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August 8, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

Why were we so wrong about the Nationals?

With the divisional race now out of reach and the wild card drifting farther and farther, writers are turning to the blame game. According to Tom Boswell of the Washington Post, the Nat’s problem is that they don’t execute fundamental baseball:

… another huge Nats problem, and the one that absolutely must be solved before anything really good can happen, is that they play the game badly at the fundamental level night after infuriating night. The Nats think, correctly, that they are talented. But bad baseball always beats talent. The Nats aren’t winning because the way they’ve played, they don’t merit it.

According to Rachel Levitan, writing at MASN’s Nationals Buzz, the team’s problem is lack of passion:

… this is exactly what’s bothering me about this Nats team. Where’s the fire? Where’s the passion?

In both cases, the writer sees the disappointing outcomes not as the result of bad luck, or lack of ability, or poor management, but as a MORAL failure—they don’t merit winning because they haven’t learned and executed the fundamentals or because they aren’t bringing the right attitude. That’s a very common theme in sports writing—sports is a morality play in which winning is the result of moral superiority and losing is the punishment for moral failings.

Fortunately, Harper at Nationals Baseball has demolished Boswell’s argument, showing that the Nats’ failures in the so-called fundamentals are really pretty small in magnitude and have little to do with putting together a winning team. I won’t spend time on Levitan’s argument about passion, except to say that if passion is indeed their problem, we will also see it in their statistics. Instead, I’d like to walk through how I like to look at this from an analytical perspective. A couple of weeks ago, I walked through some of the numbers. This time, I’d like to talk my way through the concepts.

Let’s start with why everyone pre-season was picking the Nationals to dominate the National League this year. I think most people started with the Nationals win-loss record last year—98 wins, the most in baseball—and then started making various additions and subtractions. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper will be available all season. Most of the players are young and are likely to improve. Wilson Ramos will be back. They added Rafael Soriano to the bullpen. All were reasons to add some wins. On the other hand, Adam LaRoche had just had his best season at age 32 and probably wasn’t going to be that good. Several other players, such as Ross Detwiler, Danny Espinosa, and Ian Desmond, hadn’t had sustained success yet, and several might regress. You have to allow for injuries. All of these were reasons to subtract a few wins.

If you approach it that way, a lot of people were guessing that the Nats might win anywhere from 92 to more than 100 games. I’m going to suggest that that wasn’t the best way to approach the problem of projecting performance.

Analysts—especially those who forecast player performance—tend to think of players having an unobservable “true talent” level, which unfortunately is clouded by a lot of statistical noise. In some cases, true talent levels may be exposed relatively quickly. For example, abilities for walking or striking out may be relatively well measured in as few as a couple hundred plate appearances. But other abilities, and in particular, a player’s overall true talent level, may take several years to fully reveal itself. We get fooled all the time—Todd Frazier got some Rookie of the Year votes and sure looked like a great player—Oops! Wait a minute.

The problem is that even while we’re gradually learning about a player’s true talent, their talent is also changing. For a young player, it’s often learning or improvement in skills—Anthony Rendon is learning to turn the double play. But as time goes on, more often the changes in true talent are the effects of injuries or of aging. It can be tough to identify changes in true talent.

So returning to our question, “Why were we so wrong?” there are several possible explanations:

  1. Maybe the 2012 Nats played above their true talent level, leading to faulty expectations.
  2. As we’ve seen more data and learned more about the players this season, we may be learning that their true talent level isn’t as high as we thought a year ago.
  3. Maybe their true talent levels have declined due to injury, aging, or other reasons.
  4. Maybe the 2013 Nats are playing below their true talent level due to bad luck or a myriad of other possible reasons.

Fortunately, their are some numbers available that let us get a sense of how important each of these explanations are. In particular, I particularly find useful a couple of datasets at First, there’s their positional power rankings from the beginning of the season. This represents a systematic forecast of each team and player’s performance based on the information that was available pre-season. Although it’s not exactly the same thing as # 1 because of personnel changes between 2012 and 2013, it does give us a pretty good idea of what a systematic, unbiased projection system thought the Nationals true talent levels were at the beginning of this season.  The other resources are their projected standings and team depth charts, which provide an updated version of those projections based on currently available information. In particular, the projected rest of season numbers provide an objective estimate of their current true talent levels.

So which of our four explanations is most important in explaining the disappointment. I think # 1 may actually be most important—we gave too much credit to the 2012 team relative to their true talent. The pre-season positional power rankings indicated that the Nationals were not a 98-win team, but instead were projected for approximately 88 wins. Furthermore, rather than walking away with the NL East, as most analysts were projecting, the fangraphs assessment showed the Nationals neck-and-neck with the Braves. I remember feeling a sense of shock when I first went through those rankings, but as I examined the projections more carefully, I decided that they were actually quite solid and that the Nationals had more holes in their lineup than I had realized.

In particular, that assessment indicated in advance two problem areas that most fans weren’t thinking of. The bullpen, despite the addition of Soriano, was only ranked as mediocore. And although the projections didn’t expose just how dreadful the bench would turn out to be, it did indicate that the bench was not a strength. Both projections were prescient.

On the issue of the bench, Bill James just posted this comment on his “Hey Bill” Q&A page:

One of the key differences between a contending team and a second-division team is that a team like the Red Sox has players coming off the bench, like Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp, who are clearly above replacement level, whereas the bench of a second-division team consists entirely of replacement-level players.

Although no one could have forecast how dreadful the Nats’ bench would be, there clearly were signals that the bench probably wouldn’t be as strong as in 2012. With Mike Rizzo spending some money to try to strengthen the team during the off-season, he really should have spent more time and money on the bench.

Going back to our four explanations for our miss on the Nats’ performance, I guess I would rank the second most important as being that the 2013 team has played below their true talent level. The fangraphs current projected rest-of-season winning percentage for the Nats is .524 (or 85 wins over a full season). I think that’s a rough estimate of their current true talent level, and you can see that it’s only deteriorated a bit from where it was at the beginning of the season. At present, the Nats are 6 games below a .524 winning percentage. This difference between actual performance and true talent could be due to luck, or to any of the other factors like fundamentals that sports writers love to emphasize. It’s certainly within the usual range for luck, though, so we can’t rule out the idea that they’ve simply had some bad luck.

The other two factors, changes in true talent and learning more about players’ true talent, receive the most attention but are probably the least important overall. I’ve already written about some of these issues—for example, in the case of Strasburg, his decline in strikeout rate and increase in walk rate, which are both statistics that stabilize at new levels relatively quickly, seems to be indicative of an actual decline in his talent level. As a Nats fan, I’m quite concerned by this apparent diminution in talent. Other players for whom injuries or aging appear to have resulted in talent declines include Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa, Drew Storen, and possibly Adam LaRoche.

For many of their other players, however, a comparison of their beginning-of-year and current projections indicate minor adjustments to the estimates of true talent, but maybe not any actual change in those levels. For example, although Gio Gonzalez has given up more home runs this season than last, his strikeout and walk rates have barely budged, and the projections have barely budged as well. The change in home run rates seems to mostly be a matter of luck. In the case of Desmond, even though his performance this season is slightly below last season’s his projected true talent has actually gone up, as the projection now recognizes that his 2012 season was not a fluke and was close to his true talent.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be writing more about the Nats players as we try to establish the team’s needs for the off season. But I come away from this discussion with the following message. Last season’s team was not as good as it looked at the time, but neither is this season’s team nearly as bad as it may seem. The fangraphs rest-of-season projection actually has the Braves at .525, neck-and-neck with the Nationals. In other words, if we were able to get a reboot on the season, we should be perfectly matched, talent-wise, with our divisional competitor. While that doesn’t let us off the hook for doing something this off-season, it does suggest that the situation is not completely dire and we don’t have to think about a major re-build.

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