The Defense Really Has Been Great

If you notice on the right side of the blog, the Nationals offense and pitching rankings are always  sitting there for you to see. What’s not there is defense, and a quick perusal of the defensive ranking of this team yielded shocking results. The Nats are ranked first or second in the NL in the overall defensive measurements on Baseball Reference. So I decided to investigate further, and here’s what we have:

  • Defensive EfficiencyPercentage of balls in play converted into outs: Nats rank 2nd in the NL with .706. Atlanta’s first at .707, league average is .695.
  • RtotTotal Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average (The number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made):  Nats rank 1st in the NL with 27, league total is -56.
  • RdrsBIS Defensive Runs Saved Above Average (The number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made):  Nats rank 1st in the NL with 8, next best team is at -1.

What’s the difference between the two last stats above? I believe they measure the same thing, Baseball Reference just gets them from different sources (kind of like how WAR might be different dependent on different sources). They are also normalized differently, the values aren’t the same. But the point isn’t exactly what these stats are, the point is that advanced defensive metric show the Nats have the best or second best defense in the NL. It’s not just the team in general, obviously. You can also look how the individuals rank defensively, and that looks pretty good as well.

Everyone says that UZR/150 and UZR are great to look at for a few years, but even one full season is a small sample size for that particular stat. Ok, so let’s just use those Rtot/Rdrs stats. Keep in mind they are cumulative stats, like VORP and WAR. So playing time does factor in. I’ve also shown a couple of other stats, including fielding percentage, for whatever that’s worth, and range factor per nine innings. Check out how the individuals rank in the NL by positions.

At catcher, Wilson Ramos, despite not technically being a full time catcher, is leading the league in Rtot, his buddy Pudge is also on the list, and the two of them have the highest CS%:

At first base, Adam LaRoche is obviously no longer playing, but his ranking here shows just how well he was doing on the defensive end before hitting the DL. Meanwhile, I lowered the innings requirement to show Mike Morse, and he ranks eighth in the league. Not too shabby again for less playing time. Together, since this is additive, Morse and LaRoche may have combined as the best fielding first basement in the league:

Next stop is 2B, where rookie Danny Espinosa has dazzled with his glove and his arm. And if what he’s done visually is backed up by the data, as he ranks second in the NL. Note that he is the youngest guy on this list. Surprisingly, though, he doesn’t rank at the top of the list in range factor. While my eyes tell me he would, the numbers say otherwise.

Finally, perhaps most surprising to people who haven’t paid that much attention this year, or at least post-April, is how good Ian Desmond is doing. Despite the April boot-fest, and despite his reputation from last year, he ranks 4th in the NL in Rtot. His range factor is 4th as well among these players. So he’s been a strong defensive player despite those errors, and I’m guessing if you could look just from May 1st on, he’d rank even higher.

The outfield doesn’t show Rdrs but it still shows Rtot, and they didn’t fare quite as well as the infield. You’d think Rick Ankiel, for all he’s done, would be at the very top of the list, but his lack of playing time surely hurt him there. Jayson Werth, regarded as a very good fielder is only ranked 20th here, although keep in mind that a positive number means he’s better than any old fielder you might bring up. Laynce Nix has a negative score which probably isn’t altogether surprising, it appears he’s not completely butchering the position, either. Roger Bernadina, though, has a very low score. And his range factor is pretty low as well. This probably is evidence in favor of Rizzo’s attempt early in the year to avoid putting Bernie in CF. Now that he doesn’t really have a choice, Roger is showing he’s not great in the middle of the outfield.

What might be most interesting about how well the team is doing defensively is how poorly they did last year. As a team, their Rtot ranked second to last in 2010 at -29, and the individual performances weren’t any prettier. New additions, as well as turnarounds from guys like Desmond, have made this team move from one of the worst fielding clubs in the majors to one of the best in the course of one season. It will be very interesting to check back at the end of the year and see if they’ve kept it up.

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