Thursday, June 16, 2005

Bandwagon team of the week: the Nats

Ryan Drese made Jim Bowden a happy man tonight, throwing 8 shutout innings while only allowing 2 hits. Of course, Bowden should be concerned with the only 3 strikeouts and 4 walks Drese recorded, but then again, Washington has defied statistical explanation throughout their entire streak. Drese is just joining the party.

I want to take a look at Washington's ridiculous run, which officially got started on May 29 against the Cardinals, when they won 3-2 in St. Louis, snapping a 5 game losing skid that saw them tumble from first place to below .500 in a matter of a week. Including that game on the 29th, they won 15 of 17 games, including their famous 10 game streak at the start of the month. What strikes me is that 9 of their 15 wins came by only 1 run. 1 other win was by 2 runs, while 3 more wins came by 3 runs. Only 2 of the 15 were bonafide routs. There are multiple theories concerning teams that win a bunch of 1-run games, with the truth probably lying in a combination of luck, managerial skill, timely hitting, and having a good bullpen.

I would go so far as to argue that RFK Stadium played a large factor in the National's run. This can be filed under the "luck" category, in that they are lucky to play in such a strong pitchers park. The reputation--and the stats--have held true during this streak. Washington won 12 of these 15 games at home, and they surrendered more than 3 runs only 3 times--all against the Atlanta Braves, and they even won 2 of those games. Obviously, credit is due to the pitching staff, and I won't deny them. But I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that RFK is conducive to low-scoring, close games.

As for managerial skill, it's almost impossible to quantify. The criterion traditionally used is record in 1-run games, but that would be begging the question in this case. In my opinion, the manager's most important job is handling his pitching staff, particularly the bullpen. Robinson rode Chad Cordero, Luis Ayala, and Gary Majewski hard over the streak, and Ayala and Cordero delivered. Neither pitcher walked a batter, and gave up 3 earned runs between them in over 20 combined innings. This is rather in line with what they've been doing all season, as Cordero has distinguished himself with the highest expected wins added stat in all of baseball, at 2.825. Ayala isn't close behind, checking in at 10th in baseball and 5th in the NL at 1.741. Majewski didn't pitch as well as the other two, although it's worth noting that in 7 of his 9 appearances during the streak, he did not surrender a run. Take out his one bad outing, and Majewski would look more like the pitcher he's been over the entire season, checking in with a respectable 0.841 expected wins added.

None of the other pitchers in the pen have fared particularly well, either during this streak or during the course of the whole season. As such, none of them got more than 6 innings over the course of the 17 games. It seems like a fairly obvious managerial decision--pitch your good pitchers more often than your bad pitchers--but it's not a choice that every manager makes (Exhibit A: Francona, Terry and Embree, Alan). Robinson rides his starter as long as he can (especially when his name is Livan Hernandez, who went 7, 9, 8, and 5 2/3 innings in his 4 starts), and puts it in the hands of his best relievers. No monkeying around with matchups, either--only 3 of the combined 30 appearances by Cordero, Ayala, and Majewski were for less than an inning. I think it's safe to say that both Robinson and the bullpen have been quite influential.

And that brings us to the hitting. As has happened all year, the Nats carried some dead weight in the lineup. During the streak, the rotten branches were Cristian Guzman (.506 OPS), Jamey Carroll (.516 OPS), Vinny Castilla (.583 OPS), and even Jose Guillen (.628 OPS), reputed to be the team's best hitter before the season. The trio of Brad Wilkerson, Nick Johnson, and Ryan Church carried the team, with all three posting OPS numbers over 1.000 during the streak. Catcher Brian Schneider also made a solid contribution. Bringing RBI into the mix produced some intriguing results. As one might expect, Johnson and Church led the team, recording 11 and 9 RBI, respectively. Despite tearing the cover off the ball, Wilkerson only delivered 3, but that's largely due to his leadoff position in the order. Clearly, his high OBP (.491 during the streak) is a big factor in the high RBI totals of Johnson and Church. Now the counter intuition comes in--Castilla and Guillen, despite their horrid OBP and SLG, managed to drive in 6 and 7 runs during the streak. Even Jamey Carroll of the career .353 SLG (.270 in '05) managed to drive in 4 during the streak, which constitutes exactly 50% of his total this season, and 10% of his career total, which, unfortunately for the Nats, is in its 4th year. What gives with the poorly performing hitters driving in runs? I'd say it's timely hitting, with a sprinkle of good luck mixed in.

So what does this all mean? Well, it's been my convoluted way of showing how the hell the Nats have won so many games while being outscored by their opponents. Are they getting lucky? Sure. But don't overlook Frank Robinson and that bullpen. Granted, Washington cannot expect such dismal performances by Guillen and Castilla to continue producing runs. Both hitters must improve their hitting if Washington is to maintain their lead. While Nick Johnson seems to be finally fulfilling his potential, it's too much to ask him and a rookie like Church carry the offense. We'll see if the veterans can keep the club in contention. Don't put it past Bowden to make another move, like he did for Junior Spivey earlier in the week. Spivey represents a significant upgrade over Carroll, and will only improve Washington's chances of staying in first. We'll see how long this can last. This post brought to you by the Day by Day Database at Baseball Musings.


Anonymous Sean said...

Just remember who was behind the Nats from the very beginning, despite the very best stats or logic telling me otherwise. Hell yeah, go Nats.

Especially if Foulke keeps pitching like ass and killing our chances at victory, jesus.

2:22 AM  

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