The Washington Nationals committed two errors in both of their last two games, both losses to division boss Philadelphia Phillies. For the season, the Nats have 11 errors in 12 games, second to last in the majors. The team fielding percentage is third to last. They are also third to last in number of double plays turned. Add it all up, and you get a pretty good idea of just how mediocre this team has been in the field so far in 2011, despite all the emphasis and quotes directed at the defense this past off-season.
After last night's loss, manager Jim Riggleman addressed the fielding issues, specifically talking about Jerry Hairston's throwing error on a ball Hairston admitted he should have put in his pocket and Danny Espinosa's fumbling of a grounder when the defense was put in motion on an expected bunt play and pitcher Cliff Lee swung away instead. He believes it's just a matter of time before these problems are ironed out.
"Every miscue we have is a miscue of aggression and effort," Riggleman said after the 4-0 loss to Lee and the Phillies. "Jerry [Hairston] made a very nice backhanded play -- he's trying to get us out of the inning and he's make a tough play and it was a great effort. They were bunting and they pulled back and swang and Danny [Espinosa] was in position to catch the ball but, you know, whatever, he rushed a little bit but who knows?"
"It's a great effort. Everybody's trying to do the best they can and the plays weren't made but as long as we get that kind of effort, this ability that we have defensively that I keep talking about hasn't hit it's stride yet. We haven't played as cleanly as we're gonna play. But the effort is there and it's gonna show up in wins here before you know it."
If all of that sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Riggleman said essentially the same thing after Jayson Werth dropped a pop-up to short right field against Florida last week. "He really came in hard and took charge on the play," Riggleman said. "It's an error of aggression, and we can live with that."
In fact, in his introductory press conference upon being named manager of the team in July 2009, Riggleman used the very same words.
"When you are in last place [bad defense] sticks out. When you are in first place and they won the game anyway—it’s forgotten and not written about. So we are going to make mistakes. But again, they have got to be mistakes of aggression and not be passive. We just have got to continue to work and I don’t think there is a—what if we don’t. I just know that we will.”
That was almost two years ago now, and the Nationals haven't gotten any better. Does it matter that the mistakes and errors are those of aggression, passivity or omission? Does it matter if the errors are physical or mental? They all lead to losses.
Although this may sound like it's a column bashing Riggleman, that's not my bigger point, really. It's more that these are the same things we've heard around NatsTown forever with regards to the defense. That all they need to do is practice more, work harder, be aggressive and everything will work itself out. Well, it hasn't. Not to this point in 2011 anyway.
This Nats team may eventually get better defensively in some spots. Ian Desmond is capable of spectacular play at shortstop, but he still needs to work on his throwing to first. But so did Ryan Zimmerman his first couple years at third. Danny Espinosa makes plays at second no one second basemen in the Nats history have been capable of, but he's also showing some rookie bobbles of balls that maybe if he was a little more patient he'd have made plays on.
Improvement can come there as both players are still young Major Leaguers. But they are the only two "young" players the Nats put on the field these days. The rest are veterans and they are what they are. Hairston and Alex Cora have the hardest job, replacing Gold Glove Ryan Zimmerman at third. Neither are third basemen by trade, and Cora described playing third as being "in a cage" the other day.
Maybe Riggleman is right. Maybe this team will "hit it's stride" soon and play better overall defense. I thought there was an old baseball axiom that said "Defense doesn't slump." I could be the one that's wrong though.