“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.

Wild Ride

Mr. Walkoff did it again for the Nats at Opening Day in Nats Park…with a walkoff wild pitch!

It’s too bad the usually-reliable shutdown artist Brad Lidge blew the save in the top of the 9th. Gio Gonzalez’s pitching was a joy to behold from my perch in Section 309. Watching highlight reels of him grinning like a Little Leaguer after getting a hit? Amazing. How can I not love this kid?

Oh. Uh, ahemSorry. The Nats walk-off win at home today gives them sole possession of first place atop the National League East, a half-game ahead of the Mets. The Nats now have a record of 5 wins against 2 losses (.714 winning percentage!). They have scored 28 runs, allowing only 17.

If current trends hold, the Nats Pythagorean win expectation is .731. Wow.

How’s my model looking? Well, my preseason Natstradamus projection has the Nats scoring 26.66 runs by now and allowing 24.59 runs.

Even without Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Chien-Ming Wang, and Bryce Harper, the Nats are, to this point at least, outperforming my preseason projections. My rational mind knows this may not be sustainable. But when I’m sitting up in 309 and rooting for my Nats, it’s really really tough for me to care.

Fear and Loathing in the National League, East: the Mets

On our last stop on our tour of the N.L. East, we’ll meet the Mets. They’ve been a bit of a punching bag lately. Indeed, given their general manager’s propensity for self-deprecating tweets, it’s almost as if a separate Mets satire account is unnecessary–but that hasn’t stoppsed the Internet from creating one anyway).

Well, get this: I predict the 2012 Mets will win 79 games. Yup, that’s better than the Marlins this year. Yeah, that shocked me, too. How do the Mets manage to do it?

Everything depends on a healthy Johan Santana. Santana’s coming off the same shoulder-capsule repair surgery that the Nats’ Chien-Ming Wang underwent. Although Wang had a few promising starts in 2011, Santana made no MLB appearances, and it’s not entirely certain that either man can fully recover from this sort of surgery. If the Mets can get at least 160 innings of Santana’s 3.59 FIP pitching this year, and if Niese, Pelfrey, Dickey and Gee can hobble through the rest of the rotation, the Mets should actually be in pretty good shape.

The Mets defense is a net minus, (-3 UZR). David Wright at third base posts a -7 UZR. (Not great, when you consider that fellow Tidewater Virginian Ryan Zimmerman posts a +8 UZR at third base for the Nats.) But overall, the Mets defense isn’t too bad.

The Mets offense, however, is pretty anemic. The Mets offense is projected to score a total of 687 runs, nowhere near the 718 runs the Mets put up last year–they’ll really miss José Reyes in Flushing!

Assuming Santana is healthy, the Mets might surprise a few people in the N.L. East. They shouldn’t be treated as push-overs, as weak as they are presently. If Santana isn’t healthy, well…the Mets might be Amazin’ for the wrong reason.

All told, the outlook for the Mets isn’t terrible. Indeed, it looks an awful lot like Matt’s optimistic scenario:

With Johan back for a full season, its like the Mets get a sort of ace pitcher stimulus package. Also, keep in mind the walls in the outfield of Citi Field have been modified. The modification should help to yield better home run chances for David Wright, Jason Bay, and other sluggers who have seen their number suffer due to the quirky nature of Citi Field. The Mets may not have the best chance of seeing the playoff in 2012, but at the same time who says they will even have a losing record? Perhaps some of the inexperienced rookies put it together and have some good seasons. Who knows, they are the amazin’ Mets so let not write them off just yet.

Fear & Loathing in the National League, East: the Marlins

The next stop in our whirlwind tour around the N.L. East is Miami. I predict the Marlins will win 75 games this year.

On offense, the 2012 Marlins become a run-scoring machine. True to his word, Hanley Ramirez answers his critics, with 100 wRC. Mike Stanton continues to mash, putting up 92 wRC of his own. New Fish José Reyes should be worth 88 wRC. That’s a line-up that’s sure to light up the flashing-neon monstrosity the Marlins will erect in the outfield enough to turn even casual fans into Tripping Buster Olney.

But the Marlins’ defense is pretty poor. Logan Morrison (-5 UZR) is the biggest culprit here. José Reyes manages to be a slight liability on defense, as well (-2 UZR). All told, the Marlins’ defense costs them 9 additional runs over the ’12 season.

And how about the pitching? Don’t ask. Buehrle is a fine addition (4.07 FIP), to be sure, but not enough to keep the staff as a whole from allowing 787 runs.

If you like high-scoring affairs, Marlins games might be your thing this year. For as many times as the neon lights up in Miami, the Marlins pitching and defense eventually has to take the field and give back some of those runs.

These are still pretty crude estimates, but it doesn’t look like the Marlins are going to generate the kind of buzz they’re going to need to fill their brand-new Miami ballpark. Gio Gonzalez isn’t going to have a hard time getting seats for all his friends & family who want to come up from Hialeah and watch him pitch, that’s for sure.

Once again, Natstradamus must give the nod to Dave’s more pessimistic outlook:

While clubhouse issues and off field distractions take their toll on the offense the pitching staff is riddled with issues of a different kind. Mark Beuhrle has a typical season for him but it really only replaces what the Marlins lost in Vasquez, Josh Johnson’s shoulder feels 100% but isn’t and he can no longer throw a fastball higher than 89, and Sanchez and Nolasco never realize there [sic] potential and continue to be inconsistent mid to back of the rotation starters.

The Marlins bullpen is quite interesting to begin with. Heath Bell was signed in the off-season to replace Juan Carlos and he is able to but that doesn’t make the Marlins bullpen good as they are still lacking a set-up man, seventh inning guy, and Mike Dunn is the modern day version of Ray King. Combine the bullpen issues with an injury to Josh Johnson and Jose Reyes, and then sprinkle in all the craziness that could happen in the clubhouse and the Marlins could be one of the more interesting franchises in 2012, but not in a good way. At least it will all be on reality television though.

Fear & Loathing in the National League, East: the Braves

Let’s get this out of the way quick. I predict the 2012 Braves will win 83 games.

Overall, the Braves are a fine ballclub, and in many ways very similar to the Nats. The Braves starting pitching, however, isn’t as good as the Nats, and gives up an awful lot more runs (Braves projected pitching runs allowed: 698; Nats: 599!). The Braves’ defense is a bit weaker than the Nats as well, saving only 2.3 runs where the Nats might save 3.3.

The Braves make up for this, though, by batting very well. I project the Braves to score 710 runs–well above the Nats 648. But, again, starting pitching will be the difference here.

The question mark going into the 2012 Braves season, for me, will be their rookie shortstop, Tyler Pastornicky. I have him performing at about the league average for everyday shortstops, and as an average defender. If he’s much better than that, the gap between the Braves and the Nats closes a bit. But at this point, there’s just no way to know.

I would expect Braves/Nats series in 2012 to play out an awful lot like the final Braves/Nats series at Nats Park in 2011–a Series the Nats took 2 games to 1, by the way.

Overall, I’d have to give the nod to Dave’s pessimistic outlook for the Braves–with the caveat that I don’t think the offense will be nearly as bad as he thinks it may be:

The Braves pitching depth looks good but is slowly unraveling. Tommy Hanson was in a car accident the other day and like so many other baseball teams the Braves aren’t going to pick up the phone and call the Falcons to find out how NFL players get over concussions in a week. Tommy Hanson tries to come back early in April but home plate is a blur as he wildly throws like Rick Ankiel in the NLDS. Jurrjens having not been traded rewards the Braves by throwing out his shoulder, and the rest of the young staff fails to come together while Tim Hudson starts to show his age over the 257 innings he is forced to pitch.

The Braves had one of the best bullpens in the majors in 2011 but they might have been overworked. Being overworked doesn’t always lead to injury, but it can lead to ineffectiveness, and that could be a very real problem that plagues the 2012 Atlanta Braves. Some of that depth in the bullpen could be moving to the starting rotation and if Venters and Kimbrel are both ineffective then the Braves could have a serious problem at the end of games.

Fear & Loathing in the National League, East: The Phillies

Well, friends, I promised fear and loathing and I’ll give you fear and loathing. The guys over at Blown Save, Win have had their say, laying out a best case and worst case scenario for each of the teams in the N.L. East.

I wish I could be so thorough. But I pride myself on being thorough–or at least, I deceive myself that the work that I do has the appearance of thoroughness. I’ll post a new piece on each of the N.L. East teams, looking at my calculations, and comparing them with the BS, W scenarios.

Running the Phillies line-up through the model I’ve built to project the 2012 Nats, I project that the 2012 Phillies will win 96 games. A decline in starting pitching, along with a decline in offensive production, will slow, but likely not stop, the Phillies as they march through the 2012 season. The calculations show us a Phillies team that looks most like Matt’s rosy projection:

. Imagine if some key players had not been hurt, too. 2012 will yield a healthy Utley, a huge portion of the Phillies offense. Ryan Howard may be injured, but you have to believe that things will come back for the big guy after he is fully healed. Dingers for everyone! Cliff Lee, Cole Hammels [sic], and Roy Halladay, will be back and as amazing as ever, enough said on that topic. With a little luck, the Phillies have also found a sort of diamond in the rough in Dontrell Willis. If Dominic Brown can put it together at the plate, the Phillies will have another young buck roaring out of the gates to shag fly balls and swat doubles. Laynce Nix had a great season in 2011, with a new 2 year contract who says he can’t do it again? Don’t forget about Hunter Pence either. With reliable offense, the Phillies are poised to hit the playoffs once again.

Pitching: Slight Decline

The 2011 Phillies starting pitching was unbelievably good, inspiring comparisons to the 1997 Braves–and not without reason. Once Vance Worley cracked the starting rotation, no Philadelphia starting pitcher had a FIP greater than 3.60 (in the 2008-11 period under study). In 2012, their starting rotation is still fearsome, but they will sorely miss Roy Oswalt. The top of the rotation still features Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Halladay. From 2008 through 2011, those three record FIP figures of 2.79, 3.54, and 2.83, respectively. Vance Worley slots into Oswalt’s space–the two of them have very similar FIP figures through the period under study (3.32 for Oswalt; 3.31 for Worley). But there’s a considerable drop from that to Joe Blanton’s 4.39 FIP. The drop in starting rotation FIP accounts for a huge jump in runs scored to 638, from 529.

Defense: Strong as Ever

The Phillies, however, are saved by their improbably good defense–across the whole line-up, 24 runs are saved–fully half of those chargeable to the efforts of their second-baseman Chase Utley (12 UZR!). Hunter Pence’s defense (5 UZR) is good enough to make up for Ryan Howard’s lack of defense (-5 UZR) and a marginal improvement over his predecessor, Jayson Werth (4 UZR).

Offense: Better than You’d Think

The Phillies offense will be hobbled by the temporary absence of Ryan Howard, who must miss a number of plate appearances as he nurses his injured Achilles tendon. Frankly, given the way he crumpled as he fell, I am surprised to hear that Howard wasn’t carted off to a glue factory after the injury, and that he is taking live batting practice even as you read this. Even accounting for that absence, the rest of the Phillies line-up bats well enough to score 739 runs–even more runs than they did last year.

Nats fans might be dismayed by these projections–but it’s tough to deny that the Phillies are a very good ballclub. But for 2012, the gap between the Phillies and the Nats has closed considerably. Expect Phillies/Nats series to be tense, well-pitched affairs.

Why the Nats Didn’t Re-Sign Pudge

I got into a pretty lively discussion on Twitter today about the Nats catcher situation, sparked off by This tweet:

The #nats are horribly thin at catcher. They don’t know how Ramos will recover from the kidnapping. They need to bring Pudge back.

Let me refute the proposition that [the Nats] need to bring Pudge back by refuting, in turn, each of the statements upon which it was premised.

The Nats are horribly thin at catcher

There are a few assumptions embedded in this statement. Mostly, the objection boils down to this: Jesús Flores is not a good hitter.

This is an opinion. I’ll answer with facts. In his 2011 Venezuelan League regular season, Flores batted .332/.369/.516, with 16 doubles and 8 home runs. He posted a wRC of 27. Yeah, I can hear you saying, that’s Venezuela, a Double-A league at best. He did’t hit so good as a big-leaguer!. OK, that’s true. In 2008, his last long, uninjured season, Flores batted .256/.296./402 with 8 home runs. Not impressive–he was only worth 32 wRC to the ’08 Nats. That’s a wRC+ of 79, which is below average.

I concede that there’s a very big drop-off from Flores’s best wRC+ of 79 to Wilson Ramos’s worst wRC+ or 91 (in 2010). But, as we’ll see later, Flores stacks up very nicely against the competition–especially when that competition is Pudge Rodriguez.

[The Nats] don’t know how Ramos will recover from the kidnapping

This is a true statement in the very strict sense. We’ll never really know, because Ramos himself won’t talk much about it. The only thing we have to judge him on is his Venezuelan league performance. As I said on Sunday, the Venezuelan League numbers aren’t as bad as they might seem. Sure, Ramos batted a comparatively lousy .216/.274/.273 with 2 doubles and only 1 home run, accounting for only 11 wRC. But Ramos only got 98 plate appearances (his regular season having been disrupted by the kidnapping, naturally). When we normalize his offensive numbers to the 200 plate appearances he would have otherwise gotten (and which he did get in 2010), he would have gotten 23 wRC. Yes, exactly the same wRC as he got in 2010, a Venezuelan season in which he hit .322/.390/.567 with 17 doubles and 9 home runs.

And we cannot help but be encouraged by his performance in the Championship Series, in which he helped the Tigres de Aragua to victory batting .450/.550/.478 with 2 home runs over 20 at-bats in 6 games.

For all intents and purposes, the Wilson Ramos that walked out of the jungle a free man seems to have been the same Wilson Ramos that was taken into the jungle at gunpoint. We should expect the same from him.

The Nats Need to Sign Pudge

No they don’t.

OK, you’re saying, but what’s the harm in signing Pudge? He’s a future hall-of-famer, calls a great game, and is generally awesome. Why not have Pudge back up for Ramos instead of Flores? Well, I hate to say it, but Pudge is too old, bats too poorly, and costs too much to put him on the team instead of Flores.

Remember when I said Flores’s wRC+ of 79 in his best year made him a below-average hitter? Have a look at Pudge’s wRC+ since 2009. It’s not pretty: 69, 68, 63. In the 2010 season, the last season Pudge was the every-day catcher, Pudge hit into 25 double plays (leading a friend of mine to dub him, not so fondly, GiDPudge). There’s no denying it–Pudge has entered the autumn of the patriarch. Rest assured that having Pudge as a back-up catcher instead of Flores will mean less offense on a ballclub that desperately needs offense.

Fine, but Pudge is the best defensive catcher in the game! Yes he is. But using the same wRC projection method I use for making my 2012 season projections, Pudge is worth 24 wRC. Flores is worth 31. Is Pudge’s defense good enough to save 7 additional runs? Maybe not.

Even if Pudge’s defense could make up for his declining offense, there’s the question of money. In 2011, Pudge earned a cool $3,000,000 from the Nats. Even if he decided to take a significant discount and play for half that–$1,500,000, Pudge would cost nearly twice as much as the $815,000 the Nats are paying Flores for 2012.

If you think Flores’s future looks more like his 2011 Venezuelan League numbers, why would you pay twice as much for a catcher who will net you less offense? And even if Pudge’s defensive skills equal the difference between his offensive numbers and Flores’s, why would you pay twice as much to achieve the same net result?

It’s not that Pudge has not been an excellent catcher. But the Nats have two catchers who are perfectly adequate for their purposes right now–especially at their salary levels. If I were GM, I would worry less about catchers and more about the outfield.