Steps in the Right Direction

During the course of a baseball season there are going to be ups and downs,
and for the past week and a half I have written that reality far too much. The
Nats started the season with a tough stretch that doesn’t end until June.
Consider for a moment that between April 1 and May 31 the Nats play 33 games
against teams that were over .500 in 2012 and only 22 afterwards. They play
more games against team that had winning records the season before in the first
two months of the season than they do in the final four. That is an odd
balance. Combine that with the unseemly amount of errors and irregular bullpen
play and it is a recipe for a slow start, or exactly the start the Nationals
are off to.

It gets no easier tonight as the Nats
take on a rejuvenated Adam Wainwright off to a hot start. Ross
Detwiler has also been off to a hot start, but he is due for some regression
and Adam Wainwright when he has been healthy routinely finishes in the top five
for Cy Young consideration. If the Nats play like they did in the first game
against the Cardinals they will have a good chance to win this game and any
game they play for the rest of the season.  

That game was how the Nationals were
expected to play. No errors, good clean defense, the bullpen held the line, and
even though the Nationals offense only scored two runs off of Shelby Miller
they adjusted to what he was doing as the game went along. It was a great
effort by the Nationals and they ended up losing a one run game. During the
course of the season those are the types of games that even out. It is unusual
for a team, good or bad, to have a record much above or below .500 in one run
games. If the Nationals can continue to not beat themselves in the field and on
the bases while getting solid pitching then the runs will come. In fact the
Nationals are currently sixth in the NL in OPS and that includes the recent
poor stretch where they have struggled to score four runs a game. The runs will
come. In baseball approach is much more important than results.

The Nationals showed a good result last
night and were one Jon Jay diving catch away from beating the Cardinals, but
that is how one run games go. Denard Span fails to make an amazing catch on an
Allen Craig double off the wall and Jon Jay succeeds in catching Chad Tracy’s
blooper to shallow center. It isn’t exactly luck, but it is the difference
of a play that those fielders both sometimes make, and in this game one made
the play and won while the other didn’t and lost, but without the solid defense
and good relief pitching neither of those plays matter. That 3-2 loss to the
Cardinals is what it should look like when two good teams play each other. Not
15-0 or 9-0. That was a well-played, solid game by the Nationals. If from here
on out the Nationals play most of their games like that they will win a lot
more than they lose.

The other big story line that started to
emerge last night was Rendon vs. Espinosa. I have doubted the ability of Rendon
to play second base to a level that would make the added
offense acceptable, but that was viewing Espinosa’s true talent level as a
.750 OPS second baseman. What we’ve seen from Espinosa so far while a small
sample size is discouraging. The biggest issue with Espinosa is his inability
to lay off the low breaking ball in the dirt and so far this season Espinosa
has continued to swing at those pitches. The only solution for that is to not
swing. Those pitches are balls and if Espinosa doesn’t swing he will force the
pitcher to give him the fastball he is looking for. So far this season Danny
Espinosa has swung at 41.5% of pitches out of the zone. Up from the 36.6% he
swung at last season. If he continues to be unable to lay off of those pitches
then he is not going to be productive enough with the bat.  

Espinosa’s defense continues to be
incredible. It is very early but he is off to a 19.8 UZR/150 start to 2013.
That will come down, but his defense continues to be what gives him value, and
while the Nationals may be able to live with even a .700 OPS from an elite
defensive second baseman they cannot live with a .600 OPS. Especially with
Anthony Rendon in the majors and needing a spot when Ryan Zimmerman comes back.
Rendon isn’t likely to be a great or even a very good defender at second base,
but he is projected to be a .300 hitter with an incredible batting eye and
20-25 homerun power. The Nationals can sacrifice some defense to get that bat
in their line-up. It makes even more sense when you consider that across the NL
31.8% of defensive plays have not involved fielders and for the Nationals that
number is 30.3%.

Nearly a third of all plate appearances
end with a homerun, walk, strikeout, or hit by pitch and the fielder not being
involved. This allows teams to put a substandard defender at a position if the
offensive balance justifies it. With Danny Espinosa looking like a .600 OPS
player and Rendon projected to be an .800 OPS one, the offense justifies it.
The season is still young and there is plenty of time for Espinosa to turn it
around, but it is more than a little troubling to see his bad habits from 2012
carrying over into 2013. The adjustments need to be made and need to be made
quickly or when it comes time for Zimmerman to come off the DL it may not be
Rendon that loses his spot in the batting order.  

Last evening’s 3-2 loss to the Cardinals was a good sign. It was a sign that
the Nationals are no longer going to beat themselves and if they do lose a game
it is going to be because they plain and simple got beat. It is tough to watch
a team as talented as the Nationals scuffling like they were, and it
is easy to lump any loss suffered into the same category, but it is important
with baseball to remember that that a good approach will eventually lead to
positive results, and last evening the Nationals demonstrated a much
better approach than they had in their previous games.  

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2 comments

  1. So all the Spring Training reports on Espinosa’s improved approach and revised swing from the left side can go right in the circular "Best Shape of His Life" file. I have to assume that unless Rendon goes on such a unbelievable run (say a 1.100+ OPS) in his 12 game tryout that he’s headed back down regardless, more than anything Rizzo/Davey can’t be comfortable putting Rendon at 2B without seeing him prove he can do it at AA, but just as important they have to look at Espinosa’s numbers after April last year and expect him to "stap out of it" (though IMO his May-September numbers weren’t that great either), so Espi’s job is safe…for now.

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  2. Intersting converstion I just had with a co-worker who advocated Espi over Rendon not on defense, but because Espi is a switch hitter, I had to point out that no manager would even think to bring in a lefty to face him since his career OPS as a lefty is .692 vs .805 as a righty. Thus Espi provides no "balance" to the back of the lineup and having a very good righty hitter is much better than having a bad lefty one (similair argument to the bad lefty reliever vs a good righty one trying to get out a LH batter).

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