Defense matters…did you know it was this bad?

Mental errors are just giving away hits; Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

Defense. Defense. Defense. A great defense behind a pitcher will certainly make a difference. With the season 70 percent complete, the sample sizes are large enough to look into how the Washington Nationals rank.

Back in mid-June we looked at the Nationals on shifts and infield defense, and it was shocking to see that the team was the worst on groundball defense and historically so. Former Nats’ hitting coach Kevin Long used to impress upon his hitters to get the ball off of the ground where he quoted that you only hit .220 on groundballs. Some teams like Atlanta were holding opponents at groundball numbers under Mendoza — but the Nats were at .289 at that point in the season. Just horrific.

Many thanks to SteveR for compiling this information and to Andrew Lang for creating the graphic

But the Nats defensive issues went well beyond just the infield defense and the groundball defense. Here is what it looked like in mid-June:

Statcast defensive rankings where a 0 is a league average at that position in OAA (Outs Above Average)

Here is what it looked like this week with more detail:

Okay, Juan Soto is gone, and he actually showed a lot of improvement since we did a lengthy analysis into his defensive woes. But look at Luis Garcia‘s numbers and consider that -11 OAA is only for a player who has 57 games started. OAA is a cumulative number. If he started 114 games, that would extrapolate to approximately a -22 OAA.

So the question is, when did the Nationals give up and not care about defense? Okay, they probably care, but the team as assembled has been a poor defensive team, and you have to wonder how much coaching is impacting on these players who make the same mistakes over and over.

Yesterday was the perfect example of the polar opposites of the good/bad defense by one player. Victor Robles made a diving catch that was a Web Gem, and then later in the game made a poor decision and airmailed a throw to home that sailed to the backstop allowing runners to move up to third and second base on a costly error. Well, Robles is also the only fielder for the Nats who is a ‘plus’ defender since Bell regressed a little to league average. That’s it, Robles is the only fielder on this team turning in positive OAA, and he is barely positive ranking 31 of all centerfielders, so don’t think that +2 makes him Gold Glove.

Yesterday, we also saw third baseman Maikel Franco in a situation where a hard grounder was hit right to him, and he literally could have squared up the ball without moving but instead Franco moved his left leg back to play the ball olé style off of the left-side and the ball hopped over his glove for a single. Another play that was so indicative of poor fielding mechanics. You’re always taught to try to shuffle shuffle to square up groundballs. In this case, Franco didn’t have to move an inch. The ball was hit right to him.

So how bad is the Nats defense in the entire Major Leagues? How’s about dead last by a huge margin.

A priority in the offseason should be to improve the defense which will make any Nats’ pitchers look better. The Nationals traded for C.J. Abrams who could be the starting shortstop for the team next season. Well, Abrams is a -2 OAA which would look great in an improvement against Garcia, but can the Nats do better and just move Abrams to second base? The best fielding shortstop per Statcast at a +13 happens to be Dansby Swanson who will be a free agent after the season. Interestingly, the second best defensive shortstop is Nico Hoerner who the Nats just faced in Chicago.

The bottomline here is the Washington Nationals have to do better in assembling a roster. How can you properly assess your pitching staff when this team is so bad at defense?

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