Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

How does the Nats WAR add up for 2013?

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How much WAR is Haren bringing to the 2013 Nats? Photo unknown via wikipedia

Mark Zuckerman posted a nice little Wins Above Replacement (WAR) analysis article in the wake of the Gio Gonzalez signing back in December 2011, showing that without any further moves and with the expected projections of WAR improvement the 2012 Nats should improve by nearly 12 wins if our injured stars return to the norm and produce as expected.  As it turned out, he was right … and wasn’t “right” enough.  He actually under-valued the WAR contributions of a newly healthy Adam LaRoche and of what Gonzalez would give the team (and of course nobody could have predicted what Ian Desmond would do nor how big an impact Bryce Harper would have) and the Nats ended up improving 17 games instead of a predicted 12 from 2011′s 81-81 team.

Here’s a similar analysis for your 2013 Nats, with some thoughts on players who may improve or regress from their 2012 WAR totals, and then using that analysis to predict how the team may fare in 2013.  I have uploaded my working 2013 fWAR spreadsheet to docs.google.com (also a link on the right-hand side of the page), which is the basis of the cut-n-paste tables below.  For the purpose of this article, we’re assuming that LaRoche is leaving and Michael Morse is playing 1B full-time, that Bill Bray is making the bullpen, and that Christian Garcia is starting in AAA.

A quick note before starting: the two leading baseball stats sites both have their own versions of the Wins Above Replacement stat.  Baseball-Reference’s WAR (usually abbreviated bWAR or rWAR) was developed by Sean Smith at BaseballProjection.com.  Meanwhile, fangraphs.com has developed their own version of WAR (usually abbreviated fWAR to distinguish from the Baseball-Reference version).  A good analysis of the differences between the two WARs is here: the main differences relate to the use of FIP versus ERA and TotalZone versus UZR for defensive additions.  In this article i’m using solely fWAR.  I think fWAR is slightly better and uses better component parts, though honestly the difference between the two is often negligible.

How many wins would an entire team of replacement level players win?  In other words, where do you start adding WAR figures to, in order to estimate how many wins you should expect out of your team?  Jim Breem of the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel did just this study in Jan 2011 and discovered that the average of replacement level wins across MLB in 2010 was 45.5 wins.  In other words, you could expect a team of nothing but AAA-level veterans or 0.0 WAR players to win about 45-46 games in a season.  This is about on par with the figure’s I’ve heard in various chats, and is somewhat supported by last year’s awful Houston Astros (who finished 55-107 and had just a handful of players posting a 1.0 WAR or greater).   The 2012 Nats fWAR totaled exactly 50.0, the team finished 98-64 and they had a Pythagorean record of 96-66,  implying that a team of replacement Nats players would win between 46 and 48 games, right in line with Breem’s studies.  For the purposes of predicting the # of 2013 Nats wins we’ll use 46 as a floor.

How did our returning players fare in 2012, and what might they contribute in 2013?  Here’s my estimates for all returning players.  This table is sorted by 2012 fWAR from highest to lowest.  (b) after a pitcher’s name indicates the fWAR contributions (or lack thereof) of that pitcher at the plate.

2012 fWAR 2013 fWAR Est Trend from 2012
Ian Desmond 5.4 5 Down
Gio Gonzalez 5.4 4.8 Down
Bryce Harper 4.9 6 Up
Ryan Zimmerman 4.5 5 Up
Stephen Strasburg 4.3 5 Up
Danny Espinosa 3.8 3.8 Even
Jordan Zimmermann 3.5 4 Up
Roger Bernadina 1.9 2 Even
Ross Detwiler 1.8 2 Even
Jayson Werth 1 1.5 Up
Tyler Clippard 1 1 Even
Steve Lombardozzi 0.8 0.8 Even
Craig Stammen 0.8 0.8 Even
Stephen Strasburg (b) 0.7 0.8 Even
Drew Storen 0.7 1 Up
Tyler Moore 0.6 0.6 Even
Wilson Ramos 0.6 0.2 Down
Kurt Suzuki 0.6 1.5 Up
Chad Tracy 0.5 0.5 Even
Jhonatan Solano 0.4 0 Down
Jordan Zimmermann (b) 0.4 0.4 Even
Michael Morse 0.3 3 Up
Zach Duke 0.2 0.8 up
Corey Brown 0.1 0 Even
Eury Perez 0.1 0 Even
Christian Garcia 0.1 0 Even
Sandy Leon 0 0 Even
Ryan Mattheus (b) 0 0 Even
Zach Duke (b) 0 0 Even
Craig Stammen (b) -0.1 0 Even
Carlos Maldonado -0.1 0 Even
Ryan Perry -0.2 0 Even
Ryan Mattheus -0.2 -0.2 Even
Gio Gonzalez (b) -0.3 -0.3 Even
Henry Rodriguez -0.4 -0.4 Even
Ross Detwiler (b) -0.5 -0.6 Even

Here’s some discussion on my estimates:

Players who I’m trending Up: Harper, Zimmerman, Strasburg, Werth, Suzuki, Storen, Zimmermann, Morse and Duke.  I have Harper going from a 4.9->6.0 fWAR player, which frankly may be selling the kid short.  Lots of pundits think he’s going to explode in 2013 for a Mike Trout-like season.  I think both Zimmerman and Strasburg can achieve 5.0 fWAR seasons.  I think Werth can go from a 1.0->1.5 with a full healthy season, especially if he continues to hit as he did upon returning last year (we’ll ignore for a moment that he’s not “earning” his salary with fWAR seasons in the 5.0 fWAR range like he’s being paid to do).  Suzuki has a couple of 3.4 fWAR seasons under his belt; estimating him at 1.5 may be selling him short.  Storen returns to the closer role healthy, though an improvement to just 1.0 fWAR would be a career best for him.  I’m predicting an improved season out of Zimmermann, who seemed to tire at the end of last season in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.  Morse has a huge increase predicted (from 0.3->3.0) but he posted a higher fWAR than that in his breakout 2011 season; if he’s here and playing full time, there’s no reason to not expect another season like 2011′s.  Lastly Duke’s 0.8 fWAR estimate may be exceedingly high, but he managed to add 0.2 fWAR in just a few weeks of work in September.

Players who I’m Trending Down: Desmond, Gonzalez, Ramos and Solano: I think Ramos and Solano’s contributions are now limited and/or blocked by Suzuki, so their fWAR contributions drop accordingly.  I’m building in some regression for both Desmond and Gio from last year’s fantastic performances.  Most every player with an estimate of 0.0 for 2013 is assumed to be spending the majority of the season in the minors (notably Ryan Perry and Garcia, but also the likes of Corey Brown,  Eury Perez and all the backup catchers we had to use last year).

Notable Players who I’m trending about Even: Espinosa, Bernadina, Detwiler, Clippard, Stammen, Henry Rodriguez: Even, meaning they’ll contribute about the same in 2013 that they did in 2012.  Is Clippard going to contribute 1.0 fWAR in 2013?  Maybe not.  Can Stammen repeat his stellar performance?  Will Rodriguez continue to drag down the bullpen with a -0.4 fWAR?  If anything, Espinosa should improve on his 3.8 fWAR; he’s trending up year over year.  I’ve listed almost all our backups (Bernadina, Lombardozzi, Moore, Tracy, etc) as being even year over year; there’s no reason right now not to expect the same performance we got out of them in the coming season.  For the moment I’m leaving Garcia in AAA, and have his fWAR at zero; if he were to join the bullpen on a full time basis he could contribute half a WAR or more.

Here’s a quick look at our new players acquired this off-season:

New Players for 2013 2012 fWAR 2013 fWAR Est Trend from 2012
Dan Haren 1.8 4.5 Up
Dan Haren (b) -0.1 -0.3 Down
Denard Span 3.9 3.9 Even
Bill Bray -0.6 0.3 Up
Bill Bray (b) 0 0 Even

Perhaps the most controversial estimate in this article is Haren‘s 2013 fWAR number.  I’m estimating that he’s going to return to his previous form and at least post a 4.5 fWAR.  If you look at his history before 2012, you’ll see he’s easily capable of posting a 6.0 fWAR or higher.   I think the team gave him the contract they did because they’re assuming he’s healthy and assuming he can return at least to his 2011 form.  A 4.5 estimate may end up being low.  Meanwhile, I’m assuming Span is going to just repeat his 2012 performance, and I’m assuming that Bray improves upon his own poor 2012 and returns to something closer to his 2011 form (where he posted a 0.7 fWAR).

Given the above breakdown, here’s how the summaries look:

2012 fWAR 2013 fWAR Est
sum of 2012 fWAR of returning players –> 42.6 49 <– Sum 2013 fWAR estimates existing players
sum of 2012 fWAR for departed players –> 7.4
8.4 <– Sum 2013 fWAR estimates new Additions
sum of 2012 fWAR –> 50.0 57.4 <– Sum 2013 Nats fWAR Estimates

Ok, what does the above table mean?

  • Sum of WAR Returning of 42.6: this is the sum of the fWARs of all pitchers and batters in 2012 who are returning to the team in 2013 (as broken down in the upper table).
  • Sum of WAR Gone of 7.4: this is the sum of the fWARs of all pitchers and batters in 2012 who are no longer with the team.  Adam LaRoche leads this list with a 3.8 fWAR in 2012, though also included in this list are a number of negative fWAR players who drug the team down last year (DeRosa, Wang and Nady especially).
  • Sum of 2012 Nats fWAR of 50.0: This is the sum of returning and departing 2012 players, and is the same number referenced above.
  • Sum fWAR estimates of existing players: 49: This is the sum of the fWAR for all our returning players for 2013; notice this is higher; I’m predicting that through attrition of poor players and some improvement over 2012, we can expect our team to be nearly 7 wins improved.
  • Sum fWAR new additions: 8.4: Span, Haren and Bray should add 8.4 fWAR (as shown in the second table).
  • Sum 2013 Nats fWAR estimates: 57.6

That’s right; I believe the team has an fWAR capability of 57.6, or 7.6 wins more than last year.  Adding that to the previously discussed fWAR floor of 46 games and you have a 103-104 win team.

What happens if LaRoche comes back?  If anything the team could be improved even more.  LaRoche posted a 3.8 fWAR in 2012, while Morse’s BEST fWAR season was his 2011 breakout of 3.3.  If we assume LaRoche can repeat his 2012 performance at least for one year into a 2-3 year contract, then the team’s fWAR estimates rise again.

Does this mean I’m predicting that the 2013 Nationals are going to win 104 games?  Well, no.  Every single one of these estimates implies a 100% best case scenario; no injuries and for the most part all our players playing at their capability levels of 2012.  In reality, we’re going to see some time lost due to injury from key players, and we’re going to see some regression from some players.  The hope is that those regression periods are matched by improvements from other players, or from breakout performances from players who were in the 1.0 fWAR range in the past (think Desmond in 2012).

One last note on WAR (which I’d love to see others’ opinions about): I admittedly have an uneasy and not always consistent opinion on the statistic.  On the one hand, I absolutely believe that career WAR values reward accumulator type players and skew career WAR figures (my favorite example to use is Bert Blyleven, who currently sits with the 39th largest career bWAR in the history of the game.  But no one in their right mind would claim that Blyleven was the 39th best player to ever play the game… so there’s a disconnect that I have a difficult time dealing with).  But, on the other hand, WAR usually does a nice job of quantifying individual seasons, and lending itself to the kind of analysis I’ve just done here.  Do I need to overcome my reservations of using the statistic?  How can I reconcile my concerns with the overall prevalence of the stat?

9 Responses to 'How does the Nats WAR add up for 2013?'

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  1. Great article!
    Thanks for including the link to MZ’s analysis from 2011. Fascinating to read the old predictions, and the comments were interesting too. Maybe there really is something to be said for these stats.

    D28

    3 Jan 13 at 11:00 am

  2. It was a good read. I linked you over on the NatsInsider site.

    Steve

    3 Jan 13 at 12:56 pm

  3. Todd – good article, and thanks for all the work that went in to it.

    Your conclusions are a little high for me, probably around Harper and Haren, but it does reaffirm that we should be good (although I think that you are low for Strasburg; I’d put him down for 6 WAR if you think that he can pitch 200 innings).

    Harper got a WAR boost last year for playing plus D at a premium position, so the fact that he’ll play mostly a corner OF spot will, all things being equal, lower his WAR (at least, that is how I think it works). I don’t know exactly how the formula works, but I would guess that Harper would have to add about .30 OPS to compensate for being moved off CF just to stay even in WAR. That brings him up to .850 OPS, which is remarkable for a 20 yr old. What gets him to 6 WAR, .925 OPS? I am guessing at the numbers, but Trout just had one of the top 20 seasons all time in terms of position player WAR, and he had huge boost due to his fielding in CF and baserunning. I love Harper but it seems hard to project that for him, especially playing a non premium defensive position. Haren – I can get to 2-3 WAR for him, but I find it hard to expect anything more (possible, sure, but not expected). Both Haren and Scioscia have acknowledged that his stuff isn’t what it was a few years ago, so he’d need to be lucky to get back to those numbers. 4.5 WAR could happen, but I’d take the under. I also think the Nats are paying him like a 2-3 WAR guy (roughly $5m per 1 WAR), and I’d be happy if he was worth 3 WAR.

    Separately, I think Espinosa is an interesting player. Don’t you get the sense that most Nats fans have this attitude of ‘this is his last year to prove himself’? But he has the 7th best WAR for 2Bs over the last two years. I think we, as a fan group, are undervaluing him. Probably ’cause of the strikeouts.

    As for WAR, I think that you should overcome your reservations. I like it, and find it useful. No doubt that you are right about the accumulator stat, but are HRs, Ks, hits, RBIs so different? If you hang around long enough, you’ll get a bunch of those too. What WAR lets me do looking back, though, is more easily look at peaks. During your HoF post, I went back and looked at Edgar Martinez after you said that you thought he was awesome, and WAR helped me reappraise my view of him. Much longer peaks than Ortiz, for instance. But I’d say this about it: it isn’t precise. My general rule of thumb is to give it a .5 cushion on either side, meaning a 3.8 WAR season and a 4.1 WAR season are essentially the same thing. Too much subjectivity around things like UZR and baserunning to take them at face value precisely.

    Wally

    3 Jan 13 at 2:51 pm

  4. I have no idea how a plus defender in CF compares to a plus defender in RF/LF, all other things being equal. A good research project.

    Haren: I thought maybe I was selling him short; this is a 6WAR pitcher 3 times in the last 5 years after all.

    Espinosa: completely shocked that his WAR is that high … you’re absolutely right, most of the fanbase seems to be running out of patience for the guy. Meanwhile he’s actually a pretty valuable player. You could kind of tell this from his OPS+ figures (which were near 100 even as he was batting .220 by virtue of his power).

    WAR: just looking at the calculations that go into the stat, and then looking at the differences between the 4 versions, and then looking at the fact that baseball-reference is constantly tweaking the stat … it does give you pause. Even WAR fantatics agree there’s about a 15% variance/margin of error. 85% accurate is actually pretty UN-accurate when looking at standard deviations from the mean or thinking about a statistic in a “mathematical statistical” sense. You’re right though; HRs and WAR on a career level can be viewed in similar light. Good point.

    Todd Boss

    3 Jan 13 at 3:37 pm

  5. Out of curiosity, has anyone done this type of analysis across all teams? Since this is a zero sum game, I’d like to know if these estimates work out to roughly the right number of winners and losers, or if it’s some how skewed so that, like the residents of Lake Wobegone, everyone is above average.

    Don

    7 Jan 13 at 8:20 am

  6. I’m sure someone has: its relatively easy to run reports out of baseball-reference.com and/or fangraphs, save to CSV and do the same spreadsheet work that I did. But its pretty time consuming. I wouldn’t want to do what I did for the Nats for the other 29 teams. Well, not unless this was my job and/or I was some college kid with time to kill.

    I’m not sure i’d say its a “zero sum game” when it comes to calculating WAR for an entire league of players; You have 5WAR players who get hurt and contribute negligible WAR from year to year (Dan Haren from 2011 to 2012) and you have 10WAR players who appear out of nowhere (Mike Trout). When a good player misses time and is replaced by a replacement-level player … that WAR is lost, gone. It isn’t necessarily just transfered to another player.

    Todd Boss

    7 Jan 13 at 10:59 am

  7. Thanks. What I meant about zero sum game was that the Nats can’t win 5-6 more games next year without some team(s) losing 5-6 more. Every team can’t win 90 games, for example. The reason I ask is that I see lots of articles about various NL teams improving — Nats, Dodgers, Reds, etc. but the only team that I’ve seen slated to be much worse are the Marlins and they weren’t very good to begin with.

    So while WAR may not be zero sum, the translation to wins is. Is it possible for fWAR to improve across the league so that the mythical replacement team only wins 40 games? Or is WAR weighted to correct for that so if every player had career years, their WAR in comparison wouldn’t go up?

    Don

    7 Jan 13 at 11:18 am

  8. Oh, oh yeah that makes sense; yes team wins are zero sum games across the whole league.

    I can make arguments that all four teams in our division will be weaker than they were last year. Miami is obvious, but the Mets traded their best pitcher for prospects and probably start two rookies in the rotation, and aren’t spending a dime. The Braves lost two of their best hitters in Bourn and Chipper Jones and have only replaced one of them, and are fiscally constrainted to the point where they will probably just go with internal options in 2013 for other holes. Lastly the Phillies traded away a ton of guys mid-season and go into 2013 with two near replacement level pitchers in the rotation to go along side a slew of expensive, aging stars who may regress just as they did in 2012. One other obvious team is the Cubs, who are in 100% rebuild mode and are actively looking to move their best pitcher in Garza.

    Here’s the records for the Nats intra-division last year:
    Atlanta: 10-8
    Miami: 9-9
    Mets: 14-4
    Philly: 9-9

    Can you see us going 14-4 against Miami this year, or improving marginally against both Philadelphia and Atlanta? I can; and perhaps that’s the easiest place to find the 5-6 extra wins for this team.

    As for the rest of the teams in the NL, perhaps you can argue that they’re going to be worse just by virtue of the fact that they’re not spending money to improve. Teams like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Colorado and San Diego all seem to be relatively idle this off-season, which implies they’re going to be stagnant or worse. Maybe its as simple as the phrase, “If you’re not trying to improve, then you’re worse.”

    Todd Boss

    7 Jan 13 at 12:10 pm

  9. 2nd part of your comment; i’m by no means a WAR expert. I have concerns about its calculation, how there’s 4 versions of it, and how the calculations are constantly tweaked. So I have no idea honstly. There’s good WAR definitions on fangraphs that may answer your questions.

    Todd Boss

    7 Jan 13 at 12:12 pm

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