Natstradamus Projections for 2015: REPLY HAZY TRY AGAIN

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.

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.

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.

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

  • Adam LaRoche, 1B.
  • 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

  • Chad Tracy, OF/3B
  • Tyler Moore, OF/1B
  • Steve Lombardozzi, IF/OF
  • Roger Bernadina, 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.

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.