Washington Nationals Season So Far: Luck or Destiny?

T. Plush sez, "I'm faster than math."

The three of you who've been following my stat posts for last couple of seasons know that I'm interested in "luck."  Last season, the Nationals' poor luck actually defied mathematical analysis (I exaggerate only slightly).  This season, things are going better.  We all expected something like 70 wins, and the team has a winning record in its first 25 games.  Steven from FJB has found several bad teams that have had good starts in the past, while Chris Needham points out that if you replace some particularly horrible starts with average ones, the Nationals are actually in line with their expected winning percentage.  Anyhow, the recent good run got me curious: how much is good luck, and how much is good baseball?  A look at lucky games and lucky hitters after the jump.

Nats to Pythagoras: Get Bent!

Let's start with the only stat that matters in the end, win/loss.  The Nats are 13-12, a game over 0.500, and tied for third in the NL East.  What makes this particularly interesting is that the team has managed a winning record while being outscored 124 runs to 104 over the season so far!  If you look at Pythagorean "expected" win/loss percentages based on their runs scored and allowed to date, the Nationals should have a record of about 10-15.  That's a nice change when you consider that the team was even worse than its (bad) expected record for most of 2009.   Why would this be the case?  Well, usually beating your "expected" record means the team is winning a lot of close games and losing mostly blowouts.  I took a look at the Nats' record in two kinds of games: those decided by 3 runs or less ("saves") and those decided by 4 runs or more ("blowouts").

W/L Runs Scored Runs Allowed "Expected" W/L
Saves 10-4 55 44 8-6
Blowouts 3-8 49 80 3-8

 

The Nationals have done about like you'd expect in blowouts, given how their opponents have outscored them in those games.  The "saves" are more interesting: this is where the team is beating Pythagoras, and I think we can all picture the run-saving diving catches that have been responsible.  Taking away two wins in the close games (supposing balls were hit just out of reach of a diving Nyjer Morgan or Willie Harris instead of being highlight reels), and the Nationals' overall record is 11-14, just about in line with what Pythagoras predicts.  Coincidentally, 11-14 projects out to a 71-win season--sound like anything we were expecting earlier?

Batting

Next, let's take a quick trip through the order to see who's raking and whether we think they'll keep it up.  As always, we'll start with the slash stats (average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) and OPS+ (player on-base-plus-slug compared to league average: 100 is average, higher than 100 is above average, and less than 100 is below average).  I'll also take a look at player batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is how many batted balls fall in for hits; generally, if BABIP is above .300, a player is getting lucky with "hittin' 'em where they ain't," and if it's less than .300, a player is unlucky.  A BABIP of .300 is league average; some players have an "expected" BABIP (xBABIP) that may be different, which I'll point out.

Here are all the players with at least 50 PA so far this season:

  • Ivan Rodriguez has been hitting out of his mind: 400/431/508 for an OPS+ of 148 in 72 PA.  Sadly, Pudge's success has probably come from his 433 BABIP.  Mind you, he hits the ball hard, and his xBABIP is an above-average 340 or so.  Still, he's getting hits an extra 30 percent of the time from good luck with where they land--expect that OPS+ to regress to a still-above-average-yet-less-godlike 110 or so.
  • Adam Dunn, despite a slow start, is 233/371/465 in 105 PA with an OPS+ of 120.  He hasn't been particularly lucky or unlucky (296 BABIP).  Moar d1ngerz!
  • Cristian Guzman has not been burning up the leaderboards with a line of 271/287/376 in 88 PA, for a 75 OPS+.  That below-average performance actually comes courtesy of above-average luck (329 BABIP).  Guz hits a lot of grounders, and doesn't take many walks (although he already has 3 this season!  Let's hear it for patient Guz!).
  • Adam Kennedy is hitting 214/269/329 in 78 PA with a 58 OPS+.  He's been punished with a 230 BABIP, and we'd expect above 290--expect to see about 25% more hits out of AK as his BABIP regresses.  Let's get that OPS+ up to Guz-like 73!
  • Ian Desmond is putting up 247/304/411 in 82 PA for a 88 OPS+.  Although that's with a 315 BABIP, Desi hits the ball hard--his xBABIP is around 320.  I think he's got a shot at being a solid league-average hitter, which is great for a plus-defense shortstop.
  • Ryan Zimmerman has had only 59 PA, in which he's managed to hit 370/424/778 for a phenomenal 210 OPS+. However, that's on top of a 400 BABIP; even the Z-Man only has a 310ish xBABIP.  But even with 25% fewer hits, we're looking at well-above-average hitting.
  • Josh Willingham has put in a solid performance, hitting 263/417/425 in 103 PA for an OPS+ of 124.  He leads the team in walks, and has managed this with a marginally-unlucky BABIP of 286.  Expect to see Josh keep rolling with solid offense, in line with last year's 127 OPS+.  He's even 4-4 in steals!
  • Nyjer Morgan has slapped, bunted, and slugged his way to 274/355/432 in a team-leading 108 PA for a OPS+ of 108, too.  In spite of his 325 BABIP, this performance could be legit--Nyjer hits the ball like Pudge, and his xBABIP is around 340!  Expect Nyjer to keep owning the leadoff spot, and maybe look a bit better. Let's hope he improves on his painful 6-11 record in steals, though.
  • Willie Harris has managed 175/320/425 in 51 PA, for a 96 OPS+.  That's right, a guy with a sub-Mendoza batting average is providing league-average production, thanks to a high walk rate and a full 86% of his hits being for extra bases.  As his brutally-unlucky 179 BABIP regresses to the mean, look for TAWH to maintain a roughly league-average pace (although his xBABIP is only 260 or so).

Conclusion

Overall, the Nats record so far is a bit lucky.  Expect to settle in below 0.500 as the season goes on.

As far as batters go, Pudge, Zimmy and Guz are doing better than you'd expect, although Pudge and Zim will still be league-average or better with "average" luck (and Guz might get worse).  AK and TAWH are due for a bit of improvement over their current luck, although only to below-league-average and league-average, respectively.  Everyone else has had roughly average luck at the plate.

And as for pitchers?  We'll tackle that in another post.

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