The troubles of the Nationals’ defense, unearned runs


(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In the past week, the Nationals played six games and committed seven errors on defense. Only one of those errors — Adam LaRoche’s fielding error in the fourth inning of Saturday’s 4-3 11-inning loss — could directly be linked to contributing to a loss, but, as a whole, the Nationals have continued their uneven defensive play. It remains one of their most glaring weaknesses through a disappointing first two months and a 31-31 record. They have the ability to be spectacular and consistent but have lacked much of the latter.

A month ago, the Nationals led the majors in errors. Just when the pace of errors seemed to slow down and Ryan Zimmerman appeared to look more comfortable throwing across the diamond, the Nationals inflict a week like the past one upon themselves. They lead the majors in errors (tied with the Dodgers, Angels and Astros) with 47 through 62 games, more than a third of the way through the season. They committed 94 errors in 162 games last season.

This week, Zimmerman made two more throwing errors to add to his major league leading 11, of which 10 are throwing. The normally steady LaRoche made two errors and brought his season total to five; he made only seven during his Gold Glove-winning 2012 season. Understandably, Anthony Rendon made two errors this week, while playing second base for the time in the majors. After an early rash of errors, Ian Desmond hasn’t committed one since his seventh of the season on April 21.

The defense, quite simply, needs to improve like Desmond did. Even with regulars in the field, the defense struggled this season. Although Tyler Moore committed only one error and Steve Lombardozzi made two, the Nationals’s defense would welcome the return of Bryce Harper in left field. Jayson Werth’s recent return to right field also helped, although Roger Bernadina has played well in the outfield.

Danny Espinosa played well defensively but injuries will claim him for a while. Denard Span has played solid defense in center. Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki have been good but not spectacular. The growing pains will continue with Zimmerman as he continues to rehab his surgically repaired shoulder throughout the season. Rendon, who possess quick hands and the needed aptitude, will improve with more playing at second.

By some advanced metrics, the Nationals have played bad defense but not as horribly as the 47 errors may suggest. The Nationals have a negative 4.8 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), 20th in the majors. Last season’s Nationals posted a 6.1 UZR, 14th in the majors. Even if you subtract Zimmerman’s 11 errors, the Nationals would rank in the middle of the pack in errors committed.

Errors will lead to unearned runs, but not always. It’s up to the pitcher and the subsequent defensive play to patch up the mistake and prevent it from being magnified. The Nationals have struggled to do that. They are tied with the Mets for fourth most unearned runs with 26. The Dodgers, Astros and Blue Jays are tied for the lead with 31 unearned runs.

The Pirates are an example of a team, perhaps through luck or just strong defense and pitching following a miscue, that has limited the potential for exacerbating miscues. They are tied for seventh in the majors with 41 errors but have allowed only 12 unearned runs, in the bottom portion of the league.

This past week’s six errors led to seven unearned runs, both troubling statistics. Stephen Strasburg leads Nationals pitchers with nine unearned runs but has recently improved in how he responds to adversity behind him on the mound. If the Nationals hope to begin to salvage the rest of their season, their defense and the pitching following defensive mistakes need to improve. The current rate seems unsustainable for the lofty postseason goals they possess.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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James Wagner · June 11, 2013