Steps in the Right Direction

During the course of a baseball season there are going to be ups and downs, and for the past week and a half I have written that reality far too much. The Nats started the season with a tough stretch that doesn't end until June. Consider for a moment that between April 1 and May 31 the Nats play 33 games against teams that were over .500 in 2012 and only 22 afterwards. They play more games against team that had winning records the season before in the first two months of the season than they do in the final four. That is an odd balance. Combine that with the unseemly amount of errors and irregular bullpen play and it is a recipe for a slow start, or exactly the start the Nationals are off to.

It gets no easier tonight as the Nats take on a rejuvenated Adam Wainwright off to a hot start. Ross Detwiler has also been off to a hot start, but he is due for some regression and Adam Wainwright when he has been healthy routinely finishes in the top five for Cy Young consideration. If the Nats play like they did in the first game against the Cardinals they will have a good chance to win this game and any game they play for the rest of the season.  

That game was how the Nationals were expected to play. No errors, good clean defense, the bullpen held the line, and even though the Nationals offense only scored two runs off of Shelby Miller they adjusted to what he was doing as the game went along. It was a great effort by the Nationals and they ended up losing a one run game. During the course of the season those are the types of games that even out. It is unusual for a team, good or bad, to have a record much above or below .500 in one run games. If the Nationals can continue to not beat themselves in the field and on the bases while getting solid pitching then the runs will come. In fact the Nationals are currently sixth in the NL in OPS and that includes the recent poor stretch where they have struggled to score four runs a game. The runs will come. In baseball approach is much more important than results.

The Nationals showed a good result last night and were one Jon Jay diving catch away from beating the Cardinals, but that is how one run games go. Denard Span fails to make an amazing catch on an Allen Craig double off the wall and Jon Jay succeeds in catching Chad Tracy's blooper to shallow center. It isn't exactly luck, but it is the difference of a play that those fielders both sometimes make, and in this game one made the play and won while the other didn't and lost, but without the solid defense and good relief pitching neither of those plays matter. That 3-2 loss to the Cardinals is what it should look like when two good teams play each other. Not 15-0 or 9-0. That was a well-played, solid game by the Nationals. If from here on out the Nationals play most of their games like that they will win a lot more than they lose.

The other big story line that started to emerge last night was Rendon vs. Espinosa. I have doubted the ability of Rendon to play second base to a level that would make the added offense acceptable, but that was viewing Espinosa's true talent level as a .750 OPS second baseman. What we've seen from Espinosa so far while a small sample size is discouraging. The biggest issue with Espinosa is his inability to lay off the low breaking ball in the dirt and so far this season Espinosa has continued to swing at those pitches. The only solution for that is to not swing. Those pitches are balls and if Espinosa doesn't swing he will force the pitcher to give him the fastball he is looking for. So far this season Danny Espinosa has swung at 41.5% of pitches out of the zone. Up from the 36.6% he swung at last season. If he continues to be unable to lay off of those pitches then he is not going to be productive enough with the bat.  

Espinosa's defense continues to be incredible. It is very early but he is off to a 19.8 UZR/150 start to 2013. That will come down, but his defense continues to be what gives him value, and while the Nationals may be able to live with even a .700 OPS from an elite defensive second baseman they cannot live with a .600 OPS. Especially with Anthony Rendon in the majors and needing a spot when Ryan Zimmerman comes back. Rendon isn't likely to be a great or even a very good defender at second base, but he is projected to be a .300 hitter with an incredible batting eye and 20-25 homerun power. The Nationals can sacrifice some defense to get that bat in their line-up. It makes even more sense when you consider that across the NL 31.8% of defensive plays have not involved fielders and for the Nationals that number is 30.3%.

Nearly a third of all plate appearances end with a homerun, walk, strikeout, or hit by pitch and the fielder not being involved. This allows teams to put a substandard defender at a position if the offensive balance justifies it. With Danny Espinosa looking like a .600 OPS player and Rendon projected to be an .800 OPS one, the offense justifies it. The season is still young and there is plenty of time for Espinosa to turn it around, but it is more than a little troubling to see his bad habits from 2012 carrying over into 2013. The adjustments need to be made and need to be made quickly or when it comes time for Zimmerman to come off the DL it may not be Rendon that loses his spot in the batting order.  

Last evening's 3-2 loss to the Cardinals was a good sign. It was a sign that the Nationals are no longer going to beat themselves and if they do lose a game it is going to be because they plain and simple got beat. It is tough to watch a team as talented as the Nationals scuffling like they were, and it is easy to lump any loss suffered into the same category, but it is important with baseball to remember that that a good approach will eventually lead to positive results, and last evening the Nationals demonstrated a much better approach than they had in their previous games.  

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