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.

# I’m sorry, Nats Town.

I try very hard not to blog out of emotion. There’s a lot of feeling out there–mostly on sports talk radio–and not enough thinking. If you follow me on twitter, you know that I’m pretty emotional when I watch Nats games. Lately, most of those emotions are bad.

So I want to apologize, Nats town. I’m sorry. As winter thawed to spring, I projected the Nats for an unbelievable 98 wins and the division crown. As I write this, the Nats are 48-52, in third place behind Philadelphia, and eight games back from the division-leading Braves.

I don’t think they’re going to catch up.

When I projected the Nats to win all those games, I assumed two things: the starting lineup would be healthy, and everybody was going to perform in line with their four-year trailing averages.

By this time, my model would have expected the Nats to have scored some 448 runs. They have scored only 367 to date. The disappointments are all across the board.

Let’s look at the differences:

According to my pre-season model, Jayson Werth should have 63 wRC by now. He has accumulated only 44–a difference of 19 runs over 100 games. Given his tremendous performance since his return from the disabled list, we can safely assume that his time away accounts for the difference in runs.

Injury also robbed the Nats of nearly a month of Bryce Harper’s services. By now, according to my model, he should have accounted for 59 wRC. He has accumulated only 42: a difference of 17 runs.

More perplexing is the offensive decline of Denard Span. According to my model, he should have accounted for 54 wRC by now; he only has 40, a difference of 14 runs. Every time I see him, he seems to ground out sharply to second base–a gut feeling reinforced by the fact that his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) stands at .300, down from his career BABIP of .315. Perhaps he was due for a regression in BABIP eventually? I don’t know.

The single biggest offensive failure of the Nats in the first 100 games of the 2013 season was their stubborn insistence on Danny Espinosa. We now know that Espinosa was suffering through a number of injuries that sapped him of power–his ISO (Isolated power) numbers dropped from a career .165 to .114 this year. The power outage, coupled with his high strikeout rate (28.1% this year, slightly up from his career K% of 27.1%), rendered him an offensive black hole and an automatic “out” for opposing pitchers. Had Espinosa been at least as healthy as he was in 2011 and 2012, my model expected him to have accumulated 42 wRC by now. He accumulated 4. That’s a difference of 38 runs.

Put another way: if Danny Espinosa had been as I expected him to be this year, and if the Nats had allowed exactly as many runs as they have to this point (392 runs), the Nats would be five wins better.

Put yet one more way: Danny Espinosa was so bad compared to how I projected him that the shortfall that he created in my projections is greater than the shortfall created by the injuries to Harper and Werth combined.

Espinosa’s offensive failings, we can say, helped put the Nats in a very deep hole–one that they might not manage to climb out of. Every team struggles. Nobody in the NL East seems to be winning as I write this. And yet, the Nats have fallen into third place because of their lousy start.

This wasn’t Rick Eckstein’s fault, or Davey Johnson’s, or, really Danny Espinosa’s fault. This was General Manager Mike Rizzo’s fault. His “scout’s eye” might have told him something was wrong with Espinosa. The power outage was, in hindsight, evident from the beginning and showed no sign of abating. He knew that Espinosa had at least two injuries that were likely causing his offensive struggles. And yet, for months, Rizzo did nothing, despite the fact that Espinosa had a minor-league option left.

Instead, we kept telling ourselves that it was early, that things were going to come around. For some things did come around–notably Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos (the latter of which, I should add, is 10 wRC better than my model had him at this point of the year, despite having played a fraction of the time due to an extended DL stint). But for Espinosa, it never did.

I wish I could offer some hope. I wish I could tell you that, no, the Nats offense had every chance of breaking out. I can’t. This is what we’ve got to look forward to.

I’m sorry, everybody. I’m really, really sorry.

# Projecting the 2013 Nationals: Extra Innings

When I projected that the 2013 Nats were going to win 94 games, I did so with a bit of trepidation. Not only did this mean that I was projecting a performance so good that it would have been literally unbelievable only a few years before, but because I have certain doubts about the construction of my model.

As you might have gathered from the title of this post, I think my model has been systematically under-counting playing time for pitchers and hitters. In the spirit of Top of the Inning/Bottom of the Inning nature of the Natstradamus projections, I’ll deal with the pitching issues first, and then the batting problems in the bottom of the inning.

EDIT: Astute readers noted that I should have reduced relief pitcher innings by as much as I increased starting pitching innings. I have amended the relevant analysis. This results in a 98-win total.

Executive Summary for the TL;DR Crowd: Our earlier projection wasn’t as accurate as it should have been in counting playing time: A slight adjustment in innings pitched for starters–with a corresponding reduction in relief pitching innings– yielded a decrease in runs scored by 2—but a better/more nuanced look at plate appearances by the starting line-up yielded an astonishing increase in runs scored, from 692 to 725. This revises our win projection for the 2013 Nats to 98 wins.

Innings, Limits, and Other Stuff to Tear Your Hair Out With

First, pitching. If you look back at the projected innings pitched column in my pitching runs allowed projections, you will notice that I assume that pitchers in the starting rotation will pitch about 190 innings each, with Strasburg pitching only 180. How does that stack up with reality?

• Gio Gonzalez (199.1 IP);
• Jordan Zimmermann (195.2 IP)
• Edwin Jackson (189.2 IP).

Looking at things like this, it’s starting to look like our 180-inning starting rotation baseline is off by a little bit. Is it really, though? None of the top three for the Braves (Minor, Hudson, Hanson) pitched over 180 innings last year. The Phillies had Hamels (215.1) and Lee (211.0), then a sharp drop-off (injuries). The Mets had Dickey (232.2) and Niese (190.1), and then a precipitous dropoff to Santana (117.0).

Things get a bit better when we look at the Reds, whose top five were remarkably consistent as far as innings, with Cueto (217), Latos (209.1), Bailey (208), Arroyo (202) , and Leake (179).  Likewise, the Giants got a lot of innings out of their starters, with Cain (219.1), Bumgarner (208.1), Vogelsong (189.2), Lincecum (186), and Zito (184.1).

In fact, it’s the rare National League team that gets more than 180 innings from all of its top five starters–only the Giants managed this in 2012, and we all know how that worked out for them, right?

Anyway, returning to our projections: is there a better way we can match the innings expectations for Nationals starting pitchers? Maybe we can. During the height of the Strasburg Shutdown hysteria last year, I wrote that the organization has a general innings-limiting principle:

The Nats have a policy–and a remarkably enlightened one, at that–of limiting starting-pitcher workloads to 120% of the innings a pitcher had pitched the previous year, wherever those innings happened (whether as an amateur, the minor leagues, or the majors). For pitchers returning from major injuries, the innings limit seems to be about 120% of the pitcher’s previous single-season career high total innings pitched.

The conventional wisdom is that this limit may not apply to pitchers like Gio Gonzalez (age 27) and Dan Haren (age 32). Jordan Zimmermann (age 26) might have arguably “aged out” of this system, too, since he pitched 195.2 innings last year. Detwiler (age 26) might have aged out, as well, but last year’s 164.1 IP represented his professional maximum, so let’s assume we’re stretching him out more carefully and put him on the limit. Strasburg (age 24), it should go without saying, is probably under this silent limit as well.

Applying those limits, and looking at last year’s performances, we get the following:

• Stephen Strasburg. 120% of last year’s innings for Strasburg works out to 190.2 innings for Strasburg. Plugging that into our model, that works out to 54.23 runs allowed, an increase of 3.03 runs.
• Jordan Zimmermann. JZ pitched 195.2 innings. It would be foolish to assume he would pitch any more. Let’s assume he pitches 195 innings, then. That works out to 80.38 runs allowed, an increase of 2.06 runs.
• Gio Gonzalez. 199 innings is a lot, but he pitched over 200 innings in the two preceding years, so I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to give Gio 200 innings in 2013. Ten more innings of Gio than in our initial model yields 84.67 runs, an increase of 4.24 runs.
• Ross Detwiler. Detwiler’s 151 innings in 2012 was a career high for him. Increasing that by 120% yields 181 innings. Fortunately, the old model pegged him at 180 innings to begin with. We’ll leave well enough alone, then.
• Dan Haren. Haren’s a little harder to judge. He only pitched 176.2 innings in 2012, but before his back got balky, he pitched well in excess of 200 innings for seven consecutive seasons. Various projections have him pitching as many as 218 innings and as few as 170. Let’s say he recovers form and pitches 190 innings–which is what we had in the original model. Great.

After adjusting for an increase in innings pitched, we see that the Nats give up a few more runs– 9.33 runs. That’s enough to cost them one full game in the Natstradamus projection–so that leaves them with 93 wins, instead.

Not so fast. You will notice that we’ve increased Gio’s innings by 10, Strasburg’s innings by 10, and Zimmermann’s innings by 5. That means we need to reduce relief pitcher innings accordingly. If we reduce Craig Stammen’s 110 innings to 95 innings (-6.6 runs allowed) and Zach Duke’s innings from 90 to 80 (-4.8 runs allowed), we actually end up saving about 2 runs. That keeps us steady at 94 wins for now. But how about the hitting?

Batters: Up.

The crude assumption built into the model was that every one of the starting position players got 600 plate appearances each. This is, of course, false. The ever-astute David Huzzard reminded me that the number of plate appearances varies with position in the batting order. Fortunately, Baseball Reference lets us look at exactly how many plate appearances, on average, each batting order position got in the National League in 2012. As you can see, the lead-off batter gets, on average 750 plate appearances–125% more than our model assumed! What does it look like?

750
732
716
699
684
666
647
625
606
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/18/2013.

In fact, we see that in the NL, the only batting average position that gets even close to 600 plate appearances is the number 9 batter–which is usually the pitcher’s spot! Safe to say, then, that the model is broken as far as runs scored. To fix it, we need to figure out what the batting order is going to be and award plate appearances in proportion to that player’s spot in the batting order. To keep things consistent with our defensive statistics, we’ll assume that each “every day” position player appears in 150 games. With that in mind, let’s assign some plate appearances to a hypothetical order:

695
678
663
647
633
617
599
579
561

That leaves us with some 453 plate appearances to distribute among the other bench players. Let’s assume, crudely, that we distribute them evenly among Tracy, Moore, Lombardozzi, and Bernadina, giving them 113 plate appearances each. Let’s also further assume that the “Pitchers” spots are evenly distributed among all the starting pitchers, giving each of the starting five 112 plate appearances each.

The results are shocking:

 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 678 102.80 Ryan Zimmerman 2844 426 0.149789029535865 633 94.82 Tyler Moore 171 26 0.152046783625731 113 17.18 Bryce Harper 597 86 0.144053601340034 663 95.51 Adam LaRoche 2622 361 0.13768115942029 647 89.08 Denard Span 2671 334 0.125046798951703 695 86.91 Wilson Ramos 613 76 0.123980424143556 290 35.95 Ian Desmond 1849 214 0.115738236884803 617 71.41 Danny Espinosa 1428 164 0.11484593837535 599 68.79 Roger Bernadina 1150 121 0.105217391304348 113 11.89 Chad Tracy 845 85 0.100591715976331 113 11.37 Kurt Suzuki 2703 274 0.101368849426563 290 29.40 Steve Lombardozzi 448 42 0.09375 113 10.59 Stephen Strasburg 83 3 0.036144578313253 112 4.05 Drew Storen 2 0 0 0 0.00 Dan Haren 240 19 0.079166666666667 112 8.87 Craig Stammen 90 3 0.033333333333333 30 1.00 Jordan Zimmermann 166 4 0.024096385542169 112 2.70 Zach Duke 226 1 0.004424778761062 0.00 Tyler Clippard 14 0 0 0 0.00 Gio Gonzalez 84 -5 -0.05952380952381 112 -6.67 Ross Detwiler 97 -9 -0.092783505154639 112 -10.39 Ryan Mattheus 1 0 0 0 0.00 Rafael Soriano 0 0 0 0 0.00 Bill Bray 0 0 0 0 0.00 725.252999244993

That’s a huge jump in runs scored, from 692 up to 725!

Putting it Together

Having adjusted our playing-time expectations somewhat, our revised projection has the 2013 Nats allowing 600 runs, while scoring 725 runs. Running that through the Pythagorean Win Expectation Formula gives us a revised win projection for the 2013 season of 98 wins, or four more than we had initially projected. The vast undercount of offensive plate appearances made a huge difference in terms of runs scored, and added two whole wins. The increase in starting pitching at the expense of middle relief yields two more wins.

There are a few caveats, of course. Naturally, this all assumes that every player involved will stay healthy all year, and that they all perform according to their four-year trailing average performances. A realignment of the batting order will affect runs scored in very real ways: this is particularly true in the case of Bryce Harper. The current line up puts two left-handed power hitters, Harper and LaRoche, back-to-back, which may be suboptimal in matchup situations. But moving Harper down in the order will deprive him of plate appearances and run-creating chances.

# Projecting the 2013 Nationals, Part 4: 94 Wins or Bust?

Having determined that the 2013 Nationals are projected to allow 591 runs and score 692 runs, how many games does that mean they will win?

This is a job for the Pythagorean win expectation formula:

Which yields us the shocking total: The 2013 Nationals are projected to win 94 games. That’s right. They’re projected to have a record of 94-68, playing .579 baseball.

Just let that wash over you for a second. I just projected this team to win over 90 games. This is exhilerating. This is terrifying.

And the thing that gets me about this is that these are all fairly conservative estimates. I’ll be playing with these numbers from time to time over Spring Training. But I’m going to go with this as my baseline estimate for 2013.

To be honest, I sat on these results for about a month, looking at them over and over and over again, utterly terrified of posting them. I am not used to being this optimistic about the Washington Nationals, ever. And now, suddenly, I am in the position of rooting not for the underdog, or the lovable loser–no, this year, I am rooting for the favorite. This is bizarre and wonderful and terrifying at once.

# 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 0.00 692.7806858275

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
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.

# Projecting the 2013 Nationals, Part 1: Ground Rules & Starting Line-ups

Spring Training is well underway down in Viera. This is the season, then, of portents and omens–the latest and most amusing of which was the story of an osprey dropping a fish onto the Nats outfield. Not having any expertise in the art of augury, I don’t think I can really comment about the auspiciousness or inauspiciousness of such an omen for the upcoming season.

What I can offer you, however, is the results of my own admittedly crude projection system. Long-time readers will know that I like to think of the baseball season as a single inning of a baseball game writ very very large. In the top of the inning, we see the home team take the field, and see how good the pitching and the defense are at getting opposing batters out. In the bottom of the inning, we watch the home team at bat, and see how well they drive in runs. Then we count the runs allowed in the top of the inning and the runs scored in the bottom of the inning–if the home team scored more runs than the other team, they win.

If you want the nuts and bolts of my projection system, please, read the post I’ve linked above. It describes the general outline of the system as clearly as I can.

This year, however, I’m making a few changes to the Natstradamus projection system.

First, in pitching, I have replaced FIP with xFIP. I don’t know enough about home run/fly ball rates to tell, really, which pitchers are “lucky” or “unlucky” with respect to how many home runs they give up on fly balls. xFIP fixes that for me by normalizing runs allowed by a pitcher to a league-average home run/fly ball rate. Some pitchers get better; other pitchers get worse; but I think over all that might be a more fair way of evaluating pitchers for the purposes of this projection system.

Second, I have tweaked the defensive calculations slightly. Instead of using UZR, I have calculated a UZR/game, and then multiply that  by the number of games in which I expect each player to appear. Again, this is crude, and defensive metrics are highly unstable anyway, but hey, it’s all I’ve got.

Remember, my projections are based on four-year trailing averages for each stat. That is, they’re the averages of the past four years.

With those preliminaries out of the way, let’s start this year’s predictions off by going through the 2013 Nationals’ projected 25 man roster:

Starting Rotation

• Stephen Strasburg, xFIP 2.56
• Gio Gonzales, xFIP 3.81. I do not believe Gio will be subject to a suspension for his alleged involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. I explained my view on the situation here.
• Jordan Zimmermann, xFIP 3.71.
• Ross Detwiler, xFIP 4.44
• Dan Haren, xFIP 3.37.

Starting Position Players

• Danny Espinosa, 2B
• Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
• Ian Desmond, SS
• Bryce Harper, LF
• Denard Span, CF.
• Jayson Werth, RF
• Wilson Ramos, C
• Kurt Suzuki, C. I have Ramos and Suzuki splitting playing time evenly.

Bench

• Tyler Moore, OF/1B
• Steve Lombardozzi, IF/OF

Bullpen

• Rafael Soriano, xFIP 3.6, Primary Closer
• Drew Storen, xFIP 3.46, Primary Set-up, Back-up Closer
• Tyler Clippard, xFIP 3.54
• Ryan Mattheus, xFIP 4.48
• Zach Duke, xFIP 4.34, Left-handed long reliever/Spot starter
• Craig Stammen, xFIP 3.96, Right-handed long reliever/Spot Starter
• Bill Bray, xFIP 4.19, Left-handed one-out guy. This is probably the most controversial pick; others might put Henry Rodriguez or Christian Garcia here instead. But I’m going to assume Bray heads north with the club.

No surprises, then. Stay tuned as we discuss pitching and defense in Part 2 of our projections.

# 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.

# 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:

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.

# Bryce Harper: Epilogue

MLB Network’s “Clubhouse Confidential” program did a segment on Bryce Harper today that reinforces my earlier post.

So, is it possible that Bryce Harper is a year ahead? He did get out of high school a full year early for his age, played a ton of summer-league ball–has a lot of reps. It is possible–it is possible–but you’re now expecting him to be a year ahead of Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr., Al Kaline, and A. Rod! Okay. Not likely.

Bottom line: it’s going to take a lot more than Bryce Harper–or a lot more from Bryce Harper–to justify starting his arbitration/free agency clock early by bringing him into the big leagues on Opening Day.