Will Nats’ outfield defense be better if Harper moves on?

It wasn’t a great season for Bryce Harper defensively, but MLBPipeline.com’s Jim Callis cautions to not get too worked up about the phenom’s numbers with a gloved hand.

“What is a little odd to me is the defensive metrics fluctuate from year to year with the same guys,” Callis said. “Like Harper, without looking at it, had horrific numbers (in 2018). I don’t know if he will be back. But a couple of years ago, he wasn’t bad at all (on defense).”

Harper-Gray-Cannot-Reach-It@NYM-sidebar.jpgOne metric that measures fielding skill appears to prove this a correct assumption. Measuring from Statcast, Harper’s directional outs above average (OAA) was poor in 2018 at -12, but considerably better the two years prior: -5 in 2017, -4 in 2016. By comparison, Michael A. Taylor was +10 and +9 in OAA the last two seasons.

Nevertheless, if Harper signs elsewhere in free agency, there is an argument the Nats should be able to play better defense overall, especially in the outfield, if the alignment switches to Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton.

Soto will have a season of experience under his belt, Robles will be able to go all out and not be gun shy after a prior injury slowed his 2018 progress and Eaton should be back 100 percent with the opportunity to get back to his Chicago White Sox days of playing above-average to elite outfield defense.

Callis says there are some players on defense for the Nationals who can field their position well enough to excel.

“Let’s say Robles takes over in center field and Eaton is in right field. Those are two potentially really good defenders,” Callis said. “I always thought Anthony Rendon was a pretty good third baseman. So you have three pretty good defenders there, albeit only one up the middle. Again, I don’t have the metrics in front of me, but you could certainly improve from one year to the next, even with the same cast and crew because, as I said, the metrics fluctuate.

“I don’t think by just eyeballing it that they are going to be an outstanding defensive team, but they have a chance for three of their eight guys to be pretty good defenders. I don’t see anybody who is a horrible liability.”

Ryan Zimmerman cannot throw like he used to, of course, especially on throws to second base or across the diamond. But he needs to be able to field that position for hot shots down the line and in front of him, and he can still do that.

Current second baseman Wilmer Difo can also hold his own at that spot, and Trea Turner is solid defensively at shortstop. Kurt Suzuki, Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino also can defend their position well.

Without diving into the metrics, the Nationals, especially manager Davey Martinez, recognize the importance of defense and needing to improve that facet of their game. Limiting extra bases, throwing to the right base, stopping steals, blocking the plate, holding runners and making big catches can all add up to the difference between winning and losing. Martinez said late this season that defense and fielding would be an emphasis in spring training.

Just from the eyeball test, the Nats need to clean up their defense to make a run at the Braves in 2019. Add solid defense to their above-average starting pitching and a reinforced bullpen, and they could have the formula to get back to the success they enjoyed in 2016 and 2017.

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