Nationals Arm Race

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

Archive for the ‘tom tango’ tag

Ladson inbox 1/2/14


Espinosa's role with the Nats is still a major concern for fans. Photo AP via

Espinosa’s role with the Nats is still a major concern for fans. Photo AP via

Ah, what a great way to bring in the new year, with another edition of Bill Ladson‘s inbox (dated 1/2/14).

As always, these are real questions from presumably real people, and I answer here before reading Ladson’s answer.

Q: Do you think that Denard Span will be the leadoff hitter, with maybe Ian Desmond batting second? If so, shouldn’t the order be reversed since Desmond is a much better offensive player?

A: The answer to this question goes to the evolving lineup construction question and a rising opinion in the Sabre ranks that states that a team’s “best” hitter should be batting 2nd.  Joe Sheehan discussed why the Reds specifically should have been batting Joey Votto 2nd instead of 3rd in this July 2013 article on, but his arguments were less about Votto and more about the idiocy of Dusty Baker‘s insistence on batting a sub-par hitter ahead of Votto all year.  The real proof is from Tom Tango in his publication The Book, which is summarized in this 2009 BeyondtheBoxScore post by Sky Kalkman.  Basically the argument is that a #2 hitter is slightly more important situationally than a #3 hitter, based on the fact that the #2 hitter bats more frequently than the #3 hitter, often bats with the bases empty and thus needs to be both a high OBP and a high average guy to be able to either set things up for the #3/#4 guys behind him or to do something with the #1 guy who just got on base ahead of him.

Now that being said, nothing trumps a good OBP in the lead-off spot.  Last year our best OBP guy was Jayson Werth, but he also had the best average AND hit 25 homers.  Hmm; maybe Werth is your #2 hitter right now.   Desmond’s OBP was slightly better than Span’s on the season (.331 to .327), but Desmond hits for a ton of power.  Span is the prototypical lead-off hitter; he’s a lefty, he’s fast, and he normally gets on at a .350 OBP clip (career .351).  So right now if it were me I’d be batting Span 1, Werth 2 and Desmond somewhere around #5.

Todd Boss the Nats manager puts out this line-up opening day: Span-Werth-Zimmerman-Harper-Desmond-LaRoche-Ramos-Rendon-Strasburg.  Good lefty/righty balance, has your best all-around hitter in the #2 hole and your best power hitter in the #4 hole, with Desmond getting more ABs than LaRoche right now and the rest of the lineup cascading down normally.

Ladson posts his lineup, which uses more conventional thinking and has LaRoche batting before Desmond.  I think he’s wrong there; LaRoche was clearly not a better hitter than Desmond and has no business batting ahead of him in this lineup right now.

Q: The Nationals recently signed D.C. native Emmanuel Burriss to a Minor League contract. Is he a viable candidate for a backup role with the club in 2014?

A: I think the Emmanuel Burriss signing was about AAA depth, not a real attempt to find a utility infielder who can contribute at the MLB club.  Look at his 2013 slash line: .213/.270/.221.  Wow, that’s really bad.   Of course, that’s still better than what Danny Espinosa did last  year … Presumably Burriss is competing with Espinosa and Zach Walters for that backup middle infielder spot.  Burriss’s problem is that he’s a minor league/non 40-man signing while both Espinosa and Walters are already on the 40-man … so for the time being I see him with fellow locally-tied minor league signee Wil Rhymes (he went to college at W&M) as Syracuse’s middle infield.  Ladson thinks he’s a candidate but not a starter … and then predicts that the team will be trading Espinosa.

Q: If Espinosa makes the team as a bench player, my concern is his clubhouse attitude. Do you think management shares this concern as well?

A: Great question; who here knows Espinosa personally to see how he may react?  Who here works in the Nationals organization and can effectively judge Espinosa’s character, given everything that’s happened to him in the past year (injuries, performance, loss of starting job and demotion)?  Not me, and presumably nobody reading this, so its all just fan speculation.

So, given that I don’t know anything about the guy, here’s what I think: He has to realize that a) he’s no longer a starter here and b) he’s not even guaranteed a bench spot thanks to his 27 OPS+ hitting last year.  But, he also has to realize that his best shot at this point of regaining a starter job in the majors is going to be to perform, and perform ably, wherever he gets his chance, and thus either improve his trade value to make him more valuable to other organizations or possibly to force his way over someone in the Nats organization.  That chance may end up being full time in AAA but it’ll be better for him if he’s at least a backup in the majors.  If he doesn’t realize these things, then his representation is doing him a massive disservice (and I don’t think Scott Boras is bad at his job).  So my guess is that he’ll swallow his pride knowing he has to be in the majors to show that he can produce in the majors and will embrace his role.

There’s also the small issues of money and  service time; he’s making peanuts in AAA versus what he makes riding the bench in the majors.  And, if he makes the bench for at least 2 months or so in 2014 he accrues enough service time to hit arbitration following next season … which means either a pay raise or freedom to move to another organization where he may not be as blocked as he is in Washington.  So no matter what, it is in his best interests professionally and financially to make the team, no matter what the role, out of spring training.

One last point: just ONE injury anywhere in the infield opens a massive swinging door for him to not only get playing time but likely to start.  He has to be ready.

Ladson says Espinosa works hard and that Jayson Werth would get him in line if he had an attitude problem.  

Q: What is the situation behind the plate? Ever since Ivan Rodriguez retired, it seems that’s been an injury-riddled spot. Why aren’t the Nationals making any moves for a backup catcher?

A: Catcher is an injury-riddled spot for nearly everyone in the league; the guys get beat up and miss time no matter if they’re the best or worst guy in the league.  I’m guessing the team is actively in the market for backup catchers, but so are a bunch of other teams.   I still count 10 catchers out there available in free agency and I’m guessing teams in need are all still jockeying for position with the better and lesser candidates.  I’m sure we’ll sign at least one more guy to be in the mix with Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon and Chris Snyder.  Plus there’s this: nearly every catcher who can still crouch will get a spring training gig because there’s just so many arms that need to throw simaltaneously for these teams.  So we’re sure to see more guys sign up.   Ladson says they’re trying to acquire more catcher depth but have been unsuccessful.

Q: How come Zach Walters is not being given a decent shot at making the team out of Spring Training? He has pop and is adequate defensively.

A: I don’t think people are saying that; I think the consensus seems to be that the backup infielder spot is Espinosa versus Walters right now.  Who would you rather have?  I think i’d lean towards one more chance for Espinosa (the guy did hit 20 homers in 2011 after all) and then either trade him or move him out.  The concern with Walters (despite his 29 homers in AAA in 2013) is his strike-outs; they’re pretty high.  You put up with 1 K/game if  you get 30 homers … not if you get 10.  He hit nearly 30 in AAA; can he do that in the majors?  Ladson points out an important note; new manager Matt Williams knows Walters from when they were both in the Arizona system.  Hmm.  Will that have an effect?

Q: Would you try to get Eric O’Flaherty on the Nats if you were Mike Rizzo?

A: I’m not sure I would; he had TJ surgery in late May 2013 (5/21/13 specifically), meaning he’s looking at likely a May 2014 return date.  So he’s likely missing the first 2 months of the season, and even then he’s on a shorter leash next season.  Is this what the Nats need?  My guess is that he re-signs an incentive deal with Atlanta out of some sort of professional courtesy for having gotten injured on their watch.  Ladsons agrees with me and thinks he goes back to Atlanta.

Q: Shouldn’t the Nats bid on pitcher Masahiro Tanaka?

A: Bid yes.  Go crazy and blow $20M/year on the guy?  No way.  Scouting reports thus far seem to indicate that Masahiro Tanaka is good but not Yu Darvish-good.  And this team needs to start thinking about extending its own known quantity guys versus blowing that money on a lottery ticket like Tanaka.  My guess is that a team with deeper pockets (Los Angeles, New York) or a team with more desparation (Seattle) agrees to pay Tanaka just ridiculous amounts of money.   Ted Lerner seems to be indicating we’re nearing the team’s payroll budget and we’re going to start having to get creative fitting in some of these mid-to-upper level talents we have now accumulated.  Ladson doesn’t really consider the merits or consideration of Tanaka, instead just saying the rotation is set.  I’m not sure that was the question.


Stats Overview Part II: Hitting stats on the rise: wRC, wOBA, etc


Trout's BABIP was very high in 2012; what does this mean for 2013? Photo Gary Vasquez/US Presswire via

(Part 2 in a series: Part 1 talked about Whats Wrong with Old School Baseball Stats).

More and more in modern baseball writing, you see relatively new statistical creations thrown into articles in order to prove or disprove an opinion, and more and more you almost need a glossary to properly read these articles and properly understand what the author is attempting to say.  I always want to understand that which I read, and at the same time I want to make sure I stay current and up-to-date on the stats out there, so I decided to do a little research (and pen my own post while I was at it) into some of these newer stats that are being used.

I’ll write about each stat, give links to its calculation, write about how it may be used, then put in some rules of thumb by which to consider the stat.

Pretty much every stat here is defined and available at either or also has some more obscure stats discussed further below.  I’ve always thought that B-R’s interface was so much easier to navigate that I tend to search there first, but a more complete set of stats is at fangraphs.

1. BABIP.  Batting Average on Balls in Play.  Most people know this one, but it is an important stat to consider in conjunction with other stats (especially the older Batting Average and Earned Run Average).   The calculation, as it is seen at Wikipedia, measures basically how many balls put into play (removing from consideration home runs) turned into hits.  Interestingly it penalizes the hitter for hitting sacrifice flies (not sure why).  This stat is kept for both individual hitters and for pitchers.

How is BABIP used? The measurement is essentially used as a checkpoint for fluky seasons.  If a pitcher has a very high ERA but also has a very high BABIP, one can explain that he’s been unlucky and his talent level lays somewhere below his posted performance on the year.  Ironically, the two leaders of Pitcher BABIP in 2012 were both on the Tigers; Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer had BABIPs of .344 and .333 respectively; this delta is probably going to lead to both of these guys having better ERAs in 2013.  If a hitter has a decent hitting season but also has a high BABIP, one usually says that the hitter was “lucky” and is due to regress (Mike Trout in 2012 had a Babip of .383.  That’s really high, probably unsustainably high, and he probably regresses statistically in 2013).

MLB Average/Rule of thumb: .290-.300 depending on the year.

When BABIP is high: a hitter is considered to be “lucky,” and future regression of more batted balls being turned into outs is expected.

When BABIP is low, a hitter is considered to be “unlucky,” and future improvement of more hits on batted balls is expected.

Caveats using BABIP: there are many arguments about whether some pitchers “baseline BABIP” should be modified based on their talent or capabilites.  For example, Mariano Rivera‘s career BABIP is .262 while R.A. Dickey‘s BABIP since he turned into a Mets knuckleballing starter is around .275.  Rivera’s lower baseline is probably attributed to his amazing cutter and his pure skill, while Dickey’s is most likely due to the fluctuations of hitting his knuckleball.  Meanwhile, some hitters maintain higher than average career BABIPs (two extreme examples that immediately come to mind are Ichiro Suzuki and Nyjer Morgan, with career BABIPs of .347 and .336 respectively.  Why so high?  Because both are skilled at bunting (or at least hitting choppy grounders) for base hits, artificially inflating their baseline BABIP.

2. ISO; Isolated Power.  As posted on Wiki, Isolated power can be simply calculated by subtracting a hitter’s batting average from the slugging percentage, or as it is more eloquently defined at FanGraphs, ISO is essentially a measure of how many extra base hits a batter hits per at-bat.  Slugging tells you how many bases per at bat a hitter obtains, but ISO strips out singles to isolate a player’s capability of hitting doubles, triples and homers.  Here’s a couple of decent examples from 2012; our own Bryce Harper hits a ton of extra base hits; he’s posted a .206 ISO for the 2012 season.  Meanwhile we know that the aforementioned Nyjer Morgan is not a very powerful hitter and ISO shows it; he’s at .069 for the 2012 season.  The league leaders for ISO reads like a list of MLB’s best sluggers.  Giancarlo Stanton would have led the league in ISO had he qualified; he posted a fantastic .318 ISO in 2012.

How is it used? ISO is used to measure how good a hitter is at getting extra-base hits.

MLB Average/Rule of thumb (from Fangraphs page) .145 is considered an “average” MLB ISO figure.  .200 is pretty good, .100 is poor.

Caveats using ISO: as with many sabremetric-tinged stats, small sample sizes greatly skew the figures.  Fangraphs says 550 ABs is needed before really drawing any judgements.

3. wOBA; Weighted On Base Average.  Created by Tom Tango, wOBA is a relatively newer statistic that attempts to improve upon the traditional batting statistics we use (Batting Average, Slugging and On Base Percentage) by measuring cumulative “weighted” hits that a batter may achieve.  It is based on the premise that the three traditional stats just mentioned all treat hitting events relatively the same.  Is a single equal to a double?  No, but in Batting Average it is.  Is a double worth half as much as a home-run?  No, but in the Slugging Percentage it is.  Each hitting event is weighted and added together, with increases/decreases for stolen bases/caught stealing thrown in, to arrive at a measurement that attempts to better quantify pure hitting.

How is it used?  wOBA attempts to be set to the same scale as the league wide OBP, which seems to hover around .315-.320 year to year.

MLB Average/Rule of thumb (from Fangraphs page) .320 is a good “league average” number.  .370 is great, .300 is poor.

Caveats using wOBA: There are several to keep in mind; the weights change  year to year, in order to normalize the stat across generations.  It is NOT normalized to park factors, so hitters in places like Boston and Colorado will have artificially inflated wOBAs to their true value.  Lastly, there’s zero context given to the game situation when measuring hits (i.e. was there a guy on third with one out?  Was it a close game in the 9th?)  I think particular situation is nearly impossible to measure in any stat, but it is important.

4. RC/wRC: Runs Created and Weighted Runs Created.  Runs Created is a stat that Bill James invented in one of his earlier Baseball Abstracts (1985) in order to try to measure simply how many runs an individual player contributed to the team in a given season.  It was improved upon vastly in 2002 to be much more detailed and accurate; the original version over-emphasized some factors of hitting.  It is a complicated statistic (see its wiki page for the formula).  The aforementioned Tom Tango improved upon the basic RC by creating the Weighted version of the statistic based on his own Weighted OBA statistic (which he believed more closely measures the proper “value” of each hitting event).

How is it used?  Individually, RC and wRC need to be understood in context of an entire season.  It isn’t until we get to wRC+ (see below) that a side-by-side comparison is capable.  Its like saying “Player X has 105 hits.”  If that’s through 75 games, that’s pretty good; if that’s for an entire season, well that’s pretty poor.

MLB Average/Rule of thumb (from Fangraphs page) RC and wRC both have roughly the same scales.  60 is average, 100 is great, 50 is poor for a full season.

Caveats using RC and wRC: They are basically full season counting numbers.  In 2012, Trout started in the minors, so his RC and wRC totals are less than his MVP competition Miguel Cabrera.

5. wRC+/wRAA: Weighted Runs Created Plus/Weighted Runs Above Average

wRAA and especially wRC+ are touted by as being very good “single number” statistics to properly measure a player’s hitting ability.  I often use OPS+ as a singular number to measure a hitter; fangraphs specifically calls out this number and recommends using wRC+.

How is it used?  Both numbers basically measure the same thing.  wRC+ is a bit easier to explain; 100 is the league baseline, and points above or below the average are expressed as “percentage points above or below the league average.”  So, a person with a 120 wRC+ is considered to be 20% better at creating runs than the average major leaguer.  Cabrera and Trout ironically tied for the MLB lead for 2012 in wRC+, each posting a 166 wRC+.  Meanwhile wRAA (per “measures the number of offensive runs a player contributes to their team compared to the average player” and is scaled to zero.  wRAA is essentially a direct calculation from wOBA, so if you’re using one you can likely ignore the other.

MLB Average/Rule of thumb (from Fangraphs page) for wRC+: 100 is average while for wRAA zero (0) is average.  20-25 percentage points above is great, while 15-20 percentage points below is bad.

Caveats for using: Unlike wOBA, wRC+ is park- and league-adjusted, indeed making it an excellent single number by which to measure players.  Otherwise the caveats for these weighted averages are all about the same; they seem to be based on an weighting of hits that you may or may not agree with.

What have I learned from looking into these hitting stats?  I need to keep BABIP in mind.  I like ISO but I don’t see it gaining real credence over slugging percentage.  And I should probably start using wRC+ more than OPS+.

Part 3 coming up on Pitching advanced stats.