral stats, then, there is plenty to suggest that his 2013 will not end as disastrously as it appears to have begun. Drew Storen is still Drew Storen–and that’s not all that bad.

Epilogue: You will notice that I haven’t addressed his mental state at all. Again, that’s because I have no way of knowing what the hell is going on in Storen’s head. The data we can measure, though, shows that Storen is at least capable of being better than he’s been lately, and that he’s got every chance to show it. If you want to think you know something about his mind, go ahead. But it’s bad enough for me to be an armchair baseball analyst without also becoming an unlicensed, upper-deck psychoanalyst in the bargain.

“If a major-league team or minor-league team has a hard pitch count across their whole organization, they can do better than that”

That’s Glenn Fleisig talking to Baseball Prospectus on pitch counts, innings limits, and how organizations maximize the health of their pitchers. The interview is republished on Deadspin. 

The relevant question-and-answer:

BL: So without commenting on any specific team or pitcher, would you say that a team that puts hard innings limits in place is just sort of going overboard with risk aversion or covering their own ass? I mean, I’m sure they must base it on some sort of research, but maybe they’re not looking at the right research.

GF: Yeah. I do say that. If a major-league team or minor-league team has a hard pitch count across their whole organization, they can do better than that. They should be using—because they have professional coaches throughout their major and minor leagues, and a professional medical staff—they should be using pitch counts as a feel, as a guideline for who has pitched a lot, who hasn’t pitched a lot, and then they should individualize it and know each of their pitchers, each of their athletes, and know who is a quick responder, who’s doing well on the physical assessments with the trainers and medical staff, who has good mechanics according to the pitching coach, things like that. And they should individualize it and they should say, ‘Oh, Rodriguez, he recovers quickly, but Johnson, he’s always in pain, so let’s keep Johnson lower than Rodriguez,’ and individualize it.

Plus, even within a person—even if they say, ‘Rodriguez, he seems to be healthy and doing well and good mechanics and very fluid and in good shape, all those things,’ they shouldn’t set a pitch count number for him; they should set a soft pitch count number—‘He can go to this level, 100 pitches or whatever”—but then game by game, they should monitor and take him out when he’s giving signs of being fatigued or if there’s a history of he’s been pitching a lot recently, or he’s stinking tonight, other things where you individualize it. But a hard pitch count is really for youth baseball and perhaps high school baseball, when you can’t assume the coaches are all experts.”

This is really a question about the Nationals and Strasburg (and Jordan Zimmermann). This isn’t just any yahoo they’re talking to, either–this is Glenn Fleisig, the leading scientific authority on pitching mechanics. And I don’t mean “scientific” in the 19th-century quack medical sense–I mean peer-reviewed. I have quoted his work debunking “inverted W” scaremongering before. So at first glance this looks like an indictment of the Strasburg limit. In 2012, the Nats had Strasburg on a hard innings limit, just as they had Jordan Zimmermann on a hard innings limit in 2011.

But before you grab your pitchfork and light your torch to storm Mike Rizzo’s office, stop and think for a minute. Rizzo refused to commit to a hard innings limit until Strasburg was finally shut down. At all times, Rizzo said that he was going to monitor Strasburg for signs of fatigue.

Here’s what Strasburg was doing in his last few starts of 2012:

  • August 21, 2012, vs. Brewers: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 SO, 0 HR; 94 pitches.
  • August 28, 2012, at Marlins: 5 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 3 SO, 1 HR; 84 pitches
  • September 2, 2012 vs. Cubs: 6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 SO; 97 pitches.
  • September 7, 2012 (“Shutdown Day”) vs. Marlins: 3 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 SO; 81 pitches.

What do we make of this?

I’m not really sure. Strasburg himself insisted and continued to insist that he was ready and able to pitch after Shutdown Day. On the other hand, his final appearance showed him laboring against the lowly Marlins.

What you make of this as a Nats fan is really a reflection of what you think of the Nationals and their management. If you tend to trust GM Mike Rizzo, then you will have to assume that the organization had been observing Strasburg’s rest and recovery cycles all season, and decided that those observations, plus the disastrous outing against the Marlins, led them to believe that the time was right to shut down Strasburg.

If you are disinclined to trust the organization, then you’re going to have to assume that there was a hard innings limit from the outset, and that the club refused to deviate from that limit even to the last. One disaster against the Marlins probably shouldn’t have been enough to convince the organization to shut Stras down.

Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this.

About Strasburg’s Innings Today

I wasn’t at the park at Opening Day today. I had to tune in and listen to it on the radio.

I missed a hell of a time to be there. The Nats beat the hated Marlins 2-0 behind two Bryce Harper homers and seven shutout innings from Stephen Strasburg.

Indeed, Strasburg was out of the game after only throwing 80 pitches. The sound of fans griping about yet more “kid gloves” treatment for Strasburg could be heard all over Twitter. Strasburg was dealing–why limit him now?

Even Barry Svrluga, veteran Post-ie, seemed to take issue with the sudden, unwelcome appearance of Captain Hook:

Here’s why Strasburg was out of the game with 80 pitches: the Nats have the day off tomorrow (Tuesday), and the bullpen is currently hurting for work.

In the last week of Grapefruit League play (including the exhibition game against the Yankees), going back to last Sunday,  the Nationals relievers that are on the actual big-league staff right now have pitched only 16.2 innings.

Would I love to see a complete game shutout from Strasburg? You bet. But there’s no reason to leave Strasburg hanging out there on a cool, misty afternoon to get a complete game just for the sake of getting a complete game. I would prefer to see Strasburg–or any starting pitcher, really–get a complete game any day but Opening Day.

Later this year, there will be periods during which the bullpen will be taxed. There will be long extra-inning night games that last into the wee hours of the morning, followed by brutal afternoon games, followed by travel. There will be times where a starting pitcher doesn’t get through a lot of innings. There will be doubleheaders. There will be stretches where relievers will appear on three consecutive nights–like Storen did when he entered the game in NLDS Game Five.

I would much rather that a Strasburg complete game happen during one of those periods, where it does the most good. An opening day win against the Marlins (who are expected to be the worst team in the division) is nice. A complete game, saving a tired bullpen in the middle of a tense series with the Braves would be much, much better.

Needless Beanball Drama

It’s March 7 as I write this, and already I’m having to write about beanball wars.

In a spring training game at the Phillies facility in Clearwater, Stephen Strasburg hit Chase Utley in the back leg. I wasn’t at the park, but on TV, it sure as heck looked like Strasburg was out of control and hit Utley accidentally.

The Phillies, apparently, weren’t going to take this “insult” lying down. Next half-inning, Doc Halladay threw one behind Tyler Moore’s back. A beanball war in spring training? I’ll let the beat writers tell you all about the rest of it. 

This blog is no stranger to Philadelphia/Washington beanball wars, alas. As far as anybody can tell, this all began on on July 26, 2007 in Philadelphia, where John Lannan hit both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, earning himself an ejection in his major-league debut. Last year, during the Cole Hamels/Bryce Harper affair, I examined it from the pitcher’s point of view:

Let’s set aside the fact that Hamels freely admitted that he beaned Bryce Harper on purpose–supposedly in the service of “old-school” prestige.  Even without Hamels’ boasting, we could have easily surmised that Hamels beaned Harper intentionally. Lannan was not suspended because, in all probablity, he had no idea where those balls were going when they left his hand.

***

And what about the other protagonist in Sunday’s beanbag war–Jordan Zimmermann? He hit Hamels in the shin, but has continued to maintain his innocence. The stat sheet should make us doubt that claim, as well. He has a career BB/9 that rivals Hamels at 2.15, and only 3 wild pitches in 323 innings of work. I don’t think anybody can doubt that he knew where he put that fastball.

[Parenthetically, I must not be the only one amused that John Lannan has gone from Public Enemy Number One in to Starting Pitcher Number Five in Philadelphia.]

So, what to make of the Crisis in Clearwater?

First in the dock is Stephen Strasburg. In his brief career, Strasburg posts a 2.40 BB/9, 7 wild pitches, and 4 hit batsmen. That’s tremendous control–especially compared to Lannan.

But in mitigation, it was Spring Training. Strasburg is manifestly in “working on stuff” mode–and it’s possible that at least for one pitch, stuff did not work for Strasburg today. It happens.

And, speaking of stuff happening, here’s something interesting: Since his debut in 2003, nobody in baseball has been hit by more pitches than Chase Utley. Chase Utley has been hit by pitches a staggering 151 times in his career. Since 2003, the next-nearest MLB player is Jason Kendall, plunked 121 times. Trailing Utley on the National League leaderboard for HBP since 2003 is Rickie Weeks, a distant second at 108 HBP. 

Utley’s staggering ability to be hit by pitches is even more remarkable when we consider that Jason Giambi leads active MLB players in this category, with 175 HBP. But Giambi’s been playing since 1995, which makes Utley’s 151 HBP since 2003 a staggering achievement in being hit by pitches.

Indeed, if we take Utley’s career average, we would expect him, in any 162-game stretch, to be hit by pitch 21 times. To put that in perspective, in 2012, any given team in the major leagues could have expected to be hit by a pitch around 50 times. Utley’s career average HBP would, by themselves, account for nearly half of an average team’s HBP.

That’s astonishing. Could it be that there’s just something about Chase Utley that makes him that much more likely to be hit by pitches? Is it his batting stance? Is it a habit of crowding the plate? Is it a failure to make a reasonable effort to avoid being hit by the pitch? (To be fair, Utley DID make quite an effort to avoid Strasburg’s wayward pitch yesterday).

But if the Phillies want to react to this by bristling and hurling beanballs willy-nilly, I guess there really isn’t anything we can do about it.

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 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.