There have been many impressive offensive feats performed in the last few weeks by the Washington Nationals in the midst of their hot streak, which now has them four and a half game out of the last Wild Card spot, currently held by the Cincinnati Reds. Arguably the most impressive of said feats is the 24 (and counting) game hit streak by center fielder Denard Span, which is good for fourth in Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos history, right behind just-retired Vladimir Guerrero and current teammate Ryan Zimmerman, and has propelled the Nats to a 19-7 record during the streak. Here’s how Span’s streak looks:
Not too shabby, eh? Now, let’s take a walk down (recent) memory lane and take a look at how Span’s production — batting average (BA) and on base plus slugging percentage (OPS) — during his hit streak compares to similar Nats (as in Washington, not Montreal – sorry Canada!) hitting streaks. Moving forward, I am only considering hit streaks of 15 games or more, courtesy of Adam LaRoche, Cristian Guzman, Span, Ian Desmond, HDIB? great Nick Johnson, and Zimmerman:
Not surprisingly, Span’s batting average is reasonably high, with his OPS reasonably low compared to his fellow Nats streakers, which makes sense, given Span’s lack of power and so-so (for a top of the order hitter) on base percentage. Fair enough.
I seem to recall an 18 game hitting streak in there somewhere, in the annals of Washingreal history.
Ahh, yes, F.P. Santangelo told me
many many times over the course of Span’s hitting streak once he had an 18-game hitting streak.
Ribbing aside, let’s take a look at Nats 15+ game hitting streaks — along with Santangelo’s 18-gamer — again by batting average and OPS:
OK, cool — we see some interesting trends here, namely, these guys are going out of their minds not only with their batting averages, but their overall power. Now, let’s break down OPS into its constituent parts — on base percentage (OBP) and slugging percentage (SLG) and add that to AVG and OPS and then look at these streaks in comparison to each player’s career averages for these four stats, yes?
With this, we see that while Santangelo’s hitting streak was impressive, it is definitely the outlier in comparison to the other streaks; his streak production was in such great contrast to what he normally accomplished hitting-wise, even when compared to his fellow streakers. Conversely, Span’s hitting streak, as well as Johnson’s, more closely trend with their career averages.
What does this mean? Probably nothing; while it would be easy to say that the differences between streak averages and career average is some reflection of each player’s inherent hitting talent, that is a bit of a slippery slope and something that the data as presented can’t really speak to. Variables such as opponent defense and even pitching match ups all cloud the data enough to not warrant too many brash statements made about the data here. What is interesting are Zimmerman’s streaks and how he went about each — while some were driven more by his ability to make contact and not much else, others were marked by his ability to generate runs with his swings.
Taking one more step back historically, how does the Washingreal data compare to other teams?
Let me tell you, with the help of Baseball Reference’s Play Index. Looking at the modern era — 1916 to current day — I provide below the number of 15 game or more hitting streaks for each organization. I then averaged them over the years of interest to give an idea how frequently over the franchise’s modern era a big hitting streak occurs:
|Team||Yrs||15+ H Streaks||Strk/Yr|
Not that Span’s streak wasn’t impressive enough, but the data provided, especially the table above, confirms how special the streak is to the organization; these kinds of streaks, while seen more frequently in the last few years, thanks to Zimmerman, haven’t been a hallmark of Washingreal hitters, to say the least. Between that and the context of Span’s streak — in the middle of a wild card run in the waning days of the season — only adds to the enjoyment of the streak and its importance to the success of the Nats’ 2013 season.
There were a number of table (and head) turning plays in the Cincinnati Reds 6-3 win over the Washington Nationals yesterday, giving the Reds the rubber match for the early season series in what portends to be a budding rivalry of National League powers.
Nats Kurt Suzuki‘s game tying 3 run homer in the 2nd inning? Literally head turning, and a hit that created a 22% swing in win probability towards the Nats.
While it didn’t have the pizzaz of a scorched home run, or a perfectly choreographed double play, Werth’s single at the heels of Suzuki’s homer was important in how well Werth battled Reds SP Johnny Cueto and stayed true to his hitting approach, in spite of facing some tough pitches.
Let’s take a look at the at-bat with the help of PITCHf/x and Brooks Baseball:
The greenish-blue square, out of the zone and labeled ‘5’, is what Werth hit into left-center, off of an 83 MPH changeup. OK, so not all that impressive when presented in this fashion.
With the help of Twitter celebrity Jayson Werth’s Beard, let’s have a look at the fifth pitch of the at bat that produced the single from a couple of angles:
It’s a little tough to see, but watch Werth’s back-end – his lower half has already committed, and his swing is slightly off-balance, which hints at Werth looking fastball and getting a changeup. To put it another way, he got fooled. Cueto’s career resurgence of the last year or so has been at the hands of his further developing the changeup into the devastating pitch it is, so Werth has nothing to be ashamed of – it’s a fantastic pitch.
Let’s look at the at bat from the first base side:
Looking at it from this angle, we have a better appreciation of what Werth did to get his single – fooled by the change of speed and possibly by the sink and tail of the pitch, Werth does some impressive improvisation of his swing to get his bat on the ball, and is rewarded with a single.
Here’s a still pic to better show how off-balance Werth was, and how impressive it is that he made as solid of contact as he did on the Cueto changeup:
While it didn’t play a huge role in the outcome of the game, Werth’s at bat against Cueto did highlight a couple of the things that makes Werth a great 2-hole hitter – he has the ability to take pitchers deep into counts and make solid contact with any pitch a pitcher might offer, be it fastball or offspeed. While his pitch recognition will continue to improve as the season progresses and the off-balance, let me throw my bat out and hope for the best swings will subside, the fact that he is already making good contact and putting the ball in play, even when fooled, bodes well for a productive season for Werth in the 2-spot in the Nats lineup.
Coming into spring training, the expectations for the 2013 Washington Nationals, needless to say, are much different from those placed in front of them in 2012. A NL East championship, an unfettered Stephen Strasburg (at least innings-wise), and a couple of fresh faces in the form of Denard Span and Dan Haren all add weight to the already heady prognostications set forth by those who…uh…prognosticate.
These are but a small sampling of what’s shaping DC expectations; beyond them is what is being impatiently expected out of the age 20 season of NL Rookie of the Year
and future curer of cancer Bryce Harper. Thus far in his 33 spring training plate appearances, Harper is doing everything he can to silence critics that forecast a sophomore slump, hitting at a .438/.455/.750 slash line in his Florida environs. This of course, has Nationals fans’ hearts aflutter, thinking of what his 1.205 spring training OPS will translate to, once the regular season begins and teams start playing for keeps – All Star appearances, MVP’s… championships?
Or nothing at all?
The chronicles of baseball lore are strewn with the names of rookies who sparkled, only to immediately fade once season two came upon them; who can really say for any certainty that this won’t happen to Harper? Who can say that spring training stats *are* useful, and possibly prognosticators of a fabulous follow-up season?
Well, for this post, we can. Let’s get to it.
To preface our little exercise, let’s have a look at what Matthew Kory recently wrote about Harper and the expectations surrounding him and his 2013 season. For those of you too lazy to click the link, I will paraphrase – what Harper has done at age 19, using home runs and OPS as measures of success, hasn’t been done very often, and typically not in the same way that Harper did it in 2012. As such, his encore performance in 2013 is hard to predict, given his unique skill set.
So we have a tough task ahead of us, fair enough. Let’s take what Kory has given us, fiddle with the numbers a bit, and add a little something more, shall we?
Thanks to Baseball Reference, we have all of Harper’s numbers at our fingertips – let’s compare them to what others have done at age 19 historically, looking at both OPS+ and BRef’s version of Wins Above Replacement – rWAR. For Harper, he came in at a respectable 119 OPS+ and a 5.0 rWAR in his age 19 season – so respectable, that no one else in baseball history has performed above that OPS+/rWAR combination as a teenager. Let’s loosen the criteria a tad – the only other players in MLB history aside from Harper to have an OPS+ greater than 119 along with a rWAR greater than 2.0 as teens were Ty Cobb (132 OPS+/2.3 rWAR) and Mel Ott (139/3.7), both of whom were mentioned in Kory’s article. As a rough guide, a 2.0 rWAR is considered starter level output; anything at 5.0 or above is All Star quality.
The numbers so far are historical, and may or may not be predictive of future performance. Of course, we won’t know for a while whether Harper will repeat his 119 OPS+/5.0 rWAR 2012, but we can see if Cobb and Ott duplicated or bettered their age 19 seasons as 20 year olds, as measured by OPS+ and rWAR. To the numbers (courtesy of Baseball Reference)!
Well, then. If history is to be trusted, Harper has some work ahead of him this year, if he is to equal his historical equals with regards to his age 20 season. Looking only at rWAR, Cobb’s age 20 saw a 187% increase in rWAR, with Ott showing a 97% increase in rWAR the year after his age 19 3.7 rWAR season. For Harper to emulate these jumps in performance, he would have to finish 2013 with at least a 9.8 rWAR; 56 seasons of 9.8 rWAR or greater have been seen in MLB history, the most recent being Mike Trout‘s 2012 10.7 rWAR season… at age 20.
Right now, Harper is looking at some heady numbers to put up come the regular season to keep up with the Cobbs and Otts of the MLB world, and continue the statistical trajectory he has set himself upon into his 20’s. As previously mentioned, he’s doing a heck of a job of doing just that thus far in spring training. Let’s look at some more data and take a sampling of who is performing as well as, if not better than Harper thus far in spring training, and see if we can gain anything from it, as it pertains to Harper’s potential for 2013. For this table, we are looking at players who have a 1.205 OPS or better in 33 or more spring training plate appearances (PA):
Even as hot as Harper’s bat has been to start 2013, there are plenty of others that are just as locked in; also of note is the lack of star players on the list, aside from Brandon Belt. Looking at it from another perspective, we can also say that Harper is doing all of this against close to MLB quality opponents, as seen with his 8.9 OppQual stat. OppQual – or Opponent Quality – is a new stat from Baseball Reference, which attempts to grade the quality of the pitchers a hitter faces in spring training. Given the number of players invited to participate in spring training, from guys just out of rookie league ball, up to MLB veterans, this value is a nice way to help determine whether spring training hitting stats have some bite to them. While Harper will of course face better pitching come the regular season, it won’t be by much, if OppQual is to be taken into consideration; MLB level quality opponents are scored a 10, with AAA level players scoring an 8 per OppQual. Harper’s 8.9 and Belt’s 9.3 show that they are hitting against just about MLB quality opponents.
While the numbers and methods to the madness that I have presented are in no way the be all, end all, I think they lend themselves some credibility in explaining not only how special a player Bryce Harper has been already, but could possibly be. On the other side of the coin, it also shows that a tempering of expectations is necessary, not only to keep things in perspective regarding Harper’s possible place in baseball history, but also within the context of a season, a season that really hasn’t truly begun. For every Albert Pujols, who led all hitters in spring training OPS in 2012, there’s a Kila Ka’aihue, who ‘won’ spring training OPS honours in 2011, only to follow it up with a 69 OPS+ that season for the Kansas City Royals.
While many will consider this perspective to be one straight out of a Debbie Downer skit, it’s one that allows sanity to remain firmly in one’s grasp, something that many baseball fans can’t boast (see: Cubs, Chicago).
No matter what Harper does in 2013 and beyond, he still has much to be proud of. Harper has already bettered fellow Las Vegan and former Rookie of the Year Marty Cordova, not only in garnering All Star honours – something no position player born in Vegas can boast – but also by not missing games after succumbing to tanning booth sunburn.
Ahh, silver linings.