In lieu of a full “preview” of the Nationals’ 2014 season, I want to look at one of the main questions about the team going in to the season, which is whether they can improve their production on offense. In 2013 the Nationals were an average National League offense. They scored 656 runs, just above the NL average of 649 runs.
I’d like to look at why the Nationals were merely average last year, why we think they are better than this, and also look at how they might get better in 2014. Many other people have already cited the poor performance of the Nationals’ bench last year (including Dave Cameron on Fangraphs); and my suggestions are broadly in line with this diagnosis. I’ll offer some development of the fairly common idea that there is a lot of room for improvement in certain parts of the Nationals’ batting order. My optimistic take is that it would not be difficult for them to get about 40 percent more offense from 20 percent of their lineup. That would be about an 8 percent improvement overall, which is real money in this part of the world.
As we discuss the Nationals’ 2013 season, I will look at an index statistic which is related to runs scored, called weighted Runs Created, or wRC+. This statistic attempts to capture a player’s overall run production or contribution to team offense. wRC+ gives MLB-average run production a value of 100, and looks at the percentage by which you surpass or fall short of this level. For example, a player with a 103 wRC+, such as Washington’s Adam LaRoche, outperformed MLB average by 3 percent. Washington’s Denard Span, at 97 wRC+, underperformed MLB average by 3 percent.
Although wRC+ is a stat for individual players, you can also apply it to teams by looking at the team’s total plate appearances for the year. wRC+ involves a more complex formula than simply adding up a team’s runs, but the two methods for assessing a team’s offensive performance are convergent.
For instance, in 2013 the Nationals had a wRC+ of 95, which was just above the NL average wRC+ of 93.9. (The National League team average is less than 100 because pitchers bat in the NL, and bring down the team and league wRC+ averages). The Nats’ total of 95 was good for sixth in the NL:
National League offense, 2013 (top seven teams)
Team |
PA |
HR |
R |
RBI |
ISO |
BABIP |
AVG |
OBP |
SLG |
wRC+ |
Cardinals |
6202 |
125 |
783 |
745 |
0.133 |
0.314 |
0.269 |
0.332 |
0.401 |
106 |
Dodgers |
6145 |
138 |
649 |
618 |
0.133 |
0.308 |
0.264 |
0.326 |
0.396 |
104 |
Braves |
6133 |
181 |
688 |
656 |
0.153 |
0.3 |
0.249 |
0.321 |
0.402 |
101 |
Giants |
6168 |
107 |
629 |
596 |
0.121 |
0.304 |
0.26 |
0.320 |
0.381 |
99 |
Pirates |
6135 |
161 |
634 |
603 |
0.151 |
0.294 |
0.245 |
0.313 |
0.396 |
98 |
Reds |
6293 |
155 |
698 |
664 |
0.142 |
0.293 |
0.249 |
0.327 |
0.391 |
97 |
Nationals |
6047 |
161 |
656 |
621 |
0.146 |
0.292 |
0.251 |
0.313 |
0.398 |
95 |
Average |
6141.1 |
143.8 |
648.67 |
616.2 |
0.137 |
0.297 |
0.251 |
0.315 |
0.388 |
93.9 |
Std Dev |
92.1547 |
23.64 |
60.5 |
58.3 |
0.013 |
0.011 |
0.012 |
0.011 |
0.019 |
8.21 |
The Nats were 127 runs behind the Cardinals, and 11 points behind them in wRC+. Can the Nats close this gap in 2014, and get up to around 105 wRC+? Although it’s an obtuse question out of context, we are going to look at several fairly specific ways in which the Nationals might get to 105 wRC+. Doing so would give them a top offense and a much better foundation for a playoff run and success in the playoffs.
As you probably know, the Nats’ offense was very bad in the first half of the season, and very good in the second half. In the first half of the year (through the All-Star break) the Nationals’ offense was at 88 wRC+. This number corresponded in particular to an unimpressive team batting average (.241) and on-base percentage (.301). After the All-Star break, the Nationals caught fire and dramatically improved their offensive performance. They batted .265, their OBP went up to .329, and they out-homered and outscored everyone else in the league.
National League offense, second half 2013 (top seven teams)
Team |
PA |
HR |
R |
RBI |
ISO |
BABIP |
AVG |
OBP |
SLG |
wRC+ |
Dodgers |
2608 |
63 |
289 |
274 |
0.141 |
0.314 |
0.267 |
0.329 |
0.408 |
108 |
Nationals |
2554 |
75 |
299 |
282 |
0.149 |
0.301 |
0.265 |
0.329 |
0.414 |
105 |
Pirates |
2624 |
72 |
277 |
264 |
0.158 |
0.296 |
0.250 |
0.32 |
0.408 |
103 |
Giants |
2571 |
45 |
251 |
240 |
0.116 |
0.299 |
0.256 |
0.322 |
0.372 |
98 |
Cardinals |
2642 |
43 |
321 |
305 |
0.123 |
0.306 |
0.259 |
0.324 |
0.382 |
98 |
Reds |
2587 |
63 |
285 |
268 |
0.138 |
0.291 |
0.247 |
0.327 |
0.385 |
96 |
Braves |
2512 |
67 |
273 |
261 |
0.14 |
0.299 |
0.247 |
0.317 |
0.387 |
96 |
Average |
2564.2 |
56.93 |
265.2 |
252.5 |
0.132 |
0.298 |
0.250 |
0.316 |
0.382 |
92.7 |
Std Dev |
70.4548 |
11.94 |
31.4 |
29.3 |
0.016 |
0.013 |
0.014 |
0.013 |
0.024 |
10.02 |
The second-half statistics provide grounds for optimism going in to 2014, and they also provide our first answer to how the Nats might get up to 105 wRC+ in 2014. Namely, the Nationals should just keep doing what they did from mid-July onwards in 2013!
Although I think we should all be encouraged by how the Nationals finished the season, we shouldn’t forget the beginning either. In fact, the “first half” sample that we have in hand comprised about 60% of the 2013 season’s plate appearances. In addition, there are a couple of other somewhat optimistic analyses available which build up from the full-season data. Anecdotally, these analyses still support giving a little more evaluative weight to the Nationals’ performance in the second half of the season.
As Nationals fans will remember, in 2013 several players from the bench, and players who were fighting injuries, got many more plate appearances than ideally they would have received (Espinosa, Bernadina, Suzuki, Tracy, Lombardozzi, Moore). These players — who each had136 or more at-bats — by and large performed very poorly. They performed far below league average, and often well below their previous career levels. I believe that combinations of playing hurt, playing different positions, and getting irregular turns in the lineup all contributed to their collective poor performance.
Although the effect was at its worst in the first half of the season, the six players got enough playing time to grab 1236 plate appearances, or about 20 percent of the season’s total. And the overall impact on the Nats offense was very damaging, in that the Nats ended up getting a terrible total return from these 1236 plate appearances:
PA |
HR |
R |
RBI |
AVG |
wRC+ |
1236 |
18 |
95 |
97 |
.214 |
54 |
Leaving aside a couple of nuances, the Nats’ 2013 performance from these plate appearances is comparable to having two players hitting .214 with 9 homers each (etc.) batting 7^{th} and 8^{th} in your lineup, for every game of the season. In terms of wRC+, two spots in the Nationals’ lineup — not including the pitcher — were performing at levels almost 50 percent below league average.
But we can also look at various bright sides. To begin with, if two spots in the batting order were at 54 wRC+ for the year, the rest of the lineup must have been doing pretty well to post an overall 95 wRC+. More precisely, if 20 percent of the Nationals 2013 plate appearances were at 54 wRC+, what did we get from the remaining 80 percent?
The answer is actually 105 wRC+, or five percent above MLB-average run production. This is a more intriguing exposition of the Nationals’ offensive potential. If you subtract the contributions of six struggling players who got an atypically high number of at bats in 2013, you get a full-season offensive number which would have topped the National League. This is the second way for the Nationals to get up to 105 wRC+.
Of course, as a practical matter, we can’t simply eliminate ~1200 plate appearances from the Nationals’ season. They had around 6000 plate appearances in 2013, and they will have a similar number in 2014. But we can ask who might take those ~1200 plate appearances in 2014, as opposed to the players who got them in 2013. And we can look at what sort of composite wRC+ the 2014 replacements might produce with those ~1200 plate appearances.
This is a story about who was hurt on the Nationals in 2013, who else emerged in 2013, and who they picked up in the offseason. In some ways, this is going to be a pretty casual exercise, in that I’m simply going to apply various numbers from last season to 2014. But I think the results still have some value.
- Bryce Harper (LF) played 118 games in 2013, with a total of 497 plate appearances. For present purposes, I will assume that his plate appearances go up to 600 in 2014. And I’m going to assume that he repeats his 2013 wRC+ number of 137, or 37 percent above MLB average. That is to say, Harper gets 100 of the ~1200 available plate appearances, at a wRC+ of 137.
- Wilson Ramos (C) played 78 games in 2013, with a total of 303 plate appearances. For present purposes, I’ll assume that Ramos’ plate appearances go up to 450. So he gets 150 of the available ~1200 plate appearances, at his 2013 wRC+ of 114.
- Anthony Rendon (2B) played 98 games in 2013, with a total of 394 plate appearances. For present purposes, I’ll assume his plate appearances go up to ~600; so he gets 200 of the 1200 plate appearances, at his 2013 wRC+ of 100.
- Nate McLouth (OF) is an offseason free agent pickup for the Nationals who is slated to be their fourth outfielder. I am making a very casual estimate that he will get about 250 plate appearances in 2014, at his 2013 wRC+ of 100.
- Jose Lobaton (C) is an offseason free agent pickup for the Nationals who will back up Wilson Ramos at catcher. For present purposes I will assume that Lobaton gets 150 plate appearances in 2014, at his career wRC+ of 87. His wRC+ was 103 in 2013, but I’m going to going with a more conservative number.
These assignments take 850 of the 1236 plate appearances in question, with a balance of 386. I’m going to assume that the remaining 386 plate appearances go to players to be named later, and that these players perform at 80 wRC+. More and less conservative estimates would of course yield different outcomes.
Note that the plate appearance figures listed below for Harper, Rendon, and Ramos are not all the at-bats they will presumably get in 2014. The figures in the table below are the at-bats beyond their 2013 totals which, we hope, will cut in to the ~1200 at bats last year in which the Nats performed very poorly.
Here is what we get on the present assignments:
Player |
PA |
Percent of Avail PA’s |
Assumed wRC+ |
Raw input to composite wRC+ |
Bryce Harper |
100 |
8% |
137 |
11.1 |
Wilson Ramos |
150 |
12% |
114 |
13.8 |
Anthony Rendon |
200 |
16% |
100 |
16.2 |
Nate McLouth |
250 |
20% |
100 |
20.2 |
Jose Lobaton |
150 |
12% |
87 |
10.6 |
Others |
386 |
31% |
80 |
25.0 |
Total PA |
1236 |
100% |
Composite wRC+ |
96.9 |
The above paints a scenario in which the Nationals get a 42-point wRC+ improvement from 20 percent of their plate appearances, by relying on healthier starters, and on a better performing bench. If we combine these improved figures with the other 80 percent of the Nationals’ 2013 offensive performance, we get a full-season figure of 103.6 wRC+. This is the third and final way for the Nationals to (almost) get to 105 wRC+ for 2014. My discussion has not been free of speculation, assumptions, and shortcuts. But I think we are right to focus on the areas where the Nats performed worst in 2013, and on simple ways in which they might get better in 2014.