Giants, Padres prove defense is key, but pitching comes first

During our discussion yesterday about the Nationals’ defense-first priorities and how they relate to whether or not the team should resign Adam Dunn, a few of you mentioned San Diego and San Francisco as the premier examples of teams that can win without big-time offenses. I wanted to take a quick look at those teams this morning and see, statistically, what the Nationals can learn from them.

Both would seem to present a model for the Nationals to follow; the Padres lead the NL West, and the Giants are a game behind them, while trailing the Braves in the Wild Card race by just a game. The Padres are 11th in the National League with 596 runs, and the Giants are ninth at 619 runs. For the Nationals, who are 13th with 588 runs, there’s some encouragement to be found in those two teams.

Defense certainly is a priority for both of them; they’re tied for second in the National League with a .988 fielding percentage. And the Giants’ defense is 29 fielding runs above replacement, where the Padres are 23 fielding runs above replacement.

But here’s where things get tricky: It hasn’t just been about defense for either the Giants or the Padres. It’s been as much, if not more, about pitching. Obviously, those two things go hand-in-hand; better defense makes less work for pitchers, and vice versa. But each team has done what the Nationals so far have not: assemble a staff of commanding young starters.

The Padres’ team ERA is 3.36, the best in the National League. Mat Latos, at 22 years old, leads the staff with a 2.21 ERA, and 26-year-old Clayton Richard isn’t far behind him with a 3.43 ERA and 1.390 WHIP. And the Giants, of course, have a pair of aces in two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum (only 26) and Matt Cain, who is 25 and has already reached an All-Star game.

The other thing both of these team’s starting staffs do? They miss bats. The Giants have four starters with at least 134 strikeouts, and the Padres have two with that many. All five of the Padres’ starters average more than six strikeouts per nine innings. Same with the Giants. The Nationals? Their strikeout leader is Livan Hernandez with 99, and Stephen Strasburg is second with 92. As a team, they have the second-fewest strikeouts in the National League; the Giants and Padres are first and second there, as well. It’s why Mike Rizzo made such a priority out of drafting power arms this year. You can’t expect pitchers to be able to generate weak contact all the time, and the more balls that are put in play, the more pressure you put on your defense.

The ability to convert balls put in play to outs is integral to what both the Giants and Padres do. But quite simply, their defenses aren’t under the constant stress that the Nationals’ fielders are.

The Nationals will do what they will with Dunn, and maybe they’re right in thinking a defensive upgrade is needed at first base - or at least that Dunn isn’t worth a hefty financial commitment without one. Until they get a pitching staff, though, that is consistently able to take some pressure off their defense by missing bats and carrying games, there’s always going to be a bigger priority than what they do with their first baseman.
I’m off for a couple days -- I’m heading to Door County, Wisconsin, for my cousin Katie’s wedding. But you’ll be in good hands with Pete Kerzel, a veteran of both Orioles and Nationals coverage for AP,, Baseball America and more. He’ll have all of your Nationals news throughout the weekend, and I’ll pop in with a few thoughts here and there.