Nationals Baseball: The Nightmare Scenario : .500 or bust

Friday, March 07, 2014

The Nightmare Scenario : .500 or bust

Last year I did an exercise where I explored the worst and best case scenarios for the Nats that one could make without resorting to crazy scenarios. The best was topping out and closing in on 110 games, the worst was missing the playoffs. Both seemed pretty unlikely at the time. Of course we know what happened. I didn't actually nail the causes of the nightmare, as we explored after the season, but there's a reason for that. It was a big part injury and I don't think it's fair to predict injury. Yes, injuries are usually the root cause of collapses, but if you say "well Strasburg and Gio could go down and the Nats could stink" that's not analysis. You can say that about any player on any team. I want to find a way the Nats do bad without injury.

The other thing is that I kind of balanced winning and losing around a central point of 96 wins where really at that point, each additional win is harder to get than each loss, if that makes any sense to you. So 110 really shouldn't have been in play. So this year we'll have a dream of 100 wins, tough but not nearly the rarified air of 110 wins. And we'll make the nightmare a .500 season. Ugh.

84 wins is the starting point based on the pythag numbers, and looking at baseball prospectus' adjusted standings.

First, much like last year, we do have to adjust the win total upwards. Why? Because I have to factor in reasonable health estimates for Bryce and Wilson Ramos. Give Bryce about 25 more games and you get almost a win more. Let Wilson start more, something like the 113 games he had in 2011 and bring in Lobaton.  That's another couple wins over last years bunch. Notice I'm not predicting perfect health for either. Just something reasonable. And I'm not predicting an increase in production, which you probably would. We're trying to make this a worst case remember. So we're at 87 wins.

The Blevins acquisition is nice but you can't expect me to bump up the wins for the 4th in line reliever. Now Fister deserves something, but because Haren was decent for half a year, and Roark and Jordan were pretty good too, it's not as much as you might think. I say if we look at "Fister + 5th" vs "Haren + Detwiler + Roark + Jordan"... let's say we can expect only +1.5 more wins conservatively. 88.5 wins.*

Anyone have an unusually bad year that we just don't think will be repeated? Sorry but no. You could argue LaRoche, but I'd argue that his 2010 season was about as mediocre and he's only gotten older and suffered injuries since then. No dice. 88.5 wins is where we'll start going back down.

This is harder than you think it might be because no one did unusually well for the Nats in 2013. What don't we like on the Nats? The bench. Ok, age wise, and talent wise I can predict a complete bench implosion, but that would only match the bench implosion from last year. So that's doesn't really get us anywhere.

The next easiest place to lose some value is 2nd, with a sophomore slump from Rendon, who doesn't have enough major league experience for us to feel bad about docking his performance. But Rendon actually only played  like 60% of the season. Expect him to play the whole thing and any value lost from slumping is made up from increased playing time. We're still treading water.

We can maybe predict a slight dip from Ian Desmond, though only slight given the consistency in past two years. -1. We could say Zimm is trending down, (I mean he IS but its not anything conclusive just yet) but his generally young age makes it hard to predict a big fall from his relatively modest level now. -0.5 wins. Werth is probably the best bet to underperform. If we expect about the same amount of playing time (fair considering age and time missed the past two seasons) and a drop to something even just under his prime Phillies years, continued defensive decline.. we could probably pull a win and a half from him. -1.5 wins.
85.5 wins.

We're back out of the playoffs now but basically at last year's level of play. How do we drop further without injury? Span and LaRoche could both be on the decline with no return. You could probably pull a win and a half from the continued degradation of their offensive skills. 84 wins.  We're pretty much done with the offense at this point.

It's hard to pull anything from Zimmermann, Strasburg, and Gio. It's not like they were crazy good as they were in 2012. Let's say a half win between the three of them, mostly from ZNN.  83.5 wins.

The Nats relief core is talented but these things fluctuate.  If you think Soriano is also on the way down that helps. Maybe a win here? 82.5 wins

Much like previous attempts I'm stuck. I've run out of ways the players could reasonably disappoint. Bad luck could take the Nats the rest of the way and there is always injury, which like I said I don't predict but we all know can happen.

What does this tell you? Well, it tells you that the Nats are talented. We're looking at a second straight year of disappointments across the board and still the Nats would have a hard time finding themselves below .500 if they are healthy. This would be a very bad scenario for the future. Zimm and Werth trends would be troubling considering the years left on their contract. The Nats would have to replace first and CF (and in this scenario obviously nothing is ready to replace in the minors) and fix the pen. But I can't see this scenario actually playing out. I mean a team with this relative youth and no one gets better? I think if the Nats do drop under .500 then it will be much like last year's nightmare, the injury bug will get them. The slightly improved bench makes it more likely that it would have to be a pitching thing, too.

OK, go to sleep now and next week we can all wake up to the 100 win scenario.

*This is why the Nats are still picked to make the playoffs by many. Conservative estimates put them in the playoffs, at least in the Wild Card.


Chas R said...

Good analysis, Harper. It seems the injury variable, although difficult to predict, is still the most significant in predicting a decline or collapse. Are there any indications that can be watched to assess whether injury is going to be an issue? I mean, maybe I'm paranoid after last year, but I'm seeing small injuries pop up already in ST- Fister is scratched today, Werth has been held back, Harper was sick, etc. Maybe this stuff happens to every team ever ST, but I'm just overly sensitive to it because of last year's disappointment!

John C. said...

Yeah, it's hard to see this team dropping back under .500 in 2014 without a lot of injuries. Even on the "deductions" side we're taking unlikely scenarios to push the point. For example at second, even a "sophomore slumping" Rendon is likely better than the half season of dreck that the Nationals got out of Espinosa and Lombardozzi last year. I know you're bearish on the bench, but again it's hard to see how the bench could be worse than last year's crew.*

*Rizzo is often criticized for "breaking up a winner" by not keeping players like Morse, Gorzelanny, Gonzalez and Burnett. Even putting aside that these players were either bad (Gonzalez), injured (Burnett) or both (Morse) or at best mediocre (Gorzelanny) last year, this still makes me laugh because arguably a major spike in the spokes of the 2013 team was the bench, which consisted of players that were held over. So the bottom line is that Rizzo should have kept the players that would perform better in the future and let go those players that would not perform better in the future. Easy to do - on the internet.

Jay said...

I've been thinking about this "nightmare" scenario idea lately, and it seems to me that with injuries, we could at least talk about injury probability, given history, age, etc. For example, I won't be at all surprised if Werth or Ramos misses 30 games this season. I would be surprised if Span is hurt for a long time. Maybe you can't quanitify the effect on wins above replacement, but I think it's worth considering the likely playing time of the best players.

Chas R said...

See... it's this kind of stuff that makes me paranoid:

Harper said...

Jay - In my mind doing this I had Harper around 145 games, Werth around 125, Ramos around 120, rest with 15 or fewer missed games.

Anonymous said...

I really like this post every year. Especially that we omit the injury bug. As you say it can effect any team.

The thing I like about this kind of analysis is that it clearly indicates the Nats (on paper) are a very good team. There might be 10-12 teams, at most, that you could do this exercise for where it would be tough to drop below 81 wins, and the Nats are one of them.

So really, worst case scenario - barring injuries, is we are in the hunt for a playoff spot/division title and opening day is still 3 weeks away. =)


Donald said...

The total number of wins is a zero sum game. To what extent does improvement or decline in other teams play into this? If the Mets and Marlins are a bit better and we play them 36 times, couldn't that take away a win or two even if the Nats are unchanged? Of course, if those teams improved, it would probably serve to lower the bar for making the playoffs a bit.

blovy8 said...

I think it's not unreasonable to be apprehensive about injuries with almost every player but Desmond. Ramos has recurring hamstring stuff, LaRoche has his meds issue to figure out, Rendon's had several leg injuries and still isn't natural at 2nd, Zim's hurt a bunch of things even apart from his shoulder in his career. Werth misses plenty of time too. Span had the concussion that can become a syndrome with another incident, Harper has to encounter walls in every stadium, but he probably should worry more about hitting his CF.

Harper said...

Chaz R - Other than history and ST reports I'm not sure. There are some things linking P per game to injuries but I don't see that as an issue for the Nats

Figure it out, make millions.

(also be paranoid - but understand everyone else should be too. The sword of Damocles hangs over all teams)

John C - yep, I'm not doing anything silly like "Bryce Harper becomes worthless -4 wins" but I'm definitely not going with the most likely scenario. Lots of little things that could happen but chance of all of them happening at the same time are slim

Rizzo should get players that are good and not ones that are bad or injured. I don't see why that is so hard!!!!!! My MLB '11 dynasty has won 11 consecutive WS!!!!

Anon - thanks. my take away is about the same. Pundits aren't wrong this is a good team. Of course that only goes so far.

Donald - it totally matters, because of the unbalanced sched, but we really can't be sure until the season starts where it matters.Even then who might face a team when it's hot and catch it's top starters both times in April while your rival faces them September when they've given up or been decimated by injury. If you REALLY like a team to improve or decline I'd suggest a game or two adjusmtent for teams in division but that's all I would do.

blovy8 - Nats do seem to have more injury concerns than other teams. But I feel I fairly treated them giving big chunks of time out to werth and ramos. Maybe those aren't the two that miss a month, maybe they are joined by others, but it seemed like a fair place to put those worries

blovy8 said...

Fangraphs is making the case that the NL east is the weakest division, so we may have hope there. That could be so, since the Phillies are the third team that's really trying to win, but probably should be retooling, yet are stuck spending too much money to act like it.

Donald said...

Last year, the Nats were swept by the Braves in their first series and went 2-5 through the first two. The Braves never looked back. In 2014, the Nats and Braves play 6 times in the first 12 games of the season. I know there's a ton of baseball to play after April, but it sure feels like those first two series are going to set a tone. If the Braves sweep us again in the opening series and win 5-6 or something, there's going to be a feeling like they just have our number and their confidence level will be sky high. If the Nats turn the tables and sweep the Braves, it would certainly make the team feel like this is a new year. I don't think it would crush the Braves nearly as much as it could the Nats, though. If they split, then I think everyone will feel like we're in for a dogfight the whole season.

What do you think? I don't want to suggest that the division could be won or lost in April, but it sure feels like we'll have a good sense if we're looking at the nightmare scenario pretty early on.

BenDen said...

Can't believe you had the guts to post this again after last year. I blame this board for the Nats collapse last year, obviously.

Only thing I can't get behind is no rebound from LaRoche. He was .30 points below career BA, and .70 below career SLG. He got a little jipped on BABIP and on HR/FB, while his controllable peripherals ticked only slightly the wrong way (K% up 1%, BB down 2%) and if I can revert back to old-school scouting for a second you could tell in the first half of the year he was starting to chase because of his slump. Last year was his worst full season since his sophomore year. He can't repeat that, even on the age regression slope.

Zimmerman11 said...

Loggin in early and often to see the other side of this coin... but no Harper is leaving us hanging on the nightmare scenario and ruining my "hope springs eternal" buzz!