Defense matters & Robo Ump needs to get here soon!

We say it over and over…and over that DEFENSE MATTERS. It is part of the little things. A botched play ruled a hit should not be excused by poor fielding mechanics. Before we get to that, let’s start with the positives that Trey Lipscomb, sans a few poor throws, is Gold Glove quality at third base. Jacob Young is Gold Glove quality at center field. Ildemaro Vargas continues as a solid defensive replacement, and Joey Gallo really is a good defender. All of that is backed up by several defensive analytical sites.

Troubling though is that CJ Abrams has fallen into some bad defensive habits, and Statcast OAA has him as a -3.0 defender at shortstop. We have mentioned it before, and ESPN actually wrote about it in detail yesterday wondering if he will stick at shortstop. What ESPN swung and missed on is that CJ’s range issue, as they described it, is not really a range issue beyond the obvious on advanced stat sheets. It is bad technique, and he is not shuffling his feet or working hard to get to balls. Rarely a dive, and many times like last night, he just thrust his glove down on a ball making a stab at it, ho hum, and didn’t glove it. Ruled a hit, and it was just poor execution. An easy play actually not made because of poor technique. That is CJ’s issue, and it is clearly fixable by coaching him up and demanding excellence on the defensive side. Abrams would be ranked higher as an overall player on his WAR but his negative defense is dragging down his numbers. FanGraphs has Abrams as a -1.6 WAR defender. Take out Abrams’ April errors last year, and he would have been a positive defender for 2023. As it was for the whole season, he was barely negative. This is all fixable and needs to be fixed.

If you look at Statcast’s OAA, Jesse Winker is the Nats’ weakest defender. He should be the team’s designated hitter. Alex Call should be in right field, and Eddie Rosario in left field when the Nats are facing right-handed pitchers. And of course Young in center. Rosario is not good enough to play any outfield position but left field. There is a reason the Braves never played Rosario in center field, and he only played some right field when Ronald Acuna Jr. was injured. For some reason, the Nats think differently. The last time Rosario played center field was in Minnesota for 9.0 innings in 2019 when he was 27 years old. The Nats have started him eight games in center field. This makes no sense.

Next on the worst fielder’s list is Lane Thomas who is currently on the 10-day IL with a knee injury. We all know Lane has struggled at the wall, but his real problem this year is coming in on balls where he just is not aggressive enough and playing balls he should be running through have turned into hits landing within 10 feet of him as we watch him slow up for balls. It is no wonder that he is a -3.0 OAA defender in just 21 starts. OAA is a cumulative stat.

Kind of good news and bad news is Luis Garcia Jr. at second base. He is much improved over last year — but he is still slightly below average as a defender at second base. His issue is that he is a -3.0 defender strictly going to his left, glove-side. He is actually average at every other part of his defense which is much improved. Again, much better than last year, and manager Dave Martinez needs to sub him out late in close games with Nasim Nunez.

Then you have the curious case of Keibert Ruiz at catching. Last year he was 61st ranked of 63 catchers in pitch framing by Statcast. This year he is using new mechanics and vastly improved to the point he is framing better than Riley Adams. Keibert is ranked 44th of the 59 ranked catchers this year. He missed extensive time on the 10-day IL which skewed the numbers obviously — but still better than last year. Unfortunately, last night was a case where he botched his mechanics on what should have been a strikeouts. The umpire blew it too, and MASN analyst Kevin Frandsen immediately explained what happened. But still, the ball wasn’t held in place or as they call it — presenting the strike which is part of the framing stat.

Until robo-ump arrives in the Major Leagues, pitch framing will continue to be a skill to help your pitcher, and many times a legal form of cheating when you take a ball that you know isn’t a strike but fool the umpire into thinking it was a strike. Look at who is the 2nd best pitch framer: Jonah Heim of the Texas Rangers. He was getting for his pitcher that low strike that was legit and some slightly out of the strike zone.

The Nats were winning 1-0 when that botched play happened. It changed everything going forward and absolutely led to not only a run but also a much higher pitch count. The umpire missed four clear strikes for MacKenzie Gore, but that particular one to start the fourth inning might have been called a strike if it was received better and presented. The other three missed strikes were really on the umpire. That all reminds me of a good tweet by the Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty who spoke the truth about the umpiring versus pitch framing in regards to Ruiz.

The Nationals win when they play perfectly. They only scored one run on offense last night, and they did not work counts on offense, and their plan at the plate just was not good. But do everything right on defense, and that really should have been a 1-0 Nats’ lead and Gore is probably pitching into the 6th inning. Who knows, maybe you win 1-0.

Again, defense matters.

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