The biggest surprise in baseball at the All-Star break is that the Washington Nationals are not in first place in the National League East. They’re not even in second place.
The Atlanta Braves are, which is part of the Nationals-not-in-first surprise, and they trail the Philadelphia Phillies by a half-game. That, too, is part of the surprise.
Atlanta has been buoyed by the emergence of its young players developing into stars, especially Ozzie Albies, and by veterans Nick Markakis and Freddie Freeman performing like All-Stars, which they were this week at Nationals Park.
Albies was, too.
Not present was third-base coach Ron Washington, the former Texas Rangers manager. At least not in person.
Freeman and Albies gushed over Washington, who in his two seasons with the Braves has helped the infield improve defensively and has sparked them with the same kind of work ethic and energy he showed in his eight seasons with the Rangers.
He’s still going at 66 years old.
“With the analytics and his coaching ability, I feel like a lot of guys have taken the next step defensively,” Freeman said. “That’s one of the main reasons we’re doing so well. Ron’s out there every day. He’s the most energetic guy I’ve ever seen. He cares about you as a player and getting better every single day, and we’ve been lucky to have him.”
The Braves have the fifth-best fielding percentage in MLB (.987) and are fourth in defensive-efficiency ratio (.712). Atlanta is fourth in defensive runs saved (37) and fifth in defensive runs above average, which accounts for how players are positioned.
The uptick, especially across the field, has helped make life easier on the young pitchers in the Braves’ rotation.
Albies is in his first full season after playing 57 games in 2017. The second baseman has six errors and has saved for runs in 93 games, and he continues to work each day before batting practice and during BP as Washington runs him through his drills.
Washington preaches the fundamentals and attacking balls before they can attack the fielder. It was a big change from what Albies was doing before Washington joined the organization.
Albies, and the Braves, are better because of him.
“He’s helped me a lot,” Albies said. “It feels more like you never stop your feet and never stop moving. It’s the routine plays and the spectacular plays, too. He doesn’t give up. He’s always ready to work with you.”