One of the keys down the stretch for the younger members of the Washington Nationals’ roster was instilling more plate discipline, teaching them the importance of finding their pitch, and then making sure not to miss, while laying off the pitches they can get to but might not want to.
“All the great hitters have plate discipline,” GM Mike Rizzo explained over the winter, noting how a hitter can be aggressive and disciplined at the same time.
“You look at the great players that we’ve had over our past — [Juan] Soto, [Bryce] Harper, [Anthony] Rendon, great plate discipline, get more and better pitches to hit and it leads to more success. I think that not so much being less aggressive, but being aggressive with more hittable pitches. Getting into good hitters’ counts is obviously a big determinant of how you perform, and I think it’s a big part of it.”
With young players like CJ Abrams, Keibert Ruiz, and Luis García, that was the message in 2022, as they worked to get comfortable at the plate in the majors.
“I saw some big strides with all three of those guys throughout the season,” Rizzo added, “... and if they continue to grow like that we’ll be satisfied.”
Abrams, in particular, came over from San Diego in the trade which sent Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres, and the Nationals started him off at Triple-A Rochester before he came to the majors in D.C. and finished out the season.
At first, manager Davey Martinez said last week, he told his coaches to let Abrams do all the things which got him to where he was, rather than try changing things while he got his feet wet with a new organization.
“The biggest thing for him is his chase rate,” Martinez explained.
“Last year, when we got him, for the first two weeks I didn’t want anybody to touch him. I just wanted him to go out there, relax, play, and have fun, and we’ll keep an eye on him, and then we saw some things that we wanted to improve on and we started talking to him a little bit, one being chase rate. He dropped his chase rate down when we had him, and he was able to put more balls in play, hit more balls hard, and for that reason his average went up a little bit, so we want him to continue to work on that this spring, not chase.”
As much as the 22-year-old shortstop might be inclined to chase pitches up, Martinez said, the data they have warns against it.
“He likes the fastball up, that’s not good for him. So we’re trying to get him to get his eyes down and look for the balls down, he hits the ball down really well.”
The opportunity to work with him over the final month and a half of the season was a good starting point for Abrams’ future in the nation’s capital.
“I think by having him come up last year and playing with us, kind of got his feet wet, talked to him about a lot of different things, made some adjustments with him, I think this year he feels comfortable being in the position he’s in,” Martinez said.
The skipper was asked if he thought the pressure of being traded for Juan Soto is going to weigh on Abrams as he attempts to establish himself in the majors at a relatively young age.
“I don’t think he really even thinks about the trade anymore and he’s just going out there and going to try to be the best shortstop he can be, help us offensively,” the manager said.
“The big thing for us is for him to get on base, and when he’s on base, he can do a lot of things for us, so he feels good, he just wants to be here. He loves it here.
“He told me that last year at the end of the year, so I’m excited to write his name down every day in the lineup and watch him go play.
“He’s young, and there’s still going to be some growing pains, but we’re going to do it together, and I’m excited by that.”
There’s also some room for growth for the shortstop on the defensive end, which has been a focus for the club early this spring.
The club’s brass got a good look at Abrams at shortstop after they brought him up in mid-August last year, and there’s work to be done there, but he’s starting from a good base, and the last shortstop the Nationals acquired from the Padres ended up working out pretty well, so...
Where is the focus with Abrams on the defensive side?
“For him it’s just, the plays that need to be made, make them. Right? The throwing stuff,” Martinez said, “we’ll address that as the spring goes along. But we told him, ‘Stay under control. But get the ball, use your legs, and hit your target.’
“The biggest thing with him, I mean, we all know that he’s got unbelievable range, but sometimes he gets a little bit ahead of himself, and tries to not set his feet, he throws the ball, it could be erratic.
“This year, a lot of talk is get to the ball as quick as you can, set your feet, and throw the ball.”