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May 19, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

First quarter review: Performance versus expectations

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:

Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA BAT BsR Fld WAR
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:

Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA BAT BsR Fld WAR
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:

Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
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

Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
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:

Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
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:

Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA BAT BsR Fld WAR
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:

Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA BAT BsR Fld WAR
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:

Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
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.

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