Washington Nationals: Could Outfield Swapping benefit the Nats?
By Blake Finney
As teams search for every inch to gain an advantage on the competition, could Outfield Swapping be used by the Washington Nationals in 2019?
According to manager Dave Martinez, the Washington Nationals appear to be putting an emphasis on the little things this offseason. That may mean trying some new concepts to get an edge on the competition, which could include a lesser-used concept of Outfield Swapping.
Recently on MLB Network, the concept was discussed relating to the Boston Red Sox usage in Game Three of the World Series. The usage of Outfield Swapping didn’t garner much attention in this instance because the game itself was the marathon 17 inning affair, but it was an intriguing idea.
Because the game was in Los Angeles, therefore using National League rules, J.D. Martinez was forced to play the field instead of being the DH. Therefore, on occasion, Martinez and Mookie Betts would switch between right and left field in order to have the better fielder, that’s Betts in case you were wondering, in the corner the ball was most likely to go.
Now, you’re probably saying, to yourself “Did that really happen? That sounds like something weird Gabe Kapler and the Phillies would try.” Well yes, it really happened, and yes, Kapler and his Phillies did in fact trial the same concept in Spring Training.
It played exactly the same way, just without the ridiculously high stakes of the World Series in this game. They had the same combination of a weak-fielding Tommy Joseph and strong-fielding Collin Cowgill switching positions based on the hitter.
Now apply the same theory to the Washington Nationals fielders, and it could give them a slight edge, which is exactly what management appear to be after. Currently slated to open the year as the team’s corner outfielders are Adam Eaton and Juan Soto who fit into this system perfectly.
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During his career, Eaton has had a good reputation for his defensive skills when slotted in at a corner outfield spot compared to in centerfield. Whereas last season, we saw Soto struggle with his routes and range in left field and proved to be a liability in the outfield.
In his career, Eaton has been a great right fielder, sporting an impressive 20 Defensive Runs Saved 190 games there. While he does hold a -1 DRS in left field, it’s a much smaller sample size and would likely improve given more time there, presuming he’s healthy. Therefore, he would be placed in the corner outfield spot where the ball is most likely to be hit.
Both players have also had experience at both corner outfield spots, so it would hardly be throwing either of them in at the deep end. Eaton has played all three spots for the Nationals in his injury-shortened time in D.C. while Soto actually played primarily right field coming up through the Nats system.
So the main question is, at what points in the game should they be using this strategy? Well, it’s not simply putting Eaton to the hitter’s pull side every time, it needs to be executed based on a player’s tendencies.
For example, Rhys Hoskins of the Phillies had the third highest pull percentage among qualifiers in the majors last year at 50 percent, while also possessing a 51.7 percent fly ball rate. Therefore, a lot of his balls in play are going to go to left field, so that’s where you would place Eaton in this situation, leaving Soto in right field.
However, someone like Jose Martinez who has a higher opposite field percentage than pull percentage should be played with Eaton to the opposite field. There are going to be more in-depth analytics that will be able to fine tune which corner the ball is more likely to go to for a specific pitcher, but these examples just give you a sense of the thinking behind it.
One thing that may prevent the Nationals from employing this system is the potentially unlikely return of a certain Bryce Harper. Assuming then that Eaton is traded to make room for Harper, the upgrade from Soto to Harper is pretty negligible, so it would not be worth putting the players through the system for very very marginal differences in fielding ability.
This sort of thinking is a little out of the box, but when Martinez was brought in, many thought he would bring a more analytical approach to the team. This would certainly be one way to do so.