Washington Nationals 2012 first-half team report card

"I got an 'A'! We're all going out for snow cones!" (Not an actual quote.)

Ah, the All-Star Break! It's a time to relax and enjoy the best that baseball has to offer: a stable 3 or 4 days to do statistical analysis. That's right, it's time to bust out the notoriously unforgiving Doghouse Curve and see where the Nationals land. I took a look at the Nats' overall performance, as well as the team performance in starting pitching, relief pitching, offense, defense, and luck. I compared each to league average and assigned them a letter grade ("A" = serious playoff contender, "C" = NL average, "F" = serious #1 draft pick contender). "Luck" isn't so much a grade as a guess at how fluky the results based on the underlying performance. The "overall" grade isn't the average of the other grades, it's a rating of how good the team's record is.

This has been quite an extraordinary season so far. All you have to do is compare this year's grades with those from the same time last year. I also put up my first-quarter grades for comparison:

2012 AS Break 2012 1st Quarter 2011 AS Break
Overall A A- C
Offense C D+ D
Starting Pitching A- A C
Relief Pitching B- B C
Defense B- C+ B+
Luck Somewhat lucky Somewhat lucky Slightly unlucky

What a difference a year makes! After the jump, I explain the thinking behind each grade. Stats current as of the games of 08 July courtesy fangraphs and baseball-reference.

Overall: A

Despite last night's embarrassing loss, the Nats are currently 15 games over .500 with a record of 49-34. They are first place in the NL East by 4 games over Atlanta, and they are also first place in the whole NL (2 games ahead of 2nd-place Pittsburgh--who saw that coming in Spring?). They are outscoring their opponents by 0.7 runs per game, and are 0.6 runs per game better than the average NL team by Simple Rating System (tied for best in the NL). I never thought I'd be looking here this season, but coolstandings has Washington with 56.8% chance of winning the division, an additional 21.3% chance of hitting one of the WC spots, and overall 78.2% odds of making the playoffs. That's serious playoff contention. The only thing keeping the overall grade from being an "A+" is the smallish lead over the rest of division/league.

Offense: C

The boys got off to a slow start with the bats, putting up weak run totals early despite some good fundamentals, mainly because of a lack of power. Since then, Bryce Harper and Tyler Moore have hit their way into notice, and Ryan Zimmerman has been cortisone-boosting past a nagging injury. Has that been "enough"? Right now that Nats are hitting .251/.314/.414 with a 96 wRC+. That's 8th in AVG, 11th in OBP, 6th in SLG, and 6th in wRC+. They strike out 21.6% of the time (3rd worst) and walk 8.0% of the time (10th). They have 90 HR (5th), 59 SB (7th), and are worst in the league in baserunning, at 11.4 runs below average (although a third of that is from pitcher baserunning... our starters hit well, but they're not taking the extra base). Overall, Washington is scoring 4.19 runs per game, which is 9th in the NL (league average is 4.22 R/G). Remember earlier in the year when we were wondering what the team could do, "if only they had league-average offense"? Well, they've got it now.

Starting Pitching: A-

The Nationals' starting rotation is best in the the league in ERA (3.25), FIP (3.37), WAR (9.9), and K% (22.0%). They are tied for fewest baserunners allowed (1.19 WHIP). They are 2nd in xFIP (3.60), SIERA (3.66), and HR/9 (0.76), but only 9th in BB% (7.6%). Their ERA- is 82, meaning they allow 18% fewer park-adjusted runs than NL-average (again, best in the league). A full 65% of starts are Quality Starts (3rd in the NL). However, the starters are only averaging a hair under 6 IP per start, which is 8th in the league. That takes half a grade off of what is otherwise unquestionably the best rotation in the league, that and the ballooning walk rate.

Relief Pitching: B-

The bullpen is 4th in ERA (3.13), 2nd in FIP (2.45), 10th in xFIP (3.95), and tied for 3rd in WAR (2.7). They are tied for 7th in K% (22.4%) and are 10th in BB% (9.6%), although they allow the fewest HRs (0.70 HR/9) and are tied for 4th-fewest baserunners (1.23 WHIP). They are tied for 7th-fewest inherited runners allowed to score (27%), which is slightly better than league average (29%). They have recorded a league-leading 88 Shutdowns in 233 appearances, while their 35 Meltdowns are tied for 6th-fewest. Note that Nats' relievers lead the league in average leverage index, which means that they're pitching in key situations (close game, late) more often than any other team's relievers. The bullpen has put up some decent results, and it's still above average, but it has slipped from its first-quarter pace, with fewer Ks, more walks, and more inherited runners scoring. I nearly gave them a C+.

Defense: B-

The Nationals are tied for 7th in FP (.984) with 49 errors on the season (4th best). The advanced stats are all over the place: they're10 runs above average by TZR (4th in the NL), 18 runs below average by DRS (10th), and 0.1 runs below average by UZR (9th). Still, they're turning 70.7% of all balls in play into outs, which is 2nd-best in the league (by 0.1%). Together with the pitching, they're allowing the fewest runs in the NL, 3.49 per game. This is a mixed picture behind decent results, but the trend is favorable compared to the first quarter.

Luck: Somewhat Lucky

Again, "luck" is my attempt to estimate whether the results above are from fluky performance or sound fundamentals. It's a guess at how likely it is that the next report card will be better or worse than this one. First up, the Nats have a batting average on balls in play (BAbip, or "hitting luck") of .298, which is right around the NL average of .299 (neutral luck). The Nats ERA is 0.19 runs better than their FIP, and 0.51 runs better than their xFIP (somewhat lucky). Pitchers have stranded 75.7% of runners, 2nd-most in the NL--average is 72.4% (lucky). Finally, the "expected' record based on runs scored and allowed is 48-35, making the actual record 1 win luckier. The Nats continue to be a bit lucky, mainly with stranding baserunners and keeping down opposing HRs.

So, how are we doing?

The Nationals are currently on a playoff pace, especially if they can maintain their recent offensive surge. The falloff in bullpen performance is a bit worrying, but we can hope for better in the second half with the return of Drew Storen, the release of Brad Lidge, and the optioning of Ryan Perry for reconfiguration as a starter. The starters have been dominant, although a bit less dominant than in the first quarter--I'm looking at you, Chien-Ming Wang! And with Strasburg's shutdown sometime in the stretch, we'll be counting on John Lannan or some sort of Rizzo majik to keep that pitching dominant. With only a league-average offense, the pitching can't be merely above average for the Nats to be contenders, it has to be dominant.

As always, if you disagree with my grades, please add your take in the comments.

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