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Can the Nationals be a Surprise Team Part 2: Defense

Tyler Clippard stood on the mound awaiting manager Jim Riggleman after blowing the lead to the Baltimore Orioles. Matt Capps was summoned from the bullpen to preserve the game, and on his second pitch he got the double play ball the Nationals needed to get out of the inning. The only problem was that Cristian Guzman threw the ball ten rows deep into the stands to complete the routine 6-4-10 double play. Which meant it wasn't a double play and all the Nationals could do was sulk off the field after sloppy play had cost them another game. It was a scene that was repeated far too often for the 2010 Washington Nationals.

In total the Nationals made 127 errors and allowed 84 unearned runs. Cutting down on the errors and general sloppy play is one of the quickest paths to improvement. 66% of errors led to an unearned run. This is probably somewhat inaccurate as it doesn't account for wild pitches or passed ball or multiple runs scoring on the same error or being the result of the same error, but it gives an idea of just how bad the Nationals were defensively. A league average team would have only allowed 64 unearned runs on 101 errors for an error to unearned run percent of 60%. Part of this can be blamed on pitching as the Nationals starters had a K/9 of 5.6 while league average was 7.0. More balls in play led to more chances for the fielder to make a mistake and when the fielders are as error prone as the Nationals were this is never good.

The additions of Adam LaRoche at first, Danny Espinosa at second, and improvement from Ian Desmond should lead to better infield defense and less errors. Taking into account the larger target that LaRoche can offer at first base and less errors from the first base position itself, and the possibility of a ten error improvement from Ian Desmond the infield could make anywhere from 14 to 20 less errors in 2011 as opposed to 2010.

Nyjer Morgan and Roger Bernadina combined for 9 errors from the outfield. The most obvious way for this to be corrected is if Nyjer Morgan can keep his head in the game. Too many of his errors were of the inexcusable variety. They were not errors of effort or errors that were simple mistakes. They were errors of stupidity. Nyjer Morgan too often last season let his emotions play out on the field. He would throw to the wrong base, overthrow cut-off-men, and worst of all throw a temper tantrum in center field. A decrease in outfield errors is possible and maybe even likely but it is the smaller things that don't go down as errors that have to be improved. For the sake of this argument I will credit the outfield with two less errors.

Also gone is Wil Nieves who is thought of as a defensive catcher much for the same reason that a power forward that can't score in basketball is thought of as a defensive specialist. In no way should Nieves be considered a good defensive catcher. He only managed to throw out 24% of runners attempting to steal and made 5 errors in the process. With Pudge and Ramos expecting to split time evenly at catcher the error total from this position should drop slightly. I would say a safe estimate would be around 3 errors total off from the catcher position which would bring the error total down to 108. Now with Jordan Zimmermann and Tom Gorzelanny in the rotation for much of the year the Nationals starters should be able to increase their strikeout total which will help from allowing the free base runners to score. The Nationals pitching staff will still be below average so perhaps the percent of errors to unearned runs will drop to 63% which is still 3% worse than league average. Using this we can figure the total of unearned runs in 2011 to be around 68 which is 16 runs or 1.6 wins better than 2010, and this is just from simply not giving the game away with sloppy play.

Errors are only a small part of the defensive equation. In order for a player to even make an error they have to first get to the ball. When I e-mailed Patrick and asked him what he thought of my idea for this series he said I should look at Nate Silver's 2008 piece on the Tampa Bay Rays.  What stood out to me most was this paragraph about the Rays improved defense and focus on run prevention:

It's in the field, though, that the Rays will make their biggest gains. According to BP's Fielding Runs above Average (FRAA), the Rays gave up 72 more runs than an average defense last season. Of that total, 56 resulted from poor middle-infield play as the Rays rotated overmatched utilitymen Brendan Harris and Josh Wilson at shortstop and saw Upton commit 12 errors in just 48 games at second before moving him to centerfield. But the acquisition of slick-fielding shortstop Jason Bartlett in the Young trade and the move of sure-handed Aki Iwamura from third to second (to make room for Longoria) has stabilized the infield. As a result the Rays' defense projects to be 10 runs above average this year, an 82-run improvement, which will allow the improved rotation to work through its innings more efficiently.

For my look into the number of runs the Nationals could allow in 2011 I am going to use UZR and UZR/150 or Ultimate Zone Rating and Ultimate Zone Rating over the course of 150 games. Ultimate Zone Rating measures how many runs over or below average a fielder is with 0 being average for the fielder's position. Each fielder is asigned a zone determined by the average range of fielders at that position. For more indepth information please see the Fangraphs UZR primer. According the UZR the Nationals defense was 4.8 runs above average, but most of that positive UZR came from one position as Ryan Zimmerman was 13.9 runs above average in 2010. Most other positions ranked below average in UZR.

The focus here should be on up the middle defense and how that can be improved. In 23 starts at second base Danny Espinosa was able to rack up a UZR/150 of 13.3. If he could keep this level of play consistent for an entire season it would make him the best defensive second baseman in the NL. This is unlikely, but what is likely is that he could put up a better UZR/150 than Cristian Guzman's -5.3 or Adam Kennedy's 5.5. Espinosa will likely come in with a UZR/150 of somewhere around 8.0 to 12.0 as he both looked good playing defense and the numbers prove out that he was good playing defense. The amount of games that Kennedy and Guzman played at second were about even and their UZR/150 averages out to 0.1. If Espinosa can fall right in the middle of my guess at his 2011 UZR/150 then that is almost an entire win difference from just upgrading one position on defense.

The Nationals however did not simply upgrade one position. They got better at multiple positions. The signing of Jayson Werth puts an above average defender in right field, and shift Roger Bernadina who was a below average defender in right to left field where he is an above average defender. Now just a word of caution here on these UZR numbers. It is widely thought that three years of data is required for these numbers to be accurate and we are only looking at a handful of games at times, but scouts have confirmed that Bernadina's best position is left and Mike Rizzo himself said that he plays, "Barry Bonds defense," in left.

Jayson Werth's career UZR/150 in right is 10.4 and Bernadina's career UZR/150 in left is 11.8. That 11.8 ranking is only from 50 some games, but it is perfectly believable in my estimation as it would rank Bernadina right around the defensive level of Juan Pierre which just sort of feels right. Now compare those numbers to what the Nationals had in left and right last season. In right Roger Bernadina's UZR/150 was -4.4 and in left Josh Willingham's UZR/150 was -6.8. That would be a net improvement of 33.4 runs or 3.34 wins. That is a huge improvement from upgrading the defense and it should be noted that Werth was only able to manage a UZR/150 of -2.9, but either way the improved defensive outfield should be 2 to 3 wins better than last year's outfield, and that is before mentioning the most important outfield position.

So much of the 2011 season will hinge on Nyjer Morgan. When Nyjer came to the Nationals in 2009 he put up an amazing UZR/150 of 39.4, but last season he only managed a UZR/150 of 4.2. The biggest question is what will Nyjer Morgan do in 2011. The way I see it he has two choices. He can either concede the point and admit everyone is right about him and he is nothing more than a 4th outfielder and platoon centerfielder at best, or he can get that chip back on his shoulder and play like the Nyjer of 2009. He can go out there and prove everybody wrong, and if he can do that and put up his career UZR/150 of 18.0 that would be a massive boost to the Nationals. That would mean the Nationals could be looking at an up to 5 win improvement from outfield defense. Combine that with the one win from less sloppy play and the win from Espinosa over Guzman and Kennedy and that is a seven win improvement.

If Nyjer Morgan is the biggest question then Ian Desmond has to be the second biggest. His 34 errors in 2010 were nothing short of terrible, but in many ways they were just growing pains. Most young short stops have high error totals, and there is simply no way to avoid it. If the Nationals were to flip Espinosa and Desmond in the field it is likely that Espinosa would end up with a high error total while learning on the job. People say Desmond should have figured this all out in the minors, but the game is slower in the minors. The pitchers don't throw as hard and thus the ball isn't coming off the bat as hard. In 2011 Desmond should be adjusted to the quickness of the game and in fact he did show signs of improvement with decision making towards the end of 2010.

Of Desmond's 34 errors 13 of them were throwing errors. Better decision making and a better target area with Adam LaRoche should help that. The big thing about Desmond is his range and while his RngR rating in 2010 was 2.7 but his UZR ended up at -8.8 mostly due to an errR ranking of -10.5. If Desmond can get his errors under control he should be able to put up a UZR in line with his RngR ranking which would be somewhere between the 4.3 of Yunel Escobar and the 8.7 of Stephen Drew. If Desmond can even improve to a positive ranking of 1.2 that would be enough for a one game improvement from short stop defense, which brings the total of wins from defense up to 8.

I don't like to use UZR to judge a first baseman. Their main duty is to save the other infielders errors and to be a receiver more than a protector of a zone, but their contributions however limited on defense cannot be forgotten, and LaRoche's career UZR/150 at first is -2.6 compared to Dunn's UZR/150 of -14.6. However Dunn did manage a UZR/150 of -3.3 in 2010 and LaRoche had a UZR/150 of 4.8 and both of their career UZR/150's appear to be dragged down by bad years early in their careers. For this case I think last season's numbers are more accurate than career totals. Either way LaRoche is less than or slightly more than a win better than Dunn defensively as far as UZR goes, and it is yet to be seen how much improvement LaRoche's ability to stretch and pick will help out his fellow infielders.

As a whole the defensive of the Washington Nationals should be improved, but how improved is up to interpretation at this point and how much it will matter is up to even further interpretation, but from my calculations it could be as much as an 8 win improvement from simply catching the ball and throwing the ball, and there are things outside the range of UZR. Smaller things that won't matter as much on the large scale but could be huge on the small scale. Imagine for a moment the outfield of Ankiel, Bernadina, and Werth, and then imagine a runner trying to go from first to third on a single, or first to home on double, or trying to score on a sac fly, and then think of the powerful throwing arms. That outfield alignment could put a stranglehold on an opponent's running game. It is those types of moments that could be the difference between winning and losing a 1 or 2 run game. It is those types of moments that can keep a game tied or keep the Nationals within striking distance of a Brad Lidge hanging slider, but as far as overall defensive improvements it looks to be around an 8 win difference between 2010 and 2011 which would bring our total so far up to 10 games when paired with the modest pitching improvements discussed last week.

Of course preventing runs is only one aspect of the game of baseball and next week timely hitting will be the point of discussion. All this run prevention could be for not if the Nationals can't score any runs, but it is a lot easier for the hitting to be considered timely when a team can prevent the other team from scoring, and it is also easier when the offense only has to score three or four runs to win instead of having to score five or six. The ability of the later never hurts, but so far my calculations have the Nationals allowing around 3.84 runs a game which would have been in the top of the league last year. While this appears unlikely the defensive improvements the Nationals have made are massive and the solid defense should be able to help out the pitching staff, and really in trying to figure out if the Nationals can be a surprise team isn't a little optimism warranted? Likely the Nationals would do well to just get to the league average rate of 4.35 runs allowed per game, but like I have said before the great thing about sports is reality is either waiting to surprise the pessimist or smack the optimist back down to reality.