Talking a day after the season opener last weekend, Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo discussed the decision-making for the club when it came to their outfield mix for Opening Day, with Lane Thomas in left, Victor Robles in center, and Juan Soto in right, of course.
Soto’s spot was a sure thing, but center field and left field were less obvious choices given Robles’s struggles and the other options (like professional hitter Yadiel Hernàndez) in left.
So why was Thomas the choice in left, (after he played center down the stretch in 2021), with Robles in center for the opener?
“Well, you know [Thomas has] got good range, he’s got good accuracy with his throwing, and I think it really gives us a good, solid outfield.
“When you have multiple center fielders that are playing your outfield, I think that’s a good thing, I think it will help our outfield defense.”
And as always on Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez’s teams, pitching and defense was the focus as they built a roster for the 2022 campaign.
“Defense is huge,” Rizzo said, “it’s 1-B to pitching, pitching and defense go hand-in-hand, and I think that’s going to be a huge part of our game. We’re going to have to play good, solid baseball to win baseball games, and having a good, sound defense.
“And the defensive part of the game is in direct correlation to our pitching.”
Following an 0 for 7 start at the plate, with four strikeouts in his first three games, the Nats’ skipper said he and his staff noticed Thomas’s timing was off.
“We got to get the ball in the zone,” Martinez said, diagnosing the team’s offensive struggles generally at first, before focusing in on Thomas. “We’re taking too many early strikes, and then starting to chase. So we got to get, a little bit more aggressive in the strike zone, and just be ready to hit. I think, like Lane had some good at-bats the last two at-bats, but I talked to him in the middle of the game about, ‘Hey, you’re late. You got to get ready. Get ready to hit the fastball, be on time.’ And his at-bats were just a little bit — he just missed one ball, he popped up, and that last at-bat against [New York Mets’ reliever Adam] Ottavino, he put a good at-bat together, and then he took a called third strike, but I think we got to keep harping on, ‘Hey, you got to give yourself a chance.’”
Martinez was asked if he thought Thomas moving down in the order might be a factor after he hit atop the lineup when he was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals at last July’s trade deadline.
“For Lane,” he explained, “it’s just because he’s hit in the middle of our lineup, my big thing for him, ‘Hey, don’t change who you are. You were aggressive. Even in the top of the order, you hit fastballs really well. Now, he’s just late. He’s — we watched his video this morning, and he’s just late getting to the fastballs. He’s got to be ready on time, so once he does that, I told him, ‘You’re not there to hit home runs, believe me, you just make hard contact like you’ve done in the past, and hit the ball all over the field.’
“So he understands that. I said, ‘There’s no difference between —’, because I said, ‘How many times have you come up, when you led off, with guys on base?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, how many times did you drive them in?’ He goes, “I drove them in.’ I go, ‘That’s my point.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter where you hit, with guys on base, just hit. Don’t worry about hitting home runs, just hit the ball.’
“So, I think now it’s just the fact that — even last night he said that he was late. Especially when the ball is away. He’s taking a lot of fastballs away, where last year he was driving those balls, and it’s just the fact that right now he’s says, ‘I’m really late. I’m seeing the ball late, and I can’t react — I can’t pull the trigger.’ So, we got to get him to be earlier.”
The fifth-year skipper was asked if the early issues for Thomas and others were things they struggled with in Spring Training, or if they started when they came north.
“I think now it’s more — because it means more — Spring Training, they haven’t done it, but now I think it’s a combination of them trying too much, looking for specific pitches.
“We need to reiterate, ‘Hey, look for the fastball. React to everything else. If you’re ready for the fastball, you’re going to be on time.’
“This thing about guys throw a lot more breaking balls and stuff like that, I said, ‘They’re still throwing fastballs.’ And for me, if you’re ready to hit the first two pitches, especially with guys in scoring position, that’s always to me the best two pitches to hit.
“After that, of course you’re going to be — and then with two strikes, as we all know the batting averages around the league [are] really bad, so you got to be ready to hit early.
“Early in the counts — good pitchers, they’re going to try to get ahead, and they’re going to throw strikes, so let’s be ready for them.”
Thomas struck out three times in the series opener in Atlanta earlier this week, but finished the game 2 for 5 with a double and three RBIs, and his manager said he’d applied what they were telling him after a K the first time up.
“We got to get him ready to hit the fastball,” Martinez reiterated.
“He’s a good fastball hitter, and we got to get him ready to hit the fastball.”
As for what if any adjustments he saw Thomas make?
“We just told him to get ready on time, be ready earlier and be on time to hit the fastball.
“Don’t look for anything else but the fastball, so he got a big hit for us, hit that double, which was awesome and got us going.”
Is timing at the plate a mechanical thing, or a mental adjustment?
“It’s just sometimes your timing gets a little wacky, and we got to continue to tell him — because sometimes you don’t feel like you’re late, but what we’re seeing is that he is a tad late, so we keep telling him, ‘Get ready. Get ready, get on time, hit the fastball.’”