One shortstop has a ball hit to his right, dives for it, makes the grab, jumps up and makes a leaping, twisting throw from the outfield grass that just barely gets the runner at first base. Another shortstop has the ball hit right at him, makes a routine catch-and-throw and gets the runner easily.
You know which play will make the highlight reels, but the guy who made the routine play might be the better defender.
If the first guy was out of position because he didn’t read the scouting reports or pay attention to what was happening on the field or was busy checking out the blond behind the dugout when the pitch was thrown, hehad
to make an athletic play—he’d done everything else wrong. If the second guy had the ball hit right at him because he did his homework and saw that the pitcher was about to throw a changeup and subtly shifted a couple steps to the pull-side of the field, he didn’t need to make an athletic play—he was standing in the right place to begin with.
Baseball fans love diving catches, but sometimes we’re applauding lousy preparation.
Pay attention between pitches
Watch the fielders between pitches: if a guy takes a couple steps one way or another and thenthe ball is hit right at him, you probably just saw some outstanding defense—it just looked
routine. It’s hard to watch four infielders and three outfielders at the same time, but once in a while you’ll get lucky; you’ll see a guy shift position and then field a ball hit in his direction.
If you want to know what’s going on, lock in as each new hitter comes to the plate; that’s when the defensive shifts will be most obvious. But the defense might reposition themselves as the at-bat progresses, especially if the hitter takes a different approach with two strikes.
Depending on a hitter’s tendencies, you might see defenders move toward the pull side of the field if a hitter gets ahead in the count—he’ll be aggressive and more likely to pull the ball—and move toward the opposite field if the hitter gets behind in the count—he’s more likely to wait so he doesn’t get fooled.
Defenders will often try to disguise this movement; infielders will smooth the dirt out with their feet and wind up two steps to their right. Jeff Francoeur used to walk around in circles between pitches, looking like a dog getting ready to lie down, but he’d often wind up in a different spot once he came to rest.
At other times the movement isn’t hidden at all; James Shields will turn around and move a defender and doesn’t care who sees it. Other pitchers will be subtle; they’ll turn toward the outfield like their contemplating the meaning of life, but they’re actually moving a defender. They might use a subtle shift of the eyes or make a slight motion with their hands—anything that can’t be seen from the other dugout.
The pitcher’s role
None of this defensive positioning matters if the pitcher can’t put the ball in the right location. If a pitcher can hit his spots, the defense can shift. If a pitcher isn’t really sure where it’s going, the defense needs to play straight up and react to whatever happens.
A pitcher’s control isn’t just reflected in his walk totals, it might show up in how many routine outs he gets. And a pitcher’slack
of control might result in great plays—the defender was standing in the right spot, but the pitcher missed his. It might look like the defender was standing in the wrong place, but it could be a case of a pitcher putting the ball in the wrong location and the defender having to make a great play to get an out.
Why you might ignore the scouting report
One of the things ballplayers emphasize over and over again is that what’s happening tonight is more important than the past. Statistics and scouting reports tell you about the past and what happens on average, but what’s happeningtonight might be totally different. A guy might be a terrific fastball hitter, but if you find out he’s nursing a hangover—he might not be a terrific fastball hitter tonight. A pitcher might have a great slider, but if for some reason he can’t get it down in the zone—he doesn’t have a great slider tonight.
Say you’re the second baseman and the scouting report says you should pitch this right-handed hitter down and away, but tonight your pitcher isn’t hitting that spot; when he tries to go down and away, he’s leaving the ball over the heart of the plate. Instead of playing the hitter to go the other way, you need to play him to hit the ball up the middle.
Do you move?
If you stay where you are—play the hitter where the scouting report tells you to play him—and you’re covered: if the ball is hit up the middle it’s the pitcher’s fault. If you react to what you’re seeing—pitches in the middle of the plate—and move toward the middle of the field, if the pitcher then somehow hits that down and away spot and the ball is hit where you were supposed to be standing? Now it’syour
fault. A player is more likely to stray from the scouting report if he thinks the manager will have his back. If the player is on thin ice, he’s more likely to do what he’s told.
Appreciating the routine play
The Kansas City Royals’ players and coaches have spent a great deal of time explaining what they’re doing on a baseball field and I have spent a great deal of time realizing things are more complicated than I thought.
So next time you see what looks like a routine play, applaud—it might have been a great one.