Max Fried is the best defensive pitcher in the National League, and there isn’t much debate. He’s won three consecutive Gold Glove awards, assuming the mantle of best fielding pitcher the moment that Zack Greinke relocated to Houston. He’s athletic, he shows excellent reflexes, and he doesn’t use a violent follow-through that leaves him off-balance.
Max Fried is the best defensive pitcher in the National League, but it’s surprisingly difficult to provide evidence for it. The Atlanta Braves put out a highlight video in honor of his first Gold Glove in 2020; it’s less than two minutes long and even that feels padded, including a number of easy plays. On July 25, 2022, Fried made a slick play on a dribbler between first and second, scooping the ball with his glove to get Johan Carmago. It’s a single demonstration of the pitcher’s capabilities, but the examples are few and far between.
There’s a simple explanation: Fried can only seize the opportunities provided him, and sometimes they just aren’t. He fielded a total of 33 balls in play in the entire season, a hair over one a start, which was actually the third-highest total in all of baseball. Of those, six reached base, five by base hit and one by error. The resulting .182 OBP is actually identical to the league average for pitcher opportunities.
By DRP, our new fielding metric, however, Fried rated “only” 0.26 runs saved, good for 102nd among pitchers. Again, this is not Fried’s fault, really, as you can see from the following forgettable example:
Just as the vast majority of grounders to short are plays that any major leaguer can make, so too with pitchers. The difference is that the sample is large enough for other fielders that it’s guaranteed the tough play will eventually happen. With pitchers, that 10% is just two or three chances to prove one’s defensive mettle over the course of the year. Which can end up looking like this:
Fried fields a hard-hit Nelson Cruz comebacker, but it would have been almost impossible not to; the ball comes in so fast that it would have required lightning reflexes not to knock the ball down. And meanwhile, there’s this weak grounder by Pete Alonso:
Fried comes off the mound cleanly, grabs the ball, spins, fires, but the throw is just barely too high. It would have been an incredible defensive play, and the scorers agreed, marking it as a single. But that was one of Fried’s few chances to earn points with the defensive metric, and he fell a hair short.
Ultimately, it leads to the question: Can you be the best at something when you never get a chance to prove it?
Pitcher defense is difficult to evaluate beyond the obvious issues of sample size. First, there’s the vulture problem, which is actually two vulture problems. For grounders, pitchers are liable to knock down a play that could easily—sometimes, far more easily—be made by the second baseman or shortstop. And in the opposite direction, the stereotype remains that pitchers are incapable of catching pop-ups, despite the fact that three of the five uncaught flies in 2022 were caused not by errors, but by waiting for help that never came. There’s also the nightmare of quantifying the other important element of pitcher defense, covering on grounders to the first baseman.
Ultimately, these issues don’t matter much, because their overall effect on the metric is minimal, the scale of the metric itself for pitchers is minimal (the best pitcher saves less than two runs, while the best second baseman saves more than six), and the awards and memory generally ignore the metrics regardless. Especially as fewer batters bunt, pitcher defense is forgotten, and it’ll be even more rare next year, as the death of the infield shift will eliminate even more potential plays: No more pitchers running into foul territory because the third baseman isn’t around. Still, it’s a shame, because while good pitcher defense is rare, it should still be celebrated.
In fact, range, which is crucial for almost every other position, is negligible for pitchers. Making the throw, and getting the lead runner on a bunt, is nearly everything. (The 2022 DRP leader for pitchers was none other than Johnny Cueto, and it’s primarily because of this single play; nailing a runner at the plate, and turning two on top of it, is the DRP equivalent of three liberty bells.) But few blades of grass on the infield belong solely to them. One spot that will forever remain the pitcher’s responsibility, even with the shift kind of dead, is halfway up both lines, splitting the range of the catcher and third baseman. Kendall Graveman made a clutch diving play with the score tied in the eighth:
The other is the half-circle just ahead of the mound. Here Triston McKenzie completes a snap-throw double play, though the most impressive aspect of the act was probably his reaction, as he begins to move forward on his plant foot before his back foot has even touched down, allowing him to reach the ball in the air:
That same area behind the mound, meanwhile, is a sort of no-man’s land. Will Vest fielded one pop-up all year, and it was an unplayable blooper on a jammed swing that drops directly between the pitcher and second baseman. Even so Vest tries his damndest, pulling his outstretched glove down to snag the ball low on the hop, spinning as his momentum carries him out to right, and firing a dart, only to have review confirm the runner barely beats it.
This is the way it goes with pitchers. Vest gets no credit for nearly pulling off a web gem. And worse, he never got a chance to even the score.
My favorite pitcher-based defensive play of the year wasn’t the best defensive play of the year, or even close to it. Corbin Burnes, a finalist for the Gold Glove and a man very proud of his defensive acumen, worked hard to make two catches this year, fighting off his catcher in both instances.
Burnes burrows a 94-mph cutter down and in on Mike Moustakas, who, being Mike Moustakas, pops it up. The ball is up in the air for a full seven seconds. First baseman Rowdy Tellez and shortstop Willy Adames both race in, while catcher Victor Caratini pulls off his mask, holds it a while, tosses it aside, then immediately drifts over to step on it. Burnes stares skyward, checking Caratini twice, but refuses to yield. The catcher spins around as the ball tails away from him, but pulls up short as Burnes calls him off and makes the snowcone catch.
Tellez stares him down, and reaches to take the ball out of the pitcher’s glove, but Burnes mirthlessly pulls it away and returns his own, flat stare. It’s his play. It was always his play.
And it should be. If pitchers are ever going to dispose of the popular notion that they aren’t athletes, they need to seize the initiative. Because as we’ve seen, they don’t get many chances. And they don’t stick in the memory for long.
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