We’re now through the first fourth of the season, and its time for the team’s first progress report. This time I decided to compare each player’s performance with what was expected of him this year. Which players have exceeded expectations? Which ones are falling short? And which ones are doing about as expected?
There’s a handy benchmark to see what was expected. Prior to the season, the FanGraphs website put together its 2013 positional power rankings. The projections for offense were based 50/50 on the ZIPS and Steamer forecasts, with the Fangraphs staff adding their own playing time estimates. They then ran through their formula for wins-above-replacement (or WAR). An advantage of this approach is that the methodology was applied consistently to every team in MLB, which allowed them to check that the totals for playing time and WAR made sense for the league as a whole.
Based on the projections of individual player, Fangraphs projected the Nationals as an 88-win team. Through 43 games,* that prorates to a 23–20 record, which happens to match the Nationals actual record through Saturday. But doesn’t it seem like the Nats are mostly doing worse than expectations? You’re right—if you add up the WAR of the individual players, their record should be 20–23. We see that also in the Nats negative run differential of –8 (before Sunday’s game—now it’s –17). According to these measures, the Nats have been a little lucky in wins and losses.
* I’m using data through Saturday night’s game. I’m sorry, but keeping my dataset exactly up-to-date through the time that this is posted is simply too much work for a manual operation.
Let’s start by looking at the players who roughly match their expectations, which I am measuring by prorating the seasonal projection over the 43 games played so far. Of course, baseball players’ records bounce around during the course of the year, with the advanced fielding metrics, in particular, tending to bounce around. So I’m going to consider a player who comes within 0.3 or 0.4 WAR of his projection to be pretty much playing as expected, and I’m going to focus on those who either exceed or fall short of their projections by at least 0.5 WAR.
Note that wOBA is a measure of overall batting that is scaled the same as on-base percentage; BAT is batting runs above or below average; BsR is base running runs above or below average; Fld is fielding runs above or below average; and WAR is wins above replacement.
Playing about as expected
Let’s start with the regulars:
|Kurt Suzuki (projected)||98||.253||.304||.383||.298||–1.3||–0.1||0.6||0.5|
|Kurt Suzuki (actual)||104||.256||.340||.400||.315||–0.2||0.6||–2.0||0.4|
|Wilson Ramos (p)||61||.258||.318||.411||.313||–0.1||–0.1||0.4||0.4|
|Wilson Ramos (a)||52||.250||.308||.438||.317||0.0||–0.4||0.0||0.2|
|Adam LaRoche (p)||167||.253||.334||.454||.337||2.9||–0.5||1.2||0.6|
|Adam LaRoche (a)||154||.228||.312||.404||.313||–0.6||0.0||0.3||0.2|
|Ian Desmond (p)||158||.270||.317||.432||.323||1.1||0.2||0.1||0.9|
|Ian Desmond (a)||174||.268||.299||.482||.332||2.1||1.1||0.1||1.1|
|Denard Span (p)||158||.270||.332||.368||.308||–0.8||0.2||1.8||0.7|
|Denard Span (a)||171||.260||.333||.325||.297||–2.8||0.0||3.6||0.7|
Kurt Suzuki has hit a bit better than projected, but has also made a couple of costly fielding miscues. Wilson Ramos was playing just about as well as expected, but has lost playing time to injuries. Adam LaRoche‘s hot bat in May hasn’t fully made up for his ice-cold April, but his season as a whole fits in with what was projected. For Ian Desmond, it’s the opposite—a hot April followed by a cold bat on the latest road trip, and for the season as a whole, a bit more power (and fewer walks) than expected, but otherwise in line with expectations. Denard Span has played just about exactly as projected.
Next a couple of bench players whose performance fits in with what was projected:
|Roger Bernadina (projected)||37||.250||.322||.385||.309||–0.2||0.1||0.0||0.1|
|Roger Bernadina (actual)||54||.120||.185||.120||.150||–7.2||0.2||4.5||–0.1|
|Chad Tracy (p)||9||.257||.320||.391||.303||–0.1||0.0||0.0||0.0|
|Chad Tracy (a)||41||.184||.244||.263||.230||–2.9||–1.3||0.2||–0.3|
|Anthony Rendon (p)||9||.243||.318||.385||.309||–0.1||0.0||0.0||0.0|
|Anthony Rendon (a)||30||.240||.367||.280||.304||–0.3||0.4||–0.3||0.1|
Ok, neither Roger Bernadina nor Chad Tracy have batting lines that look anything like their projections! But Bernadina’s poor performance with the bat was partially offset (according to FanGraphs) by exemplary performance with the glove. And Tracy had only 41 plate appearances, so I don’t think we should be surprised for a player with .320-OBP ability to have a .244 OBP in any period of 41 plate appearances. Sample size matters! On the other hand, Anthony Rendon‘s performance in 30 plate appearances came quite close to what FanGraphs projected.
Turning to starting pitchers, keep in mind that FanGraphs WAR focuses just on the fielding-independent measures of performance—strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. We have just one Nats starting pitcher whose performance is close to expectations:
|Ross Detwiler (projected)||34.1||6.0||3.1||0.8||.303||70.4%||4.13||4.02||0.4|
|Ross Detwiler (actual)||45.2||4.5||2.0||0.6||.333||81.5%||2.76||3.66||0.6|
Ross Detwiler is getting fewer strikeouts, but also giving up fewer walks and home runs. His LOB% suggests that there’s a strong element of luck in his low ERA, but fWAR is based on FIP, which is similar to, but a bit lower than projected.
Next, we look at the relief pitchers who—surprisingly—are all, individually and collectively, close to expectations according to the fielding-independent measures used by FanGraphs
|Rafael Soriano (projected)||17.1||9.0||3.1||0.9||.297||77.0%||3.28||3.50||0.2|
|Rafael Soriano (actual)||19.0||7.1||1.4||0.9||.268||75.6%||1.89||3.29||0.3|
|Drew Storen (p)||17.1||8.7||2.9||0.8||.298||75.8%||3.16||3.30||0.3|
|Drew Storen (a)||16.1||8.3||1.7||1.1||.370||67.6%||4.41||3.34||0.1|
|Tyler Clippard (p)||14.2||10.4||3.4||1.1||.292||80.7%||3.05||3.51||0.1|
|Tyler Clippard (a)||16.0||9.0||6.2||0.6||.139||76.9%||2.81||3.90||0.1|
|Craig Stammen (p)||14.2||8.4||3.3||0.8||.297||76.3%||3.28||3.58||0.1|
|Craig Stammen (a)||20.0||9.9||2.3||0.5||.292||80.7%||2.25||2.23||0.4|
|Henry Rodriguez (p)||12.0||10.2||5.3||0.8||.290||76.4%||3.46||3.86||0.0|
|Henry Rodriguez (a)||11.2||6.9||6.9||0.8||.188||82.2%||3.09||4.92||–0.1|
|Ryan Mattheus (p)||10.2||6.7||3.4||1.0||.296||72.7%||4.03||4.28||0.0|
|Ryan Mattheus (a)||15.1||7.0||1.8||0.0||.327||79.0%||2.35||2.05||0.3|
|Zach Duke (p)||9.1||4.9||2.5||1.0||.317||67.8%||4.79||4.40||0.0|
|Zach Duke (a)||15.0||6.0||2.4||1.2||.364||45.5%||8.40||4.43||–0.1|
Some pitchers—for example, Craig Stammen—have pitched a bit better than projected, whereas others—for example Drew Storen—have pitched a bit worse, but none of these projections, looking only at the fielding-independent components, is severely out of line with actual performance. On the other hand, if we include the fielding dependent components—batting average on balls in play (BABIP), left-on-base (LOB) percentage, and ERA—Zach Duke, in particular, looks much worse than projected (and presumably Ryan Mattheus will also take a dip after this afternoon’s game). But as a group, the relievers have pitched just about as projected, which is just about league average.
Performance exceeding expectations
There are really just two Nats in this category. The biggest surprise is Jordan Zimmermann, who has stepped up from good pitcher to one of the best in baseball:
|Jordan Zimmermann (projected)||46.1||7.1||2.1||0.9||.300||73.3%||3.54||3.60||0.8|
|Jordan Zimmermann (actual)||66.2||6.1||1.2||0.4||.235||84.2%||1.62||2.76||1.8|
Is Zimmermann’s improvement sustainable? His batting average on balls in play is unusually low, and it’s not reasonable to think he can maintain his home run rate of 0.4 per nine innings. On the other hand, his ground ball rate is up and his walk rate is down, so I think at least some of his improvement is sustainable. I’d look for an ERA of around 3.25 going forward.
The other player outperforming expectations is, of course, Bryce Harper:
|Bryce Harper (projected)||167||.268||.343||.471||.350||4.7||0.0||1.3||1.0|
|Bryce Harper (actual)||150||.297||.393||.617||.424||12.7||–0.7||1.6||1.8|
It’s remarkable to see how much Harper has advanced as a batter in less than a year. He lays off curve balls and sliders out of the zone that he would have been hacking at last summer. I don’t think the projection systems have kept up with his progress, so I expect him to easily surpass the .269/.346/.483 that Steamer, for example, has projected for the rest of his season. I think Harper has a good chance to reach 35 to 40 (or more) home runs this season. He’s just that good. The one concern, of course, is keeping him healthy.
Performance below expectations
Now we get to everyone else, the players who aren’t meeting expectations. Lets start with the position players:
|Danny Espinosa (projected)||182||.237||.311||.400||.308||–0.9||0.0||1.4||0.8|
|Danny Espinosa (actual)||137||.168||.197||.305||.218||–10.9||0.4||2.2||–0.4|
|Ryan Zimmerman (p)||158||.281||.355||.474||.354||5.0||–0.1||0.0||1.1|
|Ryan Zimmerman (a)||120||.272||.367||.408||.343||2.4||0.7||–6.0||0.1|
|Jayson Werth (p)||167||.257||.353||.425||.337||3.1||0.2||–1.3||0.6|
|Jayson Werth (a)||107||.260||.308||.400||.312||–0.5||–0.4||–1.8||–0.1|
|Tyler Moore (p)||28||.237||.288||.447||.315||0.0||0.0||–0.1||0.0|
|Tyler Moore (a)||62||.136||.161||.254||.180||–6.8||–0.5||–3.8||–1.1|
|Steve Lombardozzi (p)||59||.265||.316||.367||.299||–0.7||–0.1||0.1||0.2|
|Steve Lombardozzi (a)||86||.210||.238||.272||.226||–6.3||–1.5||1.0||–0.4|
Danny Espinosa is obviously very messed up right now. Some of the statistics—in particular, his .207 batting average on balls in play—suggest a string of bad luck. Perhaps a greater concern is the drop-off in walk rate, from 8.7% in 2011 to 7.0% last season and just 2.2% this year. I guess I have two suggestions. First, I’d send him for a thorough physical exam. Did he really recover from the torn rotator cuff injury that bothered him late last season? My other suggestion is really aimed at both Espinosa and Steve Lombardozzi—when Lombo isn’t playing in the outfield, have him start at second base against right handers a couple of times a week. I think Lombo’s problem is too little work, whereas Danny’s may be too much. If he stops carrying the world on his shoulders, maybe it can help him get out of this funk.
Ryan Zimmerman, on the other hand, is hitting just about as well as expected. His problem (besides missing some time due to injury) is his fielding. For those of us who remember Ryan as a perennial Gold Glove candidate from 2007 to 2010, it’s really quite sad. I am forced to admit that Zim is now a below-average—maybe well below average—third baseman. His ability to charge bunts and slow rollers and to grab sharply hit ground balls and make outs was necessarily dependent on his ability to fire rifle shots to first base, which unfortunately he no longer seems able to do reliably. I’m not just talking about the hideous errors; even his cleanly fielded plays now usually end with a lob rather than a bullet. Tom Boswell is probably right—Zimmerman’s future appears to be first base as soon as Rendon is able to cover third. Maybe the Nats will have to try to trade LaRoche before his contract is up to make room for Zim at first.
Jayson Werth has two problems. First, he seems to have forgotten how to draw walks, which has always been a big part of his value. More importantly, he can’t seem to stay healthy. His contract looks more and more like an albatross with each passing year.
Then we turn to Tyler Moore. A player has to be playing pretty lousy to be charged with –1.1 WAR in only 62 plate appearances. When a player with no defensive value is striking out in 42% of his plate appearances and has an on-base percentage of .161, it’s time to send him back to AAA to get his swing straightened out. The obvious replacement is Chris Marrero, who is on the 40-man roster and is hitting .306/.348/.524 with 8 home runs and only 24 strikeouts in 39 games with the Chiefs. If I were Mike Rizzo, I’d make the move immediately.
Next we turn to our lagging pitchers. Unlike the hitters, these guys aren’t awful; they’re just not meeting their lofty expectations:
|Stephen Strasburg (p)||50.2||10.7||2.5||0.7||.309||77.9%||2.69||2.61||1.5|
|Stephen Strasburg (a)||57.1||8.6||2.8||0.8||.266||67.2%||2.83||3.40||0.9|
|Gio Gonzalez (p)||53.2||9.1||3.5||0.7||.300||74.9%||3.22||3.24||1.1|
|Gio Gonzalez (a)||51.2||9.1||4.2||1.0||.244||71.9%||4.01||3.98||0.5|
|Dan Haren (p)||43.2||7.3||1.7||1.0||.303||72.5%||3.66||3.53||0.8|
|Dan Haren (a)||45.1||6.2||1.2||1.6||.313||68.8%||4.76||4.62||0.2|
For Stephen Strasburg, the problem seem to be that his strikeouts are down, whereas for Gio Gonzalez, it’s a combination of more walks and a few more home runs. For Dan Haren, the issue is home runs—when he doesn’t get his pitches down, good hitters can hit them out. Strasburg and Gonzalez are still good pitchers, and I haven’t given up on Haren yet either (despite his shelling this afternoon). I’d like to spend more time looking at these pitchers to see if their pitches have changed, or if the league is just figuring out how to approach them.
So summarizing a very long post, the Nats face a number of issues. Some actions, like moving Moore back to Syracuse, should be taken immediately. Others problems, like Zimmerman’s reduced effectiveness at third base, we may just have to live with for a while. The good news is that that the statistical law of regression will do its work, and some players who’ve had runs of bad luck will eventually get better. The even better news is that Harper is for real—a potential MVP quality player for years to come if he can only stay healthy.
There’s an old saying that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. For the Nationals, that’s a pretty good description of their April. They started the seasons with heady expectations—the consensus pick as the best team in the National League, if not in all of baseball. The ended the month 13–14, their first monthly losing record since August 2011, and 4-1/2 games behind the Atlanta Braves.
The Nats started the season at home with a sweep of the Marlins. The first sign of trouble came in game 4 in Cincinnati, where the Reds humiliated the Nationals 15–0, scoring six runs off starter Dan Haren and nine off the bullpen, hitting a total of six home runs. The Nats managed to win the next game 7–6 in 11 innings, but then lost the rubber game, with Stephen Strasburg allowing six runs in one of the worst outings of his career.
The Nats returned to Washington to face the White Sox and swept the 3-game series. With a 7–2 record, the Nats were still looking good, but they were hosting the Atlanta Braves, who were even better with an 8–1 record. Ross Detwiler pitched well in the first game, but the bullpen and sloppy defense couldn’t hold the lead, as the Nats lost 6–4 in 10 innings. In the next game the Nats’ hitters were stifled by Tim Hudson in a 3–1 loss, and Wilson Ramos pulled his hamstring, winding up on the disabled list. In the series finale, Gio Gonzalez had his worst start since coming to Washington, as the Nats were shutout 9–0 and dropped to four games behind the Braves.
The team was able to partially recover by picking up two games of three in Miami. Ryan Zimmerman, bothered by hamstring issues, was also making a series of ugly throwing errors. After skipping the first couple of games in the next series in New York against the Mets, he was placed on the DL. In the opener against New York, the Mets’ new ace, Matt Harvey, outpitched Strasburg in a 7–1 loss. The Nats won the next game 7–6, hitting four home runs, but lost the finale 2–0 facing Dillon Gee. The Nats’ top prospect, Anthony Rendon, made his MLB debut replacing Zimmerman at third.
The Nats returned home to face the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards took the first game 3–2, and Adam Wainwright and Edward Mujica combined the shut out the Nats 2–0 in the second game. In game 3, Jaime Garcia outpitched Strasburg for a 4–2 victory and a series sweep. The Nats managed better against the Reds, as they won the first game 8–1 behind a fine performance by Gonzalez. In game 2, Jordan Zimmermann pitched a complete game one-hit shutout, beating the Reds 1–0 in one of the best pitched games Washington Nationals’ history. In game 3, Haren was finally able to pitch well, as the Nats won 6–3. They then lost the finale of the four-game series, 5–2.
The month concluded in Atlanta with the first two games of a four-game set against the Braves. Strasburg continued with his string of bad luck and relatively poor (by his standards) control, as concern mounted about his “forearm tightness.” Tyler Clippard was unable to hold the tied game and was charged with the 3–2 loss. In the second game, the Braves again beat up on Gonzalez, as the Nats took an 8–1 loss.
Why did the Nats do so poorly this month? The bats bear the largest share of the blame, as the team hit a collective .234/.296/.391, which scaled in terms of runs relative to the league (wRC+) was 89, or 11% below average, ranking 13th of the 15 NL teams. The vaunted starting pitching, however, also disappointed, as the starters’ 3.59 ERA and 3.74 FIP (fielding independent pitching) were ranked only fifth in the NL. The relievers contributed to the disappointment, with their RE24 (a measured of runs allowed that adjusts for inherited runners) of -4.42 ranking 11th in the league. Finally, according to Fangraph’s “Fld” measure of fielding, the Nats ranked 7th, or about average, but their baserunning, -2.8, ranked 14th of the 15 teams.
There was some good news in the team’s record this month, though. Bryce Harper began the season on the tear and looks like he could emerge as an MVP-type player. Denard Span successfully made the adjustment to the new team and league, and Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann also had fine records for the month. If they can maintain their pace, and players like Adam LaRoche and Gio Gonzalez can start playing up to their capabilities, the Nationals still have time to turn this season around.
11–16 (3.56 R/G – 4.26 RA/G)
MVP for April:
Bryce Harper (.344/.430/.720, 26 G, 107 PA, 9 HR, 18 R, 18 RBI, 1.4 fWAR, 1.26 WPA, 12.98 RE24). He ended the month ranked ninth in MLB in fWAR, ranked second in wOBA and in wRC+, and tied for second in home runs.
Most valuable starting pitcher:
Jordan Zimmermann (4–1, 2.00 R/9, 5 G, 36 IP, 4.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 8.39 RE24, 1.0 rWAR).
Most valuable reliever:
This category is a tough one, since none of the relievers did especially well. I’ll give the nod to Craig Stammen (2–1, 2.84 R/9, 8 G, 12-2/3 IP, 10.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 7.1 H/9, 2.80 RE24, 0.13 WPA, 2 of 6 inherited runner scored, 3 shutdowns, 2 meltdowns).
Best start this month:
Jordan Zimmermann (April 26, 1–0 win over the Reds at home). Zimmermann pitched a one-hit, complete game shutout, giving up 1 BB, getting 4 K and a game score of 88.
Gio Gonzalez (April 14, 9–0 loss to the Braves at home, 5 IP, 7 H, 2 HR, 7 R, 3 BB, 3 K, game score of 25). Dan Haren‘s April 5 start in Cincinnati in a 15–0 loss also had a game score of 25, but I give the nod to Gonzalez because it came against our divisional rival.
Craig Stammen (April 22, 3–2 loss to the Cardinals at home). Stammen entered in the top of the sixth with the bases loaded, no outs, and the Nats trailing 3–2. He got out of the inning without giving up a run, getting a double play at home and a strikeout, then pitched a scoreless seventh. (Win probability added .263).
Craig Stammen (April 12, 6–4 loss to the Braves at home) entered in the top of the 10th with the game tied 4–4 and gave up a walk to Dan Uggla followed by a home run to Ramiro Pena. (Win probability added –.419)
Adam LaRoche (April 20, 7–6 win over the Mets in New York). In the top of the fifth, the Nats behind 5–3, two outs, and runners on second and third, LaRoche hit a three-run homer to give the Nats the lead (WPA .370). The Mets came back to tie it in the seventh, but Harper hit his second home run of the game in the eighth to give the Nats their victory.
Jayson Werth (April 21, 2–0 loss to the Mets in New York) grounded into a double play on a 3–0 count in the top of the eighth with the Nats trailing 2–0, no outs, and runners on first and second (WPA –.198).
OK – after watching Tuesday’s game, I intended to write a post calling on Mike Rizzo to release Dan Haren. But then I went to build the case and decided it just wasn’t there. There’s a lot of evidence that Haren’s problem is more bad luck than bad stuff.
First, the summary of his ugly first three starts:
- In Game 4 against the Reds, he pitched 4 innings, gave up 9 hits including 4 homers, and left with the Nats trailing 6–0 in a game they would ultimately lose 15–0.
- In Game 9 against the White Sox, he pitched 5 innings, gave up 10 hits, and left with the Nats ahead 6–3 in a game they would win 7–4.
- In Game 14 against the Marlins, he pitched 4-1/3 innings, gave up 7 hits including a 3-run homer, and left with the bases loaded, one out, and the Nats trailing 5–0, having just walked in the Marlins fifth run. The Fish would go on to win it 8–2.
So what’s there to like? First, there are his strikeouts and walks, which are important because they are the first statistics to stabilize and the only ones that are even a little bit significant this early in the season. His strikeout rate is a respectable 17.1% and he’s only given up one walk (albeit at a very inopportune time), giving him a fantastic walk rate of 1.4%. Of course his 8.10 ERA is ugly, as is his 6.83 FIP, but he shows up much better with metrics that attempt to neutralize the luck elements associated with balls in play and with home runs. Haren’s batting average on balls in play is a very unlucky .420, his rate of home runs per fly ball has been 19.2% in this short season, and his left-on-base percentage has been 59.1%—all rates that are indicative of bad luck and almost certain to normalize. His xFIP is a more respectable 4.61 and his SIERA is 4.19.
Looking at the home runs he’s given up, there’s even more evidence of bad luck. Three of the four homers in the Cincinnati game barely cleared the fence—what the ESPN Home Run Tracker website call “Just Enough” (JE) homers. Normally, JE homers represent 27% of all home runs, so having 3 JE homers of 5 represents some bad luck. That site also estimates for each home run, at how many ballparks it would have been a home run under standardized playing conditions. The Choo homer would have made it out in only 6 ballparks, and the two Cozart homers in 11 and 13—in each case, a minority of all ballparks. Looking at the video, the Choo homer would have been a double in most other parks, but the Cozart homers probably could have been caught in a more spacious park. There was definitely some bad luck with Haren’s 5 taters.
James Wagner at the Washington Post describes how Haren has been throwing more straight fastballs and fewer cutters this season, and suggests that maybe he needs to throw more cutters and not throw them as hard. I don’t know whether Haren will be effective this season, but after looking at things more carefully, I now agree that what we’ve seen is more consistent with bad luck than with truly bad performance. In mid-April it can be tough to convince yourself that early season statistics are mostly noise, so I have to keep reminding myself. I’ll keep watching and waiting.
The Braves have swept the Nats and now lead them in the standings by four games. We’ll hear the standard bromides: it’s still early April; early season standings don’t mean much; there’s still plenty of time to make it up. While there is certainly some truth to these platitudes, the reality is that what’s happened in the last two weeks, and especially in the last three games does have a significant impact on the Nats’ playoff odds. It matters.
We can think about each win or loss having two kinds of significance. There’s the direct significance: The Nationals are now four games behind the Braves. To win the division, over the remaining 150 games they will now have to win five more than the Braves win. Since the Braves are obviously pretty good, that’s a lot tougher task than the task we faced two weeks ago—to win one more game than the Braves over 162.
Then there’s what Bill James, writing about this topic way back in the 1985 Bill James Baseball Abstract, called the “signature significance”: The fact that the Braves have started the season 11–1 is an indication that the Braves are an unusually good team, probably better than we thought they were at the beginning of the season. That’s true, even though 12 games is a small sample, because it’s far more likely that a really good team will go 11–1 than an average team. He gave the example of a pitcher striking out 15 batters in a game without walking anyone. Even though we normally would never evaluate a pitcher based on a single game, such an extreme performance signifies that this is an unusual pitcher. An average pitcher like Livan Hernandez or Jason Marquis might occasionally have a very good game, but not that good.
I’m aware of two websites that provide playoff odds that are updated daily, and they often give very different results, especially during the first half of the season. My understanding is that Baseball Prospectus gives heavy weight to its projections of the strength of each team, which I believe are based on projected performances of the individual players on the team. When its odds are updated each day, you are mostly picking up the direct significance, because their projections of team strength are adjusted very gradually. With each Braves win this weekend, their playoff odds have increased 4 to 5 percentage points, with the Nats declining by a similar amount.
The other website is coolstandings.com. My understanding is that it bases its playoff odds entirely on what’s happened this year to date, so it’s pretty much at the opposite extreme from Baseball Prospectus—it’s giving an extremely large weight to the “signature significance” of the games won and runs scored by each team. One thing that’s nice with their web site is that it allows you to select the date, so you can look back at how the odds have changed day by day. In the last three games, the Nats’ playoff odds have dropped by 16-1/2 percentage points, from 48.6% to 32%. (At the time I’m writing this, Baseball Prospectus hasn’t updated their odds to include today’s game, but I’m guessing that it will come in about 55%, representing their still fairly strong evaluation of Washington’s talent.)
My point isn’t that we should abandon hope – the platitudes about the long season are certainly correct that a three-game sweep early in the season can easily be reversed later in the season. But it’s definitely the case that the Nats have dug themselves into a bit of hole and it may be tough to dig out. It will be critical that the next time they face the Braves, they will need to play better and win some of the remaining series between these two elite teams.
Unless you reside outside of North America, you’re doubtless aware that the Jackie Robinson bio-pic ”42″ opens this this Friday. I haven’t heard much about it yet (as far as I know, Bryce Harper hasn’t leaked any spoilers), but it gives me a great opportunity to write about my other great interest (besides the Nationals), which is baseball history. I’d like to respond to an article by Dave Zirin at The Nation; he wants to make sure that the movie doesn’t mislead us to think that Branch Rickey was admirable:
Branch Rickey was no saint. Based upon previews, it certainly appears that the hero of 42 will be not only Jackie Robinson, but Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey played by Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford.Yet Rickey, while brave in bringing Robinson to the majors, hopefully will not be exempt from criticism. He is what Melissa Harris-Perry would call “an imperfect ally.” Rickey was responsible for Robinson’s entry in the majors. He also bears a great deal of weight for the implosion of the Negro Leagues, after Robinson made his debut in 1947.
The Negro Leagues weren’t just a place of thwarted ambitions for the country’s best African American players. They were also the largest national black-owned business in the country. Black owners, bookkeepers, trainers, coaches, and groundspeople were all part of what was a source of economic power, pride and self-sufficiency. Yet Rickey was ruthless in his dealings with Negro League owners, publicly claiming no obligation to compensate teams for signing away their talent. That became the pattern as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and many more were signed out of the Negro Leagues and this infrastructure of black economic power rotted away, creating a racial power imbalance in sports that persists to this day. Rickey’s pilfering, layered with a public campaign of denigration, set the Negro Leagues on the road to ruin.
This idea shows up in quite a few recent Negro league histories—Rickey, by not compensating Negro league owners for the players he signed, was responsible for devastating their leagues and destroying a beloved black institution.
I see a few problems with this argument. I see other strong historical forces working against the economic viability of the Negro leagues and think it’s unlikely that they would have survived even if Rickey had generously compensated the Negro league owners:
- After a brief post-war boom, baseball attendance in all leagues dropped off dramatically. Major league attendance peaked at 20.9 million in 1948, but by 1953 had fallen to 14.4 million, a 31% dropoff. A similar collapse was occurring in minor league attendance—the number of affiliated minor leagues fell from 59 in 1949 to 37 in 1953, and continued to drop to 21 in 1959. Baseball was being hurt by a number of broad forces in society. Television became widely available. The “greatest generation” was giving birth to, and raising the baby boomers, leaving less disposable income for excursions to the ballpark. Other sports, such as pro football and basketball, were growing in popularity and status. These same trends were reflected in the African American community, so there’s no reason to think that black baseball would have been exempt from the secular decline.
- Most of the Negro league teams were on a shaky financial foundation. I believe that there were only two teams—the Chicago American Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs—that were able to remain viable in the same city throughout the period of organized major Negro leagues (basically the 1920s through the 1940s). A couple more teams were able to remain viable by relocating—the Homestead Grays found financial success by moving from Pittsburgh to wartime Washington DC, and the Elite Giants made their way from Nashville to Baltimore, with intermediate stops in Cleveland, Columbus, and Washington. The other teams, however, were in constant flux, some lasting a decade or more, and others not making it through a single season. Most franchises were always one bad season away from failure, and leagues were always scrambling to find a team or two to replace the last team to drop out.
- In contrast with the white major leagues, the Negro leagues faced significant competitions from other leagues for their top talent. We see this beginning in the early 1930s, when Satchel Paige and several other stars jumped to North Dakota to play for integrated semi-pro teams. By the late 1930s, the competing leagues were Trujillo’s Dominican League and the Pasquel brothers’ Mexican League. It wasn’t just Paige—most of the major stars, including Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Martin Dihigo, Roy Campanella, and Monte Irvin played in Mexico and/or the Dominican Republic. In 1946, a few white major leaguers, including Sal Maglie and Mickey Owen, were banned from organized baseball for jumping to the Mexican League, but it’s seldom mentioned that a large number of Negro league stars were also playing in Mexico at the same time. All these defections further weakened the Negro league teams.
With all of these negatives, I find it difficult to believe that a few thousand dollars in compensation from Rickey would have done more than delay the inevitable.
Is there a reason that Rickey refused to pay? (Rickey did get assurances that the players he signed were not currently under contract to avoid being legally liable, but he didn’t respect the Negro leagues’ reserve lists.) Here I’m going to shift from facts to my own unproven hypothesis. I’m pretty sure that I recall reading somewhere that teams in organized baseball were forbidden from paying teams outside organized baseball for their players. This is one of those things that I’m pretty sure I saw in an old newspaper (probably Sporting News) while researching something else, but sure enough when I went looking for it for this blog post, I couldn’t find it. So please don’t take this as fact until I can find some evidence. But it makes sense that organized baseball, which went to great efforts to make sure its players didn’t jump to independent so-called “outlaw” leagues, may have also banned the purchase of players from those leagues.
If that’s the case, then Rickey’s refusal to pay compensation would have been a very reasonable precaution. The status of the Negro leagues relative to organized baseball was unclear, but Rickey—who was acutely aware that his integration plan would meet extreme opposition and went to great lengths to ward off some of the likely threats—might have been concerned that the other owners would claim that the Negro leagues were “outlaw” organizations (even though they were excluded because the white leagues wouldn’t allow them to join) and would try to invalidate Robinson’s signing as a violation of this rule.
Of course, later owners such as Bill Veeck did pay compensation. But that also would make sense. Once Robinson’s signing had demonstrated that African Americans would be allowed to play baseball, Veeck knew that the other owners weren’t going to stand up to him for paying compensation. It would have provided Veeck—never one to follow the rules—with a chance to one-up Rickey and thumb his nose at the other owners, which seems entirely in line with what we know about Veeck’s style.
Moving away from hypothesis to what we do know with certainty, we know that Negro league attendance plummeted after Robinson reached the majors, especially in cities that had major league teams. Black fans flocked to see the integrated major league teams play, rather than attending the Negro league games. In researching the articles I wrote on the 1948 Homestead Grays pennant and World Series championship, I was struck by how all of the attention that had been going to the Negro league teams was refocused on the handful of black players in the majors and high minors. The final game of the 1948 Negro World Series was barely covered in the black press, because all the reporters were watching Larry Doby and Paige play in the major league world series.
So, perhaps Branch Rickey did destroy the Negro leagues, not by refusing to pay compensation to the Negro league owners, but by shifting the attention of the black press and fans to the integrated majors. If that’s the indictment, I’m sure Rickey would happily stand indicted.
Sometimes sentimentalists for the Negro leagues wonder if there was any way they could have survived. Given the trends underway in baseball during the 1950s, I can only see one possibility. If the major leagues had accepted the Negro leagues into organized baseball as minor leagues and established farm club arrangements, the teams may have receieved enough in player development fees to stay viable. However, I wouldn’t have liked this alternative scenario. It was difficult enough to get the minors (and majors) fully integrated, and having a blacks-only minor league alongside the other leagues would have only retarded that progress. So while I think it may have been possible for the majors to have allowed the Negro leagues to survive, I don’t think it would have been desirable.
So, Dave Zirin, maybe Branch Rickey wasn’t a saint. Rickey, after all, was a businessman, and I think it’s pretty hard for a businessman to be a saint. But in my book, Rickey was a hero. Faced with a moral dilemma, he decided to make an audacious stand for the morally correct principle at great risk to both himself and to Robinson. By making this choice, he fundamentally changed the world and made it a better place for generations to come. That meets my definition of heroic. So, when I watch “42″ this weekend, I intend to ignore the snark and the intellectual revisionism and, like Steven Golden at Baseball Nation, celebrate both Robinson and Rickey as men who changed the world for the better.
Strasburg has been adamant that he wants to be become a workhorse, throwing perhaps 110 pitches per game. Davey Johnson says that this season Stephen Strasburg will be allowed to throw as many pitches as needed and has “got the shackles off.” I don’t believe him – I believe that Strasburg’s innings will still be limited this season.
I don’t have a pipeline to the the deliberations of the Nationals’ front office, but there are certainly a number of signals that Strasburg will not be allowed to throw the 215+ innings or 3400+ pitches that are thrown by the top workhorses in baseball.
I’ll start with a column written by Tom Boswell last summer, just as the pitch-limit controversy was starting to heat up. Now Boswell has his pluses and minuses as a columnist, but from my nearly 30 years in Washington I’ve learned some things about how journalists work. High profile columnists like Boswell cultivate influential “inside” sources, and often are allowed to pick up information “off the record” or on “background,” which they agree not to directly quote. This arrangement works two ways – it often provides the journalist with information that allow them to write articles that “scoop” their competitors. In exchange, the journalist is sometimes used by the organization to get its version of the story out in a manner that appears like an objective, outside story. Boswell’s column on Strasburg last July had all the earmarks of such a story – it expresses Boswell’s opinions, but I believe that much of the information in the story was fed to him by the Nationals management.
Boswell wrote, “If you jump the number [of innings] by more than 20 percent from one year to the next, bad things tend to happen.” I strongly suspect that rather than a number that Boswell came up with, it actually represents Mike Rizzo‘s thinking. Is there any evidence? Look at how the Nationals handled Jordan Zimmermann, who—as was often noted last year—preceded Strasburg in Tommy John surgery by almost exactly a year and faced essentially the same innings limit in 2011 that Strasburg faced in 2012. The next season, 2012, Zimmermann’s innings increased 24% (including the post-season), from 161-1/3 to 199-2/3. His total pitches increased from 2464 to 3164, or 28%. That’s a little more than the 20% cited by Boswell, but the Nationals clearly weren’t going to let Zimmermann become one of the league leaders in innings pitched or pitches thrown.
I think they’ll do it in a way that’s subtle and doesn’t get people talking, but based on what we saw with Zimmermann, I’d expect Strasburg’s innings to be limited to about 190 in the regular season, allowing for another three or four starts in the post-season. Last season he averaged 93 pitches per start; this season, I think it might edge up to maybe 96, but it’s not going to be allowed to increase dramatically. And you know what? I’m fine with that. Johnson’s mentor, Earl Weaver, had great success with young pitchers by not overworking them. I think that the attitude of Johnson and Rizzo is that young pitchers should be protected. And a lot of researchers agree.
A team’s fortunes often revolve around how players improve or decline. Of course, the biggest changes are either injury-related or unexpected flukes. By their nature, they’re unpredictable and all you can do as a fan is hope that things go well and start talking about them when some actual news develops. But there are other challenges that are more interesting – can a player advance or overcome a weakness? These are the five biggest questions I have about Nats players for this season. I’ll do it countdown style, saving the biggest/most important questions for last.
5. Can Henry Rodriguez overcome his control problems? Watching Henry pitch can be quite frustrating. Occasionally he’s been dominating – at his best, it’s like having a second Stephen Strasburg in the bullpen. More often, though, he’s been the wild thing—walks too many, too many wild pitches, too many stolen bases allowed. And then there’s those walkoff home runs we’d like to forget.
Why do the Nats keep giving him second (and third, and fourth,…) chances? It’s simple, really. Every once in a while, one of these wild young pitchers turns a corner, cuts back on the walks, and becomes an excellent pitcher. Sandy Koufax had a walk rate of 13.4% his first six seasons (through age 24) and an ERA+ of 100. In his age 25 season something clicked, and his walk rate over the rest of his career (unfortunately, too short at another six seasons) fell to 6.4%, and his ERA+ soared to 156. Randy Johnson had a walk rate of 14.5% during his first five seasons (through age 28) and an ERA+ of 101. Over his next 12 seasons (ages 29 through 40), his walk rate dropped to 7.6% and his ERA+ was 166. Those are obviously extreme examples of guys who went from average to Hall of Famers, but if Henry could just cut his walk rate from 14.5% (his career average so far) to something like 11.5%, his career would take out. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic—for every Koufax and Johnson, there are a dozen flame throwers who never get control and eventually flame out. I worry that if Henry ever does master the strike zone, it may be for another team.
4. Will Jayson Werth‘s power come back? Of course, Jayson suffered a broken wrist last season, and although he was an effective hitter when he returned (.312/.394/.441), his power didn’t really come back. I like to measure power using the “power factor” (total bases divided by hits), which I think is a somewhat better measure than the more common “isolated power.” Werth’s has fallen from 1.80 in 2010, to 1.68 in 2011, to 1.47 in 2012. His value has always come more from his on-base percentage than from his slugging, but if the power doesn’t come back, it will put a big dent in his offensive value, leaving him more as an average corner outfielder rather than an elite one.
3. Has Wilson Ramos fully recovered from his injury? Spring training certainly has been encouraging, but it will take a couple of months of regular season play to be convinced that there aren’t lingering affects on our long-term catcher.
2. Can Danny Espinosa start hitting right-handed pitchers? Against lefties, Danny’s career line (in 357 plate appearances) is .276/.346/.467. In contrast, batting left-handed against right-handed pitchers his career line (in 1,058 PA) is an anemic .227/.306/.393. He’s been re-working his left-handed swing this spring. I’ll be watching this season to see if he can stop being a liability against right-handers.
1. Will Bryce Harper take the next step forward to become one of the top players in baseball? Other writers have looked at Bryce in comparison to other successful 19-year old players (for example, see this article by Grant Brisbee of SB Nation), and found that most of them go on to become major stars. I think in Bryce’s case, barring a major injury, the talent and drive are so great that it’s highly probable that he’ll eventually become one of baseball’s brightest stars, one of the top five or ten players in the game. What’s less clear is how soon that will happen. Some of the comparables took the step to stardom at age 20, but we can’t count on it—it might take him another couple of seasons to take that step forward. I notice that most of the statistical projections I’ve seen are playing it conservative, projecting a season similar to last year. It’s going to be really interesting to see how long it takes him to grow into the player that I think he’s capable of becoming.