2007 Sabermetric Year in Review: Washington Nationals
October 9, 2007 12 Comments
To start out what will hopefully be a 30-part series looking at a recap of the 2007 seasons of each of the 30 Major League teams (in reverse alphabetical order, because the lower regions of the alphabet never get any respect), we turn to the Washington Nationals and look at their 2007 season through the eyes of a Sabermetrician.
Record: 73-89, 4th in the NL East (you thought they were in last place, didn’t you?)
Pythagorean Projection (Patriot formula): 69.56 wins (673 runs scored, 783 runs allowed)
Team Statistical Pages:
Oleanders and Morning Glories?(aren’t Oleanders poisonous?)
Other Nationals Resources:
Overview: It’s been a rough year when your team leader in wins checks in with 8. ?It’s been even rougher when your 8-win “ace” is actually John Rauch, a reliever.? The only thing for which this Nats team will be remembered is that they were the “other” team in the ballpark when That One Guy hit the big home run.? It’s not like the
Expos Nationals were expected to do much to distinguish themselves. And to be honest, for a team that coming into the regular season was expected to be abyssmal, it’s an accomplishment they managed to do nothing to distinguish themselves, other than have Dmitri Young win NL Comeback Player of the Year.? (Side note: As someone who works in the mental health field, I’m happy to see Dmitri, who has suffered from clinical depression,?do so well for himself both personally and professionally.)?
Nats fans can take comfort in a few things.? For a team that was supposed to be the second coming of the 2003 Detroit Tigers, they managed to hang around and even played the spoiler for the Mets in Shea Stadium during the last week of the season, sweeping a three-game series and aiding the Mets along in their little collapse.
What went right: While the starting pitching was awful, the Nats bullpen was… decent.? Chad Cordero gets all the press with his 37 saves, but John Rauch was something of an unsung hero for the Nats.? Rauch appeared in 88 games, had a WHIP of 1.10.? Among those with more than 50 IP, he was 21st in the NL in BB/9.? Which is nice.? Saul Rivera came out of nowhere and pitched 93 innings of league average relief.? Too bad he’s 29.? The bullpen gets mention as something that went right because it?was generally the only thing that could be considered right about the Nats. ?The bullpen and a little luck kept the Nats away from a 95 loss season.
Young did have a good year and his .869 OPS was good for 9th place in the majors among first basemen.? Which is nice.
What went wrong: Felipe Lopez is a good place to start.? In 2005, Lopez looked like a legitimate breakout star, hitting .291/.352/.486 with 25 HR for the Reds.? Not amazing numbers, but not bad for a switch-hitting middle infielder who also stole 44 bases in 2006.? The Reds were roundly called fools when they traded Lopez and Austin Kearns to the Nats in mid-2006 for Gary Majewski.? I’m not sure if there was a “winner” in that trade.? This year, Lopez earned a VORP rating of 0.2, meaning that he was not much better than the average waiver wire/AAA/bench riding shortstop.? Yet, he managed to come to the plate 671 times in 2007, and hit leadoff or second in 131 games for the Nats!? Now that’s personnel management!
What’s the difference between the Lopez of ’05 and ’07?? Surprisingly, not a lot.? He walks about as much, strikes out about as much, hits about the same number of line drives, and hits a few more fly balls and fewer grounders this year than in ’05, but not by all that much. Two stats sum it up for Lopez: in 2005, 18.3% of his fly balls left the park.? In 2007, that number was down to 6.1%.? The other thing that happened in 2007 is that his batting average on balls in play fell sharply to .287, down from the past three years in which it had been in the .320s.? What it means is that Lopez’s power in 2005 was probably a fluke. His batting average this year probably was as well.? The real Felipe Lopez is probably a .270 hitting middle infielder with some good speed.??MLB doesn’t have any of those, so that’s good.
Cristian Guzman getting hurt didn’t help morale at RFK Stadium, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as everyone thought.? Guzman was in the middle of his own personal Renaissance (a word meaning “rebirth”) when he got hurt.? However, he did it on the strength of a .364 BABIP and a 2.68(!) GB/FB ratio.? That’s a lot of seeing-eye singles.? In fact, getting hurt was probably the best thing that could have happened for Guzman.? He can now point to the 46 games he played in 2007, and his .328 batting average and convince someone to keep him around for another 2 years or so when his contract expires after the 2008 season.? Someone who doesn’t understand what “small sample size” means and still believes that batting average is the most wonderful statistic ever.
Yeah, that about sums it up: At the trading deadline in late July, the Nationals faced a dilemma.? Do we sign Dmitri Young to an extension or trade him for whatever we can get.? Young’s contract had been due to expire at the end of the 2007 season, and he was having a good year.? The Nationals had lost 1B Nick Johnson to injury before the year began, which is why Young had gotten a chance to begin with.? Young signed for 10 million over the next two years.? The Nationals have the unfortunate problem that Young can not DH in the NL when (presumably) Johnson, who is six years younger, comes back.
So how good is Ryan Zimmerman?: He’s 22.? He came in second place in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2006.? He started all 162 games for the Nats at 3rd base, hitting in the 3 hole.? He’s really the Nats’?only regular position player under 25.??And he’s the great?gleaming hope for Nationals fan(s) everywhere.? It’s just that… well… have you ever dated a girl who was pretty and sweet and kind and you?really did like her and you?still hope that?she’s doing OK in life and hasn’t been hit by a bus… but?you realized that while she was above average compared to all the other girls, she wasn’t really anything special?? That girl is Ryan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman’s a good case of a guy who looks better because of where he plays.? Last year, he had an RC/27 rating of 4.93, which put him between Jose Bautista and?Casey?Blake.? Yes, he’s?only 22, and he only spent half a year in the minors, but 2007 was a step back for him.? Before the season started, Baseball Prospectus‘s 50th percentile?VORP projection (the one that they felt was statistically equidistant between the “wildest dreams” and “worst nightmare” scenarios)?for Zimmerman was 41.3.? He checked in at 23.9, which was south of his 25th percentile projection.? What was different in 2007?? The walks and the strikeouts stayed about the same, percentage-wise.? But Zimmerman’s line drive percentage dropped from 21.8% in 2006 to 16.9% in 2007.? Most of those hits became fly balls.? Where did the fly balls go?? Well, his HR/FB percentage was exactly the same from 2006-2007 (11.4%) and his?double and triple?numbers didn’t go up (they went down).? So, most of those fly balls probably wound up in an outfielder’s glove.? To me, that sounds like a guy who pitchers have figured out how to get him to come under the ball, rather than allowing him to drive it.
Then there’s the matter of his OBP.? Zimmerman could very well mature to a guy who has the power to be a consistent 30-35 HR guy (which, HR wise, would put him the company of Miguel Cabrera and David Wright), but Wright and Cabrera both had OBP north of .400 this year.? Zimmerman put up a .330.? In 2005 (Wright’s second year at age 23, his OBP was .388 and he was hitting more line drives.? Cabrera in 2005, his third year at age 22, put up an OBP of .385.?)? Nationals fans who are hoping for Zimmerman to step into that echelon might be sorely disappointed.
Andruw Jones?? Tom Glavine?: If the rumors are to be believed, the Nationals are talking about either Jones or Glavine to come into their system.? Glavine just declined a $13M option to play with the Mets.? He’ll probably want 8 figures on the open market.? Despite his last-day-of-the-season exclamation point on the Mets meltdown, someone will give it to him.? Jones is talking about $15M, perhaps on a one-year deal, just based on past reputation.? I suppose that I don’t have a GM’s gig quite yet, but I’m curious what the logic is for the Nats to even be in on something like that.? Jones would replace Nook Logan as the everyday center fielder, and Logan was only a tiny bit above replacement level anyway.? Let’s pretend that Jones’s disastrous 2007 never happened and that Jones really is the player he was in 2006, when he was 49 batting runs above replacement.? Even if he duplicated that it adds perhaps 5 wins to the Nats total, meaning that the Nats perhaps start sniffing .500 baseball.? The only reason for the Nats to sign someone like Jones is to placate the fans and make them believe that they are doing something.? (See Young, Dmitri).
$15 million can buy a lot of scouting and player development.? For a team that has nearly nothing in its minor league system (how many years did they not actually have an owner?), this team needs to rebuild from the ground up.? A marquee free agent signing might provide a boost in attendance (the Nats drew 1.9 million fans last year, good for 14th in the NL), but it’s a temporary Band-Aid on a very deep wound.? The powers that be in D.C. might have to swallow hard and actually endure a few years of looking like the ’03 Tigers before things actually get better.
Outlook: The Nationals have a few decent (and I’m using that generously) players on their team, but the entire roster looks like a who’s who of reclamation projects and castoffs.? Especially among the hitters, almost all of them have the “were supposed to be great, and showed a flash of brilliance, but ended up average to below average” tag on them.? This is not a young team either, with an average age of around 28 for the hitters and 27.5 for the pitchers.? The Nationals are currently?something of a collection of spare parts.? You can build a car out of those parts and it’ll run, but… well, it’ll still be the Washington Nationals.
This is a team that’s suffered from not having an owner or a fan base for too long (my buddy Omar, who went to school in DC excluded). ?They are the ultimate fixer-upper and it’s going to be a thankless job?for whoever takes it over.? The Nationals are the new kids in town and face competition from Baltimore, at least geographically, for fan support.? I’m guessing that’s the rationale behind moves like the Young signing, the ill-fated Alfonso Soriano trade, and the rumors around Glavine and Jones.? D.C. inherited what is essentially an expansion team.