Defense, defense, defense!

You cannot have a closer seat to the action behind the center fielder than my seats in the front row at Nationals Park. From all of my years of watching games at Nationals Park, there have been few who have the speed, athleticism and instincts of Jacob Young. We enjoyed the years of Denard Span and Michael A. Taylor — but none of them have had the instincts of Young. Yesterday’s discussion of reaction time is actually measured by Statcast. What my eyes have seen from dozens of games watching Young is that he has a unique intuitive movement in a direction as he watches bat angles to determine where the ball is going almost before contact, and his body is ready to pounce like a cheetah in the Serengeti. Young is so much better than the next closest player in reaction time that he more than doubles the next best. As someone described, it is like a sixth sense. He is fun to watch.

When looking at all of the Statcast features that they track, Young should clearly be in contention for a Gold Glove. But as you peruse the Statcast analytics, any great feeling dissipates quickly as you see Eddie Rosario, Lane Thomas, and Jesse Winker near the bottom of almost every Statcast ranking in outfield defense. From poor reads to poor range, this was the stark opposite of Young that we could see from our seats. Thomas and Winker look like sprinters stuck in the blocks when the gun goes off to start the race. Rosario, on the other hand, looked like a sprinter who did not want to race. Over and over their poor corner defense is as bad as errors. Balls that would be caught by an average defender becomes a hit because of poor reads or in Rosario’s case — poor effort. Winker is third from last in the Majors of 108 qualified outfielders. Thomas is 13th from last in reaction time.

Yes, the eye test meets the stats. Thomas was not this bad last year. This seemed to happen over time to the point that his great throwing arm is not enough. Statcast has 131 outfielders ranked for “catch probability” and Rosario, Winker, and Thomas are all in the bottom-9. A total of 122 outfielders are better. In the end, catching the ball is what matters — and these Nats are not doing that well enough in the corner outfield. Many outfielders with a bad read can catch balls because of their speed. In this case, it got so bad for Thomas that last year they moved him closer to the fences because statistically, you would rather give up a single than a double or triple. Thomas caught a ball on the warning track yesterday — that part of the strategy is working better. Coming in on balls has been his issue when looking at Statcast.

When you have a poor offense like the Washington Nationals, you better be limiting the runs on defense, and the pitchers are doing their job. The defense as we saw yesterday in four key plays as Steve Mears pointed out turned out to snowball on starter MacKenzie Gore as it pushed up his pitch count rapidly. That seemed to affect his effectiveness. The one play that really turned the game was in the fourth inning when Ildemaro Vargas had a backhand play and just made a bad throw to first base that Joey Meneses could not glove. Initially ruled an error (later changed to a hit), three runs scored after that. That was unfortunate. There was also the play when Luis Garcia Jr. could not glove a popup because he took his eye off of the ball looking for Thomas, and then there were plays in the corner outfield that were not made because of poor reads off of the bat. While the Garcia play did not directly factor into a run, it didn’t end the third inning and Gore had to fire five more pitches to get out of that inning.

The fourth inning is where everything went wonky. A weak single to Winker was followed by a Sac Bunt (thank you very much), and then the Vargas play happened putting runners at first and second. The next play was a play a good outfielder makes. A 98 mph ball in the air with a 19 degree launch angle hit to Winker’s left. Winker took a deep angle instead of going right to the ball and catching it. The runner at second base was not sure if Winker was going to catch it, and you can see in the photo that the runner froze. If Vargas makes his play and Winker catches it — inning over. Gore would go to the 5th inning with a low pitch count and a 1-0 lead instead of a 3-1 deficit and pitching on fumes.

The Diamondbacks weren’t hitting Gore hard. They just hit it to the right spots. And NEWMAN! The Newman hit to Vargas had an xBA of only .120 and the Barnhart hit at .350. Turn that around and expected out probability was 88 percent and 65 percent respectively.

While the Nationals only scored two runs, if this was a 2-1 or 2-0 game going into the latter innings, Jordan Weems would not have been the pitcher in the game. Defense was not good, and starter MacKenzie Gore who had three scoreless innings going until that fourth inning had to throw dozens of extra pitches due to plays not made. He is probably pitching into the sixth inning if his defense made the four or five plays they should have made.

This corner outfield is the worst in baseball. Can Thomas play left field which is considered an easier position? The better question is can Thomas play better in left field? It would make sense to get top prospect James Wood to right field, however that does not look like the plan. Wood is playing left field mostly these days. That plan probably does not change until top prospect Dylan Crews comes up and goes to left field pushing Wood to right field.

In classic addition by subtraction, Wood in left field would be a huge upgrade over Winker. Then Winker shifts to the DH, and the team does improve. This is known as incremental improvement. One or two steps at a time.

While Gore kept his cool yesterday and was not screaming at teammates for not making plays, you know that internally his hydrochloric acid buildup in his stomach was churning and burning a hole through his gut. In a way, you can’t blame Gore for that look on his face. He made his pitches until that long fourth inning got the best of him. His teammates were a few feet short too many times. Sure, you can blame it on statistical outcomes of BABIP. Gore notched 7 strikeouts of his 15 outs. But come on, 10-hits in five innings off of Gore is awful luck. The hardest hit ball against him was 99.2 mph. Most were weak contact hits. Hit them where they ain’t.

“We’re going to be a young, energetic group of guys. Defensively, we’re going to be better — I promise you which makes our pitching staff better — I promise you. We’re going to be scrappy to try to score enough runs to win games. Our goal is to win. I’m not going to set a win number. … We want to have a swagger about us. … That’s my promise to you guys.”

— Mike Rizzo to season ticket holders before the 2023 season after his 2022 team was last in team defense

There is a saying that you can only control what you can control. Rizzo makes the personnel decisions. He has to know the analytics. He made defense a focus for 2023. He didn’t for 2024. Sure, Garcia progressed as a defensive second baseman that few saw coming, and Joey Gallo is a real-deal first baseman (defensively), and of course Young is the best CF in baseball. Third base is near league average, but the rest is some of the worst defense in baseball. Shortstop CJ Abrams has regressed in defense to the point that he is last by a large margin in all of baseball. The catching defense is the worst in MLB and same for the corner outfield.

Defense has regressed on this team at a time when the offense is struggling to score runs. Help could be on the way, however we do not have a firm ETA for when Wood, Crews, and Brady House arrivals. To watch Wood and Crews in the outfield in that exhibition game on March 26 has given me optimism towards the future. For me, it can’t come soon enough.

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