Thursday, August 6, 2015

Pointing Fingers

Well, that sucked. After a debacle of a game last night, the Nationals find themselves with a 55-51 record, looking up at the Mets in the standings. The Mets, by the way, were just told that scoring runs is an important part of the game of baseball and have been on an offensive tear against the Marlins. Now, I could sit here and rehash all the problems of this week or heck, even just last night. But even though Matt Williams shouldn’t have let Gio start the 6th inning, that kind of managerial move shouldn’t make the difference over a full season for a team projected to be as good as the Nationals were at the start of the season.

Back in April, FanGraphs projected the Nationals to have a 58.5% winning percentage and run away with the division. Through last night, the Nationals have actually played 106 games. If the Nationals had lived up to expectations thus far, they should have a record of 62-44, or seven games better than they currently stand. That record would put them comfortably ahead of the Mets with the second best record in the NL. How did we end up here?

We know generally that the offense has underperformed as of late, but they have had a lot of injuries. Come to think of it, the pitching hasn’t dominated quite like we thought they would. And the bullpen. Well, outside of Storen, that’s gone about as well as Aaron Barrett fielding a bunt. But if we really want to start pointing fingers, who is most to blame for the Nationals failure to live up to expectations?

Since were used the FanGraphs projections earlier, I’ll pull the FG “Depth Chart” projections for the Nationals players at the start of the year. FG combines both the player by player ZiPS and Steamer projections with their estimates of playing time and, voila, you get their season projection for the team. No, the projections aren’t perfect, but they are a pretty good baseline. As I mentioned, the Nationals are 7 games under their projected win-loss record. If you compare the WAR projected by FG to the actual WAR accumulated by the Nationals on the season, they come in 5.1 Wins below the projection. So, on the whole, the projections look to be pretty solid.

Breaking it down to a player level, I’ve compared each player projected to accumulate playing time by FG (prorated to 106 games) to how they have actually performed in 2015, and presented the difference in the below graph. A positive number here indicates a player has outperformed their projections. A negative number, it would follow, means a player has underperformed their projections. (Note: the chart doesn’t include players not originally projected to get playing time, such as Clint Robinson and Joe Ross and a bunch of bullpen arms. These players on the whole have accumulated 0.7 WAR for the season)

Hide your eyes! A few things pop off right away. First, wow Bryce Harper. FG actually had him projected for 4.5 WAR this season. That’s not an insignificant WAR for a full year. Bryce has already obliterated that projection. Everyone should really take a moment to appreciate just how awesome Harper has been this year. Second, that’s a lot of negative. Thirteen players came in over their projection to sixteen coming in under. And while only Harper and Max Scherzer have outperformed their projections by 2+ WAR, for players have underperformed their projections by 2+ WAR.

Ian Desmond leads the pack of underperformers (can you lead a pack of underperformers? Should he trail?). He has played nearly every game this year and has been terrible while playing every game. He doesn’t have much of an excuse. To reach the Nationals projections, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon were counted on to contribute in a big way. They have all missed time due to injury, which accounts for some of their WAR drop off. Werth and Zimmerman, though, have actually accumulated negative WAR in their limited playing time. When they haven’t been hurt, they have actively been dragging down the team. While Rendon has been out, Danny Espinosa has been filling in for him admirably, but they still net to a negative 0.6 WAR. Same goes for Strasburg, as Joe Ross has been impressive as Strasburg’s replacement (and accumulated 1.0 WAR already), but combining Ross, Taylor Jordan, and AJ Cole (the other 2 players to make spot starts this year) still leaves a hole of 0.3 WAR. The rest of the bench, Michael A Taylor, Clint Robinson, Jose Lobaton, have also performed well, but it’s not enough to make up for the deficit left by Desmond, Werth, Zimmerman, Rendon, and Strasburg. Add in Wilson Ramos, who is 1.5 WAR short of his projection, and you can see why the Nationals are in a big hole.

Now, these numbers are all backwards looking. They don’t carry much predictive value going forward. For that, FG also has rest of season projections. Interestingly enough, FG projects the Nationals to be two games better than the Mets over what remains of the season. That leaves them both with an 86-76 record when the dust settles. It may feel good to point fingers at Aaron Barrett or yell at Matt Williams. But this team is still in the race. Yes, there are a lot of currently underperforming players. But it only takes one or two of those guys returning to form to make the difference on the season. Strasburg is looking ready to make a start this weekend. Span is working out with the team. The season is far from over.

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