Improved defense already showing up in metrics

The Nationals went into the season touting much-improved defensive play, insisting that would help make their pitching staff better. Sixteen games into the 162-game marathon, there appears to be some truth to that line of thinking.

Though they’ve still made their share of mistakes in the field, including 12 errors (tied for most in the majors) and several fly balls lost in the sun, the Nats have played a much crisper brand of baseball. The eye test says that, but so do some actual defensive metrics.

FanGraphs’ all-encompassing defensive rating has the Nationals right in the middle of the pack, ranked 15th out of 30 major league clubs. They rank 17th with minus-1 Defensive Runs Saved. They rank 16th in Defensive Efficiency, converting 69.1 percent of all batted balls into outs.

By those measurements, the Nats are an average defensive team. Which may not sound like much, until you remember they were one of, if not the worst defensive teams in baseball last year.

The biggest improvement has come in the infield. Their worst position is shortstop, with zero DRS (CJ Abrams’ three Opening Day errors didn’t help there). Their best position is third base, with 3 DRS thanks to Jeimer Candelario’s smooth play through the season’s first 16 games.

“I’m really happy to see the work we put into practice and spring training helping my team,” said Candelario, who finished last season with minus-1 DRS for the Tigers. “That’s what we need right now.”

Luis Garcia (1 DRS) has proven to be a much better second baseman than shortstop. And Dominic Smith (1 DRS), despite offensive struggles so far, has been a welcome presence at first base, both making his own plays and saving his fellow infielders from throwing errors with nice scoops.

“He’s been really, really good, and it shows,” manager Davey Martinez said of Smith. “People don’t often talk about his defense, how good it is. But when he’s out in the field, he makes us that much better. Guys in the middle of the field, they feel like they can just throw the ball over there and he’s going to catch it, no matter what. That’s a plus for us.”

Collectively, the Nationals have turned 18 double plays, tied for third-most in the majors.

The numbers aren’t as good in the outfield, mostly because of a minus-4 DRS in center field, which is a product of a couple of recent misplays by Victor Robles and several fly balls lost in the sun. There’s every reason to believe he’ll rate well by season’s end.

What kind of difference has that made on the pitching staff? The Nationals overall own a 4.82 ERA, which ranks 21st in the majors, and 1.421 WHIP, which ranks 23rd. Not great, but remember they ended last season 29th in ERA (5.00) and 28th in WHIP (1.438).

Then consider this: Opponents hit .298 on all balls in play against the Nats last season, which ranked 22nd. So far this season, they’re batting .292, which ranks 14th.

They’re turning more batted balls into outs this year, even with the banning of the shift, which was designed to turn more batted balls into hits.

It all makes for modest, not spectacular, improvement. Which, for now, will suffice.

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