There is an old saying in baseball about building teams with defense up the middle and power at the corners. Anyone watching the Washington Nationals can see that they have built a team full of capable defenders. The Nationals' infield is the best in the game, getting not just defense up the middle and power at the corners, but receiving power up the middle and defense at the corners. While Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche offer Gold Glove play on a nightly basis, the real added strength of the Nationals' infield is the power provided by Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa up the middle.
There is a case to be made that Desmond is the most improved player in the game of baseball. Having hit his 25th homer last night, he is now alone in first in that category among shortstops. He not only leads in homers but also in the power rate stats of isolated power (ISO) and slugging percentage (SLG). Desmond's SLG has increased 68 percent from 2011 to 2012. His dramatic increase in power is one of the reasons the Nationals have the second-most home runs in the National League, with 183.
Desmond's double play partner, Espinosa, is a perfectly capable power hitter in his own right. Espinosa ranks seventh in homers for a second baseman, seventh in ISO and ninth in SLG. The Nationals don't just have one middle infielder with above-average power. They have two, and with both of them being rated as above-average defenders, the power from those positions is even more of a bonus. Winning teams are made up of players that go above and beyond their traditional roles, and by being both power hitters and elite defenders, the Nationals' combo of Espinosa and Desmond has been a main reason the team has won over 90 games. However, the Nationals' up-the-middle production doesn't end in the infield.
When people talk about Bryce Harper, the main topic of conversation is normally how he is 19 years old and playing at a high level in the major leagues. That is very impressive, but there is no age limit in the majors, and players will be judged against their peers. Harper hasn't just been impressive as a 19-year-old. As a center fielder, he ranks ninth in homers, eighth in ISO and ninth in SLG. Not just good for a 19-year-old, but in the top third of baseball for a center fielder. As with Desmond and Espinosa, Harper has played impressive defense.
The final up-the-middle position is the Nationals' weakest, but through no fault of their own. When Wilson Ramos went down with a torn ACL, the Nationals lost a catcher that had hit 15 homers and slugged .445 in 2011. The Nationals spent most of the season with Jesus Flores and a revolving door of back-ups behind the plate. That is until Kurt Suzuki arrived and found his stroke. Since becoming a National, Suzuki has hit .271/.322/.419 while the average MLB catcher in 2012 has hit .249/.319/.401. Suzuki has not only filled the Nationals' one main weakness, but has done so with-above average production.
Getting this type of offensive production from up the middle players is one of the reasons the Nationals rank fifth in the NL with 703 runs and why have outscored their opponents by 143 runs. A lot is made about the Washington Nationals' pitching staff, but that isn't the only reason they have won. It is much tougher to win over 90 games with only a good pitching staff or only a good offense. It is much easier when a team has both, and as 2012 has worn on, it has become clear that the Nationals' offense is a strength, and one of the main reasons for that is above-average production from the traditional up-the-middle defensive positions.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. 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.