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.

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Convergence.

The Nats lost to the Reds in extra innings today–so I’m more than a little agitated at the moment.

Amid the Natstown delerium after the Nats Friday 13th 13th-inning walk-off, before Edwin Jackson’s dominant complete-game win on Saturday, I tweeted thus:

The #nats continue to outperform my projections–and all this with LESS offense than I predicted. Wild ride: how long can it last?!

Today, I guess we’re beginning to find out. Despite scoring a mind-boggling 5 runs, the Nats could not beat a Reds team that should have been swept.

Thus far this year, the 7-3 Nats have scored 39 runs while allowing 27 runs.

My preseason projection to this point would have had them scoring 38 runs and allowing 35 runs, for a record of somewhere between 5-5 or 6-4.

As time has gone on, the Nats offensive production has begun to get closer and closer to my preseason prediction. I take no particular joy in this, because, personally, I think even that might not be right, either. With Michael Morse out of the lineup for at least two months (six weeks of “shutdown,” plus another two weeks of rehabilitation), the Nats offense is without its biggest producer.

The surprise here is the pitching. The Nats’ pitching staff has been exceptionally good at keeping opposing teams off the scoreboard. They’re outperforming the projections to date by a whopping 8 runs–good enough for 1-2 wins so far. Time will tell if that kind of performance is sustainable.

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.

Nats Take 2 from Cubs in the Second City.

I will never understand what Jordan Zimermann must have done or said to the Nats’ batters to make them hate him so–they never give him any run support. The Cubs’ Jeff Samardzjia pitched a gem, and not even Carlos Marmol could screw it up enough to give the Nats the Curly W.

So with 3 games played, the Nats are 2-1, having scored 12 runs and allowed 9. As down as I am about the loss today, I have to say that the Nats are more or less where I expected them to be.  My projection had them scoring 11.43 runs by this point, and allowing 10.35 runs. Pretty darn close to what we’ve seen so far.

Here’s where projections and prognostications get you into trouble: if the Nats continued to bat all season the way they batted this series (scoring 12 and allowing 9), their Pythagorean Win Expectation would be .640. They could ride this all the way out to a 104-win season! Of course, that’s ludicrous–you can’t predict a 162-game season based on the outcome of a 3-game series against a ballclub that nobody really thinks will amount to much this season.

But if the Nats actually do keep this up all year–and if they don’t bunch up their runs, but produce consistently–they’ll have an even better year than I expected. And then I will be as happy as this guy:

One last tweak of the model: The 2012 Nats will win 88 games.

On my way to the ballpark today (YAY!), so I’ll have a more comprehensive post on this later this evening.

I tweaked my defensive model slightly. Instead of taking raw UZR, I decided to make a rough adjustment for projected playing time by creating a projected UZR for 2012. I took the player’s UZR/150 for 2008-2011 (my standard 4-year moving average), then adjusted it for the total number of games I expected to see that player in that position in 2012. This is a very very very crude adjustment, since it’s by “Games” and not by innings, but it at least gets at something I’ve been thinking about. [Consider the difference between Jayson Werth in Center Field–totally average–and Jayson Werth in Right Field. Werth in RF is a better defensive player.]

Adjusting for the projected opening-day line-ups, and assuming that Morse, Wang, La Roche, Bernadina, and Storen make it back to the club in about two weeks and then play the rest of the year, I predict the 2012 Nationals will win 88 games, scoring 617 runs and allowing 569.

Hang onto your hats, Nats town. It’s going to be a fun year.

Why the Nats Didn’t Re-Sign Pudge

I got into a pretty lively discussion on Twitter today about the Nats catcher situation, sparked off by This tweet:

The #nats are horribly thin at catcher. They don’t know how Ramos will recover from the kidnapping. They need to bring Pudge back.

Let me refute the proposition that [the Nats] need to bring Pudge back by refuting, in turn, each of the statements upon which it was premised.

The Nats are horribly thin at catcher

There are a few assumptions embedded in this statement. Mostly, the objection boils down to this: Jesús Flores is not a good hitter.

This is an opinion. I’ll answer with facts. In his 2011 Venezuelan League regular season, Flores batted .332/.369/.516, with 16 doubles and 8 home runs. He posted a wRC of 27. Yeah, I can hear you saying, that’s Venezuela, a Double-A league at best. He did’t hit so good as a big-leaguer!. OK, that’s true. In 2008, his last long, uninjured season, Flores batted .256/.296./402 with 8 home runs. Not impressive–he was only worth 32 wRC to the ’08 Nats. That’s a wRC+ of 79, which is below average.

I concede that there’s a very big drop-off from Flores’s best wRC+ of 79 to Wilson Ramos’s worst wRC+ or 91 (in 2010). But, as we’ll see later, Flores stacks up very nicely against the competition–especially when that competition is Pudge Rodriguez.

[The Nats] don’t know how Ramos will recover from the kidnapping

This is a true statement in the very strict sense. We’ll never really know, because Ramos himself won’t talk much about it. The only thing we have to judge him on is his Venezuelan league performance. As I said on Sunday, the Venezuelan League numbers aren’t as bad as they might seem. Sure, Ramos batted a comparatively lousy .216/.274/.273 with 2 doubles and only 1 home run, accounting for only 11 wRC. But Ramos only got 98 plate appearances (his regular season having been disrupted by the kidnapping, naturally). When we normalize his offensive numbers to the 200 plate appearances he would have otherwise gotten (and which he did get in 2010), he would have gotten 23 wRC. Yes, exactly the same wRC as he got in 2010, a Venezuelan season in which he hit .322/.390/.567 with 17 doubles and 9 home runs.

And we cannot help but be encouraged by his performance in the Championship Series, in which he helped the Tigres de Aragua to victory batting .450/.550/.478 with 2 home runs over 20 at-bats in 6 games.

For all intents and purposes, the Wilson Ramos that walked out of the jungle a free man seems to have been the same Wilson Ramos that was taken into the jungle at gunpoint. We should expect the same from him.

The Nats Need to Sign Pudge

No they don’t.

OK, you’re saying, but what’s the harm in signing Pudge? He’s a future hall-of-famer, calls a great game, and is generally awesome. Why not have Pudge back up for Ramos instead of Flores? Well, I hate to say it, but Pudge is too old, bats too poorly, and costs too much to put him on the team instead of Flores.

Remember when I said Flores’s wRC+ of 79 in his best year made him a below-average hitter? Have a look at Pudge’s wRC+ since 2009. It’s not pretty: 69, 68, 63. In the 2010 season, the last season Pudge was the every-day catcher, Pudge hit into 25 double plays (leading a friend of mine to dub him, not so fondly, GiDPudge). There’s no denying it–Pudge has entered the autumn of the patriarch. Rest assured that having Pudge as a back-up catcher instead of Flores will mean less offense on a ballclub that desperately needs offense.

Fine, but Pudge is the best defensive catcher in the game! Yes he is. But using the same wRC projection method I use for making my 2012 season projections, Pudge is worth 24 wRC. Flores is worth 31. Is Pudge’s defense good enough to save 7 additional runs? Maybe not.

Even if Pudge’s defense could make up for his declining offense, there’s the question of money. In 2011, Pudge earned a cool $3,000,000 from the Nats. Even if he decided to take a significant discount and play for half that–$1,500,000, Pudge would cost nearly twice as much as the $815,000 the Nats are paying Flores for 2012.

If you think Flores’s future looks more like his 2011 Venezuelan League numbers, why would you pay twice as much for a catcher who will net you less offense? And even if Pudge’s defensive skills equal the difference between his offensive numbers and Flores’s, why would you pay twice as much to achieve the same net result?

It’s not that Pudge has not been an excellent catcher. But the Nats have two catchers who are perfectly adequate for their purposes right now–especially at their salary levels. If I were GM, I would worry less about catchers and more about the outfield.