Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: What's Tom Boswell Leaving Out?

I thought Tom Boswell's column Monday morning on the state of the Nats was generally pretty good. Finally, for pretty much the first time all season, he didn't make excuses for the team or try to come up with explanations for why the team was just bound to turn it around any day now. Instead, he basically said, "Look, this team isn't very good right now, and they haven't really provided any reason this season to think they're going to get any better." But there was one thing that was missing.

Boz, as he has a few times over the last year or two, noted that the team that's now on the field for the Nats is essentially the team that the Nats will field for at least the next two years after this one, and, for the most part, the two years after that--since every major player on the team, other than Adam LaRoche, is either under contract, or under team control, until at least 2017. And his criticism of the team is premised on the idea that the Nats are a very talented team that is underperforming offensively. But the issue he's never even explored, even though he's seemingly written an average of three columns a week on the Nats since February, is this one: What if this team, at least offensively, just isn't as good as everyone thought? What if, for whatever reason, this team is less than the sum of its parts? What if the second half of last year was the aberration, and the team's offensive production this year is more or less normal for this group?

I'm not the first one to broach this general idea--Chris Needham blogged on Monday that the Nats' starters are all, more or less, performing in line with their career norms, and Harper Gordek had a post  in the same vein as well. Boz doesn't really disagree with that--he just thinks that at some point these hitters are going to become an offensive juggernaut. In n a column last month, Boswell wrote that with so many solid hitters, the Nats were bound to start scoring runs in bunches, and then in Monday's chat, reiterated the theme of that column:

FWIW, Davey is totally mystified by the "ability" of the offense not to score. It's like a reverse "gift." Last year, through 71 games, they scored ~3.7 runs-a-game (same as this year, so far). After that, in '12, the Nats scored OVER 5.0, which would be No. 2 in baseball this year behind Boston. Will that happen again? Or even some milder version?

Yesterday's Nats lineup had seven hitters (ex-Span) who have an average OPS this year of .808 -- all fall between .750 and .879. No outliers or abnormal seasons, though plenty of games lost to injury. The average CAREER OPS of those seven is .798 -- all fall between .749 (Desmond) and .835. If you normalized Desmond, it would probably be ~.808. The NL's OPS is only .707! Span doesn't even distort this metric -- .670 this year, .736 career. Even if the Nats pitchers hit very little, even if the bench stinks, it should not be possible for a lineup with such component parts -- seven ~.800 OPS players and a .670 hitter -- to be 29th out of 30 in scoring.

But it is happening. Earl would say it can't continue. We'll see. 
But Boz is only comparing this year and last year's run production. What about 2011? Sure, that team wasn't as good as the 2012 team and didn't enter the season with the expectations of this team. But when you look back at their lineup, it really wasn't all that different than the team's current lineup. Ramos was at catcher back then, Desmond as SS, Zimmerman at 3B and Werth in RF. Some are having better years in 2013 than 2011, some worse, but they're the same guys. At 2B you had 2011 Espinosa, having, of course, a much better season than the 2013 version of Espinosa, but now with Rendon in that spot, there's not much difference between the two as far as Boz's favored state of OPS (Espi was at .737 that year, Rendon is now at .762). In center field, Span has a .670 OPS, while Rick Ankiel, who played the most games in that postion that year, had a .657 OPS--so basically a wash. Over at first base, there was Michael Morse's .910 OPS in 2011, a big improvement compared to Adam LaRoche's .750 OPS this year. On the other hand, Bryce Harper has an .879 OPS, considerably higher than Laynce Nix's .750 in that position. So how many runs did that 2011 lineup, with a lot of similarities to that 2013 lineup, score per game? Just 3.88 runs.

Sure, there are injuries one could factor in, but injuries are a factor for every team every year. The fact is by just looking at the small sample size of 2012 and 2013, and leaving out 2011 entirely, Boz is giving us a misleading picture. When you put it all together, this team has averaged less than 4 runs per game for about two full seasons (around 330 games) and had a little over half a year (about 90 games, according to Boz) where it averaged 5.5 runs per game. Isn't is possible--even probable--that the fluke may have been the second half of last year, that for whatever reason (bench playing out of its mind, Morse's bat in left field supplementing everyone else, a magic potion Mike Rizzo discovered) this team overperformed in the second half of 2012 and has returned to something approximating its true offensive level? When looking at the numbers, that seems a more likely outcome than the one that Boz keeps waiting for.

Which brings me back to something I wrote last week about the premature excitement and lack of perspective on the local teams that the Post and the local media often gives us here in D.C. As I wrote then,
It not only creates unrealistic expectations among fans, but also ends up unneccessaily venerating the general managers and coaches of these teams--because fans are basically being told that the personnel on those teams are so good all the time that it must be the players messing up or not trying hard enough if the team is bad (and not the fact that the players acquired for the team just may not be good enough.)
Is that what has happened here? Instead of just saying the players are all slumping, should the top baseball columnist at the Post be looking more closely at the construction of this team and its architect? Or are we going to treat them like the Caps have been treated by the local media the last few years--blaming the players but never really looking seriously at whether the architect has built a sturdy foundation?


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