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September 8, 2000
Catching the Damn Ball
Previous articles in this series:
This is the fourth in a series of rankings of major-league defenders, highlighting the top ten and bottom five at each position. The ratings are a combination of Zone Rating, Range Factor and my best (and admittedly grossly flawed) assessment of the job they're doing.
Many readers have written in to ask that we include actual ZR and RF numbers in these articles. Due to intellectual property concerns, that's not something we can do. What we can include, and will from now on, is the approximate percentile score for a defender in a given statistic. For example, a third baseman who was better than 3/4 of the league in Range Factor at that position would have a percentile score of 75 in RF.
Left field is a very tough position to assess. By and large, it is a defensive wasteland: if these guys had more range, they'd probably be in center field. If they could throw, they'd be in right field. There are some exceptions, but the top ten listed below got pretty painful to look at after about the first six or seven. Unless otherwise noted, these defenders don't throw particularly well, be it in terms of form, speed of release, velocity or accuracy.
1. Darin Erstad, Anaheim. RF%: 100, ZR%: 97%
Darin Erstad's defensive technique is remarkably controlled for someone with his reputation as a full-bore player. His stance is reminscent of Carl Yastrzemski's when preparing for the ball, and like Bobby Higginson, Geoff Jenkins and Barry Bonds, he can actually throw. Erstad is a natural center fielder, and I expect he wouldn't suffer compared to his colleagues if he were to move over. If he has a weakness, it might be that he doesn't go as well as he could to his glove side. That's pretty rare to see, but he does seem to be more comfortable chasing a ball across his body. Must be nice.
2. Jacque Jones, Minnesota. RF%: 83, ZR%: 79
Another guy who probably should be playing center field, along with Erstad and possibly Shannon Stewart. Jacque Jones has remarkable quickness and has adapted well to playing a left field notorious for rec-league caliber lighting and a carpet with more bounce than a staged convention. Jones reminds me of a young Devon White in terms of his technique and performance, but probably isn't quite that good. Jones should be a very valuable player on a championship-caliber club as a third platoon outfielder/defensive replacement/pinch runner.
3. Johnny Damon, Kansas City. RF%: 86, ZR%: 72
There's a big dropoff between #2 and #3. Johnny Damon is a classic tweener outfielder: glove more than sufficient to play a corner spot, but not quite enough to play center field really well, and with not quite enough of a bat to play left field and really help a ballclub win a title. Damon's break is pretty average, but after about three or four steps, this guy has amazing speed. I don't think there's anyone in baseball faster after four steps than Damon. If he could get up to speed a little quicker somehow, he could be a very good center fielder.
4. Bobby Higginson, Detroit. RF%: 72, ZR%: 66
Bobby Higginson probably has the best classic technique of any left fielder in the game. His initial step is good (pivot to the glove side, crossover step across the body), he is one of the few people who appears to be making a conscious effort to run on the balls of his feet and he seldom catches the ball without positioning his body well for the throw. He's also not slow--he doesn't look like a typical skeeter, but Higginson can actually run. And, it should be noted, he's got a absolute friggin' Glenn Wilson/Jesse Barfield cannon for an arm.
5. Shannon Stewart, Toronto. RF%: 62, ZR%: 72
Shannon Stewart is a good center fielder playing left because he just can't throw at all. He's quick on the first step, takes a good path to the ball, has a great deal of speed and is never in proper position to release a throw. On some occasions, he overcocks his hip, in preparation to make a catch and a strong throw, resulting in a release with his hip trailing. Inevitably, the ball will sail up and to the right with little velocity. Stewart goes back on balls well. Over time, he'll probably adjust his positioning a bit closer to the infield to mitigate the threat of people taking the extra base.
6. Geoff Jenkins, Milwaukee. RF%: 55, ZR%: 100
Geoff Jenkins looks and throws like Brett Favre. He runs well for a guy his size and doesn't have an obvious hole in his defensive game. Jenkins doesn't do any one thing noticeably well, but moves easily and has a good fundamental game. His line can be a bit aggressive at times, but I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing.
7. Rondell White, Chicago Cubs. RF%: 90, ZR%: 41
Rondell White isn't significantly different from the guys that surround him on this list. He does do one thing very well: he takes a very good angle getting to the ball in the left-center field gap. White has lost a great deal of raw foot speed in the past couple of years. I haven't been to Montreal in person and walked on the carpet, but I wonder and worry about what it might be doing to Vladimir Guerrero's knees.
8. B.J. Surhoff, Atlanta. RF%: 93, ZR%: 48
The Paul O'Neill of the other side of the grass. B.J. Surhoff is so steady he's dull, which is a good thing in defenders. He has great balance and surprising speed. I went back to check some tape, and he runs amazingly well considering his age and history behind the plate. Surhoff doesn't go back on balls particularly well, but in our current crop of left fielders, that's hardly a mortal sin.
9. Barry Bonds, San Francisco. RF%: 48, ZR%: 45
Tim Raines is to Rickey Henderson as Rickey Henderson is to Barry Bonds. Bonds, despite his advanced age, is still a tremendous defender. His technique has greatly improved from 1998 and I don't think that's by accident. He anticipates balls and baserunner moves very well. As he approaches a ball in the left-center field gap, he shortens his stride and prepares to make a throw if necessary--something he distinctly did not do well earlier in his career. Bonds may be the smartest ballplayer ever to play the game, and it definitely shows in his positioning in the field.
10. Ray Lankford, St. Louis. RF%: 21, ZR%: 93
I'm reaching here. Ray Lankford looked awful to my eyes--he's clearly not playing at anywhere near full health. His mind is still convinced that his speed is normal, and he ends up cutting too sharp of an angle on line drives. Still, his technique is great, his first step is still fast and the rest of the left fielders in baseball right now are pretty much there for their bats. It was either him or Ron Gant, but I'm giving the nod to Lankford because if he's healthy, he's better.
1. Ben Grieve, Oakland. RF%: 21%, ZR%: 26
Ben Grieve is a very fine hitter. Yes, his walk rate is down and that's worrisome, and yes, his groundball tendencies are about as welcome to an offense as Stomp showing up at a migraine clinic. But he's still a fine hitter with a lot of potential. Maybe.
Anyway...Grieve is every bit as bad as you've heard defensively. Only the presence of the injured Wil Cordero and Moises Alou keep him from dropping even further in raw RF and ZR. Grieve has no speed, a bad break, a very slow release of the ball and a tremendously weak arm. Oakland can crank out hitters, but how many guys can eventually end up at first base and DH? Terrence Long could be the second coming of the Most Holy Defender in center field and he still couldn't cover the gap left by Grieve. The gasp at the Coliseum when a ball heads towards left field is audible.
2. Wil Cordero, Cleveland. RF%: 0, ZR%: 86
He plays defense like he's on a cell phone complaining about his Vicodin dosage being too low. For you stats buffs, Wil Cordero's Range Factor is 2.3 standard deviations below the mean. And to my eyes, that overrates him.
3. Moises Alou, Houston. RF%: 10, ZR%: 0
Moises Alou is just back off another injury, so I expect him to return towards the middle of the pack soon enough. He seems to be running in pain. When he's chasing after a ball, he looks like he's favoring something, and visually, he's reminscent of Michael Johnson's running style but without the speed--very upright and almost awkward. I don't know what's wrong with him physically, but I do expect him to improve throughout the rest of the season and into the future.
4. Henry Rodriguez, Florida. RF%: 17%, ZR%: 28%
Henry Rodriguez has a very slow initial move and lacks the speed to make up for it during the flight of the ball. When he does move, he takes the dreaded phantom step: picking his foot up then putting it back down in the same place before actually taking off. If you get a chance to see him play defense for a few games, check out how often the director of the broadcast can switch cameras to him before he starts moving. That's not good.
5. Dmitri Young, Cincinnati. RF%: 24, ZR%: 34
OK, so Ken Griffey gets better on defense, then goes to an artificial surface between Dante Bichette and this guy? Dmitri Young is a big dude, takes a while to get moving, isn't graceful and doesn't have good technique, but he certainly works hard out there. I'm not sure the outfield fence at Cinergy Field would keep Young in the park if he hit it. He actually gets up a pretty good head of steam; he could probably Rodney McCray through rebar. Unfortunately, he usually puts that momentum on an angle about 10 degrees off the one he needs to take. If you're Barry Larkin, make sure you're listening on the shallow popups.
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to time constraints, I will not able to personally respond to most e-mails, but know that every one of them is read and given thought. Thanks for reading.
Gary Huckabay can be reached at email@example.com.