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March 31, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

Five things I’ll be watching this season

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.

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