Comfortable at second, García turns focus back to plate

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The numbers suggest Luis García’s offensive performance last season wasn’t connected at all to his defensive performance. Which is a testament to the young Nationals infielder, because no matter how much he struggled in the field at shortstop in June and July, he didn’t take those struggles with him to the plate.

Ballplayers are human, though, and it’s hard to believe anyone can completely separate the two parts of the game. Someone who isn’t comfortable in the field probably isn’t going to be as comfortable at the plate as he could be.

That’s why the Nats’ decision late last season to move García back to second base – a move made possible by CJ Abrams’ arrival from the Padres – could have real ramifications for García beyond his defensive metrics.

Does his comfort level at second base allow him to focus more on improving his offensive game?

“Absolutely, I feel less pressure,” he said today, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I feel more comfortable at second base. I feel like there’s less pressure. You work hard. You’re still working hard at second base. Just the fact I play the position and feel comfortable, it relaxes me when I come to hit, also.”

Because they were lacking in any other long-term answers at shortstop at the time, the Nationals had García exclusively play shortstop last spring and to begin the season at Triple-A Rochester. They knew it was a risk; he had already been moved from shortstop to second base in the minors. But they figured it was worth a shot.

The ensuing results – minus-17 Defensive Runs Saved in only 59 big league games at shortstop – confirmed those fears. Once García returned in late August from a groin strain, with Abrams now showcasing his impressive skills at shortstop, he made the move back to second base. And the results confirmed it was the right move: García finished with 4 Defensive Runs Saved in 33 games back on the other side of the bag.

“It felt very good to get back to second base,” he said. “When I was first called up to the big leagues in 2020, I played second base. In ’21, I played second base. I felt like every time I was getting called up, I played second base. It’s like being back home.”

Now, can García focus his energy back on improving his offensive skills after some encouraging-but-erratic results last season?

His total numbers – .275 batting average, 23 doubles, seven homers, 45 RBIs, .704 OPS in 93 games – were solid. But his path to get there was winding. García hit .327 in June but .227 in July, then .327 in August but .241 in September/October.

The Nationals are encouraged García reported to camp in good physical shape, with a renewed focus on better using his legs to create power in his swing. He’s always had outstanding bat-to-ball skills, but they’d still like for him to be more selective at the plate, picking the right pitches to try to drive for extra bases and not be content to poke at something off the plate in an attempt to buy a cheap single to the opposite field.

“I want him to be aggressive in the strike zone, obviously,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s really good when he gets the ball in the zone. That’s the biggest key for him. But if the ball’s out of the zone, he needs to take some.”

More takes, of course, could theoretically lead to more walks, something García isn’t exactly prone to do. He drew only 11 bases on balls in 377 plate appearances last season

García, still only 22, has been hearing about his low walk rate for years. He knows he can be better. He just needs to actually put that mindset into practice.

“It’s a very good question,” he said. “I definitely would like it to be higher. I’ve worked all offseason and tried to create a better focus, create my strike zone better. Just need to keep working and have better patience. I definitely hope that with consistency, I can make that number grow.”

How often does he hear that same message from his father, the former Tigers shortstop of the same name?

“Every day,” García said with a laugh in English. “Every day.”

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