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May 25, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

First quarter 2015 review

After 44 games played, the Nats are a little past the quarter season mark. Let’s take a look at their performance. My benchmark is what we would have expected from the team and from each player.

The team is in first place by 2-1/2 games with a 26-18 record, a .591 winning percentage, on pace for 96 wins. If you prefer Pythagorean winning percentage, their 212 runs scored and 187 runs allowed are consistent with a .562 winning percentage, or a 25-19 record so far. I think it’s fair to say that’s about how the team was expected to perform. Of course, it overlooks their horrendous 7-13 start, as well as their 19-5 record since April 28.

Their offense has been a little better than expected, with a .265/.336/.432 slash line and their .334 wOBA for their non-pitchers ranking 4th in MLB. But offsetting the good performance of their position player’s offense has been worse-than-expected defense, so I’d rate their position players performance overall as about the same as expected.

Of course, every group has individuals who surprise. On the upside, the really big surprise, of course, has been Bryce Harper. With his .326/.464/.729 slash line, he leads the majors in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and with an fWAR of 3.1, leads the majors in wins above replacement. While we all expected Bryce to play at an all-star level, for the early part of this season he’s made the leap to MVP-level performance. Furthermore, the leap in walks and improved patience and pitch recognition suggest that the improvement may be permanent. No, I’m not expecting a .729 slugging percentage for the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end with 40+ home runs and an OBP above .400.

The other big positive surprise has been Danny Espinosa. With Anthony Rendon out due to injury, Espinosa has  made up the difference with his unexpected .261/.359/.459 slash line and 1.0 fWAR. That was quite a step up from his .200/.255/.326 slash line over 2013–14. He’s also contributed with the glove.

Offsetting the positive surprises are the negative ones. The big one is Jayson Werth, whose .208/.294/.287 slash line and –0.6 fWAR is unprecedented in his career. Coming back from injury, it appears that he rushed back too soon, and over his first 19 games back (from April 13 to May 4) hit only .176/.247/.203. From May 8 to May 15, he hit a more respectable .296/.412/.519 over 34 plate appearances, before he went on the DL again after hurting his wrist.

We’ve already mentioned Anthony Rendon, who is a disappointment in the sense that we were expecting a lot from him and he hasn’t been able to play due to various injuries. The other player I’ll describe as a disappointment is Ian Desmond, whose .246/299/.392 slash line and 0.3 fWAR are worse than expected, and whose defensive miscues have also hurt the team.

Turning to pitching, I’ll mention that opinions on the team’s performance–especially that of the starting pitchers, is likely to vary depending on how much weight you give to fielding independent metrics such as FIP (or fWAR, which is based on FIP), and how much you give to traditional metrics such as ERA, RA/9, and rWAR or RA9-WAR, which are based on RA/9. According to FIP and fWAR, the Nationals starters are the best in baseball, but according to RA/9, their starters’ 4.86 ranks 25th among MLB rotations.

The one individual starter about whom there is no question is Max Scherzer. His 2.02 FIP is lowest among qualified major league pitchers, and his 1.67 ERA is fourth lowest. He’s started the season as a contender for the NL Cy Young Award.

Offsetting Scherzer’s strong performance have been major disappointments in the performance of Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister. Strasburg’s 6.50 ERA is second highest among qualified MLB pitchers, even though his 3.65 FIP is better than the league average of 3.90. Even his better-than-average FIP, however, is a disappointment compared to his career marks. Coming into the season, his career FIP had been 2.84 and his career ERA had been 3.02, while for 2014 his FIP had been 2.94 and his ERA had been 3.14. Fister’s season hasn’t been quite so extreme, but his 4.31 ERA and 4.69 FIP are significantly worse than his averages over the last three seasons, 3.22 for ERA and 3.51 for FIP.

In the bullpen, Drew Storen has had a surprisingly good performance, with 13 saves and only one blown save, a 0.98 ERA, and a 1.28 FIP. Furthermore, 7 of his saves have preserved one-run leads. The rest of the bullpen has been pretty much about what was expected, which was sort of an average major-league bullpen.

The Nats have been in the somewhat unusual situation where most of their negative surprises have been offset by positive ones. Some regression is expected, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the prospect that this looks like a really good team.

 

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