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A Reader's Take on the Nats

This article was submitted by reader Adam Warner, a baseball fan with a strong interest in stats. He has an equity options blog at

Dayn Perry had an interesting Can of Corn last week regarding that magical Washington Nationals 1st half joy ride. The issue, as the whole baseball statosphere has become keenly aware, is the Nats "troubling" run differential and implausibly good record in 1-run games. Perry had two main points in defense of Les Ex-Expo's 1) Lots of home wins means lots of non-batting in the 9th, means lots of unused outs, and 2) Excellent relief pitching and excellent use of their bullpen as their 4 top relievers (as measure by WXRL) are basically used at the right times as measured by the Leverage of the situations in which they pitch.

Don't include me in any "Bash the Nats" bandwagon either. In fact, they have the elements in place to stay competitive given their current makeup, although for moderately different reasons. Namely, a top-flight bullpen simply combined with a propensity to play tight games in and of itself, adds up to a winning formula. Here's some `splaining.

Looking at only Relievers with a Leverage (defined on BP) over .50 so as to weed out the garbage time dreck, here's the Top Ten bullpens as measured by REWA, with the winning % in close games (decided by 3 runs or fewer).

TEAM         REWA       W% 
Washington   8.759   63.93%
Cleveland    8.106   50.00%
St. Louis    7.178   59.65%
San Diego    6.930   53.70%
Minnesota    6.517   57.63%
LA Angels    6.439   53.57%
Chicago Sox  5.811   69.49%
Detroit      5.141   48.89%
Pittsburgh   4.830   47.17%
Houston      4.460   50.85%
The Nats pop up at #1, but how about the Tribe? Another excellent bullpen, used nearly to perfection and yet they're only 14-21 in 1-run games, .500 overall in close ones. My personal theory is that Arthur ("fly ball, deeeeeep to right")Rhodes creates his stat line in a lab somewhere. Assuming I'm wrong on that one, what gives?

Suppose we now look at the offensive side of the ledger, the Top Ten as ranked by the % of their run production that comes in situations defined as "close and late".

TEAM           CL R%    W%
Washington     19.33%   63.93%
LA Angels      18.57%   53.57%
Arizona        18.53%   57.41%
Pittsburgh     18.36%   47.17%
Seattle        18.30%   46.30%
LA Dodgers     18.23%   45.61%
NY Mets        18.09%   49.06%
Chicago Sox    17.92%   69.49%
San Francisco  17.56%   41.51%
Minnesota      16.92%   57.63%
Five teams rank in the Top Ten in both categories (the Nats, Angles, Pirates, White Sox and Twins), and a 6th just misses (the D-Backs, 11th in REWA at 4.41). Five of those teams rank in the top 9 in Win% in close games, only the Pirates disappoint at #20.

Is it clutch hitting? Not really, rather more like an ability, real or coincidental, to generate a disproportionate number of "close and late" situations to begin with. Here are the six teams again and the % of their TPA's that take place in close and late situations, along with their league ranks.

TEAM            TPA %    Rank
Minnesota       19.21%      1
Washington      18.63%      2
Chicago Sox     17.68%      4
LA Angels       16.40%     10
Pittsburgh      16.29%     11
Arizona         16.19%     12
League Avg. 15.30%

In fact, the Nats have not hit particularly well in the clutch at all. Here are the six teams yet again with their "close and late" OPS ratio, defined as the % that their OPS in "close and late" spots is above/below their OPS over all situations, as well as their league rank.

TEAM            OPS %   Rank
Pittsburgh      8.08%      1
Arizona         4.94%      3
LA Angels       4.83%      5
Chicago Sox     2.29%      7
Washington      -1.65%    14
Minnesota       -5.90%    19
League median -2.44%

Not only are the Nats not "clutch", rather they maintain their habitually lousy OPS in tight spots.

As to the "Home Win" Theory, this does not suppress Washington's run totals. Yes, the Nats have lost some outs (87 by my count), but so has everyone else. The Astros have lost 87, the Braves 86 and the Yankees and White Sox 85 apiece. And the Nationals score the least of all of them, so when you convert these lost outs into "runs", they barely crack the top ten.

And what about the converse situation, outs you never had to defend on the road by virtue of a loss? Adding it all up, the Nats have "lost" roughly 3 ? runs, and they would not even lose this many once adjusted for park effects.

By this crude methodology , the White Sox and Cards (surprise) lose the most net-net., a total of 9.6 runs for the White Sox and 8.2 runs for the Cards. On the flipside, awful road teams figure to gain the most by never having to face a 9th inning, and sure enough the D-Rays have gained 14.5 runs net-net, so yes, they're even worse than they seem.

Back to the Nats. Can the D.C. formula sustain itself in the 2nd half? Some elements will remain in place. Their home park will continue to suppress runs and their meager offense only has to remain "clutch" neutral, and meager.

Some elements can easily improve. They threw away too many outs in the 1st half with an mlb-worst 48% success rate on steals, and they also managed to lead mlb with 53 sac bunts. "Smart ball"? Hardly. Only 11 of the sacs came in close and late spots..

On the other hand, will the starters run out of gas pitching in so many tight games and can the bullpen maintain pace? Acquiring Mike Stanton helps if they can spot him against some lefties in their cavernous park, but he won't exactly eat up high-leverage innings.

Maybe the Nats will fade a little, but short of Chad Cordero's arm falling off, but there's no reason why they can't keep the lion's share of their games close, and then win over half of them with their superior pen. One NL team clearly stands to "mean" revert in the 2nd half, but that team is the already mediocre Diamondbacks.