Thursday, October 04, 2007

Nationals Review: First Base

When it became clear that Nick Johnson wasn't going to be ready for the season, Jim Bowden faced a choice. He could give pseudo-prospect Larry Broadway a chance or he could turn over a bunch of rocks. We know the choice he made, and it's hard to argue that he chose incorrectly. Dmitri Young's return from personal demons, battery charges, and illness and his transformation into a deserving All-Star selection is certainly an amazing story, the biggest surprise of the season.

But, for a time, it didn't look like even that was going to happen.

Dmitri started off in minor league camp, spending the majority of his time getting back into playing shape (and I use 'shape' in the most charitable way possible). It took him a while to get going, but once Bowden was sure he'd be his man, he elevated him to major league camp, dumped Broadway, and away we went. Young's spring training stats weren't anything to get excited about. He hit .250, with just one homer and four RBI.

But when the calendar turned to April, he found his stroke, starting out red hot, exciting fans with his helmet-flipping doubles and game-winning 'hits'. Through his first 16 games, he was hitting a surprising .315/ .433/ .556. It looked like the Nats had found their Nick Johnson replacement.

Then came the leg problems. Likely because he wasn't really in shape, his lower body gave out on him, and his performance cratered. Over his next 16 games, he dropped down to .132/ .193/ .208 and it looked like his comeback might be ending early. The Achilles injury he suffered kept him from starting for a 11 games, limiting him to PH duty, which he also struggled doing.

He returned to the lineup, picked up where he left off prior to the foot injury before suffering a lower back strain which knocked him out of a few games at the end of May. Through May he was hitting .290/ .377/ .455, which was about the high side of what anyone expected. But certainly nobody would expect what came next.

From June 1st til the time he left for San Fransisco for the All-Star Game, he put on a line-drive exhibition, smoking the ball every time he made contact. I've never seen anything like it. The ball was away, he smoked it down the opposite line. It was in, he turned on it and ripped it to the gap. Inside, outside, fastball, curveball. It didn't matter what or when, he was squaring the ball and driving it, even if it ended in someone's glove. It was capped by his franchise record-tying 8 hits in 8 ABs streak against the Dodgers and probable Cy Young winner, Jake Peavy.

Over those 33 games he hit .373/ .387/ .560, cementing himself as this year's fan favorite. By the time he set off for the coast, there was a loud and vocal contingent of Nats fans who didn't want to see the team trade him at the deadline.

By the end of the month another heel injury kept him out of a few games, and he improbably signed a 2-year, $10 million extension. Fans got their wish, as the big guy came off the block.

A few days later, he strained his hamstrings and missed a few games and stayed relatively healthy for a month. Amazingly, despite this, his bat did not slow down at all in August, and he hit .373 .424 .614, upping his season numbers. He slowed down in September, before a bad hop on a grounder smashed him in the head, causing neck strain that kept him out for two weeks. He came back for the final two games, went 2-4 and finished at a surprising .320/ .378/ .491. The batting average and on-base percentage represented career highs for Dmitri and the 38 doubles he hit were his highest total since his 1998 season.

All-in-all, it was a terrific season from an unlikely source, and did much to narrow the gap in performance we all expected with Nick Johnson's untimely death. [ed: he's still alive!]

There's the narrative. Here comes the analytical.

  • Hitting

    On a rate basis, Dmitri was one of the better first basemen in the National League, but those nagging lower-body injuries cost him a lot of playing time. He only started 123 games, and was limited to PH duty in 17 others. In his absence, the Nats were forced to use Robert Fick 29 times as a starter at first to the detriment of the team's offense. Tony Batista and Ronnie Belliard also saw actions at the position, neither one excelling.

    Because of his injuries, and the mediocrity of his replacements, first base wasn't a particularly strong point for the team. Nats 1B were below average with a .796 OPS. Only one team's 1B drove in fewer runners and only two teams slugged less.

    No analysis of Dmitri's offensive contributions can exclude the impact his replacements have on the team -- in much the same way you need to account for Nick Johnson's injury replacements.

    There are any number of ways of looking at his offensive contributions.

    -- 7th in OPS
    -- 2nd in batting
    -- 7th in on-base %
    -- 8th in slugging

    There's no question that rate-wise he was one of the better hitters in the league. But counting stats do matter too. And when you adjust for how much he actually was on the field, he drops quite a bit.

    I've used Runs Created a few times before. It's a good catch-all that sums up a player's various stats assigning relative values to them to estimate how many runs a player contributes to a team's bottom line. Anything over 100 is terrific and a regular average sorta player is typically in the 60ish range (you've gotta adjust for position, of course).

    His total of 84 RC was 3rd on the team behind two everyday players: Ryan Zimmerman, 93; Austin Kearns, 88. But to get an even better baseline of how he did, I wanted to compare apples to apples.

    Using numbers from The Hardball Times, I jiggered up some positional RC totals. (You may note that the numbers there are slightly different than the ones I listed above from Baseball-Reference; it's because they use a slightly different formula. It's close enough, we're not going for a nuclear level of precision here).

    All NL 1B created 1839 runs, but they used 8234 outs to do it. Dividing it out, the average NL 1B created .22 runs for every out they consumed.

    Dmitri created 81 runs while using 329 outs. An average NL 1B would have created 73 runs (.22 * 329) using the same number of outs, meaning that Dmitri added roughly 8 runs of offense above an average NL first baseman. The NL leader, you might suspect, was Prince Fielder whose .288/ .395/ .618 line helped him to create 33 more runs than an average NL 1B.

    We can do the same calculations for Robert Fick, who batted a terrible .234/ .309/ .305 with virtually no power. If the Nats had given his playing time to someone like Scott Hatteberg (who was virtually league average), they would have scored roughly 16 more runs.

    Tony Batista, hit enough singles, but because he didn't do much else, he was below average as well, though his limited playing time only 'cost' the Nats 2-3 runs.

    If you add in Fick's and Batista's negative contributions to Young's positive ones, you can see how, overall, the position was a net negative for the Nats.

  • DEFENSE

    This is where the team really takes a step back. God love Dmitri, but a fielder he ain't. His zone ratings and out-of-zone plays made were worst in the league. Because of his size and all those nagging leg and foot injuries, he simply doesn't have the mobility to get to many balls. He also led the league in fielding errors -- bobbles, drops, etc -- despite missing a bunch of time this season.

    And although he seemed to have decent hands, Nationals infielders were all near the top in their league in fielding errors, indicating that unless it was hitting him in his chest, he wasn't really going to pick it.

    Thankfully, a helpful Reds Blogger has tinkered around with the defensive numbers, attempting to convert those zone ratings into runs above or below average. There are certainly reasons to distrust defensive numbers, but these again show that Dmitri is at the bottom of the league, costing the team 10 runs because of defensive plays he couldn't make relative to an average defender.

    That number doesn't sound unreasonable, does it? The numbers he presents look right: Pujols and Helton at the top; Dmitri and Prince near the bottom.

  • OVERALL

    With Dmitri we see a player who adds about 10 runs of offense, but gives it all back on defense, making him a league average first baseman. That's nothing to sneeze at, for sure, especially at his salary this past year, $500,000. At $5 million per though?

    It is clear, though, that with Dmitri's and Johnson's injury problems that the Nationals, if they're going to pretend to contend, cannot afford to give away ABs with the likes of Robert Fick and Tony Batista. They need league average hitters who can step in without crippling the offense. Jim Bowden has always prided himself on his ability to turn over rocks. He had success last year when he found Dmitri. He needs to dig through the pile to find someone else for the backup position, especially if NJ isn't ready to go.

    Dmitri had a great year, but given his career highs, his age, his physical condition and his nagging injuries, it's going to be really hard to duplicate it. But with NJ in the wings, he might not have to.

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