October 19, 2019

Nats defensive woes not so much mental as physical

The Washington Nationals lead the National League in errors. It’s as simple as that. Ian Desmond leads all players with eight errors himself. Anthony Rendon, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman and even Bryce Harper in the outfield have multiple errors in 21 games. These errors are extending innings, creating more of a burden for the pitchers, and directly contributing to runs.

The Nats like to look at themselves as true contenders. But a championship caliber team does not give away base runners for free. The primary indicator for wins and losses is total baserunners for and against. The defensive lapses we’re seeing from the Nats, primarily on ground balls, are leading to more baserunners against, which of course leads to more runs against.

Manager Matt Williams placed an emphasis on defense and accountability during spring training, as if attention to detail was the reason for the Nats lack of performance in the field. The problem isn’t as much mental as it is physical.

Tuesday night after the Nats’ 7-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, a game in which the normally sure-handed Rendon committed two throwing errors — one of which lead to Albert Pujols three-run home run in the first inning — Williams was perplexed on the poor start defensively for the Nats.

“I’m baffled,” Williams said when asked how concerned he was about the defense and what he could do to stem the poor play. “What do you do? You just keep doing what we do. You keep working at it. We work on it every day. And we do extra. And we do all those things. It’s not what we want, for sure. But we can’t do anything but do what we’re doing, and that’s work at it.”

William has to take that attitude. He has no other option, really. But in reality, the Nats defense suffers from specific physical limitations that are difficult to overcome. Only Harper and Rendon are still a young players. They don’t seem to be part of the long-term problem. But the rest?

Desmond is 28 years old. We’ve seen this for several seasons now. He has tremendous range and a strong throwing arm. His range allows him to get to balls others watch go past, but as we saw in Monday’s game, that can be a curse as much as a blessing. He ranged far to his left to get his glove on the ball, only to have it clang off for a tough error. The ball bounced off the back of the mound, changing the spin on it and making it a much tougher play than it was going to be already.

Then there’s the matter of his arm. It’s a cannon. But it’s a loose cannon. They used to call guys like that “scattershot”, like the pattern of shotgun pellets spreading out in every direction at a high rate of speed. Last season, widely hailed as his best defensive season, he committed 12 throwing and seven fielding errors. This year, it’s an equal 4-4 so far. Desmond started slowly last season in the field too, so it may be a temperature thing with him. But the bottom line is this is who he is. At 28, he’s not going to get magically better throwing the ball.

Zimmerman’s problems have been well documented, in this space and throughout the Natosphere. His shoulder is compromised through injury to the point of curtailing any pregame throwing and altering his throwing mechanics to the point of being indistinguishable form how a human is supposed to throw overhanded. His broken thumb after 15 games allowed him to be DL’d for a actual broken bone as opposed to being sat down to allow the inflammation in the join to calm down. At this point, the Nats are trying to downplay this, saying they don’t feel the injury is a chronic thing. But realistically, Zimmerman needs to move to first base as soon as possible, if only to keep the inflammation out of the joint allowing him to him at a maximum, pain-free condition.

Espinosa is a good fielder, at both second base and shortstop. He gets a touch overrated in this market considering his teammates. But his health issues the past two seasons have taken a toll on his efficiency as well. He shouldn’t be part of the long-term problem either, but two errors in 17 games isn’t a great thing. Also, he’s 27, so he’s at his physical peak and won’t get better either.

Jayson Werth doesn’t have any errors in the outfield yet, but we’ve seen several balls fall in front of him or past him that he would have gotten to even at the start of his stint with the Nats. His range has drastically dropped each season he’s been here. It’ snot surprising, as his is 35 years old and being asked to man one of the more rigorous defensive positions. But it’s another point of data: Werth’s outfield defense is sub-par at this point in his career, and there’s very little the Nats can do about it for the next 3 1/2 years other than move him to left field and hope Harper can handle right.

As for Harper’s not-so-great fielding, we have to remember two things: 1) He was a catcher 2 1/2 years ago; 2) He’s learning to play outfield at the Major League level. There may be some “attention” problems attributed to Harper’s bungles, as he mostly has trouble with charging and picking up the ball. But for all his speed and effort (notice I didn’t say “hustle”) in the outfield, he still has trouble tracking line drives, both to his right and his left. Someone on Twitter casually remarked on a ball to the left field gap earlier this week that it seemed like a ball Harper could have made a play on, or at least cut off from going to the wall. If a casual fan can notice that, you can be sure the Nats are aware of it.

This all might seem like gloom and doom. Maybe it is. It’s certainly mostly anecdotal. But the takeaway here is that the Nats realistically aren’t a great fielding team, despite their pitching staff’s proclivity for being ground ball pitchers. And except for Rendon and Harper, the players they have are no longer in a growth mode — they are who they are, or getting worse (some significantly, and some very quickly). They can put as much work into it as they want, but in reality, the Nats are going to have to pitch and hit to make up for their defensive shortcomings.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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