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

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.

Harp-ocalypse Now.

I watched a snail…crawlin’ on the edge…of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering…along the edge…of a straight…razor…and surviving.

Truer words were never said about the Nats’ (lack of) offense.

Nats town is reeling. In the midst of a two-game losing streak (this is what passes for a catastrophe for the 2012 Nationals), the Nats place Ryan Zimmerman on the 15-day Disabled List for a shoulder injury. But Nats fans scarcely had any time to react, because the next news item was even more shocking:

Bryce Harper was called up from Syracuse. He will make his big-league debut tonight at Dodger Stadium, batting seventh, and playing left field.

Am I surprised? Yes. I had guessed that Harper would make his debut much later–at home against the Rays on June 19th.

Some might think that this is a desperation move by the Nats. That might be part of the story. The Nats score only 3.55 runs per game–and, if you take away the two occasions where they scored 7 runs, the Nats would only score 3.16 runs per game. Current Nationals left fielders (Bernadina, Nady, DeRosa, and Lombardozzi),  are batting a combined .161 this year–positively Matt Stairs-like! Even though Harper is only batting .250/.333/.375 so far at AAA Syracuse, almost anything is an improvement over what the Nats have now.

And, realistically who else could it have been? Let’s go through the Nats’ 40-man roster, shall we?

Zimmerman is out on the DL. So if you were looking for a one-for-one replacement, you’d want someone in the system who can play third base, who might have some offense. Anthony Rendon? Well, even if he were ready (remember, he’s only at high-A Potomac), he’s not available because of that awful ankle injury. That leaves Syracuse Chiefs third baseman Carlos Rivero, who has not exactly been crushing International League pitching (.236/.250/.309). Your best bet for a third baseman is probably someone already on the big-league roster. From what I saw last night, Lombo can play a pretty decent third base. So can Chad Tracy, if necessary.

OK, so now we can bring up an outfielder. Who’s available? Other than Harper, the only available outfielder on the 40-man roster is AA Harrisburg’s Eury Perez, who’s got some speed and pop. But so far he’s batting .225/.266/.247 in the Eastern League–not exactly what the Nats would be looking for in terms of big-league offense.

That leaves Harper, batting an underwhelming .250/.333/.375 at AAA Syracuse–that suspiciously low SLG number is not very reassuring, although there is some evidence that he’s feeling a bit more hitterish lately.

Many in Nats town–myself included–were wondering whether this was the moment we would see Tyler Moore, renowned murderer of International League baseballs, get the call. There were reports that Moore had been spending some time in left field to prepare him for this possibility. Moore is actually hitting better than Harper at the moment: .278/.354/.556.

But although Harper hasn’t been an outfielder for very long, he has at least been playing left field a lot more than Moore has. That, to me, would give Harper a very slight advantage in terms of getting called up.

Assuming Zimmerman’s DL stint is not an eerie repeat of 2011 Adam LaRoche (which began with a brave face, then a trip to the disabled list, then season-ending surgery), the Harper call-up is ominous for the members of Nats bench–the “Goon Squad.”

Because of the injury to Michael Morse, left field has been Goon Squad turf all season thus far. The offensive production hasn’t been pretty. If Zim comes back, and Harper is at least halfway competent, one of the goons is going to be terminated. With extreme prejudice.

How Good Does Bryce Harper Have to Be?

Keen readers of this blog–both of you–will have noticed one glaring omission among all of my calculations. I have thus far decided not to include a certain 19-year-old catcher-turned-outfielder who last saw limited playing time at AA Harrisburg.

In a recent column, the Washington Post’s Jason Reid suggested that Bryce Harper needs to grow up. Given that this is the same Jason Reid whose journalistic insight into the Redskins’ quarterback situation early in the 2011 season gave Washington sports fans–and journalism as a whole– the biggest “Doh!” moment since the night Dewey beat Truman, I was moved to tweet:

The fact that @JReidPost raised doubts about @BHarper3407 making the team leads me to conclude Harper WILL make the #nats opening day team

Well, if Harper does make the Opening Day roster, how good does he have to be to do no harm to a squad already projected for 86 wins?

Let’s assume Harper is an everyday player. There’s no indication so far that he can play center field. The Nats don’t have anyone available with a positive UZR as a center fielder except Werth. So let’s put Harper in right field. Here’s the most dangerous assumption of them all: assume Harper is a totally average defender.

Assuming a Healthy LaRoche

Let’s also assume that Adam LaRoche is healthy and ready to be his usual self at first base. That rounds out the outfield as Morse, Werth, and Harper.

Someone needs to get bumped off the bench. Given that the Nats went out and got DeRosa and Ankiel, that leaves Roger “The Shark” Bernadina the odd man out, so we need to assume that The Shark doesn’t break camp with the Nats.

Assuming everybody’s an every-day type player, we’ll need to cut down DeRosa’s plate appearances, to reflect his status as a real bench player and not half of a platoon. Let’s give him 250 plate appearances. Same with Ankiel.

As constructed and run through my model, this Harper-less squad is good for 83 wins. Were he to join the Nats as the opening-day right fielder, Harper would need to have a wRC of 25–that is “create” 25 runs over 162 games.

What does 25 wRC look like? It looks like an outfielder not much worse than Aaron Rowand of the Giants, who posted 27 wRC in 2011. Rowand batted .233/.274/.347 with 30 extra-base hits (including 4 home runs) in 2011. That’s a pretty low bar to clear.

But What If LaRoche Isn’t on the Team?

The situation becomes more complicated if LaRoche is not healthy. Morse has to move to first base. Werth slides to center, Harper moves into right. Left field sees a Bernadina/DeRosa platoon. Cameron and Ankiel come along for the ride as bench players. What does this look like now? Not too good, I’m afraid: 73 wins.

To do no harm to the team in this situation, Harper would need to be worth 90 wRC. What does a 90 wRC outfielder look like? Consider Matt Holliday of the Cardinals, who posted exactly 90 wRC in 2011. In 2011, Holliday batted .296/.388/.525 with 36 extra-base hits (including 22 home runs). That’s a much taller order.

To put the sheer magnitude of that task into perspective consider this: in 147 plate appearances with AA Harrisburg, Bryce Harper posted a wRC of 18. Normalizing that to the 600 plate appearances one might expect to see out of an every-day player, that would have given Harper an expected wRC of 83.72. Harper would have to hit major-league pitching better than he hit AA pitching to even have a chance of doing no harm to the team in this situation.

Fangraphs’ RotoChamp projection sees Harper with 259 plate appearances in 2012, projecting a wRC of 36 from those plate appearances. Even if we normalize this to 600 plate appearances, that only gets us to 83.39 wRC–not quite good enough for our purposes.

That’s how good Bryce Harper has to be. The real question is: how good is Bryce Harper? Only he can show us if he’s as good as he has to be. For the sake of Nats fans everywhere, I hope he shows us he’s much better than even that.

Reason, Passion–and Reasonable Expectations

If you read Spanish at all, read this post over at Línea de Fair. It discusses baseball, the philosophy of science, semiotics, Sabermetrics, and the experience of being a fan all in a single post. One paragraph in particular caught my attention (translation is mine):

The baseball fan and the baseball analyst–sometimes the roles are confused, but both are delighted to see a good ballgame–try to explain the logic of the game and to predict what might happen next in the same way that man used to try to find the reason why the sun rose every day, or why the rain fell. The dynamism and insight of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR, by its English initials) has generated new explanations, very much in vogue these days, which have been the origin of a feverish debate similar to that between the Apollonians and the Dionysiacs….

The author points to a divide in the philosophy of science between those who believe that reality can be described by the application of reason (Apollonians) and those who doubt that human reason can possibly explain the whole world (Dionysians). This is a tension that I as baseball fan feel very strongly.

On the one hand, there is a certain unknowable, aesthetic quality to baseball. When I see Danny Espinosa leap and pluck a line drive out of the air, turning as he lands to double off the runner taking a lead off first base, I am watching something no less beautiful or graceful as a ballet. But even though I might witness that play at Nats park with twenty or thirty or forty thousand of my closest friends, not one of them will feel quite the same way as I do when I see it. We can communicate those memories to each other, and compare them, but those emotions are really ours alone. And no matter how many times Debbi Taylor (or her successor) asked the Nats’ hero of the day to describe what was going through his mind as he made a game-changing play, neither Debbi nor anyone watching will ever really know how it felt to make that play. That’s a wholly subjective, unknowable experience. Our emotional bond with baseball is made of countless such memories–each of them precious, each of them irreplaceable, and each of them utterly incommunicable.

But then, I spend an awful lot of time perusing statistics. The cynic might suggest that this kills the joy of going down to the baseball game at all. After all, stats don’t tell stories as much as they open windows into specific questions: Which is the most effective pitcher? Who bats better, overall? How good is this player’s defense? Indeed, on this blog, I’ve tried to use my rudimentary grasp of statistics to open a window on the 2012 Nationals season yet-to-be.

All of this mucking about with cold rationality has affected me as a fan–but, I think, for the better. I started my 2012 projections project because I was sick and tired of hearing all the emotional overreactions to the Prince Fielder free agency drama on my twitter feed. The Nationals, so it went, were going to be world-beaters with Fielder and terrible without him. That looked like a proposition I could test, so I did, the best way I could.

As FDR might have said, the only thing Nats fans have to fear is “Fear itself: nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” My calculations put the Nationals anywhere between 84 and 86 wins–on track for their best season since arriving in DC. And, even in a “doomsday scenario” without Adam LaRoche, the Nats look to get anywhere between 79 and 81 wins.

Think about what that means. It means that the worst I can expect from the 2012 Nationals is that they’ll have an even chance of winning any given ballgame on any given night. As a fan, that’s all I can reasonably ask for, anyway. If that’s the worst I can expect, I can put my unreasoning, unjustified terror aside and enjoy the visceral joys of watching Espinosa and his teammates doing beautiful things on a baseball field. It might not be a perfect synthesis of reason and passion, but I’ll take it.

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.