A New Era

Yesterday, the 2012 Washington Nationals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals by a score of 4 to 3. Stephen Strasburg pitched well, but got a no-decision–the vagaries of the rule-book having awarded the win to Ryan Mattheus. Tyler Clippard recorded a save. Later, the national media would focus on the news that Strasburg’s season would end on September 12.

As the rest of the baseball world considered this, something more amazing happened: The 2012 Nationals won their 81st game. That exceeds the 2011 Nationals’ 80 wins. It ties the 2005 Nationals, whose improbable, roller-coaster, flip-a-coin debut in the Capital was a delirious first love affair for this generation of baseball fans.

There are still 29 games remaining.

That’s right, Nats town. If the Nationals win so much as one out of the next 29 games, they will have completed their best season ever since they arrived in DC.

We knew this was coming, of course. As soon as Gio Gonzalez recorded his 16th win of the season on August 19, beating Livan Hernandez’s 15-win 2005, we knew. But somehow it hasn’t been real until now: the 2012 Nationals have begun to outrun the long shadow of futility. They cannot be compared to the Natinals of years past. They are tied with the Texas Rangers for the highest run differential in all baseball–a feat they achieve with only an average offense, because they allow the fewest runs per game (3.6) in the National League. And, although I complain constantly, the Nats have scored 269 runs in the months of July and August–second only to the Milwaukee Brewers in runs scored during that period.

These Nats are pretty good, you guys. So don’t sweat the Strasburg Shutdown drama. Whatever happens, we Nats fans already have the team we dreamed about since the last out was recorded in 2005: a team that can beat any other team in the league on any given day. In the words of Ryan Zimmerman–a man who knows a thing or two about these things–the Nats have finally given DC baseball fans a team to cheer for.

Today, as you get ready to watch those Nats face the Cubs, remember that. Today, you have a team to cheer for, one that is the equal of any other in baseball–and perhaps better than most.

Today, savor how awesome that is.

Today, root, root, root for the home team.

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Taking Strasburg to the Limit

This is all I am going to say about the Strasburg innings limit.

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 entire baseball commentariat outside the Beltway seems to think that this policy of limiting innings amounts to nothing more than a bluff on the part of the Nationals. But the Nationals’ recent misfortunes with pitcher injuries offer us a number of opportunities to see the organization’s pitch-limiting policy in action.

Take, for instance, Jordan Zimmermann. He underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament in August 2009. He spent 2010 in rehabilitation, pitching 5.0 innings in low-A Hagerstown, 13.0 innings in High-A Potomac, 4.2 innings in AA Harrisburg, 17.0 innings in AAA Syracuse, as well as 31.0 innings for the big league club, for a total of 70.2 innings on the year. In 2011, he returned to the starting rotation, and everybody in Nats town knew his innings would be limited. He ended up pitching 161.1 innings.

How did they reach that number? Well, Zimmermann’s previous single-season high for innings pitched was 2008. He hadn’t cracked the major leagues yet, but he pitched 27.1 innings for high-A Potomac and 106.2 innings for AA Harrisburg, for a career-high 134 innings pitched in a single season. Increasing his workload by an additional 20% in accordance with the organization’s inning-limit policy would have meant limiting him to…yes, 161 innings pitched, which is only one out less than what he actually pitched in 2011.

Zimmermann isn’t the only other Bionic Man in the Nats pitching staff, either. Reliever Ryan Mattheus also underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament in 2009. He spent 2010 in the minors, rehabilitating, pitching a total of 36 innings. He joined the Nats bullpen in 2011 and pitched only 32 innings. His previous career high single-season innings pitched? 2007, when he pitched 158.2 innings for the Rockies’ AA affiliate. In Mattheus’ case, it appears that the move from starter to reliever was enough of an innings limit in itself. But in 2012, three years removed from surgery, Mattheus has already pitched a total of 32.2 innings (29.2 with the big-league club, the balance on minor-league rehab assignments). The limit, it would appear, is gone.

What does this mean for Strasburg? Well, before his surgery, his previous single-season maximum innings pitched was 123.1 innings in 2010: 68.0 IP with the big league club, 33.1 at AAA Syracuse, and 22.0 at AA Harrisburg. If the Nationals apply their stated policy (no increases greater than 20%), Strasburg’s innings limit would be set at 148 innings.

The number generally bandied about, however, is the 160-inning limit that we saw from Jordan Zimmermann. Will the Nats shut down Strasburg sooner than they shut down Zimmermann? Tough to say. Increasing Strasburg’s workload to 125% of his previous single-season innings maximum leaves us at 154 innings. 160 innings would represent still another increase, to 130% of Strasburg’s previous single-season career maximum. For an organization that values its starting pitchers’ health as highly as the Nationals must, a 160-pitch limit must already represent the outer limits of the organization’s risk tolerance.

Think, also, that Jordan Zimmermann in his “rehabilitation” year of 2010 pitched 70.2 innings at all levels in the organization, so his 161.1 inning 2011 represented a year-on-year increase of 228% in workload–that’s a staggering increase in the amount of stress to put on a joint from one year to the next! Strasburg, on the other hand, pitched only 44.1 innings at all levels of the organization during his “rehabilitation” year of 2011. A 228% increase from that workload would leave us with 101 innings–merely two innings more than the total number of innings Strasburg has pitched to date in 2012. To get Strasburg to the 160-inning mark this season would represent an increase in workload of 361% over 2011!

If the organization opts not to try to “rip the ball out of [Strasburg’s] hands,” what would an “unlimited” Strasburg look like? Let’s say the Nats win the pennant. Strasburg’s workload might look a lot like the Rangers’ Derek Holland, who pitched 198 innings in the regular season, and an additional 24.0 innings in the post-season, for a total of 222 innings pitched in 2011. For Strasburg, that would represent an unbelievable increase of 180% from his career single-season maximum innings and an increase of 500% over his workload from last year.

Strasburg is one of the fiercest competitors in baseball today. But even if his will is made of steel, his arm is made of muscle and sinew and surgically-repaired ligaments. Not limiting Strasburg’s innings in 2012 means asking that arm of mortal flesh to bear a load nearly twice as large as the largest it has ever borne, and potentially five times greater than it was expected to bear only a short year ago. I am not an orthopaedic surgeon–but it seems to me that not limiting Strasburg is to ask a very talented, very game young man to risk the total destruction of his only means of winning a livelihood to chase a goal that is, at best, uncertain.

If you’ve read this far and you’re still calling for the Nats to let Strasburg pitch past his “limit,” then you deserve to be called the nincompoop that you are.

Looking at the Bullpen: Shutdowns and Meltdowns

Not even in my most optimistic moments would have said that the Nats would win two in a row out of the gate! As I write this on Easter Sunday morning, the Nats are sitting pretty, sharing first place atop the National League’s Eastern Division with the Mets (the Mets!).

And all this despite a lackluster debut for Gio “the Motown Kid” Gonzalez. The Nats won yesterday behind the unexpected heroics of former Hiroshima Carp Chad Tracy, and some absolutely phenomenal pitching from the “B” bullpen, with Craig “Matinee Idol” Stammen in long relief, followed by Ryan “Firework” Mattheus, Tyler Clippard, and some pitching from Hot Rod that was pretty frickin’ bueno.

The Nats’ late-inning heroics aren’t great to my stomach lining, though. I’ve been wondering how I could better quantify the feeling I have when relievers come in. I attempted this earlier, of course, when I introduced my heartburn index–but I’m now convinced that the heartburn index doesn’t give a complete picture.

Fortunately, FanGraphs has ridden to the rescue again, with a new, and, I think, extremely helpful, pair of statistics for measuring relief pitcher performance: Shutdowns and Meltdowns. As the proponent of the new stats explains them:

Shutdowns (SD) and Meltdowns (MD) are two relatively new statistics, created as an alternative to Saves in an effort to better represent a relief pitcher’s value. While there are some odd, complicated rules surrounding when a pitcher gets a save, Shutdowns and Meltdowns strip away these complications and answer a simple question: did a relief pitcher help or hinder his team’s chances of winning a game? If they improved their team’s chances of winning, they get a Shutdown. If they instead made their team more likely to lose, they get a Meltdown. Intuitive, no?

Using Win Probability Added (WPA), it’s easy to tell exactly how much a specific player contributed to their team’s odds of winning on a game-by-game basis. In short, if a player increased his team’s win probability by 6% (0.06 WPA), then they get a Shutdown. If a player made his team 6% more likely to lose (-0.06), they get a Meltdown.

Shutdowns and meltdowns correlate very well with saves and blown saves; in other words, dominant relievers are going to rack up both saves and shutdowns, while bad relievers will accrue meltdowns and blown saves. But shutdowns and meltdowns improve upon SVs/BSVs by giving equal weight to middle relievers, showing how they can affect a game just as much as a closer can, and by capturing more negative reliever performances.

Nats fans are by now intimately familiar with WPA, thanks to the hard work of Federal Baseball. The squiggly-lined graphs he pots after every game show the ebb & flow of the game as measured by WPA. A “Shutdown” happens when a reliever bends the line towards the Nats’ favor. A “Meltdown” happens when a reliever bends the line in favor of the opponent. The Shutdown/Meltdown stat pair thus give us a good indication of whether a reliever is helping or hurting his ballclub–which is kind of neat!

So what does that mean for the Nats bullpen in 2012? Using my standard measuring interval (2008-2011 seasons), here’s how the pitching staff looks:

 Name  Holds  Saves  Blown Saves  Shutdowns  Meltdowns  Heartburn
 Brad Lidge  9  100  16  92  28  6.85
 Tyler Clippard  64  1  18  77  35  5.22
 Sean Burnett  54  8  9  63  42  5.62
 Drew Storen  13  48 7  59  22  4.34
 Henry Rodriguez  13  2  4  13  13  8.51
 Tom Gorzelanny  7  1  2  12  5  6.01
 Ryan Mattheus  8  0  0  7  6  5.63
 Craig Stammen  2  0  0  5  2  4.09

A few things jump out at me at once:

  • Since 2008, Brad Lidge is unquestionably the Shutdown King of the current Nats bullpen. The 100 Shutdowns mean that he left his ballclub in a better position to win after his appearance than before one hundred times–and only made them worse 28 times. This makes me wonder whether Philadelphia unloaded him more because of his relatively high heartburn factor than any other measurable quality as a relief pitcher. On the other hand, Lidge’s ridiculous 2008 season may have gone a very very long way towards inflating his stats here. In any case, Lidge was pretty good on opening day this year.
  • We all know that Tyler Clippard is an awesome relief pitcher. He was an all-star in 2011. But now we have a clearer idea why. He’s second only to Lidge in shutdowns since 2008, and leads the staff in Holds.
  • Sean Burnett has collected 63 shutdowns since 2008–apparently, while I was averting my eyes in terror. The more I study him, the more I am forced to conclude that I have been terribly unfair to Burnett over the past few years.
  • We also now have a better idea why Drew “Batman” Storen is such a good reliever. He hasn’t been relieving nearly as long as Lidge, but he’s already accumulated 59 shutdowns. His 2.68 Shutdown/Meltdown ratio is second only to Lidge’s.
  • Henry “Hot Rod” Rodriguez is, by this set of measures, not even nearly in the same class as Storen or Lidge. 13 Shutdowns and 13 Meltdowns, giving him an abysmal SD/MD ratio of 1.00–the lowest on the staff. I’m still hoping that he will improve during 2012 and pitch to his potential, though.
  • Tom Gorzelanny has a shutdown/meltdown ratio of 2.40. That’s fourth, behind Lidge, Storen and Stammen. I guess he really is better as a reliever than as a starter? Then again, he’s only recorded 12 shutdowns, total–so maybe we don’t know enough about him to judge.
  • I was expecting a tighter correlation between high shutdown numbers and low heartburn index numbers. That’s not what we see. Lidge, for instance, ought to give me more heartburn than his shutdown numbers suggest. Mattheus looks pretty bad next to his heartburn near-equivalent Burnett–but then, Mattheus hasn’t had all that many chances yet.

If the Nats’ starting rotation can routinely get through 6 or 7 innings, there are enough high-shutdown arms in the bullpen to keep the game in hand. This is very encouraging news for the rest of 2012.