For teams already out of the playoff race, unfounded optimism about a team’s chances of making next year’s playoffs starts right about now and grows until the last week in spring training. This is how the Cubs end up being playoff favorites, at least in the minds of Cubs fans, every April. Hope springs eternal, but it begins as a seedling in the fall.
The Nationals are projected to win four more games this season to finish with 78 victories on the year, the most since their inaugural season in Washington. A nine win improvement over last season and other factors have Nats fans understandably excited. To kick off the season of building optimism, let’s forecast the Nats’ final record in 2012.
I saw an interesting and admittedly unscientific statistic, reinforced by its name, in ESPN The Magazine. They call it the Fruit Bowl and it takes a team’s negative wins above replacement and adds them to the number of wins a team is expected to get based on its Pythagorean winning percentage, which is based on runs scored and runs against, to come up with the number of wins the team should have had during that season. Let’s use the 2011 Nats’ Fruit Bowl to come up with a baseline record for 2012.
The Nats’ Pythagorean winning percentage this year is .482, nearly identical to the team’s actual winning percentage of .484 before last night’s game. Washington has been neither lucky nor unlucky based on this statistic, so it seems the expected 78 wins this year can be taken as a baseline for next year.
Now let’s add the negative wins above replacement to this number. Wins above replacement are based on the production expected from a readily available player from a team’s bench or minor leagues. Negative wins above replacement means a player played worse than this replacement player. The Nationals had -3.3 WAR from 15 players, including five pitchers’ performance at the plate (don’t worry, this only contributed -.5 WAR, if we count positive hitting WAR for guys like Livan Hernandez we have to count negative WAR).
I’m actually very impressed with the Nats on this front. Matt Stairs accounts for -.6 WAR by himself and another -.5 has been split between September call-ups Steve Lombardozzi and Chris Marrero. Players who were injured or rehabilitating accounted for another -.6 WAR (Chien-Ming Wang, Adam LaRoche, Doug Slaten, Chad Gaudin). I think this shows that, in general, the Nationals made great decisions about who deserved to play in the majors this year and who didn’t (this might be incorrect, I checked a handful of teams on Fangraphs.com and couldn’t find any that had more players than the Nats who contributed negative WAR).
If we add those three wins to the Nationals’ expected record, next year’s teams would be sitting at .500.
Fans are also painfully aware of two stars who missed significant time this season. What if we added their WAR to the Nats final record as a proxy for what we can expect next year? Ryan Zimmerman missed most of April and all of May with an abdominal injury. He’s still contributed 2.4 WAR this season. His average in a healthy season is 6, so let’s add 3.5 wins and the Nats are now at 84.5 victories. Last year, Stephen Strasburg had a WAR of 2.6; two more than in his short time on the mound this season. As long as he’s healthy, it’s probably a conservative bet that his WAR is higher next season.
With 86 or more wins, the Nats could be in the wild card race as early as next season and we didn’t even add in all the irrationally optimistic scenarios where Jayson Werth plays a full season like he has in the past, Jordan Zimmermann pitches a complete season, and Washington signs another high profile free agent. Geez, given the usual buildup we’ll be talking about 100 wins by March 31st. Isn’t it fun being unrealistic?