Monday, October 08, 2007

Nationals Review: Left Field

If you need any explanation for the terrible start the Nationals had in April and the beginning of May, you don't have to look much further than left field. At the second most offensive position in the game, the Nats sent out an overmatched rookie 'prospect', a hobbling Aussie and a defensive replacement who'd challenge an offensive mark for futility. In the process, they punted a key offensive position, crippling the team's already shaky offense.

By the time the year ended, the position was basically on solid ground, as Jim Bowden finally acquired another object of his lust. But between that time? We had our ups and downs.

With starting CFer Nook Logan hurt, Kory Casto was all set to win a roster spot and the starting LF job out of spring training. He was the team's top 'prospect', as if a 25-year old who hit so-so against AA pitching is much of a prospect. He had a superficially ok spring, hitting .280 (despite no power and marginal patience). Instead, Logan made a quick recovery, and Casto got caught in the roster crunch, getting sent down because he was one of the few players with options left.

He didn't stay down long. Nook Logan pulled up lame on opening day and a roster spot immediately opened up. Casto found himself in the lineup for the second game of the season, beating out the always-injured Chris Snelling for the starting job.

Casto's job would be brief. He started six of the next eight games and was completely overmatched, batting .174 with 7 strikeouts and rarely making solid contact (with one notable exception).

By the 10th game (and the accompanying 1-8 record), it was Chris Snelling's turn on the merry-go-round. Snelling fared pretty well, hitting .316/ .480/ .579 over the six games in a row he got. The team fared better, too, going 4-2 against ATL, NY and PHI.

With Snelling's modest success and Casto's struggles, the Nats sent him down to Columbus to get regular playing time, recalling right-handed slugger Mike Restovich, who quickly got two starts against tough lefties. Through the end of the month, he, Snelling and Fick would platoon. That went about as well as you'd expect a Fick/Restovich platoon to go, an execrable 3/28, producing the 4-10 record you'd expect.

So with the platoon struggling what's a manager to do? Hit the button, flail around, and pop! Here comes Kory Casto again. He'd get five more starts in left to prove that he still couldn't hit major league pitching (.105/ .105/ .211).

So with that plan failing, what's a general manager to do? How 'bout call up his buddy Billy Beane? Out goes Snelling, in comes Ryan Langerhans. The 'Hans Moleman drops into center, freeing Ryan Church to start in left. An answer. At last.

Church would be the regular, save for the odd start by Langerhans or Fick, from May 6 through August 18, when Wily Mo threw a monkey wrench into the system. The word that would characterize that stretch would be 'disappointing'. He finally had the opportunity he's deserved for two years, and he crapped it away hitting .259/ .324/ .415, giving the team plenty of reasons to staple him back to the bench.

Prior to that point, Church had been wrecking the ball, hitting .284 .392 .490 as Nook Logan's replacement in center. But it just didn't carry over. Church's stretch in June was especially problematic. He made terrible contact, hitting .239/ .280/ .352 and striking out in 1/4 of his ABs. By the time August rolled around, his disappointing stretch of play had dipped his overall line down to .258/ .339/ .422, far below what a team needs from its LFer. He was part of the problem, and it was widely being recognized that the Nats needed an improvement.

That two-month stretch would bury what would come next. He got hot. From the end of July to the time Bowden finally found an improvement, Church hit like the player he was at the beginning of the year, batting over .300 and slugging .525. But perceptions are hard to break. And when Wily Mo, a superior power hitter, came over, the job was his.

Pena started all but 7 of the remaining games and his .293 .352 .504 line brought smiles to everyone. Pena displayed the power potential that the team desperately needed by hitting 8 homers in his first 23 games. The previous Nats starting LFers (ie: not including PHers or replacements) did not hit their 8th homer until the 107th game of the season. No, that's not a typo. They would hit only 11 total before Wily Mo showed up.

He gave the team what it needed, and represents a clear upgrade for next season.

  • OFFENSE

    Nats LFers hit a combined .245/ .316/ .396 on the season. This includes:
    -- Third fewest homers.
    -- Third fewest RBI -- sixty fewer than COL's LFers.
    -- Fourth fewest walks; fourth highest strikeouts
    -- Lowest Batting average (thirty points below average)
    -- Lowest on-base percentage (forty-two points below average)
    -- Lowest slugging -- the only team below .400, twenty points below next-to-last, eighty-two points below league average and a staggering .207 points below the league lead.

    I used the same method I described in the other entries to calculate Nats' LFers offensive value. I summed up their Runs Created and compared them to how the league average LFer would have done using the same number of outs the player consumed. The results tell the ugly story.

    (quick note: these are for the player's entire season, not just their contributions at a specific position and are just for their time in Washington)

    Ryan Church: -1 run
    Ryan Langerhans: -5 runs
    Wily Mo Pena: +2 runs
    Chris Snelling: -2 runs
    Mike Restovich: -5 runs
    Kory Casto: -11 runs

    Total: ~22 runs below average.

    Matt Diaz of the Atlanta Braves was pretty close to league average. If the Nats had him in left, they would have scored roughly 22 more runs, and won 2-3 more games than they did.

    Because I'm a fan boy, if they had had Adam Dunn -- who was 14 runs above average -- waddling around left, they would have scored roughly 36 more runs this season, winning 3-4 more games than they did.

    But let's stick with Wily Mo for a second. We can all sorta agree that his .293 .352 .504 line is about what we could expect from him right? Maybe he'd slug a bit more. But if he did that, maybe his on-base would come down. You can quibble here and there, but that's a reasonable projection for him.

    If we pro-rate him to full-time play, say giving him four times the playing time he has now, he'd have created 88 runs in 580 plate appearances while using 384 outs for a Runs Created above average of 5-6 runs.

    So Wily Mo for a full year could be a 20-run improvement over the crap the Nats had last year. That's nothing to sneeze at. And if he goes off on a homer tear, the total could be even higher.

  • DEFENSE

    Nats LFers couldn't hit, but they could catch, at least for the first 3/4 of the season. Ryan Church played LF beautifully, as you'd expect a converted CFer would. When you compare him to some of the bat-first slugs in the league -- Carlos Lee, Pat Burrell, Moises Alou, etc -- he comes out nicely, making up a tiny bit of the difference with his bat.

    Using those same translated defensive numbers, Church comes out about 6 runs above average. Like most of the other Nats defensive numbers, that one feels right. His frequent defensive replacement, Ryan Langerhans, fares well, too, taking back about 3 runs of defense, much less than his bat gave away, though.

    Pena made a nice running catch or two early on, cementing an impression that he was a good defensive outfielder in our minds before we had all the visual (and statistical) evidence. He's not a complete butcher out there, but there were certainly a few balls (especially over his head) that I felt he should've gotten too. The defensive numbers agree, knocking him down a run or two (small stuff) for some catches others might've made.

    The numbers tabbed Chris Snelling -- who wore braces to support his knee braces -- and Robert Fick -- a slow-footed catcher -- as the two worst defensive left-fielders on the team. No surprise for either, and their effect in limited playing time was marginal, at best.

    So with Church and Langerhans, they had plus defense. (To Matt Chico's ERA's delight). With Pena, they were a notch below.

  • OVERALL

    Sum up offense and defense, and it's still a fairly ugly picture. The gap between league average and the Nats closes a bit, but it's a bit like saying you've filled up the Grand Canyon when you dump a bag of potting soil into the Colorado River.

    A full season of Wily Mo will be a big help to getting the Nats to and above the average mark. And spot starts and favorable platoon matchups by Ryan Church -- assuming he doesn't play CF -- will greatly strengthen the contributions made by the bench players to this position, replacing Fick's, Restovich's and Langerhans' substandard efforts.

    All-in-all, there's some room to be happy here and a little bit of a reason to be optimistic. If Bowden wants to get creative, trying Kearns in center and shifting Pena to right, it's a position that could easily be upgraded via a trade, too.

    Regardless of how it's done, an improvement with respect to this season's terrible performance is going to go a long way to pushing the team closer to the .500 mark... or beyond.


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