Behind the glass case it sits, mocking my meager imagination. It’s old. It’s impossibly small, shriveled with age, all the while mesmerizing me with its worn and well-earned wisdom. This is The Glove. Yes, that glove. The glove that made grainy, black and white history. The glove that made The Catch.

Common sense and the “eye test” say that by the time Mays turned his back on home plate, everyone at the Polo Grounds that day had Vic Wertz standing at least on third base. History farts on all that.

There are a handful of astonishing things to contemplate about The Catch, not the least of which is Willie’s answer, delivered to the cutoff man, a retort that kept the runner from advancing all the way home, some 420 feet from where Mays secured Wertz’s rocketed volley. But, as I stand in front of the glass case in Cooperstown, all I can see is the size of the glove, how unassuming, how puny it must have been for the task Mays was about to demand of it.

I’m so happy Scooter Gennett never had to wear this glove.

. . .

If—as erstwhile Fangraphs managing editor Dave Cameron once opined—baseball can be broken down thusly: 40% pitching; 35% hitting; 20% defense; and 5% base running, then it quickly becomes obvious the extent run prevention has upon the game. Recent events amplify this supposition.

The 2018 Philadelphia Phillies were the worst team in the majors on defense, measuring a score of -146 Defensive Runs Saved. In an attempt to optimize offense, players found themselves out of position and it wore on the team’s fortunes as the season progressed. At the other end of the spectrum, when people talk about the Milwaukee Brewers’ surprising season, they laud the remarkable job done with a middling starting staff, buttressed by a dominating relief corps. But, don’t ignore a defense that ranked 2nd in Major League Baseball in Defensive Runs Saved (+116), 8th in Ultimate Zone Rating, and 4th in overall defensive value.

For teams that were picked to finish at or near the bottom of their divisions last season, Oakland and Tampa Bay won 97 and 90 games, respectively. In retrospect, it would seem above-average defense was a significant contributor to many of those wins:

2018 MLB Defensive Rankings

Oakland A’s 97 61 (3rd) 36.7 (2nd)
Tampa Bay Rays 90 52 (5th) 8.9 (12th)

Outfield defense became the new inefficiency after Kansas City showcased theirs in back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014-15. We were reminded of that again this past fall, anecdotally, watching Andrew Benintendi’s belly-flop catch with the bases loaded silence the Astros’ in Game 4 of the ALCS, and, again in Game 7 of the NLCS, when Chris Taylor made what was likely a game-saving catch against the Brewers.

We remember Adam Duvall for launching bombs, but less so for flashing leather. Like the forgotten child in a big family, exceptional glovework gets hand-me-down credit for games that go in the win column. Don’t tell that to the all-seeing eye of Statcast. With the introduction of its newest metric, Catch Probability, Statcast fell in love with Duvall in 2016:

“Of our 30 left fielders, [Adam] Duvall made the catch on 84 percent of the balls that were hit his way, second behind Alex Gordon’s 85 percent and well above the 71 percent that the lowest-ranked left fielder (Robbie Grossman) captured.

Remember, though, we’re giving credit for difficulty here as well, and while Gordon (who missed time due to injury) managed only six catches with a Catch Probability of 50 percent or lower, Duvall managed 15 of them.”

We value that which visibly impacts the scoreboard: Johnny Bench’s 1972 Game 5, ninth inning home run off Dave Giusti; Jay Bruce’s 2010 Clinchmas blast. We may fondly remember Billy Hamilton’s Spiderman-like role as Protector of the Centerfield Wall, but there’s no tangible display when we scan the box score. Unlike the golf scorecard, where a birdie subtracts a stroke from par, great catches don’t remove runs from the scoreboard.

.  .  .

The task ahead for the Reds’ front office is a formidable one. Gone are Hamilton, Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart and the up-the-middle defense that suggested they should have been wearing ski masks, for all the base hits they robbed. The temporary fix right now is Jose Iglesias at shortstop, moving Peraza to second while Scooter, his groin, and his yard sale glove rehab. The outfield has no easy solutions. Four-man outfielders and the shift are band-aids for now, as the Reds await Nick Senzel and The Grand Centerfield Experiment.

As for the infield, Eugenio Suarez showed he can play a fine third base, but took a step back last season:

There’s still a lot of work left, he said. When he looks back at last season, he wasn’t happy with his defense.

“I know what I can do. I know my (swing),” Suárez said. “This year, I just work out on my defense to be better. That’s my goal this year. My top goal. I have a couple of goals every time, but this one is more important to me. Be better on defense. I’ve worked hard on that.”

As we continue to discuss pitching needs when Alex Wood and Tanner Roark likely depart, we shouldn’t forget how important the gloves behind a young pitching staff will be. When I recall how good Mike Leake was in his rookie season, I cannot forget how lucky he was to have had that defense behind him as he pitched to contact. Wayward gloves will stunt the growth of Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle and all the other young guys trying to build confidence as they attempt to make their cases for future starting rotations spots.

Just as the Phillies got greedy looking for offense and watched it cripple their defense, the St. Louis Cardinals may have done the same thing when they signed Paul Goldschmidt. Last Sunday in Mexico, Matt Carpenter did his best Cincinnati Bengal field goal kicker imitation, going wide-left with his throw, igniting a Redleg rally. The Goldy signing shoved Carpenter and his suspect shoulder to third base, where every throw could be an adventure. Whatever offensive boost the erstwhile Diamondback provides the Redbirds may very well be negated by the defensive dominos that fall across the diamond, even if it doesn’t register with the naked eye.

When Nick Senzel is assigned his locker at GABP, centerfield will be his home, necessity being the mother of invention and all that. No one really knows how good he will be there. His recent injuries may be of a flukey nature, but the idea of watching him run into walls in the outfield and laying out for catches going at top speed makes me nervous. And, it’s hard not to believe that his tools are best suited to the infield dirt anyway, which means the Reds will need to find a long-term centerfielder who can track down hard-to-reach fly balls in visiting ballparks.

Maybe that guy is Taylor Trammell, but he’s at least a year away. Right now the Reds have a lot of pieces, but getting them in the right places will be just as important. To put square pegs in round holes in an attempt to maximize offense will likely backfire down the road, which is probably why Gennett—once widely viewed to have a contract extension by now—could be the odd man out when all is said and done.

And then there’s Tucker Barnhart. Signed to a contract extension as the 2017 season wound down, he was paid $4M last season and will average $3.25M per year for the next 3 seasons. Add in a $7.5M option in 2022, and the deal was seen as a steal for the Reds. Known for his defense and arm, and an offense that is solid in an era of light-hitting catchers, recent adjustment to framing statistics now paint Barnhart as one of the worst catchers behind the plate defensively among receivers who have logged at least 750 innings in 2018 (15th out of 17 via FanGraphs).

Like stories hidden behind a paywall, framing stats are largely unreadable to the viewer. Indeed, one could be forgiven if one didn’t take them seriously, given the complexity and the number of the variables. Still, the precision with which new technology can measure pitches as they come in contact with the strike zone—or don’t— have made it easier to see which receivers possess that strike-stealing skill on offerings that otherwise would be called a ball by less proficient glovework behind the dish.

As the GIF below demonstrates, even pitches that have a 9.7% likelihood of being called a strike can doom an at bat when a thief squats behind the plate, as Rhys Hoskins discovered.

Barnhart could certainly improve his framing. Jose Peraza should become a better shortstop with age. If the Reds don’t become enamored with Senzel in the outfield, he could solidify the infield. And player positioning should help. The outfield will be the chore.

The Reds currently have two former Gold Glove winners on the field. It’s going to require some Game of Throws sorcery down at the Ballpark Down by the River to turn inclement leather into more precious metal.

2 Responses

  1. enfueago

    Strong article. Its been a revelation seeing how much Scooter’s injury has boosted the defense up the middle. Lorenzen’s use as a defensive replacement suggests to me that management shares the concerns about the outfield but doesn’t have much of an answer.

  2. Bill J

    Richard, I share your concern about Senzel in the outfield. Running into the wall or a diving catch could be a injury or maybe bring vertigo back. I think Willie’s catch & throw was the best, but Bo Jackson’s running along the wall after the catch was 2nd.