Warm-Up Tosses: For all of my Bay Area/San Francisco-based friends, I’m thrilled to announce an authorevent tomorrow, Wednesday, March 20 at 7:00pm. At that time, I will be appearing at Books, Inc. on Chestnut St. in the Marina District for a reading/book signing.
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What They Did: 98-64, 1st Place NL East. Lost 3-2 in NLDS
Actual Runs: Scored 731 runs, Allowed 594.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 96.2 (1.8 below actual)
Restated: Scored 745 runs, Allowed 609.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 95.8 (1.2 below actual)
(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed. Deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.
Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed. In the case of the Nationals, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 96 games.)
“We’re livin’ in the future and none of this has happened yet.” – Bruce Springsteen, Living in the Future
A year ago, it wasn’t too hard to see that the Washington Nationals had a bright future. Despite the fact that the franchise had never had a winning record since moving from Montreal to Washington D.C. before the 2005 season, all those losing records and last place finishes had started to pay off in the form of talented draft picks. Washington had a bevy of young players that seemed certain to challenge for NL East supremacy . . . eventually. But last year? Last year, super-prospect Bryce Harper was just 19 years-old and expected to spend the majority, if not all, of 2012 in the minors. Stephen Strasburg was still adjusting to his recovery from Tommy John surgery, having appeared in just five late-season games in 2011. Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond were a promising pair of middle infielders, Wilson Ramos had flashed potential at catcher and the pitching staff looked to get 150 starts from five starters who were all in their twenties but for the most part, all of this was filed under the heading of “potential”. That potential would have been realized and the season probably would have been considered a success if the Nationals won more games than they lost, emerged as a legitimate threat to the Phillies and possibly, if everything went right, competed for the newly expanded Wild Card.
Well everything certainly went right, and at least one year ahead of schedule the Nationals had the best record in the majors. With their youth in such obvious contrast to the Phillies’ aging and injured roster, before the season even ended, everyone could see that the NL East torch had been passed 125 miles south down I-95.
For the Nats in 2013, Denard Span replaces Mike Morse in the outfield and catchers Kurt Suzuki and Ramos should make more plate appearances than the combined 260 they amassed last year, replacing the only true weakness in the Nationals 2012 lineup. While Span makes the defense better, he doesn’t have the power Morse does and Desmond, who hit 25 home runs in fewer at bats than he hit 8 and 10 home runs in his two prior seasons respectively, is the one player you’d expect significant regression from. Otherwise, it looks to me like the offensive projection for the Nationals at the bottom of this page looks very conservative.
The Nationals only have two notable changes on the other half of their roster. 2012 closer Tyler Clippard has been demoted to set-up man as the Nationals signed Rafael Soriano to a very large free agent contract. In a vacuum, the signing of Soriano looks like a waste of money. Make no mistake, Soriano is immensely talented and a bit more suited for the closer’s role than Clippard whose mildly above-average walk rate and extreme fly ball tendencies could present problems. However, as the Phillies (Jonathan Papelbon) and the Reds (Ryan Madson) learned last year spending excessively on a closer can hamstring a front office in making in-season or future roster moves. However, that’s not the case with Washington. Because the Nationals have so much young talent making less money – by far – than they are producing (in runs created or suppressed which equates to wins), they have what I’d call a budget surplus. So while spending $14 million a year on Soriano is a vast overpay, the team’s overall payroll is defensible. Fans should commend the front office for at least spending the excess value they accrued from having young talent as opposed to keeping it for themselves.
There is one other interesting change to the pitching staff worth looking at and it might have value to fantasy players. I’d stay away from Dan Haren. Haren, (career ERA 3.66) is replacing Edwin Jackson (career ERA 4.40) in the starting rotation. Based on name recognition and prior reputations, that would appear to be a big upgrade. However, my model sees a guy, in Haren, who has had a declining strikeout rate, as a percentage of batters faced, four years in a row to the point that he was merely average for a starting pitcher in 2012. At the same time, his groundball rate, always low, dropped to bottom quadrant low last year. Most alarmingly, his fastball velocity averaged just 88.5 mph last year, continuing a trend of decline that began in 2005 but truly accelerated in 2012. It appeared Haren was living on borrowed time since at least 2011 and it caught up with him last year. Jackson’s 2012 ERA at 4.03 may have looked unattractive compared to his other rotation mates, but Nationals fans shouldn’t automatically assume Haren will improve on that production in 2013. Haren has gotten away with those declining skills in Anaheim where he made 39 of his 64 starts the last two years in cavernous stadiums (Anaheim, Oakland, and Seattle). Unless he’s recovered from an undisclosed injury, don’t be surprised if he sports a mid-4.00 ERA this season.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: I think the below projection is conservative for the Nationals. One of the reasons is that player projections must always incorporate a regression to the mean from one year to the next. The problem is that it should be regression to the player’s mean not regression to the MLB mean. Key offensive contributors to the Nationals success in 2012 are young enough that we don’t know if their mean is significantly above the league mean and the assumption therefore in modeling is that it is not. I suspect, however, that it is higher and believe the offense is a threat to score 800 runs this year and cruise to a division title. Vegas has them at 91 ½ wins and even there I think the chance of 100 wins is greater than the chance of 83. In the NL East, like Larry Bird famously uttered before a three-point shooting contest, everyone else is playing for second place.
90-72 – First in NL East
741 Runs Scored 658 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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