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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Fielders catch 99.99% of flies hit near them. So why pay big bucks for a running catch?

Duh. Well if outfielders knew where to stand, then, obviously, they would catch almost everything. Only the pitcher, who is not even a baseball player, and the catcher are required to be in specific positions when a pitched ball is put into play. The other seven players, who do most of the fielding, may play anywhere in fair territory. (Why is it called territory?).

So now that teams are placing those seven fielders in nontraditional locations, the better that teams do that, the less skilled the fielders need to be and the less teams must pay big bucks for fielding. Reviewing a recent conventional wisdom:

Baseball’s Data Revolution Is Elevating Defensive Dynamos
By BEN BERKON APRIL 17, 2017 nytimes.com

When the Tampa Bay Rays gave outfielder Kevin Kiermaier a six-year, $53.5 million contract extension last month, they were not rewarding him so much for his prowess at the plate. He is a career .258 hitter who hits few home runs.

What most compelled the Rays to hang on to Kiermaier was his ability to field his position.
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Kevin Kiermaier will turn 27 Saturday and his career OPS+ is 105 (5% better than league average) so he's better at the plate than the Times writer suggests but, hey, why ruin a good story line? But he's hardly Willie Mays, perhaps the best combination ever of a great fielder and great hitter, one who hits and hits for power (660 career home runs).

In 1954 Mays returned from nearly two years (34 games in early 1952) in the Army and played his second major league season. Mays hit 41 home runs and led the National League in batting average (.345), triples, SLG, OPS, OPS+. Mays was voted NL MVP for leading his New York Giants (97-57) to the pennant.

In the World Series the Giants swept the Cleveland Indians (111-43). In those four WS games Mays batted OK: four hits, including a double, and four walks for an on base average of .444. But his SLG was only .357 for OPS .802 compared to OPS 1.078 in the regular season.

Mays is remembered in that WS for a great clutch catch and throw in deep center field in the Polo Grounds in game one in the 8th inning tied 2-2. The ball was hit by cleanup batter Vic Wertz. The old black and white film was shown on TV for years and still shots were printed many times. Mays was chiseled onto the Mount Rushmore of great fielders. You can read more details here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Catch_(baseball)

... the Polo Grounds was larger than average, and Mays, who was playing in shallow center field, made an on-the-run, over-the-shoulder catch on the warning track
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Now consider that Wertz drove in Cleveland's only runs of the entire game with a long first inning triple to deep right center with two outs. Why didn't Mays simply move back in the 8th inning when Wertz again batted with two runners on base? Had Mays been playing back just a few steps, he would have caught the ball easily. Was it that Mays played in the same spot pretty much all the time? Was it because starting pitcher Sal Maglie had been replaced by lefty Don Liddle to pitch to lefty batter Wertz? Was Mays shallow to prevent Larry Doby, who was on second base, from scoring on a single?

On the other hand, there were no outs, so any hit could have led to multiple runs scoring. The Giants eventually won 5-2 on a three run pinch hit home run by Dusty Rhodes. Mays had walked and stolen second and scored the winning run.

Mays had 18 plate appearances (PA), including his four walks. In each PA Mays needed all his batting skill. However, in the field Mays needed his super powers only on that one play and that opportunity might not have happened at all while the odds that Mays would bat in a critical situation were pretty good considering that Mays was the Giants cleanup hitter.

By rule the pitcher is required to throw pitches in the strike zone or suffer the penalty of the batter getting a base on balls, a walk. But there is no requirement that batters hit the ball anywhere other than in fair territory. In fact, it's in the batter's interest to hit fair balls where fielders are not standing.

Even with lots more fielding stats than fielding percentage (errors per play) we still tend to be overly influenced by the few spectacular plays, particularly since they are replayed so often that they seem much more numerous. Most plays are routine and most difficult plays occur because the fielder starts far from where the ball eventually nears the ground. Other than that, most other difficult plays are when the ball takes a bad hop, which is usually in the infield. This post was really considering fly balls to the outfield.

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