We have seen some “Three Stooges” type of comedic defensive misadventures before from the Nationals. But now these embarrassing plays are becoming almost daily occurrences in a failure of “The Little Things”. Over the years we saw it every once in a while from balls lost in the sun like Jayson Werth’s infamous flyball that landed behind him and became a popular GIF to the costly Michael A. Taylor “Bermuda Triangle” play in the 2017 NLDS (pictured above). This season we have seen Adam Eaton involved in too many of these misplays like the J.T. Realmuto three-run home run on a bad route to the ball that bounced over the padding to Eaton’s slamming into Victor Robles on a routine flyball. These plays cannot continue to happen, but it goes beyond this with just poor positional defense on the basics.
The poor defense started early in the season with that collision at the wall with Emilio Bonifacio and Victor Robles which resulted in a home run as Robles’ glove was jarred off his hand with the ball in it from the impact. Communication has been horrific at times between the fielders as a costly foul ball dropped between Trea Turner and Yan Gomes as Turner ran 110 feet from a shift on a ball 37 feet from Gomes.
Overall, the Nats are dead last in team defense on FanGraphs by a large margin. As fans, we should be upset as this team was built on pitching, defense, athleticism, and situational hitting. The defense is killing the pitching, and losing games in bunches. It is a team failure, and all of this was brewing through the World Series run with most of the same players as last year.
Depending on which stats you go by from FanGraphs to Baseball Prospectus to MLB’s Baseball Savant, the stats are clear that the Nats defense stinks. The team’s best defensive position is a tossup between centerfield, third base, first base, shortstop, and leftfield. At second base, rightfield, and catcher, the Nats are near the bottom on defense.
If we look at catcher, the Nats have been near the bottom defensively since Matt Wieters took over and had Jose Lobaton as his backup. Last year, Yan Gomes was a slight improvement (not much), and Kurt Suzuki ranked at the bottom. There was always the debate of who pitchers preferred as their catcher as Suzuki was catching the bulk of the games while Gomes was Patrick Corbin’s exclusive catcher.
This year Suzuki’s skills have eroded further, and it appears to my trained eye that some of it is based on a lack of effort — and let me explain that it this is probably not a conscious lack of effort — but more to that Suzuki expects balls in the zone to be called strikes. Nats pitchers are getting fewer calls if you watch the strike zones lately, and no, the umpires are not cheating, they are usually being duped by catchers with the opponent who “present” pitches and frame them with intent. Suzuki has a habit of whipping his mitt away instantaneous and it is costly his pitchers strike calls on legitimate strikes in the zone.
If you look at the factual data from Baseball Savant, this is not opinion based that Suzuki ranks 59th of the 59 catchers who qualify with enough pitches caught at pitch framing. Why haven’t the Nationals worked with him on holding or as I call it presenting the pitch for a second before he whips his glove away? Here are the stats for you to see. Suzuki has not framed one strike in the backhand upper extreme and is poor low in the zone as you can see from the graphics on that link. The second best framer is Realmuto as you saw this week with all of the extra calls he got for his pitchers. Since pitch framing and pitch presenting is just parts of the job, you have to add arm strength like “pop time” to the list and blocking, etc. Yes, calling a game is also an important function of the catch, and there are no stats to quantify it, but the quantifiable stats say the Nats have a problem, and even a play at the plate this week was poorly executed by Suzuki even though his throw from Turner was to his backhand side. Suffice it to say, the Nats have a significant issue with catcher’s defense, and this is four years running now as the worst in the Majors.
If you watched Tuesday’s game, you also saw relievers Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan struggle with Suzuki. The Nats had four charged wild pitches in the game and Finnegan had two and both clanked off of Suzuki’s mitt. Rainey and Finnegan were both charged with earned run(s) and both were not pitching to their strengths. You can be the judge of what went wrong there.
Overall, the Nats defense is a problem from poor communication to inexperience (Luis Garcia) to poor overall technique (Suzuki). Games are being lost because of poor defense, and pitchers should not have to change their style of pitching to adapt to the catching. If Mike Rizzo is truly looking to upgrade this team, he might want to consider upgrading at catcher, and possibly even make defensive changes late in games.