It has been pretty well documented that ERA is largely out of the control of pitchers; in fact, it might be determined less by the pitcher and more by his surrounding environment. I can’t say that with 100% certainty, but I would not be at all surprised.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the factors that contribute to a pitcher having a low ERA compared with those of a pitcher with an uncharacteristically high ERA. The Nationals’ de facto ace in 2013 has so far been Jordan Zimmermann, who currently sports a 1.64 ERA backed by a 2.92 FIP. Our old buddy, Edwin Jackson, who signed a lucrative 4-year, $52 million contract with the Cubs last offseason, has a 3.23 FIP and a 6.39 ERA. Both pitchers seem to be pitching fairly effectively – why is Zimmermann’s ERA so much lower than Jackson’s?
Balls in Play
Zimmermann’s BABIP is .188; Jackson’s is .353. That is the equivalent 17 fewer hits against Zimmermann on 100 balls in play. Behold the following chart, which shows BABIP for each batted ball type for each pitcher as well as the Major League average:
|Player||Ground Balls||Fly Balls||Line Drives|
Zimmermann is lower than Jackson across the board and lower than average in all but line drives. It’s not very surprising when you consider that the Cubs are not a great defensive team; the Nationals are much better defensively.
Take a look at the line drives. Through 6 games, Zimmermann has given up 19 line drives, of which 12 were singles and 2 were doubles. Jackson has given up 27 line drives, of which 7 were doubles, 1 was a triple, and 17 were singles. That’s a slash line of .926/.926/1.259 – or an OPS+ of 161 – against Jackson on line drives. For whatever reason, Jackson has been hit very hard on line drives while Zimmermann has not.
Perhaps Zimmermann, who is known for his command, is able to induce weaker contact than Jackson. Jackson walks more batters and generally has worse command than Zimmermann, which could make him more prone to mistakes.
Location, Location, Location
Check out these Heat Maps, courtesy of FanGraphs:
I clumped all of the pitches together. Still, you can see that Jackson’s most concentrated area is dead, red, down the middle of the plate. Zimmermann’s pitches, meanwhile, are more spread out; his most concentrated areas are not as dark as Jackson’s. And they aren’t as close to the middle of the plate. Furthermore – and I won’t distract you with more pictures – Zimmermann’s fastball has more natural movement in on righties and has averaged a mile per hour faster. Throwing harder with more movement in better spots makes it more challenging for a batter to square up on a pitch.
Sheer, Dumb Luck
Zimmermann has stranded 83.3 % of baserunners in 2013; Jackson has stranded 52.3 %. It’s hard to explain this with certainty, aside from Zimmermann walking one-third as many batters as Jackson, so maybe Zimmermann has just been luckier than Jackson. Maybe the crazy Chicago wind has hurt Jackson, causing what would normally be an easy out to fall in for a hit (and inflate his BABIP at home to .470).
I think it’s pretty clear that Zimmermann is a better pitcher than Jackson, which plays a significant role in why he has a much lower ERA. But even the best pitchers couldn’t maintain a lower ERA with no defenders. And sometimes, the ball just does crazy things.
Defense doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Sure, there are ESPN’s Web Gems and defensive highlights on MLB Network, but All Stars are still voted solely on offense. Last year’s AL MVP won in spite of his miserable defense (and a more deserving candidate). So, I decided to give the best defenders in baseball some recognition. I went about creating the best defensive team in baseball, based on Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) over the past 3 years. The results:
Phew. That’s a full 25-man roster. And the first thing I notice is that these guys can hit. Of course, this wouldn’t be my blog if it wasn’t educational in some way. DRS and UZR are both counting stats – the more a players plays and plays well, the more runs saved a player accumulates. The people on this team play a lot – like, everyday. Their positive defensive contributions are a by-product of their offensive contributions. The exception, of course, being Brendan Ryan, who can’t even reach the Mendoza Line.
Just for fun, let’s make a lineup for this team:
- Michael Bourn CF
- Dustin Pedroia 2B
- Jason Heyward RF
- Evan Longoria 3B
- Adrian Gonzalez 1B
- Yadier Molina C
- Brett Gardner LF
- Brendan Ryan SS
- Mark Buehrle P
For our much revered manager, we get the left-right pattern throughout the entire lineup.
Hey, I think this team would win a whole bunch of games.
This could be a non-issue. Romero is 36 years old and can barely reach 90 mph with his fastball anymore. However, he’s left-handed, something the Nationals don’t have much of in their bullpen. And apparently he looked pretty good during the World Baseball Classic.
The Nationals’ bullpen is capable of getting left-handed batters out, but they don’t have any one guy who is a true LOOGY (lefty one out guy). I don’t anticipate that Davey will be all to pleased having to use Tyler Clippard or Ryan Mattheus for a third of an inning. And, of course, there are really no defensive liabilities on the field whom Davey could take out in a double switch. Having a guy like Romero could make managing the bullpen easier for Davey.
As I see it, the only remaining roster spot is between Henry Rodriguez and Romero. I think Henry has the leg up because he is out of options and supposedly has learned to take something off his fastball in order for him to get it over the plate every once in a while. Alas, if someone gets injured or if the bullpen just isn’t getting lefties out as well as everyone thinks it should, Romero could see some time with the Nationals this year.
Update 12:57 PM: So, I guess Mike Rizzo made it pretty clear that Romero will not make the Opening Day roster. To me, that makes it pretty clear that Henry Rodriguez will be the 7tj man in the bullpen. Perhaps Romero could channel his inner Mike Gonzalez and provide some value for the Nationals later in the year.
So, the Nationals are holding a contest. The winner receives all three bobbleheads for the 2013 season and four lower level tickets to one of the bobblehead games (with four bobbleheads waiting at your seats). I don’t know about you, but I like contests, bobbleheads, and free tickets. In fact, I like free anything. So, let’s try to win some bobbleheads.
Here’s what I gathered from the first blog post written today about the contest:
- You have to guess via Twitter. Check.
- You have to decipher a 5 digit code, which correspond to three players’ numbers. That means, one of the players has a one digit number.
- The first question is, “In how many consecutive games did Adam LaRoche homer against the Cubs last September?” Adam LaRoche hit a home run in every game against the Cubs last year except for Opening Day. The Cubs played the Nationals four times in September, so the answer is 4.
Now, let’s check the Nationals roster for every player who has a 4 in his jersey number:
- 48 Ross Detwiler
- 47 Gio Gonzalez
- 40 Wilson Ramos
- 34 Bryce Harper
And now, every player who has a single digit jersey number:
- 8 Danny Espinosa
- 1 Steve Lombardozzi
- 2 Denard Span
I am assuming two things: first, that they won’t use lesser-known players (e.g. Chad Tracy, Tyler Moore, Zach Duke); and second, that they won’t use minor league players (e.g. #6 Anthony Rendon).
I’ll continue to update this as they post more clues. Let’s win some bobbleheads!
Update 3/20/2013 12:06 PM: Today’s clue (#2) is: ”On what pitch of the at-bat did Roger Bernadina save the day, flying into the wall at Minute Maid Park to catch Brett Wallace’s deep drive August 7 in Houston?” Well, I have no idea off the top of my head. We could simply go to baseball-reference.com and check the count, but what if there were foul balls? Let’s do this the fun way and watch the highlights of the August 7th game in Houston.
Here’s the link to the game recap via mlb.com: 8/7/12 Nationals vs. Astros.
I’m sure that not everyone has an MLB.tv subscription like me. If you don’t, you can open up MLB.com’s Gameday for the game and see how many pitches there were. I want to relive the whole at-bat…
Well, that was fun to watch again. Wallace fouled off a 1-2 pitch before smoking a flyball to deep left-center field. So, today’s answer is 5 pitches.
Let’s take a look at all the Nationals who have a 5 in their jersey number:
- 15 Dan Haren
- 25 Adam LaRoche
- 35 Craig Stammen
- 52 Ryan Mattheus
- 56 Christian Garcia
Hmm, well, my theory of Harper-Span-Werth is out the door. LaRoche seems like an appealing choice, especially after his fantastic 2012 season. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the third clue is!
Update 3/21/2013 11:33 AM: Clue #3 is as follows: ”The number of pitches in Jayson Werth’s game-winning at-bat in Game 4 of the NLDS MINUS the inning in which he hit his home run.”
Well, the home run was in the 9th inning. I’ll never forget that. You can read the recap here, which says that Werth’s home run came on the 13th pitch of his at-bat. I’m going to watch the video to double check.
The video confirms that it was 13th pitch of the at-bat. 13 – 9 = 4.
That’s the second 4 we’ve gotten so far. There is no number 44 on the team (except Trent Jewet, the third base coach), so that means that the 4s have to be split up. If that’s the case, since there is no 54 or 45 on the team, that means the 5 has to be the single digit jersey number…
It has come to my attention (h/t Just a Nats Fan at Curly W blog) that skipper Davey Johnson wears #5, and the original rules never mentioned anything conditions about the bobblehead being a player. If my logic is correct, we have confirmed that Davey Johnson will be a 2013 Nationals bobblehead.
One down, two to go. Tomorrow’s clue will reveal the second bobble.
Updated 3/22/2013 11:00 AM: Today’s clue is a meatball if I’ve ever seen one: ”How many fewer home runs did Gio Gonzalez give up in the 2012 regular season than fellow Cy Young finalist Clayton Kershaw?” But I guess it’s hard to think of clues to get the exact number they are looking for.
We have our second player!!! Hint: he was part of today’s clue.
So far, we have the following numbers: 5, 4, 4, and 7. We already figured out that Davey Johnson (#5) will have a bobblehead. That means today’s clue reveals either a #47 or #74.
So, now we have revealed 2 of the 3 bobbleheads for 2013: Davey and Gio. Who could number three be?
The remaining candidates (i.e. players who have a 4 in their jersey number) are: 40 Wilson Ramos, 48 Ross Detwiler, and 34 Bryce Harper. I have a pretty strong feeling about this one…
See you on Monday!
I saw this tweet today, and I immediately thought, “Maybe the Nationals should pick him up.” Then, I remembered that the Nationals aren’t bad anymore. Believe it or not, just two years ago, seeing that news would have triggered a train reaction of thoughts defending Ronny Cedeno’s meager production throughout his career. Thoughts like, “he’s a good defensive short stop” (career -10 DRS, -1.7 UZR at SS; good thing I check my facts after thinking), “he had a couple good years, maybe he can get back to that level” (his career-high fWAR is 1.5, so…yeah), “he could be a good replacement if one of our guys gets injured” (this one actually seems reasonable, until I remember that the Nationals have viable replacement infielders at the Major League level (Steve Lombardozzi) and in the minor leagues (Anthony Rendon, Zach Walters).
So, new train of thought: ”Man, I feel bad for whichever team has to take a shot on Ronny Cedeno.”
As it often is, Moneyball was the inspiration for this rash observation. There are some scenes in the movie, right before the 20-game winning streak, where Billy Beane is telling all of his players not to bunt, not to steal, and, most importantly, to walk. So, I set out to explore just how good the Athletics were at walking in 2003. Turns out, they were pretty good; they ranked 6th in Baseball in BB% (BB/PA).
Anyway, then I became interested in how the Nationals’ batters performed at some important skills last year, namely walking, striking out, hitting home runs, and hitting the ball away from the fielders. Okay, so I use the term”skills” loosely. Regardless, those four things, i.e. BB%, K%, HR%, and BABIP, are metrics that batters can “control” to a certain extent.
Here is how the Nationals performed in each category with their MLB rank:
BB%: 7.7% 18th
K%: 21.3% 25th (in this case, lower is better)
HR%: 3.12% 8th
BABIP: .308 5th
The Nationals were good at things that they had less control over and mediocre and bad at things that they had more control over. In other words, I attribute their home run prowess and high BABIP to luck and their low BB% and high K% to lack of skill. Yikes.
The good news starts with the fact that the Nationals replaced a guy who was bad at walking and not striking out with a guy who is pretty good at walking and awesome at not striking out. Danny Espinosa played last season with a torn rotator cuff, which is perhaps at least slightly attributable to him not being able to hit the ball. Wilson Ramos is, supposedly, healthy, and he walks a lot; Kurt Suzuki barely ever strikes out. Put them together, and you get some sort of average-ish production. Lastly, Bryce Harper is a year older and hopefully a year better.
On the flip side, Adam LaRoche is a year older and on the wrong side of 30. Ian Desmond’s breakout year was fueled by an uncharacteristically large amount of home runs and a huge BABIP. If he can cut down on his strikeouts, I believe Desmond would be the best short stop in baseball. That’s a large task ahead of him, though, and, currently, I’m rooting for him to not take too big of a step backward this year. Jayson Werth made a strong effort to change his approach as a leadoff hitter last year and cut down on his strike outs considerably. If he’s not hitting near the top of the order again, I believe he will revert back to the powerful, patient, high-strikeout batter he was before.
It’s rare to find a hitter who excels in all four categories, especially because BABIP is more dependent on outside factors than on a batter’s ability. By far, the most common type of “great” hitter is the one who walks a lot, hits a lot of home runs, has a high BABIP, and, unfortunately, strikes out a lot. 3-out of-4 ain’t bad, though. Hitting for little power really exacerbates the problem for a guy who strikes out a lot or walks little or both. If the ball isn’t leaving the park, then a high proportion (usually around 70%) of the balls the batter hits are becoming outs. That’s why it is so important to walk – it’s a guaranteed successful plate appearance, i.e. not an out. On the flip side, a strike out is almost always guaranteed to be an out (and, really, how many drop-third strikes even resulted in a baserunner last year?).
Quick mathematical case study: let’s assume a guy has 600 plate appearances and doesn’t strike out, walk, or hit any home runs, and he has a .300 BABIP. For all intents and purposes, his batting average is .280 (pretty good) and his on-base percentage is .280 (pretty terrible). Let’s hold his 600 PA constant and replace some of his BIP (balls in play) with walks. On average, each BIP results in 0.28 hits. So, if we give this batter 10 walks, we have to discredit him 2.8 hits and 7.2 outs. Since none of them are home runs, it seems like a pretty good trade; his batting average is still .280 and his OBP climbed to .292. Now let’s revert back to our original scenario and instead give the batter 10 strikeouts; that means replacing 2.8 hits and 7.2 outs with 10 outs. Now, not only has this guy’s batting average dropped (to .275), but so has his OBP (also .275). You can see that, in a vacuum, a walk does more good than a strikeout does bad. That’s why we can live with guys who have high strikeout totals but also hit the hell out of the ball and walk a lot (e.g. Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Matt Holliday, and so on and so forth). What is the threshold, then, for when striking out a lot outweighs walking? Keeping in mind that we are completely disregarding power (and home runs, which are not balls in play but also increase both batting average and on-base percentage), let’s look at the formula:
Still assuming a .280 BABIP, each walk adds the following to a player’s OBP: (1 – 0.28) / (PA + 1)
You can see that the formula is not linear because the numerator is constant and the denominator is increasing.
Each strikeout subtracts the following from a player’s OBP: (1 – 0.72) / (PA + 1)
So, let’s divide the K formula by the BB formula, simplify, and get 2.57. In other words, the break-even point is 1 walk for every 2.57 strikeouts.
The math checks out, trust me (I tried it to make sure). Of course, this is a very simple experiment that disregards power for the sake of simplicity. This is the problem with having so many moving variables. Linear algebra just won’t do the trick. One last thing: if you’re worried about the fact that the Nationals struck out nearly three times as much as they walked last season, remember that this little case study completely disregarded power (and, therefore, home runs, whose benefits far outweigh the benefit of walks and the cost of strikeouts), among other things. It was really just a tool to point out how useful walks are.
It’s time to play a little game called, “What if…”, in which we take a real-life scenario and ask, “What if so-and-so had done this differently?” Since all of the so-called “experts” love to partake in this game, I would like to explore what might have happened if one popular scenario happened instead.
First, let’s state some preconditions, obvious to most Nationals fans from the beginning of the year:
- Strasburg’s use was going to be limited somehow, someway, at some point. We just didn’t know how.
- The Nationals probably wouldn’t win more than 85ish games anyway and maybe sneak into a second Wild Card.
What actually happened is that the Nationals broke camp in Florida with their 25 best (non-injured, non-19-year old superstar) players and proceeded to go 14-8 in April. From May 22, the Nationals never spent a day outside of (including tied for) first place, and from June 5, the Nationals had sole possession of first place and never looked back.
The Nationals started the season in Chicago, and Stasburg was on the hill for Opening Day. He pitched seven innings, struck out five, walked one, and gave up one run, which started a string of phenomenal pitching performances, one after the other, to the point where the Nationals were gave up an average of 2.68 runs per game in April. Not earned runs, either. 2.68 total runs per game.
Strasburg started five games in April; the Nationals won four of them. He held opponents to a .466 OPS, struck out more than a batter per inning, and had a 1.13 ERA.