Pitchers & Catchers Report!

Nats pitchers and catchers officially report to Viera today!

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

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

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

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

Henry Rodriguez: Tan Capaz de Ser Feo como Fenómeno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramos y Flores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winning Cures Many Ills

The Nationals kicked up quite a fuss when they announced a new initiative aimed at taking back Nats Park from scores of invading Phillies Fans. Chief Operations Officer Andy Feffer seems to have discovered that there might be a base of home-town fans here in the Washington, D.C. region that could be worth marketing to:

“There’s a huge fan base here, and they’re excitable, and they’re ready,” Feffer said. “What we really hope is that by creating and igniting a rivalry here, it’ll be just as raucous here as they get up in Philly, and that we’ll own our own ballpark.”

How about all those Phillies fans coming into the park? Well, Feffer says they’re still welcome

But look, we’re not gonna make it easy for group sales, for buses coming from Philly. I will not make it easy for those guys to buy tickets or get into this ballpark.

O RLY?

I’m happy to see that the Nationals are trying hard to undo the lasting damage done to the franchise by former President Stan Kasten’s craven pandering to Philadelphia fans in 2009. But Feffer doesn’t even sound remotely sincere to me. Remember, folks, this is is the same genius whose idea of a “unique ballpark experience” was to introduce the finest concessions already available in New York’s Citi Field. And it didn’t take long for reports to emerge that Nationals ticket sales personnel had already been calling their preferred Philadelphia customers about Phillies tickets at Nats Park. Besides, there’s nothing the Nats can do about the thousands of quasi-fraudulent straw-man transactions that are bound to happen on the secondary ticket market.

What’s a Nats fan to do? Well, obviously, BUY TICKETS. But I fully expect it to be nearly as full of Phillies fans as usual.

True to the nature of this blog, though, Nats fans can take some solace in statistics. The lesson here is something that I’ve been saying for ages (and something that I doubt the Nationals marketing team has ever considered): there is no ballpark experience quite as good as when the home team wins.

Remember the 2005 Nationals? They played in RFK Stadium, a crumbling relic from another age. They won only 81 games. And yet, in 2005, the Nationals drew 66,689 more people than the 2005 Phillies, who played in a brand-new Citizens Bank Park. Nats fans never complained of Phillies fan invasions in those days. I remember grumbling about the odd busload of Mets fans, but, generally, RFK was mostly Nats fans, most of the time–and always pretty full.

The seasons since have not been kind. The Nats since 2005 have played some truly abysmal baseball. As you might imagine, the number of fans going to the park might be a function of the quality of the team they’re about to go see:

I had to multiply the won/loss ratio by 4000 to get a nice scale. Never mind the numbers, pay attention to the trends.

Other than a new-park bounce in 2008, the Nats fortunes at the turnstiles have tracked closely with their fortunes on the field. As the red line goes, so goes attendance. And how about our arch-rivals in the City of Brotherly love?

Same story. The Phillies didn’t contend in 2005 or 2006. Suddenly, 2007, they win the division and get a huge bump in attendance. From then on, they go from strength to strength, winning the world series in 2008, the National League Pennant in 2009, and taking the division in 2010 and 2011. Watch that red line again, folks: steady increase in win percentage, steady increase in attendance.

So don’t take Philly fans too personally, Nats town. A lot of them weren’t around in the lean times, despite their new ballpark. Put less charitably, the Phillies attendance is boosted by the thousands upon thousands of bandwagon fans that arrive when it looked like they might become contenders.

But there’s hope for the Nats. Most projections have them doing better in 2012 than they did in 2005. They play in a nicer ballpark now. They bring a much more attractive product onto the field, in the form of their strong starting pitching. Attendance should start to pick up in 2012. And even if Nats town can’t keep the vomitous hordes of Philadelphia fans away from the turnstiles this year, they’ll stop being quite so smug when they start losing.

So, Andy Feffer, if you’re reading this, pass it along to Rizzo and Mr. Lerner. The best way to keep Philadelphia fans sullen, depressed, and out of your ballpark is by building a team that beats their team and everybody else’s team besides.

EDITED: I’d erroneously called Andy Feffer “Dan Feffer” instead.