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September 14, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

The Nats, the Braves, the bullpen, and the bench

The Braves are coming to town on Monday and for the Nats, it’s a must-win series. Not the type of must-win series we may have anticipated in May or June if we had looked ahead to September’s schedule—the NL East divisional race has been long since decided. Instead, the Nats must win against their tough rivals to keep their slender wild-card hopes alive.

So I was thinking—the Braves are 10 games ahead of the Nats, but their starting lineup really doesn’t look better than the Nationals’. I mean, I wouldn’t trade their regular lineup for ours. And while the Braves have good starting pitching, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez are every bit as good, if not better than, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, and Kris Medlen. Sure, the Braves have Craig Kimbrel, but he’s not worth 10 wins by himself, Do the Nats’ players really match up to the Braves this season?

So I looked more closely at the statistics—specifically, wins above replacement (WAR)*—to try to understand why the Braves have played so much better.

*We know that WAR isn’t a perfect statistic, and for individual players we can certainly quibble about its ratings. but it seems to be the best statistic for answering this kind of question because it attempts to take account of everything (batting, base running, defense, and pitching) and is measured in units of wins.

First, the team WAR totals indicate that yes, the Braves really have performed better than the Nationals. It’s not luck – in fact the luck, if anything, goes the other direction. The Nationals’ win-loss record is actually 3 games ahead of their pythagorean record (that is, based on runs scored and allowed, they should have won 74 games rather than 77), whereas the Braves are 1 game behind their pythagorean record. Based on runs scored and allowed, the Braves should be 14 games ahead, rather than 10.

And the team totals for WAR largely line up with the actual difference (and even better with the difference in Pythagorean record). In batting WAR (I’m looking at the Fangraphs version, but Baseball-Reference version tells a similar story at the team level (though there are certainly differences between the two WAR measures for individual players). The Braves lead the Nats in batting WAR, 24.4 to 16.7. For pitching WAR, I’m going to focus on a measure that Fangraphs calls RA9-WAR, which is based on actual runs allowed, rather than on their default version, which is based on fielding independent pitching (or FIP). It shows the Braves pitchers leading the Nats, 22.5 wins to 12.8. (By the FIP-based measure, they’re closer, 16.2 to 14.1. But at the end of the season, it’s runs allowed that matter, not just strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed.)

Looking at the individual players, however, my intuition holds up. The Nats regulars have actually outplayed their rivals:

Regular position players

Player WAR Player WAR
Ian Desmond 5.1 Andrelton Simmons 4.2
Jayson Werth 4.0 Freddie Freeman 3.7
Bryce Harper 3.4 Jayson Heyward 3.1
Denard Span 2.8 Brian McCann 2.9
Ryan Zimmerman 2.6 Justin Upton 2.8
Wilson Ramos 1.7 Chris Johnson 2.6
Anthony Rendon 1.1 Dan Uggla 0.8
Adam LaRoche 0.6 BJ Upton –0.4
Total 21.3 Total 19.7

A similar picture shows up when we look at the top of the rotation:

Top 3 starters

Player RA9-WAR Player RA9-WAR
Jordan Zimmermann 3.3 Julio Teheran 3.6
Stephen Strasburg 3.1 Mike Minor 3.4
Gio Gonzalez 2.9 Kris Medlen 2.1
Total 9.3 Total 9.1

If we used the FIP-based version of WAR, the Nats’ advantage for top 3 pitchers would be larger, 8.7 to 7.5.

So if the Nats have played better with their regular players and the top of their rotation, the obvious, yet somewhat surprising, implication is that the back of the rotation, the bullpen, and the bench have more than accounted for the Braves’ 10 game advantage. And that turns out to be correct. Here are the data for the back of the rotation:

Other starters

Player RA9-WAR Player RA9-WAR
Ross Detwiler 0.3 Tim Hudson 1.3
Taylor Jordan 0.2 Alex Wood 0.7
Dan Haren –0.5 Paul Maholm 0.3
Others 0.7 Others 0.5
Total 0.7 Total 2.8

The Nats have gotten barely replacement level performance from their starters other than the big three, whereas the Braves have had Hudson (before his injury), as well as fairly good performance from Alex Wood.

Next, the bullpen, which is more than just a story about Craig Kimbrel:

Bullpen

Player RA9-WAR Player RA9-WAR
Tyler Clippard 1.8 Craig Kimbrel 3.5
Craig Stammen 0.8 Luis Avilan 2.2
Rafael Soriano 0.7 David Carpenter 1.6
Fernando Abad 0.4 Jordan Walden 0.9
Drew Storen –0.9 Anthony Varvaro 0.9
Others 0.1 Others 1.7
Total 2.9 Total 10.8

The Braves bullpen is an astonishing 8 wins ahead of the Nats. Even back of the bullpen pitchers like Luis Ayala have been able to make positive contributions. Should we send a spy to find out what their bullpen coach is doing?

Finally, what turns out to be the biggest difference of all is the bench:

Bench

Player WAR Player WAR
Roger Bernadina –0.2 Evan Gattis 1.2
Kurt Suzuki –0.4 Jordan Schafer 1.2
Danny Espinosa –0.6 Gerald Laird 0.7
Steve Lombardozzi –0.7 Ramiro Pena 0.5
Chad Tracy –0.8 Reed Johnson 0.4
Tyler Moore –1.0 Juan Francisco 0.3
Others (incl pitcher batting) –0.9 Others (incl pitcher batting) 0.3
Total –4.6 Total 4.6

While the Nats have been completely unable to get even “replacement level” performance out of any of their bench or backup players, the Braves feature two bench players, Gattis and Schafer, who might be above-average regular players if they had the playing time. Even their pitchers contributed. The Braves hurlers lead the Nats in batting wins, 0.7 to –0.6. All told, their bench and hitting by their pitchers accounted for a little more than 9 wins.

I guess the good news from this exercise is that the bullpen and bench seem like areas where some aggressive moves in the off-season could yield dividends without breaking the bank. On the other hand, based on this year’s performance, I don’t have a lot of confidence that Mike Rizzo will be able to find the right pieces.

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