On the Nats Shutout Streak and a Little About the Defense

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It was announced last evening that the Nats are
just the 13th team in major league history to start the season with back-to-back
shutouts, and the first since 2002. That season an Arizona Diamondbacks team
that started the season with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling on the mound
accomplished it. The number three starter of that team was Brian Anderson.
Never heard of him? There is a good reason for that. He finished his career
82-83 with a 4.74 ERA and 97 ERA+. In essence he was a league average starter.
Now one might think that to be the number three starter of a team with as good
of pitching as the 2002 Diamondbacks one has to have had good seasons then.
Anyone thinking that would be wrong. In the previous season of 2001 Anderson
had a 5.20 ERA and in the 2002 season 4.79. As a reference point in 2002 the NL
average ERA for a starting pitcher was 4.26.

Make no mistake about this the 2002
Diamondbacks were a very good team. They finished the season with 98 wins
ultimately losing in the NLDS to none other than the St. Louis Cardinals. That
Diamondbacks team had the second best record in the NL behind only the 101 win
Atlanta Braves. They were a very good team and yet Brian Anderson was their
number three starter. The Washington Nationals are the first team since the
2002 Diamondbacks to open the season with back to back shutouts and they are
not putting a below average major league starter on the mound in their third
game.  

ERA+ removes some of the noise from ERA including era,
run environment, and stadium effects. In 2012 Jordan Zimmermann had an ERA+
of 120 and has an ERA+ of 115 for his career. 100 is average by the way meaning
that Brian Anderson’s ERA+ in his five seasons with the Diamondbacks puts him
right at average. This is the type of amazement and wonder this Washington
Nationals roster can cause. We are not comparing the Nationals to an average
baseball team. We are comparing them to a very good, 98 win, baseball team, and
the results are striking. This is why so many experts have picked the Nationals
to win the World Series. Teams win with pitching and this five-man rotation is
downright frightening. If Detwiler can perform like he did last season and
Haren returns even halfway to his career norms then this isn’t the standard
step down 1-5 of a normal rotation. It is a circle.  

The 2012 staff was much the same, but still of their nine
shutouts none were on consecutive days. As bad as the Marlins line-up is the
Nationals pitchers still had to record the outs and doing something that has
only been done 13 times in major league history is impressive. For comparison
there have been 23 perfect games, 16 four-homer games, and 15 unassisted triple
plays. The qualifier that this is consecutive shutouts to start the season
diminishes a bit from the feat, but 13 times in major league history is 13 times
in major league history and that is an awfully rare thing. 

As impressive as the pitching has been to start the season the
Nats defense deserves a bit of praise. Ryan Zimmerman made a nice diving stop
in the first inning on Monday, a couple of good double plays have been turned,
and the outfield defense has been much improved. The Nats biggest weakness last
season was their outfield defense. Michael Morse was such a bad defender in
left he amassed a greater than -20 UZR/150 and despite hitting 18 homeruns was
still a 0.0 fWAR player. So far into this season Jayson Werth looks to be
moving better in the outfield and getting to balls like his old self. It is
only two games, but still encouraging to see, and Werth made an excellent and
underrated play on a Polanco single in the seventh. Polanco dropped a soft
liner down the right field line and looked to be heading for second when Werth
cut it off and held him to a single. The very next batter, Justin Ruggiano,
grounded into a 4-6-3 double play.  

Denard Span also showed his range in the eighth inning on a ball
hit by Adeiny Hechavarria. While Harper was good in center field it isn’t
certain that he even goes for this ball. It wasn’t in the center fielders
neighborhood and was hit more to right center. In 2011 and 2012 this is a ball
Werth tries to get and then doesn’t. I am sure you know the exact one near the
scoreboard that barely clears his outstretched glove. Instead of Werth taking
it though Span raced from center to cover the right-center cap and made a
spectacular gliding catch. He never broke stride and in fact made the play look
much easier than it was. Defense in baseball is where the team aspect of the
game comes in. No one player can cover all the ground and having a center
fielder who can cover the gaps along with two rangy corner outfielders is going
to make the defense that much better. Think of defense as a net. If one part is
broke the fish swim through.  

This has been a very good start to the season. Jordan Zimmermann
takes the mound today looking to complete the sweep of the Marlins before the
Nats head out on the road to play a much tougher Reds team. Before that happens
Nats fans will get to see if Jordan Zimmermann can make this an even more
historic beginning to the 2013 season with a third consecutive shutout, but
even if he doesn’t don’t forget that neither did the 2002 Diamondbacks, but
they had Brian Anderson following their twin Aces where as the Nats have Jordan
Zimmermann.

4 comments

  1. Thought experiment: How many teams can reasonably argue they have a better opening day starter than Strasburg? 4-5 can make a case. How many can argue their #2 is better than Gio? 3? Now a #3 better than JZim? 1-2? Then you get to Haren and Detwiler and reasonably, even given Haren’s 2012 numbers and Detwiler’s short history I think an unbiased observer whould laugh at anyone trying to claim their 4/5 starters are better than either. IMO it’s that 4/5 starter advantage that makes a 95 win team a 100+ win team. You never have to send out a starter praying he’ll keep in close, all 5 can go out and honestly expect to get their team a win.

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    1. That said I could see a Reds fan making a strong argument that Friday night’s matchup between Bailey and Haren leans toward the Reds, but only if you just take their 2012 numbers and carry them forward (Bailey had an ERA of 3.68 vs Haren’s 4.33), but if you even just take their respective 2011 numbers it’s Haren (Bailey’s ERA in ’11 was 4.43 vs Haren’s 3.17). ERA is a bat metric, but it’s the easiest and I think proves my point well enough.

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    2. This pitching staff is amazing. The roster construction by Mike Rizzo is something to be admired. It really is art. Especially consider that we’re comparing the Nats to some of the all time great teams. As for current teams with a better number two than Gio Gonzalez that is a hard argument to make. The Dodgers have Greinke, the Giants Bumgarner, and the Phillies Lee. The best argument is the Phillies and Dodgers as they have former Cy Young winners, but Greinke is dealing with a bad elbow and Lee is still great but not as great as his Cy Young year while Gio is just hitting his prime. The Braves have a good argument for a better number three but that is because they started Maholm in game two. This is pitching staff is going to be fun to watch this season.

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      1. Chris Needham mentioned on twitter this morning that Davey should use Haren today and pitch JZim vs Bailey tomorrow. No real point in making changes like that (especially this early in a loooooong season), but it does make a good point, teams rarely massage their rotation to create favorable matchups, so they 1 vs 1, 2 vs 2 etc is an early april only treat.

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