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.

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Aptitude, not (N)at(t)itude.

As I write this, the Washington Nationals have won 61 games and lost 40 and enjoy a four-game lead in the National League Eastern Division above the Atlanta Braves.

These are heady times in Nats town. The last time a baseball team from Washington was this good, Franklin Roosevelt was President.

Naturally, folks have wanted to attribute the team’s success to something special:

The stat-heads can debate this one for all eternity, arguing whether or not such nebulous concepts make any difference in a team’s won-loss record. All that matters is this important fact: The men who wear Nationals uniforms and help create their roster universally believe they are winning right now not only because of their physical abilities but because of their camaraderie and fortitude.

This is more Natitude than I am prepared to swallow.

The players may believe that it’s their “winning attitude” that’s making them win. I’m not in the clubhouse, so I don’t know. It’s tough for me to gauge a player’s (N)at(t)itude from Section 315. Here’s what I do know: The 2012 Nats are a pretty good baseball team.

As of this writing, the 2012 Nats score an average of 4.4 runs per game–just above the NL. East’s average of 4.3 runs per game. If the standings were based purely on average runs scored per game, they’d look like this: ATL (4.6), NYM (4.5), WAS (4.4), PHI (4.2), MIA (3.7).

The story–and it’s the same story we’ve been telling all year–is that it is extremely difficult to score runs against the Nats. They allow only 3.5 runs per game on average. As of this writing, no other team in all baseball allows fewer runs than the Nationals.

Behind the “K Street” rotation of Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson, and Detwiler, the Nationals pitching staff dominates. They are tied with Cincinnati (another first-place team) for the lowest ERA (3.26) in the National League. They are third in strikeouts. They have the lowest FIP (3.52) in the big leagues.

The Nats aren’t winning because they have a winning attitude. They are winning because they are performing in a way that sets them up to win, night after night. Their offense is only average, but their superlative pitching prevents so many runs that the end result is spectacular.

When you’re on a team like that, why wouldn’t you be happy? Why wouldn’t you think that you had a chance to win every time you went to the ballpark?

Everybody is busy praising Nats GM Mike Rizzo about his careful attention to clubhouse intangibles. That does these Nats a great disservice. They are performing in very tangible ways, and reaping the intangible benefits. Nothing fosters a winning attitude like winning.

The Ten Percent Problem

12-4.

12-4.

Twelve and four!

If you had told me in January that today, with ten percent of the baseball season behind them, the Nats would have lost only four games and won twelve–I would have laughed at you.

But as I type these words, I’m watching the last-place Phillies founder against the Diamondbacks. I never thought I’d see the day.

The Nats continue to outperform my pre-season projections. According to my calculations, the Nats should be about 9-7 (I actually had them projected .543). They should have scored 61 runs and allowed 59 runs.

As I predicted last post, the offense has cooled somewhat. To date, the Nats have scored 58 runs, marginally fewer than my preseason predictions would have suggested.  What should really amaze us, though is this: to date, the Nationals have allowed only 45 runs. Look again: that’s a whopping fourteen fewer runs than the preseason prediction.

That means that the Nats success is largely attributable to dominant pitching–especially the K Street rotation.

You know the statistics. As I write this, the Nats pitching staff leads all baseball in staff ERA (2.34), FIP (2.30), xFIP (3.16), and strikeouts (144). The Nats’ pitching staff, collectively, has the lowest opponents’ batting average (.199).  Of the top fifteen pitchers in all baseball in xFIP, four are Nationals: Gio Gonzalez (no. 2), Ross Detwiler (no. 9), Edwin Jackson (no. 13), and Stephen Strasburg (no. 14).

Add all of that up, and that’s worth three wins, I suppose.

It all makes for thrilling baseball. But the Nats are scoring only 3.63 runs per game so far. Again, that’s less than the Natstradamus-predicted rate of 3.80 runs per game. The National League average so far is 3.90. This does not bode well for the long term.

Then again, the Nats have the fewest runs allowed per game so far (2.80)–vastly outperforming the Natstradamus-projected 3.5 runs allowed per game.

If the Nats are going to stay hot, they are going to need to find offense somewhere. With Michael Morse hurt, all eyes will turn to Tyler Moore, whose arrival in Nats Town seems imminent. Until then, the Nats are going to balance on the razor’s edge–and Nats town is going to watch their every move breathlessly.

 

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.