Nationals Baseball: Breakouts?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


The scare with Danny Espinosa yesterday ("Oh no!!1! He's frajile!!!" says Stupid Fan #1) highlights how fleeting major league success can be. One day you're a star to be, the next day you've been auf'd by an errant foul ball. (Yes, I made a Project Runway reference. It's my blog.) Chances of long-term success for any one player, even the best of them (see Strasburg, Steven) start slim and get slimmer.

Yet hope springs eternal for every young player and for every old baseball scribe. Which is why it's no surprise the Nats resident Spirit Squad leader Tom Boswell wrote this article the other day. In it he tries to be calm but you can sense the excitement in the overall theme. Surely one or two of Morse, Espinosa, ZNN, Detwiler, Desmond, Maya, Ramos, Bernadina, Storen, and Kimball will be a standout, right? Maybe even a star, right? Sure none of these are good bets but other teams get lucky, right?


Since there is so much hedging in the article it's hard to disagree with Boz. But really I guess it depends on what you mean as a "standout". A decent major leaguer for 3-4 years, that's not a standout to me. I'm thinking a good 7-10 year long career, with an outside shot at an all-star game in their best years. (think what Willingham will likely end with) I thought about it and put these odds on the 8 players listed above - ignoring the relievers because what do I care about relievers?

Totally unscientific, just based on opinion odds at being a standout player, from worst odds to best -

Bernadina : 100 to 1 : Not terribly old but not terribly good either. Like Morse he'll probably spend a lot of time being jerked around. Unlike Morse it's because he doesn't really do anything good enough to make teams not want to take a look at someone else. He's good enough to play everyday and not embarrass the team, at least for a few years, but nothing more than that.

Maya : 75 to 1 : Rizzo isn't a fool. He didn't push Maya too fast. He thought "hey the guy is 28 and been pitching for years. If he's not ready now, when will he be?" He wasn't. He is being asked to face the hardest competition in his life just when he's starting to lose his stuff. Could the Nats get a couple decent years out of him? Maybe. But that's not a standout is it?

Detwiler : 50 to 1 : Like Zimmerman in that he's already had an injury - and one harder to figure out. He probably doesn't need another year to recover, but he also hasn't impressed yet in the majors. He has control issues that need to be cleared up and his K:BB ratio in Spring is less impressive because players don't walk out of Florida. (the isoOBP in Spring is noticeably lower than during the regular season). Age 25 is generally when standouts round into form with a couple ok years in the books, not when they still are trying to figure things out. This pedigree as a batter would be more forgiving but pitchers have a much spottier track record.

Desmond : 40 to 1 : He's made the majors so that's going for him. On the other hand is that post from the other day.

ZNN : 10 to 1 : He's a great talent but he's 25 and already had serious arm issues. It'll take him more than last year to get back to form from TJ, and he's lost crucial time where he should have been learning to pitch with his best stuff. Still he should be good in the years that matter for the Nats. I'm not hopeful much beyond that - at least as a starter. Squeeze what you can get from those years.

Morse : 8 to 1 : He hit in the minors, he hit in the majors when given the chance. Thing is he's getting to the age where he'll start to decline. He's not the best fielder in a time where fielding is starting to be looked at more and more (possibly too much). He's got a reputation as "not a starter". I think he's got a few good years in him but most likely he'll be jerked around too much to have that lengthy career.

Espinosa : 5 to 1 : Yes, Boz I DO care that he strikes out. It means he has trouble making contact. But he supposedly fields well enough so that all he has to do is hit in the .250 range to have an extended career bopping 15-20 homers. That's harder than it sounds, especially for a guy that never hit for average in the minors, but given his age, it's not a crazy bet at all.

Ramos : 3 to 1 : He probably won't ever be a league leading hitter overall, but he's hit for average and some pop while being young for every level AND he did it while playing catcher. He should easily hurdle that low bar that is "offense for a catcher" into a nice long career.

Totally unscientific odds that none of them become a standout? Somewhere around 40%

(But if it makes you feel better if we were just looking at the 2012-2014 range I do like Morse and ZNN to be productive at some point during that time period. So the odds that none of these would be a standout during those years would be probably like 15%... or 3324% what do I know I'm just making this up)


jcj5y said...

Really interesting post, and a good follow-up to Boswell's piece yesterday.

I like the idea that a "standout" is someone with a 7-10 year career, and a fringe All-Star in his best years. Willingham fits that profile as a hitter. I'd nominate Jason Marquis as our pitching example (entering his 8th year as a full-time major leaguer, All-Star in '09, career 4.56 ERA).

Here are my proposed changes to your odds:

Morse - I think you're too optimistic. I'm high on Morse for the next 3-4 years, and wouldn't be surprised to see him hit 25 or even 30 homers if he plays alot. But I can't see projecting 7-10 more years of quality play from a 28 year-old.

Zimmermann - If Marquis can put together 8 years as a starter, I am optimistic that Zimmermann can too. Maybe I'm not as worried about his elbow as I should be.

Espinosa and Desmond - I'd have their odds closer together. Maybe Desmond will never have fewer than 25 errors, but I'm pretty confident he can hit .280 with 10-15 homers. I'm confident that Espinosa can play second at a high level, but I'm a little worried he may never hit above .230. So I'd say both have strong odds of decent careers. If they have a few years where their biggest weakness abates (Desmond with 15 errors, Espinosa with a .270 average), they're fringe All-Stars.

Thanks for the post.

Harper said...

jcj5y - On Morse, I guess it depends on how far off 7-10 you can accept. Would 5 good years and a a fading last couple be enough? I guess by my own standards no. Certainly though it all depends on this year. If he doesn't cement himself as a starter now, his odds of any sort of long significant career would just plummet. OK you convinced me. It is probably too high. But did you see his ST stats!

ZNN - it's less his elbow then the time off. Generally you come back from TJ after a year+ as good as you were. This puts ZNN recovering this year and probably an average pitcher in 2012. That would make him a 27 year old going into 2013 with nothing good yet. Maybe he recovers faster. Maybe his talent can overcome this an give him a solid run from 27-34. Not betting on it.

E&D - just my bias. I like Dannys minor league numbers better (even though Ian was pushed harder) and Desmond gets hurt by having his "old" 24 year old season be mediocre. They would have been closer before last year, and will be close again if Danny doesn't put up average numbers this year. But for this season I'm fine with where I have them

Anonymous said...

Wayyyyyy too high on Morse, already 28 and yet to display any real MLB talent.

Zimmermann on the other hand is 24 and has shown that he can dominate games if he is given a little time.

Wally said...

Ramos seems too high - lack of OBP will hold him back. You could probably just start calling him Torrealba or Olivo. I think that he is valued while pre-arb for a little pop and decent D, and then bounces around to teams looking for a 1 year stop gap until they come up with a better solution. That isn't a bad player and he definitely gets a 7-10 year career, but it also isn't what I would call a standout.

Zimm too low. When you say that he hasn't done anything, I think that you are really saying that he played for bad teams so far. His FIP in 2009 was 3.6 with a 3:1 k/BB rate. Even last year, his K/9 was almost 8. I think that he has demonstrated some success although clearly not become upper echelon, but it doesn't seem that way because of his lack of success at mainstream numbers due to the poor team.

I can't argue with the rest, although Desmond could be lower odds (ie better) if he somehow took the next step defensively. No longer as optimistic about that as I was.

Harper said...

Anon - got it. Morse should really occupy the middle ground between the "could be"s and the "unlikelys" because of his age. More like 20 or 25 to 1 (and that could be optimistic)

Anon & Wally - ZNN has shown skill but he's also been erratic and is coming back from major surgery and time off. I think Nats fans are thinking too much that he's 100% and ready to move foward. I think he needs more time. (or again - maybe I'm wrong). I also downgrade pitchers just because they're pitchers.

Wally - Torrealba never hit like Ramos, and Olivo was just a bit older in the minors. Both flirted with having standout careers - mixing slightly above average offensive years with typical catcher crap. I think Ramos edge in age and abiilty will let him bridge that gap. I don't think he'll be a star but I do think he can put up a good stretch (maybe 7 years) of above average offense. From a catcher - that's a standout.

Wally said...

ok, I'll give on Ramos - I probably don't buy the hitting ceiling as much as you (although I WANT to), but you make good points on his performance relative to his age - which, as an aside, seems to be a key factor across the board in your analysis. You don't seem to put much stock in the late bloomers. I never considered it too strongly before, but it is something to think about it.

But I am trying to figure out why we disagree on Zimm, and I think it is the evaluation of what he was before the injury. A starting pitcher who puts up 1.8 WAR in 90 innings in his rookie year - I think that is pretty special, but it sounds like you see that as average? Doesn't it project to around 4.5 WAR over 200 innings? Last year the pitchers who were between 4-4.5 WAR (roughly #20-30 in WAR) were guys like Hanson, Latos, Price, Haren etc. I know that I am projecting a lot by just extrapolating it out to 200 innings (and certainly not saying that is what he'll do this year), but I am saying that is the pace he was on pre-injury. I think that is above average. And if you think that he returns to that in 1+ years (in 2012 at 27), why doesn't that look like a standout?

As for your other point, that the injury will have a longer term, negative effect on his performance because he missed time at a critical point in his career, I hadn't heard that before (but whether he gets all the way back this year isn't that relevant to the performance over the next 7-10 years, right?). If true, it makes me a little nervous re: SS.

By the way, what is up with your date stamp for comments? Aren't you in NC? Seems about 4 hours off.

Brent said...

I think most of your odds are way too low. I'll illustrate with Desmond. bb-ref has a feature called "similarity scores" that finds players with similar statistics through the same age. You have to be careful using it, because it only looks at offensive statistics and doesn't adjust for context, but if you're careful you can use it to identify players who looked pretty similar at the same stage of their career.

For Desmond, we need to throw out three of the "most similar" players—two 19th century players and Lou Klein—because they played during very different times and weren't really comparable to Ian. But the others look fairly comparable through age 24. How did they do in the rest of their careers? Four of them were disappointments (Russ Adams, Khalil Greene, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Bobby Crosby). Of the other three, one (Julio Franco) played 2500 games and was a three-time all-star, the second (Orlando Cabrera) has played 1800 games, easily exceeding your 7-10 year criteria, and while the third (Stephen Drew) hasn't yet played 7 full seasons, he looks like he'll probably make it.

Based on these comparisons, one might argue that the odds for Desmond becoming a standout should be about 3 to 1. Now I'll grant that you raised some legitimate concerns about him in your earlier post, so realistic odds probably should be a bit lower—I think 5 to 1 or 6 to 1 seem reasonable. But 40 to 1? That's just wacky. Almost any player who is capable of playing regularly at age 24 has to have better odds than that.

While similarity scores aren't available for most of the other Nats players you discussed, I think that in almost all cases your probabilities are far too low - especially for the younger guys. Yes, the odds are heavily against Bernardina, Maya, and Detwiler, but they aren't 100 or 50 to 1.