Ted Leavengood: Pitching to contact

The three contests played by the Orioles and Nationals this weekend were more like soccer matches, as fans watched for small shifts in momentum amid long scoreless stretches. Each team had their scoring chances, but it was the sudden, late scoring strike by Matt Wieters on Sunday that tilted the series toward Baltimore. What made it work for the Orioles, however, was how well their three best starters matched up well against the bottom three in the Nationals rotation in a series that was all about the pitching.

Yet for all the pitching excellence on display, there was another facet of the game that stays in the shadows most of the time. On Saturday night, it all came down to a botched play by Orioles third baseman Wilson Betemit. If Betemit -- or Mark Reynolds - makes the play on Xavier Nady’s ground ball in the second inning, the two runs do not score and the Orioles and Nationals could be playing a 1-1 tie even as we speak. The difference for that one game was not just the pitching, but the defense. Although the Nationals’ fielding in Baltimore was not flawless, it was apparent why the Orioles lead the American League in errors.

It is worth remembering the catch phrase of the Nationals’ approach in 2011. Washington featured a staff that pitched to contact. They specialized in “worm burners” (see Dickson Baseball Dictionary, p. 946) and the Washington infield was intended to be a suction device, devouring victims like some Japanese horror monster from the 1960s.

Godzilla may be lost in a time warp now, but the excellent Nationals defense put together to defend behind John Lannan and company remains relevant this season because it is among the best in the National League. The Nationals have committed only 39 errors, which ranks third best in the NL. Washington fans have watched all four of the Nationals’ infield defenders perform acrobatic maneuvers that Olympic judges would give only the highest marks. But that is just anecdotal evidence. The numbers present a more compelling picture.

Not only do the Nationals have among the fewest errors, but they have the fewest double plays. Without John Lannan, who was always being bailed out by the Nationals’ infield, the team ranks exactly the same in number of double plays as in errors, third-fewest double plays and third-fewest errors. The numbers match because the team is being challenged the least by a pitching staff that is almost the exact opposite of what it was last season.

In 2011, the Nationals had the fewest strikeouts in the National League save for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This season, when you adjust for the fewer number of games played, the Nationals lead the NL in strikeouts. The approach of the 2012 pitching staff could be called “pitching to no contact.”

Yet I am certain that if you ask those same pitchers who are their favorite teammates, they will ruefully stroke their chins as the play back all of the stellar infield work of Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa, the long running catches of Steve Lombardozzi, Bryce Harper and Rick Ankiel. What a decision to make.

At first glance neither Desmond’s nor Espinosa’s numbers look as impressive as they did last year when they were fifth in double plays in the National League and near the league lead in assists. But the same excellence that produced the prodigious number of assists and double plays in 2011 continues. It is just more difficult to quantify. So bring in FanGraphs, whose attempts to measure fielding excellence are among the best.

FanGraphs uses Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), a comparative ranking based on the number of runs a fielder saves his team. They rank Espinosa 11th among all National Leaguers at any and all positions. He is behind only Brandon Phillips and Starlin Castro among infielders. It is quite a tribute to his level of play. Desmond is ranked 19th, behind only shortstops Zack Cozart, Clint Barmes and Castro. Adam LaRoche is among the leaders at his position, which surprises no one.

And it is not just the infield defense. Harper, Ankiel and Jayson Werth - as the team aligned only a few times - have the best outfield arms in the league and may be among the best overall defenders as well. And Roger Bernadina is no slouch. Yet they have not played enough to put up meaningful numbers.

And so the Nationals have the best of both worlds. They have a defense that was put together to make Lannan look as good as possible - no disrespect intended. But now they have a pitching staff that requires their diligence less often.

It is more than just the strikeouts. It is also the stellar defense that is making Washington’s pitchers into winners at the end of the day. When the staff pitches to the always unavoidable contact, they can turn and watch like the rest of us. They know that as long as they keep it in the park - and sometimes even when they don’t - the pitch to contact defense will do what they do best: They will run it down. They have done it well enough, often enough, to remain three games up in the NL East.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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