Projecting Washington Nationals 2012 Season: 84.5 wins

"I could win 84 games in my sleep." (not an actual quote)

Back in 2009, 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.). We projected 75 wins for that 59-win season, but it was still a fun exercise. Again this year, I’m too late getting to this for back-and-forth on projections since Opening Day is tomorrow, but here’s a last-minute WAR projection of my own. Last year I called for 78 wins, which was surprisingly close considering how wildly wrong I was on most of the detailed player projections (4.5 WAR from Werth? 90 IP from Yunesky Maya? Oof!). Anyhow, here's your chance to follow along behind-the-scenes on a numbers guy’s approach to guessing how well the Nats will do this season. Details on how I expect the Nats to finish just out of playoff contention (with my highest projected win total ever) after the jump!

WAR, what is it good for?

W.A.R. is a statistical approach in baseball 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 stat that converts directly into offensive production in runs. 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 (Marcels and ZIPS) 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 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? Closing situations have leverage higher than 1, while junk time has leverage less than 1). 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.
Ready? Let's take a look at the team!

‘Round the horn

1B: Adam "Nagging Injuries" LaRoche gets 500 PA at 1B (I should know better, but I’ll figure he plays most of the season). ZIPS has him at 236/313/415 (311 wOBA), while Marcels projects 248/317/416 for a 317 wOBA. Those probably reflect his injury-reduced production from last season. He should have more power this season, and I think his patience is better than he’s getting credit for. I’ll bump him up to a 320 wOBA. His ZIPS defense at 1B is "Average", although he was awfully slick with the glove last year—I’m going to go out on a limb and give him +5 runs for defense.

2B: Danny Espinosa gets 570 PA at 2B. This is his season to prove he should be the long term 2B, so I figure he gets most of the playing time (the rest is for Lombo). ZIPS has him hitting 229/309/400 (306 wOBA), while Marcels has him at 247/326/428 (329 wOBA). I like what I’m hearing about his new left-side apporach, but I’m still worried about his pitch recognition, so I’ll split the difference at 315. His 2B defense is "Very Good" by ZIPS and we’ve all seen him flash the leather, so he gets +5 runs for his glove.

3B: Ryan Zimmerman gets 645 PA at 3B and my crossed fingers that he doesn’t miss any time due to injury this season. Marcels has him at 288/358/473 (357 wOBA) and ZIPS projects 283/354/476 (352 wOBA). Let’s call that a 355 wOBA. ZIPS has his 3B defense as "very good" (down from "excellent"), and he certainly had a rough year in the field in 2011 as he adapted to new throwing mechanics after his injury. I’m limiting his defensive adjustment to +5 runs this season so I can be pleasantly surprised when he wins another GG.

SS: Ian Desmond gets 570 PA at SS in his "last chance" season with some #lombolobby combination of Espy, Lombo and Rendon knocking at the door in the middle infield. ZIPS projects a 256/304/378 line (293 wOBA) and Marcels figures him for 262/303/386 (303 wOBA). Ian gets the homer round-up to 305 wOBA because I’m a Friend of Desmond from way back. ZIPS has his glove as "average" at short, and we’ve been torn between spectacular range and cringe-inducing errors in 2010 and 2011. While the E totals have come down, they were still high in 2011, but I’m making a fan judgment than Ian gives us league-average SS defense this season: +0 runs.

Dropping the digits

I’m calling Wilson Ramos to take most of the time catching, with 450 PA. Marcels loves the Rhino to the tune of 272/333/439 (333 wOBA) while ZIPS is calling 266/338/453 (329 wOBA), so let’s say 331. ZIPS says his defense is "Very Good," so we’ll give give +5 runs. I’m giving 245 PA to our finally healthy Jesus Flores as backup backstop. Marcels thinks he’ll hit 254/313/397 (308 wOBA), while ZIPS has an even more pessimistic 226/266/366 (270 wOBA). Call me a homer, but I think Flores is more likely to land in the top of that range, so I’ll put him at 305. Jesus is "average" on defense, for +0 runs.

Congesting the outfield

LF: Mike Morse gets 500 PA in LF. It’s not more because he’s starting on the DL and I think he’ll get subbed for defensively. ZIPS likes Morse for 273/331/475 (344 wOBA) while Marcels projects 288/346/505 (363 wOBA). Let’s call that a 355 wOBA. ZIPS rates his OF defense as "fair," which frankly might be a bit of overstatement. But just between us homers, I’ll use that as an excuse to call it only -5 runs defensively.

CF: This is a big mess, and I think we’re going to see plenty of people cycling through the position before finally settling on an extended trail for Bryce Harper sometime before the All Star break. I’m giving the young phenom 300 PA here. ZIPS projects only 238/317/405 (308 wOBA), while Marcels doesn’t have him. I’m going to round that up to a league-average 310 wOBA as the new kid learns to hit breaking balls. I think enthusiasm and inexperience will battle to the tune of -5 runs in the field. I think the rest of the CF PA will get split among some combo of Werth (50), Bernadina (125), and Ankiel (225), and I’ll talk about them later.

RF: Jayson Werth will get most of the time here, call it 550 PA. ZIPS is calling a bounce-back for 2012 to 245/342/418 (330 wOBA), while Marcels is even more optimistic at 254/344/441 (344 wOBA). Let’s say 340 wOBA, but +0 runs defensively (-5 runs in CF). He didn’t look great on defense last year, and ZIPS has downgraded his defense from "Very Good" to "Average." I figure Harper will get some PA here (50ish?) with league-average defense (+0 runs).

(Pop?) Off the bench

Fan favorite Roger Bernadina will pick up Morse’s days off in LF and late-inning defensive subs to the tune of 195 PA. Marcels has him at 247/306/383 (303 wOBA), with a 240/302/372 (295 wOBA) ZIPS projection—I’ll round up to 305 wOBA and +5 runs defensively. The Shark also picks up 125 PA in CF, where (oddly), he struggles defensively—so he gets –5 runs for the glove there.

Rick Ankiel gets 225 PA in CF (Shark is the Opening Day guy, but the FO seems to like The Arm better...). Ankiel’s projections agree on about a 294 wOBA, and The Arm gets +5 runs on defensive from his epic outfield assists.

Steve Lombardozzi gets 300 PA this year to further his development at the big-league level and give him an extended tryout in front of the #lombolobby. I’m guessing he gets 125 PA at 2B, 125 at SS and 50 at 3B. Averaging his ZIPS (265/319/379) and Marcels (256/319/395) projections gives a 308 wOBA. His 2B defense is "average," so we’ll give him +0 runs there and at the hot corner, while he gets –5 runs on defense at short.

Mark DeRosa will provide veteran pop (insert music joke here) to the tune of 244/300/277 (265 wOBA) by ZIPS and 240/305/382 (302 wOBA) by Marcels. ZIPS is clearly hatin’, and I’m willing to give DeRosa benefit of this doubt given his apparent full recovery from wrist issues and decent ST. It’s the time of the season for hope, so we’ll give him a 300 wOBA in 100 PA at 1B and 100 PH appearances. His defense is shaky (and FP says 1B is harder than it looks), so we’ll call it –5 runs with the glove.

Xavier Nady will pick up the rest of the time at 1B (95 PA), projecting a 294 wOBA by both ZIPS and Marcels, plus 50 PA in RF and 45 PA in LF. He’s about average at 1B, but a bit sloppy in the OF, so –5 runs at the OF corners and +0 in the IF. We’ll also pencil him in for 50 PH appearances.

Chad A. Tracy is our next bit of veteran presence, with a 247/310/361 (299 wOBA) as his projected line by Marcels, and only his 26-year-old doppleganger Chad S. Tracy in ZIPS. Let’s round that up to an even 300 over the course of 140 PH PA.

Rounding out the bench is Brett Carroll, projecting to 227/289/369 (287 wOBA) by ZIPS and 237/310/382 (303 wOBA) by Marcels. Looks like a 295 wOBA, and we’ll give him the last 95 PA in RF with +0 runs on defense, plus 100 PH appearances.

Have I spent way too much effort trying to divvy up the playing time of minor contributors? Probably. Let’s move on to pitching.

Rotation

Stephen Strasburg projects to a delightfully dominant 2.85 ERA by ZIPS and 3.02 by Marcels. We’ll pencil him in for 160 IP at 2.95 as our partial-season ace. Jordan Zimmermann follows up with 180 IP at 3.60 (projections: 3.56/3.65). I’m not ready to give him 200 IP, even if he doesn’t have any limits this season. New acquisition Gio Gonzalez follows up with a 3.58 ERA (projections: 3.55/3.60), and 190 IP. Edwin Jackson has me a little worried with nibbly-seeming tendancies, so I’ll only credit him a 3.90 ERA (projections: 3.79/3.89), but another 190 IP. Surprise winner of the 5th rotation spot Ross Detwiler should be good for an ERA of about 4.15 (projections: 4.44/3.82). However, he’s also my arbitrary candidate for rotation churn, so I’m only giving him 120 IP this season. Chien-Ming Wang and John Lannan split the remaining starter innings with 50 IP each. CMW should be good for an ERA around 4.50 (proejctions: 4.68/4.35), while Lannan will trick his way into something like 4.25 (projections: 4.04/4.42)

Relief

Drew Storen’s arm issues have me feeling nervous, but I’m going to whistle past the graveyard and pencil him in for 45 innings of closing work with a 3.25 ERA (projections: 3.14/3.31). Pleasant ST surprise Henry Rodriguez will pick up the slack in the meantime, taming his wildness to the tune of a 3.40 ERA (projected at 3.76/3.53, but I liked what I saw this spring) over 60 IP. Tyler Clippard (who is good at baseball) will continue in his role as the True Fireman, with a 2.84 ERA in 70 IP (projections: 2.83/2.85) and the highest average leverage. Brad Lidge should provide 60 IP of veteran relief in the middle innings at a 3.85 ERA (projections: 3.69/4.04). Sean Burnett (3.45/3.79) and Ryan Mattheus (4.09/3.62) should provide 65 IP each of low-leverage relief at ERAs of 3.60 and 3.85, respectively. Tom Gorzelanny (4.05/4.09) will split the long-relief duties with Craig Stammen (4.20/4.93) for 70 IP each with ERAs of 4.07 and 4.50.

Add it up and you get...

Altogether (using 42.5 wins for a "replacement level" team, a .310 league-average wOBA, and a league-average scoring environment of 4.0 runs/game), the Nats project to win 84.5 games (69% chance of a .500 season, and 14% chance of 91+ wins). Splitting it out by players, the Nationals don’t look to have much in the way of superstars in 2012. Zimmy leads the team with a projection of 5 WAR, followed by Stras at 4.4, Gio at 3.4, Ramos at 3.3 and Double-N at 3.2. There is a bunch of players in the 2-3 WAR range: Desmond (barely), Espinosa, Morse, Werth, and EJAX. The non-Shark, non-Arm part of the bench projects to be replacement level or worse, and everyone else is in the 0-2 WAR range. Surprisingly, the team projects to be slightly above league average at the plate, adding more WAR from hitting (22.5) than from pitching (19.6). That’s because of my assumption that the league-wide trend from recent seasons of lower run-scoring continues.

This doesn’t take into account the tough schedule the Nats will face in 2012, with everyone else in the division (save the hapless Mets) a legitimate playoff contender. From where I sit, it looks like 84-85 wins will just miss the second WC spot (which would have gone to ATL in 2011 at 89 wins, while SF was right behind them at 86 wins). With a few lucky breaks, the Nats could end up in the high 80s, though, which just might squeak by. Who’s willing to take the over?

If you have questions about the approach, or wonder how things would change if I split up playing time differently or used different projected production for the coming season, put it in the comments.

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