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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Know Thy Enemy: The 2007 Nationals 

A year removed from their surprising 81-81 2005 campaign, the Washington Nationals played more at their level, coming in again – for the third consecutive season – in fifth place, but this time with a record ten games worse than last year at 71-91. The former Montreal Expos have settled into a difficult situation in our nation’s capitol. A terrible team that was basically a ward of the state when they were in Canada, the Nats are trying to rebuild and turn their franchise around but are finding it difficult given the problems with building a new stadium and competing financially with teams in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Worse still was the Nats inability to leverage Alfonso Soriano at the trading deadline. Maybe the Phillies didn’t get a lot when they dealt Bobby Abreu, but they managed to shed his contract and get some talent. The Nats, never a playoff contender, failed to move Soriano and watched him walk to the Cubs and received nothing in return. No, the Nats have a very unenviable position and this year ought to be more of the same.

I. Offense. I suppose you have to take into account the fact that the Nationals play in an extreme pitchers park – RFK’s 86 Home Run Factor made it the third-hardest park to get a home run in during the ’06 campaign – but you also have to acknowledge the fact that the Nationals have a terrible offensive unit. The ’06 team scored 746 runs, below the N.L. average of 771. They ranked to the middle and bottom of the pack in terms of home runs, hits, total bases, etc.

The Nats seemed to play a style of play devoted to small ball: bunting, base-stealing, etc. They ranked second in the N.L. in terms of overall Manufactured Runs according to the 2007 Bill James Handbook, with 185 (thirteen behind the Colorado Rockies), and they were second in the N.L. in deliberately Manufactured Runs (“Type 1” Manufactured Runs) that are the product of bunting and base-stealing. Perhaps the team’s focus will change with Frank Robinson having moved on as the team’s coach, but I doubt it.

The big issue for the Nats is how they will replace Soriano. It is not easy replacing a guy who hit 46 home runs and stole 41 bases. Soriano had 121 Runs Created* with the Nats, ninth-best in the N.L. They will miss Soriano’s production in a big way.

* Runs Created (RC): A stat originally created by Bill James to measure a player’s total contribution to his team’s lineup. Here is the formula: [(H + BB + HBP - CS - GIDP) times ((S * 1.125) + (D * 1.69) + (T * 3.02) + (HR * 3.73) + (.29 * (BB + HBP – IBB)) + (.492 * (SB + SF + SH)) – (.04 * K))] divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH+ SF). If you use ESPN’s version be advised that it is pitifully is out-of-date, however. James adjusted RC after the 2004 season ended.

The ’07 Nats will have some bats in their lineup, however, beginning with Ryan Zimmerman, their Third Baseman and 2006 Rookie of the Year candidate. Zimmerman hit 20 home runs and had 110 RBIs and will need to duplicate that performance next season for the Nats to score 700+ runs. The biggest question mark about Zimmerman is whether or not Austin Kearns will have a monster season since the Nats stole him from the Reds. Unless Kearns and Zimmerman each hit 30+ home runs, and 100+ RBIs, then the Nats will be suck offensively.

II. Pitching. The 2006 Nats featured one of the worst pitching staffs in the majors despite playing in a park that is very, very friendly to pitchers. Ramon Ortiz, their primary starting pitcher, surrendered a 5.57 ERA in 2006 and led the majors in losses with 16. As an Angel in 2002, Ortiz surrendered forty home runs.

The rest of the staff isn’t much better. Their bullpen was twelfth in the N.L. in ERA, so leads weren’t even safe once they were gotten. Honestly, I can't say anything else about the Nats pitching because it is so lousy.

III. Defense. The Nats were okay defensively in 2006. Their .694 DER* was a touch better than the league average (.693), but they allowed five more unearned runs than the league average (69 vs. 64). They also converted fewer than the league average in double plays, had more errors and allowed a higher percentage of base-stealers (the Nats catchers caught 21% vs. the N.L. average of 28%). Really, they could use some work at nearly every facet of the game.

* DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.

One player they will miss is Soriano, who struggled at times in left field, but turned in a nice performance defensively, throwing 22 assists. Soriano was also the third-best LF in 2006 according to the +15 John Dewan, author of the Plus / Minus fielding system (see, the 2007 Bill James Handbook).

IV. Outlook. In a word: grim. No Soriano, no upgrades to the pitching staff … Yikes, this team could be bad. This team could be sub-70 wins bad, which is good news for the Phillies. The 2007 Nats are no threat, whatsoever, to the Phillies for primacy in the N.L. East. Sure, the Nats stung the Phillies a little late in the season, but the ’07 Nats can only hope to be spoilers, contention is out of their reach.

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Rafael Soriano? I assume you mean Alfonso...
actually, the new Nats GM Manny Acta is a very sabremetrically minded guy. see articles like this one: http://www.washingtontimes.com/sports/20070221-115118-3574r.htm

although as the article points out, his options are severely limited. (i.e., as much as he would like to stick a high-OBP hitter second, he's probably going to be stuck with the atrocious Guzman.)
Minor correction - Ramon Ortiz was never a Dodger. He was with the Angels from 1999-2004.

It's also worth noting that the '06 Nats gave a combined 124 starts to Livan Hernandez (5.34 ERA in 146.2 IP), Tony Armas (5.03 ERA in 154.0 IP), Pedro Astacio (5.98 ERA in 90.1 IP), Ramon Ortiz (5.57 ERA in 190.2 IP), and Michael O'Connor (4.80 ERA in 105.0 IP). I guess on the bright side for them is that 4 of those guys have gone elsewhere, and O'Connor is in his mid-20s, if nothing else.

Their undoubted ace, John Patterson, could only start 8 games before he got injured. They're gonna need him if they have any shot at at least being close to a .500 team.
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