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.

# Saying Hello to Max…and Goodbye to Stras and JZ?

The Nats have named Max Scherzer their Opening Day starter, which makes a lot of sense. After all, they Nats are paying him an ungodly amount of money. He’s the only one on the staff that actually won a Cy Young Award.

Strasburg, the incumbent Number One, has been down with an ankle injury, so that knocks him out.

But what makes this all so interesting is a recent post on Hardball Times about success rates after Tommy John Surgery. The article looked at Major League pitchers between 1979 and 2009 that underwent Tommy John Surgery, breaking them down by age when they underwent surgery.

The prognosis for Tommy John surgeries isn’t that great. For pitchers that underwent surgery between the ages of 16 and 23, the article finds a median post-surgery MLB contribution of 93 appearances. For a starting pitcher, that’s maybe four or five years’ worth of starts.

What does this all have to do with Scherzer and Strasburg and Zimmermann?

First, it puts Scherzer’s seven-year deal into perspective. The Nats bought seven years of Max Scherzer, a pitcher who did not undergo the surgery.

They did not (yet) buy five years of Jordan Zimmermann, almost five years removed from surgery.

They have not (yet) decided to buy five years of Stephen Strasburg, four years removed from surgery.

Maybe we’ve been thinking about the Nats pitching contracts all wrong. Maybe it’s not Jordan Zimmermann’s distaste for DC traffic that’s keeping him from accepting a contract  extension with the Nationals. It seems to me more likely that Rizzo and the Nationals are unwilling to pay what they consider to be an inflated market price when they have extracted as much value as anyone is likely to get from a post-TJ pitcher.

As for Zimmermann, so, too with Strasburg, who does not suffer the indignity of having his Opening Day duties taken because of an (in)convenient injury. Again, there’s reason to believe Rizzo will be unwilling to pay Scherzer money when Strasburg has maybe a 50/50 chance of providing any value–remember, he’s coming up to that median survival time.

Besides, Rizzo already paid Scherzer money–for Max Scherzer.

This is how it, is Nats town. Given all this, my advice is to enjoy every Zimmermann masterpiece. Make every day Strasmas. Because at this rate, I’m pretty pessimistic about the chances that either of those two guys stays around. From the organization’s perspective, it might be that that this window is closing.

# What the Hell is the Matter with Tyler Clippard?

Nothing.

Of course, you might have expected me to say that, since this is a post in the same spirit as last year’s “What the Hell is the Matter with Drew Storen” post.

Fine, I get it. It’s kind of hard to like Tyler Clippard right now. So far in 2014, Clip has recorded 4 meltdowns–and it isn’t even May yet. He recorded 8 meltdowns in all of 2013.

And I can see how you might yearn for the good old days–back in 2012, when the Nats were shutting everybody down, Clippard was awesome, right? Clippard’s 2013 seemed disappointing by comparison, and his 2014 is off to a truly awful start. Maybe you wish that Rizzo had traded him, and not Lombo.

Well, I’ve got news for you: if you thought Tyler Clippard was a great reliever in 2011–he is still the same guy he was in 2011.

We know that Clip is mainly a two-pitch reliever–fastballs and changeups. So far in 2014, his fastball averages between 92.8 (Fangraphs) and 93.8 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour. His change up has averaged between 81.4 (Fangraphs) and 82.3 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour.

Back in the “good old days” of 2011, Tyler Clippard’s fastball averaged between 92.6 (Fangraphs) and 93.3 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour. The changeup in 2011 averaged between 80.8 (Fangraphs) and 81.3 (Brooks Baseball) mph. Would you look at that: no difference.

Here’s the thing about Tyler Clippard: he’s a fly-ball pitcher. Over his career, he has a fly-ball rate of 57.2%. In 2011, he had a fly-ball rate of 60.1%.  In 2013, he had a fly-ball rate of 55.8%. If a batter puts the ball in play against Clippard, there’s a better than even money chance that it’s going to be up in the air.

Now, if you’re a fly-ball pitcher, the thing you want to do is to try and keep the ball in the yard, if at all possible. Clippard does a reasonable job of this. He has a career HR/FB rate of 9.1%–that is, of all the balls batters put in play, about 60% of those will be in the air. And of the ones hit in the air, about 9% of them are going to leave the yard. Live by the fly ball (easy F8s!), die by the fly ball (HR, meltdown, blown save, etc.).

So far this year, Clippard’s HR/FB rate is preposterously high: 25%. “CUT THE BUM,” I hear you howling. But look: in the good old days of 2011, Clip’s  HR/FB rate was 9.5%, and I didn’t hear anyone calling for his head then. And in 2013, Clippard’s HR/FB rate was 9.4%.

If there’s an anomalous year in Clippard’s performance, it’s 2012, where he had a HR/FB rate far below his career average (6.8%). In spite of that, he posted a lower-than-you’d-think ERA of 3.72, with a FIP of 3.31. And yet, Clippard still notched 32 shutdowns in that year, while recording 10 meltdowns.

Don’t take my word for it:

So, I repeat: If you thought Tyler Clippard was an awesome reliever in 2011–and, really, you did–then you need to relax about how he’s started out in 2014. He’s still the same Tyler Clippard.

If his HR/FB rate stabilizes above 10% by about June though…maybe start panicking.

Pitches Illustrated

This is an excellent little site/cheatsheet illustrating how various pitches look from the catcher’s batter’s perspective. These diagrams assume a right handed pitcher. For lefties, imagine them (roughly) in reverse.

For extra fun, print this out and read Stu’s excellent piece on Strasburg’s opening day pitch selection. It looks like Strasburg’s new slider is part of a plan to start busting left handed batters down and in. Contrast this with Strasburg’s previous approach against lefties: the changeup running away from the batter.

In old-timey pitch classification, this gives Strasburg both an “in-shoot” (slider) and an “out-shoot” (changeup) against lefties. If you’re a DC baseball fan and believe in baseball reincarnation, this is a good thing. Guess who else had this kind of repertoire?

The ball that bothered the Naps [Cleveland Indians, managed by Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie] yesterday from Johnson’s delivery was a fast high inshoot that broke just in front of the plate. He had all the Cleveland batsmen guessing on this ball. If it failed to break, it cut the plate at about the height of the batsman’s breast letters. When they swung at it, however, it seemed to lift over the handle of the bat. This ball, breaking properly, is practically impossible to hit squarely, and will fool the cleverest stick artist in the business. Johnson’s speed, of course, is a factor in all of his work, his curves taking their swing viciously just before reaching the batting area.

Not bad, Strassy. Learn from the Big Train.

# Imported from Detroit

The Nats traded Lombardozzi, Krol, and minor-league pitcher Robby Ray for Detroit starting pitcher Doug Fister. It’s official.

I can’t even begin to process this trade. It was so unexpected. And, on its face, it is amazing.

Here’s what the Nats acquired in Fister. Since 2009, Fister has an ERA of 3.53 and a FIP of 3.68.  That would automatically give him the second-best FIP among Nats starters–only Strasburg is better. His repertoire means that he induces more ground balls–and since 2009, he has a ground ball rate of 49.3%. That would be the highest among Nats starters. He has 1.81 BB/9–the lowest walk rate of any of the Nats pitchers. He has a slightly worse strikeout-to-walk ratio than Jordan Zimmermann (Fister: 3.46 K/BB, JZ 3.64 K/BB).

And consider that Fister has performed very well over the years as a ground ball pitcher with an infield that is sometimes comically inept: the Tigers were 9th in the AL in UZR, mostly because of a lack of range.

Now imagine Fister dealing groundballs with the Nats infield–a defense that, even with its woes in 2013, was still a good dozen runs better than the Tigers. Imagine a still-more efficient Nats infield, armed with the knowledge of the tendencies of opposing hitters, reinforced with better advance scouting and more intelligent defensive alignments. Imagine Ian Desmond gunning down runners.

Imagine it and smile, Nats town, because that’s the promise.

Now if only Rizzo would sign Robinson Cano and sign Rakuten Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka….

Drew Storen has been optioned to AAA Syracuse.

This is a hard post for me to write, because I’ve been a huge Drew Storen fan since, well, ever. I’ve wanted him to succeed. I‘ve been a shameless Drew Storen apologist, even in the darkest moments.  But with Ryan Mattheus coming off the disabled list, and only twenty-five spots left on the active roster, someone had to go down. Drew Storen had an option year available. He has also had a disappointing year–so he had to be the one to go.

There’s going to be an awful lot written about Storen’s demotion, and even more said about it. The most pointed words probably come from fellow reliever and sometime roommate Tyler Clippard:

He hasn’t had to deal with a lot of adversity. He came up and had unbelievable stuff. He had success right away. Came in last year, coming off of a surgery, and pitched huge games for us in a  98 win season. Picked me up when I was struggling in September. Picked our team up in the playoffs. Had one bad game. Eight months later, you get to a point where he’s struggling and you turn the page on him, you send him down. It’s not necessarily turning the page on him because I think he needs to go down and regroup, get out of this environment, take a deep breath and regather himself.

You know by now that I don’t like getting into ballplayer’s heads. I sit in the upper deck. I’m lucky if I can track the movement of the ball, let alone look into a man’s heart, mind, or soul at that physical and psychic distance.

If Storen needs to get back to something, perhaps this chart has some of the answers:

This chart tracks the sheer number of swings and misses generated by each of Storen’s four main pitches: the four-seam fastball, the sinker (two-seam fastball), the slider, and the change-up.

Between 2012 and 2013, you will note the sharp increase in swings and misses generated by his changeup–a pitch that he began throwing far more often. There is a corresponding drop in the number of swings and misses generated from both fastball varieties and from the slider–with the largest decline coming from the slider.

This puts in graphical form something that even upper-deck dwellers have begun to suspect: Storen’s slider–memorably described by Bob Carpenter as the “killer slider” on so many occasions–has lost much of its lethality.

If we take the number of line drives as a rough proxy for the number of times batters really squared up and made good contact, that should tell us more. Let’s look at the total number of line drives generated for each ball in play for each pitch, from the second half of 2012 through this month:

Oof. Look at that. Sharp increase in hard contact off the slider. A look at his pitch selection data reveals that he’s throwing, proportionally, more sliders than ever:

So what we have here is a pitcher throwing more of a pitch that is ever less successful. Storen seems to want to throw that slider a lot, even if he knows that it’s getting hit hard. This is not a recipe for success. What’s gone wrong with Storen’s slider?

First: it’s not as hard as it used to be: notice that it’s about 2 miles per hour slower this year than it was last year:

Second, it’s dropping a bit more: surely this is good? Yes and no. Some of the increased drop will be due to the drop in velocity we’ve already seen. If we look at it’s dragless vertical movement plus gravity, compared with release velocity, we note that the slider drops about as much as it ever did–except that now it’s just, well, slower. That’s not good.

Third, it’s not, well, sliding as much as it did last year:

If there’s any hope here, it’s the emergence of Storen’s change-up as a weapon. Notice: it’s the only one of his pitches that is fooling more batters this year, rather than fewer. That’s something positive. And if Storen hopes to come back to hear the adoring crowds at Nats park howl his name ( DROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! ), then I hope for his sake that he goes down to Syracuse and works on the fastball/changeup combination that seems to be working.

While he’s down there, he could probably stand to work on his slider. He was a much more effective pitcher with a harder, more violent, more lethal killer slider. This year’s softer, milder slider has gotten him into trouble.

And whenever he’s ready, I’ll be back in the upper deck, waiting for him to return as the fine reliever that I know him to be.

[Edit: I had initially mis-interpreted the vertical movement graph, which led me to look at dragless horizontal movement plus gravity, which actually underscores the point better. Storen’s slider is dropping as much as it used to, but not because of any breaking motion…it’s dropping just becuase it’s slower. That’s an appealing target for a hitter, no?]

# 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.