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What league-best defense looks like: Nationals' CF Michael Taylor's great grab

As much fun as watching Bryce Harper hit and Max Scherzer pitch. Washington Nationals' outfielder Michael Taylor is making a strong impression with his defense in left and center.

Photo screencap via
Photo screencap via

This is a quicker article, although not quite as fleet as Michael A. Taylor's incredibly impressive 5th inning, rally-killing, speed limit-breaking catch off the New York Mets' Eric Campbell's bat last night at Nats Park.

With the good guys up to a closer-than-it-looked 5-2 lead against the second place Mets, Gio Gonzalez was trying to work out of trouble against New York's first baseman. With the count sitting at 1-1, Gonzalez and Jose Lobaton decided to work a two-seam fastball on the outer part of the plate, hoping Campbell would extend and either roll over to the left side of the infield, or weakly push the ball the opposite way.

gio campbell location

None of those things happened, of course. Gonzalez's heater ran too far back over the outer edge. And, to Campbell's credit, the 28-year-old righty smoked the offering to the right-center gap. Watch Gio's reaction; he spoke for your author immediately after contact, although probably not with words suitable here (nor, for that matter, did the lady in red right behind the W):

gio campbell reaction

Blast to the gap, important part of the game...where have we seen this before?

Anyway, enough beating around the bush.  Taylor tracked down Campbell's 365 foot liner, which left his bat at 96 MPH, in deep right center. In doing so, he preserved the Nats' margin and probably gave Gio a chance to get the win.

Taylor catch

This is what league-best defense looks like. While I respect advanced metrics and what they can tell us about baseball, I've never been able to visualize defense metrics like DRS or UZR. Until last night.

You see, Taylor currently leads all major league outfielders in that latter measurement.

And other than Kevin Kiermaier, no other outfielder is really approaching his ability to pick it. Taylor's strength lies in his +12 range runs above average; the above .gif is plenty of evidence for that. Witnessing this feat is awesome because we can connect a tangible play to what is (in my mind at least) still an abstract, imperfect metric.  In doing so, we know that Taylor is doing something better than almost every other outfielder in the majors.

Guess what? It's even crazier to put in context. To do that, we can reference Bill Petti's spray charts tool. I went back and tried to figure out how many line drive outs occurred at Nats Park that traveled to right-center at a distance greater than 330 feet off the bat of a right-handed hitter since 2013. That's a heck of a particular search, but Taylor is, as we've seen, a heck of a particular player.

Searching only by 2013 and forward events (without restriction on event, result, etc.), we returned over 11,000 results. Using the above criteria, here's what we drilled down to. Check out the "number of records" entry in the lower left corner:

Taylor spray chart

Thirteen. That's 0.00118% of all plays at Nats Park since 2013! And most of those were clearly closer to dead center than Taylor's grab. Plus, those two right-most dots (most in the gap) are actually Anthony Rendon lineouts from last year caught by right-fielders.

The closest mark to last night's grab--third one in from the right, on the warning track--was Denard Span tracking a Cameron Maybin fly from earlier this year. Here's the video; you'll immediately notice the difference between these two excellent catches:


Here, Span is playing much deeper than Taylor, and runs nearly parallel to the wall, whereas Taylor was running more directly at the wall. Span also started a bit closer to true center. The ball appears to have hung up more, too, allowing Span to glide to a modest run as he completes the catch. Finally, it looks like Span did not go nearly as far towards right as MAT did.

Most negative spin possible? There are worse things than being compared defensively to Denard Span. But what we saw last night, even backing the results up to 2011 and forward, hasn't been done in Nats Park history. Sure, there's some subjectivity here, but that's all right. Also spectacular is that considering Lobaton's play in the top of the 8th, this event might not have even been the best defensive out of the game.

Taylor's Patriot missile-like interception is no surprise.  The young Washington center-fielder has an exceptional defensive pedigree. Heck, Patrick chronicled as much back in 2012.

Whether you love baseball for the artistry and grace of Taylor streaking across the lush Kentucky bluegrass, or you love the sport for the scientific and statistical oddities that we saw Monday (or both), it's easy to appreciate superior athletic talent, in any form.

• Here's the "Statcast" treatment of the catch:

Thanks to Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, and ESPN for data and info.