Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Status Update

The Nationals go for the series win against the Blue Jays tonight. While the Blue Jays have disappointed so far this season, the Nationals have been on a tear. The team currently sits at 29-23, only 0.5 game ahead of the Mets due to the terrible start to the Nationals’ year. After a shocking sweep at the hands of the lowly Reds and rash of injuries recently, it’s understandable that fans may feel down on the team. But let’s take a step back and take a prognosis of where the Nats really sit.

As we have discussed before, actual win-loss records, especially at this point in the season, are not great predictors of future win-loss performance, much less true talent level of teams. One way to try and strip out luck from current win-loss performance is to examine the run differential. Currently, the Nationals have scored 14 more runs than they have allowed. The point of the game of baseball, obviously, is to score more runs than your opponent, and that holds true in a single game as well as on the season. Bill James examined this in detail to come up with his so called Pythagorean expectation. This calculation, resembling the Pythagorean formula with triangles, takes runs allowed and runs scored and calculates the expected win-loss record. Using the Nationals run differential, we would expect them to have a record of 27-25, just lower than where they currently sit, indicating they may have been on the right end of some lucky bounces.

Further reinforcing this notion is the fact that the Nationals have gone 10-5 in 1 run games. While the media may like to point to clutch hitting, manager’s moves, or a stellar bullpen, study after study have shown that teams can’t sustain a record in 1 run games above or below .500 over the long run. No one is crediting the Nationals with a bulletproof bullpen (the bullpen would be lucky to hit water falling out of a boat right now, save for Storen) or handing Matt Williams a(nother) Manager of the Year award just yet. The Nationals have been winning 1 run games at a pace they most likely can’t sustain.

Both the Bill James Pythagorean win-loss record and the Nationals record in one run games indicate the Nationals have not quite performed up their actual record, but they are pretty simple metrics. FanGraphs has a metric that takes James’ work and goes a little further called BaseRuns. This measurement works similar to the Pythagorean method, but weights the individual events the team has experienced (i.e. singles, homeruns, strikeouts) to determine how the team should have performed stripping out luck, clustering (i.e. 3 singles occurring back-to-back-to-back versus spread out over 3 innings), and other variables. By this measurement, the Nationals are 28-24 and don’t look quite so lucky.

In the end, it looks like the Nationals have earned their record, for the most part. But the season doesn’t end today and the Nationals and their fans won’t be happy with a good record but no playoffs. Luckily, the projection systems that loved the Nationals at the start of the season still love the Nationals. FanGraphs gives the Nationals a 85% shot at winning the NL East (thanks Phillies and Braves!), a 93% shot at the playoffs (2nd best in the majors trailing only the Dodgers’ 96% expectation), and a 16% chance of winning it all (again, behind only the Dodgers at 18%).

While the Nationals have yet to pull away from the Mets, I don’t believe they are as worthy of contenders as they appear at the moment. Using the same metrics we just applied to the Nationals, the Mets current 29-24 record breaks down to a 27-26 Pythag record and a sub .500 26-27 record by BaseRuns. The Mets have gotten a big boost from playing the Phillies 9 times already this season, going 8-1. Strip out the games against the Phillies, and the Mets have a lowly 21-23 record, playing under .500 baseball against the rest of the majors. So while there are reasons to doubt the current Mets record, the future for this season isn’t as bright and shiny as you might expect. The Mets DL list is huge, including some big names like David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud whose expected return dates are still cloudy. While I will credit the Mets with some forward thinking in going with a 6 man rotation to preserve the arms of their promising, young prospects, this will limit the flexibility of their bench and still give starts to both Dillon Gee and Jonathan Niese, replacement level pitchers at best. Even with good pitching, the Mets are struggling to score runs and their 201 runs scored on the year are only 22nd best in the majors.

Of course, the Nationals have their own set of injury concerns to deal with. Doug Fister is on the DL with a flexor strain. He threw a bullpen and all news seems to be good news, but anything on the forearm links to the elbow, which is always scary. Sammy Solis is on the DL with shoulder inflammation, but he also has thrown a bullpen recently. Strasburg is, of course, on the DL for a left trapezius muscle strain and he won’t be able to resume throwing until that quiets down. While the time off will certainly be good for the strain, maybe he can use that time to get his head right as well. Werth has broken bones in his wrist (again) and is out for the foreseeable future and his power is likely to take even longer to recover. Stammen is still out for the year, an injury that looms larger and larger with each bullpen blow up. Span, who is not on the DL, is nursing an injured right knee but sounds hopeful to play tonight or later this week. Finally, Anthony Rendon has started playing some minor league games in rehab but will need time to get his swing and timing down.

The Nationals upcoming schedule is challenging and could certainly use some of those injured players to return sooner rather than later. They have to play a handful of playoff contenders (Cubs, Yankees, Rays, Pirates, Giants), a couple teams hanging around .500 (Braves and Orioles), and some bottom feeders (Brewers, Phillies and Reds) to get to the All-Star break. It’s a tough schedule, but if the team can work through that schedule putting some ground between themselves and the Mets at the break, they should be sitting pretty for the second half.

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