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

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.


The Name Game

Growing up in Philadelphia, and raised in an extreme sports environment, Jayson Stark has always been an idol of mine. In fact it was reading his Philadelphia Inquirer column every week that eventually propelled me into sabermetrics. His columns always combined humor and statistics in order to show all of the hilarious or newsworthy baseball happenings that could not be seen on an ESPN show. Not shocking in the least, ESPN eventually brought him onboard. That being said, I thought I would do my sports-writing idol proud by writing an article in a style similar to his.
The idea for this came to me when the Phillies signed Chad Durbin to be their: (circle the correct answer)

  • A) 5th Starter
  • B) 6th Starter
  • C) Mop-Up Reliever
  • D) Waste of Space
  • E) Who cares, we have Adam Eaton!?

Regardless of the answer you selected, this now gave the Phillies Chad Durbin and J.D. Durbin – two completely unrelated Durbins. Now, it isn’t as if we’re talking about two guys with the last name of Smith. I never knew “Durbin” was a last name until a couple of years ago and now there are not only two in major league baseball but two on the same team?
More interestingly enough, there have only been four Durbin’s in the history of major league baseball and the other two ended their careers during, or before, 1909. The only two Durbin’s in the last 98 seasons of major league baseball are now on the same team – and have no relation to one another.
The Phillies acquired J.D. Durbin after the Diamondbacks placed him on waivers in April. Durbin had appeared in one game for Arizona and surrendered 7 hits and 7 runs in 2/3 of an inning. For the Phillies, Durbin was somewhat serviceable, even throwing a complete game shutout against the Padres.
J.D. Durbin made his Phillies debut on June 29th during the first game of a double-header against the Mets.
At the time of acquiring J.D. Durbin, the Phillies had a minor league prospect with the name J.A. Happ. Due to rotation injuries, Happ made his first major league start on June 30th, against the Mets.
Now that would be odd enough, on its own, however the Phillies also acquired J.C. Romero from the Red Sox. Romero also made his Phillies debut on June 29th, during the second game of Durbin’s double-header.
So, to recap, not only did the Phillies have three pitchers with the first names of J.A., J.C., and J.D., but all three of them made their Phillies debuts within the span of 48 hours from June 29th-June 30th!
And, speaking of the Phillies, they acquired Tad Iguchi from the White Sox towards the end of the season. Since he would not have been able to play for the Phillies until May 15th, if he re-signed with them, he went elsewhere (Padres). The Phillies, in need of another bench player, decided to sign So Taguchi. I guess this way the transition will be easier for the players.
Or how about the Twins deciding to replace Luis Castillo with Alexi Casilla.

  • Believe it or not, the American League had an Ellis, an Ellison, and an Ellsbury.  And no, they were not Dale, Pervis, or Doughboy.
  • The Athletics had Dan Haren and Rich Harden.
  • The American League also had a Joakim, a Joaquin, and a Johan.  That’s never happened before with different players.
  • Lastly, there was the Rays’ Delmon Young and the Dodgers’ Delwyn Young, who sadly never got to face each other.

Speaking of “Young’s,” the NL West not only had two of them, but two Chris Young’s.  They could not be more different, either, as one is a 9-ft tall, white, former ivy-league pitcher and the other is a 6-ft, black, college-less outfielder.  Pitcher Chris Young (PCY for those keeping track) won the 2007 battle as his younger counterpart went 0-10, with a walk and 4 K’s against him.

  •  Orlando Hudson went 2-11, with an RBI and 4 BB, against his “River” counterpart Tim Hudson.
  • Unfortunately, Reggie Abercrombie never got to face Jesse Litsch.  I wonder what Sportscenter would call that matchup.  Reggie and Jesse?  Reggie and Litsch?  Abercrombie and Jesse?  Ugh, who knows…
  • Aaron Rowand and Robinson Cano didn’t face each other this past year either.
  • Somehow, the Blue Jays and Rockies have played nine times and we are still waiting on a Halladay/Holliday matchup.
  • Scott Baker didn’t pitch against, or to, Paul Bako in 2007, though my fingers are crossed for 2008.

Mike Lamb is 3-9 in his career against Adam Eaton (who isn’t?) as well as 1-7 off of Todd Coffey.
Coffey and Lamb usually don’t go well together, though, but Felix Pie is also 0-1 off of the caffeinated one.
Eaton has never gotten to face Pie yet.  I’d like to put a pie in Eaton’s face.  3 yrs and 24 mil worth of pies!
In what would probably cause the universe to crumble, I am patiently awaiting a Rick VandenHurk vs. Todd Van Benschoten matchup.  I’m feeling 2008 or 2009.
In the long-name department, Jarrod Saltalamacchia went 1-2 against Andy Sonnanstine.  Salty also went 0-2 against Mark Hendrickson.  He went 1-1 against Ryan Rowland-Smit, but Ryan had two last names to reach eleven letters and therefore had an unfair advantage.
Easily the most hypocritical name award goes to Angel Pagan.  You can figure that one out.  Did you know, though, that the National League had “Two Wise Men”?  That’s right – Matt and Dewayne.
Though Matt Wise surrendered a hit to Angel Pagan, he struck out Dewayne Wise, proving what we already knew – Matt Wise is the smartest pitcher ever.
On a sad note,  2007 proved to be a disappointment in the generic name field (not Nate Field or Josh Fields).  Combined, there were only four Smith’s.  Jason, Joe, Matt, and Seth.
Even sadder, we only had three Williams’ – Dave, Jerome, and Woody.  Scott Williamson tried his hardest but that does not count.  Could be a cool sitcom title – Three Williams and a Williamson.
Major League Baseball spanned the endpoints of the life cycle this year.  On one side we had Alan Embree (embryo) and Omar Infante (infant) and on the other there were Jermaine Dye (die) and Manny Corpas (corpse).
Dye has never faced Corpas but is 2-7 in his career off of Embree.  Infante has also never faced Corpas but has doubled in 4 at-bats against Embree.
Jorge de la Rosa and Eulogio de la Cruz did not face each other this year despite being the only two “of-the” names.  And, just to clarify the none of you who asked, Valerio de los Santos would not qualify for this category since de los would technically be “of-them” or “of-those.”
Miguel Cairo has long been the MVP of this group but he welcomed two additions this year in the forms of Ben Francisco and Frank Francisco.  I had always thought of Francisco as a Spanish first name but was very surprised to find it as an American last name.  In fact, if you say Ben Francisco really quickly and in front of a drunk, it could even sound like San Francisco.
I recently got an original NES and could not help but notice that two major leaguers sound like items from a Zelda game.  Don’t both of these sentences make sense?

  1. Link, to defeat Ganon, you must hit him in the lower Velandia.
  2. Use your Verlander to blow up the stones blocking the entrance.

One of my favorite movies is Sinbad’s Houseguest, and whenever I hear the name of Giants’ 2B Kevin Frandsen I am reminded of Sinbad’s character Kevin Franklin.  Something tells me Frandsen never impersonated a dentist.
In addition to everyone else we had six players with job names.  Chris Carpenter and Lee Gardner maintained the stadiums and fields, Scott Proctor made sure they didn’t cheat, Skip Schumaker supplied them all with cleats, while Matt Treanor helped rehab Torii Hunter.
Schumaker did not face Carpenter, Gardner, or Proctor.  Treanor is 1-3 off of Carpenter in his career.  Hunter was 3-6 with a HR and 2 RBI off of Carpenter (career), as well as 2-6 with an RBI off of Proctor.
Clearly, a Hunter is more valuable than a Proctor and a Carpenter.
Point blank – the following names sound incredibly made up and fake:

  • Frank Francisco
  • Dave Davidson
  • Emilio Bonifacio
  • Rocky Cherry

When primitive men first began to speak it was easiest to combine two words together without any intermediates.  Thousands of years later we still have names like Grady Sizemore, Jarrod Washburn, Mark Bellhorn, and Chris Bootcheck.
Speaking of Chris Bootcheck, I wonder what he and Jon Knotts would talk about.
In the anatomy field, Rick Ankiel and Brandon Backe were in the same division, with Ankiel going 0-3 with an RBI off Backe.

  • DIRTY NAME AWARD – Rich (Dick) Harden
  • ACADEMY AWARD – Sean Henn
  • LED ZEPPELIN AWARD – Scott Kazmir
  • FUTURE PIZZA SHOP NAME AWARD – Doug Mirabelli (hon. mention – Mike Piazza)
  • FICTIONAL SERIAL KILLER AWARD – Mike Myers (as usual)
  • NAME TYPO AWARD – Jhonny Peralta
  • MOST FUN TO SAY AWARD – Jonathan Albaladejo
  • IMPERVIOUS AWARD – (tie) James Shields and Scot Shields

And there you have it.  We covered the life cycle, the entertainment (regular and adult) industry, jobs, cities, the bible, and more.
We can only hope that 2008 will finally bring us a VandenHurk/Van Benschoten or a Holliday/Halladay.
Keep your fingers crossed.

2007 Sabermetric Year in Review: Washington Nationals

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:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus
MVN Blog:
Oleanders and Morning Glories?(aren’t Oleanders poisonous?)
Other Nationals Resources:
Latest News
Contract Status
Trade Rumors
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.