As much as the Nationals have gone out of their way to keep Carter Kieboom focused on learning how to play third base, the rookie infielder is actually spending a lot of time on the other side of the diamond so far this season.
When they utilize the shift against a left-handed batter, the Nats are leaving Trea Turner at shortstop and having Kieboom move all the way over to what would typically be the second baseman’s spot on the infield (with the second baseman moving into shallow right field).
It’s worked well: Kieboom has looked very comfortable in that position and fielded so many grounders there during Friday night’s win over the Orioles he wound up tying the major league record for assists by a third baseman with 11. That record is held by many players, but none had notched that many assists since the Pirates’ Kevin Young in 1995.
“It’s funny, because it’s actually a position that he’s more comfortable with right now, playing over on the other side,” manager Davey Martinez said from Atlanta during his pregame Zoom session with reporters. “When we started doing our shift and talking about it, we wanted to make sure we put him on that side as much as possible.”
The Nationals are shifting a lot: They’ve done it 49 percent of time this season, the fourth-highest rate in the majors. (They only shifted 14.3 percent of the time last season, fourth-lowest in the majors.)
Because Kieboom spent time in the minors as both a shortstop and a second baseman, the switch isn’t all that difficult for him. And his performance while shifted - in addition to his time at his actual designated position - has been a net positive for the Nationals.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Kieboom’s plus-4 Defensive Runs Saved rating leads all major league third basemen so far. Defensive metrics are particularly volatile with such a small sample size, but the eye test backs up the stats: Kieboom has been much better than expected in the field so far.
“He’s actually handled third base fairly well,” Martinez said. “He’s had some pretty difficult plays the last series, and he’s done well. He’s getting better. We talk a lot about moving his feet, and he’s done really well with that. He’s doing a lot of agility drills to keep his feet quick.”
Starlin Castro’s injury - he’s expected to miss a considerable amount of time, perhaps most of the season, after breaking his right wrist Friday afternoon - opened the door for 20-year-old Luis García to assume the starting second baseman’s job. García, like Kieboom, spent most of his time in the minors as a shortstop, though he also has some experience at third base.
Given Kieboom’s comfort on the right side of the infield and García’s strong arm and athleticism, it might be tempting to think about having the two rookies swap positions until Castro returns.
The Nationals indeed have considered the idea but came to the conclusion it makes more sense to keep things as they are for now.
“You know, we thought about it earlier,” Martinez said. “But I really like Luis at second base. And I don’t want to make that change in the middle of a season. He’s comfortable over there. I know he’s worked with Trea. They work good together. So for right now, we’ll keep him over at second base.”