Wednesday, October 14, 2015

2015 Nationals Review: How Base Running and Defense Added to the Disappointment

The playoffs have been exciting and it hasn't even reached the division series yet. However, in short order the playoffs will be over and the baseball calendar will turn to 2016. The Nationals have a lot of decisions coming up this offseason as the team attempts to bounce back from the disappointing 2015 season that ended with a 2nd place finish and an 83-79 record.

Injuries, obviously, are what most fans and pundits have blamed for the disappointing finish. In spite of all the injuries, though, the team actually performed well on the whole. The Nationals finished the year in the top 10 of both runs scored and runs allowed. For the year, the team scored 68 more runs than they allowed. It’s not a world beating run differential but it left the Nationals in the vicinity of teams that made the playoffs, including the Mets (+70 run differential) and Dodgers (+72).
Not only was the Nationals run differential competitive bu,t by some measurements, it should have been good enough to finish closer to a playoff spot than they did. In a formula developed by the godfather of baseball analytics Bill James, called the Pythagorean win expectation due to its resemblance to the Pythagorean theorem used with right triangles, a baseball team’s final win-loss record is calculated with only the runs scored and runs allowed. It's a useful measure to determine true talent level of a team. With the Nationals +68 run differential, the team should have had an 89-73 record according to this calculation, six wins better than their actual record. That would have tied them with the Mets Pythagorean record for first place in the NL East.

Of course, the Pythagorean win expectation, while remarkably accurate, ignores a lot of factors. In another attempt to measure true talent level of a team, FanGraphs has developed their BaseRuns calculation. BaseRuns takes the Pythagorean win expectation, but factors in what’s known as cluster luck. Cluster luck is the term used to describe the high variance in runs scored by teams with identical performance. For example, a game could end with both teams having accumulated 8 hits but one team will have scored 5 runs while the other team was shut out. This discrepancy is due to the clustering of the hits. Eight singles in one inning could result in five runs scored while eight hits scattered over nine innings results in a shutout. Teams don’t have a lot of control over how their hits are clustered and, over a long enough time frame, cluster luck tends to even out. That allows FanGraphs to calculate how many runs teams should have scored and should have allowed, if cluster luck were to have evened out. By this calculation, the Nationals should have finished 90-72, again tied with the Mets. Only 5 teams finished with a larger difference in actual number of wins versus BaseRuns expected wins. All that to say that the 2015 Nationals team not only failed to live up to their sky high expectations, but they failed to live up to their own performance.

While some of the difference between actual and expected record can be attributed to “bad luck,” the Nationals earned the rest of that differential through their poor performance in certain areas of the game. A lot of people will point the finger at the pitching staff. The Nationals' pitching staff as a whole finished with the 7th lowest ERA in the majors. The starters on their own had the 7th lowest ERA in the majors and the much maligned bullpen even finished with the 10th lowest ERA in the majors. With the starting pitching staff assembled by Mike Rizzo for the 2015 season, though, that 7th lowest ERA has to be considered disappointing. This was the pitching staff that was so good that Tanner Roark and his 2.85 2014 ERA was relegated to the bullpen. The pitching rotation to end all pitching rotations was nearly a full run worse over by ERA than the league leading Cardinals, who were without their ace Adam Wainwright for most of the year. And while the bullpen put up good numbers on the whole, the combination of wilting under pressure and Matt Williams’ unique ability to push the exact wrong buttons at the worst possible times resulted in a lot of blown leads in important situations.

The defense didn’t do the Nationals pitchers any favors during the year, though. By one of the oldest of old fashioned stats, errors committed, the Nationals team was actually around average having committed 90 errors on the year. In reality, that paints a much prettier picture of the defense than the reality, as a player has to actually get to a batted ball in order to commit an error. The more advanced stats that calculate how often batted balls in certain areas and at certain speeds are converted into outs were not fans of the Nationals. By Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), the Nationals were 21st in the majors with a score of -15. Only the Yankees and Pirates made the playoffs while scoring worse than the Nationals in UZR. According to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), the Nationals were 23rd in the majors with -11 runs saved. DRS still gave poor grades to the aging Yankees squad as they were the only team to make the playoffs with a lower DRS score than the Nationals. While the actual number of runs saved or lost calculated by these metrics can be argued over, the general impression they convey doesn’t change whether the Nationals were actually a -10 UZR or -8 DRS. This was not a Nationals team that flashed a lot of leather.

The Nationals didn't fare much better on the base paths, either. Since Bryce Harper couldn’t knock in every Nationals run via a towering home run, Nationals players did have to spend a considerable amount of time on the base paths and they did not make the most of their time there. The Nationals (read: Michael A Taylor) were competent base stealers on the rare circumstances they attempted to steal. The team notched only 27 stolen bases on the year, the 27th lowest total in the majors. At least the team was successful in trying to steal, with a success rate of 71%. However, when the Nationals weren’t attempting to steal, they were usually running right into trouble. Base running is yet another area where advanced stats can’t pinpoint runs gained or added to a decimal point, but the numbers can get close to the real value gained or added on the base paths. By calculating the number of times players on a specific team went from first base to third base on a single or number of times breaking up a double play and comparing that to the league average in similar situations, FanGraphs calculates their own stat called Base Running (BsR). By BsR, the Nationals were 22nd in the league with a score of -2.1. Now, teams don’t have to possess a lot of speed to score well in BsR, they just need to possess the smarts to know how to run the bases aggressively and successfully. The Nationals did have some players with speed running the bases in 2015, they just didn’t do so aggressively or successfully.

That kind of captures the Nationals season in a nutshell. There are some things out of a team’s control. Slumps happen. Injuries happen. Long road trips take a toll on players. But doing the mental part of the game, the little things like taking an extra base on a single or taking a good route to a fly ball, shouldn’t go through slumps or injuries. So often in 2015, it felt like the Nationals would be building momentum, only to have a rally snuffed out by a Yunel Escobar blunder on the base paths. So often, it felt like the Nationals starters had to throw extra pitches in an innings because a fly ball the dropped between two outfielders.

Although those areas of the game aren’t as flashy as no-hitters or long home runs, games can still be won or loss by base runners and defenders. In 2015, the Nationals didn't do these little things very well and missed the playoffs because of it.

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