October 16, 2019

Statistically Speaking: Batting Expectations

From an offensive standpoint, the first half of the Washington Nationals’ 2014 has been fair to middling. Ranking sixth, seventh, and tenth in weighted on base average, weighted runs created plus, and wins above replacement, respectively, in the National League, the team thus far as produced runs at a slightly disappointing level, given the level and depth of hitting and run producing talent the lineup carries. Despite this mildly disappointing aspect of the Nationals’ 2014 season, the team has remained within shouting distance of first place in the NL East, making the expected unfulfilled, at least, as of yet.

A statistic that can be used to gauge the variation between expected and observed tendencies in hitting and help discern whether a spike or a slump in production is a product of skill or some other variable is batting average on balls in play, otherwise known as BABIP. Simply put, it measures how often a ball put in play by a hitter ends up a hit by taking their batted ball profile into account. As a rule of thumb, BABIP sits around .300, but can vary greatly between players and even between individual player seasons. From BABIP, additional calculations can be performed to derive a hitter’s expected BABIP (xBABIP), which can further refine the ramifications of a batted ball profile. While there are a number a methods to calculate xBABIP, the following is felt to be the most accurate:

xBABIP = 0.392 + (LD% x 0.287709436) + ((GB% – (GB% * IFH%)) x -0.152 ) + ((FB% – (FB% x HR/FB%) – (FB% x IFFB%)) x -0.188) + ((IFFB% * FB%) x -0.835) + ((IFH% * GB%) x 0.500)

…where LD% is line drive rate, GB% is ground ball rate, IFH% is infield hit rate, FB% is fly ball rate, HR/FB% is home runs per fly ball rate, and IFFB% is infield fly ball rate.

With the combination of BABIP and xBABIP, some of the more finicky aspects of a player’s season can be parsed out and determined as something that is indicative of a player’s skill, or something outside of his control and is one way to take stock of player performance at the halfway point and determine whether a streak or a slump will carry on into the summer months. Below, I have provided the career (cBABIP), 2013 (BABIP 2013), and 2014 (2014 BABIP) BABIPs as well as the projected 2014 BABIP based on 2013 numbers and the expected BABIP for the rest of the season (xBABIP 2014) based on this year’s performance thus far for the eleven Nats hitters who have had at last 100 plate appearances this year. With these values, we can identify Nats hitters who might be due for an uptick or drop in production based on their batted ball rates thus far; this can also be compared to last year’s numbers as well as career values to find help determine whether the waxing or waning of their 2014 BABIP is something that could be indicative of skill, or perhaps other variables, such as an injury, a change in hitting approach, a change in pitcher approach, or how a defense plays a hitter in terms of alignment or shifting:

red=decrease greater than 5 points in BABIP; yellow=increase or decrease of 0-5 BABIP points; green= increase in BABIP greater than 5 points.

cBABIP = career BABIP; xBABIP_proj = xBABIP using 2013 end of season stats. Red = decrease greater than 5 points in BABIP; yellow = increase or decrease of 0-5 BABIP points; green = increase in BABIP greater than 5 points. Difference in BABIP points measured based on previous column.

With the help of the color coding, we see that Ryan Zimmerman’s BABIP is pretty resistant to change, with the respective BABIP values over his career, 2013, and throughout this year staying within a couple of points of one another. On the other hand, Jayson Werth’s fantastic start to this year hasn’t fulfilled expectations that were in place using his final 2013 batted ball values, but is still in line with his career BABIP, which is encouraging. However, using up-to-date values and calculating his 2014 xBABIP, it appears he will possibly suffer a light drop in productivity. Adam LaRoche’s season has been a positive across the board in comparison to both last year and his career averages and appears to have the potential to get even better. We can also hope to see a over-correction in Denard Span’s BABIP later this season, eclipsing both his current and career BABIP.

The calculations for BABIP/xBABIP are based on batted ball data and as such, the swings in these values across and within a season can be caused by changed in one or many of these stats. Research has found that while BABIP itself does not correlate strongly year to year, metrics like GB% and HR/FB% can, thus providing additional layers of complexity when looking at the above table. With that in mind, provided below are each player’s change in the batted ball rates inherent to xBABIP, to help identify what is truly at the root of any egregious disparities in BABIP or xBABIP. First, differences between 2014 and 2013 data:

 

Player dLD% dGB% dFB% dIFFB% dHR/FB% dIFH%
Adam LaRoche 3.20% -2.10% -1.10% 1.30% 2.80% -8.10%
Anthony Rendon -5.50% -1.30% 6.80% -2.20% 3.50% -0.70%
Jayson Werth -7.80% 3.80% 3.90% 1.00% -10.60% -11.20%
Ryan Zimmerman -2.30% 0.10% 2.20% -4.10% -10.90% -12.20%
Wilson Ramos 5.70% -5.40% -0.30% 0.80% -19.30% -23.80%
Ian Desmond -6.70% 4.80% 1.90% 4.40% 5.40% -4.70%
Bryce Harper 0.10% -1.00% 0.90% -2.10% -13.80% -11.70%
Denard Span 0.30% -10.80% 10.50% -1.40% -2.40% 2.20%
Danny Espinosa 12.00% -8.80% -3.20% 7.50% 5.40% -1.90%
Kevin Frandsen 2.40% -5.50% 3.00% 10.10% -6.00% -7.40%
Nate McLouth -17.00% 15.80% 1.20% 1.90% -4.50% -3.30%
Jose Lobaton -1.40% 3.30% -1.90% -7.20% -3.20% -5.70%

…and here, differences in 2014 data compared to career averages:

Player dcLD% dcGB% dcFB% dcIFFB% dcHR/FB% dcIFH%
Adam LaRoche 3.90% -3.00% -0.90% -1.50% 0.50% 1.50%
Anthony Rendon -2.80% -0.60% 3.40% -1.00% 1.60% 0.70%
Jayson Werth -2.60% 1.30% 1.30% 2.60% -6.80% -0.30%
Ryan Zimmerman 0.10% 0.60% -0.70% -2.80% -6.70% -2.60%
Wilson Ramos 7.90% -1.50% -6.30% -2.20% -7.40% -0.50%
Ian Desmond -2.20% -0.70% 2.90% 4.20% 5.90% 1.00%
Bryce Harper -1.20% 0.20% 1.00% -2.80% -11.70% 0.60%
Denard Span 2.20% -9.40% 7.30% 2.70% -2.80% -1.80%
Danny Espinosa 5.30% -3.20% -2.10% 1.50% -0.30% 0.10%
Kevin Frandsen 1.70% -2.70% 1.00% 6.40% -2.40% -3.30%
Nate McLouth -11.30% 14.90% -3.60% -0.50% -6.50% -2.50%
Jose Lobaton 0.80% 1.30% -2.10% -5.20% -0.30% -1.60%

 

With both of these tables, positive numbers indicate 2014 data being an improvement over either 2013 or career averages. Overall, we see the volatility in year-to-year BABIP values reflected in the batted ball data, consistent with the effects of injury and game-to-game changes in hitting approach and defensive alignments being played out over a small period of time. Looking at the 2014 compared to career averages, we do see some significant changes in Denard Span’s ground ball rates, as well as with Bryce Harper’s HR/FB%; however, given the comparative lack of games played by Harper due to both MLB service time and injury, these values can be expected to swing a wildly as his year-to-year values for the moment. Other changes of interest include the career decline reflected in Nate McLouth’s numbers and the change in line drive and homer run rates for Wilson Ramos, possibly a reflection of an injury-marred career more so than a change in hitting philosophy.

Converting expectations into actual results is a precarious endeavor and can take unexpected turns during the course of a season; slumps, injuries, even the fashion in which opposing defenses line up for a given hitter can all make the most obvious and conservative of projections worthless, or at the least, frivolous.  However, with xBABIP, we are provided a more refined and data-driven approach to prognosticating what’s in store for Nats hitter come the second half of the season.

***

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs; current as of July 7th.

Washington Nationals have work to do in second half

The Washington Nationals were on every prognosticator’s pre-season short list of World Series contenders. No less an authority on the team than its manager, Davey Johnson, proclaimed this season — his last as a manager in the Major Leagues — as “World Series or Bust.” His words. But through the first 96 games of this season, the Nats have hardly looked like a championship caliber club.

Testament to that is their record: a pedestrian one game over .500 at 48-47, six games behind the Atlanta Braves in the N.L. East and five games off the pace for a wild card spot behind the Cincinnati Reds. Their only consistency has been inconsistency. Wallowing in mediocrity thus far, their longest winning streak was five games; longest losing streak was four, twice.

Here’s the kicker: they are outplaying their run differential by two games. Things could (should) actually be worse.

As expected, their pitching, especially their starters, have led the way. The Nats are fifth in the league in fewest runs allowed per game, fifth in lowest ERA, first in fewest walks allowed, fifth in strikeouts per nine innings and second in K/BB rate.

It’s in the other two areas where the Nationals weaknesses are being exposed. According to most metrics, the Nats defense is below-average-to-poor this season. They are tied with the Dodgers for the most errors committed, third from the worst fielding percentage, and sixth-worst in Baseball-Reference.com’s Defensive Efficiency, which takes into account fielding and pitching statistics.

As for hitting, the Nationals are, simply, atrocious.

Their cumulative slash line of .241/.301/.385 is “good” for 13th, 14th and 12th in the National League. They are, not surprisingly, next-to-last in runs scored per game, above only the quad-A Marlins.

Their struggles at the plate are evident up and down the lineup. Denard Span, traded for over the off-season to be the everyday leadoff hitting center fielder, is hitting .260/.317/.355 overall and .143/.208/.163 against left-handers.

Span’s problems have prompted GM Mike Rizzo to trade for Scott Hairston, a right-handed batter, to give Span the day off against tough lefties. Manager Davey Johnson took matters into his own hands Sunday, the last game before the break, when he dropped Span into the seventh spot in the lineup and moved Bryce Harper into the leadoff spot.

Everyone associated with the team would prefer seeing Harper in a more run-producing spot in the lineup and not hitting after the pitcher’s spot two or three times a night, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth are performing pretty much as expected, but after that, it’s a laundry list of disappointment.

Ryan Zimmerman is on pace for just 20 home runs. Adam LaRoche is hitting .184/.242/.322 against left-handers. Danny Espinosa was so bad for so long he was placed on the D.L., then demoted, and replaced by a rookie who was forced to switch positions and learn how to place second base in the big leagues.

In fact, Anthony Rendon (.301/.352/.460) qualifies as the only Nats hitter exceeding expectations at this point.

And the bench has been an unmitigated disaster area.

The only solace Nats fans can take with them into the All-Star break is the knowledge that traditionally, many of the Nats hitters have been better second half of the season performers.

We’ve seen the offense get marginally better with the return to health of Harper, Werth and Ramos, and the promotion of Rendon. During a recent stretch, the team scored more than 8 runs in five out of eight games, all wins. Then, a 2-5 trip through Philly and Miami brought back all the offensive woes the team has experienced all season long.

There aren’t any quick fixes either. Rizzo has his hands tied to find legitimate help for the batting order. All the guys that are in the lineup are players the Nats counted on to be part of a championship unit. Replacing any of them will be extremely difficult. We saw in the first half how long the Nats were willing to allow Espinosa to fight out of his problems.

The Nats traded an important asset for Span to be the leadoff hitter for the next two years. They chose LaRoche over Michael Morse and signed him to a two-year deal to hold down first base. Zimmerman is the face of the franchise and supposed to be entering the prime of his career. Werth and Desmond are playing at the peak of their abilities at this stage in their career, warts and all. Wilson Ramos is just coming back from injury. Rendon has fewer than 250 big league plate appearances.

You just can’t replace these guys.

If Rizzo wants to make a roster change, it could be for another starting pitcher. Ross Detwiler has struggled with back issues again this season. Dan Haren has been horrible up until his last two starts. Taylor Jordan will run out of innings pretty quickly in the second half. If Detwiler doesn’t return to health, Rizzo will have to decide whether to turn to an in-house option like Ross Ohlendorf or Nathan Karns, or go outside the organization to make an expensive acquisition.

Another place Rizzo could turn is to bolster the bench. Hairston was a start, but Chad Tracy (.157/.195/.289) and Roger Bernadina (187/.252/.288) haven’t been tearing the cover off the ball either. Tyler Moore could rediscover his stroke in Syracuse, but the right-handed outfield bat is filled by the veteran Hairston.

The bottom line is that the Nats players on the roster have to hit better in the second half. They need to get better against left-handed pitching. They need to make up for the lack of on-base skills with more power. The changes need to come from within. All these players, except for Harper and Rendon, have track records and for the most part, they aren’t living up to their career standards.

The Braves aren’t out of reach, and they have mounting injury problems of their own. The Nats start the second half with 20 out of their next 25 games at home, where they play at a 99-win pace. They absolutely must take advantage of the vagaries of the schedule and close the gap over the next month.

If the Nats aren’t a game or two within first place by Aug. 15, they’ll be facing an uphill battle, as 20 of 26 games between then and Sept. 12 are on the road, where they’ve played to a 68-win pace so far this season.

Oh, and it would help if the Nats actually beat the Braves a few times in the nine games they have left to play against them this season. So far, they’re 3-7 against the division leader, with 20 runs scored and 40 runs against.

This Nats team is still the same one that most folks had in spring training to win the division and represent the N.L. in the World Series. They are as healthy as they’ve been all season long. They have two extended homestands to open the second half. Many of the players are notorious second-half hitters. It’s time for this team to live up to the hype.

Washington Nationals Game 80 Review: Team of destiny?

Adam LaRoche pumps fist after watching the winning run score on Washington Nationals 1924 Throwback Night, 7/05/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

There are times during the season when you look at a situation in a game, say down 5-1 in the seventh inning to one of the game’s elite pitchers — who’s already thrown a no-hitter in the season — and you’ve only managed five hits all night long… you have to wonder about your chances of getting back into the game. And that’s against a team that’s only given up two leads of three or more runs all season long?

You’d probably be forgiven if you had given up and cleaned up your closet or something. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals Game 79 Review: Nats batter Bumgarner; beat Giants 9-4

Happy 4th of July from Nationals Park, 7/04/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

For about 10 days now the Washington Nationals have been beating up pitchers on an almost daily basis. On Independence Day in the Nation’s Capital, one of the best pitchers in the National League suffered the same fate.

The San Francisco Giants came to D.C. with the second best record in the National League, thanks mostly to their dominant pitching staff. On Tuesday, the Nats knocked two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum out after eight runs in 3 1/3 innings. On Wednesday, they got to Madison Bumgarner, who entered play with a 2.85 ERA — and left with a 3.57 mark after surrendering seven earned runs on nine hits and a walk in a 9-4 loss to the surging Nationals. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals Game 78 Review: Offense paces 9-3 win over Giants

Another storm passed through DC during the top of the 7th inning at Nationals Park which caused an 85-minute rain delay. 7/03/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

A week ago, the Washington Nationals had trouble putting two runs together, losing three out of four games to Baltimore and Colorado, scoring seven runs total in the four games. But since that second game against the Rockies, the Nats hitters haven’t missed much and the hit parade continued in Nats Park last night. [Read more…]

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