Pre-Spring Divisional Outlook: NL East

Throughout the early stages of the calendar year, I’ve been taking a pre-spring training look at each of the six MLB divisions from a slightly different perspective. Utilizing batted ball data, we’re going back over the 2014 season, attempting to calculate each club’s true talent level. Making adjustments for teams’ offensive and defensive K and BB rates and team defense, each team’s true talent 2014 won-lost record is calculated. Then, we’ll take a look at the current Steamer projections for 2015, evaluate key player comings and goings, and determine whether clubs are constructed to be able to handle the inevitable pitfalls along the way that could render such projections irrelevant. The third installment of this series features the NL East.

First, let’s start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

2014 BIP B OBP BIP B SLG BIP P OBP BIP P SLG BAT K % BAT BB % PIT K % PIT BB % DEF MULT
WAS 0.333 0.527 0.314 0.470 21.0% 8.3% 21.4% 5.9% 102.9
NYM 0.314 0.482 0.315 0.487 20.6% 8.4% 21.1% 8.3% 103.9
ATL 0.321 0.505 0.321 0.496 22.6% 7.8% 21.4% 7.8% 102.0
MIA 0.330 0.513 0.323 0.489 22.9% 8.1% 19.1% 7.4% 101.4
PHL 0.307 0.466 0.323 0.512 21.1% 7.1% 20.0% 8.3% 98.5
MLB AVG 0.318 0.489 0.318 0.489 20.4% 7.6% 20.4% 7.6% 100.0

The first four columns indicate the resulting team AVG and SLG on all of each club’s balls in play (BIP) hit and allowed if they were hit in a neutral environment. The major league average AVG and SLG on all BIP in 2014 were .318 and .489, respectively. Clubs performing above that level offensively and yielding production below that level defensively were above average performers. The next four columns list each club’s offensive and defensive K and BB rates. The MLB averages in those categories were 20.4% and 7.6%, respectively in 2014.

The last column represents each club’s Defensive Multiplier. Again utilizing granular batted ball data, I have established a method to evaluate team defense, from a big-picture macro perspective, rather than the play-by-play micro perspective that methods such as DRS and UZR utilize. Simply compare each team’s offensive and defensive actual and projected AVG and SLG – what each team “should” have hit/allowed based on the speed/exit angle mix of all balls in play (excluding home runs), and convert those actual and projected events to run values. You are basically comparing each team’s defense to that of their opponents over 162 games. If a team’s defense was exactly as good as their opponents’ over 162 games, their team Defensive Multiplier would be 100. Better than average defenses have scores under 100, below average team defenses have scores over 100.

Next, let’s convert all of the data in the first table into run values, and then do same Pythagorean magic, and come up with a series of projected win-loss records. 1) On only each club’s BIP hit/allowed, 2) further adjusted for K and BB for/against, and 3) further adjusted for team’s Defensive Multiplier. This third projection represents the club’s true talent W-L record for 2014. For comparative purposes, each club’s 2014 actual and Pythagorean record are listed.

2014 BIP W-L K/BB ADJ DEF ADJ ACT W-L PYTH W-L
WAS 95-67 98-64 96-66 96-66 97-65
NYM 80-82 81-81 78-84 79-83 82-80
ATL 82-80 80-82 78-84 79-83 78-84
MIA 86-76 80-82 78-84 77-85 78-84
PHL 69-93 67-95 68-94 73-89 73-89

Let’s make some broad observations about each of the five NL East clubs’ 2014 performance utilizing the data in the two tables above. At this stage, NL East appears to be the “boring” division; the one with the most clarity regarding each team’s recent past and near-term future.

The Nationals were clearly the division’s class in 2014, in just about every way imaginable. By far, their hitters did the most damage on balls in play, and their pitchers limited such authority much better than their divisional brethren. In fact, they didn’t just stand out within their relatively weak division; they ranked 3rd in MLB (and 1st in the DH-free NL) in offensive BIP authority, and tied for 4th in MLB in pitching BIP authority allowed. Based on BIP authority alone, the Nationals were a 95-67 club.

The Nationals were also better than the MLB averages in three of the four K and BB rate categories, lagging behind only in offensive K rate. Standing out in this area was their pitching staff’s microscopic BB rate, keyed by the control exploits of Jordan Zimmermann. The Nats’ proficiency in this general area punches up their projected 2014 record to 98-64.

The NL East does not fare very well in the Defensive Multiplier metric, with four of the five clubs, including the Nats, clocking in above 100, i.e., below league average. The Nats posted a 102.9 defensive multiplier, 4th in the division, with their shortfall particularly acute in the outfield. This costs them two wins, down to 96-66, in their overall projection. This exactly matches their actual record, and is one short of their Pythagorean mark. As we’ll see, there simply weren’t many surprises in this division last season.

The Mets’ strength was clearly on the pitching side of the ledger in 2014. Their offensive BIP authority was solidly below MLB average, 4th in the East, ahead of only the Phillies. Their pitching staff held opponents to below MLB average BIP authority, second in the division only to the Nationals. Based on BIP authority alone, the Mets were an 80-82 club.

It’s a mixed bag in the K and BB rate department for the Mets, as their hitters posted the best BB rate in the division and their pitchers posted a well above average K rate. This was partially mitigated by their pitchers’ high BB rate, and overall, the Mets tacked a game onto their overall projection, up to 81-81, by virtue of their K/BB performance. Their team defense ranked as the worst in the division with a 103.9 multiplier, worst in the NL and third worst in MLB, docking them three games down to 78-84. This was just one game shy of their actual win total, and a bit behind their 82-80 Pythagorean record.

The Braves appeared to be a contender in the first half of 2014 before capsizing down the stretch. They were generally perceived as a pitching-and-defense oriented club, but their pitcher-friendly park had a bit to do with that. Their offensive BIP authority was actually above MLB average, third in the division, while the BIP authority allowed by their pitching staff was below MLB average, ranking fourth in the East. On BIP authority alone, this was an 82-80 club, more on the strength of its bats than its arms.

But then we have to take K’s and BB’s into account. The Braves’ very high offensive K rate hurts them quite a bit, and though the club was above average in offensive BB rate and pitching staff K rate, in the net their K/BB performance knocks their projection down two wins to 80-82. Interestingly, the Braves also did not fare well in the Defensive Multiplier metric; their below average 102.0 mark is mostly due to subpar infield play. As good as Andrelton Simmons is, he wasn’t quite up to his previous standard in 2014, and got little help to his immediate left and right. This costs the Braves two more wins, down to 78-84, matching their Pythagorean record and one game behind their actual mark.

The Marlins, led by Giancarlo Stanton — and let’s not forget Marcell Ozuna — hit the tar out of the baseball. Despite the presence of at least two or three very light hitters in their lineup each day, the Marlins’ offensive team BIP authority was well above MLB average, and second only to the Nationals in the division. Their pitching staff allowed just above average BIP authority, and overall, this was an 86-76 club based on BIP authority alone.

This club was hurt even more than the Braves by their overall K and BB performance. The Marlins had the highest offensive K rate in the division, and by far the lowest pitching staff K rate. This is part of the price one pays for the BIP excellence of Stanton and Ozuna on the offensive side, and the contact management skill of someone like ground ball machine Henderson Alvarez on the pitching side. Still, the club lost six games on their overall projection due to their K/BB performance in 2014, down to 80-82. The Marlins had a 101.4 team defensive multiplier, costing them another two games, down to 78-84. Just like the Braves, this exactly matched their Pythagorean mark, and was just one game off of their actual record.

Last, and for now least, we have the Phillies. In 2014, they ranked last in the East in both offensive BIP authority and pitching staff BIP authority allowed, ranking among the bottom six in baseball in both categories. On BIP authority alone, this was a 69-93 club. The Phils also were below average in all four K/BB categories, costing them another two wins down to 67-95. Somewhat surprisingly, the Phils had the best defensive multiplier in the division at 98.5, largely due to solid work in the outfield. This gives them an additional win, and their final 68-94 projection falls five games short of both their actual and Pythagorean records.

There is a fairly stark agreement between my retroactive 2014 projections and the actual and Pythagorean records of the five NL East clubs, even more so than the previous two divisions examined (AL West, NL Central). Bit of a spoiler here, but that will be far from the case next week, when we look at the AL East.

Let’s now look forward. Below are the current 2015 Steamer projections, as of Wednesday afternoon:

STEAMER 15 PROJ
WAS 90-72
MIA 81-81
NYM 78-84
ATL 71-91
PHL 68-94

Let’s briefly label and discuss some key facets of each club below. One note; I haven’t delved into the clubs’ respective bullpens, as year-to-year club performance in that area tends to fluctuate wildly.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS – “2-5 Favorite, Secretariat Type” Club
They were the 1973 Belmont Secretariat of the NL East last season, clearing the division by 17 games. On paper, they might be even better this season, with Max Scherzer joining their already formidable rotation and Yunel Escobar likely to capably fill their hole at second base. Their indispensable player group includes Wilson Ramos, Ian Desmond (as his absence would reopen the 2B hole), Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper. Their starting rotation depth is the best in the division, with their 2013 and 2014 saviors, Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark, leading the group waiting in the wings. They’re not a slam-dunk to win the division; they’re more likely to be Preakness Secretariat this time around.

MIAMI MARLINS – The “Potential NL Breakout Of 2015” Club
This bunch’s upside is seriously high. Start with the outfield; you have Stanton in right, Baby Stanton (Ozuna) in center, and 1967 Pete Rose (Christian Yelich) in left. Oh, and did I mention that Stanton is the oldest, at 25? That’ll work. The club also has offensive downside; the loss of any one of those outfielders, especially the two big power guys, could be fatal, with Ichiro Suzuki not a viable long-term replacement at this stage of his career. The loss of any one of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Michael Morse, Adeiny Hechavarria or Martin Prado for any length of time could cripple the everyday lineup. Dee Gordon is an upgrade at second base, and the addition of Mat Latos and the return of Jose Fernandez should greatly bolster the rotation and its K rate. There is very solid starting rotation depth, with Tom Koehler, David Phelps, Brad Hand and Justin Nicolino all capable of stepping in if one or more of the starting five go down. The Marlins’ best-case scenario could steal the division if the Nationals stumble a bit.

NEW YORK METS – The “All Of The Good And Bad Things About Vanilla Ice Cream” Club
Vanilla ice cream is solid. It’s also not very exciting. These are your 2015 Mets. They will pitch early, and probably pitch more late, once Noah Syndergaard shows up to join Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom. That said, they have done little else to improve their club, with only Michael Cuddyer showing up to join the cause. There are few indispensable position players, perhaps Lucas Duda, David Wright and Juan Lagares. Their starting rotation depth is also quite good, with Dillon Gee the likely 6th starter at this point. This is the living embodiment of a .500 club, with their floor high and their ceiling quite low. The fun will start once the young guns are all in place, and the club once again decides to throw some financial might around to fortify the offense.

ATLANTA BRAVES – The “Rocking The Suburbs….In 2017” Club
It was a little surprising at first to see the Braves melt down their 2014 club in an attempt to spruce it up in time for their new ballpark in 2017. They are now racing the Phils to the bottom at the major league level, while greatly strengthening what had largely become a barren farm system. They bought low on Shelby Miller in the rotation, puzzlingly bought high on Nick Markakis in the outfield, and could play newcomers Jace Peterson and Mike Foltynewicz regularly at second base and in the rotation. With so many unproven potential regular contributors, there are relatively few indispensable pieces; only Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons qualify for that designation in the everyday lineup. There is little starting rotation depth, as all of the contenders for the #5 slot are either unproven or coming off of serious injury (Wandy Rodriguez).

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES – The “This Is Rock Bottom” Club
Hitting rock bottom is actually an important point in a rebuilding process. If all goes according to plan for the Phils, 2015 will be it, and they can move upward from there. This assumes a Cole Hamels trade, as any club with Hamels and a healthy Cliff Lee in its rotation is at the very least potentially respectable. The Phils have added little in the offseason, buying Aaron Harang’s league average-ish innings and taking a cheap flier on Chad Billingsley. That’s it. Jimmy Rollins, A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo have moved along. Their most indispensable everyday players are Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley and, believe it or not, Ben Revere. Who on earth plays center field is he isn’t there? Rotation depth is poor, as the candidates for #4-5 in the rotation are either unproven youngsters or proven mediocrities. Their offseason deals have yielded quite a bit of promising upper minor league starting pitching; with some luck, the pitching staff be quite a bit deeper a year from now.

We hoped you liked reading Pre-Spring Divisional Outlook: NL East by Tony Blengino!

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RMD
Guest
RMD

I would bet $100 to win $1 that Washington will win this division.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC

Deal. Please send me $100 and if the Nats win the division I’ll send you back $101.

Natman
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Natman

I don’t think that’s how “betting” works…

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter

Isn’t that exactly how it happens in Vegas?

Alex
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Alex

I’ll take that action, and I’m a diehard Nats fan.

SandyK
Member
SandyK

Considering inflation, you’d be making a few cents off this, at best.

Billy the Marlin
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Billy the Marlin

I’m in.