Pure gold: Best outfielders need more than speed
Getting good reads, taking direct routes and knowing opponents key to success
On a muggy June night in Atlanta, with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, a runner on first and the score knotted at 4-4, Braves slugger Freddie Freeman launched a fly ball to the depths of Turner Field. The Braves faithful jumped to their feet, confident that their most clutch hitter had just delivered a walk-off win.
But Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen's wheels were churning even before Freeman turned on the 94-mph, 3-2 fastball that closer had Jason Grilli delivered over the middle of the plate. McCutchen knew the big lefty likes to hit the ball to the alley in right-center, so he had been playing deep, and a little to the pull side of second base. And although McCutchen had a lot of ground to cover, he arrived in plenty of time to make a jumping -- yet casual-looking -- grab against the outfield wall.
The Pirates got out of the inning, but went on to lose, 5-4, in the 10th. The next day, McCutchen's catch didn't even make the highlight reels.
McCutchen, with his combination of smarts and ground-eating speed, has a habit of making tough plays look routine, of getting to balls other outfielders could never reach, and of staying on his feet. He said he only dives three or four times per year.
"The best outfielders are the ones who don't have to dive," said Pirates first-base coach Rick Sofield. "They're unbelievably talented, but they've also taken positioning on with some maturity and responsibility. They make it look easy, and easy doesn't make the highlight reel."
Rather, it is the sensational that wins airtime, adulation and awards. It is more exciting to watch an average outfielder make a diving catch than it is to watch a great outfielder like McCutchen turn the same ball into a routine play. And as conventional stats go, there's no difference anyway; both catches have the same effect on an outfielder's fielding percentage. But only one of those catches will be remembered for its brilliance the next day. And it will be the wrong one.
What if we backed up those highlight-reel clips of outfielders sprawled into the gaps or somersaulting toward the infield? How often are those dramatic, diving grabs the result of a mistake -- poor positioning, a late jump or an indirect route to the ball -- that a gifted athlete makes up for with fleet-footedness and a fancy flash of leather?
"A lot more than you think," said Red Sox right fielder Shane Victorino, "probably 60 or 70 percent of the time. It happens to everyone."
But it happens to the best a lot less frequently. Watch McCutchen closely and you'll see the magic happens in the first few steps, not the final flourish.
Because today's fielding metrics can't precisely measure a player's positioning and movement -- not to mention the trajectory, location and movement of batted balls -- it is difficult to use even advanced statistics to determine which outfielders are the best.
"Different metrics use different source data and, as a result, can reach vastly different conclusions on the defensive value of any particular player," said Cory Schwartz, VP of statistics for MLB Advanced Media. "When several metrics are used in concert, they can paint a broad picture of which fielders are better than others. But all of these metrics may differ by wide degrees on exactly how effective any particular fielder is and what his defensive skills are worth."
When judging outfielders' technique, our eyes must account for what the statistics cannot. We can also look to the upper echelon of big league outfielders themselves, who zealously study -- and admire -- each other. McCutchen is a fan of the Tigers' Torrii Hunter, and Hunter loves him back. The Dodgers' Matt Kemp likes to watch the D-backs' Gerardo Parra. The Orioles' Adam Jones thinks the Braves' B.J. Upton is the perfect player. Victorino is impressed with the Angels' Mike Trout. They can't say enough good things about each other, but to a man, they all laud the play of Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones, who each won 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards.
Andruw Jones is known as one of the most intuitive outfielders of all time.
"Andruw was always moving before the ball was even hit," said Kemp. "He would read the pitch, anticipate where the ball was going to be hit and already be moving to that spot."
Andruw Jones did have the distinct advantage of playing behind one of the most reliable pitching staffs in history. John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Co. usually hit their spots, making it much easier to predict where and how hard a ball was going to be hit.
However, Andruw still covered an incredible amount of ground. By all accounts, he played a very shallow center field, yet because he played with such intelligence and ran such direct routes, he was still able to rob home runs at the wall.
Trout makes the same kind of spectacular plays today. However, existing in a power division like he does, Trout starts out considerably deeper than Jones did, making it easier to cover the ground between himself and the center-field wall.
Because most pitchers aren't nearly as reliable as the Braves' hurlers were in the 1990s, and because hitters can be just as unpredictable, outfielders must do their homework. They have to study opposing hitters and the spray charts coaches work up on them. They must know the dimensions and quirks of each ballpark they play in. And they must learn the velocity, pitches and approach of each of their pitchers, assess the pitcher's ability on a given day and decide how it will affect where the ball is hit.
"If you have a softer-throwing lefty, righties will usually be out in front of the ball, so you play them to pull," said Kemp. "But with a harder thrower like Clayton Kershaw, you'll play hitters in the opposite gap."
Pitchers also simply can change their approach to a hitter, which will change how the outfielders set up.
"If I'm throwing sinkers away to a lefty, he's probably going to hit most of the balls in the air to left and roll over the ones on the ground, so I want the infield to play to pull and the outfield to play opposite," said Braves pitcher Tim Hudson. "But if I change my mind, pound that lefty in and mix in some cutters, the center fielder has to cheat a little toward right field."
A hitter also can change his approach and decide, say, to turn on the sinker and pull it instead of driving it to the opposite field. Or he could be having a bad day, be just a touch tardy with his swing or a touch ahead of the breaking ball, and hit the ball somewhere completely unplanned. Then, it's up to the center fielder to make adjustments.
"We go into the game with a plan for positioning. But as the game progresses, it's up to Andrew when it comes to reading bats," said Sofield of McCutchen. "He's like a quarterback calling an audible, telling our guys if they should move three steps one way or the other."
With regard to depth, every outfielder has a theory on what works. Some, like Braves left fielder Justin Upton, like to play deep, both to protect against the long ball and because, for most, it's easier to run in to make a catch than it is to turn and run for a ball hit over your head.
Some, like Adam Jones, like to play shallow, keeping bloopers from falling in for base hits and singles from turning into doubles, and tipping their caps in deference to those who can hit the ball 400 feet. Others go with the percentages, playing deeper for hitter No. 3 through No. 6 and more shallow for the rest of the order.
"I always want to take away a guy's 80 percent," said Hunter. "Guys who hit for power will hit the ball deep 80 percent of the time, so I'll take that away and give them the 20 percent bloop hits and jam shots they might put in front of me. The little guys, their 80 percent is in front of me, so I play shallower and make them beat me over my head."
That wouldn't be Hunter's fault anyway.
"As pitchers, if we don't make a pitch and a hitter nukes it over the outfielder's head, that's our fault," said Hudson. "But when we make good pitches and jam the hitter and they bloop just in front of the outfielder because he's playing way back, that's when pitchers get ticked off. You feel like you made a pitch and didn't get rewarded for it."
At 6-foot-1 and a burly 230 pounds, Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes is not blessed with blinding speed. Every day, he watches Victorino and Jacoby Ellsbury motor around the outfield, and thinks about what might have been. But Gomes has never let his inability to beat his teammates in a foot race interfere with his ability to keep baseballs from hitting the grass.
"I firmly believe however much you miss the ball by is how big a mistake you made on your first step," Gomes said. "You can gain three to five feet in one step. You can dive and miss a ball by two inches. Do the math."
To get a good jump, an outfielder has to be prepared, mentally and physically, on every pitch, even though the ball may not be hit to him in a particular inning or even in an entire game. Essentially, he has to play like an infielder.
"I like to watch Dustin Pedroia play second base," said McCutchen. "Every time the pitcher is in his windup, he practically jumps in the air to get himself into position, and he does that 150 times a game. I try to get myself prepared for every pitch like that."
Braves right fielder Jason Heyward calls it "the creep." It's not an actual step forward, but rather a subtle movement onto the balls of the feet that puts the outfielder into an athletic position from which he's able to react in whatever direction is necessary.
That first reaction is key, and it's something Braves bench coach Carlos Tosca pounds home during Spring Training. He has his outfielders begin by straddling the foul line. With their first step, they have to explosively turn one way or the other, and their feet must then be on the line.
"Outfielders have to know what their feet are doing," Tosca said. "If you get caught at an angle to the line, you're going to run an L-route to the baseball, and that is not a direct route."
Indirect routes lead to hits that never should have been.
"A guy can hit a gapper and everyone watching the game just thinks, oh, that's a double," said two-time National League MVP Award winner and five-time Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder Dale Murphy. "People don't realize there was a mistake, that the outfielder played a single into a double, or a double into a triple, by running a bad route to the ball."
Obviously, the shortest distance between point A and point B is a straight line. But figuring out where point B will be -- that is, where the baseball will land -- is an art that takes years of seeing baseballs coming off of bats to perfect. Hunter has come close.
|"If two outfielders make all the right plays and have the same team record, the same fielding percentage and the same offensive numbers, who gets the Gold Glove? The guy who makes plays look routine, doesn't dive a lot and gets the outs without flashing a lot of leather, or the guy who dives all the time, even if they're all bad routes?"|
|-- Andrew McCutchen|
Before each game, as the Tigers get in their daily rounds of batting practice, Hunter sets himself up in the outfield. His teammates jog to and fro, sometimes sprinting, shagging fly balls. But Hunter barely moves. He's 37 now, and he's learned the benefit of saving his legs. So he watches, listens to the crack of the bat and feels how the wind is blowing. Once the ball is hit, Hunter will avert his eyes from its path and focus instead on the five-foot circle of grass where he thinks the ball will land. More often than not, the ball drops in the circle. Six-time Gold Glove Award winner Kirby Puckett taught Hunter this mental exercise when he first came up with the Twins, to teach him to take the most direct route to the baseball.
"I'm shagging with my mind," said Hunter, who won nine consecutive Gold Gloves from 2001-09. "And I'm not wrong much."
Center fielders Austin Jackson of the Tigers and the Phillies' Ben Revere are extraordinary talents who can flat-out run. They know how much leeway their speed provides, and can take a few steps in on a ball and still recover if it sails overhead. They can run a bit of an indirect route and still end up where they need to be. Or they can pause for an extra fraction of a second to get a better read on a ball before setting off after it.
"It is good to be fast," Revere said. "Sometimes people say to me, 'Man, you didn't even get a really good jump on that ball and you still caught it.' But you still have to go 110 percent, because if you jog and the ball falls right next to you, you're going to look really bad."
The list of things that can make outfielders look bad is already long enough: twilight, sunshine, lights, white T-shirts, rally rags and dingy concrete facades (so often the same color as a rubbed-up ball) can all make a baseball seem to disappear. Also on that list is the baseball itself. When the wind hits its seams, the ball can rise, drop, tail, cut, slice, spin or knuckle at any moment.
"Crazy things happen once the ball is hit," said Adam Jones. "It's a phenomenon."
But nothing can humble an outfielder like a head-high line drive. The harder and squarer it's hit, the tougher it is to judge. Hunter has had a career-long frustration with Mark Kotsay, whose every hit appears straight before dropping like a stone. Adam Jones recalls three liners -- hit by Evan Longoria, Adrian Gonzalez and Luke Scott -- that knuckled away and left him scrambling. Jackson misjudged a George Kottaras drive that sailed over his head for a two-run triple in late September 2012.
"There's nothing worse than misjudging a ball and having to run after it in front of 40,000 people," Jackson said. "I remember hearing one guy the whole time, saying over and over, 'There goes our season.'"
The best outfielders make adjustments in those tricky moments and still manage to come up with the ball. And the more often they come up with it, the more likely they are to win a Gold Glove Award. Kemp already has two, but he's friendly with Hunter, whose nine glitter in his house like gaudy track lighting.
"I see them all lined up and think, 'Man, I have to catch up,'" Kemp said.
But there are fewer repeat winners these days, possibly because the overall level of athlete playing the outfield has increased so dramatically. The 18 Gold Gloves awarded to outfielders since 2010 have been won by 16 players. In the decade prior to that, Hunter, Andruw Jones, Ichiro Suzuki and Jim Edmonds won the lion's share.
McCutchen also won his first Gold Glove Award in 2012, but he knows his style of play may not make him a repeat winner.
"Look at it like this," he said. "If two outfielders make all the right plays and have the same team record, the same fielding percentage and the same offensive numbers, who gets the Gold Glove? The guy who makes plays look routine, doesn't dive a lot and gets the outs without flashing a lot of leather, or the guy who dives all the time, even if they're all bad routes?"
"They pick the guy who makes the diving catches. That's the society we live in, but I'm not going to sacrifice my body or risk not catching the ball just to make it look tougher. I'm not going to change my style of play."
And the Pirates have to be thrilled about that.