Deep Thoughts: Sabermetrics and my annual checkup


I went for my annual physical this morning. I’m OK and stuff, but I am NOT in the Best Shape of My Life. And the entire conversation I had with my doctor about it made me realize how silly and stupid old school, anti-sabermetric arguments are.

Note: I warn the medical professionals among you that I am going to refer to some things in a very hamfisted way. Please feel free to correct my mistakes and misleading statements in the comments.

Most of us know that you really don’t want to have a high cholesterol number. We probably had it ingrained in our heads since the 1980s at least that if your “cholesterol” — the term usually used generically, but also known as “bad cholesterol” or LDL-C — is pushing 200 or more that you’re in a bad place and at risk of heart attacks and all of that.  So, dude, lower that cholesterol!

Except it’s not that simple anymore. In the past few years general practitioners have increasingly moved away from talking to their patients about that old bad cholesterol scale to more sophisticated and refined measures. Measures which have a much greater correlation with heart health than the old numbers. I’m sure it’s way more complicated than this (really, talk to your doctor), but for our purposes, LDL-P is a WAY better measure than the bad cholesterol/LDL-C measure. Indeed, you may very well have a low LDL-C number but still be at serious risk of a heart attack because your LDL-P number is too high.

This is where I am. I get a physical every year. After a not great one in 2010 I bought a treadmill, cut out sweets, cut back on beer and lost weight. I lost about 25 pounds or so, in fact. I went for a physical in December 2011. My “bad cholesterol” number was much improved. In the healthy range. As far as I knew, I was in the BSOML.

Since last year, however, my doctor began, as a matter of course, testing LDL-P levels. I am way, way too high in my LDL-P levels. This is true even though I’m still down in weight from where I was back in 2010 and despite the fact that my bad cholesterol numbers are still in good shape. The old metrics are misleading! They were failing me because they were not telling me and my doctor about my heart attack risks nearly as well as the newer, more sophisticated metrics.

After getting lectured by my doctor about how I need to change my diet, I began to laugh. I began to imagine myself as an old school baseball writer listening to this. I began to formulate a rebuttal to my doctor that could have easily shown up in Jon Heyman’s Hall of Fame column or something, switching out WAR for LDL-P:

“LDL-P. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.  Look, doc, you can bury your head in your spreadsheets and clinical studies which purport to show correlation between dying of heart attacks and your fancy acronyms, but bad cholesterol numbers are widely accepted and understood by people who aren’t doctors. If they were good enough for the doctor I had in 1984 they’re good enough for me. I prefer the eye test anyway. I look in the mirror and I see a much thinner me than I saw two years ago. I see that my 34 jeans are actually loose. I see my breakfast each morning and note that I’m eating way more cereal now than eggs, and my 1984 doctor told me that’s what I should do.  I don’t need some abstract number to tell me something which goes against all intuitive sense. You’re using LDL-P as an argument-ender, and frankly, the tone of you LDL-P people has gotten extreme.”

Science and math is science and math no matter what you apply it to. If people in any other field besides baseball treated scientific and mathematical metrics with the sort of willfully ignorant disdain that many baseball writers treat advanced baseball metrics, they’d be laughingstocks. And while, yes, it is an extreme example, if doctors did so in the medical field more people would die.  Baseball isn’t life and death of course, but I’m glad my doctor doesn’t approach his field of study like Jon Heyman and guys like him approach theirs.

Anyway, end of deep thought. I’m off to chuck all of the cereal, bread, crackers and pasta I have into the garbage and begin steeling myself for egg-white omelets, fish and a lot more lentils and things. If that makes me a dietary stathead who needs to get his head out of his laptop and eat some damn bagels once in a while, well, so be it.

2018 Preview: Washington Nationals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Washington Nationals.

The Nationals stood tall in the NL East last season, winning 97 games and taking the division crown by 20 games over the second-place Marlins. While the Marlins got markedly worse, the Braves, Mets, and Phillies – winners of 72, 70, and 66 games, respectively – made some improvements and should be more competitive. Still, this is a division the Nationals are heavy favorites to win despite a relatively quiet offseason.

Max Scherzer, winner of back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards, leads the rotation. The right-hander had the best year of his career, going 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA and a 268/55 K/BB ratio over 200 2/3 innings. Scherzer is now 33 years old but has yet to show signs of slowing down. In fact, he’s gotten better over the last three years, improving his already stellar strikeout rate from 30.7 percent to 34.4 percent.

Stephen Strasburg will follow Scherzer in the rotation. He made 28 starts instead of 33 due to an elbow impingement, but otherwise had a terrific season. He went 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA and a 204/47 K/BB ratio in 175 1/3 innings. He finished third in Cy Young balloting. Strasburg’s chances of winning a Cy Young Award are sadly slim since he not only plays in the same league as Scherzer, but shares a team with him. And, of course, there’s four-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw on the Dodgers. Strasburg will settle for being an elite No. 2 starter.

The rest of the rotation features Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, and A.J. Cole. Gonzalez was excellent last season, finishing with a 2.96 ERA and a 188/79 K/BB ratio in 201 innings. It wasn’t a flawless season as his walk rate at 9.6 percent rose to its highest point since 2011 and his fastball velocity dipped just below 90 MPH on average. And his strikeout rate, while solid, isn’t indicative of a sub-3.00 ERA. Gonzalez benefited from a .258 BABIP and a high strand rate at 81.6 percent, both factors that are likely to regress to the mean in 2018. Roark struggled to a 4.67 ERA based on a horrible strand rate at 66.3 percent, which is likely to regress in the other direction. Cole impressed across eight starts and three relief appearances, posting a 3.81 ERA in 52 innings. His control will be an issue – he walked 27 – but if he can master that, the Nationals will have a scary starting rotation.

In the bullpen, Sean Doolittle will get the lion’s share of save opportunities. The lefty spent his 2017 with the Athletics and then the Nationals following a trade, enjoying great results with both teams. Combined, he accrued 24 saves with a 2.81 ERA and a 62/10 K/BB ratio in 51 1/3 innings. Doolittle has been slowed by injuries in recent years, so that remains a concern going forward for the Nationals, but when he’s on the field, he’s a dominant closer.

The gap to Doolittle will be bridged by veteran Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. Madson, 37, continues to impress as he ages. Between the A’s and Nats last year, the right-hander posted a 1.83 ERA with a 67/9 K/BB ratio in 59 innings. Kintzler, between the Twins and Nats last season, finished with a 3.03 ERA and a 39/16 K/BB ratio in 71 1/3 innings. Kintzler hasn’t been missing many bats lately but has still been finding success inducing ground balls. Behind Madson and Kintzler, the Nationals will call on Koda Glover, Shawn Kelley, Enny Romero, and a rotating cast of characters including Matt Grace and Sammy Solis.

Offensively, it’s hard to start anywhere but with Bryce Harper in right field. The 2015 NL MVP was limited to 111 games last season due to a knee injury suffered when he slipped on a wet first base bag. He was on his way to, potentially, another MVP award, as he finished the year batting .319/.413/.595 with 28 home runs and 87 RBI in 492 PA. The 25-year-old is in his final year of club control and is expected to test free agency after the season. He’ll be hoping to lead the Nats to a World Series beforehand.

Michael Taylor will handle center field. The speedster swiped 17 bases while hitting .271/.320/.486 with 19 home runs and 53 RBI in 432 PA last season. Taylor is also outstanding defensively, giving the Nationals nothing to worry about at this position.

Adam Eaton will finally return and handle left field. The 29-year-old played only 23 games last year after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus. He has been eased back into action this spring but is expected to be fully ready by the start of the regular season. When healthy, he provides speed and defense while hitting for a high average. In 2016 with the White Sox, he stole 14 bases while hitting 29 doubles, nine triples, and 14 home runs in 706 plate appearances.

Moving to the infield, MVP candidate Anthony Rendon will handle third base. Rendon was one of the best players in baseball last season, accruing 6.0 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference. He batted .301/.403/.533 with 25 home runs and 100 RBI while playing terrific defense. It was certainly a career year for the 27-year-old, but it wouldn’t be unrealistic to expect similar production in 2018.

Trea Turner will stand to Rendon’s left at shortstop. He put up average offensive numbers but stole 46 bases in 54 opportunities. Turner can also play in the outfield or at second base in a pinch. He’s only 24 years old, so there’s plenty of room for growth. He has the skillset of someone who could develop into an MVP candidate.

Daniel Murphy was expected to reprise his role at second base for the Nationals, but he still hasn’t gotten back to 100 percent after undergoing a debridement and microfracture surgery on his right knee last November. He has been limited to batting practice and fielding grounders hit directly at him. The Nationals hope he’ll be ready at some point in April. For now, veteran Howie Kendrick will handle second base. Kendrick, 34, had an excellent 2017 campaign, batting .315/.368/.475 across 91 games with the Phillies and Nationals. The Nats are certainly glad they signed him to a two-year, $7 million contract in January.

First base belongs to 33-year-old Ryan Zimmerman. After a forgettable 2016 season, Zimmerman made some adjustments – and was healthier – to lead him to one hell of a bounce-back year. His OPS in 2016 was .642; in 2017, it was .930. He made a more concerted effort to put the ball in the air, resulting in 36 home runs and a .573 slugging percentage. It seems like a reasonable assumption that Zimmerman can repeat those results. Needless to say, the key to another big season for him is staying healthy.

Matt Wieters, coming off of a down year, will be the regular catcher once again. In 123 games last season, Wieters hit .225/.288/.344, easily the worst offensive performance of his career. He still played good defense and handled the pitching staff with aplomb, so it’s a position at which the Nationals can accept subpar offense. He’ll likely be backed up by Miguel Montero with Pedro Severino waiting in the wings.

FanGraphs (89) and PECOTA (88) are both projecting fewer than 90 wins for the Nationals. I’m usually one not to stray too much from the projections, but that feels light to me. The Nationals won 97 games last year and the club is arguably better, getting Eaton back. Murphy probably won’t be out for too long and a lot of the outstanding performers from 2017 should be expected to be excellent again in 2018. I’m straying from the projections here.

Prediction: 96-66, first place in NL East