Lowered Expectations

I was perusing some of the darker corners of the Natsmosphere the other evening and I came across a discussion about the blind optimism and unrealistic expectations for 2013. I don't know if they meant specifically from Nats fans, from the Nats manager, or from national publications which have picked the Nationals to win the World Series. That much was unclear, but a couple of interesting points for their doubt were brought up. The first main concern a lot of people have is that the Nats pitching staff was lucky last season and destined to have an injury this season. The Washington Post's Adam Kilgore was on MLB radio last night and mentioned that the Nats were lucky to have gotten 150 innings from their top five starters. My first thought was to wonder if they were really the only ones so lucky and if so what other teams were just as lucky.  

Because I wrote about the Reds yesterday and the 3 1/3 innings they gave to Todd Redmond I didn't need to look them up, but the Giants were just as healthy having Cain, Bumgarner, Lincecum, Vogelsong, and Zito all pitch over 180 innings and giving only 6 innings to Eric Hacker and 4 2/3 to Yusmeiro Petit. Those two teams ended up being healthier and using fewer pitchers than the Nationals because they had no shutdown or Wang experiment as part of their rotations. There were also at least three other teams that had five pitchers who did pitch over 150 innings as parts of their final rotations, but for the Tigers and Sanchez, the Dodgers and Blanton, and the Angels and Greinke most of those 150 innings were done for another team. There are also the Phillies that could have done it but shipped Blanton out of town and shuttled Kendrick between the rotation and the bullpen. Most teams that had four starters over 150 innings but not a fifth did so because their fifth starter wasn't good, not because anyone got injured.

Look at a team like the Rays who had Price, Shields, Moore, and Helickson all over 170 innings, but only gave 136 1/3 innings to Alex Cobb who started the year with 41 1/3 innings pitched in AAA and was shut down much as Strasburg was due to an innings limit. After that the waters get a little muddied and teams like the Mariners end up being brought in. The average team last season used over 10 different starters, but the reason was more often under performance or a rotating fifth spot than it was injury. The Yankees got over 170 innings from their top four of Sabathia, Hughes, Nova, and Kuroda but had a revolving door at the fifth spot between the recently dragged out of retirement Pettitte, the non-prospect prospect David Phelps, and the over the hill Freddie Garcia. The Nationals are going to have rain delays and are going to need spot starters, but predicting Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Detwiler, and Haren to pitch under 150 innings in 2013 because they pitched over that amount in 2012 borders on outlandish. It is far more likely that the Nats end up needing a different fifth starter because it turns out that Haren's poor 2012 was due to decline more than the back injury and he is not performing up to expectations. The vast majority of contending teams in 2012 were just as "lucky" as the Nationals when it came to starting pitchers health. 

The second reason given as to why to doubt the Nationals was that most predictions about the 2012 season where off by at least 10 games. I myself predicted the Nats to win 86 games, but that was based on the information I was provided at the time. History told me to expect about 1.5 WAR from Desmond, 2.5 from LaRoche, and around 3.0 WAR from Gio Gonzalez. I also accounted nothing for Harper as none of us had much of a clue of what to expect from him and most people expected that he would struggle at 19 much as Mike Trout had the previous season. Take away Harper and return Desmond, LaRoche, and Gonzalez to their career averages and you end up taking 13 wins away from the Nationals which puts them right at 85 or one win less than I predicted.

From that some might say it proves that expectations should be lowered because those players will backslide to their previous career norms, but their previous career norms are not their current career norms. Ian Desmond's 2012 raised his overall career slugging up to .424 and his extra power in 2012 was mainly due in a change in approach that had him hitting the ball were it was pitched more than trying to take everything the other way. But even a .424 SLG would have ranked sixth among short stops in 2012 right below Jimmy Rollins and ahead of Asdrubal Cabrera. So even if Desmond backslides all the way to his career averages he is still a good hitter for a short stop and will be more around a 2.5-3.5 fWAR player than the 1.5 one he was previously.

Gio Gonzalez and Adam LaRoche both have much longer track records and have built up more of a career average, but LaRoche was only .005 points better in OBP and .028 better in SLG in 2012 than his career averages. Gio Gonzalez has the least amount to backslide and if he returns to being a 3.0 WAR pitcher instead of a 5.0 WAR pitcher it won't affect the Nats standing much. The Nats are covered from these regressions due to the additions of Denard Span and Rafael Soriano and more expected playing time for Harper, Strasburg, Werth, Ramos, Suzuki, and Storen. The expected regressions and the expected improvements all balance out. Then you look at the fact that the Nationals 2012 expected win total was 96 and their actual win total was 98 proving they were not a fluke and the only thing that is left to do is to agree with the rosy expectations even if it isn't in your nature.  

Artificially lowering expectations on the 2013 Nats is as bad as looking at the 2009 roster and starting to dream on what could be for Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge. No one was going to pick the Nationals to win that season much as no one is going to pick the Astros to this season. Nats fans should revel in the fact that experts are picking their team to win it all because it wasn't too long ago that experts were picking the Nationals to not win at all. Being the pre-season favorite means nothing. The Nats may have a slightly better chance to win the World Series than the Reds, Braves, Angels, Tigers, Giants, and Blue Jays but it isn't that much better and as any baseball fan knows strange things happen in the playoffs. Those playoff games don't pit the Nationals vs. the Cubs where the Nats would have 80-90% odds of winning a five or seven game series. It will be the Nationals vs. the Reds or the Braves or the Cardinals and if the odds are even at 60% then the Nats are heavy favorites. Those series are coin flips and whoever gets four heads wins the World Series. Being predicted as the favorites guarantees nothing and lowering expectations won't protect from disappointment.   

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