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Tom Verducci
April 01, 1996
Make no error: These days players are fielding their positions better than ever
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April 01, 1996

Good Hands People

Make no error: These days players are fielding their positions better than ever

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The evolution of outfield play is a mixed bag. Outfielders run down the ball better than ever, but their lack of arm strength is universally bemoaned by baseball executives. "You used to see a lot of guys thrown out at home and on the bases," Baltimore general manager Pat Gillick says. "Now it's rare."

"Scouts tell me that the last thing on their list is arm strength," says Baker. "Kids just don't throw enough to build up arm strength. You look for someone who can run the ball down."

In 1930, Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Chuck Klein set the modern record for assists, with 44. Sixty-three years later another Philadelphia outfielder, Lenny Dykstra, threw out only two runners all year. In 1958, Al Kaline led American League outfielders with 23 assists, and Roberto Clemente led the National League with 22. Of active players, the Dodgers' Raul Mondesi is the closest to those classic gunners. He led all outfielders last year with 16 assists.

"Guys today cover their mistakes with speed," LaMacchia says. "Joe DiMaggio glided after balls. He didn't have to dive. But now they make spectacular catches after they misjudge fly balls. How many true centerfielders are there today, guys who can run it down and throw people out? Devon White, [the Seattle Mariners'] Ken Griffey Jr., [the Atlanta Braves'] Marquis Grissom. That's about it."

Says McRae, "Good defensive players are naturals. You're either a good defensive player or you're not. Look at Ryan Klesko with Atlanta. I mean, he's worked hard and gotten a little better out there, but he's only going to be so good."

Defense, despite its improvement, is the least appreciated side of the game. "Brooks Robinson made the Hall of Fame primarily on defense and Ozzie Smith will, but that's it," says Yankees manager Joe Torre. "It's not recognized enough."

In this era when players catch the ball better than ever, routinely fill the nightly highlight shows with acrobatic plays and get to balls Tony Lazzeri only dreamed about, there is just one sure place to find the true value of defense. Ask a pitcher.

"It's huge," says Braves lefthander Tom Glavine, whose career—along with those of pitching mates John Smoltz and Steve Avery—turned around in 1991. "Things changed completely that year when we got [third baseman] Terry Pendleton, [shortstop] Rafael Belliard and [first baseman] Sid Bream. It made us more confident. We knew we didn't have to make the perfect pitch, so we threw more strikes. I can honestly say, we would not be the pitchers we are today if we had kept the same defense we had in '88 and '89. Other people may take it for granted. But defense is a pitcher's best friend."

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