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July 18, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

The Nats haven’t met expectations. Who’s at fault?

The Nats haven’t met expectations. A lot of blame is going around. I’m going to try to systematically answer the question: which players are most to blame for performing below what was expected?

To answer this question, we have to step back and ask what was expected. I’m not trying to rank players by their performance, but rather by how much their performance has fallen below (or exceeded) what was expected. To explain what I mean, consider Stephen Strasburg and Ross DetwilerThere’s no question that Strasburg has been a much better pitcher than Detwiler. But despite being one of the better pitchers in the league, an awful lot was expected of Strasburg, who was expected to be one of the top five pitchers in baseball. Not nearly as much was expected of Detwiler. Thus, even though Strasburg has performed much better than Detwiler, I’m going to demonstrate that Strasburg has fallen below his expectations by a greater margin than Detwiler. Thus, the slide in Strasburg’s performance relative to what was expected has been more important in explaining the Nats’ mediocore performance than has Detwiler’s.

To do this analysis, we need a benchmark of what was expected. Fortunately, such a record exists—the Fangraphs 2013 positional power rankings. I analyzed these in an earlier post when we were about one-fourth of the way through the season. Now, with the season 59% over, we have an even clearer picture. I simply prorated each player’s projected wins above replacement (WAR) to 59% of the season, then compared their actual versus projected. (For pitchers, I’m going to use a 50/50 mix of Fangraphs WAR, which is based on fielding independent performance, and another measure called RA9-WAR, which is based on actual runs allowed.

I’ll list the players whose performances are more than 0.5 wins different from their projections, ranked from worst to best, based on the differences between their actual and projected WAR.

Danny Espinosa: –2.3 wins

Projected wOBA, WAR: .308, 1.7

Actual wOBA, WAR: .205, –0.6

A sad story, really. His awful performance was probably due to undiagnosed or untreated injuries. I think he’ll make it back to the majors when he’s recovered, though it remains to be seen whether that happens with the Nationals or another team.

Dan Haren: –2.0 wins

Projected ERA, WAR: 3.66, 1.7

Actual ERA, WAR*:  5.61, –0.3

Are Haren’s troubles over now? Or are the Nationals just getting teased with a temporary respite that prevents them from trading for a suitable replacement before the waiver deadline? I wish I knew.

* “WAR” for pitchers is based on average of Fangraphs “WAR” and “RA9-WAR”

Stephen Strasburg: –1.6 wins

Projected ERA, WAR: 2.69, 3.3

Actual ERA, WAR: 2.99, 1.7

It’s odd that in the discussions of the Nats’ poor performance, Strasburg’s name seldom comes up. Yet, he clearly has not lived up to expectations. The ERA numbers are actually a bit deceptive. His runs allowed per nine innings (R/9), which includes unearned runs for which he bears substantial responsibility, is a much higher 3.74.

Tyler Moore: –1.5 wins

Projected wOBA, WAR:  .315, 0.1

Actual wOBA, WAR: .206, –1.4

It was amazing to me that Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo let the Tyler Moore fiasco go on for as long as it lasted. How could they give 113 plate appearances to a batter that the league had clearly figured out, and who had no redeeming defensive or other skills?

Adam LaRoche: –1.3 wins

Projected wOBA, WAR: .337, 1.4

Actual wOBA, WAR: .327, 0.1

This differential is a little hard to dissect. His batting is 10 points (wOBA) below expectations, which might account for 3 or 4 runs. Fangraphs also seems to think his fielding has been about 7 runs below expectations (–4.7 versus expected +2.6). I’m not necessarily convinced that LaRoche’s fielding has slipped that much, so I’ll take this rating with a pinch of salt.

Ryan Zimmerman: –1.3 wins

Projected wOBA, WAR: .354, 2.5

Actual wOBA, WAR: .349, 1.2

Zimmerman is sort of a unique case, in that his offense has been fine, very close to expectations. It’s his fielding (10.2 runs below the average third baseman, according to Fangraphs) that is causing his ranking to suffer. The fielding metrics used for WAR are not always accurate, but in this case I really can’t disagree with Fangraphs. His fielding has often been simply excruciating to watch. It’s gotten so bad that the reporters are now praising him every time he successfully makes a routine play. While I don’t expect him to leave third base this year, I think Davey should consider moving Anthony Rendon over to third as a defensive replacement in late innings of tight games.

Steve Lombardozzi: –1.3 wins

Projected wOBA, WAR: .299, 0.4

Actual wOBA, WAR: .235, –0.9

Yes, every team needs a defense-first utility infielder, but their offense can’t be this bad.

Drew Storen: –0.95 wins

Projected ERA, WAR: 3.16, 0.6

Actual ERA, WAR: 4.81, –0.35

Storen’s main problem has been the home runs—0.8 HR/9 projected versus 1.4 HR/9 allowed. I know that there’s an argument that this is just luck and his luck will turn, but Davey is becoming increasingly hesitant to use him in high leverage situations, which makes his future in the bullpen uncertain. He could become a trade chip.

Kurt Suzuki: –0.7 wins

Projected wOBA, WAR: .298, 1.0

Actual wOBA, WAR: .262, 0.3

I suspect that some of his drop-off was simply due to overuse while Ramos was out. It’s tough for a catcher to play almost every day, but unfortunately the Nats no longer have the depth they need at this position.

Bryce Harper: –0.7 wins

Projected wOBA, WAR: .350, 2.3

Actual wOBA, WAR: ..381, 1.6

In Bryce’s case, the main problem has been the playing time he missed due to injury. While active, he’s hit better than expected. I thought he should have been given time off immediately after each of the wall incidents, which might have helped him avoid aggravating the knee while trying to play through it.

Chad Tracy: –0.7 wins

Projected wOBA, WAR: .303, 0.0

Actual wOBA, WAR: .214, –0.7

The only thing preventing Tracy from showing up as poorly as Moore and Lombardozzi has been the limited playing time.

To quickly run through the differentials of the players with differentials of 0.5 wins or less, we have Jayson Werth (–0.5) due to playing time, Denard Span (–0.4), who’s been batting a little below expectations, but I think has been unfairly treated as a scapegoat by many Nats fans, Roger Bernadina (–0.3) whose poor bat has been partly offset by a good glove, and Jhonatan Solano (–0.3). Among the pitchers, there’s Gio Gonzalez (–0.3), Ross Detwiler (–0.3), Craig Stammen (+0.05) and Rafael Soriano (+0.4).

Now, turning to the positive surprises—the players at least 0.5 wins above expectations. This, unfortunately, is a much shorter list:

Tyler Clippard: +0.55

Projected ERA, WAR: 3.05, 0.3

Actual ERA, WAR: 1.99, 0.85

Clip continues to be a remarkable relief pitcher. He’s definitely changed his approach over the last three seasons, but he continues to figure out ways to keep batters guessing and get them out.

Anthony Rendon: +1.0

Projected wOBA, WAR: .309, 0.1

Actual wOBA, WAR: .354, 1.1

He’s new enough that I’m hesitant to declare victory, but I’m certainly encouraged to think that Rendon will be a major contributor to a good Nationals infield for years to come.

Jordan Zimmermann: +1.4

Projected ERA, WAR: 3.54, 1.8

Actual ERA, WAR: 2.58, 3.2

What a great development his year has been. His control, represented by 1.2 BB/9, and his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark have driven an excellent season. While I expect his ERA to inch up, I still expect it to stay below 3.00 for the remainder of the season.

Ian Desmond: +1.6

Projected wOBA, WAR: .323, 1.9

Actual wOBA, WAR: .349, 3.5

He’s become a centerpiece of the lineup, as well as one of our few remaining above-average defensive players. He’s become really central to the team. I’d like to see Desmond’s contract extended and have him made the team captain.

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