Washington Nationals: Defensive issues possibly October stumbling block

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SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 18: Michael Taylor
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 18: Michael Taylor /
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A deeper dive into the numbers for the Washington Nationals suggest they have another October problem. Is the defense really this bad?

At a surface level, the Washington Nationals appear to have the perfect recipe for a title contender. The lineup plates runs at an elite rate. The top of the rotation is one of the best in baseball, and the front office bolstered the bullpen with three key deadline additions. Injuries have hit the Nationals hard, but the team depth has held strong thus far, and the wounded cavalry should be returning to Washington soon.

But if you dig a little deeper, there is one glaring weakness: the defense. Washington ranks 27th in baseball this season with minus-30 defensive runs saved (DRS). Only San Francisco, the New York Mets, and Oakland rank below, and those teams are nearly 50 combined games under .500.

Compiling DRS can be complicated, but its core principle is quite simple – how many good plays do you make relative to the average player or team, and how many misplays do you make relative to average player or team?

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The Fielding Bible has an extensive list of what is deemed a good play, a misplay, or just a standard play, but they do have an abridged set of guidelines for each position. Here is what the Fielding Bible’s video scouts study for each play of every season:

  • Catchers: ERA when that catcher is behind the plate, stolen bases and attempts, and plays on bunt attempts
  • Outfielders: arm (throwing runners out, and holding runners from taking the extra base)
  • All Infielders: double play conversion
  • Corner infielders: plays on bunt attempts
  • All Fielders: good plays vs. misplays

DRS has come along since it was first introduced in 2003, and the statistic tends to jive with each player’s reputation. Take a look at the individual DRS for every key Nationals fielder this season:

Player2017 DRSPosition Rank
CMatt Wieters+46th (out of 13)
1BRyan Zimmerman-622nd (of 24)
2BDaniel Murphy-1418th (of 18)
3BAnthony Rendon+75th (of 21)
SSTrea Turner+2*12th (of 26)
RFBryce Harper+19th (of 19)
CFTeam CF’ers-1125th (of 30)
LFTeam LF’ers+214th (of 30)

*minimum 550 innings

The Fielding Bible breaks down defensive ability into several tiers:

  • Gold Glove: +15
  • Great: +10
  • Above Average: +5
  • Average: 0
  • Below Average: -5
  • Poor: -10
  • Awful: -15

Rendon is clearly the Nats top defender, along with Wieters and Turner, who are both above average. But after that it drops off. Harper and Michael Taylor have been relatively average throughout their careers. Brian Goodwin is a minus-6 in 35 games manning centerfield this season. Jayson Werth posted a positive DRS through 44 games in left field this year (+1), but rated as a statue-esque minus-18 from 2015-16. Murphy has long been one of the worst defenders among all second baseman, and Zimmerman, once an elite three-bagger, is now costing Washington runs at the far easier first base.

So what does that mean as we move towards October? Surely the Nationals have the offensive firepower to overcome some defensive woes.

That’s true, they might. Washington leads the National League in runs scored. But in the postseason, scoring opportunities are much harder to come by. Last season, the average MLB team scored nearly 4.5 runs per game. In the playoffs, that dropped to 3.7. Even with better offenses in the playoffs, the tightened rotations and quick hooks make scoring runs exceedingly difficult. One defensive play, good or bad, can turn a series.

In the past 12 seasons, only two teams have won the World Series with a DRS worse than minus-10 (2009 Yankees, 2011 Cardinals), and neither was even close to the defensive ineptitude displayed by Washington this season. In the last two years, the champion Cubs and Royals finished first and second respectively in DRS during the regular season. Defense matters now more than ever.

That mantra quickly becomes apparent just by looking around the rest of the MLB. Six teams seem to have a real shot at the World Series this year: the Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs, Indians, Astros, and Nationals. Four of those teams currently rank in the top nine in DRS, with Houston and Washington slipping into the 20’s. Still, the Astros rank six spots ahead of and are 11 runs better than the Nats, who remain miles behind the competition.

General manager Mike Rizzo has done an incredible job of building this team over the last decade, but defense has never been the organization’s strong suit. The Nationals have only posted a positive DRS twice since Rizzo was promoted to the head GM position (plus-8 in 2011, plus-11 in 2014).

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Washington isn’t dead yet. In the playoffs, small sample size is king, so it’s certainly possible that Zimmerman, Murphy, or Werth could make some key defensive plays to win a series. But if they don’t, the Nationals will have to overcome over a decade of data that says their defense will be their downfall.

All stats courtesy of Fangraphs.

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