Nationals Baseball: Too bullish on 2012?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Too bullish on 2012?

Commenter DSK said yesterday that he wasn't exactly on the bandwagon when it comes to the idea that the Nats could have one of the better starting staff in the NL in 2012. Fair enough. Perhaps I did go a step too far, but let's see.

Let's set up some guidelines. First off - what makes a staff one of the better ones? For me, I say if you are Top 5 or so that's good enough. Second - for ease of calculation we're going to assume that each starting position throws the same amount of innings. That isn't true (I'm pretty sure it's weighted such that the #1 pitchers throws more than the #2, etc. etc.) but for the sake of a quick analysis I think it's fair enough.

What's been the ERA that could get the Nats a Top 5 rotation in the NL? Over the last 3 years it's been 3.98, 3.71, and 3.80 (before that offense was still killing pitching and the numbers are much different). Looks like the 3.80 that would have done it last year is a fair guess going forward.

What would it take to get a 3.80 starter ERA? An easy way it could happen would be a group of starters with the following ERA set.

3.40, 3.60, 3.80, 4.00, 4.20.

Hmm ok let's tweak that and say...

3.20, ERA2 , 3.90, 4.20, ERA5 (you'll see why I did it this way in a second)

What I said yesterday was that if the Nats staff hit their modest 4.30 starter ERA goal it could bode well for the future. The most likely way the Nats will hit this goal, is for their pitchers to hit their projections. Granted this "most likely" scenario is like <10% given all the moving parts involved but it's more likely than any other combination. In this scenario Jordan Zimmerman is hitting a 4.00 ERA and John Lannan is sitting around 4.30. To me if they pitch this way in 2010. I like them to have a modest improvement in 2011 to 3.90 and 4.20. In other words they fill those #3 and #4 spots above.

The #1 throwing a 3.20 is a returning Stephen Strasburg, of course. Is that too much to expect? I'm not sure. On one hand he will be coming back from injury. On the other hand as a raw rookie he had a 2.91 ERA. I don't think putting up a 3.20 is being overly aggressive.

This leaves two spots (ERA2 and ERA5) for the Nats to fill in a way so the average for all 5 would be 3.80. Simple math tells us any combination that adds up to 7.70, would do it, say... 3.30 and 4.40 pitchers. A 4.40 pitcher is JD Martin terriotry. The Nats haven't been lucky or good in finding this type of mediocre fill-in but they are out there. If you want to give the Nats more leeway at the back of the rotation then a top notch starter with an ERA of 3.00 or lower would give them more flexibility to waste starts on someone with an ERA closer to 5.00.

Having a Top 5 rotation in 2012 breaks down to three steps:
  1. Have Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan pitch to expectations in 2010 (or have any two pitchers that the Nats have under control beyond this year toss out ERAs of about 4.00 and 4.20 - Maya, Detwiler, Gorzelanny, anyone)
  2. Have Strasburg recover from injury enough that he's about at average for him in 2012 and have the pitchers in step one show ever so modest improvement
  3. Get a #1 caliber signing
In steps 1 & 2, I don't think I'm being crazy. I'm not saying it's guaranteed, the Nats have had a knack for finding terrible starting pitching, but these aren't crazy expectations. Some might even think them too modest. It's step 3 that will be the sticking point, and with no sure thing set to hit the free agent market right now you have to do a lot of "what if"ing. Nats fans might be better off hoping for a Maya/Detwiler/Gorz development into a dependable 4.00 ERA pitcher, than thinking they can get a true #1. I may have been being a bit optimistic, a rarity to be sure, but it IS possible, and if steps 1 & 2 happen it would take an effort from the Nats NOT to be average. One step at a time, though.


Farid Rushdi said...

What an excellent article; thanks so much.

The hard part of trying to gage this rotation is there are several pitchers who could be very good (as opposed to the others where we we knew we were going to watch varying levels of bad).

Yunesky Maya could suck or he could go 12-10, 3.75. He was the leader of the Cuban starting rotation, after all.

Jordan Zimmermann could still be in "figure it out" mode or he could approach 16-12, 3.40, 9.0/3.0/9.0.

If Strasburg is healthy, he could give the Nationals 5 wins in 10-12 starts like he did last year before both his arm and our hopes both blew up.

And I think John Lannan is good enough to be that 3.26 ERA second half pitcher from last year and not the guy we (ugh) watched on Opening Day.

And that's 2011.

By 2012, Strasburg and Zimmermann should combine for 30 wins. Add 11 for Lannan, 10 for Maya and 8 for whoever pitches in the five slot, and the rotation (assuming health and no nuclear wars) should win 60 games.

Last season's bullpen won 26 games, which is on the low side of average for a team's bullpen. But using that number, plus what the starters win, and 2012 could be an 86-76 team, maybe better.

I don't think you can be too bullish when you FINALLY have pitchers with real upside.

Wally said...

I dunno, I am probably more in DSK's camp. While you assumed no innings issues in 2012 for argument sake, which is reasonable because it makes the discussion easier to follow, I think that won't actually be true. Especially for Stras where it will have the most impact. I have less trouble believing he'll be in your ERA range than that he will do it for 200 innings. He has never pitched more than 140 or so innings, and he'll come off a year where, at best, he'll throw 70 or so, including minors? Looks like Zimm will be limited to 150 innings this year; does he automatically jump to 200 in 2012? Possible, but if neither of those guys do, you get more innings from the back end of the rotation, lowering the overall effectiveness.

But where I agree is that if they get a #1, which bumps everyone back a slot, that could reasonably take them into a top 5 rotation for 2012. I don't know where that comes from, but if they can pull it off, it looks pretty good - plus Solis, Cole, Ray, whomever they get this year, waiting in the wings. Big improvement.

Harper said...

Farid - I think you spelled out the best case scenario for 2012 right there. It all COULD happen, but that's some run of luck with pitching development. Of course if you're a fan... why not?(For the record : I was thinking of a 81-85 win team in 2012 and that was with adding another #1 starter.)

Wally - I thought about the Stras pitching limitation in 2012 but figured the "real" IP difference (#5 starters only average out about 170 innings - 190 would be fine for ZNN at the 3) would help in the other direction.

Where it comes from is a huge question - early guesses - CC Opts out, Cardinals decide to say goodbye to Carpenter, Phils let Oswalt walk, Webb or Harden have comeback years, maybe the Mets give up and deal Johan, or the Brewers crash and want to flip Greinke? I'll bet even money that some top flight pitcher is available. Now how the Nats get them as opposed to every one else... that I don't know.

Anonymous said...


I had no idea that my short, one sentence reaction to a prior post would prompt another post, but as it did, I suppose it calls for a responsive comment. I hope it is not untimely.

What I really like about your blog is its sober assessment, supported by saber-savvy analysis. When Pudge began last year with an early season inflated batting average, you pointed out correctly, citing his prior seasons' BABIP, that it was unlikely to continue. You have also pointed out that Lannan appears to be defying gravity based on his strikeout and walk rates and ratios. The latter, I believe, may have influenced my reaction.

Examination of the possible and watching how that plays out is one of the reasons we like following baseball. However, when one links the upside of the possibles as the basis of a conclusion, that is where my skepticism kicks in. Nevertheless, I am still a fan of the blog.