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June 29, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL East

National Fever

by Michael Jong

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Last week, we discussed the intriguing downfall of the Florida Marlins, but an equally intriguing upswing occurring this season is the rise of the Washington Nationals. Thanks to a stretch of 12 wins in 14 games and a 17-7 June record, they ascended from being declared playoff-dead a few weeks ago to a third-place standing in the National League East. The Nationals have not necessarily beaten the best competition during this time period; their recent hot streak has come at the expense of three of the worst teams in baseball in the San Diego Padres, Baltimore Orioles, and Seattle Mariners. Still, the story of a team that has occupied the cellar of the NL East in all but one season since its relocation succeeding at reaching a standard of decency not seen from the franchise since 2005 has had some odd twists and turns along the way.

The Nationals have come a long way since, well, being the Natinals and an NL laughingstock. Just two seasons ago, the team was coming off a second consecutive 100-plus loss season, but things were on the rise in Washington. Two consecutive first overall draft picks yielded two of the most-heralded prospects in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, and those two were supposed to join forces with Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and the rest of the roster to form a strong contender in 2013 or 2014. However, the core the Nationals currently have assembled is doing a decent job of carrying the team right now. The club currently has four players with over 2.0 WARP on the season, a claim only nine other teams can make as of Saturday evening. When stacking those players against the rest of the NL East, the Nationals rank appropriately.

Team

Top Four WARP

Total WARP

Top Four%

Philadelphia Phillies

11.0

19.9

56.7

Atlanta Braves

10.0

17.2

61.3

New York Mets

9.6

19.2

53.6

Washington Nationals

9.1

17.2

52.9

Florida Marlins

8.5

12.1

70.2

In addition to their respectable placement among the other NL East teams in terms of both total WARP and WARP from their four best players, it should be noted that the team's top four consists of three players who will be on the team for years to come; only the ageless Livan Hernandez (2.2 WARP) will not be under team control past this season. Those who figure to be a major part of the future are Jayson Werth (32), Danny Espinosa (24), and Jordan Zimmermann (25). Also of note is a player who is not at the top of the WARP list for Washington, franchise player Ryan Zimmerman. Right now, Zimmerman is underperforming his PECOTA projection, hitting at a .257/.341/.405 clip that resembles his 10th percentile projection. As he regresses and stops playing replacement-level baseball (PECOTA has him contributing 1.7 WARP the rest of the season), the Nationals improve.

The numbers shown in the above table also display the team-wide balance of the Mets and Nationals. The two teams have almost identical percentages in terms of Top Four WARP / Total WARP, meaning their performance distribution has been more evenly spread throughout their teams. The most top-heavy team in the NL East is, surprisingly enough, the Marlins, whose four best players this season have accounted for 70 percent of the team's total WARP. The Phillies have not come out very top-heavy, in part because so many of their players are on the “top” side; the Phillies also have four players above 2.0 WARP and have the greatest number of players above 1.0 WARP in the division with 11.

Another possible way of displaying a balanced roster is in avoiding replacement-level or worse contributions by players. In that respect, the Nationals have also excelled.

At or Below Replacement WARP Production

Team

Hitters

Pitchers

Total WARP

PA

WARP

PA

WARP

Washington Nationals

638

-0.9

394

-0.1

-1.0

Philadelphia Phillies

703

-0.9

370

-0.4

-1.3

New York Mets

268

-0.8

181

-0.8

-1.6

Atlanta Braves

793

-1.8

317

-0.4

-2.2

Florida Marlins

475

-1.4

327

-1.0

-2.4

The Nationals have been the best NL East team at avoiding net negative production from their players. Despite 638 plate appearances of replacement-level or worse performance from various hitters, they only lost about one win versus replacement-level talent. Compare that to the Braves, who suffered from 793 plate appearances of unacceptable performance, 600 of which came from the disappointing Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla. The Nationals’ pitching staff has also impressed, gathering the largest number of plate appearances with replacement-level performance while staying the closest to that level. Meanwhile, even though the Mets have lost the fewest plate appearances (both pitching and hitting) to replacement-level performance by a large gap, the players involved have made worse contributions than the Nationals' and Phillies' replacement-level crews.

One can only imagine that with some regression from the likes of Zimmerman and the future additions of Harper and Strasburg to the majors, the Nationals may turn into a force to be reckoned with as early as 2012. This made former Nationals manager Jim Riggleman's sudden resignation all the more surprising. Riggleman made his announcement after the team's 1-0 victory over the Mariners, presumably over a desire to be re-signed to a long-term deal. As Joe Posnanski reminded us, however, it seems that Riggleman may have overestimated himself on the matter:

Here's the thing, and I mean this with deep respect: He is JIM RIGGLEMAN. It seems difficult for me to believe that he was unaware of this. His teams have never won a World Series. His teams have never won a pennant. His teams have only once made the playoffs, and that was a not-especially great 89-win Cubs team that won a one-game playoff. Ten of his 12 teams had losing records in his span as skipper.

Among managers with at least 1,000 games managed since 1900, only four managers (Hugh Duffy, Darrell Johnson, Buddy Bell, and Jimmie Wilson) have had worse career records than Riggleman. But this situation should not be about whether Riggleman deserved an extension; it would be difficult to tell how well a manager is doing from an outside perspective, outside of perhaps the few managerial decisions that have quantifiable ramifications. The more interesting conundrum is whether Riggleman's maneuver was something that should have been done during this time period. While the stance may be viewed as “principled” in the sense that Riggleman did what he felt was “the right thing to do,” it is difficult to imagine such a conversation ending well with a player in Riggleman's shoes. While going against management in Riggleman's case could be twisted into a stance against an organization that disrespected him by leading him along, a player performing the same gambit would likely be viewed as selfish and abandoning his team. It seems Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen agrees with this sort of sentiment:

“I respect Mr. Riggleman's decision, but to me, number one priority—besides my family—is my players. To make me resign, they have to fire me. Because resign, it's like you don't care about the players.”

 Life will go on for the Washington Nationals without Riggleman. Questions like whether they can continue their winning ways, whether players like Espinosa and Zimmermann can continue to play well, or whether Livan Hernandez is in fact an immortal 85 mph baseball-throwing machine will be important to the Nationals' future. But for now, the team is within striking distance of a playoff spot, and they can thank a balanced team of positive contributors for the change from a 100-loss team to a team with a future.  

Michael Jong is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Michael's other articles. You can contact Michael by clicking here

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