Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Defensive Struggles

Watching the Nationals face off against the Braves last night was frustrating. Sure, Doug Fister didn't have a great game. And sure, the offense didn't exactly light up journeyman Eric Stults, but they did put up 4 runs by the end of the contest. No, the most frustrating part of the game was the defense, which, unfortunately, is nothing new for this team. Just how bad has the defense been? Let's find out.

In trying to measure defense, errors aren’t a great tool given how subjective they can be and how they can reward players for not getting to a ball they should (looking at you Derek Jeter). While the Nationals have certainly piled up the errors, we will be using the more advanced stats Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Both are manually calculated statistics that measure the runs saved or lost on each defensive play. So, if you have a ball that drops between two fictitious outfielders, who we will call Bryce Taylor and Michael Harper for purposes of our example, no error is recorded, but DRS and UZR will dock Bryce and Michael for letting a ball drop that the average outfielder would catch. It scores plays made in a similar manner. If a defender makes a diving play on a hard hit ball that usually would fall for hit, that fielder gets credit for making a play the average player wouldn’t make. As you can tell, these ratings are still subjective and it takes several seasons of data to be reliable on a player by player basis. So we won't dig too deep into the actual DRS or UZR scores, but find some generalizations in the data that should nonetheless give us some insight into exactly how the Nationals’ defense has fared in 2015. (Quick programming note: these stats are all as of the end of games on 4/26, so they don't include last nights affair against the Braves, not that it would change all that much, unfortunately)

The following table shows the rating of the DRS and UZR scores for the Nationals as a team and on a position by position basis as compared to the rest of major league baseball. I’ll warn you in advance, it’s not a pretty table:


The Nationals come in 26th place by UZR, with a -6 UZR score and tied for last place with a DRS score of -13. This eliminates any doubt that our eyes may be deceiving us; the Nationals defense has been one of the worst in the majors so far in 2015. In fact, it’s hard to find a position that the Nationals have even been above average at defensively.

Danny Espinosa has manned second base well, showing that even if he can’t hit he still provides value with his defense. By DRS, Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton have been solid (UZR wasn’t available for catchers on FanGraphs), but this excludes any pitch framing calculations. And I’m not even sure how DRS would calculate the runs lost on that crazy Stanton run down play (/non-play) by Ramos on Sunday.

That effectively wraps up the section of the post covering positive items. Even the Nationals’ pitchers have been a negative defensively. For all the talk about how the pitchers are great athletes, we haven’t seen them run down any base runners on their own and have been more likely to watch them chuck a ball into the stands than make a nice defensive play.

Failed pick off attempts aside, Ryan Zimmerman has been solid at first base, especially considering that he has played the position for only a matter of weeks. UZR is higher on Zimmerman than DRS and I would have to think that he gets knocked not for his ability to grab fly balls or groundballs but for his ability to make a play on bad throws at the base. Those throws will turn into outs as Zimmerman gets more comfortable picking a ball in the dirt. 

Ian Desmond’s adventures at short need no introduction. It’s actually surprising Desmond is not in dead last, so give him some credit for turning in some quality plays of late and not letting his rough start torpedo his whole season. While Desmond is no Andtelton Simmons, he’s most likely a neutral defender who will flub some easy plays but also get to some balls most shortstops do not.

At third base, we find that the Yunel Escobar as third baseman experiment has been failing. This is a great example of why these advanced defensive stats are useful. If you were ranking the Nationals who have struggled defensively this year, Escobar probably doesn’t rank that highly but UZR and DRS have not been impressed with his efforts at the hot corner.

The outfield has also been pretty terrible, although DRS likes Harper’s work in right field, likely due more to the fear he puts in baserunners with his arm than his reactions and speed in tracking down fly balls as UZR rates him pretty poorly. Michael Taylor, known for his defense in the minors, struggled in his brief stint with the big league club and Denard Span hasn’t had enough time in the field for his great defensive instincts to build up some value. The combination of converted first basemen (Moore and Robinson) and a recovering Werth in left field has also been disappointing.

Grading out the defense, you would give passing grades to Zimmerman and Espinosa with incompletes for Harper, Ramos/Lobaton, and Span. Everyone else gets an “F.” defensive miscues are frustrating in themselves, but they have a waterfall effect on the game. Pitchers end up having to face more batters, throwing more pitches, and subsequently leaving the game earlier than Matt Williams would like. Miscues also mean more baserunners, increasing the odds the opposition scores.

What has happened, has happened, and the Nationals won’t gain anything from dwelling on their past failures. There are a few big takeaways from this exercise, though, that can be useful going forward. First, and maybe most importantly, Escobar should not stick at third base once Rendon is back healthy. There were already concerns with Escobar’s defense coming into the season and he has not adjusted to third base well. Second base is an easier position to play and he hopefully does better there. Rendon is a gold glove caliber third baseman. He is also recovering from a lower body injury and second base is notoriously taxing on lower bodies. His bat will be an important part of any Nationals come back, so Matt Williams and Mike Rizzo should focus on keeping him healthy and scrap the whole idea of him playing second base. Secondly, Span’s return will improve the defense of the whole outfield. He can cover a lot of ground and make up for the inexperience (Harper) and lack of mobility (Werth) next to him. His offense may not match his 2014 season (I’m not holding my breath), but his defense is valuable. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is plenty of room for improvement on the part of the Nationals. The Nationals will have to play well to catch the Mets after the hole they have dug themselves. But to see improvement on defense, the Nationals won’t have to play above their talent level. They just have to meet it. Hopefully, that's not asking too much.

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