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Washington Nationals have a tricky playing time balancing act behind the plate

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With two catchers who are having very different seasons, the Nationals have an interesting situation on their hands dividing the playing time between the pair...

San Diego Padres v Washington Nationals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

After two years of enduring the failed Matt Wieters signing at catcher, the Washington Nationals made it one of their top priorities this offseason to improve behind the plate.

Though the Nats were linked with J.T. Realmuto again, they instead went for two-pronged approach, first signing Kurt Suzuki, before trading for Yan Gomes from the Cleveland Indians.

The hope was that combined, they could turn the position into one of the team’s strengths. Instead, the position is back to causing decision-making headaches once again.

Gomes has looked completely lost at the plate, posting a .198/.292/.283 slash line and 51 wRC+ in his 59 games, with just three long balls. He has made up for some of this with above-average defense, but he’s still been a huge disappointment.

Perhaps most worrying is that this offensive slump for Gomes shows no signs of letting up.

The Brazilian is in the 3rd percentile in expected batting average (.203), 4th percentile in xwOBA (.256), while also residing in the 6th percentile for xSLG (.324).

In essence, he’s not hitting the ball as hard as he has previously, with both his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate way down from last year when he was an All-Star.

Suzuki, on the other hand, has lived up to expectations, perhaps even exceeding them so far this season. The veteran backstop is slashing .263/.315/.486 with 11 home runs in 56 games, putting his wRC+ at a much more respectable 101.

Many will simply look at the offensive numbers and wonder why the two continue to split playing time relatively evenly. But defense and intangibles matter, even more so when we’re talking about those who wear the Tools of Ignorance.

On the whole, Gomes has been a plus-defender this season, posting 3 Defensive Runs Saved and 0.8 defensive bWAR while also catching 15 of 39 would-be base stealers.

However, he has taken a fair step back in some other areas of his defensive game.

Last season, according to Baseball Prospectus, Gomes was one of the best blocking catchers in baseball, but now grades just above average. Meanwhile, also per BP, he’s also regressed in framing, becoming just below average compared to a top-15 framer in 2018.

Meanwhile, Suzuki grades as average-to-below-average in almost every area, including framing, blocking, and in DRS. He’s also been one of the easiest catchers to steal a base off of, catching just 3 of 30 potential base stealers.

There’s also the battery combinations that need to be taken into account with catchers.

Here’s how each of the Nats’ starters who have made multiple starts are performing with each catcher so far this season in terms of ERA:

Nationals Starters ERA by Catcher

Pitcher Yan Gomes Kurt Suzuki
Pitcher Yan Gomes Kurt Suzuki
Max Scherzer 3.67 1.46
Stephen Strasburg 3.49 3.57
Patrick Corbin 3.40 -
Aníbal Sánchez - 3.80
Jeremy Hellickson 6.14 6.35
Erick Fedde 2.17 5.71
Austin Voth 4.35 -

Entering the year, there were two pre-planned pitcher-catcher duos, who would always be battery mates.

Gomes was pinpointed as Patrick Corbin’s personal catcher given his excellent blocking, a trait he needed with the left-hander’s excellent slider. Suzuki and Aníbal Sánchez were also a clear choice to work together after their joint-success last year in Atlanta.

The rest has then been fluid as management waited to see if patterns emerged.

Max Scherzer has clearly meshed well with Suzuki throughout the season, even though Gomes started off as his primary catcher.

Dave Martinez also appears to be using Gomes with some of the younger arms on the team, likely to help take some of the pressure off of them, so they can focus on pitching. Erick Fedde and Gomes have clearly formed a strong connection from this.

Other pitchers just seem to be indifferent, with Stephen Strasburg not really favoring one catcher or the other, while Jeremy Hellickson just seemed off all season, regardless of catcher.

All this information and the fact that catchers generally need more rest than any other position player go into dividing up playing time. Not an easy task by any means.

Given Suzuki’s great performance with the bat, it’s clear that, in an ideal world, the Nationals want to get him in the lineup plenty moving forward.

We saw that in the most recent series against the Braves when he started three of the four games, with Gomes only starting when Corbin was on the mound.

However, when you ask the baseball gods for an ideal world, they scoff and add even more obstacles, just for fun. Doubleheaders, like tomorrow’s, day games after night games, Sunday Night Baseball with an evening game the next day. You name it.

Even if you dub one catcher the “starter,” they would still only start behind the plate four or five times a week.

It’s also fair to wonder whether he’s been able to exceed expectations because of his careful management, rather than becoming the primary starter.

That was the recipe for success for Suzuki in Atlanta, with Tyler Flowers splitting time behind the plate.

It’s also worked wonders for Suzuki’s current teammate, Howie Kendrick, who has had an All-Star caliber season in a part-time role.

Yes, it would be great if the Nationals could start Suzuki more often given how well he’s done with the bat this season. The reality is that it’s incredibly tough to do given all the factors at play, leaving the team hoping for Gomes to rebound to give them the dynamic duo behind the plate they were hoping for.

Clearly, both catchers are still going to have important roles moving forward for the Nationals. But until Gomes rebounds, it still looks like it will be a position of frustration.