After finishing at the bottom of the National League East division last year, the Nationals knew something had to change, and improving defense became a priority. In 2020, they were dead last in defensive runs saved—a statistic that, according to MLB, “quantifies a player’s entire defensive performance by attempting to measure how many runs a defender saved”—at a whopping minus-48 for the team.
This year, 24 games into the 162-game season, the Nationals are on the opposite end of the chart and lead the major leagues in team defensive runs saved with 19 runs saved. Outfielders and infielders have consistently worked on defense during the pregame. But the mandate to improve the team defense that Nationals manager Davey Martinez put in place after a dismal display in 2020 all begins and ends with the play of the Nationals’ veteran catchers who have worked to limit scoring opportunities.
Yan Gomes, 33, has caught in the major leagues for 10 seasons, and his teammate, Nats newcomer Alex Avila, 34, has logged 13 seasons. The pair have combined to play in more than 1,800 big league games. With all that experience comes vital in-game knowledge of pitchers’ tendencies and an ability to know when a play can be made.
The veteran backstops have shown that defensive ability to prevent runs scoring in recent games. Avila threw out a St. Louis Cardinals runner attempting to steal second base on April 21. Gomes took a throw from Kyle Schwarber against the New York Mets at Citi Field on April 25 to tag out a sliding Francisco Lindor. Later, he also gunned down a runner at second base.
“Those are not easy plays,” Martinez says. “They are tough plays to be able to catch a ball and tag a guy out. You saw Yan do that. These guys are throwing guys out. It’s awesome. I love watching them both catch. They are students of the game. They control our pitchers really well. Any day I put either one of them in, we feel really good about them back there.”
Although the Nats lost the game against the Mets 4-0, defense like that from the Nats’ catchers kept the game within reach. Those plays are a promising addition early this season. When the offense can return to full health, those plays that saved runs will become even more important to keeping the Nats close.
“We always talk about improving our defense and having both these guys have definitely helped out a lot,” Martinez says. “I’ve known Alex. He works diligently on his defense. He works with [bullpen catcher Henry Blanco] all the time on being a little bit quicker. As you can see he made a nice throw the other day. That’s always awesome that those two guys can play defense.”
Martinez says having Gomes and Avila make defensive plays like that takes the pressure off the pitchers. Fewer runners on base to worry about allows the pitcher to focus on just the batter in front of them, and the fingers the catcher puts down.
“Both these guys have done well behind the plate,” Martinez says. “They handle our pitching staff really well, but them throwing guys out is just a benefit for us that our pitchers don’t have to worry about. Focus on throwing strikes and throwing pitches. They’ll handle the rest.”
Gunning down runners and making the big tag for an out is just a small part of the job that Gomes and Avila must tend to each game to keep their pitchers on track.
This season, Avila has caught for the majority of Max Scherzer’s starts. Avila has said his experience working with Scherzer with the Detroit Tigers helped prepare him for what he sees now. Avila said Scherzer is a different pitcher now than when he last caught him in 2014, and has refined the pitches in his repertoire.
Avila’s experience with Scherzer was put to the test in a recent game at Nationals Park. With wind gusts around 25 to 30 mph against St. Louis, Scherzer labored through two innings trying to find the bottom of the strike zone, expending 49 pitches.
Somehow Scherzer was able to get through six innings unscathed. Avila played a critical part in guiding the right-hander through some dicey bases loaded situations. The Nats held on for the 1-0 win.
“It made it a little challenging,” Avila said of the weather conditions. “But over 13 years in this game, mostly in Detroit, you just deal with it.”
That ability to work with a pitcher when conditions are not perfect, to not panic, and to still find a way to get the job done is a credit to experience Avila has logged behind the plate.
“He struggled the first inning and Alex was able to coax him through it,” Martinez says. “They work well together. It was awesome to see those two guys get through six innings the way they did.”
The skipper noticed the Scherzer-Avila battery worked well even in the most difficult situations so far this season. He believes their previous relationship in Detroit helped Max trust Avila’s calls.
“I think it’s more Alex getting to know Max the way he is right now,” Martinez said. “Max is Max. He has his different antics in how he does things. Alex has experience with that. So, to watch those two work together and see them communicate it’s awesome, it’s good. You can see there’s not many shakes from Max which is a good thing. Alex really knows what Max wants to do and how he wants to pitch.”
And those key defensive plays made in game are a product of practice before games. Martinez points to the value of the coaching from the former big league backstop Blanco, who works with Gomes and Avila early each day.
“Every day. They are out there every day,” Martinez says. “They go out there an hour before the game and they get 10 to 15 minutes on blocking balls. He talks to them about pitch selections, who is throwing today, their hitters, everything. They go through the gamut. These guys are well prepared.”
The Nats bullpen catcher played 16 seasons in the major leagues with 11 different teams. Only twice did Blanco play more than 100 games in a season. That experience benefits Gomes and Avila as they prepare for each start.
“He was a really special catcher for years because he did an excellent job behind the plate calling the game, saved runs and threw guys out,” former major league catcher Michael Barrett tells City Paper. “That’s one guy out of 30 backups that had a career. When he played every day he hit close to .300. That’s a guy that’s invaluable. Look at his career. Played on some great teams. Every time he went back there he threw guys out.”
Defense behind the plate, calling games, and inning-by-inning guidance of pitchers are all traits that Gomes and Avila possess, making them critical to the club’s success. These traits can sometimes go unnoticed when the box score reads “W” by a Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, or Patrick Corbin start. But the organization understands how important their work is to the Nats’ success.
“The value of an experienced catcher behind the plate is priceless,” says Barrett, who served as the Nats’ former catching coordinator. “Getting to know the staff can have its own challenges, and their personalities. I always felt like a guy that had experience behind the plate, that took the time to be invested in the pitchers, like Yan and Alex from what I’ve heard over the years, the time that they take to get to know their pitchers [is invaluable].”
Photo by All-Pro Reels, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.