Ted Kubiak spent 10 seasons as a “good field, no hit” big league infielder, earning three World Series rings with the Oakland A’s from 1972-1974. Now he helps young infielders improve their defensive game. The Indians‘ minor league defensive coordinator since 2004, Kubiak managed in the Oakland and Cleveland organizations for 15 years before moving into his current role.
David Laurila talked to Kubiak about teaching proper defensive mechanics, measuring range, and what goes into changing a player’s defensive position.
David Laurila: When you look at a player’s defensive statistics, what do they tell you?
Ted Kubiak: You get some indication of their ability by their fielding percentages, but I will first look at the number of errors they have made as the season goes along. That is more of a barometer for me. Each position should make only so many to be considered a good defensive player. But, then you have to really watch their play so you can determine just how they do, or do not, make the errors. Range may be good, but if they cannot finish the plays, or they have good hands but no range… they may be aggressive or not really put out the effort like they should. They may have difficulty with one play, a slow roller for instance, and this brings down their value despite a decent fielding percentage. There are a number of little areas to be considered that are affected by the differences in quickness, speed, and arm strength.
DL: Have you looked at more recent defensive statistics like Zone Ratings?
TK: Not really. You can determine how much ground a player should cover by watching him play. I would imagine someone will come up with a scientific or mathematical approach to defensive play someday, but human action will always debunk the numbers in my mind. It could at least turn out to be an “average” barometer. I have a specific subjective coverage for each position that I feel a good infielder should be able to handle, but each individual’s abilities will define their specific range. Then you make a determination as to the consistency with which they can cover that area and what plays they can make, or not make, within it. I try, as an instructor, to push each infielder to a limit to which they do not think they can go, and that usually applies to everyone with whom I work. Most players do not know how to reach their limits.
DL: Omar Vizquel is a great defensive shortstop. What do you see when you look at his game?
TK: Vizquel is the consummate infielder of these times–superbly conditioned and in constant control of himself. His balance, timing, and rhythm are coordinated with an uncanny ability to take charge of every ball he fields. I tell infielders that you don’t get bad hops; you give them to yourself. Omar has great instincts to read balls, so he rarely gets in between hops. He doesn’t have a great arm, but he has an ability to utilize it when needed to its maximum. His instincts are tremendous, and those intrinsic qualities are so hard to teach. The control he has of his hands is incredible, and coordinated with outstanding footwork he is a top performer. And Omar uses his glove like its part of his hand, while most guys use it more like a net.
DL: You often hear about an infielder having soft hands. Is that something that can be taught?
TK: Properly conditioned and correctly-used legs (and feet) produce soft hands. An infielder can learn how to “soften” his hands once he learns the proper fundamentals of how to approach a ground ball. Leg strength controls what the upper body, arms, and hands do, so there is a combination of techniques that have to be mastered in order to help those with “hard” hands.
DL: Can you elaborate on the importance of the legs and feet?
TK: Becoming a good infielder depends entirely on the strength and proper use of the legs. The legs determine how the rest of the body will set up in order to catch the ground ball. They align the positioning of the upper body, the arms, hands, and head, all of which have specific positions. Quickness, proper angles off the break, or start, or jump–whichever term you want to use–soft hands, range, agility, and arm strength are the results of well-conditioned legs, because they control the movement of the body as a whole.
DL: How should an infielder’s body be positioned?
TK: With proper use of the legs, the back should be almost parallel to the ground; the top of the head should be pointing toward home plate and the knees flexed so both hands can reach comfortably for the ball. The arms should be relaxed, bent naturally at the elbow and extended as best suits the individual without forcing them in any way; they are not straight or stiff. The arms and upper body remain relaxed at all times. The legs control the lowering of the buttocks and upper body so the correct position can be attained at the precise moment of fielding the ground ball. We like to imagine a triangle being formed by the feet and both hands at the point of contact with a ground ball. This triangle is different for each player but is important for each infielder to attain and it is usually adjusted because of the player’s athleticism and flexibility. Athleticism is a determining factor in how each player’s fielding position is eventually defined. They all look similar but there are great differences that affect play.
DL: How do the basic skill-sets differ for second basemen and shortstops, and what is the key factor in determining if a player is better suited for one or the other?
TK: The shortstop is quicker, has a better arm, controls himself better, and is more athletic and agile overall. These are more or less the major determining factors in who plays where. Each will have to be able to turn a double play at second base or they have no chance at all, because if the shortstop just cannot quite make it as a shortstop, and he cannot make the pivot at second base, he’s in trouble–he had better be a great hitter. Both need or should have great range, be able to make the play on a slow roller, and not be afraid to mix it up at second base. Basic fielding fundamentals remain the same.
DL: Where are an infielder’s eyes when the pitcher delivers the ball?
TK: A number of players say they follow the pitch, but that’s wrong. Following the pitch as it is thrown, to improve an infielder’s range, is difficult to do. Focus should be on the hitting zone once the pitcher begins his delivery. Knowing what pitch is to be thrown, the hitter’s tendencies with that pitch, its intended location, and his stance and swing-path through the zone are factors giving the infielder the opportunity to lean with his upper body in the direction the ball will be hit, thus improving his “jump.” If the read is correct, the “lean” begins before contact.
DL: You were signed in 1961. How would you compare the level of defensive instruction you received then to what you now teach?
TK: I received one suggestion–the smallest amount of instruction–in my first spring training, and after that, I taught myself. In order to make myself into a good defensive player, I had to dissect what I was doing and make changes on my own. I had to determine how to maximize my talents while judging what my talents were. Today’s players are not able to do that, so we have to teach them everything. It is rare when we (have to) do nothing to improve a player’s defensive skills.
DL: B.J. Upton has struggled defensively at shortstop, and Tampa Bay has played him at multiple positions. What are your thoughts on that?
TK: I haven’t seen him enough to offer an informed opinion, although I did see him briefly in Buffalo last year when he was sent down. What I remember is that our leadoff hitter hit a hard, one-hop drive just to his left on the first pitch, and (Upton) didn’t look ready for it. Not to make a judgment, but when you see that you have to wonder if a player might have deficiencies in a fundamental area. I can see what they see in him, though. As for moving positions, I know from experience that it’s not easy. I don’t know if that’s a good thing for him or not, because it often hinders a player to not have a chance to develop at one position.
TK: In a way I was shocked–I wondered why, but I also had it in my mind that they must have known what they were doing. They must have seen something that told them he could do it. Maybe he used to fool around in the infield in practice, and they liked what they saw? He wasn’t a classic shortstop, but he got the job done. You have to give them credit for being willing to try it.
DL: The Indians briefly experimented with moving Trevor Crowe from center field to second base last season. Why didn’t that work out?
TK: Trevor showed very good skill and ability to field groundballs hit to him with a fungo. And he handled routine balls in-game pretty well, but once he had to move and make plays in various positions, it got difficult for him. In his words, he did not realize how fast the game was on the infield. It would have taken a couple of years to get him to a point of usability. He made an attempt, but reached a point where he became frustrated, and it affected his hitting.
DL: Does the first step differ for infielders and outfielders?
TK: I believe both positions are able to do the same movements. Outfielders need to read swings and pitch location also, so they can get a jump on the ball once its hit. The very same fundamentals apply for their starts.
TK: Both played their positions as well as anybody, and they were consistent, which is what you really would like from any player. Belanger played a very shallow shortstop but played the hitters correctly. Brooks was just uncanny as to what he could do while not being a good runner or thrower. Both had quick hands and got rid of the ball quickly; both could make all the plays required of their individual positions. One thing Brooks did that other third basemen could not do was that even while on his move forward for a bunt or slow roller, he was able to make his throw to first base from over the top and not sidearm or underhanded like everyone else would. This showed great body control to me.
DL: What is the proper arm action for an infielder?
TK: This is difficult to define. On a routine groundball, you would like the player to be able to throw over the top instead of sidearm, but infielders need to know how to throw from numerous angles and positions. You could probably use a very good pitcher’s motion as some sort of example. The separation of glove and ball, the hand going down and up around the shoulder as the arm then comes over the top extending forward and finishing down near the knee. Again, as it is with any athletic action, each individual has his own degrees of difference from the norm.
DL: There has been talk that the Indians may someday move Victor Martinez from catcher to first base. What would go into making that transition?
TK: Victor was a shortstop initially, and was converted to catcher, so he has some innate infield savvy. He is trying, and the staff is attempting to improve his throwing, which is his one difficulty behind the plate. His bat is needed in the lineup, and because of his ability to play first it can stay in the lineup, thus giving him needed time off from the day to day grind behind the plate.
DL: Switching sides of the ball for the last question, you had four hits and seven RBI in a game at Fenway Park in 1970.
TK: Certainly my best day in the major leagues. The RBI (total) stood as a record for quite a while in the Milwaukee organization, and may still be tied with one or two others. The grand slam, which went into the bullpen–a long way for me–was hit off a young pitcher off whom I had previously homered in Milwaukee. Not hitting many home runs in my career, the Red Sox decided enough was enough if I could hit him that way–his career did not last long. Mine did, but it was certainly not because of that day in Boston. My ten-year major league career was because of my glove and not my bat. In the old scouting vernacular, I was labeled “good field, no hit.”