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May 19, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

U Got the Look: Fielders, Part I

by Jason Parks

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It’s not easy to evaluate defensive tools, especially at the amateur ranks or the lower levels of professional baseball. Good defense is a product of sound fundamentals established through instruction [read: proper instruction], raw physical ability, and refinement through repetition. It takes time to put the total defensive package together, assuming a competent package is even possible. This is what I want to do: I want to look at each position, break down the specific physical attributes that are necessary to excel at each position, and look at the process of projecting those attributes. In part two (you knew that was coming), I want focus on catchers and game-calling, something that I think is one of the most misunderstood and undervalued aspects of the game.

First Base: First base is, first and foremost, an offensive position. The modern game suggests if the bat is above average, the value provided by the glove is gravy. While I agree with the offensive weight attached to the position, I’m of the belief that good defense at first base is more than just gravy, and trust me, I love gravy.

A good first baseman, especially one that possesses a plus glove, has value beyond fielding his position. Having spent time talking to infielders, I can attest to an intangible component to good defense. When split-second decisions and subsequent actions affect the outcome of games, confidence in your first baseman plays a larger role than you might realize. Infielders want to know that their receiver at first will finish off the play if necessary. They want the confidence of knowing that if the game is on the line, a throw in the general vicinity of the base represents a potential out and not a potential error.  It’s minor, but not insignificant.

You don’t need speed or a plus arm to excel at first base, but you do need good hand-eye coordination, some reaction ability, and an instinctive connection to the glove that lives on your hand. It sounds corny, but when your ability to catch a ball is directly tied to the proper execution of a play, you can’t have stone hands. The best first basemen inspire confidence, and even though that doesn’t carry the same weight as the offensive output associated with the position, the defensive requirements should extend beyond being a body with a foot on the base. The position should be more than just a designated hitter in the field.

Second Base: When I scout a second baseman, the first question I ask is whether he can play shortstop. The most skilled athletes start up the middle (catcher/shortstop/centerfield) and move elsewhere when their skills diminish or get exposed by the level of competition. If a low-level talent is already playing second base, the burden of success has already shifted to the bat, and that’s a heavy burden.

Defensively speaking, you want to see first-step quickness and a good glove, but the arm doesn’t have to be a plus. Negotiating the double-play turn at second requires good footwork, body control, and coordination, so the body needs to be athletic and project to remain that way through development. It’s a fundamental position that requires more athleticism than a corner spot, but it doesn’t require the range, the actions, or the arm of a shortstop, so if the bat plays, the glove stays.

Shortstop: We once again find ourselves in an age where shortstops are cultivated for their defensive chops rather than their middle-of-the-order potential. The leather wizards of the ‘70s and ‘80s have returned, and with the Latin American academies pumping out slick-fielding shortstops at an accelerated pace, the future of the position looks to be grounded with the glove. This pleases me. I dislike offensive baseball when it comes at the expense of quality defense, especially at a premium position like shortstop. Who doesn’t like watching wizards at work?

Shortstops require the deepest physical skill set on the diamond; without soft hands, strong arms, and range, shortstops are second basemen, right? The first thing I look for when evaluating defense is the feet, and trust me, I don’t have a foot fetish. This directly ties into defense at shortstop, but overall, the quality of the footwork (first step, coordination, balance, etc.) can tell you more about the future of the player than the glove or the arm. You want to see a certain grace in the steps, free from a lumbering, prodding approach to movement. Not that every position player needs to channel their inner Isadora Duncan on the diamond, but you have to show some fluidity in your movements. Footwork as it pertains to fundamentals can be sculpted, but athleticism can’t be taught. If the feet are heavy and clumsy in the present, projecting elegance in the future is an exercise in futility.

A shortstop has to have range, and there are multiple factors at play when evaluating this component. Obviously, a quick first step is required, and we touched on the feet, but the instincts of a shortstop are like the Force is to a Jedi. This isn’t the type of instruction you can find in Tom Emanski’s video series. It can’t be taught. It can be harnessed, but like athleticism, you either have the Force or you don’t. Instinctual players appear to have the ability to slow the game down, to find themselves in locations on the diamond where the ball happens to be. At times, it’s nothing more than pure athletic ability and luck. But the most gifted defensive players appear to have more luck than others, and the reason is their natural connection to the position and the game itself. It’s hard to explain, but you know it when you see it. Wizards, I tell you. Wizards. (Note to self: When you struggle to articulate your thoughts on an aspect of the game, shift the attention to wizards. Brilliant.)

Along with the range and the instincts, a shortstop needs to have a strong, accurate arm, capable of making all the throws from their wide pocket of the field. Sound throwing mechanics (which play into accuracy) and a quick release are important aspects of the overall evaluation of the arm. Glove-first shortstops that don’t have the arm strength to excel at the position or the bat to survive elsewhere often die a slow death in the minors.

Speaking of the glove, shortstops need to be slick. You want to see fluid actions at the position, with the ability to control the body and the leather. You want to see how the glove functions when presented with balls from varying angles, meaning you want to see how the backhand looks, whether the glove can stick to the dirt on balls that force the fielder to the left, on balls that don’t force any movement, etc. Like all good fielders, the glove needs to form a relationship with the hand that goes beyond the basic corporeal bond. Metaphysical Velcro.

Shortstops need to have soft hands, meaning the ball needs to disappear into the warm bosom of love named Rawlings without stiff, contrived movements. It needs to be graceful. If you haven’t noticed, I like things to be fluid and natural. You can usually tell right away if a fielder has any finesse to his game. Finesse is good.

When evaluating a young shortstop, you want to see the quickness and speed that will allow for range, a strong, accurate arm, a fundamentally sound approach to fielding, the footwork necessary to establish those fundamentals, the athleticism and coordination to negotiate the demands of the position, and most importantly, you want to see instincts for the game.  Without these components, you don’t have a shortstop. Embodying a few of these characteristics might allow a player to “handle” the position, but without the complete package, they are merely actors playing a temporary role. Being a shortstop means something. Shortstops are the wizards of the infield.

Third base: This is a middle-of-the-order offensive position, but one that requires a specific skill set on defense to execute. You need to possess the same qualities as a good shortstop: a strong, accurate arm, good footwork, good glove, and instincts. But whereas shortstops require coast-to-coast range, a third baseman requires split-second reactions to survive at a position that is on the front line of the infield.

When evaluating a young third baseman, you want to make sure the body/feet will survive the physical maturation process; you don’t have to be fast to play the position, but you can’t stand in cement. As I mentioned, if you are playing third, your bat is going to determine your ceiling. This makes evaluating the position easier than evaluating a shortstop, but it also throws an offense-first/defense-second blanket on the position, which bothers me. Hot-corner defense can be the most exciting to watch on the diamond. Third basemen are tasked with handling lasers off the bat, charging in to field bunts or slow rollers (which often require the coordination and balance of a gymnast to pull off), cutting off balls to their left, and snagging balls that are touching the chalk to their right. It’s a challenging position to play, and an incredibly difficult position to play well. I understand the offensive requirements involved, but good defense at third is worth the price of admission.

Outfield: You can’t judge outfielders equally, so let’s just start with the money position, center field, and then branch out to the corners. The first question I ask when evaluating an outfielder is: Can this guy play center? Center fielders are the shortstops of the outfield, with a desired skill set that teams covet and often pay insane prices to acquire. It all starts up the middle, so if you can provide above-average defense, you can ride your glove to the highest levels.

Center fielders must possess speed (straight-line speed and quickness) and athleticism, which, in theory, should allow for defensive range. The ability to read the ball off the bat and take a proper angle or route is also extremely important. Some players have enough recovery speed to, well, recover from poor routes and angles, but athleticism can’t always save the day. Center fielders aren’t required to have plus arms, although if given a choice, you always want to see a strong arm on a position player. It’s down on the queue in center, and I understand why speed and glove are kings of the position, but a strong, accurate arm can take a good outfielder and make him a great weapon.

The glove is very important, as the nature of the position is to track down balls and secure them in the mitt. Like other middle-of-the-diamond players, you want to see instincts for the position, whether you define that as a quick first step, a relationship with the coverage area, a natural gift to make plays, or all of the above. It’s important to focus on the body, especially when evaluating a young player, because the position is very physically demanding, and most athletes (even above-average athletes) lack the overall ability to handle the demands of center.

The corner spots often suffer at the expense of their offensive affiliations, and on a defensive level, are known more for what they can’t do. Just to be honest, I look at both corner outfield spots as guys who aren’t qualified to play in center. Yes. I judge them. That’s not to say good defense in a corner isn’t a tasty condiment. Good defense should be appreciated and applauded wherever it happens to occur. But I look down on corner guys. I just want them to have the skills to play center field.

Me: “Why can’t you play center field? You’d be a better prospect if you played center field.”
Player: “I just can’t.”
Me (channeling fellow Texan David Wooderson): “It’d be a lot cooler if you did.”  
Player: “Nobody likes you.”

When evaluating the corner guys (sounds like an article on David Simon), you want to see enough athleticism to handle the lateral movements required by the position. It doesn’t need to be above average to play, but slow feet and poor body control aren’t positive attributes at any position, and when your job requires that you run around catching balls, it sort of helps to be able to move a bit.

The strongest arms tend to end up in right field, as do the outfield “athletes” with the biggest question marks surrounding their athleticism. Left fielders need quality gloves, but can get away with the weakest arms. However, I’ll say it again: Strong arms are weapons in the field and are often undervalued in the game. The ability to understand your field of play (foul territory, the wall, etc.) plays an important role for all outfielders, but this is especially true for the men of the corners, as the caroms can be unpredictable.

 Scouting defensive tools is often made more complicated by the flow of game action (or lack thereof), as the ball has to find the player for the player to be involved; you can go entire games without getting a true measure of defensive ability. If at all possible, I watch infield/outfield instruction to get a focused look at the fundamentals involved. It takes time to evaluate a position player, so unless you are lucky and get to witness a buffet of defensive situations that allow for a thorough investigation of the tools, it’s a process that will require multiple viewings, and even then, you might not see enough to know enough. It takes time.  

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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