The Nationals' outfield defense was a major reason the team finished only one game under .500 in 2011. Their defense, with arms such as Rick Ankiel, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse and quite possibly top prospect Bryce Harper patrolling the warning track this season, could take a step forward again as the franchise seeks its first playoff berth since 1981.
Looking back at last year's defensive statistics, Ankiel saved eight runs in center field, the best in baseball from that position, according to "The Fielding Bible: Volume III", just published by ACTA Sports.
With former Nationals outfielder Laynce Nix saving six runs, that is 14 runs saved by two players, which becomes a significant statistic.
Ankiel's numbers were especially noteworthy, according to "The Fielding Bible" co-editor John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions.
To demonstrate the impact Ankiel had on the Nationals, take this premise: Runners score from second on a single to center 78 percent of the time. On the other hand, center fielders throw out a runner trying to score from second on average two percent of the time.
There were 34 times that Ankiel was in center when a batter hit a single to center and there was a man on second. Ankiel allowed only 21 runners to score and threw out two at the plate.
The publication quoted that Ankiel "still possesses the arm strength of a pitcher, and he has no problem throwing strikes from the outfield. Baserunners rarely test what is arguably the best outfield arm in baseball."
They compared those numbers to Minnesota Twins outfielder Ben Revere. Revere had 33 such chances in center and allowed 29 runners to score, throwing out none.
Under those parameters, Ankiel was ranked as a better than average, saving the Nationals' four runs compared to what an average center fielder would have accomplished.
As a matter of fact, according to "The Fielding Bible", the Nationals tied with the Kansas City Royals for the best outfield throwing arms in 2011 with 19 runs saved.
Now the numbers weren't as good for Werth and Roger Bernandina. Werth gave back four runs in right field in 2011 and Bernadina gave back two runs.
Morse ended up playing a great deal of left field, and considering it was not his natural position, didn't fare too badly. In 421 innings, he finished with zero runs saved, and that squared with his previous average of no runs saved from 2009 to 2011 in 430 2/3 innings.
This is good news - that Morse did not cost the Nationals a run on average defensively - when you reveal how much he boosted the Nationals' offense: career highs of 31 homers and 95 RBIs.
With all that positive news regarding the outfield defense, Dewan still sees the Nationals as an average team defensively. But that took into account (due to early publishing) the loss of Nix and Ankiel (although it looks very good that Ankiel will be a crucial part of the 2012 team).
Dewan also said they would have to factor in the addition of No. 1 prospect Bryce Harper as an average defender, only because they don't have the statistics on his defense to work from as a projection for 2012.
"We project their defense to be about in the middle right now," Dewan said. "The good news is the Nationals have a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche coming back, and that is going to really help the defense. This will make up for the loss of Nix in the outfield."
Of course, another reason for optimism on defense is the maturation of second baseman Danny Espinosa. Dewan said they are impressed with his progress as well.
"Last year, in (Espinosa's) rookie season, he saved five runs as a second baseman," Dewan said. "We project him to save five runs again this season. Who knows? Being that young, he could be a contender for one of our 'Fielding Bible' awards that we hand out or a Gold Glove award. He had a good defensive season last year."
I will have more on Werth, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos and even Edwin Jackson in the coming days, but if you can't wait, grab a copy of the "The Fieldling Bible" now. It is certainly makes for interesting reading.