Thomas carving role in Nats' future with improved defense

September 28th, 2022

WASHINGTON -- This time last year, was establishing himself in the Nationals’ lineup by earning everyday playing time in center field after being acquired from the Cardinals. In the final weeks of this season, he has been showing his defensive versatility by demonstrating improvements in the opposite corner in right.

Thomas, 27, has appeared in all but 16 games in his first full season with the Nats, including Tuesday night’s 8-2 loss to the Braves at Nationals Park. He platooned left and center field in the early months, with Juan Soto in right field before he was traded to the Padres on Aug. 2.

When designated hitter Nelson Cruz was sidelined by left eye inflammation two weeks ago, the Nationals shifted Luke Voit to the DH spot, Joey Meneses from right to first base and Thomas to right, where he has started the last 11 games in a row, dating back to Sept. 14.

“He’s done well in all three outfield positions,” said manager Dave Martinez. “In right field, he’s done exceptionally well.”

Thomas has made 45 starts in left field, 47 in center and 25 in right in 2022, compared to 39 in center, three in left and none in right last year with the Nats following his Trade Deadline acquisition.

With eight games remaining, Thomas has the opportunity to continue gaining momentum on defense heading into the offseason. He got a running start on that -- literally -- on Monday when he chased down a deep fly ball at the wall to rob Eddie Rosario in the fourth inning.

“You’ve got to be familiar with how many steps it takes you to get to the wall,” Thomas said. “I kind of knew it was going to be over my head and high, so I had some time to get back. I just checked the wall, got my eyes back on the ball and then tried to try to make a catch, and it worked out. It’s a lot of stuff to process in that short amount of time, but you get used to it. You do it in the BP and get the dimensions of the field, so it’s not as hard if you put the work in and just understand what it takes.”

It was a glove-side defensive play that reflected the season of work he has put into his craft.

“You don’t get a lot of plays like that,” Thomas said. “Over the course of the year, it’s like, say, five. I think if you practice those individual plays a lot, when you get one in the game, it’s not a surprise. I guess it’s trying to work on stuff that isn’t going to surprise you when it happens, and you just kind of react.

“I don’t necessarily go run into walls in the offseason,” he added with a laugh. “But [I] just practice the steps on picking up the wall on those type of balls.”

Martinez has lauded Thomas for the improvement on his first step, a facet the outfielder had prioritized because, “I feel like I’m pretty fast to just be average on a first step.” He also has not committed an error in 231 2/3 innings in right field this season, and he has +2 defensive runs saved (DRS) there.

“I just wanted to know what I wasn't very good at to just maybe see if there was stuff I could do to get better,” Thomas said. “Going back to my glove hand, I don’t think I was as good. I guess you have a little more room one way. I had to go and shag and get ready and kind of emphasize that side of my work. I don’t know if it helped over time, but at least it gives you a little more comfortability on plays like that because it’s tough, running speed and knowing the wall -- it messes with you a little bit. It’s something that I wanted to get better at, and hopefully I can keep going forward with it.”

Thomas’ ability to play every outfield position provides the Nationals with depth as they look ahead to their roster for 2023. They have seen how he can adapt to multiple roles to this point, and they also see ways for him to further hone those defensive skills.

“I want him to be more aggressive in the outfield,” said Martinez. “I want him to take more chances. I want him to understand the game situations. … But he definitely has gotten a lot better. I love the way he’s coming to get the ball on the ground. His throws have been unbelievable, and he’s making great, accurate throws. He definitely has improved. So moving forward, this guy’s going to help us in the future.”