Monday, September 29, 2008

Handing out the Hardware for 2008

It was a rough season from start to finish, but there were certainly some individual performances worthy of praise. Here are the first annual FJB awards for the best Nationals performances of the year.

  • Winner: Cristian Guzman
  • Runners Up: John Lannan, Elijah Dukes
Guzman, nearly run out of town on a rail after three seasons of injuries and historically awful performance, exceeded all expectations for 2008 with a very good offensive season by any standard. His 5.57 runs created per 27 outs places his just shy of J.J. Hardy for the sixth most efficient runs generator among batting title-qualified shortstops.

Guzman's approach is simple--swing at anything you can get the bat on, don't strike out, and run fast. This year it's a trick that yielded a .345 OBP on the strength of a .316 BA. Doubters will say, justifiably, that as his .339 BABIP inevitably recedes back towards his career number of .306, his overall offensive value will drop significantly. His near-total refusal to take walks and limited power (his .124 ISO Power this year was decent pop for a SS but not enough to compensate if his numbers sag elsewhere) leave him unusually dependent on the luck of the bounce.

But to dismiss Guzman's season as a run of lucky breaks would be a terrible disservice to him. Guzman has become a significantly better contact hitter than he's ever been, striking out an Ichiro-like and career-best 9.8% of the time and raising his contact rate from 83.98% to 88.46%, 18th among 145 batting title-qualified hitters in MLB.

Whether it's the Lasik or just a guy who's fully healthy for the first time since reaching the peak ages of 27-29, Guzman is guy who still does one thing really well, but the fact is that he' doing it better now than he ever has and nearly as well as the very best contact hitters in the game. On this team, that's enough to make him the uncontested MVP.

Cy Young

  • Winner: John Lannan
  • Runner Up: Odalis Perez
When the season opened, the Nationals' rotation was Odalis Perez, Matt Chico, Tim Redding, Jason Bergmann, and Shawn Hill. (Remember that? Me neither.) When Hill's various aches and pains kept him from making his first start, Lannan was in and emerged four months later as one of the better young pitchers in Major League Baseball with 182 innings of 3.91 ERA ball.

From oldest to youngest, here's the list of pitchers born in 1984 or later who threw at least 182 innings with a 3.91 ERA or better this year: Tim Lincecum, Mike Pelfrey, John Lester, John Lannan, John Danks, Matt Cain, Chad Billingsley, Felix Hernandez, and Jair Jurrgens.

Lannan had few really dominating starts and never once went more than 7 innings. But he was remarkably consistent for such a young pitcher, going 5 innings or more in 27 of his 31 starts and allowing 3 ER or fewer 23 times.

His 5.79 K/9 rate blew away the most optimistic projections for him as he used a much-improved curve ball to miss bats at a higher rate than he has at any level above high-A. His ERA was helped by a low .273 BABIP, but if he can cut his 9.2% unintentional walk rate by a point, which isn't unreasonable for a guy his age, there's room for him to get even better.

Bottom line, no one was counting on this 11th round pick to do anything like what he did this year, and in a year full of disappointments, nothing should warm the hearts of Nationals fans more than what John Lannan did in 2008.

Fireman of the Year
  • Winner: Jon Rauch
  • Runner Up: Saul Rivera
Yeah, I know he's been a former National for two months and that he's been a major disappointment for the D'Backs, but the excellent, high-leverage 48 and 1/3 innings he threw for us in the first half this year made him our most valuable reliever.

Because of the hyper-specialized way that relievers are used these days, I prefer to look at stats like WPA (win probability added) than ERA, saves, or, god forbid, holds. Because ERA, for instance, doesn't capture the importance of the innings pitched or things like the fate of inherited runners, it doesn't really tell the story for relievers. Saves and holds tell you more about the manager's decisions than the pitcher's performance.

WPA is better because it measures change in likelihood that the team will win the game from the start and the end of the pitcher's appearance. That difference is then credited (or debited) to the pitcher and added up over the course of the season to tell you how many games the team won as a result of that RP's contribution.

Rauch led Nationals relievers this year in WPA with 1.10. No one else is over 1. He should have been in the All-Star Game, and he's my Nationals Fireman of the Year.

Most Improved Player
  • Winner: Joel Hanrahan
  • Runners Up: John Lannan, Mike Hinckley
There are a lot of guys who could have gotten the nomination here, but I'm going with Hanrahan. It doesn't take a lot of deep analysis to see what happened here. Hanrahan has always had a live arm, throwing a hard fastball-slider combination that has given him excellent strikeout rates for years in the minors. In fact, he was once rated alongside Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton in the Dodger system, but his command had fluctuated between awful and terrible in seven minor league years when the Nationals grabbed him as a minor league free agent in 2007.

Last year, it was more of the same, as he walked a stunning 6.71 per 9 in 51 innings, despite throwing his fastball at just 92 in an apparent effort to come within earshot of the strike zone.

Suddenly, this spring, the light seemed to go on. He's still not a command pitcher by any stretch, but his walk rate is down to 4.48 while his strike out rate is up to an excellent 9.92 and his velocity is up to 95.2, a 3.5 mph jump from last year.

Whether it was mental or a mechanical fix or something else, Hanrahan is a completely different guy. I think he's still more suited to be a 7th or 8th inning guy than a closer, but a year ago at this time he was the punch line of a joke, the symbol of how awful our pitching staff was that he was even in he major leagues. For him to become an even minimally adequate closer is a gigantic leap.

Gold Glove
  • Winner: Willie Harris
Playing LF, CF, 2B, 3B, and even a little SS, Willie Harris was magnificent in the field virtually everywhere he played.

His outfield Revised Zone Rating (a Hardball Times-massaged version of Zone Rating, which counts the proportion of balls hit into a fielder's zone converted into an out) was an excellent .944, better than any batting-title qualified outfielder in all of baseball other than Randy Winn (Harris isn't qualified, so that's a little apples to oranges, just to be clear). He made just 4 errors all year.

His defensive 'win shares' stat is 2.6 in 836 innings. (Win Shares is a Bill James stat that divvies up credit for all a team's wins by each player's hitting and fielding contributions.) For comparison, Carlos Beltran and Chris Young, tied for the lead among NL outfielders for fielding WS, each have 6.0 fielding WS in 1398 and 1381 innings, respectively. Harris was on pace for about 4.3 fielding win shares if he had played full time. But considering that he was moving all around the diamond and playing a lot of LF, where there are fewer plays to make and WS are harder to come by, Willie's contributions with his glove may have been even more impressive.

All those obscure stats just confirm what your eyes told you: Willie Harris was a dynamo in the field all year.

Rookie of the Year
  • Winner: John Lannan
  • Runners Up: Steven Shell, Collin Balester, Mike Hinckley
(Ed note: I had originally awarded Nationals ROY to Steven Shell, forgetting that Lannan fell shy of the innings and active roster time needed to qualify as a non-rookie this year. H/T to Sean from DC Sports Plus. Consider the following a long tribute to Shell as first runner-up.)

For all the good, young players who played significant innings for the Nationals this year, very few of them were rookies, strictly speaking--not Flores, Milledge, Dukes... I was all set to name Balester the Nationals' ROY before that last start, but I can't see giving it to a guy with almost two and a half times the ERA in just 30 more innings than Shell.

Since Shell didn't appear in a Nationals uniform until after most people stopped paying attention, Shell's success has flown under the radar, but he's the most deserving of this award. Only four other relief pitchers in the entire NL threw 50 innings with an ERA as good or better than Shell's 2.16: Brad Lidge, Joe Nelson, Hong-Chih Kuo, and Cory Wade. (BTW--what kind of list is that? Just goes to show how erratic RPs can be from year to year.) He was third on the team in the aforementioned WPA stat at +0.50.

Now, Shell didn't actually as well as those numbers suggest. He stranded a fluky 85.7% of his runners and enjoyed an absurdly low .225 BABIP against him. But he also K-ed a healthy 7.38 per 9 while walking an acceptable 3.60. You can reasonably root for him to pitch 60-70 relief innings in the high-3s next year, not in the low 2s, but if he does that, be happy. Teams pay millions to get that out of the pen.


Sean Hogan said...

I'm pretty sure Lannan still had rookie status this year. The criteria is 50 or less IP (he had 34 and 1/3 last year) and 45 or fewer days on the ML roster (indicated on Cot's Baseball Contracts as only 41 days).

Sean Hogan said...

34 and 2/3 innings, that is.