Defense and team speed cornerstones to Nationals’ success

Defense and speed are cornerstones of good teams, and they were important parts why the Nationals were so good in 2019.

The Nats outfield was the best in baseball, based in Runs Prevented (26) and Outs Above Average (29) last season during their run to a first World Series title for the franchise. This combined total of 55 beat out the Houston Astros for the top spot by a wide margin. Houston had 12 Runs Prevented and 14 Outs Above Average last season as a team for a total of 26.

Here’s is the BaseballSavant.com explanation of these terms for analyzing defense:

Outs Above Average (OAA) is the cumulative effect of all individual plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, making it a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them.

Runs Prevented is the position-adjusted translation from outs saved to runs saved.

What is interesting is to see how the Nats’ outfield defense stacked up in their division. On an individual basis, center fielder Victor Robles and left fielder Juan Soto were the best defensive duo in the National League East with a combined 29 OAA. Robles, as has been well documented, was the best in the entire major leagues with a 23 OAA.

But what may get lost is Soto’s 6 OAA was tied for second-best in the division alongside the Mets’ Michael Conforto. With teammate Juan Lagares getting a 5 OAA, their 11 combined total was good for second in the entire NL East.

The Nats’ starting outfield based on a minimum number of qualified attempts and adding Adam Eaton in, hit a total of 30 OAA for the season, far and away the best in the NL East.

If you add Brandon Nimmo as the third outfielder for the Mets, they reach a top score of 14 OAA, still trailing the Nats by a wide margin. The Phillies’ Scott Kingery, Adam Haseley and Bryce Harper totaled 5 OAA. The Braves finished with a 0 OAA for their top four qualified outfielders, while the Marlins struggled at minus-14 OAA for seven outfielders over the course of the season.

With substitutes added in, the Nats outfield (29 OAA) is still the best in the division, followed by the Phillies (7), Mets (2), Braves (minus-2) and the Marlins (minus-17).

I checked the OAA numbers for the infield, and the Marlins (16) actually have the best in the NL East. They also prevented 12 runs thanks to their infield defense. The Braves (13) were second, then the Nats (3), Phillies (minus-6) and the Mets had the worst infield defense in the division at minus-13.

Baseballsavant.mlb.com also had a column for overall defense in the division, and the Nats ran away with a 32 OAA total, good for second in all of baseball. The Braves were next (11), then the Phillies (1), Marlins (0) and Mets (minus-11).

Obviously, this is not the only statistical model for measuring defense. Fielding percentage had the Cardinals as the best in MLB at .989. The Nationals were 10th in fielding percentage in all of baseball at .985.

Working my way around the website, I noticed a drop down for “sprint speed.”

Turner-Runs-Gray-Sidebar.jpgYou might have guessed that Nats shortstop Trea Turner was high up on this list, too. Turner was rated second in all of baseball in sprint speed last season, behind Arizona’s Tim Locastro.

Locastro was clocked at 30.8 feet per second, but Turner was close behind at 30.4 feet/second, the best for any shortstop. In third was the Twins’ Byron Buxton at 30.3 feet/second. The feet/second number was reached by taking the players fastest one second window between two bases.

Baseball Savant explained the MLB average is 27.0 feet/second. A “poor rating” is 23.0 feet per second. An “elite rating” speed is 30.0 feet/second.

Incidentally, Robles was ranked No. 35 on this list at 29.3 feet/second, while Nats outfielder Michael A. Taylor was rated 46th with a time of 29.1 feet/second. Here are other notable Nats on the top tier list for sprint speed: Andrew Stevenson (28.5), Eaton (28.3), Wilmer Difo (27.8), Soto (27.3) and Carter Kieboom (27.0). (Former Nats third baseman Anthony Rendon reached 26.7 feet/second).

Turner sets himself apart from the entire league in a category called “Bolts”. Bolts are described as any run of at least 30 feet/second. Turner blew away the field with 122 bolts in 2019. Next closest was the Royals’ Adalberto Mondesi with 68 bolts, and Locastro was third on this list with 63 bolts. Impressively, Robles was sixth in Bolts last season with 57.

Turner was a part of an offense that collected 116 stolen bases last season, tied for third with the Cardinals. The Rangers stole the most bases with 131, while the Royals were second with 117. Turner (35 stolen bases) and the Nats would likely been closer to the top of the leaderboard had the shortstop not been held to only 122 games due to a broken finger.

Playing good defense and taking extra bases on offense are at the foundation of what the coaching staff builds its game plan off of every day.

Quality starting pitching, outstanding outfield defense and team speed were all important factors in why the Nationals got their shot at postseason play in 2019. These calculations demonstrated how Robles and Turner led the way for a squad that uses its team speed to make games uncomfortable for the opponent. The Nats will not alter those goals in 2020.

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