You Can’t Deny Defense

156806_mike_rizzoThe difference between Jim Bowden and Mike Rizzo is stark.  The leather pants wearing, segway driving Bowden was a man of words, oftentimes over-exaggerated and inflated.  For a baseball general manager he was flamboyant.  Who could forget him calling Ian Desmond “the next Derek Jeter” or his proclimation upon accquiring Emilio Bonifacio that the Nationals had “accquired their secondbaseman of the future.”

He was the baseball equilivent of Jeffery Skilling, taking on toolsy outfielders that were high risk, high reward players at the expense of the Nationals future.  Pitching and defense meant little to him and the team’s rosters during his reign reflected this.  He was a guy that was better at marketing the team than building it.

And then you have Mike Rizzo.  Rizzo is soft-spoken and much more grounded in the views of the team that is being fielded.  He does not wear flashy suits and has not made unrealistic player comparisons.  Toolsy outfielders that were accumulated under Bowden, like Milledge and Dukes, were shown the door and, as a former scout, he understands that pitching and defense are a key component of most successful teams.  It should come as no surprise that he is attempting to build the Nationals on this premise.

The past two seasons, the Nationals have been in the bottom third of the league in runs allowed.  Last seasons, the only team that finished with more runs allowed was the team with the second worst record, the Orioles.  How important is defense in the National League?  Each of the four teams that made the NL playoffs in 2009 were in the top half of the league in runs allowed.  In those two years,

out of the top 4 teams in runs allowed, 6 of those teams were still playing in October.  Conversely, only two teams (Cubs, Cardinals) in the past two years have made the playoffs from the NL while being apart of the top 4 teams in the league in runs scored.  It is quite clear that in the National League, defense is key.

Since taking over as team GM last spring, Mike Rizzo has begun the arduous task of rebuilding the Nationals from the ground up by focusing on pitching and defense. While the focus of this article is less so the pitching aspect of the team, Rizzo has addressed the issue by completely revamping the bullpen with veteran pitchers and has shaped the rotation to include mostly “pitch to contact” types like Craig Stammen (1.47 career GB/FB), Jason Marquis (1.57), and John Lannan (1.81).  With ground ball pitchers, the defense behind them is relatively important to the success of those pitchers.
‘Besides Ryan Zimmerman, the defense (infield and outfield) was a major problem area last season. Starters Nick Johnson, Josh Willingham, Adam Dunn, Cristian Guzman, and Elijah Dukes all finished with a negative UZR last season and were some of the worst at their respective positions.
The first step in addressing this problem was ousting Lastings Milledge in exchange for Nyger Morgan, one of the better defensive outfielders currently in the game.  The Nationals made an attempt to improve their infield defense with an offer to Orlando Hudson, but were forced to settle for Adam Kennedy when Hudson bolted for Minnesota.  While Kennedy is less than an ideal improvement, he is an improvement at the position from last year both defensively and offensively.  Cristian Guzman, whose range has been declining with age and injury, was replaced by rookie Ian Desmond in spring training.  Desmond, who has incredible range, will most definitely be a defensive upgrade even if he does make the young Zimmerman-esque throw to first base from time to time.
And that brings me to the controversial decision to field both Willie Harris and Willy Taveras in right field to begin the season.  Neither option is great as neither has the type of bat you would like to see in right field.  Combined, the two players have a total of 11.0 innings in right, but the decision fits with Rizzo’s defensive philosophy.  Both players will provide defense well above that of an average RF player and paired along with Morgan in center, it is tough to imagine many balls hitting the grass between the two.
Other defensive oriented players like Bernadina and Maxwell were given the opportunity to earn a spot as well and it would not be surprising to see both of those players getting extended time in the outfield this season.  Mike Morse, originally thought to be a candidate for the RF platoon, will find himself playing mostly as a backup infielder, in part because of his below average defense.  For this same reason, do not expect Rizzo to go after a guy like Dye, who may be one of the worst defensive outfielders in recent history.  It is clear that Rizzo is willing to sacrifice offensive production for superior defensive play in the outfield and judging by recent history, the gamble may actually pay off.  There is little to no upside in fielding these guys out there, but Nationals fans will have to start coming to terms with the fact that the days of enormous upside (accompanied by risk and growing pains) and defensive liabilities left when Bowden resigned last year.

Phil Naquin is a contributing writer for The Nats Blog who will be be appearing weekly with analysis of the Washington Nationals using sabermetrics, pitch f/x tools, and scouting observations.  He also runs a blog, Half Street High Rise