Friday, July 17, 2015

2nd Half Predictions

The Dodgers come to town this weekend to kick off the second half of the season. It was an interesting first half of play for the Nationals. The season certainly hasn’t played out how many fans and analysts predicted it would, yet the team still finds itself sitting atop the NL East, primed for another division title. Predictions are hard, especially in a game like baseball. But that hasn’t stopped people from making predictions and it won’t stop me from making my own. Here are my predictions for the second half of the Nationals' season, ranging from big picture to small detail. I’m sure I won’t get them all right, and I’m not even sure I will get any right. But take a gander and we will come back when the season wraps up to see how I did.

Nationals win the NL East by 8 games
The Nats currently hold a 2 game lead on the Mets. I predict a better second half of the year for the Nationals and worse half for the Mets. FanGraphs’ projections agree with me as they peg the Nationals to finish 90-72 while the Mets end up at 83-79, a seven game win of the division for the Nationals. While the Mets plethora of pitching talent is enviable, they don’t have enough offense to win a slow pitch softball league much less the NL East. The Nationals only have 7 series in the second half that come against potential playoff teams, excluding the Mets. The rest of the schedule is littered with what remains of the Phillies, Braves, Marlins and Rockies. The Mets schedule isn’t exponentially more difficult, but they face a tougher go of it than the Nationals. Add in the head to head match ups between the Mets and Nats that I expect the Nationals to win, and I think the Nationals end up putting the Mets away and walking away with the division by a sizeable margin.

Yunel Escobar will finish with a batting average under .300
At the break, Escobar is hitting .321. That's impressive, but this prediction is based on his .360 BABIP that is a prime candidate for regression. When Escobar first came up with the Braves, he posted a BABIPs of .311 and .317 and put up a .316 BABIP one year with the Blue Jays, but didn’t come close to a .300 BABIP over any other full season of his career and certainly never came close to a .360 BABIP. Escobar is swinging more this year than any year in his career, offering at over half of all pitches he has seen. He’s making contact at his normal rates, but swinging at 33% of pitches out of the zone after having never topped 30% in his career. His 12.8% strikeout rate is in line with his norms, but that doesn’t match up with his zone profile. More swings at pitches out of the zone shouldn’t lead to a high batting average over the long haul. Escobar will strike out more in the second half, some of his bloops and bleeders will find the glove of the defense, and he won’t be able to maintain a .300 batting average.

Bryce Harper takes home MVP honors, Max Scherzer gets the NL Cy Young
Call it a homer prediction, but it’s really not so bold of a prediction considering these two Nats would have taken home their respective trophies if the season ended today.
For Bryce, the question is (and will always be) about health. He’s never played in 140 games in a major league season, so making it through the grind of a full major league season would be a first for him. Harper has put it all together this year in compiling nearly Triple Crown leading stats (batting average, home runs, RBI). Harper’s biggest competition in the NL will be Paul Goldschmidt. While the Diamondbacks have quietly impressed this season by hanging around .500, MVP voters have a hard time picking an MVP winner who doesn’t play for a team in the playoff picture. If Bryce can keep from running into another wall, he’s taking home the trophy at the end of the season.
Scherzer doesn’t carry the same injury history as Bryce, but every pitcher has injury concerns by the very nature of being a pitcher. Scherzer already has one Cy Young to his name, earned during his days as a Tiger. This year, Scherzer is on the leader board for every major stat, but his biggest improvement has come in his control. He has been pounding the strikezone and is issuing walks a microscopic 2.8% of the time. His BABIP allowed is .242, indicating some regression is possible. But when you watch Scherzer pitch, you usually see hitters so out of their element that squaring a pitch up looks like an impossible task for them. Scherzer’s competition for the Cy Young award in the NL is more fierce than the battle Harper faces. Clayton Kershaw is always lingering, and his 2.85 ERA and 2.39 FIP should tell you more about his season than his 6-6 record that almost kept him from being named an all-star. Dallas Keuchel, the all-star game starter for the NL, is certainly in the running. He probably gets bonus points for having a feel good narrative going for him as he leads the Astros from bottom dwellers to playoff contenders. Finally, Kershaw’s fellow battery mate Zack Greinke rounds out the field in the NL. His impressive 1.39 ERA and 2.65 FIP show he has kept his opponents from scoring, but his 7.74 strikeouts per nine is significantly lower than Scherzer and Kershaw, and he will likely split votes with his teammate Kershaw. Any of those 4 would be great options, but I’ve watched enough Scherzer this year to be a believer. Add in his no-hitter to the resume, and he takes home the hardware.

Danny Espinosa is the Nationals 2nd most valuable position player
Do you know who ranks 2nd in WAR for the Nationals position players this season? Bryce Harper is in first obviously, but Danny Espinosa comes in second by a good margin. He has accumulated 2.2 WAR (WAR via FanGraphs) in the first half of the year, beating out Yunel Escobar’s 1.2 WAR on the year. Espinosa’s offensive resurgence has resulted in a batting line 9% above average by wRC+. He’s not hitting for a high average, but he’s covering the entirety of the strike zone while walking enough to boost his OBP nearly 80 points higher than his batting average. He’s also second in the Nationals clubhouse in home runs and has thrown in a handful of stolen bases for good measure. That combination of patience and power means he’s been a positive asset at bat, but Espinosa’s calling card will always be his defense. He’s played nearly every position in the field, but settled in at second base as Rendon nurses a bum quad back to health. And there’s the rub. I don’t doubt that Espinosa can put up a second half similar to his first half. The question will be where he finds playing time. When Rendon returns to the team, Rizzo and Williams will again have to figure out what to do with the combination of Rendon, Escobar, Espinosa, and Desmond. I don’t know how (it could be further injuries to Escobar or Rendon, a benching of Desmond, or moving Espinosa back to first base if Zimmerman is still out) but I expect the Nationals brain trust to be smart enough to find time to keep their second most valuable player in the lineup. Given the playing time, Espinosa again will rank behind only Harper on the WAR rankings for the second half of the season.

Jayson Werth hits less than 4 home runs
Werth began a rehab assignment last night with High-A Potomac, going 1-2 with a single and a strikeout, as he attempts to come back from a broken wrist. Wrist injuries are notorious for sapping power as the wrists play such an integral part in a batter’s swing. This now marks the third time in his career Werth has had wrist related time on the DL and the second during his time with the Nationals. That previous DL stint came back in 2012 when Werth got hurt initially on May 6th and didn’t return until August 2nd that year. That timeline is eerily similar to this year, when Werth broke the wrist on May 15th after getting hit by a pitch and is poised to return in late July or early August. Back in 2012, Werth played in 54 games in the second half of the season, but flashed very little power while doing so. He hit only 2 home runs, 2 triples, and 16 doubles on the way to posting a .129 ISO. At the outset of the year, I was already worried aboutWerth’s power decline. Now, after yet another wrist injury, I think it’s a stretch to say Werth hits even 4 home runs during the second half of this season, so I’ll take the under.

Ian Desmond plays the remainder of the season, with improved numbers
I’ll put a qualifier on that: improved numbers, sorta. Desmond’s struggles are well documented. He is hitting a terrible .211/.255/.334. He is striking out a lot, sure, but his 28% strike out rate so far in 2015 is right in line with his numbers from last year and not terribly off the past several years. What’s killing Desmond is a 5% walk rate and a .279 BABIP. That BABIP would be a career low after several years of BABIPs hovering around .330 and his lowest walk rate since 2010. From my untrained eye, it doesn’t look to me like Desmond’s skills have fallen off a cliff. Rather, it looks like a slump gone to his head. Desmond isn’t identifying a pitch and swinging too late or over it, he’s swinging at balls that don’t even reach the plate. FanGraphs has pointed out his inability tohit balls he normally crushes, and to me it looks like a mechanical problem keeping him from squaring pitches up. I think the All-Star break will help him get a break and re-focus. The ZiPS projection system pegs Desmond for a .251/.300/.412 line in the second half. That’s only good enough for a line 4% below average (wRC+ of 96), but sounds right to me. Not back to his previous levels but significantly better than Desmond’s first half. If you are into these kind of stats, Mark Zuckermanpoints out that Desmond has historically hit better in the second half of seasons over his career than the first, so there you go.

Rizzo makes moves for a bullpen arm and bench bat
Sorry folks, I don’t see Aroldis Champman donning a curly W by the end of the year. He’s the marquee bullpen arm available this year, and every team is clamoring for him. That means his asking price will be sky high and I don’t see Rizzo trading away a future starter (Giolito) or everyday position player (Turner) for 2 years of a closer. Drew Storen has been almost as good as Chapman and is a fan and clubhouse favorite, to boot. That doesn’t mean I think Rizzo will stand pat with the current bullpen. He makes a move for a bullpen piece, but for someone complimentary to take over the 7th or 8th inning. Along those same lines, I don’t think Rizzo makes a move for a big bat a la Jay Bruce or Adam Lind because of their asking prices (although I would love either). I could see someone who can handle first base or the outfield as an injury replacement and a pinch hitter off the bench. I like what Clint Robinson has done subbing in for Ryan Zimmerman, but he just doesn’t have enough of a track record to rely on down the stretch. I don’t believe Matt den Dekker is really who Rizzo wants holding down the last bench spot come playoff time, either, so I think he makes a small move for bat.

Stephen Strasburg outperforms Doug Fister
It’s safe to say that both Fister and Strasburg have disappointed to some Nationals fans this season. Both have spent/are spending time on the DL and both have put up disappointing numbers. Fister sports a 4.08 ERA coupled with 4.48 FIP that shows his ERA could be even higher. Of course, Strasburg had ranked as the worst starter in the majors for a time. His last few, promising starts brought his ERA down to 5.16 while his FIP of 3.54 shows that he probably deserved better luck than he has gotten. Strasburg did have those two promising starts after comingback from his first DL stint. Hitting the DL a second time isn’t a good sign, but a strained oblique is a lot better than shoulder or elbow trouble. Fister’s strikeout rate is down to 11%, a career low. That means his success hinges on inducing weak contact, which is hard to do on a consistent basis. That’s not to say Fister will fall apart, but he’s making his way from a #3 level starter to a #4 or #5. So this prediction is based on a belief that Strasburg fixed his mechanics during his time away on the first DL stint and that when he comes back in the second half, we see the same pitcher who was in control during his most recent starts.

Ryan Zimmerman returns, but only as a bit player
As we haveestablished, no one should be making light of the foot injury that Ryan Zimmerman is suffering through. It’s hard to predict any injury, but judging from Zimm’s struggles before hitting the DL, it was really bothering him. He was pulling the ball less than normal, for less power, all while matching a career low in hard hit percentage. That, to me, looks like the sign of an injury robbing Zimmerman of his ability to swing with his normal effort and mechanics. Even if he is able to overcome the injury itself, he has now missed weeks and weeks on the season and it will certainly take him some time to get his timing down. Time that he might not have left in the season. I'm not putting much faith in a bounce back second half for Zimmerman, which also part of the reason I see Rizzo moving for another bat off of the trade market.

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