Spring Fling / Give Him a Ring / Leave Him Crying: NL East Edition

Washington Nationals


BRIAN’S FLING

Jayson WerthRF

Katherine Frey, TWP
Katherine Frey, TWP

Hey, as long as I’m not paying his real life salary, I’m on board.  Jayson Werth is a really useful ballplayer, and on pace to put up his 4th 625+ PA season in the last 6 years.  The homers are down a tick, but his strikeout and walk rates are both improving, as is typical of veterans.  Jayson is getting a bit long in the tooth, so I can’t sign on for more than a fling, but he’s well worth the short-term commitment.

MATT’S FLING

Adam LaRoche – 1B

J, Newton, Washington Post
J, Newton, Washington Post

Traditionally a much stronger player in the final two months of seasons than in the first four, LaRoche got off to a strong start in the first half of 2014 and, but for a cratering hiccup in July, has kept up the pace all season long. He is getting on base like never before (career high 14.2 BB% and .362 OBP) and striking out less (0.75 BB/K ratio is over half-again his career 0.47 clip). How did the adage go? PLAYERS GETTING ON BASE AND USING UP FEWER OUTS MEANS SCORING MORE RUNS. PLA…

So this is where I mention that Adam LaRoche is 34 years old.

See, it’s not the (cough) late 1990s or (COUGHCOUGHHACKCOUGHCOUGHCOUGH) early 2000s anymore. 30 is no longer the new 20, and 40 is no longer the new 30. Math and nature have come to a fairly strong consensus that players do not actually get better as they age. Unless chemists score another major coup, we will never again see a player do THIS again after turning 35 (click to enlarge):

Barry Bonds post 35

OK, so that *MIGHT* be a lazy attempt at crafting narrative – we will never see another player do that EVER regardless of age. Basically, I shamelessly look for opportunities to shoehorn in tables demonstrating just how amazing Barry Lamar Bonds was.

Of greater relevance to LaRoche is how 35 year olds have faired in the past 10 seasons or so (since drug testing first became a “thing”) – the results are mixed. The good news is that twenty-three of the fifty-two 35-year-old players (44%) who have qualified for the batting title since 2005 have posted a wRC+ of at least 120 (that is, produced runs at least 20% more rapidly than their league average peer). Why 120? It is my subjective minimum benchmark for “very good” run production. As for the bad news: only fifty-two 35-year-olds have qualified for the batting title period since 2005 – roughly 5 per season (the picture only gets more grim when one narrows the scope to the past 5 seasons – only 19 35-year-olds have qualified for the batting title since 2010 – roughly 2 per season). A cursory glance at the top performers yields a laundry list of players who had excellent careers. There is a certain amount of survival bias – truly bad players don’t typically last long enough in the MLB to have an age-35 season. Of the twenty-three 35-year-olds who have posted seasons with a wRC+ of at least 120 since 2005, only Marlon Byrd, Ichiro Suzuki, Johnny Damon, and Casey Blake had career wRC+s lower than LaRoche’s 113, and the vast majority of said players had career wRC+s that were much higher. Those whose age-35 season failed to exceed 120? Only four of the remaining twenty-nine players had career wRC+s that exceeded that of LaRoche. While not a hard and fast rule, it would seem a good rule of thumb that excellent ballplayers are typically the ballplayers who remain very good at 35, whereas players who top out at merely “good” or “average” do not tend to produce as much in their mid-thirties, and LaRoche has largely lived on the “good” side of the divide.

This is all a round-about way of saying we’re probably seeing the last of the “very good” Adam LaRoche has left in his bat. It is not impossible that he could have another very-good-to-excellent season next year or beyond, but lazy bucketing tells me that LaRoche’s production will probably be far closer to average than “good” or “very good” at this time next season.

It must be noted that being 13% better than average for one’s career is actually nothing at which to sneeze – there are obviously more MLB hitters who have been worse than LaRoche during his career than there have been hitters who were better. Perhaps it was all of those different teams he spent time with during his early years (stints with the Braves, Pirates, Red Sox, Braves again, and Diamondbacks before landing with the Nationals), or perhaps it was all of the first-half slumps while the average fans were still paying attention, but one does get the feeling that LaRoche has been somewhat under-appreciated. It is time to remedy that, albeit briefly – go catch him doing very good things while you still can.

BRIAN’S RING

Anthony Rendon – 2B/3B

Jim McIsaac, Getty Images
Jim McIsaac, Getty Images

Don’t look now, but the new young hotness at the capitol isn’t Bryce Harper.  While the dynamic youngster may some day fulfill his destiny in Washington, Rendon is the horse to back for today and the immediate future.  Rendon is one of the NL’s top 5 players by WAR, a testament to the balanced value he brings with his fielding (10th at his position), bat (1st) and baserunning (1st by a country mile).

MATT’S RING 

Rendon

Based on talent alone, this would have to be Harper – no doubt, slam dunk, I don’t care what Kevin Frandsen says. This is not to say that Rendon should be ashamed of his gifts – the evidence is starting to mount that he is pretty exceptionally good at this “baseball” thing – Harper is simply weapon’s-grade-plutonium talented. Harper also gets hurt… allthetime. At the end of the day, I have to know that whomever I marry is going to be there “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” blah blah blah. That is, I fully intend to get sick like everyone else during the course of this marriage, but you had better be downright bomb-proof, partner (is he really that selfish? is he?).

Ok, so there is a relatively small body of evidence to suggest that Rendon is actually bomb-proof – he has started 148 of the Nationals’ 155 games to date in this, his first full season at the MLB level). What IS starting to look like more and more of a given with each passing day is that Rendon is a downright talented hitter (.358 wOBA, 128 wRC+) playing primarily at a position that largely doesn’t bear an overwhelming number of them (league average 3B has a .316 wOBA, 100 wRC+). Given that Rendon figures to play more 2B than 3B in his career (he has slid over to 3B as Ryan Zimmerman‘s body has continued to fall apart), his already admirable offensive game figures to return even greater value for the already-talent-laden Nationals. Rendon exhibits above average discipline (swinging at 25.4% of pitches outside the strike zone as compared to league average of 30.9%) and selectiveness (swinging at 57.5% of pitches in the strike zone as opposed to the 65.9% league average). The result is a hitter who does not strike out a whole lot (15.2%), walks at a slightly above average clip (8.3%), and hits for a fair amount of thump when he does decide to swing (.184 ISO, average flyball distance of 290 feet). There are no serious batted-ball flags in his game, either, as his .312 BABIP, 20% line-drive percentage, 10% HR/FB percentage are all right around league average. He also runs the bases and fields quite well. The Nationals have themselves an enviable 24-year old talent who will play positions at which his talents will return solidly-above-average or exceptional value. I’m getting hitched, and I don’t care who else is out there (unless Harper storms into chapel and screams some passionate objection – a man can dream… until he can’t).

BRIAN’S LEFT CRYING

Danny Espinosa – MIF

 He’s rebounded a tiny bit this year, but it’s clear the league has figured him out.  His K-rate is over 33%, and his walk rate has been hovering around 4% for the last two years.  A real disappointment that the 27-year-old could not recapture the magic of his 2011-12 seasons, I’m ready to walk away from Danny for good.  Go cry for me, Espinosa.

Patrick Smith, Getty Images
Patrick Smith, Getty Images

MATT’S LEFT CRYING

Espinosa

This is probably unfair. Espinosa was never especially great with the bat, though he did spend the first two full seasons of his career putting up a wRC+ of 99 while playing positions that collectively posted wRC+s of 89 (2B) and 87 (SS) over the same period. Put another way, Espinosa was 12.5% more productive than his MIF brethren with the stick, all while playing fairly decent defense. Such a player is undoubtedly a valuable commodity.

 Espinosa ends up on my shit list because I fell hard for him in 2013. HARD. Like, “promising my partner in crime that he was a lock for a .330 OBP while hitting 25 HR as a SS while we prepared for our first collaborative fantasy team” hard. Why? Because sometimes I say really stupid things like, “Why yes, that dress DOES make you look like a hippopotamus,” or, “There aren’t secondary dominants in jazz like there are in ‘classical,'” or, “Danny Espinosa will be the secret weapon that wins us the league – I’ve got this warm feeling in my gut.”

Rather than taking the next step – i.e. becoming a legitimately above average hitter as a shortstop (something at which he had hinted if one could simply throw away a 27% strikeout rate) – Espinosa absolutely cratered. Oh, let’s be honest – Espinosa hit the ground so hard he came out on the other side of the planet. His modest 17% line drive percentage plummeted to 10%, leading to a comically low .202 BABIP. Paired with a massive 28.1% strikeout rate and an almost absolute aversion to drawing a walk, Espinosa posted a .158 AVG and a .193 OBP. Furthermore, the flyballs he did hit lost an average of 10.5 feet of distance, taking a voracious bite out of his power (his ISO dropped from .166 to .114). It all added up to a wRC+ of 23… …  23, the number that is 77% below league average. Depending on your cumulative offensive metric of choice, sixteen (wRC+) or twenty (wOBA) pitchers hit better than did Espinosa in 2013. The Nationals threw up their hands in  disgust on June 19 and banished him to AAA. It takes a lot to erode sufficient goodwill away from an organization to make them give up on a 26-year old middle infielder with a track record of above-average power. A LOT. Espinosa managed to do just that in 167 PA. 

With such overwhelming failure, Espinosa’s 2014 campaign could be viewed as an enormous personal triumph – rather than being 77% worse than his most average of peers, he is only 22% worse! Only TWO pitchers are hitting better than him now! Luck has rebounded along with his line-drive percentage (a career high 22% has brought with it a much more palatable .321 BABIP), and he has even reclaimed a couple feet of average flyball distance. Alas, he is now striking out an absolutely catastrophic 33.5% of the time and is walking  less than he did when he first broke into the bigs. I’m underwhelmed, which is not an especially great emotional state with which to follow scorn. In reality, I hate Espinosa for not being who I dreamed he would be rather as opposed to hating him for being who he actually is at this point. I’m sure all of my exes share the same sentiment.

Who did we miss? What did we get wrong? Post your Nationals picks in the comments section below.

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