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October 25, 2013

Skewed Left

Shane Victorino and the Hunt for the Elusive 9-3 Putout

by Zachary Levine

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According to his SABR bio, “Wild Bill” Johnson, the Tigers’ ace at the dawn of the last century, was described by sportswriters at the time as both a “slant ball pitcher” and “a giant (who) pitches, hits and fields equally well.” In his six postseason starts in 1907, 1908, and 1909, he had a 2.88 ERA but never did live up to that second portion.

The career .193 hitter went 0-for-16 in the postseason. He almost had a hit in Game 4 of the 1907 World Series, going up against Orval Overall—who was also in the news when Anibal Sanchez tied his previously unmatched record of four strikeouts in a postseason inning.

Wild Bill hit one to Cubs right fielder Frank “Wildfire” (no relation) Schulte, who denied him that base hit by fielding the ball and throwing to first for the out.

That’s the 106-year-old history that Shane Victorino stares down every time he fields a ball in right and thinks hey, there might be a shot at this. Nobody has achieved the 9-3 putout since in the postseason, though Lord knows Victorino has tried.

He tried in the ALCS against Jose Iglesias, who responded with a dismissive wave. In Game 1 of the World Series, he nearly ended the night by coming up throwing on David Freese, who slid in and was safe by a minuscule fraction of a second.

Red Sox manager John Farrell said it’s not something that Victorino and first baseman Mike Napoli have any sort of code for, just a feel for each other that the outfielder might come up throwing any time a ball is hit hard.

“The one thing that our guys have become accustomed to is what other guys in the lineup or on the field at the same time are likely to do,” Farrell said. “So they anticipate a certain play and that’s one.”

It’s not a play that typically works on the likes of Freese. Not that he’s anything special in the speed department; it’s just that Wild Bill was more the target demographic.

Four of the last five 9-3 putouts have been with pitchers running the bases. In addition to pitchers not being blessed runners, a good part of it is the fact that right fielders tend to play shallow when pitchers are batting, with little fear of a ball going over their heads.

The last five 9-3 putouts are available for embed on MLB.com, so I’ve pulled them all here because they’re really all special in their own ways. It’s delightful viewing to notice that moment in the announcer’s mind when he realizes the same thing the outfielder has already recognized, sometimes even before fielding the ball.

September 13, 2012: Carlos Beltran gets Josh Beckett
Victorino has never had an assist of this variety, but it’s actually the other right fielder in this series who was the last outfielder to do it. The interesting thing about this one is that Beltran wasn’t in great position to make this throw. He had to reach back to field it and took an awkward step but still had plenty of time to retire the new Dodger.

September 7, 2011: Jeff Francoeur gets Michael Taylor
It’s not at all surprising that the strong-armed Frenchy would make an appearance here. He’s the only one of the five to nail a position player, robbing Michael Taylor of what would have been only his second career hit. He’ll learn. But at the moment, he’ll just smile a lot for some reason.

July 28, 2011: Jayson Werth gets Edward Mujica
Ok, this one’s just mean. A reliever? Really, Jayson? This one was no contest.

August 15, 2010: Angel Pagan gets Kyle Kendrick
Talk about not even close. I think your average Albert Pujols grounder to second would be a closer play than this.

August 9, 2010: Hunter Pence gets Mike Minor
This is by far my favorite one of the five. For one thing, watch where Brett Wallace is positioned and how much range he has to display to make this play possible. Then there’s the fact that it prevented a run from scoring. Also that it’s Minor’s first time ever in a major league batter’s box. But the best part is that in this situation that prevented a run, the MLB debutant seemed to have no idea what the rules were. Watch him look to the first base coach to make sure that the run counted, seemingly having no idea what a force play meant.

In all, there have been 27 putouts of the 9-3 variety since 1990, and 19 of the victims have been pitchers. But look through all of them, and you’ll notice that there are no good hitters here (maybe Tony Fernandez 20-something years ago qualifies).

Here’s the list, with a huge abundance of Larry Walker, who had three in a row from 1992-95.

Year

Right fielder

Hitter

2012

Carlos Beltran

Josh Beckett

2011

Jeff Francoeur

Michael Taylor

2011

Jayson Werth

Edward Mujica

2010

Angel Pagan

Kyle Kendrick

2010

Hunter Pence

Mike Minor

2010

Mike Morse

Ryan Theriot

2010

Roger Bernadina

Roy Oswalt

2010

Ryan Sweeney

Mike Redmond

2007

Luke Scott

Derek Lowe

2003

Rene Reyes

Jimmy Haynes

2002

Gabe Kapler

John Patterson

2002

B.J. Surhoff

Jeff D'Amico

2000

Mark Kotsay

Elmer Dessens

2000

Brian Jordan

Garrett Stephenson

2000

Lance Berkman

Luis Ordaz

2000

Brian Jordan

Clayton Andrews

2000

Brian Jordan

Francisco Cordova

1998

Jose Guillen

Kirt Manwaring

1997

Orlando Merced

Jody Reed

1995

Orlando Merced

John Smoltz

1995

Raul Mondesi

Mark Portugal

1995

Larry Walker

Tom Candiotti

1994

Larry Walker

John Burkett

1992

Larry Walker

Tim Wakefield

1992

Alex Cole

Mark Clark

1992

Larry Walker

Tony Fernandez

1990

Glenn Wilson

Ernie Whitt

The list appears to lend credence to some element of respect in letting a guy who “earned” a hit get a hit. How is there no Molina of any kind here? No Prince Fielder. No Pujols, injured or not injured? It’s remotely possible that there were no opportunities, but more likely this play isn’t out to get them. It’s out to prey on the weak, the pitchers who dare put a competitive at-bat together and the hitters like Taylor who need welcoming to the majors.

There’s also some small thought, though the Cardinals made no issue of this in their press briefings, that it’s not kosher in an 8-1 game. Nineteen of the last 27 were either in tie games or one-run games when that run means so much.

Victorino will go at pretty much any player at any time, though. He even took a shot at Miguel Cabrera during the regular season.

Some day before he retires, he’ll get his man. The only thing that might slow him down would be if the overqualified right fielder moves to center next year should Jacoby Ellsbury leave town. But hey, there’s been a putout at first from left field, so nothing’s impossible.

Thanks to Rob McQuown for copious research assistance.

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

Related Content:  Defense,  Shane Victorino

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