Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reality or Illusion?

The Nationals are 10-9 and tied for second place in the National League East, just a game and a half behind Philadelphia and a game back of the Wild Card lead (yes, that's silly to say in April, but there it is). ESPN's Jayson Stark says it's "reality." Is he right?

Well, for starters, they have 10 games in the win column already. That's as real as the Yankees' 27 world championships, and it's not going to change. Last year they won their tenth game on May 8. They won their 20th game on June 19. Let that sink in. The reality is that with 10 wins in the books already, it's going to be really hard for them to lose 100 games again.

Here are some of the key reasons why they might keep winning:

1. The schedule. The Phillies are by far the class of the NL, and they've already played them six times, stealing a crucial two wins to avoid sweeps in both series. They've also played six against the Dodgers and the Rockies, both playoff teams last year. They play the Phillies nine more times, but not till game number 103. They get the Orioles five times, starting with a three-game set a month from now. Then they go out West for six against the Padres and Giants, which won't be easy, before getting this stretch of softness: Houston, Cincy, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, White Sox (ok those two teams are pretty good), Kansas City, and again the Orioles. It's going to be tough to be much below .500 in that stretch. That takes you to July.

2. Stephen Strasburg. Yes, they have other reinforcements coming, but really Strasburg is the difference-maker. In 1984, the New York Mets went 21-10 in games started by a 19-year-old rookie named Dwight Gooden. The next season, they went 28-7 in Dr. K's starts. Are the Nationals' hitters as good as the Mets were? No. Is it outrageously unfair to set the expectations that high? Without question. Screw it. I'm in love.

3. The bullpen. Sometimes guys get hot for 65 innings. Sometimes three guys get hot for 65 innings. Matt Capps is going to blow some saves, and he might go back to an ERA over 4 next year, but he could certainly do what Chad Cordero did in 2005. Tyler Clippard is another great example of a guy who just might have one or two really good relief seasons in him. He's hitting his spots, hides the ball really well, and could easily be this year's Gary Majewski. Throw in solid contributions from a couple others, and you got yourself an above-average bullpen. (Now, all that could fall apart tomorrow too, but we're talking about why it's possible--we'll get to doubts in a moment.)

4. Ian Desmond. He certainly hasn't been the greatest thing since sliced bread, but he's transitioned into a Major League regular, and his talent shows. Of all the Nationals' starters, he's the one you could see really getting better over the course of the season.

5. The fielding. It's still pretty bad, but it's better, and Riggleman is doing a nice job with the late-inning replacements. After a rough start, Desmond has been solid. Morgan and Harris are a dynamic duo in the outfield. Those are three big upgrades from last year. Zimmerman of course remains arguably the best fielder at any position in baseball.

But of course, there are reasons to be suspicious:

1. Run differential. They've been outscored 84-100, which translates to an 8-11 Pythagorean record (.421). Over the course of an entire season, that would give the team 68 wins, They're 3-1 in one-run games and 1-4 in blowouts. Teams can certainly exceed--or fall short of--their Pythagorean projection over the course of an entire year, as evidenced by the fact that the Nationals fell seven wins shy of their Pythagorean W-L record last season. But most of the time these things even out.

2. Adam Dunn. I'm really worried about him. I'll have more on this in a couple days, but every day he reminds me more and more of a left-handed Richie Sexson. He's always been the classic example of the young player with old player skills. Assuming he's healthy, he's going to get his 30 homers. But with a .217 batting average, he becomes a a detriment to the team.

3. Zimmerman's hammy. These things linger, and while it hasn't shown up yet, the drop-off from Zimmerman to Alberto Gonzalez could easily be worth 8 wins over the course of a full season. (Not that Zimmerman is going to be lost for the season, just that we can't afford to lose him any more if we're going to see .500.)

4. Ivan Rodriguez. You mean a .460 BABIP isn't sustainable? A 38-year-old catcher playing this much can be expected to fade anyway, but regardless he's gotta hit 20 sharply hit outs in a row before the luck evens out. In fairness, it's not all luck. He's only struck out four times all year--he's definitely locked in. But only seven of his 23 hits are for extra bases, and those are all doubles, and his walk rate remains Guzman-esque. It's just not humanly possible to be consistently effective this way.

5. The starting pitching. Losing Jason Marquis really, really hurts, and at this point, with the way he's pitched and the health reports, the odds of him being a major contributor now seem pretty remote.
John Lannan is well-covered territory. Let's just say I can't figure out why these guys are wrong, and hope isn't a reason. Livan Hernandez is striking out 3.38 per 9 while stranding 100% and allowing a .158 BABIP and a 6.3% HR/FB rate. If those numbers don't mean a lot to you... it means he's lucky as all get-out. The over/under for his ERA is still 5.00. Scott Olsen looked very good today, but he's still got an ERA over 6.00, and the Garret Anderson strikeouts should have an asterisk next to them. He shouldn't even be in MLB, much less starting against lefties. Craig Stammen? Luis Atilano? Hey, I'll root for those guys, but we're playing really long odds here. All together, this is a group that could still really kill a team.


Mark said...

See you're coming around wrt Scott Olsen. Like to see it. He even surprised me yesterday!

We'll make you a fan of this ornery, head-case, cigarette-smokin' ball player yet.

Positively Half St. said...

We are due a year of being 7 - 10 games above our pythagorean estimate. I'm tired of the Nats being worse then they are on paper. Let's enjoy what we don't deserve this year.

Steven said...

+1/2--intuitively I feel like you're right, but here are the Nationals pyth differentials since they came:
05: +4
06: +1
07: +3
08: -3
09: -7
10: +2

We're basically even. I know, it doesn't feel that way, but it's true.

Eric said...

Pathagorean is really useless for such a small sample size, those couple of really bad starts completely throw off the system.

Same argument against Pudge and for Dunn, in any 3 week period one guy can be locked in or just not seeing the ball well or haveing much luck, if it happens in July no one pays much attention, but in April it seems to loom large.

Point is we have 10 Ws in the books, so we're an eighth of the way too .500.

Harper said...

You forgot the #1 reason - They have a better attitude! If they only brought in David Eckstein this team would be unstoppable!

rea said...

I think Clippard is more than just a one year relief wonder. He was really good last year as well. He was becoming a slightly below average starter and he's been a great reliever in '09 and wonderful this year.
Always had a high strikeout ratio even as a starter but his walks are way down.

I think the Nats stumbled on what of the better relievers in baseball. He won't be as good as his start, and even if he's worse than 2009, he can still post a sub 3.00 and get a K every 4 batters.

Clippard/Capps means that if the Nats have a lead through 6, their win chances are so much higher than last year it's not even funny.

Grover said...

I don't want to judge without reading more, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on this in a couple days. But I have to say I can't see how Dunn is a left-handed Sexson.

1. I'm guessing there is well over 30 points difference in their career OBPs to Dunn's current age. They're not the same sort of weapon.

2. Sexson seems the exception more than the rule. Most classic slugger types do just fine into their mid-30s.

3. Sexson's dropoff may have been in part due to PEDs. Obviously that doesn't account for all of the dropoff, and I have no evidence he was on PEDs, but the timing of the dropoff is about when testing started. His dropoff looks a lot like, say, Travis Hafner's, about whom I think we all have some serious doubt. Dunn, unlike those two guys, has continued to perform in the PED testing era.

IPLawguy said...

Dunn's lack of production scares me too. But he's done a better than decent job at First Base. No one's comparing him to Dr. Strangeglove at this point. And those monster home runs Friday night were things of beauty.

I worry about Willingham returning to his late August/September production level as well.

Meanwhile, Jose Guillen is on a roll in KC


Positively Half St. said...


Wow. If anything, those numbers are a pretty good advertisement for the method. They did have bad luck and a bad bullpen last year, though. It would make a season-long 7+ for pythag even more impressive.

I don't need to be reasonable. I demand it!!!


Anonymous said...

I think that we're still a 70 win team until proven otherwise. Matt Capps is having an out of body experience so far and that has enabled us to win more than our share of close games.

I will change my mind a bit when Christian Guzman is no longer an everyday player. That man is unwatchable. An out machine who plays no D.

Wombat Rampant said...

Dunn looks more like Rob Deer than Richie Sexson - he's collecting a ton of walks and getting on base almost half the time he comes to the plate, and his defense is nowhere near as awful as people were moaning about. He'll do for now.