Natstradamus Projections for 2015: REPLY HAZY TRY AGAIN

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the Natstradamus projections for the 2015 season!

This year, the projection comes with a major caveat: If Ryan Zimmerman is no worse than a league-average defensive first baseman, the Washington Nationals are projected to win between 95 and 98 games.

Just to refresh your recollection (because Lord knows I need to refresh mine every year), I use a pretty simple projection system to come up with the Nats’ won/loss totals for the year. The whole thing is based off Bill James’s Pythagorean Expectation, and it’s a satisfyingly intuitive way to figure out how good your team is. In baseball, you win if you score more runs than you allow. The Pythagorean Win Expectation model reflects that.

Imagine the whole baseball season compressed into two halves of one inning at Nats park. First, we need to fill up the lineup card of players. Then, we need to know who these players are–I use a four-year trailing average as the basis for these calculations. Then, we need to figure who plays where and when. This is the greatest acknowledged weakness of my system, as I have somewhat arbitrarily assigned playing time based on my impressions of injuries, etc.

At the top of the inning, the visiting teams come to bat. The result of that half-inning will be Runs allowed. Any upper-deck crank will tell you that there are two ways you can allow a run, generally: by pitching badly (giving up tons of walks and homers) or by fielding badly (not getting to balls hit in the gap, dropping fly balls, committing errors). The same upper-deck crank will tell you that you can get out of the inning with good pitching (striking everyone out) and great fielding (robbing home runs, showing ridiculous range, gunning down runners with your arm). In my model, base pitching runs allowed off a pitcher’s FIP (I also use xFIP as an alternative, which normalizes pitcher home runs allowed to a league average home-run/fly-ball rate). Defense is handled by UZR, which handily expresses defense as the number of extra runs allowed or saved.

At the bottom of the inning, the Nats come to bat: time to score some runs. I use Weighted Runs Created for each batter. Since that’s a counting stat, I divide that by the number of plate appearances over the last four years to get the number of runs created per plate appearance. I multiply this by the number of projected plate appearances (an everyday player will get about 600 plate appearances). That’s the number of runs on the board.

When that’s over, I come to some conclusions.

The 2015 Nats pitching staff is projected to allow between 530 (using FIP) and 562 (using xFIP) runs. The 2014 Nats actually allowed 555 runs–and we were already amazed at how good the pitching was last year.

This is a good thing because there is too much uncertainty about the defense to have any real confidence. UZR is notorious in that it needs a pretty big sample size to stabilize–the rule of thumb is that 3 years’ worth of data for an everyday player is what you’d need for the stat to be of any real use. Unfortunately, Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman, is a relatively new creation. His limited time at first base resulted in a comically bad UZR/150 (i.e., what UZR would be if he played 150 games at first base for a year) of -109.1. If true, it would mean that Ryan Zimmerman’s first base defense would be costing the Nats over 20 more runs than he would stand to get them at the plate (~88, by my calculations). That’s hard to stomach. If we follow the model blindly, though, we end up with the defense costing the Nats’ excellent pitching just over 97 runs. If we back off and assume Ryan Zimmerman is at least a league-average first baseman, the defense improves significantly, actually saving just under 12 runs.

So, if you think Ryan Zimmerman is a 100-run liability at first base (and I doubt very much that this is the case), the pitching and defense combined concede between 627-659 runs (totals not seen since 2011, when the Nats allowed 643 runs). If you think Ryan Zimmerman is a league-average first baseman, the pitching and defense combine to allow between 518 and 550 runs (As good or better than the 2014 Nats).

Turning now to the batting, things are more straightforward. The model projects the Nats will score 652 runs. This is lower than last year’s observed total of 686 runs. The projection reflects my pessimism regarding Rendon’s playing time and the speed at which Span and Werth can return to the lineup. I will be very happily proven wrong on this point, though.

Add it all together, and you end up with 95 to 98 wins if Zim is at least a league-average first baseman. If he is the nightmare that the tiny and highly unreliable sample of data UZR has to work with, things are much less rosy, with the Nats winning between 80 and 84 games, and likely missing the playoffs.

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.

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.

Round and Round it Goes

It’s been a dizzying day in Natstown. First came the news that the Nationals had prevailed in the salary arbitration case against John Lannan, netting Lannan a $5 million sallary instead of the $5.7 million he asked for.

Just when everybody thought it would be time to put the arbitration proceedings behind us and focus on baseball, Natstown was rocked by the news that Bavarian-born St. Louis hurler Edwin Jackson had joined the Nats for a one-year deal valued at about $10 million.

Wait, WHAT?

I guess that means Rizzo’s going to trade Lannan and acquire that mythical center fielder, right? Well, not really. “We did not acquire Edwin Jackson to trade another starting pitcher,” said Rizzo.

If we’re to take Rizzo at his word–something I myself am loath to do–where does that leave the 2012 Nationals?

The Nats can’t possibly break camp with all of that starting pitching. Someone has got to go on the pitching staff. It can’t be Detwiler, who’s out of minor-league options. I very much doubt that it will be Wang. The only pitcher in the rotation that comes to mind with minor league options left is…the five-million dollar man, John “Long Ball” Lannan.

So Jackson must replace Lannan. What does that mean? Well, between 2008 and 2011, Edwin Jackson has has a FIP of 4.13 (as opposed to Lannan’s 4.57). Assigning him the 180 innings that I gave Lannan in my previous projections, Edwin Jackson’s better pitching is worth one extra win. That’s right Nats town: With Edwin Jackson instead of John Lannan, the 2012 Nationals would be projected to 85 wins.

It could potentially get better. Edwin Jackson is a much better batter than Lannan. I project he will be worth 1.16 wRC in 2012. So what? That nudges the win total up to 86.

That’s a lot of wins for a ballclub that’s only broken even once (the magical 2005 Nationals!). But that hasn’t stopped some observers from envisioning big things for the Nats. Who would have believed that Buster Olney was going to put the Nats in the wildcard?

My best guess here is that the fans in Syracuse will be treated to John Lannan for a good while…until a deal can be struck trading Lannan, Bernadina, Detwiler, and possibly Lombardozzi for a capable center fielder.

Also, what shouldn’t be lost in all this is that John Lannan has been a pretty good pitcher for the Nats, all in all. As a friend of mine remarked right after the arbitration award was announced, “Lannan has done yeoman’s work for the Nationals during some of their darkest years.” Even if he didn’t get all of what he asked for, he deserved at least some of 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.