Nationals Baseball: Middle of the Pack Nats

Friday, November 22, 2013

Middle of the Pack Nats

Commenter Cass brought up something interesting the other day. On the current fangraphs projections for the 2014 season the Nats are decidedly middle of the road, 18th in the majors. Yes, understanding that it's WAY early and this does not factor in free agency that hasn't happened yet (so all free agents are nowhere right now) is there some underlying truth here? Are the Nats not very good?

Well, first of all there is a lot of things that will help you assuage your fears. While the Nats are figured to be 18th overall right now, that's still 8th in the NL and decidely closer to the best NL team (6 games) than the best AL team. In other words, the NL itself has no standout teams in projection so it's not like the Nats have lost before the season even started. Even better they are just a smidgen behind the Braves in this projection. Given the current talent levels that sounds about right to me. The Braves are better, but not by more than a couple games. A couple games can easily be undone over the course of the season by random luck (although you'd much rather have it undone in the offseason by savvy signings).

Also projections like this are notoriously... flattening. Look the best team in the NL last year won 96 games, the worst won 62, but in the projections for next year the spread is 88 to 72.  A 34 game spread is now 16 games. This doesn't mean that the projections are wrong, just that the idea of projecting has a fundamental flaw. This is something we've discussed before. Seasons are often decided by injuries, break-outs, and crashes. These are things that can't be projected with any accuracy. You know they are going to happen. You can sort of pinpoint teams that may have an edge (young talent with room to improve) or a big flaw (35+  talent, or relying on guys who may have had fluke seasons) but that only gets you part of the way there. The rest is unknowable but it happens every year. (Doesn't mean you don't try to put yourself in the best position though. It's easier to get to 95 wins if you are starting from an expected 90)

Ok so the above says - don't worry the Nats are in the playoff hunt and given their general reliance on young talent would be a better bet to overperform on that win total than underperform. Where exactly do I think the projections are guessing low?

Ian Desmond : Projection 3.0 WAR.  (2013: 5.0, 2012: 5.0)
You can tell this is at least a 3 year projection by the fact that they've pretty much discounted Ian's defensive improvements over the past 2 seasons. Also they only have him playing 130 games, which he has beaten by at least 20 in 3 of the last 4 years.

Jordan Zimmermann; Projection 2.5 WAR (2013: 3.6, 2012, 3.4)
Projections seem to hate ZNN. It's a much milder way than the way they hated Lannan, but it turns someone who has been a #2 type pitcher the past 3 years into a #3. I can't see the reasoning behind this one.

Where do I FEEL they are guessing low?

The Pen (Soriano, Clip, Storen):  Projection 1.0 WAR  (2013: 1.1)
Ok that's not a big drop and it can be entirely explained by a drop in IP projected but still last year was the least valubale year for Clippard and Storen since 2009 and Soriano's least valuable closer year ever. One of these guys alone might get 1.0 WAR next year.

Jayson Werth: Projection 2.2 WAR (2013 : 4.6)
Ok I don't think he'll hit like he did last year and I do agree his fielding will still suffer but a big part of their projection is him playing only 118 games.Factor in 30 or so games and better hitting and that's a whole win they are underselling him.

Bryce Harper: Projection 3.9 WAR (2013 : 3.8)
This is all just gut feeling. If Bryce is going to be that special talent he should break out sooner rather than later. I think he is that special so I'm feeling breakout.

Is there anyone I think they are too optimistic on?

Adam LaRoche : Projection 1.2 WAR (2013 0.6)
In fewer plate appearances! No I think last years LaRoche is where he stands now.  That's not good, but over the course of the season you can swallow it. For one more year.

The top of the rotation - not that they will pitch worse but they have Stras, Gio and ZNN pegged for over 550 IP, which means no major injuries. I always assume a major injury when it comes to pitching, but I guess it'd be unfair in this exercise to predict that for the Nats.

All in all, like I said before I like the Nats chances to beat what they are projected for here, more than go under it and if you factor in what I think are under estimates and over estimates, I have them*better than the Braves and in the thick of the WC hunt.

*Caveat being that I haven't look at every NL team. Might be if I look at the Braves I think they are underselling some guys there too. Or overselling a couple. Really all I'm saying is that the Nats aren't a base .500 team - more a base 85 win team right now, with strong potential to beat that.


cass said...

Those are pretty similar to my feelings, to be honest, but the projection systems liked the Nats less than most human forecasters last year so I'm starting to wonder if they're seeing things that we're overlooking.

A couple caveats about the projections. First of all, FanGraphs like to use an average of ZiPS and Steamer for their rate values, but ZiPS isn't out yet, so it's just Steamer for now. I get the sense that ZiPS is probably a tad more accurate, but I don't have anything too solid to base that on. It's probably just a matter of being more familiar with the person who runs it and having heard his thinking about the system more while I know less about Steamer. But people have been questioning a few of Steamer's odder numbers this year.

And, to be clear, the playing time projections are handled by the FanGraphs writers, not by projection systems. We should know those playing time projections better since we know the team better, but being too close can sometimes lead to biases as well. As you say, no one can really forecast injuries with much skill.

My point wasn't to say "the sky is falling!" but more rather to say something like, "maybe we're not as good as we think we are." I do like the projections for checking my own thinking.

My gut tells me that "as goes Bryce Harper, so go the Nats", but that probably is biased by the human urge to attribute more to star players and storylines than his fair. But he also has more variance in his outcomes than anyone else, anywhere from 1WAR (year-killing injury) to 10 WAR (Mike Trout 2.0). That likely will mean the difference between winning the division and not.

Anonymous said...

The Braves have more young talent than the Nationals (and just about every other team), so just a parsimonious assumption that they're less likely to have a lot of injury time and more likely to see big steps forward from players approaching their prime says they are better positioned than the Nationals right now.

But really, it's not a very useful exercise until you know the actual 2014 rosters. Some of the guys you think are under- or overprojected here might be playing on different teams next April. You may get a free agent you really didn't anticipate.

Tyler R. said...

Well my hope for signing Chris Young to be the Nats 4th OF & ALR platoon (by moving Werth to first against LHP) has ended with Young signing with the Mets. I think now we have to target Youk to platoon with ALR. I think with a platoon of those two for a full season we could have a .265 30 HR 100 RBI guy. This would also give us a viable DH when needed and a replacement for the oft hurt Zimm rather than Lombo. Great teams have guys like this instead of relying on the likes of Lombo, Tracy, and Moore. Your thought Harper?

blovy8 said...

Basing stuff on one system isn't usually a good idea. I usually tried to average out as many projection systems as I could for fantasy purposes. I haven't really gone back to see which is "best" in a while, but I remember thinking Steamer did a better job with pitchers than batters. Zips seemed a little tougher on young players so with a club like the Braves it shouldn't change things much.

Before I stopped paying for it, Pecota used to have the breakout/bust type of percentiles that were interesting, but they kept changing how it was calculated. It's fun to look at, but not all that much more predictive than the Marcel the monkey system of weighting recent numbers which is kind of what you can do in your head.

blovy8 said...

Lots of cheap minor league pitching additions that look like reasonable gambles by Rizzo. I wonder if some late 20's minor league free agent catcher with a good AAA ops will be signed by the Nats soon. The price Chooch got has to trickle down some to the point where guys like Buck might actually be worth more than one.

I wonder if they'd take a shot on a guy coming off an injury like the Rockies' McBride? Solano and Leon do not look ready to hit even at replacement level for the 30 games they'll need to play.

I know we get a lot of radio silence about it, but how can I not think that Rizzo is more concerned with who's available in the trade market than the asking price of the free agents we all covet?

Zimmerman11 said...

HEY! RIZZO!!! FanGraphs hates our bench and bullpen!!! Also, so does Harper Gordek!!! How about that Mr. Executive of the Year 2012??? Now go out there and do something about it! :)

Interesting to see DET move Fielder one year after signing him away from us. It'd still have been fun to see him swinging for the fences in DC, but it's gotta say something about the price DET paid to get him.

Harper said...

cass - well computer projections are always going to like the good teams less than the human projections, but maybe the did like the Nats less than they liked other teams less... if that makes sense.

Yes, caveats are all over the place with these things. Like you said it's more for "you are about here" than anything else, especially so early in the offseason.

I also put a lot on Bryce, which of course means he'll get slightly better put up a 5.0 WAR season and make us look for other reasons.

Anon - quite possible. this is just a quick look because like you say it's kind of pointless in the "are we going to make the playoffs" sense. This is more "should we get better talk"

Tyler R - I like the Youk idea but you can't go in thinking platoon - Youk can't be counted on to be healthy enough for even that. Just a strict bench player and if you get more... great. That's why I prefer Jeff Baker

blovy8 - yeah I usually look at fangraphs in March when they have the 4 or 5 projections up there to get a feel of where the numbers are but like I said it'll only give you the "if everyone hits average" idea of how a team will do. And it's only a guess at that.

Any minor league deals are fine. Can McBride field? Looks like a bat but PCL can fool you. I agree though that we'll all be screaming our heads off is Ramos goes down again and Leon or Solano is clogging up the bottom of the lineup.

You can not think it because of all the non-trading he did last year. There one level of trading that excelling at dealing when you have a bunch of stuff you only sort of like. Rizzo seemed pretty adept at that (in comparison to Bowden) There's another level that's about trading stuff you like for stuff you like even more. Potentially painful trades. Right now the only trade of one of his big guys is Alex Meyer (he dealt Cole but then dealt to get him back). That happened when Rizzo saw a glut of arms coming (that was a bit of a mirage) I'm still not convinced he can give up on one of his big draft picks in a way that he thinks could hurt down the road. Hell, it took him forever just to let go of H-Rod and that wasn't even his guy.

Z11 - Give him time I say. I'll start yelling after new years.

Eh, I think the Tigers are overreacting a bit to the 2013 drop. It was always an overpay aimed for immediate success and he's for the most part helped with that. I almost think this way about Miggy to first as much as anything. You keep the HOFer healthy at all cost.

DaveB said...

Obviously long time till the season starts, but I love the fact that the Phillies & Marlins are fighting for the bottom slot. If you take Matt Harvey out of the Mets' numbers, the NL East has 3 of the bottom 5 ... that has to count for something positive. (Remember back when it was considered right up there for the top division ... how times change).

Anonymous said...

I guess the theory is that all of us are smarter that some of us.

Zimmerman11 said...

I look back again at the Nats' record against the playoff teams last season and it makes me think that bigger changes are needed than bench/bullpen unless we believe that the "real" Nats are the team from the 2nd half. All those games against the Fins, Phils, and Mets skewing the results, too. The Cards have made upgrades. It would be fun to watch the Nats ride a Harper breakout season into the playoffs, but it shouldn't be our PLAN heading into 2014. And with the dearth of FA value next year, it won't be any easier to make upgrades if things don't swing our way next season, either. Glad to see McCann out of the NL East. Hudson too.

blovy8 said...

Man, FG does hate our bench, no one is positive! Lombo got 0.5 WAR for his Steamer projection on his page, but on the team projections for that link he gets -0.2. Seems like just finding replacement level players would put the team into the divisional lead...

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