I’ve been a strong proponent of instant replay review, so I’m surprised to find that after our first week of expanded review, I’m starting to have second thoughts.
During spring training (I have to admit that I only watched of spring training games) I heard reports that the reviews went pretty quickly, so I was surprised at how irritating the one-or-two minute delays are turning out to be. While I’d love to ensure that the umpire’s decisions are more accurate, I’m also a proponent of faster games. It seems to be hard to advocate for one without the other.
The rules seem smart—there’s a limit of one review per team, unless the team wins a challenge, in which case they get another one. That helps limit the number of challenges, but also gives an incentive to use the challenge in cases where the team thinks it’s going to win. As Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post observes, managers also have an incentive to hold their challenges for high leverage plays—plays where the score is close and there are runners on base with the potential to score. I’m actually fine with that—if we’re going to only be reviewing a few plays, I’d rather that they be the ones that really make a difference.
The challenge in the season opener, however, illustrates a scenario when the incentives work the other direction. In the top of the tenth inning, the Nats had just taken a 9 to 5 lead on Anthony Rendon‘s home run. Danny Espinosa came to bat with two outs and the bases empty (a very low leverage situation) and grounded to third. The throw pulled Duda off the bag, but he swiped Espinosa as he ran past. Matt Williams challenged the play, despite the fact that the play was very unlikely to affect the outcome of the game, because if he didn’t use his challenge then, he would lose it.
The game had already lasted nearly 3-1/2 hours, so I was pretty irritated by the additional delay. Is there a way to change the rules to discourage managers from using challenges in low leverage situations? One way might be to give managers not only a limit of one per game, but also a limitation on the number used in the season. If Williams had been limited to maybe 60 challenges per season, I think he would have held off on that challenge to try to use it in a more meaningful situation in another game. (Please note that I am not proposing that managers who save challenges be allowed to use more than one per game. Both the one-per-game and 60-per-season restrictions would apply.) Alternatively, an even simpler rule would be to simply say that a team can’t use a challenge if they have a lead of 4 or more runs.
Ok, so I’m looking to tweak some rules to cut back on certain uses of challenges. Are there any cases where I can see additional expansion of replay challenges? Actually, yes there are.
I’ve always been concerned that umpires do a pretty poor job with check swing calls, despite the fact that they’re calling on another umpire for assistance. I’d guess that their error rates are at least twice as high for check swing calls as for other calls of balls and strikes. Check swings, however, seem like something that could be automated. If cameras were set up in fixed locations and computers were programmed to instantly replay and analyze the check swing, I’d bet that the compute could give quick, accurate, and reliable calls. The home plate umpire is already asking for help on these calls; it really doesn’t seem a stretch for them to get the help from a camera/computer combination. If an automated program could be written that could analyze and report a decision within 10 seconds (which I think might be feasible), I’d support turning check swing calls over to machines (obviously with a quick visual check to make sure the machine is doing what we think it should be doing.)
It will take us a while to get used to expanded instant replay review, but in the long run it will just be one of the many minor changes that have slipped into the game over time. I’m glad that MLB has been trying to refine it.
I’ve been doing this blog for nearly three years now, but I think this is my first season preview article. My general approach to this blog is to try to do stuff that other Nats blogs aren’t doing. We’ll see if that works for this post.
In thinking about the Nats’ prospects for 2014, I think about how similar this team is to the one that started the 2013 season 12 months ago—7 of the 8 regular position players, the top 3 starters, and the 4 pitchers who constitute the core of the bullpen are all the same. Only the bench looks significantly different. I remember I was projecting last year’s team for about 91 wins… how does this year’s team compare?
Since the team is so similar, mostly we’re comparing the prospects of individual players with the prospects of those same players a year ago. And the worrisome news is that in most cases, I’m seeing reductions in their projected performance. Ryan Zimmerman? He now looks like a liability as a third baseman. Adam LaRoche? His 2012 season is looking more like a fluke, and we’re wondering if he’ll ever be even an average first baseman again. Stephen Strasburg? While he didn’t have a bad season, I notice he’s no longer showing up in the conversation when people talk about the top ten pitchers in baseball. Gio Gonzalez? He also took a step backwards. Ross Detwiler? With health issues and inconsistency, he stepped all the way off the rotation. Drew Storen? Rafael Soriano? They each took a huge step backwards. Denard Span? While I think he suffered more from unrealistic expectations and was seen as the scapegoat by too many fans, I have to agree that this year’s expectations are lower. Danny Espinosa? More like several giant leaps backward, moving from regular to bench player.
Some other players project about the same this season as last. I’d put Bryce Harper in this category. Whereas last spring we were worried about a sophomore slump, this spring we’re worried about him staying healthy. But I see his chances for a breakout season as about the same that I thought they were 12 months ago. I also see Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen as about the same as a year ago.
Finally, there are a handful of players who project a little higher. Two have moved up quite a bit: Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. Desmond actually didn’t hit as well last season as he did in 2012, but a year ago we still had a lot of questions whether he was a one-season fluke; now we believe he really is this good. Zimmermann quietly put together an excellent season. Jayson Werth also put together his best season since he left the Phillies, but I wouldn’t say his projection is much higher than what it was last spring. After all, he’s also another year older now, and his defense has continued to slip. Wilson Ramos also demonstrated that he’d come back from his injury, so his prospects are better than they were a year ago.
So looking at all of the returning players that are still here a year later, I have to say that the Nats’ prospects as a team look worse—the handful of players who’ve improved don’t offset the large number whose projections simply aren’t as bright. But there is another partial offset – the new players that have joined the team, in comparison to the players who’ve left.
In general, I think the new players help offset the losses among the existing core. Doug Fister certainly seems like he should be an improvement on Dan Haren (knock on wood). Anthony Rendon has been a pleasant surprise, as have Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan. Nate McLouth and Kevin Frandsen seem like upgrades compared to last season’s bench.
So on the whole, I’m willing to project this year’s team as close to, but not quite as good as last season’s team. Last season, I projected them at 91 wins, so this season I’m going to project them at 89 wins. (That’s also close to where the statistics sites are projecting them—FanGraphs has them projected at 89 wins, and Baseball Prospectus has them at 87.6 wins.) If the Braves had stayed healthy, I’d have seen the Nats as neck-and-neck with Atlanta, but with the injuries to Medlen and Beachy, I now think the Nats have the clear edge.
Dave Nichols of the Washington DC Chapter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association sent around a pre-season survey, which I completed. For the full results, see the DC-IBWAA website. Here are my responses:
Since my last post with my thoughts on the Nats’ lineup, I ran across a site, Baseball Musings, that has a lineup optimizer. If you type in your assumptions for each player’s on-base and slugging percentages, it tells you how man runs per game to expect from the lineup you’ve entered, and also spits out the best lineups (roughly 25 of them) and the worst lineups.
Using the same assumptions as in my last post (the projections from FanGraphs with a 9.8% platoon factor for the left-handers and a 6.1% platoon factor for the right-handers; for pitchers, I used the Nationals’ pitcher batting statistics from last season), here are the “optimum” lineups. Actually, the website gives two sets of lineups, based on two different periods on which their model was estimated. This first set of lineups is based on data from 1989-2002:
vs. RHP (4.627 R/G)
1. Jayson Werth
2. Bryce Harper
3. Anthony Rendon
4. Ryan Zimmerman
5. Adam LaRoche
6. Wilson Ramos
7. Ian Desmond
9. Denard Span
vs. LHP (4.665 R/G)
In contrast, the optimizer said that the lineups I proposed in my last post were worth only 4.418 R/G vs RHP and 4.464 R/G vs. LHP. Now the analysis says that the lineup that Matt Williams seems inclined to go with (1. Span, 2. Rendon, 3. Werth, 4. Zimmerman, 5. Harper, 6. Desmond, 7. LaRoche, 8. Ramos, 9. Pitcher) does even worse, 4.413 R/G vs. RHP and 4.396 R/G vs. LHP.
However, when we run the same assumptions through their other sample period, 1959–2004, we get quite different results:
vs. RHP (4.525 R/G)
vs. LHP (4.563 R/G)
4. Rendon !
Rendon as cleanup hitter certainly was a surprise! Also, the optimizer doesn’t ask for handedness, so it doesn’t know that it lined up the Nats’ three left-handed hitters in a row. Looking over some of the other high-ranked lineups, this alternative is estimated to result in only .004 fewer R/G and avoids having the lefties all in a row: 1. Werth, 2. Zimmerman, 3. Desmond, 4. Harper, 5. Ramos, 6. Span, 7. Rendon, 8. LaRoche, 9. Pitcher.
Against these alternatives, my suggestions from the last post are worse, but not by nearly as large a margin (4.491 R/G vs. RHP and 4.517 R/G vs. LHP). The “Matt Williams” lineup is also only a little worse (4.477 R/G vs. RHP and 4.494 R/G vs. LHP). So the results from the longer time span seem to support the idea that lineups don’t make that much difference, whereas from the shorter time span, it seems to make quite a lot of difference.
Do I believe the Baseball Musings model? Actually, I’ve got some problems with their methodology. They base their model on linear regression analysis based on a model with two explanatory variables, OBP and SLG. The most common problem with regression models is that when there are additional variables that affect the dependent variable (in this case, runs per game), and they are left out of the model, the estimated coefficients of the variables that are included are going to be biased. In this case, it’s easy to think what some of those excluded variables might be—base running, for example.
Another model, the Markov model, is less affected by this problem, and it’s the model that was used in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin. It looks like it would be feasible to develop a similar script that could generate optimal lineups based on the Markov approach, and frankly, I’d trust that model a lot more. But the main message that comes through from all of this is that Span really shouldn’t be leading off any more.
Ok … I admit it … I find spring training boring. Sure, there’s baseball being played (of a sort). But the decisions being made are about the fifth starter, the last spot in the bullpen, and the last spot on the bench. You wait all winter for spring training, and then you wait another six weeks for real baseball.
But sportswriters have to keep writing, so this is the time of year when we get the fluff pieces and personality profiles. But, as token analysis, we usually also get an article or two about construction of the Nats’ lineup.
This blog leans toward sabermetrics, and sabermetricians have written a lot about constructing lineups. Actually, the main thing they all agree on is that lineups don’t matter all that much. Poorly designed lineups usually cost, at most, maybe five or ten runs a season. Nevertheless, it’s still interesting to see what research says about lineups, and how far most actual lineups are from the ideal.
I’ll work with the rules from The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by “Tom M Tango” (better known as tangotiger), Mitchel G Lichtman, and Andrew E Dolphin, though I’ve read a number of other articles that reach generally similar conclusions. Here are a couple of their rules:
Rule #1: Your three best hitters should bat somewhere in the #1, #2, and #4 slots. Your fourth- and fifth-best hitters should occupy the #3 and #5 slots. The #1 and #2 slots will have players with more walks than those in the #4 and #5 slots. From slot #6 through #9, put the players in descending order of quality.
Notice that they don’t want you to lead off with the slap hitter who steals a lot of bases. Where do you put the base stealer?
Rule #3: If you need to leverage a basestealer, put him in front of a batter who hits lots of singles and doesn’t strikeout much. The likelihood is that your basestealer will be batting fifth or sixth.
How would I apply these rules to the Nationals lineup? First, I want to focus on projected hitting ability rather than on past hitting ability. Decision making should always be forward looking rather than backwards. We’re interested in how players are likely to hit in 2014, not in how they’ve hit in past seasons. Fortunately, projections are widely available. I’ll use the ones from FanGraphs, which are based on an average of Steamer and Zips projections.
Second, because almost all players have significant platoon splits, I’ve constructed separate lineups for use against right-handed and left-handed pitchers. For the platoon splits, I’ve used common factors, rather than trying to estimate separate platoon factors for each hitter. The factors I used were 9.8% for left-handed hitters (that is, their wOBA, or weighted on-base average, is assumed to be 9.8% higher against right-handed pitchers than against left-handed pitchers), and 6.1% for right-handed hitters, with these numbers taken from a 2013 study by Bojan Koprivica.
I basically followed Rule #1, with one additional rule—I tried to avoid placing left-handed hitters adjacent to each other, to cut down the ability of the opposing team to leverage their left-handed relief pitchers. Here are my suggested lineups, with each player’s projected wOBA adjusted for handedness in parentheses:
Versus right-handed pitchers:
1. Jayson Werth (.349)
2. Adam LaRoche (.339)
3. Wilson Ramos (.326)
4. Bryce Harper (.384)
5. Ryan Zimmerman (.345)
6. Anthony Rendon (.325)
7. Ian Desmond (.321)
8. Denard Span (.319)
Versus left-handed pitchers:
1. Bryce Harper (.350)
2. Ryan Zimmerman (.366)
3. Wilson Ramos (.346)
4. Jayson Werth (.370)
5. Anthony Rendon (.345)
6. Adam LaRoche (.308)
7. Ian Desmond (.341)
8. Denard Span (.291)
These lineups, of course, are not at all similar to what I expect to actually see. First, I show Denard Span, who will almost certainly bat leadoff for the Nats, as the worst hitter in the lineup and better suited for batting 8th. Could this be correct? Absolutely – his wOBAs over the last four seasons have been .307, .308, .325, and .313. While that’s actually not bad for a good defensive center fielder, it’s clearly the worst of any of the Nats’ regulars. Look, back in 2008 and 2009, Span was a fine leadoff hitter. But that was then, and the team needs to evaluate him on what he can do now. Please, I’m not criticizing Span (in fact, last season I was ready to nominate him for the All-Star team), but we need to recognize that he’s valuable for his defense, not as a leadoff hitter.
Now, I admit that neither Werth nor Harper is a classic leadoff hitter. The problem, however, is that there just aren’t that many classic leadoff hitters around. I ran a search for all regulars last season (min. 350 PAs) who had at least a .355 OBP, a 10% walk rate, and an isolated power of less than .180 – thinking that those would be the characteristics of a classic leadoff hitter. Only 12 players fit those criteria, and only three of them actually hit leadoff—Shin-Soo Choo, Matt Carpenter, and Dexter Fowler. Among the others who fit those criteria were players that no team would actually use as a leadoff hitter—Joe Mauer, Billy Butler, Prince Fielder, Buster Posey, Aramis Ramirez, and Chris Ianetta. There were also a few players who weren’t being used as leadoff hitter, but would fit the role pretty well—Jason Kipnis, Dustin Pedroia, and Andre Ethier. But the fact is, most teams are not going to be able to find a classic leadoff hitter because those skills are exceedingly rare. Both Werth and Harper are pretty good at getting on base and at drawing walks, so I think it would make sense to use them as leadoff hitters.
The other thing that really stood out in this analysis is that LaRoche has reached the point where he really needs to be platooned. His .339 projected wOBA against right-handers is adequate, but the .308 projected against lefties is horrible. Whether it’s with Zimmerman or Tyler Moore, I hope that Matt Williams will see the need to institute a platoon.
Last season, 11 MLB teams won at least 91 games and made it to some type of playoff, wild card, or tie breaker game. Nine of those teams had a # 2 catcher with an OPS of at least .650; over all 11 teams, the average OPS of the # 2 catcher was .711 in 252 plate appearances. Although there are a lot of weak-hitting backup catchers in Major League Baseball, it is not characteristic of championship teams to have a hole in their lineup when the backup catcher plays.
Before this morning, it looked like the Nats were heading into the season with a gaping hole at their backup catcher slot. The backup catchers on their 40-man roster were Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon. Last year, Solano’s OPS was .523 in Triple A and Leon’s was .542 in Double A. Furthermore, their primary catcher, Wilson Ramos, has had several injuries and played only 103 games over the last two seasons. While the Nats had Chris Snyder and Koyie Hill available under minor league contracts, neither of them bring much of a bat either.
With today’s announcement of the trade of Nate Karns for Jose Lobaton and two additional prospects who haven’t been named yet, Mike Rizzo has taken a small step toward filling that hole. Although Lobaton had a .249/.320/.394 line last season, his career line of .228/.311/.343 is probably more indicative of his projected hitting ability. Furthermore, reports of a weak throwing arm and below average ability at framing pitches* leaves me wondering just how much of an upgrade he’ll be over Solano and Leon. Nevertheless, this was the one roster hole that most needed filling, and I’m glad to see Rizzo make this move.
* Update: I notice that there are reports that Rizzo said Lobaton’s ability to frame pitches was a “key” to the Lobaton deal, which would contradict my statement about “below average ability at framing pitches.” So I need to clarify. First, it’s a bit hard to find data on pitch framing, so I hadn’t actually checked his record before writing this; I was just remembering a comment by Harper a couple days ago on Nationals Baseball blog. According to StatCorner, it looks like Lobaton is about average at pitch framing, neither unusually good or bad. I misinterpreted Harper’s point, which was that Lobaton became expendible because he was not nearly as good at pitch framing as the Rays’ Jose Molina, who everyone agrees is one of the best at framing. So I was wrong, but it would also seem hard to defend Rizzo’s comment about pitch framing being a key to the deal.
There is a sense in which Rizzo may be right, that pitch framing mattered. It’s when you look at the bottom of the list, the worst pitch framers. This list includes not only Koyie Hill, whom the Nationals control under a minor league contract, but other free agent catchers that the Nats passed on, such as John Buck. So even though Lobaton’s average pitch framing is what made him expendible by the Rays, it may also have been the key that made him more attractive to Rizzo than Buck.
With the exception of the Doug Fister trade, it’s been a pretty quiet off-season for the Nats. With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report in less than two weeks, I guess I’ll go ahead and try to sum up the moves and where they leave the team.
A good reference point for comparison is the roster as of the All-Star break last July. At that point, the team was mostly healthy, with only Ross Detwiler and Ryan Mattheus on the DL. The team’s playoff odds (according to coolstandings.com) were 20%, so there was still a reasonable hope that they could come back from a lethargic first half and make a run for it. Later that summer, Kurt Suzuki was traded and Roger Bernadina was released. After the season, free agents Dan Haren and Chad Tracy left the team without any known attempt to retain them, and Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Fernando Abad were traded away.
The striking thing is that none of the team’s core left. The departing players were the # 4 starter, the backup catcher, three bench guys, and two lefty relievers. All eight starting position players, four of the five starters, and six members of the bullpen were retained.
The big acquisition, of course, was Fister as the # 4 starter. A groundball pitcher with a 5% walk rate last season (12th lowest in the majors), he represents a solid upgrade from Haren. Nate McLouth was signed as a free agent on a two-year deal, taking Bernadina’s place as the backup outfielder. Although Bernadina was a more versatile fielder, McLouth projects as a league average hitter, making him an overall upgrade from the Shark. For the bullpen, Mike Rizzo acquired lefty Jerry Blevins via trade.
Other than that, all of the other slots have been filled from within the organization. The utility infielders appear to be Tyler Moore at first base and Danny Espinosa at second base and shortstop. (I’d guess that when Ryan Zimmerman needs a day off, they’d shift Anthony Rendon over to third and let Espinosa cover second.) The backup catcher appears to be Jhonatan Solano, with Sandy Leon also available. Non-roster invitees include Jamey Carroll, Chris Young, Chris Snyder, and and Mike Fontenot.
So let’s assess the roster that Rizzo’s put together.
No moves were expected in the starting lineup, and none occurred. There are no glaring holes among the starters, though at this stage I’d say that Adam LaRoche projects as a below average first baseman, and Rendon and Denard Span as only average at their positions. Nevertheless, IF everyone is healthy (a big if, obviously), the Nats potentially have an above average starting lineup, both offensively and defensively. Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, and Rendon, in particular, each have the potential to have a breakout season if they are healthy and can reach the potential that they seem to have.
The starting pitching, again if everyone is healthy, also has a lot of potential. Although I worried a lot last season about the gradual decline in Stephen Strasburg‘s performance, he still has tremendous stuff and has the potential to develop into one of the very best pitchers in baseball. And while we might expect a little regression from Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, any team in baseball would love to have them. Adding Fister, all of the top four should be projected to turn in above-average performances. Detwiler will probably start the season as the fifth starter, though Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark are also possible candidates.
Although the bullpen doesn’t project as especially strong, I tend not to worry about it too much. I guess one reason is that at some point during the season, I sort of expect Detwiler to be moved to the bullpen. Furthermore, as long as he’s healthy, I would expect him to thrive there, which would obviously take care of the need for another lefty in the bullpen. Relying on his fastball for 88% of his pitches last season, his opponents’ OPS increased markedly the second and third times through the order (.663 the first time, .896 the second time through, and .939 the third time through the order). These factors point to a pitcher who will likely perform much better in relief.
The bench is where I’m disappointed in what Rizzo has accomplished, or failed to accomplish, this winter. Backup catcher is a huge hole–there’s simply no evidence that either Solano or Leon is a major league hitter. You might live with that if you thought you could count on Ramos to give you 130 games, but he played 78 games last season and 25 the year before. The lack of a quality backup catcher is a gaping hole on this roster.
In the infield, there’s a lot of uncertainty. If Espinosa is fully healthy and can play like he did in 2011 and the first half of 2012, he’d be one of the best backup infielders in baseball. The problem is that we didn’t see any evidence last season that he was recovered and is capable of that. Moore is a defensive liability any place other than first base, and as a pinch hitter seems redundant (and inferior) to Scott Hairston. There have been rumors of continued interest in Jeff Baker; I hope that’s true, since the current infield bench seems awfully risky.
The Nats should have a good shot in a weak division, and the Fister signing made it a good off-season. Unfortunately, the weak bench, which was one of the Nats’ biggest problems last season, really hasn’t been improved.
The Nats have traded Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray for Doug Fister. The move is already being described as a “steal”—read Dave Cameron’s analysis at FanGraphs. Fister is a relatively low cost starting pitcher under team control for two more seasons. The FanGraphs/Steamer projection for Fister’s 2014 is for 168 innings of 3.80 ERA, 3.50 FIP (3.2 wins above replacement), 6.5 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9. And that’s pretty much the pitcher he’s been for the last three seasons. Plus he has the advantage of moving from the American League to the National (and to a decent infield, which is important for a ground ball pitcher). While we liked Lombo and thought Krol and Ray had bright futures, it’s still hard to argue that this isn’t a great move by Mike Rizzo.
Congratulations to the Nationals on one of the best moves of this off-season.