Thursday, July 22, 2010
Simply stated: evaluating fancy fielding importancePosted by Anna McDonald
Fancy parties are nice. The ones where a polite serving staff brings you cute little samples of food sculpted into unrecognizable shapes on a fancy silver tray. Fancy shoes are also delightful. Like stiletto heels from Prada with feathers on them. Fancy baseball statistics are agreeable as well. You get to see pretty colors in charts and graphs, and become addicted to a component of baseball you've never experienced before.
Fancy dinners with wine are also pleasant, but sometimes you don't want fancy. Sometimes, you just need a hot dog. A plain hot dog—and a beer. Kind of like plain, routine, fielding plays in the majors. There's nothing very fancy about them. They're expected (and ordinary), but perfect for what you need at the moment.
There's something special, in a way almost fancy, about a simple fielding out. Whether it's executed lavishly, or with effortless grace, the result is always the same, an out. And it doesn't matter if you're four, 14 or 40, it always feels the same. If you're playing catch with your dad in the backyard on a warm summer's night or you're Rajai Davis grabbing a high, left center field fly for an out in Dallas Braden's perfect game, fielding an out is completion for the moment. From the eight-year-old boy playing with his buddies, to a major league baseball player, the simple act of catching the baseball is the beginning spark of many wonderful memories.
However, defense is difficult to evaluate, the magnitude of simple plays is often overlooked, and the importance of good defense in the greater scope of the game is rarely touched on. Fielding is an individual performance, given regularly throughout the game, for a part of the larger picture. This year that picture is the unfolding story of the starting pitcher, and what the best will look like when it's all said and done.
So far this year, fielders have been turning fancy (and not so fancy) fielding plays into amazing historical feats. Simply by an outfielder making a catch, or two separate players merging perfectly in sync, completing the 6-3 putout; the 2010 class of fielders are doing their job. They're turning outs into perfect games, no-hitters, and unbelievable ERAs. In many instances this year flawless defense has fused with perfect timing.
Consider the timely defense in Dallas Braden's perfect game. The first out was a leaping catch over the head of Oakland's third baseman, Kevin Kouzmanoff. Perfection came first, by way of an impressive leaping catch on the baseline. The last out in Ubaldo Jimenez's no-hitter was made by Atlanta's Brian McCann grounding to second. With all of Jimenez's wicked pitches and tremendous talent, isn't it somewhat fitting that what he really needed to finish off the first no-hitter in Rockies history was a simple, routine, ground ball play?
That's the way it is with defense. There are plenty of chances to be routine, not as many to shine and even fewer to reach into history. At the plate, a batter can always do more, and has more chances to do so. Even with a walk-off grand slam there still could be something wanting—it could have traveled farther, or harder or faster. When the batted ball is hit into a fielder's zone, regardless of whether it's a simple (or not so simple) defensive triumph, the play adds to the greater picture of the game.
Even the untrained eye could observe the difficulty in evaluating the role defense plays in the larger scope of the game. Much of the difficulty in evaluating defensive performance lies in the problem of defining what's "necessary" for a position player to accomplish on a batted ball (necessary meaning, the standard for a player in fielding in his zone and what defines that zone), and at the same time, if in cleanly fielding (or not) he affected the outcome of the game.
It's understandable that defining what's "necessary" can be difficult. It happens quite often in life. Here are a few examples from life that demonstrate the difficulty in defining what's necessary:
- Women and packing. Some women, when packing for a weekend hiking trip find it necessary to pack a sundress and heels. Men might argue the extra "stuff" just wasn't necessary. From a very different angle they could be proved wrong; should she have the good fortune of hiking past a nice restaurant, she'll be prepared (ditching the cooking over the campfire experiment).
- Puppies that Santa brought for Christmas. It's very difficult to tell them it's not necessary to chew shoes when the family leaves the house. Bad family dogs, although loved, define necessary as having to destroy anything in sight as their means of communicating that they don't like being left alone.
- Ultra marathon runners. Really, enough said there. Because, 135 miles non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, Calif. in temperatures up to 130F is a necessary component to your happiness on earth?
Although we might not be able to easily and objectively evaluate in baseball (or life) what's necessary, it's still an important component to the overall picture.
When the 2010 baseball season is over, the story of the pitcher may look so magical it might be hard to pinpoint the exact elements that made pitching shine this year. Quietly, and even without pizazz, good defense will assist a pitcher. To the case in point, Bill James once wrote, "much of what we perceive as pitching is in fact defense."
Just like plain hot dogs wrapped in fancy bread and served on a silver tray can be necessary parts of a fancy party, the fielder's contribution to pitching is as simple as it always has been: make the out and keep the opponents from progressing. One simple spark may become part of baseball history.
Anna just opened a Twitter account. You can follow her @Anna__McDonald. She also writes for ESPN.com.