Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

The Nats won Game 1 of their NLDS series against the Cardinals, 3 runs to 2, on a dramatic two-out RBI single by rookie Tyler Moore. But let’s rewind and remember how they got there.

Michael Morse reached on an error. Ian Desmond singled, putting runners on first and second and nobody out.

Danny Espinosa then, inexplicably, bunted. Many of us in Nats town scratched our heads (which were already raw from pulling our hair out in clumps all game). Why the hell would Espinosa bunt? On the radio, Slowes and Jaegler wondered if perhaps Morse had missed a sign–was that a safety squeeze? A suicide squeeze? What the hell was going on?

After the game, Davey Johnson said he had called for a straight sacrifice bunt, figuring it was the best way to win. (Upon hearing this, I’m sure that Bob Brenly, giving small-ball analysis for the TBS television feed, achieved orgasm).

But did it really give the Nats a better chance to win? Let’s look at the numbers. Before the sacrifice bunt, the situation was runners on first and second, nobody out. Looking that situation up in our handy run expectancy matrix , we see that in that situation, the Nats had a run expectancy of 1.556. That is: when you look at all the times that situation has occurred in baseball between 1993 and 2010, the team in that situation scored, on average, 1.556 runs.

After the sacrifice bunt, the situation was runners on second and third, with one out. That drops the Run Expectancy slightly, to 1.447. So, did the sacrifice give the Nats a better chance to win? Strictly speaking, no. But the drop in run expectancy isn’t big enough, really, to get all that upset about it–especially if all you’re trying to do is get one run over and tie the ball game.

Where things really got dicey was after the Kurt Suzuki strikeout. That made it two outs, runners on second and third: a run expectancy of 0.626–a huge drop from 1.447!

That puts Tyler Moore’s pinch-hit RBI single into perspective. When we watched it, it felt deleriously unexpected–that’s because it was.

Incidentally, I wish TV broadcasters kept a little base/out state run expectancy figure off in one corner of their broadcast. It would be an excellent bit of additional information.

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Hunting the Dreaded Sun Monster

Nats fans are all too well acquainted with the dreaded Sun Monster that ate up both Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth during a Sunday afternoon horror show against the Brewers at Nats park on September 23. (Of course, this creature already has its own twitter account.)

Well, the Nats will travel to Saint Louis to play the Cardinals in the National League Division series. Because television is run by media elites who write idiotic hit pieces about DC, the Nats will play at 3:00 P.M, Eastern time. Thanks to the New York DamnYankees and their stranglehold on prime-time television scheduling, the Nats will have to play an afternoon game for the benefit of the legions of unemployed television-viewing baseball fans everywhere who would otherwise be numbing their pain with vicodin and bourbon cocktails while watching Dr. Phil.

This also means that Harper, Werth, and possibly Morse might have to contend with a Saint Louis Sun Monster. James Wagner of the Post has already written a fairly good piece on the difficulties of the sun in Saint Louis. I commend that piece to you if you want to read about how players felt about the sun.

But here at Natstradamus, we like verifiable phenomena where we can find them. So the question is: when is the worst sun field time at New Busch Stadium in Saint Louis?

If you don’t want to be blinded with science here’s your short answer: the Sun Monster is going to gobble up whoever is standing in center field at 4:02 P.M. Central Time (5:02 Eastern).

Let’s start with the ballpark orientation. You should all bookmark this diagram by the brilliant FlipFlopFlyBall. That’s a graphical representation of the direction a batter faces in all MLB ballparks, relative to True North.

Let’s assume that a center fielder in straight-away center field lines up so that he could stare at the batter directly in the eyes–that is, they would be on the same line, facing each other. (I know this isn’t how real defensive alignment works, but go with me on this, OK?) That means that the center fielder would have to be facing 180 degrees opposite the batter’s facing.

Refer again to that diagram and look for Busch Stadium. If you plug Busch Stadium into Google Earth and measure the angle from home plate to straight away center field, you will see that the batter faces about 68 degrees from true North. The Center Fielder, then, would have to be facing the other direction (180 degrees opposite!) so the Center Fielder’s facing is about 248 degrees from true North.

Thanks to the hard work of scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the general public has access to an excellent Solar position calculator. The value we’re looking for is the Solar Azimuth: the position of the sun in degrees clockwise from north.

At the start of the game (2:00 P.M. Central Time, 3:00 P.M. Eastern), we can already see that the solar azimuth is at 221.94 degrees. Things get progressively worse as the afternoon goes on, however. At about 4:02 local time, things are at their worst: the solar azimuth reaches the dreaded 248.06 degrees: right into the eyes of the center fielder.

Yikes. How about a shadow? That’s going to need a bit of trigonometry.

At the start of the game, the solar elevation (the angle of the sun, measured from the horizon) is 36.06 degrees. I don’t have good measurements of the height of the stands at Busch Stadium, so I’m going to assume the stands are about 100 feet tall at their highest point. We’ll also imagine that the center fielder is playing about medium depth (start of the inning, no basenners, no defensive shifts on) which puts him maybe 375 feet from home plate. I don’t know the measurement of the foul ground between the plate and the backstop. Let’s assume it’s 12 feet.

The length of the shadow at any given time, then, assuming that the sun is shining directly behind home plate, is the long side of a right triangle formed by the base of the backstop (A), the top of the stands (B), and the position of the center fielder (C). If that value is equal to or greater than 387 (375+12), the center fielder is in the shadow; if less, the Sun Monster has him.

So how long will the shadow be at 4:02 PM central time? well, that’ll be

\tan{\theta} = \frac{\text{height of stands}}{\text{distance from backstop}}

Which means

\text{Length of shadow} = \frac{\text{height of stands}}{\tan \theta}

Where

\theta = \text{angle of elevation}

With an angle of elevation of 16.51 degrees at 4:02 PM local time,

\text{Length of shadow} = \frac{\text{100 feet}}{\tan 16.51^\circ} = 337 \text{feet}

Our center fielder will get no help from the shadows, then. If he stands 375 feet from the plate, he’s 387 feet from the backstop, and in the full sun. Fifty feet ahead of him (in what would now doubtless be infield-fly territory), the relief of the shadows beckons. But he must live with the full sun.

At the start of the game, by the way, the shadows are much shorter–a mere 137 feet–so even if the sun isn’t directly in the center fielder’s eyes, pretty much the whole outfield is in direct sunlight.

There you have it, Nats fans. We had better hope that there are no fly balls hit to Nats outfielders tomorrow.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.