By MARK SIMON
The Washington Nationals lead the majors with 22 Defensive Runs Saved in 25 games.
That sounds weird, right? After all, the Nationals finished last in that stat in the shortened 2020 season.
So right away, there’s a little reason to be skeptical, especially considering that they didn’t necessarily do anything to considerably upgrade their defense this offseason.
So what’s going on here?
Let’s start with the idea that it’s early. We’re looking at 25-game samples, so there are no ironclad guarantees that what’s true today will be true at the end of September.
With that in mind, a few things we’ve noticed.
Trea Turner has saved 4 runs with his defense so far this season. We’re not going to call it a great first month of the season, but it’s fair to call it a good one.
Turner is representative of the Nationals’ turnaround. He cost them five runs with his defense last season, which seemed a bit of an aberration given that he’d never had a season with a negative Runs Saved total at shortstop previously.
Turner’s solid play explains an important stat – the Nationals have turned nearly 80% of ground balls and bunts into outs this season (79.6% to be exact). That’s the highest rate in MLB by more than two percentage points.
They were 29th in that stat last season, 71%
And when we narrow it down to balls hit to the left of second base, you can see the jump.
2020 67% out rate
2021 81% out rate
So this one qualifies as a surprise, though maybe not as big of one as you would expect.
Josh Bell and Ryan Zimmerman have split time at first base this season. Bell entered 2021 having never posted a positive Runs Saved total at the position, though he’s shown gradual improvement through his first five seasons. Zimmerman had – in fact he had 5 Runs Saved in 2019 – but didn’t play at all in 2020, so who knew what to expect there.
Each has 2 Runs Saved. We’re not reading much into their early totals yet, but the numbers are what the numbers are. So let’s explain:
Bell’s contributions have come in two forms. For one, he’s done well with catching throws. By our measures, he’s recorded the most defensive value of anyone on handling tough throws from his teammates.
Just look at what he did on May 1 against the Marlins.
The other sounds a little weird. It’s that Bell hasn’t done anything to hurt them.
In 2019 and 2020, Bell had 31 plays in which he failed to get an out and that cost him at least 0.4 runs. These are generally plays in which our system calculated him as having at least a 50% chance to record an out.
In his 14 games this season, he has yet to have a ground ball or line drive even cost him two-tenths of a run.
So between that and this example of Zimmerman’s surehandedness, the Nationals have something good going at first base.
The rest of it
A few bulletpoints to round things out:
* Starlin Castro, historically more of a bat-first player, has acclimated to third base through 25 games. This will be one to eyeball for the long term. He’s at 2 Runs Saved
* Replacing Kurt Suzuki with Alex Avila in the Nationals’ catching platoon will likely benefit the team defensively. Avila saved 14 Runs from 2018 to 2020. Suzuki cost his teams 27, including 20 with the Nationals the last two seasons. He’s already at -4 Runs Saved for the Angels. Avila has barely played but has 1 Run Saved.
* We haven’t even mentioned the Nationals best defender yet. Victor Robles plummeted from 23 Runs Saved in center field in 2019 to -4 last season. One good sign from his 2 Runs Saved in 2021 is that he has 5 Good Fielding Plays (think Web Gems, outfield assists, times cutting off a ball in the gap). He totaled 3 last season.