What They Did: 80-81, 3rd Place NL East.
Actual Runs: Scored 624 runs, Allowed 643.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 78.3 (1.7 below actual)
Restated: Scored 631 runs, Allowed 650
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 78.3 (1.7 below actual)
Since the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington, D.C after the 2004 season, the franchise has yet to finish above .500. The only other teams without a winning season during that period of time are the Kansas City Royals, the Baltimore Orioles and the Pittsburgh Pirates. If any of those three teams get to 82 wins this year, management, the players, and their fans would almost certainly view the season as a success. Washington however, feels it turned that corner of respectability last year. While an unscheduled rain-out versus Cincinnati robbed the Nationals of a chance to finish at .500, Washington did finish in third place in the NL East, its best showing since 2002 and only the second time since moving to D.C. that the team didn’t finish in last place.
The Nationals optimism, on the surface, seems well placed. Washington won 80 games despite getting a terrible year from prized free-agent signing Jayson Werth, less than 100 starts from its best player Ryan Zimmerman, and its sensational ace pitcher Steven Strasburg only took the mound for five late-season outings. Michael Morse emerged as a legitimate power threat at first base; his bat will create even more value if wielded from left field, where he projects to play this year with the return of Adam LaRoche from injury. Wilson Ramos, at age 23, established himself in 2011 as one of the top catching prospects in the game – and he survived an off-season kidnapping in his native Venezuela, so how tough can a 2-2, two-on, two-out slider from Roy Halladay look?
So why a somewhat muted outlook on these pages, including a projected fourth-place finish?
Let’s compare the 2011 editions of the New York Mets and the Washington Nationals and see just how much the expectations of a fan base and media commentary can color the perception of success. Here’s a look at both teams hitting in 2011:
Avg OBP Slg ISO Runs
Mets .264 .335 .391 .127 718
Nationals .242 .309 .383 .141 624
I’ve mentioned in previous essays that these factors explain nearly all of a teams' runs scored. The Nats’ hitters carried a far worse batting average (27th in MLB in fact) and compounded the lack of baserunners by drawing less walks (walk rate equals OBP – AVG) than the Mets. They closed the gap in slugging, and as the higher Isolated Power reading (SLG – Batting Avg.) shows they generated more extra base hits, especially homers. But even that is deceiving as the Mets play in one of the more pitcher-friendly stadiums in baseball. Looking only at each squad’s 81 road games, which largely neutralizes park effects, the Nationals had an ISO of .130, just ahead of the Mets’ .127, which showed no variation at home or on the road. The Nationals had a very, very bad offense in 2011, much worse than the Mets. Yes, the Mets are losing the services of Jose Reyes in 2012 but, as detailed yesterday, should they stay healthy, New York offsets a lot of that loss with the return of Ike Davis and David Wright to the line-up.
Now that 19-year old phenom Bryce Harper has been sent back down to the minors for at least one-half year of additional seasoning, the only change to Washington’s line-up is the aforementioned return of Adam LaRoche to first base. With Michael Morse sliding back to left field that effectively means LaRoche is replacing last year’s left fielder Laynce Nix who has moved on to Philadelphia. That’s not as big a gain as you might think. Nix slugged .451 last year, higher than Ryan Zimmerman and higher than Jayson Werth, in fact, second on the team to only Morse. LaRoche projects to walk more than Nix and the Nationals desperately need more baserunners, but otherwise the move is essentially a push; Washington should be happy if it gets a Nix-like season out of LaRoche.
That leaves Washington looking for improvement from last year’s hitters, including a much-needed bounce back year from Jayson Werth. I think they’ll get it – five of the nine starters are under 30 and Zimmerman particularly, at 27, is poised to be a surprise MVP candidate – but they’ve got a ton of ground to make up if they want to be as effective at the plate as the Mets – let alone Florida and Philadelphia.
Here’s a look at both teams starting pitching in 2011:
K% BB% GB% Exp ERA
Mets 16.8 7.5% 46.9 4.10
Nationals 14.8 6.7% 45.3 4.27
Just as a team’s offense effectiveness can be determined by a few factors, so can the pitchers’. Strikeout rate, walk rate, and groundball rate are the three factors pitchers have the most control over. A regression formula converts those factors into expected ERA and it shows that the Mets had a better starting pitching corps than the Nationals, by a material expected ERA of 4.10 vs. 4.27.
Recapping so far, the Mets had a much better offense than the Nationals and not surprisingly scored 94 more runs. Additionally, the Mets had the better starting pitching as shown above. But the Nationals allowed 99 less runs. How is that possible? There are two parts of that answer, one which is encouraging for Washington and one which isn’t. The encouraging part is defense. Washington had an above-average defense in 2011, while the Mets’ was bottom tier. That defense efficiency masked some of the deficiencies of the starting pitchers and, as defense is skill-based that should continue this year. (However, the departed Laynce Nix graded out very well in LF.)
However, the biggest factor, by far, in the Nationals’ ability to get to 80 wins last year was its bullpen’s stellar performance. Washington’s bullpen had the fourth-lowest ERA (3.20) in all of baseball and the fifth-highest value, or Wins Above Replacement, a full six games higher than the Mets. Six games in the standings attributable to differences in bullpen performance is a huge spread. I’ve already written in numerous essays that bullpen performance is mean regressing from one year to the next. Looking at the Nationals’ and Mets’ 2011 bullpen performances helps to reveal why.
K% BB% GB% Exp ERA WAR Rank
Mets 19.9 9.5% 44.5 3.65 28th
Nationals 21.2 9.6% 43.1 3.55 5th
WAR reflects what did happen. (i.e. The Nationals’ relievers allowed runs at a much lower rate than the Mets’ did.) Expected ERA looks at the skill sets each team’s bullpen has and demonstrates what should have happened, or stated another way what is most likely to happen given the exact same performance going forward. Through that lens, the two bullpens are essentially interchangeable – the Nats’ strike out slightly more batters but don’t induce as many grounders – and this illustrates well why my model assumes every team will get league-average bullpen work each year. That won’t happen of course, but due to the nature of small-sample size, high-leverage performances, it’s futile to predict which teams will fall on either side of the performance line.
So starting at identical restated 2011 wins of 78 (based on the box at the top of the essay) once the bullpens are neutralized the Nationals suddenly find themselves in a six game hole to the Mets – a team with a much better 2011 offense and slightly better starting pitching. A full season of Steven Strasburg (albeit on a strict innings limit) and the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson are significant upgrades to the Nationals’ rotation and it should be much better than the Mets’ in 2012. The hitters are young and also project to show improvement. However, if the bullpen merely returns to league average, some of this year’s improvement will be masked. (I hate to be the Philadelphia-centric guy to point out the elephant in the room, but Brad Lidge is now part of the Nationals’ pen. Just as hanging around Paris Hilton sabotaged the career of many a young Hollywood actress, Washington’s management may want to give Lidge his own special bullpen to reduce his teammate’s exposure to his high-wire relief act.)
Oddsmakers’ expectations: The Nationals are the sexy pick to emerge as a dark horse NL World Series candidate. From my view – and I know this is shared by no one else – a lot has to go right for them to finish ahead of the Mets. I use that as a comparison not to say Washington won’t finish in front of the Mets (that’s close to a toss-up) it’s to illustrate that if overtaking the Mets is no sure thing, how are they going to challenge the Phillies and the much improved Marlins? As such, I see no value in the pre-season markets for the Nationals. Although it opened lower, I’m seeing the current over/under win market for Washington at 83 ½. The expectations for the team are a bit too high this year; although the future looks promising, the Nationals are a year away from truly challenging its division mates for a playoff berth.
82-80 – Fourth in NL East
697 Runs Scored 690 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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