Spring training storylines: Improving defense

Would you believe we’ve reached the final countdown to spring training? That’s right, pitchers and catchers are holding their first official workout in West Palm Beach, Fla., in four days. So it’s time to count down the Nationals’ top storylines of the spring. We continue today with perhaps the club’s greatest need for improvement: defense ...

Why did the Nationals struggle so much in 2020? It’s easy to point the finger at a starting rotation that didn’t come close to living up to its usual lofty standard. And there’s no question a lineup that at times was tepid aside from Trea Turner and Juan Soto was a major factor.

But let’s not overlook the club’s biggest problem area last season, a problem that wasn’t confined to one or two players but was noticeable team-wide: defense.

The Nats, to put it bluntly, were awful in the field. As a team, they finished with minus-43 Defensive Runs Saved, easily the worst rating in the majors. FanGraphs.com’s’ all-encompassing defensive stat also had them dead last in the sport.

Kieboom-Throw-Gray-Sidebar.jpgAnd they were bad all around the field. At only one of nine positions did the Nationals finish with a positive DRS rating, according to Sports Info Solutions: third base. Which was surprising, given Carter Kieboom’s lack of experience at the position. Though much of his positive value appeared to come from plays he made when shifted around to the right side of the infield.

Kieboom may have benefited from the shift, but the Nats as a whole most certainly did not. Though they used the infield shift more than all but five MLB clubs last season, they actually cost themselves in the process, with a league-worst minus-5 DRS rating in those situations.

Manager Davey Martinez, like most forward-thinkers in the modern game, believes in the value of the shift. Now he’s got to figure out how to take better advantage of it, starting this spring.

“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,” Martinez said late last season. “Talk a lot about not sitting back on baseballs, being more aggressive, all those things.”

The coaching staff can run as many defensive drills as it wants this spring. It’s up to the players to actually perform in the field. And that will require not only the improvement of a few returning regulars who struggled last season but a reversal of longstanding trends for two of the team’s biggest offseason additions.

Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber were brought to D.C. for their bats, not their gloves. But with no designated hitter planned in the National League this season, both sluggers are going to be in the field the vast majority of the time and will need to prove they can do an adequate job.

Of the 44 major leaguers who have played at least 1,000 innings at first base since 2017, Bell ranks last in FanGraphs’ defensive metric. He’s tied with Baltimore’s Chris Davis for last with minus-26 DRS.

Schwarber, meanwhile, has minus-10 DRS since 2017, ranking 26th out of 32 left fielders. Originally drafted as a catcher, he has shown improvement over the years and has racked up 28 outfield assists during that same timeframe.

“I think I’ve become definitely an above-average defender,” he said last month during his introductory Zoom session with reporters. “I know the numbers don’t say that about me. But you know what, I think that I’ve made a lot of improvement on definitely the throwing side of the game, being able to keep guys from advancing to second base on some borderline doubles. Definitely getting a lot more baseballs that I need to get to, and go from there.”

What the Nationals really need this season is a return to defensive form from fellow outfielders Victor Robles and Soto. Both were Gold Glove Award finalists in 2019. Both ranked among the worst at their respective positions in 2020.

Soto hopes his full-time move from left to right field will make a positive difference. He insists he’s most comfortable over there, having played right field growing up and during his brief minor league career. By the time he reached the majors in 2018, the Nats had an established right fielder in Bryce Harper. And then that position was occupied by Adam Eaton the last two years. Now it’s finally available to him.

Robles returns in center field, and the Nationals desperately need him to return to his 2019 form. Martinez felt the extra muscle Robles put on prior to last season hindered his ability to get a good jump on balls off the bat. That forced him to play deeper than he used to, which led to more bloopers falling in for hits in front of him.

“That first step is crucial,” Martinez said late last season. “Imagine if you’re stealing a base. They’re always saying that the first step is the one that’s ... the key to if you’re safe or out. Same thing in the outfield. That first step in your jump dictates whether you’re going to get to the ball or not, to me.”

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