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.

# 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 2: Pitching and Defense

In Part 1, we announced the starting line-up. Let’s see how many runs the pitching allows in 2013. My model conservatively estimates that in 2013, Nats pitching will account for 609 runs scored against the Nats, but defense will “save” 18 runs. Thus, the model conservatively predicts that 591 runs will be scored against the 2013 Nationals.

Here’s the table for pitching:

 Pitcher Name Projected IP 4-Yr Moving Avg xFIP Projected Runs Allowed TOTAL RUNS ALLOWED Stephen Strasburg 180 2.56 51.20 Gio Gonzalez 190 3.81 80.43 Jordan Zimmermann 190 3.71 78.32 Ross Detwiler 180 4.44 88.80 Dan Haren 190 3.37 71.14 Rafael Soriano 70 3.6 28.00 Drew Storen 70 3.46 26.91 Tyler Clippard 70 3.54 27.53 Ryan Mattheus 70 4.48 34.84 Craig Stammen 110 3.96 48.40 Zach Duke 90 4.34 43.40 Bill Bray 65 4.19 30.26 609.25

You will notice that my initial guesses for innings pitched for starting pitchers are quite low. We’ll tweak those later, but for now, I’m going to assume that these are good enough to go by.

A similar table of the defensive statistics would be tedious to recount, so let me sum it up with a few general notes:

• According to these projections, the three biggest defensive assets on the 2013 Nationals are Ryan Zimmerman, Denard Span, and Danny Espinosa.
• Ryan Zimmerman should save 7.6 runs–best on the team. The high number of defensive runs saved here underscores just how important it is for the Nats to keep him healthy.
• Danny Espinosa has been the target of a lot of fan frustration lately, especially given his struggles at the plate. His defense, however, is outstanding. The model projects that he will save 5.2 runs.
• The newest addition to the Nats defense, center fielder (and noted icthyophobe) Denard Span, is projected to save 4.6 runs. Bryce Harper had a UZR of 9.7 as a center fielder last year, so just looking at that, you might think that Span is a lousy center fielder compared to Harper. You’d be wrong. UZR is notoriously unstable–we need at least 3 years of data to get a good sample. Span actually posted a UZR of 9.0 as a center fielder for the Twins in 2011; likewise, as Twins CF in 2012, he posted a UZR of 8.5. As you can see, the projection for Span seems very conservative–but it takes into account some bad defensive years for Span (2008 and 2009). I would expect Span actually to outperform this projection.

Right, that wraps up the top of the inning. Tune in to Part 3, where we’ll discuss how the offense looks.

# 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.

# Zimmerman Forever

Just a quick note about the greatest Zimmerman-related news in Washington ever: the Nats signed the Face of the Franchise to a six-year, \$100 million extension today. I am beside myself with joy.

I’d been a bit of a prophet of doom on Twitter about the Zim extension talks. I can’t help it. I am inclined to doubt any contract negotiation rumors until the ink is really dry on a player’s signature.

The most intriguing thing about the whole drama was the question of whether or not Zim was going to get a No-Trade Clause effective immediately. Zim was going to be able to veto any trade after 2015 (the 10/5 rule), and the Nationals were willing to give Zim no-trade clause protection beginning in 2014. There matters stood, and there the talks seemed destined to break down–until the two sides reached a creative solution.

I’m surprised, for instance, that nobody has made much out of this tweet from Nats insiderMark Zuckerman:

Just to be clear about no no-trade until ’14: If somehow Nats dealt Zim before then, new contract contains significant financial escalators.

Significant financial escalators. To me, that reads like a poison pill provision. In essence, if the Nats attempted to trade Zim, Zim’s price would rise instantly.

That strikes me as a particularly creative and interesting way of solving the problem. Zimmerman was willing to give up a lot in terms of market value in exchange for security and stability with the Nats. The Nats could technically still trade Zimmerman before 2014–but the the true price for Zimmerman on the trade market would not be Zim’s current contract price (which reflects a “home-town discount’). Instead, Zimmerman’s price on the trade market would presumably be closer to his free-agent salary level: high enough to deter all but the highest-payroll clubs from even inquiring.

I’m familiar with poison-pill provisions from a corporate mergers & acquisitions point of view, but this is the first time I’ve heard of such a provision being used in the context of baseball player contract negotiations. If anyone knows anything about similar arrangements, drop me a line in the comments–I’m fascinated by the concept.

# Nats Fans Around the World (First in an Occasional Series)

I promised an occasional series of profiles of Nats fans in far-away (from DC) places. For our first installment, let’s meet Will Henline (@willbhenline on twitter), who roots for the Nats in Jersey City, NJ, just over the river from Mets country. I caught up with Will over e-mail.

Editor’s note: I’ve added links for convenience. And also because they will make you smile, every now and again.

When did you first become a Nats fan?
Day of franchise creation, late 2004. I watched the logo unveiling on a crappy livestream in my dorm room.

How do you follow the Nats in NYC?
I shell out for MLB.tv, first and foremost. Have it on iphone, ipad, and Apple TV so i rarely miss a game unless I have to work past 7. I read every Nats blog out there each morning with my coffee, and I read the Post online for traditional reporting.

How often do you get down to Citi Field for a Nats/Mets series?
I try to get to Citi once a series. I live over the river in Jersey City, so it’s a pain in the ass to go home late, but I have an old college roommate who lives in Queens and is a huge Mets fan, so it’s a good excuse to catch up. Also, with the current state of the Mets, you can’t beat \$3 stubhub seats. Very Wizards-esque.

Are there any other Nats fans in NY?
Probably, but I’ve never met one. I did have a Yankees fan who saw my cap in the subway the other day stop me to talk about Edwin Jackson. So word is spreading.

Jeez. Active? Love Zim (Pay that man his money, Rizzo!) but I also have a soft spot for Ankiel. I remember his 2000 meltdown with pain to this day.

All time? My buddy and I used to quote The Life Aquatic and yell “ESTEBAN!” at Esteban Loaiza from the RFK cheap seats.

Zim’s walk off on opening night 2008. Close second would be Zim’s walk off vs the Yanks, as I opened smack talk fire on a particularly obnoxious Yankees fan for the entire walk out of RFK. Wasn’t in the building for it, but my ringtone is Charlie Slowes’ call of Zim’s walk off grand slam vs. the Phils.

Have you been down to Nats games here in DC? Are you planning to come this season?
My girlfriend, sister, best friend and I will be Taking Back the Park on May 6th. We’ll be in RF defending Jayson Werth. Feel free to come say hi. Bring brass knuckles. We’ll be coming down at a later date in the season to take my Mom to a game. We took her last year and saw Morse’s walk off vs the Padres with friends from England. Mama Henline is 1-0 at Nats Park. I’ll also be at Wrigley for the opening series vs. the Cubs.

What’s the hardest thing about being a Nats fan in NYC right now?
Mets fans. I don’t feel like I have to elaborate on that one.

No, just kidding. Most Mets fans are okay people. They too, however, have to suffer through Philly fan invasions, and the Citi Field staff is just as spineless against the hordes as the Nats Park crew is. I attended a Mets/Phils game in which a Met fan was ejected from the ballpark for shouting at a Philly fan who threatened his young son. Sad stuff. Philly fans are a scourge to humanity.

# 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.