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Have charts, will bore

Here's a little inside Federal Baseball baseball for you---

Generally speaking, I go through phases while blogging. At the basest level, the sum of the phases essentially creates a dichotomy: whether I give some effort or mail it in. Brothers and sisters, you probably can tell that it doesn't take a team to be twenty games below the .500 mark for me to opt for the latter, but I assure you that such a situation does not hurt those matters in the slightest. But, when I do expend some effort here, I go through those phases. Sometimes, I try to get creative, occasionally in a Ballwonkian sense; I don't believe I do so particularly well, but at least it's evidence that I'm pushing the limits of my abilities, such that they are. Other times, I try to focus on the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts issues facing the team, but I really don't have the dedication to commit to such things in the manner that other Nats blogs, like Capitol Punishment, Nats Farm Authority, OMG, Beltway Boys, Curly W, Just a Nats Fan, Nats Triple Play, and other blogs definitely worthy of your attention exhibit in various means and manners. And, at another end of the spectrum, as you well know by now, I am most comfortable with long-form, broadly-themed posts when I can write to my heart's content, and where appropriate---or where by force of shoe-horned will---I can analyze the team's current state through the prism of Die Hard or Star Wars or something dumb like that. But that takes time, time I (often) don't have. (That's a paraphrased line from Die Hard II, by the way.) Still other times, I like to throw out some numbers and see where they stick.

I apologize for going all meta-reference here, and if you're guessing this is going to be a "blogosphere is great because it's the sum of its parts" post, well, you're way off course. This introduction is to tell you that I'm feeling lazy, don't at the moment have regular at-home internet access, and have recently taken a shining to a very dangerous device in such a state: the HTML table.

Ah. I'm basically looking for something to make a table out of, because tables look impressive and all. It's sort of like teh internets' version of a British accent. I recently attended a seminar with a British keynote speaker, and believe you me, the guy could have been reciting dialogue from Con Air and I would have been captivated.

So . . . HTML tables. Sounds good. But of what? Something simple, something pithy, something decidedly non-mindblowing, something inconsequential that would appear fun to study.

Something from a Tom Boswell column? Perfect!

* * * *

In his latest effort, Boz bemoans the shabby state of the Nats' pitching. Well, he would have, had he merely bemoaned and were the Nats' pitching merely shabby. It's more accurate to say that Boz wigs out over the Nats' putridly craptastic pitching. That's more like it. At one point, Boz characterizes the pitiful core of Washington's staff as "a standing reproach to general manager Jim ("Pitching, Pitching, Pitching") Bowden and his two seasons of hollow words."

Hey, that's a good line.

Anyway, the thrust of Boz's blade comes in an historical indictment of the current pitching staff, in which he writes:

The Nationals don't need good pitching. They just need pitching that is not sub-professional.

The Hernandez trade, which acquired two supposedly substantial Arizona rotation prospects, may eventually prove wise. But that doesn't change the raw reality that, after losing Esteban Loaiza to off-season free agency, and Brian Lawrence to spring-training injury, the Nats are currently "showcasing" the worst Washington rotation of my lifetime.

I generally disagree with the first sentence in the sense that good pitching would be rather nice to have, but it is the last sentence that intrigues me. I know what Boz is saying: the rotation, right now, is worse than any Washington rotation in his lifetime. For our purposes, that's rather untestable---or, given the effort I'm willing to expend, not able to be tested at current. For, if we were to do it right, we'd search for a Washington rotation, at any given point in time, that was worse than what we're seeing this very minute. And that would take a lot of work to determine. (Once again, the password is . . . lazy.)

So, I wish to rephrase the query a bit to make it broader and more workable: Is this the worst Washington pitching staff in Boz's lifetime? By way of reference, Boz was born in 1948. I sincerely doubt he holds many first-hand memories of, say, the '49 Senators, but what the heck: We'll look at 1948-onward. And, if you're in a lazy mood, here's where those missing thirty-three years become a bit of an asset.

My apologies in advance for the previous statement.

* * * *

Anyway, we'll do this all simple-like. Okay, maybe not as simply as possible (straight-up ERA), but fairly close. We'll look at both ERA and ERA+, which is the ratio of the league's ERA (adjusted to the pitcher's ballpark) to that of the pitcher---where, here, "pitcher" is actually "pitching staff." The measure is scaled in either direction from 100; thus, an ERA+ of greater than 100 is above-average and an ERA+ of less than 100 is below-average.

Stated another way, we're looking for the junk less than 100. So, without further ado, let's stack 'em, pack 'em, and rack 'em. And, yes, that's also a line from Die Hard II.

SENATORS I (1948-60)

1948 4.65 93
1949 5.10 83
1950 4.66 96
1951 4.49 91
1952 3.37 106
1953 3.66 107
1954 3.84 93
1955 4.62 83
1956 5.33 81
1957 4.85 80
1958 4.53 84
1959 4.01 97
1960 3.77 103

As we can see, ERA+ captures league-wide scoring in a more sophisticated fashion than simple ERA, in the sense that ERA+ does so and ERA doesn't at all. For instance, the 1948 club, celebrating the year of Boz's birth with a middling 4.65 team ERA, posted a 93 ERA+, whereas the 1954 club, celebrating Boz's foray into kindergarten with a much better looking 3.84 team ERA, posted . . . a 93 ERA+. Moreover, the Washington team with the best ERA over that span didn't have the best ERA+, and the Washington team with the worst ERA over that span didn't have the worst ERA+.

Like it or lump it, I'm taking as our best (that is to say, worst) competitor for the Boswellian Prize the 1957 club, which had the worst ERA+ (80), despite having merely the third-worst straight-up ERA (4.85). Admittedly, it is close; the previous year's team, with an ERA essentially a half-run worse, had an ERA+ of 81. Close, but no cigar. The 1957 staff advances out of the preliminary round.

SENATORS II (1961-71)

1961 4.23 95
1962 4.04 100
1963 4.42 84
1964 3.98 93
1965 3.93 89
1966 3.70 94
1967 3.38 94
1968 3.64 80
1969 3.49 100
1970 3.80 94
1971 3.70 90

This second table illustrates more powerfully the value of an adjusted measure such as ERA+. Take another look at those numbers, if you will. The Senators II went from 1964 until, well, eternity (or Arlington, Texas, depending on your perspective) with team ERAs in the threes---yet, they never beat the league average in ERA+, and only once, once, did they even meet the average square on the nose. In the first chart, the Senators I posted ERAs in the threes on four occasions, and in only one of those seasons was the team ERA+ below the break-even mark of 100. In 1952, Washington had a team ERA of 3.37 and ERA+ of 106; in 1967, Washington had a team ERA of 3.38 and ERA+ of 94.

[Side note: In the latter season, Hondo outslugged the entire team by almost two hundred points.]

This exposition is intended to prepare all of us for the seemingly counterintuitive selection of the 1968 pitcher staff as the Boswellian Prize nominee for the Senators II. That's right: That 1968 pitching staff had precisely the same ERA+ as the 1957 staff, 80, despite having a team ERA that was nearly a run-and-a-quarter lower.

But this apparent mismatch of futility is precisely why ERA+ is worthwhile. The 1968 Senators, despite having a team ERA to-die-for in today's baseball (or, say, in 1930s baseball), were the worst team in the American League because . . . they had the worst pitching in the American League. (They finished seventh in the league in runs scored.)

They were two peas in a pod, those '57 and '68 clubs: both last place clubs, and both with last place pitching. (The 1957 team was eighth---last---in ERA and sixth in runs scored.) Different conditions, same craptasticism.

And now we get to our current Washington Nationals. Last season, as we all know, the pitching was pretty good: 3.87 team ERA, for an ERA+ of 103. This season? Not too good, and trending much worse.

Okay, okay---it's simply wretched and trending off the face of the earth.

Currently, a look at the Nats versus the rest of the NL shows a deplorable 5.06 ERA---worst in the league---and a league-average ERA of 4.52. Before park adjustments, my back-of-the-envelope math yields an ERA+ of 89. By way of contrast, in 1957 the Senators had a 4.85 team ERA when the league average was 3.79; in 1968, those numbers were 3.64 and 2.98, respectively.

Thus, I don't think we can say that the 2006 Nats have the worst pitching staff in Tom Boswell's lifetime . . . yet, that is.

There's still time, though---time, unfortunately, this sorry, no-account excuse for a pitching staff still has.