Lane Thomas talked early this past spring about his focus over the winter on improving his defensive game with help from data his agent provided as he tried to find ways to take yet another step in his development.
“I think just trying to build off stuff last year that I thought I needed to work on,” the 26-year-old outfielder explained of his offseason goals.
“Some certain stuff. I talked to my agent about some analytical stuff on defense, and just tried to work on stuff he thought I should improve on.
“Just polish up a few things and kind of build off what we were doing last year.”
Digging deeper into analytics on defense was a new wrinkle in Thomas’s winter work.
“I know all that stuff is so important now,” he said, “… and obviously watching someone you can’t really see that stuff, obviously, because it’s through all the technology, so yeah, it was something new for me, but it gave me some good feedback at least, going forward.”
“We did tell him that we wanted him to get better on his first step,” manager Davey Martinez said in the first few days of Spring Training 2022, “and reading balls, and he’s done that, and I see him, already today, he was working with [Nats’ coach, and former big league outfielder Eric Young, Jr.] on some things.”
“I think just working on stuff that — obviously the stuff that [my agent] said,” Thomas explained, “but it gives you a thought process, you know, of like I can be a little more — anticipating stuff, a certain direction or whatever, so I think it’s good for you mentally too, because you might think you’re good at something, and they’re like, well, no you’re not. It helped out a lot for sure.”
Washington Post writer Jesse Dougherty spoke to Alex Ott, “an agent with Jet Sports who did the research on Thomas’s defense,” about what information they’d presented to their client:
“Most metrics agreed that his arm was an asset but his range was costing him some runs and could be worked on. If Lane takes away the deep left stuff that gave him a bit of trouble last year, you’re going to see him grade out as a positive defender this season.”
How did he approach his work over the winter and this spring and apply what they were showing him in the data? And where was the focus?
“Going back to my left, you know,” Thomas said, “just cleaning up some routes, and really just polishing up all the fundamental stuff, like ground balls, and throwing.”
How has the work he put in paid off in the first three months of the 2022 season?
In terms of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) - (“Total Defensive Runs Saved indicates how many runs a player saved or hurt his team in the field compared to the average player at his position.”), Thomas has been worth +5 DRS in 408 innings between left, center, and right field this season (as of Sunday morning), up from -1 DRS overall in 473 2⁄3 innings on the year in 2021. He’s gone from -2 DRS in 357 innings in center in ‘21 to +2 DRS through 154 so far this season.
“Better. Better,” his manager said when asked about Thomas’s defensive work earlier this week, and his improved ability to go back for balls and play them near the wall this season.
“He’s gotten back to the walls and just missed a couple, but we really worked on it this Spring Training with him. He made a play, I don’t know if you guys remember, in Spring Training, where he kept the ball in the ballpark and Dee [Strange-Gordon] actually caught it, but he’s worked on it, he’s been working on it, so he has gotten a lot better. He’s playing a little bit deeper, by choice, we want him to, because he feels more comfortable playing deeper and he’s better coming in on balls. His angles have been a lot better cutting balls off, he made a nice play the other day where he cut the ball off and kept the guy at first, so he’s definitely getting a lot better.”
And his overall game since he was acquired from St. Louis at the trade deadline last July 30th?
Thomas put up a .195/.256/.325 line with five doubles, a triple, three home runs, 10 walks, and 39 Ks in 43 games (33 starts) and 137 plate appearances in April and May.
After a move to top of the Nationals’ order, however, batting second and in the leadoff spot this month Thomas had gone 17 for 49 (.347/.429/.653) with three doubles, four home runs, seven walks, and 11 Ks in 12 games and 56 PAs in June before the start of this weekend’s 5-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Thomas went 1 for 4 in the one win in the series on Sunday, after he was 2 for 14 with one double in the first four.
“For me, he’s getting better,” Martinez said. “I mean, he really is. We didn’t know if he could play center field or not. We threw him out there, we worked with him. He’s gotten much better playing center field. We always thought that he swung the bat well when we were watching him, so but now he’s — other than a slow start — he’s been kind of consistent. And the biggest thing for me is like I said, he’s a good fastball hitter. Nobody throws the ball hard enough to get it by him, but he’s got to stay on the fastball, so when he does that he’s good. He plays the game the right way. He’s very intuitive. He wants to learn. He’s trying to do things better every day. He’s a joy to be around. Like I said, he wants to do everything. He talks a lot to EY about stealing bases, and when to steal and how to steal and what to look for. They work together. I talk a lot to him about the outfield play, and angles and depth and stuff of that nature, situations, he wants to do everything.”
Unfortunately, on Sunday afternoon, Thomas dropped a fly ball to left-center as he got near the wall, and two runs ended up scoring later in the inning.
“He took his eye off the ball,” Martinez said after the game. “He got close to the wall, he hit the wall, and as he did that, he kind of took his eye off at the last minute. So, its’ something we talked about with him, about getting back to that wall, we just got to continue to work with him on it, but the good thing is he didn’t really shy away, he got to it, but he took his eye off the ball.”