Before Spring Training in 2011, Washington Post reporter Thomas Boswell wrote about the ways in which D.C. GM Mike Rizzo had reshaped the Washington Nationals' roster after taking over as general manager in the Spring of 2009. When Rizzo was given a five-year extension in October 2010, the former scout and scouting director told reporters that though, "There really hasn't been a shortage of my stamp on the organization," now that he had a long-term deal he was going to do what he could to make the Nationals his kind of team. "It will be my baby," Rizzo said, "and my fingerprints will be all over the organization, more so than they are already."
"Baseball is about to see the equivalent of a laboratory study of the value of defense," Boswell wrote at the time. "Rizzo has expelled every defender except Ryan Zimmerman from the hideous bunch he inherited," Boswell noted, in an attempt to turn what had been one of the worst defensive teams in baseball before he took over into a team based on speed, pitching, athleticism and defense. Between 2009 and 2010, the Washington Post reporter pointed out, the Nationals had surrendered 132 fewer runs (down from 874 in '09 to 742 in 2010). "Just 28 teams have matched that since 1995," Boswell wrote. Rizzo's main concern was run prevention.
Heading into the 2011 campaign, Rizzo examined the Nats' roster and concluded, as he told Boswell, that, "Sabermetrically, we're about equal in run production. But our run prevention should be way up." The pitching and defense improved again for the third straight year under his guidance in 2011, allowing 99 fewer runs than they had in 2010 (down from 874 in '09 to 742 in 2010 to 643 in 2011) and committing 23 fewer errors in 2011 (104) than they had in 2010 (127) and 39 fewer than they had in 2009 (143).
"If these Nats can play .500 baseball," Boswell wrote before the 2011 season, "with, at best, an average offense, a nice bullpen and a rotation picked from Livan Hernandez, [Jordan] Zimmermann, John Lannan, Marquis, Yunesky Maya and Ross Detwiler," he'd start to believe in the defense-first approach the Nats' GM was taking. The Nationals finished the year 80-81. As Boswell noted before the 2011 campaign even began, however, 2012 looked to many like it was going to be the year the Nats really turned things around:
"Some will say that the Nats won't really be worthy of their attention until 2012, when, presumably, Stephen Strasburg returns, Bryce Harper may reach the majors and, perhaps, the Lerners will be more successful at spending their offseason money."
The Nationals didn't add any big name free agents before the 2012 campaign as they had with Jayson Werth the previous winter, but they did improve the starting rotation significantly, adding Gio Gonzalez (via a trade with Oakland) and Edwin Jackson (on a one-year deal) to a rotation that already featured Strasburg, Zimmermann, Detwiler, Lannan and Chien-Ming Wang. Bryce Harper came up earlier than expected. The defense has continued to improve with Adam LaRoche back at first after he was injured and DL'd for the majority of the 2011 campaign, and in spite of the rash of injuries that has hit the team all season, they're atop the National League 101 games into the 2012 season.
Washington's also near the top of the league in another category, as the Nationals noted on Twitter on Sunday:
The Nationals rank 2nd in the NL/4th in MLB in run differential at +81. MLB's top 5: STL (+96), NYY (+85), TEX (+82), WSH (+81) & CIN (+65).— Nationals PR (@NationalsPR) July 29, 2012
Run differential is, of course, simply the difference between runs scored and allowed. The Nats' GM's experiments in run prevention in recent years have resulted in a team that through 101 games has the fewest runs allowed (358) in the majors. The Nationals have the lowest total runs scored of any of the top four teams in run differential this season. After the Nats, it's the Reds (362 RA) and the A's (373 RA) as the top three in the majors in run prevention. The Reds have a 3.0 game lead in the NL Central. The A's are second in the AL West.
The only NL team with a higher run differential than Washington is St. Louis. The Cardinals have scored more runs than the Nationals (498-450), but they've allowed 46 more runs than the Nats (404-358). The Cards are currently third in the NL Central at 54-48 as of Sunday (7/30).
The Nationals have committed the third-fewest total errors in the National League with 57 so far this season and they have the second-highest fielding percentage (.985 fld% tied with three other teams behind three teams at .986), but it's been the pitching that has been the biggest difference for Washington this year.
The Nationals are tied with the Reds for the lowest ERA in the NL (3.26), they have the lowest FIP (3.52 to LA's 3.58) and third-highest xFIP (3.74) as a team with their starters posting the lowest ERA as a staff (3.13) to go along with the lowest FIP (3.33), second-lowest xFIP (3.50), highest fWAR (+12.4), the second-highest K/9 (8.11 K/9) and third-lowest HR/9 (0.74 HR/9).
While their offense (.257/.318/.418) has picked up recently, it's been average-to-slightly above average for the most part this season (6th in AVG, 6th in OBP, 6th in SLG and 3rd overall in wRC+ with 99 to the Brewers' 101 and the Cardinals' 112 wRC+) and the team's runs scored per game (4.36) and total runs (440) are just above league-average (4.22 R/G, 428 R) as well.
The Nationals are winning this year with improved pitching and defense, just as their GM predicted they would. They're giving up fewer runs, scoring enough to win and they're doing it a year earlier than most people thought they would.