Rich Tandler's Nationals blog.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

For Real or Smoke and Mirrors?

The Washington Nationals, for those of you who haven't noticed, are 17-13 going into Sunday's game in San Francisco and are sporting the third-best winning percentage among the NL's non-division leaders and fith-best overall. Not bad for a team picked almost unanimously to finish dead last in the NL East.

Can they keep it up and contend for a playoff spot this year, about, oh, 10 years before anyone thought they would?

Certainly, there's a long way to go, but we're far enough along so that we can begin to gather some clues as to whether this relatively hot start can last into the dog days of summer. Statistics start to take on some meaning after 30 games, to the point where we can have a degree of confidence, albeit a small one, in what they tell us.

One thing I always look for when a team is performing considerably over expectations is whether or not it is performing considerably better than its stats. It's simple, really. It's very unusual for a team with poor batting stats to score a lot of runs over the course of a full season. Such a team is usually getting it done with the proverbial smoke and mirrors. As the season wears on, it's much more likely that its run production will be dragged down to the level of the stats than the numbers rising to meet the runs scored. Conversely, a team that is scoring considerably fewer runs that one might expect from its stats will tend to start to score more runs as time goes by.

Keeping it simple here (not much purpose in putting too fine a point on it after less than a fifth of a season), the main factors in scoring runs are getting on base, statistically expressed as On-Base Percentage or OBP and moving those who get on base further towards home, expressed as Total Bases or TB. A team among the league leaders in these areas should be among the leaders in runs scored and a team performing poorly here will not get many runs across the plate.

The Nats have scored 140 runs, eighth in the NL. However, their OBP of .342 is fourth in the league as is their TB number of 452.

They should be scoring more runs than they are and, if they keep it up, the chances are that they will cross the plate more. The chances are also good that they could maintain their current run production even if their OBP and TB numbers fall off significantly.

On the pitching and defense side of the ledger, the picture is similar. The Nats have allowed 133 runs, the tenth-best performance in the league. However they've yielded their opponents just 316 Total Bases, second-best in the NL. Their opponents' OBP of .333 is tenth. They're underachieving slightly here as well.

Certainly, you don't want to put too much into all of this. It's only brought up to point out that the Nationals have not built their record on smoke and mirrors. They haven't been lucky; one could argue, in fact, that they've been a bit unlucky.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Do 10 Rights Make a Wrong?

When Joey Eischen went on the disabled list, the Nationals called up an outfielder to replace him on the roster. That left the team with 10 righthanded pitchers and no southpaws on the staff. This flies in the face of baseball convention, which dictates that 11 pitchers be on the roster and that a least one, preferably more, by lefties.

The first part, the one about the numbers, can be answered in two parts. First, Tony Armas is scheduled to come off of the disabled list early next week and there's no point is shuttling someone up from New Orleans to fill that 11th spot when he's just going to get sent down again. Second, if you don't have a lefty reliever, why hold a slot on the roster for one? You can choose between having another righty setup man, one who could be getting in some time on the mound in New Orleans or another bat on the bench. The bat on the bench seems to be the way that Frank Robinson has chosen to go.

Yes, it would be great if the team could make a phone call and either call up a lefty or trade for one for a reasonable price. But there are no lefthanders who are ready in the system and the trade premium for lefties is always high. It's better to have a mediocre righty going out there then a southpaw who is either not ready or highly substandard.

You can't put a 25-man roster together based on the players you wish you had, you have to work with what you've got. The current situation is a byproduct of the years of neglect of the minor league system. It's shameful that there is not a single lefthanded pitcher in the organization who can fill in the void.

But it is what it is.