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The Man in the Middle (Book Excerpt)

Posted By Alex Belth On March 22, 2006 @ 7:00 am In Bronx Banter | Comments Disabled

From “The Last Nine Innings”

by Charles Euchner [1]

Chapter Four: Inside the Diamond

Whenever I’m teaching younger players, what I ask is, ‘Can you dance?’” Matt Williams, the Diamondbacks’ veteran third baseman who came to the big leagues as a shortstop in 1987, is ruminating about the art of defensive play in the four infield positions. Williams has become a philosopher of the game as he struggles to cool down his intensity and combine his God-given athleticism with his growing knowledge of the game.

Dancing—an activity that brings together focus and relaxation, grace and quickness, initiative and cooperation—provides Williams with the concept he needs to play his position. Dancing helps him understand when and how to stay loose but also when to move quickly. Keep light on the feet like a dancer, then you can attack and parry, as the play requires.

“That’s all it is—you’re just dancing through the ball. When your feet stop, when your feet get lead[en], your hand gets hard, when you don’t adjust to a bounce, that’s when you make mistakes.”

• • •

Leading off for the Diamondbacks in the home half of the second inning, Steve Finley hits a 1–0 fastball up the middle. Shortstop Derek Jeter hesitates briefly before playing the ball to his side. Jeter fields the ball, a hard one-hopper, cleanly. Reaching down with his six-foot-three body, Jeter flips it hard to first in one motion.

“You play short there’s going to be a lot of plays that you’re off-balance,” Jeter says. “You just work at it, practice it, get better with time. Some may be kind of difficult because of how tall I am as opposed to a shorter guy. But that just comes with experience.”

• • •

Derek Jeter’s fielding poses a dilemma. Depending on whom you debate, Jeter is either one of the best fielding shortstops in the game—or he is absolutely, positively the worst. The question is whether to believe your eyes when watching him.

Part of the difficulty in judging Jeter is that he is the winningest shortstop in an era of great shortstops. Players like Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Omar Vizquel, Orlando Cabrera, and Edgar Renteria do not have the luxury of playing for consistently great teams. They seem to do more at their positions than Jeter. But Jeter is a winner. He has been on four World Series champions in five years, and now he’s playing for a fifth title. He must be doing something right.

When baseball people gather to watch Jeter, they smile. They watch him charge balls in the middle of the diamond, range to the outfield and right-field line to gather pop flies, communicate with pitchers and infielders. They love his hustle, his willingness to risk his body to make a play; whether it’s diving three rows into the stands or facing down a base runner barreling into second base. They watch the way he captains not only the infield but the outfield, too. They like the messages he gives other players. Years before, as a youngster, he confronted the Rubenesque pitcher David Wells when Wells had a hissy fit on the mound after an error. Jeter barked back on behalf of his teammates and they appreciated it.

Broadcaster Tim McCarver acknowledges that Jeter sometimes has a hard time picking up sharp hops. “I’m sure there are five or six shortstops who read a ground ball, a hop, better,” says McCarver, a Jeter fan. “It’s not one of his strong suits. He comes over and up on the ball. Sometimes he charges when he should stay back and stays back when he should charge.”

McCarver pauses, looking for context: “But it’s almost crazy to talk about that, he does so many things well.”

Billy Blitzer, a major league scout for almost three decades, says Jeter is one of the best with the glove and arm. Blitzer tracks the Yankees and Mets for the Chicago Cubs organization and has watched Jeter since his days in the minor leagues. “You look at the highlights and he makes that play in the hole and I still don’t know how he makes that play,” Blitzer says. “I’ve seen him make that play so many times over the years.” Jeter moves especially well on choppy grounders to the middle of the infield, reaching way down, on the move, for balls with strange topspin and odd bounces on different infield surfaces, scooping the ball, and throwing sidearmed in one motion.

Baseball people will always buzz about a play Jeter made in the American League Divisional Series against the Oakland Athletics. It was a spectacular play that might have ended in disaster, and it crystallizes the debate about whether Jeter is a great or a terrible fielder.

In the third game of the series, the Yankees were facing elimination but leading 1–0. With Jeremy Giambi on first base, the A’s Terrence Long hit a shot that Shane Spencer fielded in the right field corner. Spencer threw the ball past both the cutoff man (Alfonso Soriano) and the backup to the cutoff man (Tino Martinez). The ball veered to the first base side of home plate. Jeter surprised everyone in the stadium by fielding the ball. In one motion, Jeter caught the ball and shoveled it to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged Giambi chugging around to score the tying run. The play protected the Yankees’ slender lead and helped them survive a two-game deficit and win the best-of-five series.

The most grizzled veterans, the most cynical reporters, were astonished by the play—not just Jeter’s quick movements or his good sense to shovel the ball to Posada in one motion after catching the ball, but the very fact that he was in position to make the play. Most shortstops would have put themselves closer to second base, ready to take a cutoff throw and hold Long to a double. But Jeter was just a few feet from home plate. After the game, Jeter was asked about the play, and his matter-of-fact reply—”It was my job to read the play”—seemed to suggest that the spectacular is standard business for Jeter.

As great as Jeter was at that moment, he might have also contributed to a big A’s inning with his positioning. What if Jeter doesn’t make the swift shovel to Posada? What if Giambi slides (as he should) and avoids the tag? Who’s covering second base? No one. Long can round second base widely and go for third base. No Yankee infielder is positioned to hold him at second. A 1–0 lead could easily have become a 1–1 tie and then a 2–1 deficit.

The Diamondbacks’ third baseman Matt Williams has watched the play on endless television replays and still shakes his head. “That play with Jeter, the way it’s drawn up in spring training, you never have a triple relay—but it was a head’s-up play by him,” Williams says. “It might have worked out badly. There’s a batter-runner and there’s nobody at second base and he [the runner] could go all the way to third. But you also go with your instincts.”

Jeter remains blasé about the play. “I’m supposed to be over there for the cutoff to redirect the play to third if the runner scored,” says Jeter. He does not care that most observers—including members of his own team—were surprised to see him near the play. “That’s good,” he says, “because then we got ‘em.” Some still question his positioning, but Jeter is adamant, in his nonchalant kind of way.

“I don’t think that’s where I’m supposed to be,” he says. “I know that’s where I’m supposed to be.”

• • •

Here’s what the detractors say about Jeter’s fielding.

Jeter has limited range. He doesn’t always position himself well, so he does not make up for that limited range by being in the right place before the pitch. He has poor instincts, so he takes a split-second too long to react to batted balls. Sometimes he shuffles in the wrong direction as the pitcher throws the ball. He gets a bad jump on the ball. His hands are sometimes unreliable. His throws can be weak and off the mark, which result in more force plays and fewer double plays. He moves slowly to second base when he initiates a 6–4–3 double play.

He looks great on the ground ball deep in the hole, and he ranges far and wide on pop flies as far away as the left field stands and back into center field.

Jeter does not commit many errors, but that’s because teammates compensate for his many weaknesses. Other infielders move toward the shortstop position and cover some of Jeter’s ground, leaving gaps at their own positions.

• • •

The indictment against Derek Jeter’s fielding finds its most forceful expression in statistics.

Most fans—and even many players, managers, and coaches—simply do not see enough with their own eyes to make independent judgments of fielding ability. In a given game, fielders make only four or five plays. Fielders need a wide range of skills—understanding hitters and the flow of the game, running, moving acrobatically to reach balls, throwing from different positions—but fans rarely see their full range of skills in a game or even a series of games.

The most common measure of defensive play is fielding percentage, a simple ratio of errors to chances. Players are usually considered good when they successfully field a ball and bad when they do not. But a better fielder might commit more errors than a lesser fielder.

The greatest difference between good and poor fielders is not what they do when they get the ball, but whether they get in position to make the play in the first place. The pitcher-hitter battle can be so riveting that few fans see how fielders position themselves. Even fewer fans have the knowledge of hitter strengths and weaknesses, pitcher strategies, and field conditions to know whether the positioning is smart or not.

Fans usually see only the end of the play, not the beginning—which is most critical, since it determines whether the fielder will get to the ball in the first place. Diving stops and over-the-shoulder catches often look like stellar plays but might be examples of poor positioning and poor reactions to batted balls. Fielders succeed when they get a quick jump on the ball, but few people pay attention to that split-second moment when the fielder moves into action.

A player’s coordination with teammates has another major impact on the team’s overall defensive excellence. The best fielders make their teammates better by covering more ground, communicating well before and during plays, and making reliable throws. But the coordination of different players on the field is hard to see and harder to measure.

Then there is the playing environment. The different sizes and configurations of ballparks make comparisons unreliable. Players in bigger parks—with bigger outfields and larger foul territory—have the opportunity to make more plays. Some fielders make more plays without necessarily having greater range—but sometimes they make more plays just because of their greater range.

On top of all this, the fielders have different demands and cannot be judged by the same measures. First basemen, for example, record more putouts than anyone else but mostly on easy throws from other infielders. Shortstops make more plays on pop-ups when other fielders yield to them. Catchers get credit for more putouts when the pitcher records a lot of strikeouts.

Analysts have developed a number of formulae to judge fielding.

Fielding Percentage: A simple calculation of successful plays made on attempts, fielding percentage tells whether a player is reliable when he gets to a ball. But this measure does not penalize fielders for not getting to balls that they should be able to field—and therefore penalizes players with great range and rewards players with little range.

Chances: The total number of attempted plays that a fielder makes, considered a good rough estimate of a player’s range. Chances can be deceptive, however, since it might understate a player’s skills if he plays alongside other players with good range.

Assists: Assists can be a deceiving number too. The best outfielders are often the ones with the fewest assists. Base runners do not attempt to take extra bases on outfielders with strong, accurate arms. They hold up on the base paths because of the specter of the cannon-armed outfielder throwing them out. But that does not show up in any stats.

Double Plays: Because they kill rallies and usually involve the cooperation of two or three players, double plays offer a good measure of fielding performance. DPs also provide useful comparative data. If Shortstop A makes more double plays than Shortstop B, even when playing with the same second baseman, you know something’s wrong with Shortstop B.

Range Factor: The fielder’s ultimate job is to get to balls, then field them. Range matters more than simply fielding easy plays. To show a player’s range, RF figures the number of putouts plus assists per nine innings.

Zone Rating: Using data gathered by Stats Inc., a for-profit statistics firm, the ZR calculates the percentage of plays a fielder makes on balls hit into his zone. Stats Inc. assigns different fielders specific zones of the field and holds them responsible for making plays in those areas. In between the zones are “Bermuda Triangles,” areas where a fielder cannot be expected to catch a ball. Scorekeepers paid by Stats Inc. chart fielders’ performance on every batted ball. This measure represents a major advance for understanding fielding, but does not always account for the ways the different fielders work together or how getting into good position affects the plays.

Fielding Runs Above Replacement: Sometimes the best way to understand a player’s value is to understand how well he performs compared to others at his position. By developing a measure that compares a player with an average “replacement” at the position, fielding runs achieves this goal. The formula for FR uses weighted measures for basic statistics (e.g., putouts, assists, errors, and double plays), equalizes those measures for innings played, and develops a comparison of particular players with the average statistics for that position.

Win Shares: The most elaborate—and probably the most reliable—measure of fielding comes from Bill James. The formula starts with a team’s overall performance in preventing runs, and then gives credit to different players for that performance. The WS formula for shortstop tallies assists and expected assists, double plays and expected double plays, error rates, and the player’s share of the team’s putouts. The formula takes into account factors that would distort overall fielding numbers, such as the number of strikeouts, the ratio of pop flies to ground balls, whether the pitcher is right- or left-handed, and the size and makeup of the park. The end result is a number that expresses a player’s contribution to a team’s wins over a thousand innings, which is then converted into a letter grade. (Whew.)

In 2001, Jeter finished near the bottom of all statistical measures for fielding among the twenty-one major league shortstops who played in two-thirds of their teams’ games. The numbers tell the same story: Jeter does not reach or field balls as well as other shortstops.

Statistical measure Jeter’s stats Leader’s stats Jeter’s rank
Fielding Percentage .974 .989 10
Successful share of attempted plays
Total Chances 570 772 15
Number of balls in which the fielder attempted a play
Assists 344 515 17
Number of times one fielder helped another player make a play
Double Plays 68 120 18
Number of double plays executed
Range Factor 3.81 4.97 21
Putouts plus assists per nine innings
Zone Rating .789 .884 21
Percentage of plays in fielder’s zone
Runs Above Replacement Average -17 31 20 (tie)
Complex formula estimates the number of runs a player personally saves (positive number) or causes (negative) with his fielding
Fielding Runs 5 55 20
Weighted measure that compares the player to the “average” player at the position
Win Shares 5.9 13.5 11
Weighted number that shows what a fielder contributed to the prevention of runs in a season

The leaders in most of the categories included Orlando Cabrera of the St. Louis Cardinals, Alex Gonzalez of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Omar Vizquel of the Cleveland Indians.

Jeter also fares badly in statistical comparisons over recent history—and over all of baseball history. From 1998 to 2003, Jeter finished last among eighteen shortstops who had played at least 500 games, with a Win Shares score of 5.2 over the course of his career (the best of the class, Rey Sanchez, finished with a rate of 9.8). Of 290 shortstops that played at least 3,000 innings through the 2001 season—the equivalent of two full seasons of everyday play—Jeter had a better Win Shares rating than only fifty other players—putting him in the bottom fifth of all shortstops. Jeter had 4.11 Win Shares per 1,000 innings; the all-time leader was Bob Allen of the nineteenth-century Philadelphia Phillies, with 7.73. Jeter, in fact, does better than only two of the 102 shortstops who have played as many career innings.

• • •

However well or poorly Derek Jeter plays shortstop, there is no debate that the position’s impact extends all over the field. The shortstop creates the context for the rest of the defense. If Jeter gets to a ball in the hole on the left side of the diamond, the third baseman can play closer to the line; if he can range behind second base, the second baseman can move closer to first base and the first baseman can move closer to the right field line.

Fielding in the infield requires an ability to get into the rhythm of a play and then react quickly. The position requiring the greatest variety of moves is third base. A third baseman needs to be able to snare a sizzling drive down the line, charge on a bunt or spinning ground ball, dive to his right and left, range back and toward the stands on pop flies, grab ground balls at all angles and speeds, and throw from every conceivable position and angle.

Diamondbacks’ third baseman Matt Williams explains how to approach the ball: “There are two philosophies I take—to have that rhythm and to be the hunter instead of the hunted. You take the approach that you’re the tiger and that ball’s the prey and you need to be aggressive. When in doubt, be as aggressive as you can, and things just tend to work. Once you get defensive or stand back on your heels, things tend to go wrong.”
How players position themselves to be the tiger varies according to personality. Just as with hitting, the stance matters a lot—but the particular stance only works when the player feels comfortable.

“Some guys—take Carney Lansford [the former All-Star for the Oakland Athletics]—his feet were still and he crouched down. When I played third, I tried to stay standing up, because that’s the way I move best. I would have this little hop before each pitch. And so I have this rhythm. As the pitch is on the way I hop off the ground a little bit. The idea is for my feet to hit the ground as the pitch was in the strike zone because often times you have one step and a dive at third base—you don’t have a lot of time.”

The second baseman’s movement is different—requiring less range and quickness and arm strength, but a greater capacity for taking twists and turns. When taking a throw from shortstop to turn a double play, the second baseman makes the play blind, without seeing the runner pounding down the base paths, then turns 80 degrees and throws the ball to first base in a split-second—as the runner does everything he can to upend him.
The second baseman plays in a box: with little time to react, a need to twist quickly on plays—and usually, with a weaker arm than the shortstop—he can’t stretch out his limbs and range as widely as the shortstop. A second baseman has to respond quickly to a smash hit off a left-handed hitter’s bat or—more often—catch and throw the ball instantly when a ball grounds or takes an odd angle on a slicing drive. The second baseman needs hands so soft that he does not grasp the ball completely on plays requiring a quick throw. He wears a small glove that enables him to grab the ball quickly for a throw. Unlike the shortstop, the second baseman needs to backhand throws to his middle-infield partners on many double-play balls.

The Yankees’ Alfonso Soriano—once a shortstop and outfielder—has been learning the challenges of second basemen in his rookie year. Soriano uses one of the smallest gloves in the game, a piece of leather not much bigger than the cardboard he used in his native Dominican Republic. As he reaches for a ground ball, he sometimes uses his right hand to push the glove an inch or two out of his hands to give the glove extra reach.

In the eleventh inning of Game Five, with the bases loaded and the score tied 2–2, Soriano made a diving catch of a line drive down the middle by Reggie Sanders. The athleticism of the play—quick reaction, soft hands—comes naturally. Soriano’s challenge is to get into the right position, cover the base, and make the right cutoff plays. Those are thinking plays, anticipation plays; requiring tight attention to the game situation.

The infield’s least appreciated player is the first baseman. Traditionally, first base has been the place to put human statues, bulky men and aging sluggers who lack the quickness and range of other players. It’s where you go when you can’t go anywhere else. The logic is simple: all the first baseman needs to do is catch balls tossed by other infielders, field an occasional weak grounder or pop-up, take a cutoff throw, and back up plays. It helps to be tall, so you can keep a foot on the bag while stretching for errant throws. Quick hands help, too, when left-handed hitters pull the ball hard down the line. But, according to conventional wisdom, first base is home of the one-dimensional athlete. As Mark Grace once said of the lumbering giant Mo Vaughn, the conventional wisdom is that the first baseman requires only “the range of a highway cone.”

But the defensive play of Grace refutes the conventional wisdom. Grace understands that the first baseman’s job is to reduce the errors and increase the daring and confidence of the other fielders. A winner of four Gold Glove Awards with the Chicago Cubs, Grace came to the Diamondbacks in 2001 because they had a chance to win a championship. As a left-handed fielder, Grace can move far to his right, toward second base. That enables the second baseman to move a few steps toward the middle of the diamond. With his sure hands, Grace can excavate balls out of the dirt and stretch long and wide for wild throws.
Even though Grace’s defensive skills have declined in recent years—he does not move as quickly to his left or right as he once did—he knows the game well enough to compensate. He anticipates where the batter will hit the ball. He makes the awkward throw to second for a double play. Like a good catcher, Grace’s biggest gift to his teammates is the utter confidence he gives them on throws to first base. Infielders can rush a throw to first because they know Grace will not let it get away for a two-base error—consequently they attempt more plays and get more outs. They can also play back a step or two—dramatically increasing their range—because they know Grace can weed low throws out of the dirt.

That, of course, is the critical element of all fielding. It’s not the errors on the attempted plays that matter as much as being in position to make plays in the first place.

As Woody Allen once remarked, 90 percent of life is showing up.

You can order “The Last Nine Innings” here [2].


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[1] by Charles Euchner: http://www.sourcebooks.com/content/authors/featured_author.asp

[2] here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1402205791/102-7444764-5628128?v=glance&n=283155

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