The secret intricacies of the Nats’ outfield defense

One way the Nationals assist their young outfielders in preparing for where to set up defensively is outfield positioning cards. The laminated cards, not much bigger than a credit card, fit in the back pocket of their uniform pants.

Left fielder Juan Soto and center fielder Victor Robles use the cards to see where they should stand defensively.

Terms like “Pull 3” mean Soto should move three steps to his right for a right-handed hitter. “Oppo 6” directs Robles to moves six steps to his right against a lefty hitter. “NT” means no triples. “(D)” signifies the need to play deep.

Third base coach Bobby Henley directs the outfielders’ positioning between pitches from the dugout. His signals are a follow-up, a reminder or confirmation of where they need to stand for each batter. But the positioning cards are a critical starting point.

Robles runs the outfield defense from his center field spot. During the game, he will verbalize to Soto and right fielder Adam Eaton what he plans to do for each batter.

The cards are based on the Nationals pitcher as well, and their pregame input is important, whether its right-handers like Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg or a left-hander like Patrick Corbin.

Before each game, scouting reports are distributed and the starters sit down with the outfielders during strategy sessions to talk about their ideas for where to play each hitter and where they can minimize big hits that lead to big innings.

Here are a few of the abbreviations used by the Nationals on their outfield positioning cards. The abbreviations are listed next to each batter’s name in the lineup and are separated into three categories - left field, center field and right field:

S = straight
NT = no triples, positioning to prevent triples
P3 = pull 3 steps
(D) = deep
OPP 3 = oppo 3 steps
| 2K = after 2 strikes, position adjustment

Michael A. Taylor is a home-grown talent. He started in the Nationals organization as a 2009 sixth-round selection. The 28-year-old has played over 500 games for the Nationals. He has seen the use of the positioning cards increase over the years.

Taylor-Cannot-Reach-White-sidebar.jpg“I think the cards are a fairly new thing in scouting reports,” said Taylor. “Normally, it’s kind of been on you to remember, or if you need to double-check, the coach is there to remind you. So that’s kind of how I came up, we really didn’t have the cards. Teams started spray painting the grass or leaving golf tees and then that evolved into the card, just taking that out there. That’s not something I do personally.”

Taylor was a minor league all-star for the Nats, and has worked with scouting reports in the system since he arrived. Like Taylor, current high Single-A Potomac outfielder Nick Banks said those reports are extremely valuable when setting the defense.

“(It begins with) scouting reports,” Banks said. “Then once we start to play these guys multiple times, you kind of know where to play them. I’ve taken a card out there before when we first started at the beginning of the year. And when I was playing center field, I would tell the guys where I would position (for) these guys.”

The 2019 Nationals have a pair of young stars in their outfield in Soto and Robles, both younger than Banks. They see the outfield position cards as a valuable resource.

Henley said the Nationals started giving the laminated outfield placement cards to their outfielders within the last couple of years.

“The process for us is we get information from our group upstairs that essentially will give you projections as to what they believe could happen with a Corbin or with a Max or a Strasburg, AnĂ­bal (Sanchez), (Erick) Fedde,” Henley said. “Doesn’t mean that’s the law. Just means that these are the things they plugged in. It gives you kind of a projection.

“Once we have that plan in place, we talk to the outfield corps pregame and tell them this is what we are going to do. I have numerous cards that have essentially whether we are going to be in here or deep here or Oppo 3, 6 or 9, Pull 3, 6, 9, drastic Oppo, runner first base - occupied R-1, R-2. Some of these things, we don’t put on the card. You can put as much or as little on a card as you want. I think it’s important to give the fellows a card that they go ‘I like this one. This gives me the information that I need’.”

Nationals manager Davey Martinez sees his young stars building off the scouting reports on defense:

“For me, it gives them a starting point. It tells them where they need to be so they’re in that vicinity throughout the game,” he said. “Things change and it all depends on pitching, how we’re pitching guys. It is a game of adjustments out there, and you see a lot of them with Victor now as he gets more comfortable - not when he just moves, but moving Soto with him or moving whomever is playing right field with him. It’s kind of nice that he’s taking charge the center field position.”

JUAN SOTO AND VICTOR ROBLES

The 20-year-old Soto is in left field for the Nationals and 22-year-old Robles is in center. Soto has 178 starts, while Robles has made 85. They are new to major league outfield strategy. The outfield positioning cards come up big for them, especially the first time they face an opponent.

“It definitely helps early in the game,” Robles said via team interpreter Octavio Martinez. “Especially with teams that we don’t play often. You don’t know the hitters as well. But as the game gets going, you get a feel for what the hitter’s doing. You know what he’s trying to do as well. And you learn, based on the card, where you’re supposed to position yourself. It definitely does help out.”

“Yeah, that help a little bit because sometimes you don’t know the hitter,” Soto said through Martinez. “But sometimes you never know how they call me because sometimes hitters want to pull the ball, sometimes they just try to flare it to the other side. You got to read every swing, every at-bat. But with that (card), you got to know your first step, where you going to start. And after that, you just start moving, where you are feeling. If I know the hitter I see before, I don’t have to read it. But every new team I face, I need it.”

Taylor likens the use of the cards as a starting point. With his experience, he understands their value starting a series. But he also sees Soto and Robles moving on from the cards when they feel comfortable.

“(The cards make) it easier for them, so it’s one less thing that they have to think about,” Taylor said. “I try to encourage them not to use them because I think there is some value to really thinking about it to the point where it makes sense to you. If you see a guy swing, on the card it says Oppo 3, you look at his swing and you say, ‘Yeah, I can see how he’s trying to shoot everything the other way’. When you look at it that way, I think it makes it a little easier to remember because it’s kind of your opinion, too, at the same time.”

Henley agrees. Like Taylor, Robles runs the outfield plan as the center fielder.

Robles-Diving-Catch-Gray-Sidebar.jpg“I think at the moment that they feel comfortable not having that card, then (they move on to game memory),” Henley said. “It gives them something in their back pocket to kind of go to. It’s not like it’s a 10-lb. weight. It’s just something back there that if they want to pull it out, it’s laminated, it’s not going to tear up in their pocket. With ours, we have left, center and right all on the same sheet.

“It gives them a chance to know where Juan is, it gives them a chance to know where Adam (Eaton) is, so if we are tight here, I’ll give them a signal: ‘Hey, we are on top of each other, cushion them a little bit.’ I think it’s good to know where each of them are, especially with Victor being your center fielder, he’s the captain out there. I want him to take that responsibility and have that responsibility.”

IN-GAME ADJUSTMENTS

Robles said the key to setting the defense is communication. During games, this happens pitch to pitch.

“This is a position I have played my whole career, but I have gotten more and more comfortable,” Robles said. “There are things that I see, I let them know. There’s things that Adam and Juan see, they’ll let me know. We try to help each other out to play the best defense that we can out there. We really help each other out a lot.”

Eaton has seen the development of Robles.

“Robles is getting good, used to talking,” Eaton said. “Very early on he, was very structured - this is what I’m going to do, this is what I’m going to do. Now he’s starting to feel the game out, he’s starting to see guys over and over again, and making judgment calls for himself, and as a center fielder, you have to be able to do that.”

There is a lot happening in the middle of a game. To the naked eye, it might seem that the three outfielders are just standing out there, not moving at all before each pitch. But look closer.

Henley will meet with Martinez during and between innings if they notice an opportunity to adjust the scouting report based on the game situation or their pitcher.

“Usually when we (adjust), I’ll say, ‘Hey, skipper, I’m seeing this’. And he’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’m seeing the same thing,’ ” Henley said. “We should move them over this way, and we’ll move them. Sometimes you’ll see this communication on field between Soto, Robles and Eaton and they will move on their own.

“At the end of the day, with those guys, you put them in a good spot to be successful and see something and instinctively make a decision, and we’re kind of all on board. They don’t just move and it’s not noticed. One guy moves, they say, ‘Hey, what have we got here?’ He says: ‘I feel this, this is me here.’ “

Eaton recalled how Robles and Soto take control of the defensive calls as an at-bat goes along.

“Those guys are doing remarkable,” Eaton said. “Even (June 16 against Arizona), Soto moved over five steps on a guy trying to hit the ball to left field. He told Robles, ‘You got my back?’ and I told Robles, ‘I’ve got your back.’ We have a system where we basically cover all the gaps. We rotate and we are leaning that way so we are giving ourselves a better chance, but Soto started that. It’s really cool to be able to see those guys go from Day One of basically standing where they need to stand, to now - we are feeling the game out, we are understanding the game.”

DAMAGE CONTROL

Game situation: the opponent is in the midst of a rally, multiple runners on base. Henley goes into damage control mode.

Watch Henley during the game. In the dugout, he has a laminated binder in front of him. He communicates to his outfielders from batter to batter.

“I can give hand signals to let them know: 3, 6, 9, 12, either side, pull or oppo side, in, back, or let’s try to throw the ball to second base here,” Henley said. “The run is not a run that we need to be concerned about. We are up by two, let’s keep that guy at first base, keep the double play in order in a high-leverage late-inning situation. Especially if you got a guy at second who can fly.

“The likelihood of throwing him out on a base hit versus a guy (where) if we overthrow, a guy and he gets to second, then not keeping the double play in order. I think it’s certain reminders that we have as a group to be successful, whether it’s to damage control an inning or whether we are going to go for it here, it’s late in the game, we are going to have to try to throw this guy out, play it in a little bit.

“Like the other night, Victor catches the ball out in Chicago out in the gap, makes a great play. He’s kind of shaking himself off, but he’s also got the next hitter. He’s an Oppo 6, he’s having to get to the other side of the field as well as shaking off the fact that he just laid out to catch a baseball. So as he’s doing that I’m going, ‘Great job, (but) let’s go!! Here we go, we’re Oppo 6, big fella!’ “

Eaton said this season, the Nationals are focusing their defense on preventing the big play.

They call it “controlling the slug” - not allowing batters to improve their slugging percentage with extra-base hits.

“That’s really been the big focus going into this year is control the slug,” Eaton said. “We are playing a lot deeper than we ever have. And that’s basically just to control the slug. We are going to allow the ball to drop in front of us, give up singles. We have a great pitching staff - ground ball, double play, we are out of the inning. But runner on second base, eighth inning, all of sudden we got to move five to six steps to give us a chance to throw the guy out at home, so it’s all situational based.

“We have focuses every single timeout depending on the pitcher and we try to execute that to the best of our ability. We are always moving. It’s very hardly ever we stay in the same position twice.

“It’s a pitch count sensitive game as well. Get to 3-0, 3-1, a guy swinging a hot bat, you have to plan accordingly. If the reports for when he was not doing well two weeks ago are ‘Oppo 6’, and this guy just hit three over my head, it’s like, ‘OK, we got to make an adjustment.’ So we try to take responsibility in our own hands and play the game the best that we can out there.”

PREGAME STRATEGY WITH PITCHERS

Rewind to pregame. Starting pitchers sit down with their catcher to focus on how to attack each hitter. But they also sit down with their outfielders. They tell them how they will pitch each batter. Eaton said this helps the outfielders know where to play.

Eaton-Slides-Fielding-Red-sidebar.jpg“For me, the thing that I love that we’ve done from this year is that we’ve stepped up with our pitching staff,” Eaton said. “Max is one of the few where we would get together before every start and he would tell us where to play. But now Stras is getting into it, Corbin is getting into it. We are sitting down with those guys before every start.

“They know the guys really well. All five of our pitchers have been around and to have their input (is important). I want them to feel comfortable where I’m playing. I don’t want them to turn around and be like, ‘Why is Adam playing so far in?’ Or ‘Why is he playing so far back?’ You want to have their input.”

Game situation: Eaton versus Arizona’s Jarrod Dyson:

“So for instance, Dyson, say versus Max, we don’t want to give up any triples to him,” Eaton said. “Traditionally, he’s a very oppo hitter, but the reports say we Oppo 12 for me. Max said we don’t want to do that because if he hits a ball down the line it’s an automatic triple. So he would say, ‘Adam, where would you feel comfortable playing that if there is a ground ball down the line that you’re not going to give up a triple?’

“I’d be like it’s straight or Pull 1 or 2. He’d say, ‘That’s where I want you to play. I’m going to pitch him a certain way, and if he gets in that gap then it’s all my fault. That’s the way I’m going to pitch him.’ At least that’s how sometimes you can go against the reports.”

Eaton said Scherzer is more than willing to listen too.

“I’ve played against Max,” Eaton said. “Max and I have a pretty good relationship. I think he would always ask my input. It’s about being a teammate. Whatever we can do, let’s put ourselves in the best chance to be successful. When you’re in that spot, you feel confident and that’s really where you want to be. You don’t want one player or another not feeling confident on where we are standing.

“But again, game play and feel go into it. Max will have an understanding. This is where I’d love for you to start, but if you see something, do it. I don’t mind that.”

GRADUATING FROM THE CARDS

Henley said game situations dictate player movement in the outfield. But once you get into the game, your instincts take over.

“They are not robots. It’s not the law,” Henley said. “The information, it gives us is a starting point. Based on nothing changing ,then we stay with it. If the game situation requires no doubles or we don’t like the matchup on deck, (the card) wouldn’t necessarily tell the whole story. So here’s our card. It has all the information and gives us the leverage in the situation we got, the matchup and (how to) read swings in the game or the series.”

Added Eaton: “I don’t use them. The reason I don’t is I feel like I know the league well enough. And if I don’t know the players well enough, there’s video, too, to basically hone me in on what he wants to do. Knowing the pitchers is key for me. Knowing what the pitchers are doing: How are they throwing? Are they throwing well? Just kind of feeling the game out.”

Taylor said the cards are the baseline of the defense. Then once the game begins, you adjust from that point.

“They give us the freedom to kind of go off what we see,” Taylor said. “Obviously, people change so there could be a week’s span where a guy that normally hits oppo is hitting pretty good, hit a couple of homers. Right now, he’s trying to pull everything, and that’s something you can clearly see. So instead of staying on the oppo side when he’s trying to go deep pull side, we will move.

“You don’t want to overthink it, but you also want to think the game, too, a little bit. The negative side of the card is you’re not really thinking the game. You’re just standing in a position. Where if you are watching swings, and you know the pitcher and what the pitcher is trying to do, you kind of know where you should stand.”

That is where Soto and Robles are now. The positioning cards help as a starting point, but with the experience the duo has now, they can go out on their own.

“I understand when you are early in the league ,you don’t know guys,” Taylor said. “You don’t know hitters, so it takes you a little while to kind of get an idea what Jay Bruce wants to do or Joey Votto is not really trying to hit homers, he’s trying to stay inside and hit the ball the other way.

“The initial information will come from the scouting reports. You kind of have an idea of what the scouts are seeing and then you get out there. I don’t think it takes very long to see what that hitter is trying to do with the ball. After a couple of swings, trying to see what their intent is.”

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