2012 Season Forecast: Washington Nationals

2011 Season: 80 – 81 (3rd, NL East)
Runs Scored: 624 (12th, NL)
Runs Allowed: 643 (7th, NL)

A rain out prevented the team from having a chance at getting all the way back to .500.  Davey Johnson’s task is to find at least ten more wins, telling reporters at one point that if this team doesn’t make the playoffs he should be fired.  Let’s see if that can happen.

2011 Season Recap:

Without their ace, Stephen Strasburg, who was out following elbow surgery, the Nationals started adding even more pieces to the roster, building a team that remained competitive all season long – just in the wrong division.  What was odd was that the team played over .500 with Jim Riggleman, who then quit because he couldn’t get an extension to his contract.  Johnson took over – it took a month to figure things out, but he was 38 – 43 in his time with the team.

Just looking at the statistical breakdown, the team really just needed someone who could bat first or second.  Leadoff hitters batted  .226 with a .285 OBP and the number two hitters were worse – .222 with a .283 OBP, and the lowest slugging percentage other than the pitcher’s spot in the order.  Give them 70 extra runs out of those spots, and you have a team on the brink of a 90 win season.

Starting Pitching:

Last year, the Nationals opened with a rotation of John Lannan, Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, Tom Gorzelanny, and gave test drives to Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang and others before giving five starts to Strasburg when he came back in September.  The problem here is that Hernandez is really just eating innings but not that effective, costing his team some 24 runs against the league average.  Even Lannan, who has been their best pitcher prior to the arrival of Strasburg is below average now – -11 runs, and Wang, despite the winning record, cost the team almost nine runs.

Looking ahead, the Nationals now hope to get 30 starts from Strasburg, which could be worth 50 runs by replacing Hernandez – a huge change.  The Nationals also added Gio Gonzalez to the rotation – a solid starter for Oakland, who if he can take over for Lannan (who, surprisingly, found his way to AAA to start this season) and pitch close to what he did last year will save the team another 25 runs.  The rest of the rotation will include Edwin Jackson – and he has the potential to save another ten to fifteen runs over Marquis.  The last two spots go to Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann, both of whom showed promise last year.  Having Lannan as an alternate isn’t a bad thing – worst case he’s a bargaining chip for help later.  This could be a very tough rotation in 2012.

Relief Pitching:

At the back end, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard are solid – a net 30 runs better than average pitching, though Storen’s ERA (2.75) is a touch high for a closer.  Sean Burnett and Todd Coffey are tolerable long men, and being able to move Tom Gorzelanny to the pen will be a help.  Another addition that could prove to be valuable is former stopper Brad Lidge and fireballer Henry Rodriguez.  It’s a reasonably deep staff with at least three solid options.  I think this team will be a shade better than last year – but not much.  The bullpen was pretty good as it was.

Catching:

Wilson Ramos took over the job – defensively, he’s pretty good.  As a hitter, he wasn’t bad either…  He has a little power, batted .267, and would take a walk if offered.  Backed up by Ivan Rodriguez, who can’t hit but can still work the plate and threw out more runners than were successful stealing, it wasn’t a bad combination.  However, former starter Jesus Flores is back and healthy, so Pudge was sent packing for 2012.  This remains a solid duo.

Infield:

This is a group with a little pop and solid defensively all around.  Adam LaRoche didn’t hit well last year, but Michael Morse was solid when he played there.  The problem is that they need TWO Michael Morse types.  Morse also played left, and moved to first only because LaRoche didn’t hit at all (3 – 15 – .172).  Danny Espinosa has power (21 homers, 55 extra base hits), but only hit .236, and Ian Desmond has a bit better batting average but less power.  Neither guy gets on base and each were hitting too frequently at the top of the order.  At third, Ryan Zimmerman missed two months with injuries – he needs to play a full season.  If he did, he’d be an MVP candidate.

These guys have room to grow, but it would help if Adam LaRoche found his hitting stroke.  Steve Lombardozzi and Mark DeRosa are around for insurance, but Lombardozzi isn’t as good a hitter as these guys and DeRosa hasn’t been healthy in three years.  I think Washington is going to miss Laynce Nix, who played a variety of positions and put a few runs on the board.

Outfield:

Last year, Michael Morse was the dominant hitter in the outfield.  Jayson Werth had signed the big contract to come to Washington and struggled, finishing with a .232 batting average, but he still helped to put runs on the board.  He drew 74 walks, was 19/22 on the bases, and had 47 extra base hits.  Granted – he didn’t hit to his contract, so there is room for improvement.  Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina will battle for playing time in center – and neither are even league average hitters anymore.

The top prospect on the team, Bryce Harper, has to play here.  Yes – he’s still a teen, but Werth or Harper has enough gas to cover centerfield and having Harper could be a step up over either Ankiel or Bernadina.  Mark DeRosa and Xavier Nady are around and will get at bats.  Neither has been a productive enough hitter since about 2008.

Morse can hit – he’s done it everywhere he has played.  Werth should be better – it’s all about getting someone else in the outfield (or first base) who can contribute.  I think if the Nationals get off to a slow start, Harper will be here quickly.

Prospects:

Let’s start with the obvious – Bryce Harper hit .318 with power and patience at A level Hagerstown and earned a trip to Harrisburg in AA where he wasn’t overmatched.  He may need a full season at AA or AAA, but I don’t know if the Nationals can wait for that.

AAA Syracuse features outfielder Chris Marrero, who has a decent bat and eye, but I don’t think he’s got enough power to merit a job at first base.  He’d be better than Adam LaRoche was last year, but not a game changer.  Pitcher Tommy Milone has an interesting line – only 16 walks and 155 Ks in 148.1 innings.  He got a look in 2011; he might get some long relief innings in 2012.  Ross Detwiler made 16 starts here before joining the rotation with the major league team.

AA Harrisburg had Harper for a little while, but featured the 31 homers of Tyler Moore.  Unfortunately, Moore’s power comes with a lot of strikeouts and little patience at the plate.  Catcher Derek Norris hit for power, but his batting average doesn’t make you long for his arrival yet.  Brad Peacock had a great run in AA – 129 Ks and 23 walks in 14 starts.  Something clicked for him – it was, by far, the best season he’d had in the minors in five seasons.

David Freitas, a catcher at Hagerstown, might have a future – he hit .288, drew 82 walks, and had mid-range power.  He could make the Nationals roster in a couple of years.  Infielder Blake Kelso also had a nice season, stole some bases, and will get a shot at AA soon.  Pitcher A.J. Cole fanned 108 in 89 innings, showed good control and kept the ball in the park.  He may have a nice future here.

2012 Forecast:

With the upgrade to the rotation, the Nationals look to save at least 80 runs when compared to the 2011 model – which would be a huge step forward.  The issue remains with the offense, which isn’t really good enough.  The lineup can be better.  Desmond or Espinosa could move forward ten runs each.  Werth could improve by twenty runs.  Zimmerman could play a full season – another twenty run impact.  On the other hand, Ankiel and Morse could fall back a similar amount.  The Nationals really need a leadoff hitter – and they don’t have one.

I see them scoring about twenty runs more than last year, and saving 80 more runs.  That puts them around 640 runs scored and 560 runs allowed – or 92 wins.  You might temper that total based on the competition in the division – the Phillies, Marlins, and Braves are all very good teams.  Realistically, the Nationals could win 90 games – I just don’t know if 90 will be enough to win the division.  It could be enough to get that second wild card slot.

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2011 NL Best and Worst Pitchers

Finally getting caught up on my statistical analysis as I head into the 2012 Spring Training season…  First of all, God Bless Sean Lahman, whose baseball database makes it possible to write queries and look at statistics using a Microsoft Access relational database…  The rest is doing the math.

When I review best and worst pitchers, I look at the total number of runs saved relative to the league average pitcher.  I get data for runs allowed per nine innings, then adjust for the pitcher’s home park and finally I adjust for the defense of the players behind that pitcher.  The best pitcher is the one who saves his team the most runs – the worst is the pitcher who costs his team the most runs.

Top Starting Pitchers of 2011:

Roy Halliday (PHI) 45.37 saved runs – 233.2 innings
Cliff Lee (PHI) 43.94 – 232.2 innings
Clayton Kershaw (LAD) 37.81 – 233.1 innings
Cole Hamels (PHI) 34.28 – 216 innings
Ian Kennedy (AZ) 31.53 – 222 innings
Johnny Cueto (CIN) 20.82 – 156 innings
Jair Jurrjens (ATL) 17.56 – 152 innings
Jhoulys Chacin (COL) 17.53 – 194 innings
R.A. Dickey (NYM) 15.92 – 208.2 innings
Vance Worley (PHI) 15.53 – 131.2 innings

You want to know why the Phillies won 100+ games, it’s because they had three of the top four starting pitchers, and a fourth who wound up in the top ten.  Even Roy Oswalt (not listed) was an above average pitcher.  Clayton Kershaw was a fantastic choice for the NL Cy Young award, but the numbers suggest what we all know – Roy Halliday is the best pitcher in baseball.

Worst Pitchers of 2011:

Bronson Arroyo (CIN) 27.88 (extra runs allowed)- 199 innings
J.A. Happ (HOU) 25.44 – 156.1 innings
Derek Lowe (ATL) 25.20 – 187 innings
Livan Hernandez (WASH) 24.16 – 175.1 innings
Ricky Nolasco (FLA) 23.26 – 206 innings
Casey Coleman (CHI) 22.88 – 84.1 innings
Edinson Volquez (CIN) 22.31 – 108.2 innings
Jonathan Sanchez (SF) 21.19 – 101.1 innings
Chris Volstad (FLA) 20.64 – 165.2 innings
Barry Zito (SF) 19.3 – 53.2 innings

The guy who usually tops this list is a starter who keeps getting run out there as if his team has no other options.  Certainly, the Reds should have been able to address the Bronson Arroyo problem by now (nearly 30 extra runs allowed than an average pitcher over the course of 199 innings), and running him out there every fifth day was problematic.  The Marlins have the same issue with Ricky Nolasco.  He’s got amazing stuff, but for some reason keeps getting hit.  If he doesn’t turn things around, the Marlins will have to find another option.  By the way, the Marlins can’t afford to have two guys on the bad list and make the playoffs.  The Brewers used to be on this list – and then they got five league average pitchers to match up with their amazing offense and made the playoffs.

By the way, this is total runs that one player cost his team.  Barry Zito, for example, was far worse per inning than Arroyo.  Had Barry been allowed to throw 200 innings, at the rate he was going he would have given up close to 75 extra runs.  The Giants had other options, so Zito was removed from the rotation before any further overall damage could be done.

Top Relievers of 2011:

Eric O’Flaherty (ATL) 24.99 (runs saved) – 73.2 innings
Tyler Clippard (WASH) 21.58 – 88.3 innings
Jonny Venters (ATL) 21.58 – 88 innings
Craig Kimbrel (ATL) 16.36 – 77 innings
John Axford (MIL) 15.50 – 73.2 innings
Joel Hanrahan (PIT) 15.41 – 68.2 innings
Fernando Salas (SD) 14.76 – 75 innings
Mike Adams (SD) 14.15 – 48 innings
Sean Marshall (CHI) 14.08 – 75.2 innings
Ryan Madson (PHI) 12.63 – 60.2 innings

Few surprises here – guys who gave up hardly any runs in a decent number of innings.  The Braves certainly had the best bullpen in 2011.

Worst Relievers of 2011:

Hong-Chih Kuo (LAD) 18.39 (extra runs allowed) – 27 innings
Aneury Rodruiguez (HOU) 14.62 – 85.1 innings
Ryan Franklin (STL) 14.17 – 27.2 innings
Dan Runzler (SF) 13.84 – 27.1 innings
Matt Maloney (CIN) 12.54 – 18.2 innings

I’ll cut off the list at five – guys who make this list are people who wind up in AAA or released before you know it.  Still Kuo was bad – basically six runs worse than any other guy every nine innings he pitched.  Aneury Rodriguez was the lone exception…

NL’s Best and Worst Pitchers in 2009 – Hot Stove News…

Quick news hits first before we take a quick look back at pitchers in 2009…

Tim Lincecum asked for $13 million when filing for arbitration – if he wins, it would be the highest amount paid to an arbitration eligible pitcher.  Of course, Lincecum is a bit of a party animal off the field, but between the lines he’s one of the five best pitchers in the National League.  He’s certainly one of the most valuable commodities – a pretty durable arm (so far) who gets a lot of batters out and wins games.  [ESPN/SI]

There’s a rather long list of players and teams avoiding arbitration or signing deals – you can get the list on SI or MLB – but the ones that caught my attention were (a) Jonathon Papelbon getting $9.35 million from Boston – about two million more than the going rate and (b) Bengie Molina likely returning to the Giants.  The Mets pursued Molina but apparently not hard enough, and are now stuck with playing backup catchers every day for another year (unless you consider Omir Santos a budding starter).  [FoxSports/ESPN]

FUN WITH DATA!

Having purchased my copy of the Lahman database, which is invaluable for doing quick queries so that I can plug data into my spreadsheets very easily, I can finally start doing the type of statistical analysis that I like…  I’ve already assembled the NL data and will be doing the AL data later this week.  And, after having knocked out the NL sheets, we get to have some fun with the lists it generates.  Today, we’ll start with the pitchers.

Top NL Starting Pitchers

The first rating system I have looks at how many runs a pitcher cost or saved his team over the course of the year above or below what the average pitcher allowed.  ERA is a pretty simple way to note this, mind you.  Someone with an ERA of 2.00 is two runs per nine innings better than someone with an ERA of 4.00.  However, it’s easier to have a low ERA when you pitch in San Diego, so I modify the runs allowed (not earned runs, but runs allowed) by removing the park effect.  Then, I also try to isolate the advantage a pitcher has in being on a team with a good defense vs. one with a bad defense.  For example, a pitcher on the Giants gets help from having a very solid defense – Randy Winn and Fred Lewis in the outfield are plus defenders at their position, the infielders were rather good as well.  Meanwhile, the Cardinals staff had behind them an injured Rick Ankiel or Chris Duncan or Ryan Ludwick in the outfield not catching as many flies as most teams and were playing an injured (and less mobile) Mark DeRosa at third and, perhaps more importantly, an outfielder at second base all year in Skip Schumaker.  Once I figure out how many runs the seven guys in the field affected the team’s ability to prevent runs, you can make a second modification to a pitcher’s runs allowed numbers and compare it with the league average.

The league average pitcher allowed about 4.53 runs per nine innings.  The total number of runs saved is not just dependent on runs allowed per nine, but the number of innings pitched.  The best pitchers in saving runs will usually be starters.  Sometimes, a reliever can sneak in there, but not very often.  Let’s get to the list.

Best Starters:

In terms of runs saved, the best starting pitchers in the National League were…

48.57 – Chris Carpenter (STL)
43.19 – Adam Wainwright (STL)
40.25 – Danny Haren (ARZ)
38.80 – Tim Lincecum (SF)
38.30 – Ubaldo Jimenez (COL)
38.16 – Jair Jurrjens (ATL)
36.39 – Javier Vasquez (ATL)
33.68 – Josh Johnson (FLA)
30.62 – Matt Cain (SF)
28.51 – Wandy Rodriguez (HOU)
28.09 – J.A. Happ (PHI)
26.14 – Ted Lilly (CHC)
23.33 – Jason Marquis (COL)
22.81 – Tommy Hanson (ATL)
21.32 – Clayton Kershaw (LA)

No other starters saved at least 20 runs more than an average pitcher would have allowed given the number of innings pitched by that player.  The top two guys were Cardinals – two pitchers who were wonderful despite having several players not necessarily having good years with the glove.  Those pitchers DO benefit from having the best catching in baseball (Yadier Molina) – but Carpenter’s 48+ runs saved over the average pitcher might be the largest number I have seen in the five years I have done this.  Based on this criteria, Carpenter deserved his Cy Young consideration.  Among the surprises on this list was Clayton Kershaw who couldn’t get any support from his team but really did pitch very, very well and I think could be a sleeper ace for 2010.  And, seeing how well Jason Marquis pitched for the first four months of the season, one assumes that Colorado will miss that kind of production.

Top Relievers:

18.13 – Kiko Calero (FLA)
17.86 – Ryan Franklin (STL)
16.29 – LaTroy Hawkins (HOU)
16.23 – Jeremy Affeldt (SF)
15.49 – Trevor Hoffman (MIL)
13.89 – Nick Massett (CIN)
13.42 – Rafael Soriano (ATL)
12.98 – Huston Street (COL)
12.57 – Jose Valverde (HOU)
12.36 – Todd Coffey (MIL)
12.15 – Tyler Clippard (WAS)

As has been the case for many years, the top relievers are frequently NOT closers but middle relievers who have really good seasons in less demanding roles.  Kiko Calero, who has never had a season anywhere NEAR what he did in 2009 is the surprise winner here.  That being said, the top closer was Ryan Franklin, followed closely by Trevor Hoffman.  More than any other list, this group will change a lot from year to year.  Any number close to 10 is a great year for a reliever.

Worst NL Pitchers…

-44.28 – Manny Parra (MIL)
-33.36 – Josh Geer (SD)
-32.70 – Braden Looper (MIL)
-31.70 – David Bush (MIL)
-31.25 – Jeff Suppan (MIL)
-27.36 – Chad Gaudin (SD)
-25.35 – Todd Wellemeyer (STL)
-22.83 – Micah Owings (CIN)
-21.95 – Felipe Paulino (HOU)
-21.90 – Brad Lidge (PHI)
-20.53 – Brian Moehler (HOU)
-20.20 – Walter Silva (SD)

-21.31 – Kevin Hart (PIT) – but positive 6.30 in CHC

These are the starters for teams who felt like they had no other option than to give 150 innings to someone with a 5+ ERA.  Or, in the case of Brad Lidge, a manager who kept feeding his closer the ball despite the fact that he was getting hammered all too often.  Rarely does a reliever make this list.

One thing that is immediately noticeable is the fact that four of the five worst pitchers in terms of their relation to the average pitcher were Brewers.  Look – they aren’t the worst pitchers.  There were guys with 8+ ERAs who got just 20 innings and were sent packing to AAA, too.  Or were hurt or something.  But the Brewers were hanging in there with four guys who are no better than long relievers.  Three of them had seen better days (Looper, Suppan, Bush), but wow.  One sees immediately where the Brewers should spend their money.  Go find three guys who can pitch.  If that means giving Ben Sheets a deal, do it.  Finding three guys who can give you a 4.20 ERA in 180 innings would move the Brewers up 10 games in the standings.  Is it that hard to find three of those guys?  I can’t wait to do my team overview for the Brewers…

So the Nationals Might Fire Manny Acta… Will it Help?

A couple of weeks ago, when the second manager firing of 2009 took place, I wondered how long Manny Acta would keep his job in Washington.  Now, FoxSports is reporting that Acta may be fired and replaced by Jim Riggleman, and Sports Illustrated confirms this rumor.

Here’s what I wrote in their season forecast.  I figured 72 – 90 was an optimistic season based on what should be an improved offense (they are better than eight other teams, right in the middle of the pack), but the lack of solid pitching and a thin collection of young talent in the minors would work against them.  For their pitching to improve, they needed at least one of three things to happen: 25 starts by Shawn Hill; improvement from Scott Olsen, and a significant return to form of Daniel Cabrera.

Cabrera was awful and was released after starting 0 – 5 with 5.85 ERA, led by 16 strikeouts and 35 walks in 40 innings.  Nobody has picked up the one time Baltimore prospect and fireballer – a sign that something is really wrong.

Scott Olsen has been eminently hittable, starting 1 – 4 with an ERA over 7, and is on the DL with shoulder inflammation.

As for Shawn Hill, the Nationals decided to release him right after I did the forecast because he was undependable – management never knew if he’d be healthy enough to pitch.  Signed by San Diego, Hill is back on the DL with soreness in his bicep and elbow.

So much for optimism.  Suddenly National fans long for the return of Tim Redding and Odalis Perez.  At 355 runs allowed, no team is worse at preventing runs than the Nationals.

The starters aren’t the only problem.  The bullpen gave up on Chad Cordero, actually had a night where the whole bullpen was overhauled in April, and those that have stayed haven’t been able to maintain the few leads they have actually had.  With 16 wins and 44 losses, there haven’t been that many leads.

Offensively, four players have contributed.  Ryan Zimmerman is a top flight hitter and defender at third base.  When healthy, shortstop Christian Guzman has held his own at the top of the lineup.  First baseman Nick Johnson (knock on wood) has been healthy and gets on base.  Leftfielder Adam Dunn does what he always does – hit homers and draw walks.  Backstop Jesus Flores has been a decent hitter when healthy – he’s just missed half the season.  Outfielder Elijah Dukes has hit a little, but not enough.  I keep thinking he’s going to get seriously hot, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Then what?  Backup catchers aren’t hitting (few do).  Austin Kearns needs to be released, Anderson Hernandez isn’t a major league hitter at second base, and the bench players haven’t helped at all, except an occasional hit from Josh Willingham.  But, Willingham has nine homers and just twelve RBI (!) – is that possible???

AAA Syracuse offers little hope.  Anyone who pitched well there is already on the big league roster or back, including Craig Stammen, Garrett Mock, Tyler Clippard, and Jason Bergmann.  Stammen is in the rotation, and Bergmann has been disappointing since looking like he might have potential back in 2007.  The best hitter is soon to be 30-year-old Jorge Padilla, a very good AAA hitter, but someone who (for whatever reason) hasn’t ever been given a shot.  Padilla no longer has speed to cover center, though, and he wouldn’t have a job on this roster if Roger Bernadina was healthy.  The Nationals need a burner in centerfield who can start or continue rallies, and Dukes or Padilla would hurt pitchers in the new stadium with their lack of range.  Still, he’s cheaper and better than Kearns and might be happy to be a fourth outfielder on this roster.

AA is empty – Ross Detwiler is on the roster, and nobody else is tearing it up at Harrisburg.

That leaves you with trades, and there are few veterans that are going to fetch anything on the open market.  Few contenders are going to need an injury-prone first baseman, or a slugger who can’t realistically cover left field, or an aging shortstop.  The most tradable commodity is starter John Lannon or rookie Jordan Zimmermann, and if Ryan Zimmerman leaves (a la Nate McLouth), the Nationals could draw fewer fans than the Marlins the rest of the way.

Stephen Strasburg.  I think there are issues with racing guys through the minors – not that there aren’t people who can play in the majors without the benefit of a minor league apprenticeship, but that kids need to experience some success that they can fall back on should they stumble in their first outings in the majors.  So, while I believe that the Nationals may have no choice but to race a Stephen Strasburg to the majors, the fact that they have little or no choice but to do so is problematic.

Look, few teams play .267 ball for a whole season.  So, once Riggleman (or someone) gets Acta’s job, it’s going to be a step forward just to play .400 ball.  Getting Scott Olson back and contributing will do that.  Finding four reasonably dependable relievers would certainly help.  Accepting their fate with Austin Kearns and letting Jorge Padilla show appreciation for a shot at playing in the majors might help.  I’d certainly be willing to give Paul Byrd (still available) or someone a shot at being the fifth starter.  But don’t expect miracles.  The Nationals need six quality players – a second baseman, an outfielder, two starters, two relievers.  Firing Manny Acta doesn’t address that.  Of course, neither does stringing Acta along in the press. 

Really, the team needs a completely new management structure – GM, Manager, Minor League Director, the whole thing.  Riggleman gets them to October.  Who is going to get this team to 2012?