Will improved middle infield have real impact on pitching?

As much as the Nationals pitching staff struggled last season, there was always an underlying question in the back of coaches and front office members’ minds: How much did bad defense contribute to those struggles?

Statistically, the Nats pitching staff was the worst in the majors in 2022. So, too, was the team’s defense.

Until mid-August, that is, at which point things took a distinct turn in a positive direction.

On Aug. 15, the Nationals promoted CJ Abrams from Triple-A Rochester. One of the prized prospects acquired from the Padres in the Juan Soto blockbuster trade two weeks earlier, Abrams immediately was handed the starting shortstop job. And he immediately paid dividends.

On the morning of Aug. 15, the Nationals pitching staff sported a 5.30 ERA while also watching opponents score .45 unearned runs per game. From that day through the remainder of the season, the staff ERA dropped to a far more respectable 4.26, with opponents now scoring .39 unearned runs per game.

Things got even better when Luis García returned from a groin injury Aug. 26 and took over as the everyday second baseman. In April and May, opponents had a .320 batting average on balls in play against the Nationals. In September, that average dropped to .287, evidence the team’s defense was converting more batted balls into outs. The 25 double plays the Nats turned in September also were their most of any month during the season.

One of the people responsible for helping Abrams and Garcia learn their craft doesn’t believe it was a fluke.

“Those two hit it off really well,” bench coach Tim Bogar, whose responsibilities include infield defense, said on Friday night’s episode of “The Hot Stove Show” on MASN. “They feed off each other. They want to one-up each other when they’re playing out there, and they’ve got a good relationship. You think about good teams in the past, you always have a shortstop and second baseman that get along really well and become good friends.”

The Nationals opened the 2022 season with a couple of veteran middle infielders in César Hernández and Alcides Escobar. Neither was going to be a long-term answer, but the club didn’t want to rush any prospects who perhaps weren’t ready.

García got his promotion from Rochester on June 1, but he was called up not to play second base as he had during two previous stints in D.C. but instead to play shortstop. The team knew there was a decent chance García wouldn’t be able to handle the position, but with no better internal alternatives, the job was his by default.

It didn’t go well: In only 59 games at shortstop, García finished with a ghastly minus-17 Defensive Runs Saved. Clearly, he wasn’t the long-term answer there.

Once Abrams was acquired and promoted himself, the door finally opened to move García back to second base. He proceeded to finish with 4 Defensive Runs Saved in 33 games at his better position.

“We got the privilege to watch Luis play the last few years, and I think we’ve learned he’s a lot better on the right side playing second base,” Bogar said. “Obviously he can play a little bit of shortstop. But I think you put him in a second base role and he settles in there, he’s going to be more consistent and take the defensive side as serious as his offensive side.”

Abrams, meanwhile, turned into a nightly highlight reel from the outset. The difference in his range up the middle and into the hole between second and third was stark compared to Escobar and García. He was still prone to some careless mistakes from time to time, but coaches understood that was to be expected from a 21-year-old.

Now, with an opportunity to pair Abrams and García up for a full spring training, the Nationals believe the improvement will be even more noticeable this coming season. After watching an already challenged pitching staff get little help from the guys behind them in 2022, they hope balls in play up the middle no longer provide reason to cringe in 2023.

“Unbelievable talent in both of them,” Bogar said. “I don’t think you’re even close to seeing what they can do. We’ve just got to keep working with them, working on their little inconsistencies. That’s about it.”

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