Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments |

Great plays aren't always such good defense


By Roger Weber


One of my favorite teams, the Cincinnati Reds, made an interesting deal prior to the 2000 season, acquiring Ken Griffey Jr., a player often called the best in the game at the time but about at the peak point of his career. Since Griffey has come his offensive numbers have been so-so but he continues to highlight defensively. Ask any fan about Griffey's defense and he will certainly regale you with tales of acrobatic catches, leaping stops and diving grabs. Griffey, in the eyes of most fans, is a great fielder. Austin Kearns, in right field, is a good fielder to fans. He makes the catches a right fielder is supposed to make but rarely dives for a ball and almost never makes the acrobatic over-the-shoulder catch.


According to "The Fielding Bible," released in 2006, Kearns is a superior fielder to Griffey. The truth is that while Griffey makes diving stops, Kearns doesn't have to. Kearns is a very intelligent fielder. He takes excellent routes to the ball and is usually to it by the time it is at a catch-able height. Many fielders who make acrobatic plays are forced to dive for the ball or leap for it because they didn't get to it while standing up. If it were on the base paths, a really fast player might not have to slide into home because he made it standing up before the throw, but a slower player might have a spectacular slide and collision with the catcher that would be all over the sports television shows.


This isn't to say this is a universal rule. Especially in the infield acrobatic plays can be a sign of a talented fielder with good quick reactions and an ability to reach balls out of the reach of most players. But all to often defense is considered only in the context of spectacular plays.


Also, much of these ideas also have to do with how well a team is prepared, where the players play. Normally a team shifts left and right to account for trends that hitters have. If a player starts the play standing closer to where the ball will likely end up, he will probably be able to run down the ball better than a player who starts further away.


The point here is that defense is something shown more through range factor than through great plays. Sure it is valuable to have a guy in the outfield who is talented at diving for and leaping for catches when the ball is a little out of his reach, but those types of plays aren't necessarily indicative of good defense. Often they just mean the player took a poor route to the ball and must make up for it by making a leaping catch.


Imagine a situation where to get 60 feet to catch a ball, one fielder curls around and has to run 80 feet to get to it, while the other fielder runs straight to it in just 60 feet.


In this situation the player who took the route on the left can probably run the ball down, but the player who took the route on the right takes longer to get to the ball and may have to dive to try to catch it. This explains why a good fielder doesn't necessarily need blazing speed.


But if both players catch the ball, it all evens out, right? Well, there is always a greater chance that a player will catch the ball if he doesn't have to make a physically acrobatic move while trying to do it. And if the player catches the ball standing he has a much better chance of getting the ball back into the infield to prevent runners from tagging up and taking extra bases or scoring. So while Griffey may have more daring to leap over the outfield fence for balls Kearns makes up for it through his intelligent fielding.


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