The question sprouted up in recent weeks, always louder after losses, reaching peak volume after the Washington Nationals’ tight defeat to the San Diego Padres last Friday.
Why don’t the Nationals, a team with Michael A. Taylor on its bench, make defensive substitutions in their outfield when holding late leads?
A layered answer is essentially twofold: Manager Dave Martinez doesn’t like to remove starters — in this case Juan Soto, Victor Robles or Adam Eaton — when Washington could still come to bat or, given their bullpen’s track record, play into extra innings. And, beyond that, he’s had a four-man bench for most of this season and that forces him to save Taylor for other roles. In New York, when Martinez was pressed by reporters for not using Taylor as a defensive sub, he said he first needs Taylor available as a pinch-runner, then a pinch-hitter, then could consider inserting him in center field.
But he’s yet to do that outside of keeping Taylor in the game after he pinch-runs or pinch-hits. He also doesn’t use veteran Gerardo Parra, who could be a defensive upgrade over Soto or Eaton in specific situations. It creates a contrast in Martinez’s managing style as he wades through his second season on the job. He’s often utilized a league-worst bullpen as if its an elimination game, matching up in low-leverage situations, warming up way more pitchers than needed, using closer Sean Doolittle to put out small fires and pitch non-save situations. But Martinez is much more conservative when it comes to his defense.
“I’m very comfortable with having the guys that we have out there on defense. Robles is a good defender, Eaton’s a good defender, and Juan is just a young player that is playing, and actually has gotten better,” Martinez said last Saturday, after that 5-4 loss to the Padres. “So, you know, you got to let these guys play.
"[Soto] is 20 years old and I understand Michael is really good out there, but I may have had to use Michael if the game goes tied. We’d have nobody else, so you just have to be careful how you move guys in and out.”
In the ninth inning against San Diego, as Doolittle stumbled toward his third blown save, there were two plays that exposed defensive deficiencies in the Nationals’ outfield. The first was a triple for Eric Hosmer that hit the base of the wall in right-center field and split Eaton and Robles. Martinez later explained that one player — Robles, in this instance — has to take a shallower angle instead of crashing the fence. That way the ball won’t trickle away if the first outfielder can’t get it. Instead, Robles converged with Eaton, the ball got away and Hosmer was able to take an extra base. The second play was simpler, with Josh Naylor scoring on a walk-off single to left. Naylor, not a speedy runner, was rounding third when Soto scooped up and readied for a throw. His attempt was way up the line, showing his below-average arm, and Naylor slid in uncontested for the win.
About two and a half weeks earlier, in the eighth against the New York Mets, Doolittle gave up a slim lead on a three-run double for Juan Lagares. The hit fell between Robles and Soto in left center, bouncing off the base of the wall, and it would have been a tough play for either to make. But both pulled up short before making a final push. Doolittle’s rough outing was the story, especially after he soon gave up a three-run home run, but a few within the organization believed Soto (20 years old) and Robles (22) showed their youth on Lagares’s double.
Hindsight, of course, provides a much clearer view of each situation. But defensive substitutions shouldn’t only be considered once something goes wrong. That’s a reactive approach instead of proactively trying to win each game in a vacuum. And if the Nationals are, one day at a time, looking to go 1-0, then using Taylor’s skill set seems logical. The Nationals’ worst defensive outfield is Soto in left, Robles in center and Eaton in right. They’re all below-average based on advanced fielding metrics. Robles, the best of the three, is learning in center and is a project in right. Eaton has been slowed by injuries. Soto may profile better as a first baseman long-term.
Taylor, on the other hand, has been touted by the Nationals as a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder. He has the best arm on the team. He has not excelled in scattered at-bats, with a .217 average and 28 strikeouts in 68 plate appearances, but his defensive upside is undeniable. A conservative late-game move would be to slide him into center, Robles to right and Eaton out of the game. An aggressive one would be to put Taylor in center, Robles and right and plug Parra into left for Soto, though his bat may be too valuable to justify that.
Then there’s the catch.
Martinez is often playing a numbers game he can’t win, since the Nationals have carried eight relievers and just four bench players from early April on. Their current bench is a catcher, Taylor, Parra and first baseman Matt Adams, who is day-to-day with a left oblique strain. Infielder Adrián Sanchez would likely replace Adams if he goes to the injured list. That gives Martinez three pinch-hit (and pinch-running) options outside of his catcher in a given game. That makes it much harder to get strategic in the outfield, and the roster will remain constructed this way until there is a clear blueprint for who pitches the seventh and eighth innings.
Washington’s bullpen has already been blamed for a lot this season. Now you can add limiting late-game defensive options to the list, even if the connection is tangential, and even if Martinez could still gamble either way.
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