The first part of assessing the Nats’ needs for this winter is assessing where they currently stand. The Fangraphs site has posted projections and depth charts from Steamer; presumably other projections, such as ZIPS, will be coming later. These depth charts, of course, only include current rosters, so the numbers will change as free agents are signed and trades are made. But at this early stage, the Nats look pretty good—they show the Nationals with 42.6 WAR, which is third in MLB (behind the Dodgers and Cubs) and slightly ahead of the Mets, who are projected with 40.6 WAR.
Let’s take a look at how the relative rankings and projected WAR shake out by position. In this table, each entry represents the team’s relative ranking among the 30 MLB teams (for example, the Nats’ catchers rank # 20), along with the total projected WAR at the position in parentheses (2.2 for the Nats’ catchers):
|C||# 20 (2.2)||# 7 (3.1)||# 24 (2.0)|
|1B||# 18 (1.5)||# 13 (1.9)||# 28 (0.4)|
|2B||# 21 (1.4)||# 8 (2.7)||# 15 (2.0)|
|SS||# 12 (2.1)||# 19 (1.8)||# 30 (0.7)|
|3B||# 6 (3.8)||# 13 (3.1)||# 21 (2.2)|
|LF||# 14 (1.7)||# 8 (2.1)||# 4 (2.4)|
|CF||# 24 (1.3)||# 16 (2.0)||# 10 (3.0)|
|RF||# 1 (6.9)||# 10 (2.1)||# 2 (5.6)|
|SP||# 1 (18.0)||# 2 (17.9)||# 20 (10.5)|
|RP||# 18 (2.8)||# 17 (2.8)||# 8 (3.4)|
The depth charts assume that Yunel Escobar will play second base, Trea Turner will be the main shortstop (with Danny Espinosa backing him up), and that Anthony Rendon will play third.
A few notes on these projections:
- For the first time in several years, the Nats project to be below average at several positions: catcher (Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton), first base (Ryan Zimmerman), second base (Escobar), center field (Michael A. Taylor), and relief pitcher. In contrast, the unique characteristic of the Nationals going into the last three seasons is that they were projected to be at least average at almost every position. It didn’t always work out that way in practice, but at least on paper their lineup and pitching looked great, which is why they were usually picked as pre-season favorites.
- The expensive contracts due to Jayson Werth and Zimmerman make it challenging to improve at those two positions. Even though their performance may be slipping below average, it hasn’t collapsed to the point where the Nats are likely to want to try to dump their contracts.
- The sole reason that the Nats are still slightly favored over the Nats is one player, Bryce Harper. Outside of Harper, the Mets and Nats are remarkably closely matched, with the edge going to the Mets at several positions (especially second base).
- I was a bit surprised that the Nats’ starting pitching is still (slightly) favored over the Mets, but Steamer projects Max Scherzer as the # 3 pitcher in baseball next season, and Stephen Strasburg as # 10. In contrast, Harvey, deGrom, and Syndergaard are projected as # 12, 13, and 20.
- The projections really like two Nationals rookies—Trea Turner (1.7 WAR in 455 projected PA) and Lucas Giolito (1.2 WAR in 83 projected IP).
- Where do the projections suggest the Nats need to improve? Center field looks like a primary target. The projections just don’t see Taylor hitting well enough to be more than a fourth outfielder. In a follow-up post, I’ll look more closely at Taylor and the Nats’ free agent and trade options for center field.
At the beginning of September, the Nats were trailing the Mets by 6-1/2 games, though with two 3-game series remaining against the leaders, Nats fans still held out hope. During September and the final four games played in early October, the Nats went 17–15 and ended the season with an 83–79 record, 7 games behind the division champion Mets.
The month began with the Nats in St. Louis playing the Cardinals, having lost the first game of the series. They went into the bottom of the 8th ahead 5 to 3, but then experienced the first of several catastrophic bullpen meltdowns during the month. In the 8th inning, Drew Storen gave up two runs to tie the game, and in the 9th Casey Janssen gave up a 3-run walk-off home run. Closer Jonathan Papelbon was not called on to pitch because it wasn’t a save situation. The Nats won the next game 4 to 3, avoiding a sweep.
Returning home, the Nats swept a 4-game set against the Braves, outscoring them 36 to 9. When the Mets arrived for the critical series of the home stand, the Mets lead was down to 4 games. If the Nats could win the series, they appeared to still have an excellent chance at making up enough ground to take the division.
In the first game, Max Scherzer faced Niese. Although Scherzer gave up 3 solo home runs to fall behind, the Nats came back with a grand slam by Wilson Ramos and held a 5 to 3 lead after 4. Scherzer gave up two more runs, though, leaving the game tied 5 to 5 after 6. In the seventh inning, however, Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero, Casey Janssen, and Matt Thornton combined to give up 3 runs, and the Nats lost 8 to 5. In game two, the Nats took a 7 to 1 lead into the seventh, but with one on and two outs the bullpen suddenly couldn’t get anyone out. Treinen, Rivero, and Storen combined to give up 6 walks, a single, and a double, with Storen walking in the tying run. Papelbon was called on to pitch the eighth and gave up a home run, and the Mets won 8 to 7. In game three, Stephen Strasburg came into the 8th inning ahead 2 to 1, then gave up a solo home run to Kelly Johnson, tying the game. Storen came on in relief and gave up a 2-run homer to Cespedes, putting the Nats behind 4 to 2. They lost the game 5 to 3, and it would be Storen’s last appearance of the season as he angrily broke his thumb on his locker after the game. The series ended with the Nats trailing by 7 games and with their playoff chances essentially dashed.
A road trip followed, and the Nats lost two of three to the Marlins, then swept three against the Phillies. Returning home, they took three of four against the Marlins and were 6 games behind with 13 left to play. But they next hosted the Orioles and were swept. In the second game, Papelbon was ejected for intentionally hitting Machado, who had hit the go-ahead home run off Scherzer. After the game, Bryce Harper called Papelbon’s throw “pretty tired” and said “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.” The final series of the homestand was against the Phillies, who beat the Nats two games to one. On the 26th, the Mets clinched the division by beating the Reds, while Strasburg won against the Phillies. But the next day, in a game that was tied 4 to 4 in the eighth, Harper paused in disgust after hitting a pop flyball to left before jogging down to first. Papelbon hollered at Harper about running it out. Harper responded angrily and Papelbon attacked him, grabbing him by the throat. Amazingly, manager Matt Williams was oblivious to the brawl and sent Papelbon out to pitch the ninth. Papelbon surrendered 5 runs and the Nats lost 12 to 5. Papelbon was suspended for the rest of the season for the intentional hit batsman in the Orioles series and for the attack on Harper.
The Nats finished their homestand by winning a make-up game against the Reds. On their final road trip they lost two of three against the Braves in Atlanta, but then swept a doubleheader against the Mets in New York. In the first game, Harper hit a two-run go-ahead home run—his 42nd of the season (tying for the league lead)—in the 8th inning for a 3–1 win. In the second game, Scherzer pitched a 17-strikeout no-hitter, his second no-hitter of the season, with only an error by Yunel Escobar keeping him from having a perfect game. The next day the Nats lost their final game of the season 1 to 0, and ended 7 games behind the Mets. The following day, Williams and the entire coaching staff were fired.
The Nats’ hitting for the month was just average, with a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 101, 7th in the National League. Their starting pitching was pretty good, with an ERA relative to league (ERA–) of 79, or 21% better than average, 2nd best in the NL; their fielding independent pitching relative to league (FIP–) was 86, 4th best in the league. The relief pitching was more problematic, with an RE24 of 0.24, 7th in the league. Their 24 bullpen meltdowns were tied for 2nd worst in the league, but their 31 shutdowns were 4th best. One of their biggest problems, however, was luck. Scoring 4.63 runs per game and allowing only 3.44, the Pythagorean formula suggested that they should have won 4 more games this month than they actually won. Poor performance in clutch situations led to a worse record than should have been expected from their run scoring and prevention.
21–11 (4.63 R/G – 3.44 RA/G)
Again, as in all five previous months, the monthly team award goes to Bryce Harper (.333/.469/.747, 30 G, 11 HR, 26 R, 22 RBI, 2.2 fWAR). In a few weeks I’m expecting him to also win the National League MVP Award.
Most valuable starting pitcher:
Stephen Strasburg (3–1, 1.49 RA/9, 5 G, 36-1/3 IP, 14.1 K/9, .197 opp OBP, 1.8 RA9-WAR).
Most valuable relief pitcher:
This one is debatable, and I considered going with someone like Doug Fister who pitched very well, albeit for relatively few innings in low leverage situations. However, I’ve decided to select Felipe Rivero despite the fact that he pitched poorly in several critical games, such as allowing three walks to the three batters he faced in the early September Mets series. Nevertheless, he pitched in quite a few high leverage situations and pitched well more often than not (1–0, 2.40 RA/9, 17 G, 15 IP, 8.4 K/9, .154 opp OBP, 4.20 RE24, 0.4 RA9-WAR, 1 of 6 inherited runners scored). He also earned his first two MLB saves this month.
Drew Storen (0–0, 9.00 RA/9, 6 G, 5 IP, –6.05 RE24, 1 shutdown, 4 meltdowns, –0.4 RA9-WAR, and a self-inflicted broken thumb). Dishonorable mention goes to several runner ups: Jonathan Papelbon (5 meltdowns, –0.4 RA9-WAR), Casey Janssen (4 meltdowns, –0.4 RA9-WAR), Wilson Ramos (.189/.206/.305, –0.3 fWAR), and Michael A. Taylor (.180/.255/.236, –0.3 fWAR).
Best start this month:
Max Scherzer (October 3, 2–0 win over the Mets in New York) with a 17-strikeout no hitter with no walks (the most strikeouts ever in a no-hitter with no walks), where the only runner reached on an error. His game score of 104 is the highest in Nationals’ history and the second highest ever in a 9-inning game after Kerry Wood’s 1998 20-K one-hitter. Honorable mention goes to Stephen Strasburg (September 15, 4–0 win over the Phillies in Philadelphia) who pitched 8 shutout innings, giving up 1 hit and 1 walk with 14 strikeouts (Game score of 93 – the highest of Strasburg’s career).
Tanner Roark (September 17, 6–4 loss to the Marlins at home) gave up 6 runs on 8 hits in 5 innings, with 4 strikeouts. His game score was 31.
- Stephen Strasburg (September 9, 5–3 loss to the Mets at home) gave up 3 runs on 5 hits and 1 walk with 13 strikeouts in 7-1/3 innings (game score 61). He left the game in the top of the 8th with the score tied at 2, one out, and a runner on first. Storen gave up a home run to Cespedes on his second pitch in relief.
- Max Scherzer (September 23, 4–3 loss to the Orioles at home) gave up 4 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks with 12 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings (game score 54).
- Tanner Roark (September 29, 2–1 loss to the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 2 runs on 5 hits and 1 walk with 4 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings (game score 59).
- Jordan Zimmermann (September 30, 2–0 loss to the Braves in Atlanta), in his final start as a National, gave up 2 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk with 1 strikeout in 6 innings (game score 52).
Blake Treinen (September 1, 8–5 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis). He entered in the bottom of the sixth with the Nats ahead 4–3, one out, and runners on first and third. He got a double play to get out of the inning without a run scoring (win probability added .211). In the eighth inning, however, Storen gave up two runs to tie the game, and in the ninth Janssen allowed a walk-off home run.
Although we had several worse collective bullpen meltdowns (such as the September 8 game against the Mets when the bullpen gave up a 6-run lead), this one goes to the worst meltdown attributable to a single relief pitcher. It goes to Blake Treinen (September 24, 5–4 loss to the Orioles at home). Asked to pitch the top of the eighth with a 4–3 lead, Treinen gave up a leadoff single to Pearce followed by a home run to the switch-hitting Wieters. Of course, as everyone except Matt Williams seems to know, Treinen is absolutely terrible against lefties (.934 OPS this season; .871 career). Treinen did manage to get the last three outs, but ended the inning with Nats trailing 5–4. (WPA –.488)
Bryce Harper (October 3, 3–1 win over the Mets in New York). In the top of the eighth, with the score tied 1–1, two outs, and Yunel Escobar on first, Harper hit a 2-run home run to give the Nats a 3–1 lead (WPA .426).
Ian Desmond (September 29, 2–1 loss to the Braves in Atlanta). In the top of the ninth, the Nats were trailing 2 to 1 and had runners on first and second with no outs. As on several previous occasions that also led to failure, Williams asked one of his better hitters to bunt and advance the runners. Desmond’s bunt landed directly in front of the plate, resulting in a double play that erased the lead runner (WPA –.319). The next batter, Matt den Dekker, struck out to end the game.
P.S. Hiatus – Please note that I’m not planning to post during the post-season and will be waiting for the hot stove league to heat up. I’ll shut down comments for a while to avoid spam.
When I last wrote about the MVP race a month agp, I said I’d revisit it near the end of the season. With Bryce Harper posting amazing statistics again in September, he seems to have emerged as the consensus pick for MVP. Although a bit of slump of the last week caused him to lose his lead in a few categories, he still has the best batting statistics in baseball. As of now (after the first game of the Nats’ October 3 doubleheader) he leads the majors in slugging, on-base-plus slugging (OPS), and wins above replacement (WAR), and leads the National League in batting average and runs scored, is tied for the lead in home runs, and is a close second in on-base percentage.
Who are his rivals? The place to start is with the leaders in WAR. Let’s look at this link from FanGraphs, which combines position players and pitchers; I’ll look at the version that bases pitcher WAR 50% on fielding independent pitching (FIP) and 50% on runs allowed, though you can compare with other versions. Here are the top 15 in the NL through Friday, October 2:
- Bryce Harper 9.4
- Jake Arrieta 8.4
- Clayton Kershaw 8.0
- Zack Greinke 7.6
- Joey Votto 7.5
- Paul Goldschmidt 7.1
- Yoenis Cespedes* 6.7
- A.J. Pollock 6.4
- Kris Bryant 6.3
- Jason Heyward 6.0
- Andrew McCutchen 5.8
- Max Scherzer 5.8
- Buster Posey 5.6
- Anthony Rizzo 5.5
- Gerrit Cole 5.2
*For Yoenis Cespedes, I’ve included his WAR earned in the American League before his trade. He’s earned 2.7 WAR while with the Mets.
Among the top three pitchers, Arrieta has made his last start, while Greinke is scheduled to pitch tonight and Kershaw might pitch tomorrow, leaving the tight Cy Young race still a bit up in the air.
Although no single candidate has emerged as a strong rival to Harper, I’d like to focus on interesting cases that have been made for a couple of players: Cespedes and Rizzo.
The case for Cespedes
The argument is that the Mets were a near .500 team, lagging behind the Nationals in a lackluster race until Cespedes was acquired at the trade deadline on July 31. Since August 1, the Mets have gone 36–21 and easily clinched divisional title. Hitting .287/.336/.610 with 17 home runs for his new team, Cespedes was the spark that lit the Mets’ offense.
This argument tells a story, and like most such stories it simplifies in ways that distort. For example, in addition to Cespedes arriving, the Mets’ offense was also sparked by the arrivals of Michael Conforto and David Wright (from the DL) and by hot hitting from Duda, Granderson, d’Arnaud, and Murphy, as well as significant contributions from their pitchers other players. The Mets’ success can’t be attributed solely or even primarily to Cespedes.
On the other hand, the discussion of Cespedes does raise an interesting issue for MVP voters: how to treat his statistics from the AL before he was traded. I’ve read several arguments saying that the AL performance shouldn’t count, since this is the NL MVP award. I’m going to make the counter argument however.
Suppose that Cespedes had been traded at the same time, but that his statistics were flipped with Harper’s, so that Cespedes had clearly been the best player in baseball over the full year. Don’t you suppose many of us would be saying that his overall performance deserved to be recognized, even though it meant counting the performance from both leagues. With interleague play and other changes, I think it’s time to stop thinking of the two leagues as completely independent entities, but rather as conferences within the same overall league. So I’m willing to count Cespedes’ performance while with the Tigers in his NL MVP consideration. But the downside is that any special merit he might get for playing for a playoff team for two months needs to be offset by down-weighting the four months he spent with a team that collapsed. (I don’t give much credit for playing for a winner any way, but I know many voters do.)
Clutch hitting and the case for Anthony Rizzo (& Kris Bryant)
Another interesting candidate has been promoted by several sabermetric writers—Anthony Rizzo. The argument is based on the idea that hitting in clutch or “high leverage” situations—late in close games, especially with runners on base—is more important than hitting more typical situations. There are several ways of measuring “clutch” situations, and according to most of them, Rizzo has hit better than average in those situations and Harper has hit worse in clutch situations.
Let’s consider a breakdown that’s available from Baseball-reference.com of high-leverage, medium leverage, and low leverage situtations. Here are Rizzo’s statistics:
|High leverage (LI>1.5)||134||.410||.522||.750||1.272|
|Medium leverage (1.5>LI>0.7)||260||.258||.373||.438||.811|
|Low leverage (0.7>LI)||290||.246||.342||.492||.835|
With a 1.272 OPS, Rizzo has been a fantastic hitter in clutch, or high-leverage situations. Compare those statistics with those for Harper:
Now, if two players have the same overall statistics, I think it’s obvious that the one who hits better in high leverage situations will help his team win more games. Hitting a home run with a runner on base in the 8th inning of a tie game is clearly going to contribute to a win much more than hitting a solo home run in the 8th inning of a 14–3 blowout.
Rizzo leads the majors in win probability added (WPA), a statistic that is calculated based on the change in probability of winning the game for each event that occurs in a game. I use WPA quite a lot, for example, in my month in review posts that tell the story of dramatic clutch hits, shutdowns, or meltdowns that occurred during the month. WPA is a great story-telling statistic because it highlights the dramatic moments when the game is on the line. But as a measure of value, WPA is fundamentally flawed. When a team wins a game 5 to 4 in extra innings, all 5 runs were equally needed for the victory, whereas WPA will give inordinate weight to the final “game winning” run. Yet, without each of the previous 4 runs, the team never would have made it to extra innings and the clutch situation. Thus, WPA can’t be used directly as a measure of value.
In a recent article in Grantland, Ben Lindbergh uses a variant of WPA called “championship win probability added” (cWPA) to argue for Rizzo as a potential MVP candidate. This statistic extends the idea of WPA to the sequencing of games—a game late in the season of a close pennant raise is higher leverage, or more clutch, than a game earlier in the season. But, it’s obvious that as a measure of value it has the same flaw as WPA—if a team wins its division or wild card slot on the last day of the season 90 wins to 89 for its opponent, all 90 wins are counted equally (and are thus or equal value) in winning the championship. The games won in April or May count just as much in the standings as a game won in late September or early October.
Dave Studeman, writing for Hardball Times, recognizes that WPA is flawed as a measure of value and proposes a different approach. Instead, he argues that a run in a one-run game is worth more than a run in a two-game run, and comes up with some measures of the value of a run in one-run, two-run, three-run games, etc., which he calls “margin factor.” Now I concede Studeman’s point that a run is worth more in a close game, though I admit I don’t fully understand how he measures the margin factors. Based on the margin factors, Studeman reweights each player’s run contributions based on whether the margin in the game was one run, two runs, etc. Rizzo came out top in this calculation.
Now, assuming that the margin factors accurately measure the value of a run in each of these situations, I still have a problem with Studeman’s approach. When Harper was batting in the fourth inning, we don’t know whether the game will ultimately turn out to have a one-run or a five-run margin. Measuring the impact based on the closeness of the game after the fact is like measuring how well a player hits in games his team wins—it might be measuring something, but it is so confounded by what all of the other players in the game are doing that it’s not a clean measure at all. If I were using this approach, I’d recommend using Bayes’ theorem to calculate the value of each run based on the probability at the time is batting that the game will have various margins. It would be a lot of work to do those calculations, but I believe they could be calculated using the Markov approach that’s used by sabermetricians such as the authors of The Book.
A simpler approach, and the one I would take if I were undertaking the research, would be to get ahold of a statistical baseball game simulator and run 10,000 seasons with Rizzo’s, and then Harper’s, high-, medium-, and low-leverage statistics and see how the teams do. While I expect that the simulations will show that there’s a clear benefit to batting well in high-leverage situations, I think they’ll also show that Harper’s better statistics in medium- and low-leverage situations also have a clear impact. So while I give some weight to the “clutch” argument, I’m not yet persuaded that Rizzo should beat Harper for MVP.
By the way, it’s interesting that Rizzo’s teammate, Kris Bryant, has clutch statistics that are just as good as Rizzo’s. You may have noticed that Bryant is slightly ahead of Rizzo in Fangraphs WAR based on playing a more demanding position well, as well as on being a good baserunner. So taking account of the clutch argument actually boosted Bryant quite a bit on my pseudo-ballot.
Obviously, I don’t have a vote for the MVP, but based on these considerations, this is how I would fill out a ballot if I had one. (Again, rankings might change slightly based on games scheduled for tonight or tomorrow).
- Bryce Harper
- Jake Arrieta
- Kris Bryant
- Zack Greinke
- Joey Votto
- Paul Goldschmidt
- Andrew McCutchen
- Clayton Kershaw
- Anthony Rizzo
- Yoenis Cespedes
Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post has written a brilliant 3-part account of the Nationals’ 2015 season. Parts 1 and 2 are well worth reading, but part 3, covering the period from the trade deadline through the Jonathan Papelbon–Bryce Harper scuffle, is the best article on the Nats you’ll read this year.
While the Papelbon-Harper incident ensured the firing of Matt Williams at the end of the season, Svrluga’s article leads me to think that Williams will never manage again.
Williams was even more inept at managing the bullpen than we had thought. Svrluga points out that in on July 31 in Game 1 of the Mets series in which the Nats would surrender their 3-game lead, Matt Thornton was asked to warm up five times in the 12-inning game without ever being used. In the next game, the now-tired Thornton gave up two doubles to give the Mets the lead.
I know that relievers often complain that warming up without being used can be nearly as tiring as actually pitching. Watching games, I’ve had the impression that Williams tends to warm up pitchers without using them more than other managers, but data haven’t been available to confirm my impression. Svrluga’s article makes me think that this is something that baseball statisticians, who count almost everything else imaginable, ought to be tracking.
More important than his questionable decisions about overworking relievers and leaving starters in too long, which I and others have pointed out, are Svrluga’s stories about Williams’ lack of communication with his players—a managerial deficiency that I’ve long suspected but hadn’t previously seen confirmed. According to Svrluga, Williams repeatedly failed to inform players whether they should expect a day off, misinformed players on how he planned to use them, and generally avoided talking with and confronting players.
I think that the problems described by Svrluga strongly suggest that it’s more prudent to hire a manager who’s had some experience managing, even at the minor league level, so that the hiring GM can gather information on his skills with communicating and running a pitching staff and bullpen.
The exposé doesn’t just implicate Williams. Svrluga describes Mike Rizzo‘s approach to the trade deadline. Of all the problems that the Nationals were facing in July, Rizzo improbably decided that the team’s greatest need was to replace Drew Storen as closer. And while it’s deceptive to simplify the narrative of the Nationals’ collapse as being centered around the trade for Papelbon, it’s nevertheless accurate to describe the trade as disastrous. Oddly, one of the main motivations for the trade seems to have been a constraint imposed by the Lerners that any trade-deadline deals not add to the Nats’ 2015 salary. Rizzo managed to structure the Papelbon deal to have the Phillies pay the rest of Papelbon’s 2015 salary, but did so by guaranteeing Papelbon $11 million for 2016.
This points to the third culprit in Svrluga’s story—the Lerners as owners of the franchise. While I respect the fact that owners need to set budgets for their team’s payroll, the rigidity of the Lerners’ $164 million ceiling as the trade deadline approached doesn’t make sense from an economic point of view. Economics tells us that the expected benefits of the marginal player on the payroll should match or exceed the marginal costs of paying him. But at mid-season in a tight pennant race, the expected benefits go up, just as the marginal benefits of having a bullpen ace go up in the late innings of a tight ballgame. The payroll that’s appropriate late in the season of a tight pennant race generally should be higher than the payroll that’s appropriate at the beginning of the season, before the team knows whether there will be a tight race. At that point, the salaries already paid are sunk costs, and the value of wins in the remaining games become greater.
But even stranger is the fact that the Lerner’s were willing to ignore the costs accrued for future years in their budget for this year’s season. So Papelbon was treated as “freely” available for 2015, even though the team committed $11 million for 2016 (a sum that they now no-doubt wish that they weren’t committed to pay). Similarly, the Max Scherzer and Jayson Werth deals were back-loaded to minimize the current payroll at the cost of accruing later payroll costs. Economics is very clear that costs should be accounted for at their present discounted value regardless of when they are scheduled to be paid. The type of budgeting used by the Lerners is more what I’d expect from a Congressman than from supposedly savvy businessmen. For me, that’s probably the biggest surprise of the article—seeing how ineptly the owners are managing the team’s payroll budget and creating pointless restrictions on the GM’s ability to assemble the talent he needs to win.
Svrluga’s article was a very discouraging account of the unraveling of the Nationals’ season, but one that is very much worth reading.
A lot’s been written about the recent fracas between Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper, which ended with Papelbon grabbing Harper’s neck and getting suspended for the rest of the season. I don’t have much to add, but did want to post links to a couple of articles that add some perspective:
- “Harper leads the Nationals in extra-base taken rate at 57.1 percent and is tied for 16th in the majors, minimum 400 plate appearances, according to baseball-reference.com and research by MLB Network’s Marc Adelberg. In other words, any talk about Harper’s lack of hustle is misplaced; no player on his team takes extra bases at a higher rate.” What you need to know about Bryce Harper’s baserunning by Ken Rosenthal, Just a Bit Outside – FoxSports.com.
- “It’s a four-step process: outcome, disgust, realization that they need to make a token effort, token effort. Some players do it more than others and Harper’s disgust lasts two beats longer than normal… So that’s the unwritten rule, then. Start jogging earlier. Don’t stand for a second and then jog. Make that token effort immediately. If that distinction seems silly to you, that’s because it is… That’s the secret, though: This isn’t about jogging to first. It’s about Bryce Harper being better at baseball than everyone else. It’s about Harper being talented from the very beginning of the play.” The unwritten rules of Jonathan Papelbon attacking Bryce Harper for not hustling by Grant Brisbee, SB Nation.
Regarding Papelbon, I never liked him before the trade and was worried about the attitude that he might bring to the Nationals, but initially I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. The last week has worn out my patience, and he’s now one of the few players in Nats’ history that I simply can’t root for. (I think the last player in that category may have been Elijah Dukes.) I’m now hoping that the Nats trade him this winter, though I have to admit that if both Papelbon and Drew Storen are traded, as they probably should be, the bullpen will need a major rebuild. We’ll talk about that more after the season.
Also, I think this incident seals Matt Williams’ fate—I now think he’ll almost certainly be fired, and should be.
Over the last month as the Nats have collapsed, there have been repeated calls for Matt Williams to be fired. The staff of the Washington Post has come to his defense, with Tom Boswell arguing (albeit tepidly) that you can’t prove that Williams is a lousy manager, with Barry Svrluga arguing that Williams could improve if he followed Ned Yost’s example, and with Chelsea Janes reporting that Bryce Harper loves Williams as a manager.
How do we evaluate a manager? And how does Williams measure up?
I see five major areas in which we can try to evaluate managers:
1. In-game strategy: Does he follow strategies that have been demonstrated to lead to a higher probability of success?
We’re talking about questions that can be answered using probability and statistics such as the following:
- Should Anthony Rendon be asked to bunt in the bottom of the ninth with the Nats trailing by one, a runner on first, no outs, and a 3–1 count?
- Should the closer be asked to pitch in tie games on road?
- In a close game, should you let the pitcher bat if you’re likely to lift him in the next inning at the first sign of trouble?
- Should you ask Michael A. Taylor to hit in the leadoff spot in 28 starts?
Using research such as Inside the Book, we can work out the best strategies and determine how making suboptimal choices affects the probability of winning. Fans who are sabermetrically oriented (sometimes including myself) love to criticize managers for making poor decisions. Certainly, we’d hope that managers would understand probabilities and strategies well enough to avoid common mistakes, though unfortunately this is not the case for most managers. Williams has come in for more than his share of criticism for his in-game decisions.
The problem with this line of analysis is that once you plug in the numbers, you find that managers’ in-game decisions simply don’t make that much difference. For example, with his .284 on-base percentage, Taylor is a terrible choice as a lead-off hitter. But if you plug in the numbers, batting Taylor lead-off instead of seventh or eighth lowers the team’s probability of winning a game by just a fraction of one percent. Even the most egregious errors affect the probability of winning by perhaps 5, or at most, 10 percent. If you tried adding up the impact on wins of all of Williams’ strategic mistakes, I’d guess that they turn out to be less than one game. And most managers make at least some similar errors, so relative to the average manager, there’s really not going to be much to go on. You could easily argue that a manager’s other good attributes outweigh the occasional strategic blunder.
2. Decisions about playing time: Do his line-up decisions give the team its best chance to win?
Here, I think we’re getting choices that potentially have a bigger impact on the team’s success or failure. For example, we’re talking about these kind of questions:
- Should Drew Storen have been asked to come in to face Yoenis Cespedes again the night after his meltdown began with a double given up to Cespedes?
- Should Casey Janssen have been asked to pitch the bottom of the ninth of a tie game against the Cardinals the night after he gave up 4 runs on 4 hits and a walk against the same team?
- Was Max Scherzer overused in June and July when he went 8+ innings 5 times in 6 starts?
- Was Storen overused in August before the game in which he gave up a grand slam to Carlos Gonzalez?
- When Jayson Werth and Rendon came off the DL, were they rushed back into the lineup too quickly, leading to slumps?
- Should Ryan Zimmerman have been given more rest while he was battling with plantar fasciitis?
These are important decisions. Getting them wrong could easily cost the team several losses. A problem in evaluating a manager on these decisions, however, is that we can’t really know what would have happened had a different decision been made. The questions I’ve selected indicate some of the decisions that I think Williams may have gotten wrong, but there’s really no way to prove that things would have gone better with a different decision.
3. Communicating with players: Do players understand what their role is and what’s expected of them?
Now we’re getting into the gray area where I, and most fans, have only a vague idea of what’s going on between a manager and his players. I’m convinced, however, that communicating with players is one of the key skills for a successful manager.
Although I admit I don’t know much about Williams’ communications skills, I do notice a couple of troubling signals. For example, when Tanner Roark was sent down to Potomac in late August to be stretched out as a starter, he reported, “I was kinda shocked by it.” That reaction suggests that Williams and Mike Rizzo weren’t communicating their plans and expectations for Roark. Similarly, Storen apparently wasn’t prepared for the Jonathan Papelbon trade.
So while I’ll admit I don’t know much about Williams’ communication style with his players, I do worry somewhat about it.
4. Communicating with the media and fans: How well does he serve in his role as spokesman for the team?
Although managers aren’t hired or fired for their ability to communicate with the media or the fans, the fact of the matter is that the manager is usually the most visible spokesman for the team. Williams speaks to the media in both pre-game and post-game interviews and does other events such as a weekly radio interview. These interviews won’t win or lose games, but they presumably help the team in establishing and building up its fan base.
I judge Williams to be merely adequate in communicating with media and fans. He comes across as honest and straight-forward, but he also comes across as rigid and humorless, especially in comparison with his immediate predecessor, Davey Johnson. When the National media started picking on Williams last month, he seemed to provide them with an ample supply of seemingly rigid, thoughtless quotes that could be ridiculed.
Again, I wouldn’t fire a manager solely, or even mainly, because of lack of communication skills with fans, but I don’t think Williams is helping his case in this department.
5. Everything else: How is he as a clubhouse leader, manager of coaching staff, supervisor of batting and fielding practices, enforcer of player discipline, etc?
Here’s the big unknown for us as fans—all this other stuff is obviously extremely important to the team’s success, but unless you have a close friend who’s a player or coach, most of us have no insight into what a manager is like in these areas.
Ultimately, I think the decision whether to fire a manager is usually made by the owner, rather than by the general manager. Although owners know more about the internal working of a team than the average fan, the fact is that they are somewhat outsiders—they rely on their general manager or other team executives for most of their information. And because GMs are not disinterested parties, I’d guess that most owners feel like they can’t have complete trust in what their GMs or other executives tell them.
With imperfect information on managerial performance, I think owners make the same decision that stockholders and investors make—if the team/enterprise succeeds, the manager is rewarded and kept, but if it fails or disappoints, the manager will be fired. At least that strategy enforces incentives on the manager—he knows that if he doesn’t get his team to succeed, he risks losing his job. Although Boswell is right that we can’t prove that Williams is a bad manager, I also agree with the general wisdom that managers of disappointing teams should expect to be fired. Because we can’t directly measure the impact of a manager, judging them based on the performance of the team is the best we can do.
After game 3 of the Mets series, my opinions are the same as those of Harper at Nationals Baseball: “Fire Matt Williams,“ and “Today, for me, the season is over.”
But I’ll also add a third thought—let’s trade Drew Storen right now.
I should say that I like Storen. He’s always seemed to me to be a smart guy who enjoys his bullpen role and wants to be an excellent closer. He’s got good stuff, and when things a clicking well (as they were during the first half of this season) he can be one of the better relievers in baseball. But the last five weeks have just been brutal, and combined with his earlier mishaps in the 2012 and 2014 playoffs and the bitterness over the Jonathan Papelbon trade, I just can’t see him returning to Washington next year for his final season before free agency. I think there’s at least a 90% chance the team will trade him. There are simply too many fans who don’t want to see him pitching here next year.
So if we’re going to trade him anyway, why not do it right now? September trades are rare, for the simple reason that teams can’t use any player acquired after the end of August in the post-season. But teams are still permitted to make trades in September, and I’ll argue that trading him right now would be the best move, both for the Nationals and for Storen.
Who would want Storen? I think we can rule out the National League—the five playoff teams are pretty much set, so none of them are going to trade a prospect for a relief pitcher that they can’t use in the post-season.
The American League, however, is a different story. There are still tight races in two divisions—with the Blue Jays and Yankees contending in the East and the Astros and Rangers in the West. For the wild card race we can add two more teams that still have a shot, the Twins and the Angels. So there are six teams contesting for four playoff slots (with the Royals a sure thing for the fifth slot). Furthermore, only one of those six teams, the Yankees, has a good bullpen. For the other five teams, Storen could be a big help for shoring up their bullpen for the last three weeks of the season, and there are few other relievers still available. So if Mike Rizzo decides to shop Storen around, he should find some potential buyers.
I think this actually may be the time when Storen’s value will be the highest. His salary, at $5.7 million this year, is already getting up there, and next year, in his final year of arbitration, he’ll be due another increase. At those prices, teams this winter will find his salary cost to be similar to good free agent relievers, so I don’t expect them to be willing to give up a good prospect for a reliever with his salary. But by dealing him now and adding the value he could bring over the next three weeks in a tight pennant race, a contending team could be induced to part with a decent prospect. If we’re going to trade him this winter anyway, I think we get the best deal by shopping him right away.
It would also be best for Storen. Starting fresh with a new team in a new league is his best shot at getting past whatever psychological impediments have been hampering him with the Nationals. If he stays in Washington, he’s going to be booed at home games for the rest of this season. And although he won’t regain his closer role immediately with a new team, if things work out well perhaps a new team will consider moving him to the closer role next season. With the Nats committed to Papelbon, there’s very little chance of him returning to closing while in Washington.
So, Rizzo, get on the phone and let’s make a deal.