Milestones on K Street?

A friend of mine remarked recently:

So the Rays’ pitchers just set the record for most K’s in a season by an AL team with 1,246. The 2003 Cubs hold the MLB record with 1,404. The Nats currently have 1,237 K’s on the season. What are the odds that the Nats’ pitchers break the Cubs’ mark in the next 3 years? I say even money.

This is one of those things that sneaks up on you. As much as I follow the Nats’ pitching staff, I had not really been keeping track of their cumulative strikeout figures. Currently, the Nats are third in the league, behind the Phillies (1290) and the Brewers (1299), although I have to believe the Brewers’ strikeout totals are somewhat inflated from having to face the Astros and the Pirates (who are, respectively first and second in strike-outs while batting) so often.

Let’s get one obvious thing out of the way. The Nats pitching staff posts a collective 8.18 K/9. There are about 90 innings left in the year. Assuming nothing changes radically, we’d expect around 82 more strikeouts through the end of this year, bringing the total to something like 1,328 or so. So, no way the 2012 Nats come close to the 2003 Cubs’ unbelievable strikeout totals.

Could the Nats equal such a mark?

We can try to make an extremely crude projection. Let’s assume an unlimited, 200-inning Stephen Strasburg. Let’s further assume that Edwin Jackson re-signs with the organization, and that Ross Detwiler remains in the rotation. That gives us a five-man rotation of Strasburg, Gio, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler. So let’s start by looking at how they’d do.

Looking at totals since 2008, here’s what the K/9 rates look like:

Strasburg: 11.21
Gonzalez: 8.79
Zimmermmann: 7.41
Jackson: 6.92
Detwiler: 5.48

Assuming all of them pitch 190 innings (I know, very very crude here), this is what it looks like:

Strasburg: 236 strikeouts
Gonzalez: 186 strikeouts
Zimmermann: 156 strikeouts
Jackson: 146 strikeouts
Detwiler: 116 strikeouts.

That gives us a starting pitching rotation total of 840 strikeouts. So far, in 2012, those same five have recorded 800 strikeouts. This seems plausible. So the 840 strikeouts from the starting rotation would need an additional 564 strikeouts from relievers to equal the 2003 Cubs. 2012 Nats relievers put up 433 strikeouts, all together.

What if we don’t bother with all this tiresome averaging over the past several years, and assume the Nats pitch at the same level they’ve done in 2012? Well, assuming 190 innings for everybody:

Strasburg: 11.13 K/9; 235 K’s
Gonzalez: 9.36 K/9; 198 K
Zimmermann: 6.95 K/9; 147 K
Jackson: 8.03 K/9; 170 K
Detwiler: 5.68 K/9; 120 K

For a staff total of 870 strikeouts.

But let’s look back at those 2003 Cubs K/9 rates:

Kerry Wood: 11.35 K/9; 211 IP; 266 K
Mark Prior: 10.43 K/9; 211.1 IP; 245 K
Matt Clement: 7.63 K/9; 201.2 IP; 171 K
Carlos Zambrano 7.07 K/9: 214 IP; 168 K
Shawn Estes: 6.11 K/9; 151.2 IP; 103 K

Wow. Strasburg today has nothing on Wood and Prior in 2003. They got more strikeouts, more often, over far more innings than we now think prudent. The forgotten man here was Shawn Estes, who racked up 103 strikeouts in 28 starts for the 2003 Cubs.

If the Nats are going to challenge the 2003 Cubs for the most strikeouts by a pitching staff in a single season, they’re going to have to hope that several of the following happen in the same year:

  • Stephen Strasburg pitches over 200 innings
  • Jordan Zimmermann pitches over 200 innings
  • Gio Gonzalez pitches over 200 innings
  • Ross Detwiler discovers some way to get 2 more strikeouts per 9 innings
  • The bullpen gets more strikeouts
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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.