One factor manager Davey Martinez pointed toward that the Nationals must get better at in 2021 is their defense.
The Nats scuffled to a 26-34 record and fourth place in the National League East in 2020. Martinez believes one reason for their struggles was a lack consistent quality defense the club demonstrated during their championship season.
As an example, the outfield defensive analytical numbers were down from 2019.
Last season, center fielder Victor Robles led the league in Outs Above Average (OAA) with 23. This season, infielder AsdrÃºbal Cabrera was the Nationals player on the leaderboard with 4 OAA, good for 26th overall. Shortstop Trea Turner, Robles and utilityman Josh Harrison each had only 2 OAA in the shortened season.
Overall, the Padres led the way with 15 OAA and the Nats were ranked 13th, with just a cumulative 3 OAA, a far cry from 2019, when the Nats were third overall with a 27 OAA behind the Astros (35 OAA) and the Cardinals (28 OAA).
So Martinez is devising an offseason plan for each player to focus on getting more consistent on defense. He also is working with bench coach Tim Bogar on what the Nats will work on each day in West Palm Beach to improve fielding and throwing efficiency.
"We are going to pound on the defense as we did in 2019," Martinez said. "We are going to have our 27-out drills. We are going to do a lot more shifting drills, guys in different positions and learning how to position themselves on the shift and learning how to throw from the shift. Talk a lot about not sitting back on baseballs, being more aggressive, all those things."
"Going into spring training, Bogar and I will do a lot of talking this winter and we are going to devise a program individually for each player and really hone in on what they need to do to get better and get them ready for 2021."
Bogar gave some insight last winter on how the Nationals work in spring training on making sure guys feel comfortable playing other spots in the infield. Versatility can be a big advantage.
"For me, a lot of it comes down to early work and extra work after because the days they are playing a certain position, you want them to work at that position all day long," Bogar said at Nationals Winterfest. "But the days they are not doing anything, we can have them come out early and work at third base or shortstop or whatever position has been neglected over the last week or so. It's a fine balance, but it's also understanding at one point you have to teach something to them and how quickly they are picking something up. Pretty simple to do - it's just a matter of keeping ahead of it."
Looking at the 2020 Statcast team positioning leaderboard, the Nationals did incorporate a lot of shifting on defense, especially against left-handed hitters.
The Nats shifted on defense 42.6 percent of the time, which ranked sixth in the majors for 2020. The Dodgers shifted the most at 55.8 percent of the time, and the Braves the least at 7.6 percent.
Facing right-handed hitters, the Nats shifted 26.8 percent, or 10th-most in the majors. Against left-handed hitters, the Nats shifted 64.8 percent of the time or seventh-most in the majors.
To that end, the Nats moved their infielders around a lot. In those shifts, Carter Kieboom ended up making a lot of defensive plays above and to the right of second base, away from his normal third base spot.
At the beginning of the season, veterans Cabrera, Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames were expected to be fixtures in the infield. But as injuries took their toll, the core infield evolved to Kieboom, Turner, second baseman Luis GarcÃa and either Thames and Cabrera at first base. Newcomers Harrison and Brock Holt also played a lot around the infield.
Versatility at the various infield defensive positions is critical. It allows Martinez the ability to adjust his lineup with as many of the best bats in against each pitcher the Nats face. But the defense cannot be sacrificed just to get some offense in the starting nine.
Bogar detailed in January how important it is for several players on the roster to be at least capable at different defensive positions.
"It's not a bad thing that you have guys that can move all over the infield," Bogar said. "People shift all over the infield anyway, so you're not playing your usual spot as in the past. Having guys that are versatile is really good. I know Howie, I know AsdrÃºbal. I've seen Castro play for many years, so I know them all really, really well. It's going to be a little bit of a challenge, but actually I think it's going to be good for all of them to kind of move around and stay fresh and do things and give Davey the opportunities to a lot of different things. When you have that opportunity usually good things happen. I'm excited about it."
Turner said his focus in the offseason will be the mental side of the game. He talked about pre-pitch, where he wants to be and what he anticipates will happen. Even after six seasons, it is a good reminder.
"Yeah, it's more mindset," Turner said. "I feel like baseball in general is rhythm - pitching, base stealing, fielding. It's just getting into a good rhythm and making good decisions and putting yourself in good spots. For me, it's more mental, it's more decision-making. Because I know when a fungo is hit to me I go and field it correctly I know I can do it. I know my body is there. I know how to complete the play, but it's just a matter of making good decisions."
Turner said with just 60 games on the schedule, his chances at shortstop and the type of ball he received were varied and sometimes limited. That can affect overall defensive statistics.
"I think each year it's different," Turner said. "Some years, you are going to get diving plays. This year I feel like I had no diving plays. Sometimes you are going to get balls hit at you really hard, sometimes you are going to get slow rollers. Each year is different. You get different opportunities but making sure that you are making right decisions I think is kind of how you attack all those scenarios and improve.
"Defensively, I feel like I need to get a lot better. I feel like I let a lot of plays get away from me. I feel like I should've made a lot more plays defensively, but that's just how the year has gone. It is what it is. But overall, I think I've done a pretty good job trying to improve and kind of build off of it and continue into next year."
To Turner's right was Kieboom, playing his first full season at third base. A natural shortstop, Kieboom talked about the learning curve at a new spot. There some growing pains, but by the end of the season, Kieboom had made some impressive strides on defense.
"In the beginning, when I first got over there, coming from shortstop and having to be a little more aggressive on the baseball and maybe playing maybe a little more downhill," Kieboom said recently. "I think that was my biggest falling point at third base. It's almost like I played third base as a shortstop instead of playing third base like a third baseman and letting the ball come to you and being in a bit more reactive position.
"You charge the ball on a slow ball, but that's about it. Shortstop, if it's hit mildly at you or softer, you got to come versus stay back. You got to get rid of the ball over there at shortstop a little bit quicker, I would say, than at third base. I adjusted the way I was playing. I got a lot lower to the ground over at third base, more of like a goalie-style, you could say. I don't know how many times I fielded the ball with two hands over there. Everything was kind of one-handed. I think that was the best adjustment I could play."
And with all that in-game experience under his belt, the double play combinations involving Kieboom, Turner and GarcÃa will be better in 2021. Their experience together will go a long way in helping the defense improve consistency and smooth the path back to contention for the Nats.