Nationals Baseball: A number 1 problem

Monday, February 14, 2011

A number 1 problem

Not all the pitching projections are in yet but a quick flip through them shows us a Nats rotation that is... well... not the best. The rough averaged projected ERAs of "Harper's Official Nats Rotation 2010" (+Gorzelanny -Maya) are as follows : 4.00, 4.25, 4.30, 4.45, and 4.60. OK, fine the Nats don't have a great rotation. (though if they got those numbers it would improve on last year's Starter ERA of 4.61). That's not the discussion here. This post is about how that 4.60, the projected worst starter on the Nationals in 2010, is their #1 guy. Livan Hernandez will start Opening Day for the Nationals and could very well be their worst starter in 2010.

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Livan was headed toward the scrap heap when he came to the Nationals last year. Even those who loved Livan and wanted him back (like me) saw him as 200 inning of 5.00 ERA pitching. He was just someone to soak up innings. His previous 4 seasons went like this

2006 : 4.83 ERA (1.500 WHIP, 5.08 xFIP)
2007 : 4.93 (1.595, 5.53)
2008 : 6.05 (1.667, 4.90)
2009 : 5.44 (1.563, 4.78)

The ERAs obviously show a pitcher who is pitching terrible. The last two numbers - Walks+Hits over Innings Pitched, and expected Fielding Independent Pitching - show that he wasn't unlucky. The fancy stats concur. Livan was a bad pitcher.

All of a sudden though, Livan starts out 2010 as the best pitcher ever. He carried a 1.04 ERA into mid-May. Was it mostly luck? You're damn right it was. But then a funny thing seemed to happen, Livan didn't crash as one would expect he would. Oh his next 6 starts were "normal", and the 6 after that had 4 bad ones mixed in. That looked more like the Livan we expected. Usually bad, with rare instances of brilliance. But then he followed up with 7 starts probably better than the ones to begin the year. It caused some idiots to gush that Livan had become a markedly better pitcher.

Then he crashed.

Three terrible starts and one not much better mixed in with an 8 inning shutout and last start where he gave up one run. A 5.70+ ERA. In other words, classic Livan Hernandez.

So what does this have to do with 2011? A lot. Livan is the one pitcher the Nats are sending out there that they are relying on. Marquis, Lannan and ZNN are all injury returns. Gorzelanny is an unknown. Maya is untested and rushed. The innings they get from these guys could vary wildly. I guarantee at least one will be pulled from the rotation by June 1st for some reason or another. Livan, though, is going to be trotted out to the mound every 5th day simply because they Nats know they can.

The problem is he's very likely to put the Nats in a losing position more often than not. Outside of that miracle run to open last year he's been a bad pitcher for 4+ years now. He's only a year older. The fancy stats agree with what you can eyeball with a look at his starts last year. He was lucky to open the season. Those starts aren't indicative of the pitcher Livan is. I can easily see a season where Livan starts slow and keeps slow, yet starts every time out ("He is our #1 guy" says by-the-book Riggleman) pulling a 5.50+ ERA into the All-Star break.

There's not much the Nats can do about this. They tried to get a dependable good arm and failed. This is what they are left with. And no one should begrudge Livan his Opening Day start considering what he did last year. But Nats fans should be prepared for a season of frustration as Livan gives up 5 runs in 6 and a third, then 7 runs in 4, then 1 run over 8+, over and over. I hope that I'm wrong like last year, but I think the Livan revival was a one year thing. This year we get the Livan we expected last season, someone to soak up innings with a 5.00 ERA. That's not a bad thing, not for this team, but it is probably less than what a lot of fans are expecting.


Hoo said...

If Livo falters, we can start the "We Want Wang" cries! (It's peculiar that no one mentions him. Why sign a kill to 7 figures if you don't think he's even in the picture for the 2nd year in a row).

I think the rotation will be slightly better than last year but not much better, unfortunately. Hopefully hitting will be up but that's all based on Dez/Espo not slumping and Morgan not sucking in center.

Sec314 said...

I'm with Hoo. Livo is a placeholder for Wang, Maya, Detwiler, someone....

The only question is will Rizzo have the cajones to take the ball away from #61 after 3 bad starts or will he have to rack up 10 or more.

I'm also a heck of lot less worried about pitching that hitting. If Desmond, Bernadina and Espinosa turn out to be the punchless .260 (or lower) hitters that we have every indication they are and Morgan is allowed anywhere near left handed pitching, this is going to be another LONG season.

Donald said...

Question -- to what extent will your Livo predictions play out in spring training? If he's running a 5+ ERA in Viera and someone else steps up, would he still be #1? I think he's going to be in the starting rotation regardless, but not sure he's locked in to #1.

Also, as a slightly different take, if the Nats are in the cellar after 2 months and Livo's under performing, it's probably easier for Rizzo to go with Maya, Detwiler, etc. as they are clearly more about the future than Livo. If the Nats are doing well, even if Livo is struggling, we may all look past his shortcomings.

Wally said...

Mostly agree, only minor quibbles. Livan's Opening Day nod, assuming that it is set, is probably just a reward for last year's season. I don't think anyone on the Nats, players, FO or staff, think of him as our #1. Money speaks volumes in this sport, and putting aside Marquis since that decision was made a year ago, Rizzo gave Lannan and Gorzy twice as much as Livo at the same time. That, more than anything, shows me what they really think of Livo. So my quibble is with your point that they expect to keep running him out there no matter what. I think that they start off with him, and if he falters, Rizzo goes with one of his numerous fallback plans. I don't think the Nats have a guy they'll stick with no matter what in their entire rotation; maybe Zimm because of his youth and potential.

In my view, not that I could ever verify it, I think that if you wanted to pick the one guy that Rizzo et al have the most confidence will perform to expectations, it is Marquis. I know, I am crazy, right? It is just that he has had consistent numbers for the last several years except 2010, but he was hurt and when he came back he was mostly the guy that they expected. I think that is how Rizzo thinks. Lannan is next in line.

Anyway, I feel like we are going to do ok this year, maybe get a little lucky compared to past years. The biggest improvement I see is that it is extremely unlikely that guys like Atilano, Kevin Mensch, Pete Orr, Martis, JMax get any time at all, let alone extended time. That by itself has to contribute to being at or above their Pythag numbers (which last year was mid 70's, right?). Plus, it wouldn't be called luck if it didn't shine on everyone once in a while, and I think that we are due.

But I agree with Sec314 - it sure would be nice if we had a little more O. Young at 2B still looks pretty good to me.

Harper said...

Hoo / Sec 314 - Wang on DL... He may be in the rotation before the All-Star break but I'm not optimistic, despite what he says.

It will be slightly better (and probably more reliable) but still not good which does make the hitting important if the team wants to see real improvement. Reasonable good case scneario - Ramos/Desmond are puchless but not terrible, Espinosa isn't punchless (but hits like .240), Morgan simply bounces back to closer to his career stats, LF is a Morse/Nix or Morse/Ankiel platoon and Bernadina plays 5th OF.

Donald - since they named him OD starter I think he'd have to be injured not to make it out of ST as the titular #1. I suppose it'll be easy to pull Livan out if the Nats are sucking, but then again if the Nats are doing that badly it's likely an arm or two has already failed. Do you pull a Livan with a 5.50 ERA to put in JD Martin?

Wally - His OD start is a reward for last year but it's also because the Nats can be sure he'll make that start. I don't think they can say that with any certainty for anyone else. One tweak and they could be out for a couple weeks.

The Livan sticks in the rotation is not just thinking the Nats have Livan love. It's based on the idea that he'll be healthy (if sucky) and some other arms will have failed - giving the guys the Nats want to see plenty of opportunity. Sure if Lannan, Marquis, ZNN, and OTHER are all healthy and doing well he can pull Livan, but if it's already something like Marquis, a up and down ZNN, a struggling Detwiler, and a bleh Gorz, do you bother removing Livan for one of the never wases the Nats have after that?

You'd think the Nats would get lucky but they haven't really been so since 2007 maybe. The coin only has to come up heads if you throw it an infinite number of times...