DENVER -- When it comes to making diving attempts in the outfield, one particular play from nearly a decade ago is never far from Carlos Gonzalez's mind.
"We were playing in Dodger Stadium, and I was playing center field," Gonzalez said. "For some reason, I had a chance to make a diving play, but I ended up hitting the ground [without making the catch], and it ended up costing us a couple runs."
Troy Tulowitzki, then the young star shortstop for Colorado, let Gonzalez hear about it when they got back to the visitors' dugout.
"Troy is an intense player," Gonzalez said. "He pushed me to be the player I am today. When he ended up yelling at me [that night at Dodger Stadium], I didn't take that as frustration or that he's yelling at me because I made a bad mistake. He was yelling at me because he knew I was capable of doing something better."
"Something better" turned out to be three Gold Glove Awards for Gonzalez, who would become Colorado's star right fielder and a slugging staple in the middle of the lineup over the next nine seasons.
Gonzalez has come a long way from that night at Chavez Ravine. And with the advent of Statcast™, a new dimension of detail has been added to our understanding of stellar defensive plays in the outfield. Interestingly, Gonzalez has become a master of a specific type of five-star catch, which has accounted for three of his past four five-star plays in right field.
The most recent of these plays came on April 4 against the Padres at Petco Park. San Diego catcher Austin Hedges led off the bottom of the third with a sinking line drive to right field. Gonzalez had to charge in and to his left, with an opportunity time of 3.0 seconds before the ball would hit the ground. He made a full-extension dive and robbed Hedges of a hit. The catch probability on that play was 8 percent, and in those three seconds, Gonzalez covered 41 feet.
Gonzalez's previous two five-star plays came within a day of each other last season. On May 9, 2017, Gonzalez took a hit away from the Cubs' Javier Baez on a very similar play to the one in San Diego earlier this month. Baez hit a sinking liner to right at Coors Field, where Gonzalez had to charge in 41 feet in 2.9 seconds. The catch probability on that play was 5 percent.
The next day, Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks lined one to right in the sixth. Gonzalez went 37 feet, in and to his left, in 2.9 seconds to make a diving catch. The catch probability for that play was 18 percent.
"That's a risky play, if you look at it," Gonzalez said. "It's pretty much do-or-die. As an outfielder, you don't get a lot of opportunities to make plays like that. It takes judgment. Early in my career, you're still young, you don't want to make a stupid mistake or cause a veteran pitcher problems. Now that I have way more experience, I know that I can handle the mistakes, because of course I'm not going to be the one getting yelled at, but I'm also going to be the one approaching the pitcher to apologize and say, 'I could've done better.'"
A big part of making the right judgment in the fraction of a second before an outfielder has to get a jump on balls like those, according to Gonzalez, is the context in which the play takes place.
"Sometimes I won't take the chance. I might just shut it down, play it as a hit, keep the guy at first base and play for a double play," Gonzalez said. "But when I take my opportunities, that means something is up in the game. If I think about those plays, I know the one against Hendricks, it was a close game, a good situation [for that play]."
When Hendricks lined to right, there was one out in the sixth inning, and Rockies starter German Marquez hadn't given up a hit. The diving catch by Gonzalez preserved the no-hitter, which was broken up on a Kristopher Bryant double to open the seventh.
"And when I made the one this year, our pitcher [Jon Gray] is throwing a gem, and we were up 5-0," Gonzalez said. "I knew that if I end up missing the play, it's OK; maybe a run scores, but if you make a good play for him, he's gonna continue to pitch well."
Gonzalez also puts stock in the anticipation afforded him by data he studies on opposing hitters, which enables him to generate a head-start even before the ball is hit.
"It's important to get a really good first step, but the other thing that helps you a lot is knowing what the count is and knowing who's at the plate. The reports give you so much information about where the guy's going to hit the ball. It happens to me a lot [at the plate] -- they know where I'm gonna hit it, and they're normally playing up the middle with the shift. There's a lot of information over the years that makes you a good defender."
Of course, the ball doesn't always end up in Gonzalez's glove. Plays like the one he's become so adept at in right field don't get much riskier, with nothing behind him but the fence.
"It happened to me in the first series of the season against the Diamondbacks," Gonzalez said. "[Jarrod] Dyson hit a soft liner coming in, and my instincts told me to go for it, and I ended up being short, didn't make the play, and Dyson ended up with an RBI triple."
The catch probability on the Dyson ball was 12 percent.
"Sometimes it's gonna work, sometimes it doesn't," said Gonzalez. "But as an outfielder, especially when pitchers appreciate what you do, most of the time they're gonna thank you instead of being like, 'Man, that cost me a run and another guy in scoring position.'
"It's tough for the pitcher when you don't end up making the play. But it's a life-saver when you do."