The Nationals entered the 2021 season determined to be a better defensive club after ranking last in the majors in that department during the previous, pandemic-shortened season. And in late July, a quick glance at the sport’s defensive rankings showed they indeed had achieved that goal.
On the morning of July 30, the Nationals as a team ranked sixth in Defensive Runs Saved, a massive improvement from 2020. Of course, by the end of that day, their roster looked nothing like it did 24 hours earlier. And by season’s end, a completely remade club was playing a completely different brand of defense.
When the final rankings emerged earlier this week, the Nats found themselves 19th in the majors in DRS. It was a massive drop-off in the field, precipitated mostly by the turnover in personnel. And some in the organization believe that played a significant role in the club’s pitching struggles during the season’s second half as well.
“For me, when you talk about the pitching, you’ve also got to talk about the defense. That’s important, too,” manager Davey Martinez said late last week. “You can’t always say: ‘The pitchers were this’ or ‘The pitchers were that.’ ” We did change faces in the bullpen. But you’ve also got to look at the overall picture. Our defense the second half of the season hasn’t been great. We saw some signs of them being a lot better, but it hasn’t been great. We definitely need to get better defensively in order to help our pitchers out.”
Where did the drop-off occur? At numerous positions around the diamond.
The trade of Trea Turner to the Dodgers certainly hurt the Nationals in multiple ways, including in the field. Though Turner was never known as an elite shortstop, he did rank in the middle of the pack (18th out of 34 major league shortstops with 1 Defensive Run Saved). Alcides Escobar, who took over the final two months and agreed to a new one-year, $1 million deal Tuesday, ranked 24th with minus-4 DRS.
The drop-off at third base was really evident. Starlin Castro rated 19th out of 41 major league players at the position with 2 Defensive Runs Saved before his season came to a screeching halt in July after an accusation of (and eventually suspension for) domestic violence. Carter Kieboom took over and finished with minus-8 DRS, ranking 37th out of 41 big league third basemen.
“Kieboom, adjusting to a new position, he’s got to get better,” general manager Mike Rizzo said Sunday. “I’ve seen improvement in his footwork and his throwing motion, so we’ll see if he takes the next step going forward.”
The Nationals weren’t hurt by the loss of Josh Harrison, who had 0 Defensive Runs Saved at second base and ranked 18th out of 33 players. Luis García, though erratic and prone to some careless mistakes, finished with 1 DRS and ranked 15th at the position.
And at first base, they were fine. Josh Bell ranked 20th out of 35 players with minus-1 DRS, but that was viewed as a huge improvement from his previous seasons in Pittsburgh when he rated among the worst in the sport. And Ryan Zimmerman, steady as ever, ranked fourth among first basemen with 5 DRS.
Improvement was evident in right field, too, with Juan Soto bouncing back in a big way from a disappointing defensive 2020 in left field to finish with 3 DRS at his new position, 18th out of 46 major league players.
Internally, the Nationals viewed center field defense as a strength, though Victor Robles wound up with minus-1 DRS (27th out of 47 players) before his demotion to Triple-A Rochester, and Lane Thomas ranked 39th with minus-3 DRS.
Left field was a bigger problem, with Kyle Schwarber showing off a good arm but limited range while finishing with minus-5 DRS (28th out of 45) and then Yadiel Hernandez rating 43rd at the position with minus-9 DRS in only 48 games there after Schwarber was injured and then traded.
But perhaps the biggest drop-off in defensive work came behind the plate. The Nationals had one of the best catching tandems in the majors in Yan Gomes (5 DRS, 15th out of 81) and Alex Avila (4 DRS, 22nd) during the season’s first half. But once the club went young following the trade deadline, the rookie duo of Keibert Ruiz (1 DRS, 33rd) and Riley Adams (minus-6 DRS, 74th) struggled to duplicate their predecessors’ success.
The club did see encouraging signs for the future there, though.
“I like the way they progressed,” Rizzo said. “Ruiz has shown me things that I didn’t see when we scouted him. His attention to detail in the clubhouse. The pitchers meetings that he has. The way he really cares about calling a game has been refreshing.”
The hope, then, is that with experience will come improved performance in the field next year.
“Youth has a lot to do with that,” Martinez said. “We definitely have to get a lot better defensively. I always say: Defense, pitching, baserunning wins championships. Hitting comes and goes, as we all know. We’ve got to do those things really, really well and get better in order for us to get back to where we need to be.”