On the Nats Shutout Streak and a Little About the Defense

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It was announced last evening that the Nats are just the 13th team in major league history to start the season with back-to-back shutouts, and the first since 2002. That season an Arizona Diamondbacks team that started the season with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling on the mound accomplished it. The number three starter of that team was Brian Anderson. Never heard of him? There is a good reason for that. He finished his career 82-83 with a 4.74 ERA and 97 ERA+. In essence he was a league average starter. Now one might think that to be the number three starter of a team with as good of pitching as the 2002 Diamondbacks one has to have had good seasons then. Anyone thinking that would be wrong. In the previous season of 2001 Anderson had a 5.20 ERA and in the 2002 season 4.79. As a reference point in 2002 the NL average ERA for a starting pitcher was 4.26.

Make no mistake about this the 2002 Diamondbacks were a very good team. They finished the season with 98 wins ultimately losing in the NLDS to none other than the St. Louis Cardinals. That Diamondbacks team had the second best record in the NL behind only the 101 win Atlanta Braves. They were a very good team and yet Brian Anderson was their number three starter. The Washington Nationals are the first team since the 2002 Diamondbacks to open the season with back to back shutouts and they are not putting a below average major league starter on the mound in their third game.  

ERA+ removes some of the noise from ERA including era, run environment, and stadium effects. In 2012 Jordan Zimmermann had an ERA+ of 120 and has an ERA+ of 115 for his career. 100 is average by the way meaning that Brian Anderson's ERA+ in his five seasons with the Diamondbacks puts him right at average. This is the type of amazement and wonder this Washington Nationals roster can cause. We are not comparing the Nationals to an average baseball team. We are comparing them to a very good, 98 win, baseball team, and the results are striking. This is why so many experts have picked the Nationals to win the World Series. Teams win with pitching and this five-man rotation is downright frightening. If Detwiler can perform like he did last season and Haren returns even halfway to his career norms then this isn't the standard step down 1-5 of a normal rotation. It is a circle.  

The 2012 staff was much the same, but still of their nine shutouts none were on consecutive days. As bad as the Marlins line-up is the Nationals pitchers still had to record the outs and doing something that has only been done 13 times in major league history is impressive. For comparison there have been 23 perfect games, 16 four-homer games, and 15 unassisted triple plays. The qualifier that this is consecutive shutouts to start the season diminishes a bit from the feat, but 13 times in major league history is 13 times in major league history and that is an awfully rare thing. 

As impressive as the pitching has been to start the season the Nats defense deserves a bit of praise. Ryan Zimmerman made a nice diving stop in the first inning on Monday, a couple of good double plays have been turned, and the outfield defense has been much improved. The Nats biggest weakness last season was their outfield defense. Michael Morse was such a bad defender in left he amassed a greater than -20 UZR/150 and despite hitting 18 homeruns was still a 0.0 fWAR player. So far into this season Jayson Werth looks to be moving better in the outfield and getting to balls like his old self. It is only two games, but still encouraging to see, and Werth made an excellent and underrated play on a Polanco single in the seventh. Polanco dropped a soft liner down the right field line and looked to be heading for second when Werth cut it off and held him to a single. The very next batter, Justin Ruggiano, grounded into a 4-6-3 double play.  

Denard Span also showed his range in the eighth inning on a ball hit by Adeiny Hechavarria. While Harper was good in center field it isn't certain that he even goes for this ball. It wasn't in the center fielders neighborhood and was hit more to right center. In 2011 and 2012 this is a ball Werth tries to get and then doesn't. I am sure you know the exact one near the scoreboard that barely clears his outstretched glove. Instead of Werth taking it though Span raced from center to cover the right-center cap and made a spectacular gliding catch. He never broke stride and in fact made the play look much easier than it was. Defense in baseball is where the team aspect of the game comes in. No one player can cover all the ground and having a center fielder who can cover the gaps along with two rangy corner outfielders is going to make the defense that much better. Think of defense as a net. If one part is broke the fish swim through.  

This has been a very good start to the season. Jordan Zimmermann takes the mound today looking to complete the sweep of the Marlins before the Nats head out on the road to play a much tougher Reds team. Before that happens Nats fans will get to see if Jordan Zimmermann can make this an even more historic beginning to the 2013 season with a third consecutive shutout, but even if he doesn't don't forget that neither did the 2002 Diamondbacks, but they had Brian Anderson following their twin Aces where as the Nats have Jordan Zimmermann.

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