Nationals Arm Race

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

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My Answers to Boswell’s Chat questions 9/26/11 edition

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After a week’s break (vacation?), Tom Boswell was back with his weekly chat on Monday 9/26/11 on all things DC sports related. He went at it for hours, starting around 9:30am and still taking questions well into the 1pm hour.

Here’s how I would have answered his Baseball/Nats related questions, with the “questions” edited for clarity here and with me answering prior to reading down to see his answer.

Q: Did Davey Johnson pull some bush-league moves by replacing his pitcher with 2 outs in the 9th inning of a 6-0 game?

A: Yeah, probably a little.  There had to be some context to the move unknown to the casual viewer.   Boswell didn’t know either, but will follow up.

Q: Is our young pitching going to be another Braves 1989 situation?

A: Man one can only hope so.  They say to “beware of results in September” and I agree, but man it isn’t hard to get excited watching 4 guys who were pitching in the minors in April throwing quality starts night after night.  And not just Quality starts, but 5-6 innings of shutout ball.  2012 looks to be more and more interesting by the day.  Boswell chides not to get tooooo excited, and quotes the FIPs of all these pitchers.  Fair enough.

Q: Just how close is this team, given its recent run over teams like Atlanta and Philadelphia?

A: Closer than we may have thought.  I think most of us were predicting 72-75 wins.  78 Wins with a hot baseball team going down to visit a not-so-hot one to finish out the season could very well end up with an 80-81 season.   Here’s this team’s record since arriving here:

  • 2005: 81-81
  • 2006: 71-91
  • 2007: 73-89
  • 2008: 59-102
  • 2009: 59-103
  • 2010: 69-93
  • 2011: 78-80 (with 3 games left)
The team improved 10 games from 2009 to 2010, and looks set to improve another 10 games or so in 2011.  If you turn in another 10 game improvement in 2012 suddenly you’re a 90 win team and you’re challenging for a wild card spot (The Braves are 89-70 and lead the NL wild card race by 1 game as of 9/25/11).  Now, improving from a .500 team to a .560 team is much tougher than going from a 59 win team to a 69 win team.  So 2012 may be really promising.  Teams can vastly improve; The Brewers may improve 20 games over last year.  But generally its a slow moving process.  Boswell talks about the vast pitching improvement and spends a lot of time talking about average mph of fastballs over the years.

Q: Thoughts on Moneyball?
A: Havn’t seen the movie but read the book.  I concur with a lot of Buzz Bissinger‘s anti-moneyball rant.  The book and its premise fail with two basic facts:
  1. There is scant credit given to the real source of the early 2000 A’s success; Their starting pitchers of Zito, Mulder and Harden Hudson.  All three home grown sure, but all 3 predating Billy Beane.
  2. The 2002 A’s “moneyball draft” was an abject failure, resulting in one decent-to-good player (Nick Swisher), one mediocre starting pitcher (Joe Blanton), one utility player (Mark Teahen) and 4 guys who never even made the majors (I am including Jeremy Brown here, who did make the majors and had a grand total of 10 at-bats).  I’m sorry; 7 first rounders or supp-1sts should have resulted in FAR more than what it did.  If anything the money-ball approach they took in this draft was proven to be absolutely wrong.

Thankfully, Boswell agrees.

Q: Can players like John Lannan be perpetual exceptions to stats guys, not the rule?

A: In certain cases sure.  Nyjer Morgan (a heavy bunter) will always have an artificially high BABIP.  Mariano Rivera (because he’s so frigging good) will always have artifically low BABIPs.  John Lannan?  Its hard to explain.  Year after year we have watched him put together decent-to-sneaky good seasons of > 100 ERA+, sub 4.00 ERAs.  But what about his advanced pitching stats?   Year after year his FIP has been a point or more higher than than his ERA.  This year is lesser so, but still the case where his Fip and xFip trend higher.  His k/9 is up, his bb/9 is up, his BABIP is normalized for the league (if anything slightly high).  I’m agreeing with the questioner; Lannan seems to be an exception outside the normal rules of FIP.  Boswell says that stats don’t get ground-ball pitchers who get a lot of GIDPs.  Hmm good point.

Q: Will the Nats win the World Series in 2013?

A: That’s a bold, bold prediction.  My personal prediction is just playoffs in 2013.  World Series is a tough draw; the first time this team hits the playoffs you’re going to see some starry-eyes, some “just happy to be here” moments.  It usually takes the 2nd time through the post season to give guys some stability.  Boswell agrees, and later on says that the team needs to extend Ryan Zimmerman.

Q: Would the Nats consider trading Clippard and/or Storen?

A: I personally hope not as a fan; these two guys are a huge part of why the bullpen has suddenly become one of the game’s best.  But, the truth is relievers are fungible assets that can be replaced rather easily (especially on the FA market, where there’s a TON of closers available this off season).  Boswell didn’t answer this part of the question.

Q: If Strasburg is going to have an IP limit, why not just wait to start him in June?

A: Because if you’re already 10 games under .500 by June, you’ve wasted your season anyway.  Boswell’s answer made me laugh: “you really need to become a Redskins fan.”

Q: Predict the Nats infield in 2013?

A: Morse at first, Rendon at 2nd, Espinosa at short and Zimmerman at third.  I’m guessing that Espinosa can ably cover shortstop while hitting 20-25 homers consistently, while Desmond will fetch a decent trade return.  Boswell predicts the exact same lineup.

Q: What do you make of David Ross (Braves catcher) quitting against Henry Rodriguez? [facing an 0-2 count, he attempted a bunt, tacitly admitting he had no shot of actually hitting his fastball]?

A: I don’t know what to make of it.  A major league hitter should be able to hit a 100mph fastball, and shouldn’t be playing if they couldn’t.  Maybe not hit it consistently, but at least have a puncher’s chance.  I havn’t seen someone so blatantly give up against a pitcher since high school (when we faced Pete Schourek and our lowly #8 and #9 hitters just flailed at his upper-80s fastball).  Boswell agrees.

Q: Comment further on Harper’s “being slowed” by AA pitching in the latter half of 2010?

A: I’d say that he finally got promoted to a level commensurate with his skills.  It makes you wonder if he started in the wrong level of A-ball.  AA pitchers are generally your team’s rising stars, your best prospects.  They’re the cream of the 4 levels of minor league ball below it.  It isn’t that big a worry that Harper struggled; lets just see how he adjusts next spring.  There could also be some fatigue factor going on; day in and day out baseball grind can be awful tough to adjust to for younger guys who are used to playing (at most) every few days in high school, or weekends only in amateur/traveling leagues.



Baseball Salary Cap needed? Small payroll teams competing in 2010

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Sports writers and baseball analysts have been beating the drum for years for some sort of payroll system modifications in baseball.   Especially in recent years with the dominance of the Yankees and Red Sox, who have been 1-2 in total salary for a while and have both made the playoffs more often than not in the past decade.  Last year was especially bad, when most of the playoff spots went to big market, big teams.  Great for playoff rankings, bad for most of the teams in the league.   The Yankees spent nearly SEVEN times as much in payroll entering 2010 than Pittsburgh; how can that be equitable?

Well, don’t look now but if the season ended today, as pointed out in this USAToday Article, only two of baseball’s top 10 salaried teams would qualify.  Most of baseball’s current 8 playoff teams are from middle-of-the-road payrolls.  There are two notable outliers: Texas comfortably currently sits atop the AL West with the 27th largest payroll and San Diego, with the 2nd LOWEST payroll in the majors, leads the NL west.  (See this google xls I put together briefly to show teams by record rank, playoff position and salary at the beginning of the season).

Each time a team like Tampa, San Diego or Texas competes well with the big boys, it makes it harder to implement some sort of reform.  Especially since you can look at each of the top tier payroll teams that are NOT in playoff contention right now and excuse their season.

  • #2. Boston: still have the 5thbest record and would be leading most any other division.  Lots of injuries, transition year away from expensive older vets like Ortiz and Lowell, $10M in dead money.  Theo keeps talking about a transition year; he’s biding his time before he can re-do the team in the image of the 04 and 07 teams.
  • #3: Cubs: over paid for Soriano, Zambrano underperforming, Fukodome bad signing.  Just not well constructed team.  Hendry on the GM hot seat.
  • #4: Philadelphia: great team, killed by injuries and inconsistent pitching.  You wonder how badly the Lee trade bungling will hurt them in years to come.  I still think they’ll overtake Atlanta, especially now that Chipper is done for the season.
  • #5: Mets: how does Minaya still have a job?  They seem to spend money because they have it, not because they acquire good players.  Oliver Perez, Jason Bay god awful signings, and just Santana and Beltran cost more than the San Diego Payroll annually.
  • #6: Tigers: you have to hand it to the Tigers owner, who purposely over spent b/c his town was so badly hurt in the economic crash.  But he has some very expensive players tied up (Cabrera, Verlander, Guillen) for a number of years and their role players aren’t good enough.  Dark Days ahead for Detroit.

So, the #1 payroll team has the best record and the #30 payroll team has the worst record.   But the teams in between aren’t acting like we expect.  Is this Moneyball re-incarnated?  Well no.  Billy Beane’s teams success in Oakland was less about his OBP-centric stats drafting and more about the three starting pitchers (ZitoHudson, Mulder) his teams were graced with (as pointed out in this excellent Buzz Bissinger article).  What it does point out is that good GMs (even the wealthy ones in NY and Boston) are starting to value the draft pick and the young player and are becoming better and better at drafting them.  San Diego and Texas both kept payroll low, traded away vets, accumulated draft picks.  Texas easily has the best farm system in the majors and now has a powerhouse team for very little money.  This is exactly the same blueprint practiced for years by Florida and Tampa, though Texas has shown they are not afraid to buy talent at the deadline (something the panhandle state teams never do and thus one of the reasons why neither team really has any appreciable fan following).

So, what should base ball do?

1. Should there be a salary cap?  Well, yes I think so.  I think the Yankees have a totally unfair player advantage over the rest of the league and it shouldn’t be possible to have 4 times the payroll of a team within  your own division.  But i have no idea how to implement it.

2. Should there be a salary floor?  Well, no.  Because teams like Texas, Florida, San Diego, Tampa and (in years past) Oakland have consistently shown that you can build great cheap teams by depending on player development, drafting and having an entire team of pre-arbitration or arbitration-eligible guys.  You can’t force a team to spend money just to achieve an arbitrary salary floor.  Plus you have to allow teams to blow things up and start over (essentially what Toronto is doing now) and try to build for the long run.