Washington Nationals: W.A.R. is heck. Projecting the 2011 season (now in progress)

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 31: Right fielder Jayson Werth #28 of the Washington Nationals is introduced prior to the start of opening day against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park on March 31, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

A couple of seasons ago we all got together and tried to do a blog-wide projection of the Nationals’ season by estimating team Wins Above Replacement (W.A.R.).   I recall us projecting 75 wins for that 59-win season, but it was still a fun exercise.  It’s a bit late in the day for a lot of back-and-forth on projections with Opening Day being yesterday, so I thought I’d whip together a WAR projection on my own.  Everyone's doing projections at varying levels of detail and rigor, so here's your chance to follow the behind-the-scenes on one.  Details on how I could possibly expect the Nats to finish only a few games under .500 after the jump!

WAR, what is it good for?

W.A.R. is a baseball statistic that tries to roll up a player’s total offensive and defensive production into a single number that represents how many extra wins your team gets by having that player instead of a AAAA guy fresh off the waiver-wire.  The input we use for offense is wOBA (weighted on-base average), which is a number that converts directly into offensive production in runs and is supposed to be on about the same scale as OBP (league average wOBA was around 330 last season; I'm using a projected 321 league average wOBA for 2011).  For defense, we use fielding runs above (or below) average for the player’s position.  Finally, we use ERA for pitching.  Ah, but how do we have any stats for a season that hasn’t happened yet?  I’m using the two major free batting and pitching projection systems (Marcel and ZIPS), as well as a UZR projection for defense, and the ZIPS qualitative defensive projection (note, ZIPS doesn't project wOBA, but you can calculate it from what they do project).  These all work by taking historical data and weighting and averaging it various ways to generate predicted stats.   I apply a "fan intuition" adjustment toward one or the other where I feel it’s appropriate.

To calculate WAR, we take a guess at who has how many plate appearances (PA) at each position, then we plug them into a magic spreadsheet with their projected wOBA and defensive runs above average.  Each position has to have a total of 695 PA split among various players, with another 340 PA for pinch-hitters (we don’t model pitchers hitting—effectively their PA are all worth zero). The spreadsheet applies various adjustments for playing time and position (so a good hitter in CF is worth more than the same hitter at 1B) and adds up position player wins.  We do something similar for pitchers, guessing how many innings each pitcher will throw, as well as the average "leverage" for each reliever (that is, are they pitching for a one-run save or in junk time?).  We have to have a total of 1,445 innings pitched on the season split between starters (940) and relievers (505). The spreadsheet turns the crank and spits out pitching wins, then adds the positional wins to build a probability distribution of total team wins.

1B: Adam LaRoche gets 500 PA at 1B (the shoulder has me worried, so I’m not putting him in for more).  ZIPS has him at 252/324/451 (327 wOBA), while Marcel projects 261/368/454 for a 337 wOBA.  I’ll give him a 332 wOBA. His ZIPS defense at 1B is "Average", with a projected 0.8 runs above average on the season—we’ll call that +0.

2B: Danny Espinosa gets 500 PA at 2B—he’s still young, so I’m figuring he’ll have some games off to work things out rather than playing the season non-stop.  ZIPS has him hitting 226/296/391 (295 wOBA), while Marcels has him at 252/322/435 (328 wOBA).  As a newish player, no projection system will be accurate with him, but I’m going to lean toward Marcel because I’m a big homer—call it 320 wOBA.  His 2B defense is "Very Good" by ZIPS and +3.9 runs for projected UZR.  I’ll round that to +5 runs on the season because his nickname is Danny GLOVER fer frankssakes.

3B: Ryan Zimmerman gets 650 PA at 3B.  Marcel has him at 292/363/485 (368 wOBA) and ZIPS projects 288/361/490 (357 wOBA).  We’ll round that up to a 370 wOBA because, again, I’m a huge homer and I’m tired of Zimm being underrated.  ZIPS has his 3B defense as "excellent," and his projected UZR is +11.9 runs above average.  I’ll round that to +10 runs because I don’t want to be greedy.

SS: Ian Desmond gets a healthy 600 PA at SS.  ZIPS projects a 260/312/392 line (301 wOBA) and Marcel figures him for 273/320/419 (324 wOBA).  Ian gets the homer round-up to 315 wOBA—I’d go a bit higher, but I’m worried about his ability to adjust to hitting leadoff.   ZIPS has his glove as "average," with a projected -4.7 runs UZR.  I’m making a fan judgment than Ian gives us league-average SS defense this season, so I’m calling it +0 runs.

Behind the dish

Ivan Rodriguez, notwithstanding being the Opening Day starter, will only go 250 PA as catcher.  His bat will be worth 245/272/340 (267 wOBA) by ZIPS and 251/289/357 (283 wOBA) by Marcel—call it 275 wOBA.  I’m calling Wilson Ramos to take over and pick up 300 PA with Pudge getting traded.  ZIPS projects his bat at 263/291/397 (298 wOBA) while Marcels is calling 274/333/429 (335 wOBA)—I say 320 wOBA.  I’m also giving a sentimental 145 PA to a (cross your fingers!) finally-healthy Jesus Flores in the second half (average of Marcels and ZIPS is 320 wOBA).  Pudge and Ramos both project as "very good" defensively, which I’m calling +5 runs, while Flores is only "average," which I’m calling +0 runs.

On Patrol:

LF: Mike Morse gets 500 PA in LF.  It’s not more because I’m still not sure he’s for real and I think Riggs will sub for him defensively in the late innings.  ZIPS likes Morse for 275/331/457 (340 wOBA) while Marcel projects 274/339/470 (350 wOBA).  Given his hot Spring, I think we have to lean toward the higher projection, so it’s 350 wOBA for MM.  ZIPS rates his OF defense as only "fair," while his UZR projection is -4.7 runs.  We’ll round that to -5 runs and be glad it’s not Dunn out there.

CF: Rick Ankiel gets only 350 PA in CF because I don’t think he’ll last. His slash lines project to 247/306/449 (319 wOBA) for ZIPS and 240/308/406 (312 wOBA) for Marcel.  Let’s call it an even 315 wOBA.  ZIPS projects his CF glove as "fair," and his projected UZR is -5.9 runs.  We’ll round that to -5.

RF: Jayson Werth gets a hairy 650 PA in RF, because Doghouse expects you to play tired for $126M. His hitting projections are 263/360/475 (356 wOBA) for ZIPS and 271/362/482 (370 wOBA) for Marcels.  The salary-adjusted homer's average of those is a 370 wOBA (same as Zimmy).  ZIPS rates his RF defense as "very good," and his UZR projects to +3.9 runs.  We’ll round that to +5.

On the Bench:

I like Roger Bernadina as OF#4.  Options or not, I see him picking up at least 350 PA (about half a season) in the bigs this year, say 100 PA in LF as a defensive replacement (or day off) for Morse and 250 PA in CF when Ankiel peters out.  ZIPS projects his bat at 246/308/382 (302 wOBA) and Marcels figures 251/317/391 (316 wOBA)—a 310 wOBA.  His glove is "very good" in LF and "average" in CF with a projected +1 run UZR.  I’ll call that +5 in LF and +0 in CF.

Hairston is the new Willie Harris/OF#5.  I figure him to pick up around 300 PA split among the OF (95 in CF, 45 in RF, 45 in LF) and IF (45 at 3B, 50 at 2B, 20 at 1B).  His hitting projections are 266/318/395 (307 wOBA) for ZIPS and 253/312/381 (306 wOBA) for Marcels.  Let’s call it an even 305 wOBA.  His glove is "average" at every IF position and corner OF, and "fair" at CF, with a projected -0.7 run UZR.  That's +0 runs everywhere except CF, which is -5 runs.

Laynce Nix gets a spell as OF#5a thanks to Bernie having an option left.  Marcel projects a 323 wOBA, while ZIPS has 307—we'll say 315. His glove ranges from "very good" in LF to "fair" in CF, with a +6.6 run UZR projection.  I could be convinced differently, but I’m only giving him 50 PA in LF (with +5 runs above average defense) and 100 PA as a PH because I think Bernie will replace him (Hairston stays because the Riggler loves him some super-utility come Rigglin’ time).

Alex Cora will be the new Alberto Gonzalez (who I expect to be traded soon was traded before I could even finish this article), picking up 350 PA at SS (95), 2B (145), and 1B (110).  This is too bad, as Cora only projects to 244/304/332 (278 wOBA) by ZIPS and 240/309/325 (286 wOBA) by Marcels—say a 280 wOBA (Gonzo projects to a 290ish wOBA).  His glove is "average" in the middle infield, although his UZR projects to -7.2 runs.  We’ll split the difference and call him -5 at SS and +0 at 2B and 1B.

Matt Stairs will pick up 100 PA pinch hitting, and the last 65 PA at 1B.  He projects to 230/317/289 (311 wOBA) by Marcels and 217/311/446 (314 wOBA) by ZIPS.  I give him a 315 wOBA because I want the old-timers to succeed.  His glove is "Poor" with a -3 projected UZR—I’m saying -10 runs for any time he gets Riggled into having to field.

I’m giving the last 140 PH PA to undefined "scrubs" with a .280 wOBA.  Maybe the Nats have enough depth for this not to happen this year, but I’ve seen a few too many Kory Casto ABs not to sandbag a little.

Rotation

Our "Ace" Livan Hernandez is nothing if not a workhorse, so let's count on him to eat 185 innings with a 4.4 ERA (Marcel 4.52, ZIPS 4.33). Hooray for crafty veterans! John Lannan should also be good for 180 innings at 4.5 ERA (Marcel 4.17, ZIPS 4.56).  Cool Hand has to show me a good season before I’m ready to pencil him in as better than league average.  Jordan Zimmermann will give us his rehab-limit of 120 innings (does anyone have a number from that Nats on that? is it too low?) of delicious 4.1 ERA pitching (Marcel 4.18, ZIPS 3.94).  Jason Marquis promises to be near league average with a 4.6 ERA (Marcel 4.46, ZIPS 4.61) for, say, 150 innings?  Tom Gorzelanny projects above league average at a 4.4 ERA (4.31 ZIPS, 4.46 Marcel), although I’m only giving him 120 innings because someone is going to get hurt or flame out—I arbitrarily choose him.

I see Ross Detwiler making at least one stretch in the bigs, struggling at a bit worse than league average; I’ll say 4.8 ERA for 90 innings, as the projections are all over (ZIPS 5.26, Marcel 4.26).  Yunesky Maya (ZIPS 5.60, Marcel 4.50) will probably get up at some point too, although I’m worried about his confidence and his ability to adapt to major league hitters—call it 90 innings of 5.1 ERA.

Relief

I see Sean Burnett (ZIPS 3.46, Marcel 3.41) and Drew Storen (ZIPS 3.28, Marcel 3.65) roughly splitting the high-leverage situations.  I see them each putting together 45 innings of 3.4 ERA pitching.  Tyler Clippard (ZIPS 3.31, Marcel 3.33) will put in 70 innings of 3.3 ERA setup work. Doug Slaten (Marcel 4.01, ZIPS 3.88) should be good for 45 innings at 4 ERA, while Todd Coffey (ZIPS 4.26, Marcel 4.02) gives us another 60 innings at 4.1 ERA.  Rule-fiver Brian Broderick has no projections, so we’ll hope he manages 60 innings of 4.5 ERA middle relief.  Chad Gaudin (ZIPS 4.24, Marcel 4.56) will go 80 innings at 4.4 ERA.

We can’t keep Craig Stammen (Marcel 4.54, ZIPS 4.80) out of the batting order for good, so I expect my fave Nat to provide 50 innings of 4.6 ERA swing-man duty at some point this season.  Henry Rodriguez (Marcel 4.15, ZIPS 3.94) will, we hope, electrify us with 50 innings of 4.1 ERA relief work once he gets over his sprained fastball.  Yes, I know I forgot Collin Balester.  I ran out of innings.

Add it up and you get...

Altogether (using 45.5 wins for a "replacement level" team, and a .321 league-average wOBA), the Nats project to win 78 games (31% chance of a .500 season, and a 1% chance of losing 100 games—can the Nats beat the odds?).

Splitting it out by players, the Nationals won’t have much in the way of superstars in 2011. Zimmy will be, of course—he projects to about 6 WAR, while Werth is looking at about 4.5 WAR.  There are bunch of players around 2 WAR: Desmond, Espinosa, Morse, Livo, Lannan, and J-Zimm. Yes, I’m aware that I’ve projected the Nats to win 75ish games every time I’ve tried to do this—one of these times I’ll be right.

Could this possibly happen?

Well, the WAR spreadsheet doesn’t account for all the games the Nats have to play against the rest of the NL East. The whole rest of the division is league-average or above, so that will knock off some wins. On the other hand, the Nats have a solid (if unspectacular) rotation, a steady bullpen, and decent defense They’re getting close to league-average in most areas, and league-average teams have .500 records...Dream big, NatsTown!

No, this article is not an April Fool's prank.

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