2008 Sabermetric Year in Review: Washington Nationals

Here we go again.  The tour bus is back up and running and the 2008 Sabermetric year in review is underway.  Last year, back when it was just me at StatSpeak typing to myself, I went in reverse alphabetical order on the year in review pieces.  This year, in discussing it with my StatSpeak colleagues, we decided to go in reverse Pythagorean order.  It doesn’t matter.  The Nats would still be first.  Washington.  First in war, first in peace, last in the National League.

Record: 59-102 (5th place, NL East)
Pythagorean Projection: 62.12 wins

Team Statistical Pages:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus
FanGraphs

MVN Blog:
Oleanders and Morning Glories

Other Nationals Resources:
Latest News
Contract Status
Trade Rumors

Overview: The Nationals were last in overall hitter VORP and next to last in overall pitcher VORP in the National League.  For a league named after them, they didn’t do so well.  (Although, you have to admire the consistency.)  Ummm, I did hear that the new ballpark is nice.

What went right: Cristian Guzman surprised me.  In addition to playing some pretty good third base defense (despite never having played 3B in the majors before!) during that epic All-Star game, he had a pretty good season… for a National.  In 2007, his season ended after 192 plate appearances and a .328 batting average.  Guzman has always been a ground ball reliant hitter and his .364 BABIP suggested a lot of seeing eye singles… and a lot of potential for regression to the mean.  But in 2008, he put up a pretty good line of .316/.345/.440.  His BABIP was still a little elevated given his batted ball profile, but credit at its due.  He had a decent year.

I don’t know who John Lannan is, but anyone who manages to squeeze out 9 wins on this team at age 23 is worth mentioning.  He’s a majority groundball pitcher, which probably helped him overcome his pedestrian 5.79 K/9 and his rather ugly 3.56 BB/9.  But, the man’s FIP was 4.79, which suggests that his 3.91 ERA (and he was the only Nats’ starter to post an ERA+ over 100… meaning that he was the only Nats’ starter who had an above-average year) won’t last. 

What went wrong: Oddly enough, the one position of strength for the Nationals, at least on paper, going into 2008 was first base.  The Nats had Dmitri Young, whom they signed to an extension after his Renaissance campaign in 2007 and Nick Johnson.  (Oddly, in a league with no DH, the Nats committed to both contractually.)  Both sustained injuries in 2008 which limited them to about 40 games each at first base, so perhaps having a backup plan for both was wise.  But the lion’s share of playing time at first base went to Aaron Bleeping Boone.  So much for a position of strength.

Yeah, that about sums it up: Eternal Presidential candidate Ralph Nader petitioned the Washington Post to cover his campaign for the Presidency, but was rebuffed by saying that the Post would only cover candidates who had a legitimate shot at winning.  Nader fired back asking why the Post bothered to cover the Nationals.  (Thanks Politico!)  Ouch.  When Ralph Nader tells you that you’re a loser, it’s time to go home. 

The Washington DC home for troubled youth: The Nationals did do something right in picking up a pair of guys from the scrap heap who were tossed away by their old teams due to having “character issues.”  Former Met Lastings Milledge and former Devil Ray Elijah Dukes came aboard and by mid-season were fitting into the middle of the Nats’ lineup.  Milledge, as a 23 year old, put up a line of .268/.330/.402 while Dukes, 24, added in a contribution of .264/.386/.478.  I don’t know what these guys are like in the clubhouse, but considering that the Nats bought at fire-sale prices on both, it was a very wise baseball move.  In theory, both will continue to improve with age, both in terms of baseball performance and judgment  I suppose this brings up the question of “winning at what price?”  As a Sabermetrician, I’m interested in studying the most efficient and effective way to win at the game of baseball and getting two young, talented players is a really good strategy.  But it tells me that some teams are not completely, totally, laser focused on winning.  That’s an ethical dilemma as to whether that’s a good idea, but the Nats apparently decided that they were in such dire straits that they could afford to overlook a few youthful peccadilos.  

Austin, we have a problem: Austin Kearns went from decent player always hyped to be “on the edge of breaking out” to .217/.311/.316.  What happened to him?  Part of it was that while his batted ball profile was largely unchanged, his BABIP dropped 50 points from 2007 to 2008.  That should right itself.  However, a closer look at Kearns’s swing diagnostics reveals a rather interesting pattern. Kearns was traded during the 2006 season from Cincinnati to Washington (for Gary Majewski… a trade which I believe is now officially a lose-lose move).  After leaving Cincy, his swing percentage went from 45-46% down to 44% and then in 2008 to 40%.  His contact percentage jumped into the low 80′s from the mid 70′s upon arriving in the capital.  He was swinging less (and pitchers adjusted by throwing him more pitches in the zone), but connecting more when he swung.  That suggests a specific change in mentality, most likely that he was attempting to lay off bad pitches by changing his response bias toward not swinging.  While it’s one thing to make an adjustment, it seems like this one just doesn’t fit him.  Maybe he should go back to being the hitter he was in Cincy.

Last year, I wrote: 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 still a team that gave significant playing time to guys like Paul LoDuca, Jesus Colome, and Ronnie Belliard.  The spare parts analogy still seems to fit, and it seems like more spare parts are on the way.  A peak through the Nationals’ farm system shows no big time talents rising through the ranks.  Guys like Milledge, Zimmerman, and Dukes are kids, but really this is a team with a serious talent deficit throughout the system. 

Here’s an idea: Find the guy who was able to get anything for Felipe Lopez and promote him.  Somehow, the Nationals managed to find someone (the Cardinals, specifically) to take a guy who couldn’t hit, was a mediocre defender (at both second and short), and who was two and a half years removed from doing anything productive.  Lopez is currently a free agent and he’s exactly the kind of cast-off that the Nationals need to stop investing in.  It’s not that they have a steady stream of second base prospects just waiting to break through, but the thought process of “we’ve got to look like we’re doing something” could ruin this team.  It may be an awful thing to have to live through, but maybe the best thing to do is to get guys who are dirt cheap and invest the organization’s money in the Rays plan of scouting and building through the draft.

Outlook: Well, it’s not doom and gloom forever.  There are some pieces in place that would, given better circumstances, allow the Nats to build, but there’s not a lot of pitching, and the farm cupboard is bare.  I’m seeing a drought along the lines of Kansas City or Pittsburgh in the near and intermediate future for the Nationals.  So, if I see you out there wearing a Nationals hat (and you’re not wearing it just because it is pretty), I will salute you.  I appreciate people who stick by losing teams.

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2 Responses to 2008 Sabermetric Year in Review: Washington Nationals

  1. Bob L. Head says:

    FLopez was released at the trade deadline, they got nothing for him …

  2. Pizza Cutter says:

    Sure they got something for him. They got rid of him!

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