Christian Encarnacion-Strand lay on his back over the rolled tarp, laughing. The ball was in his glove and the side was retired. He’d just leapt into the void of crash landings to put out a runner at the top of the ninth when the score was We Won-Never Mind.  Though the bases were loaded, these theatrics weren’t necessary, not really– this was a game with plenty of room to let it go into the crowd.

It wasn’t a routine catch at all. Given the angle of the ball and the direction of the leap, there was nowhere to land softly. He would, at minimum, land awkwardly– perhaps in the stands, but definitely not on the grass, and maybe with the ball.

He caught it, and hung on to it, and thus illustrated one of the most frustrating aspects of this Reds team: How is it that the defense is basically a five-man highlight reel, and yet we still hold our breath every time there’s a pop-up?

There’s a lot I don’t know about baseball, and even less (far less) that I can do within baseball, but I do know– without ever having played it in an out-of-gym-class organized fashion, my parents knew better than to put me and the rest of humanity through that– that you call your pop-ups.

When forced to suffer in the field myself in gym class, I immediately understood my assignment to the outfield, where I stood the least potential of doing damage. I knew gosh-darn well I wasn’t catching anything if it came even remotely near me, but made a good-faith run at it, trusting one of my actually competent classmates to complete the task. When said classmate said “Got it!” or “Mine!” it was got. It was theirs. I returned to an existence of studying the grass and clover.

I don’t have much of a physical-deed expectations test for baseball, seeing as I can’t even attempt one single skill it requires except maybe running 90 feet without incident– but the older I get, the less assured even that is. I do, however, know how to back away from an uncaught ball. It is one of my very few athletic specialties.

How does this happen at the MLB level? At any rung on the ladder? This is the type of thing that doesn’t follow players past the fifth grade, and here are these billion-dollar babies letting the ball drop between them like a 9-inch, single, reproachful, missile of hail from the heavens.

I’m not asking this question rhetorically. I’m genuinely stumped. I cannot pretend to know what goes on between infielders and the kingdom they cover, but people making more than I do in six months at a single at-bat should probably catch the baseball equivalent of a slow roller straight to the goalie.

Pop flies, as I understand them, can be difficult to catch because they are plagued with backspin. They might require squinting against the sun. There might be weird, chalet and slide-induced shadows. Confident, precise footwork and concentration are required. However, it’s probably not best to let one player address one pop-up problem apiece. One man must multitask it.

I suppose this is, on the ground level, a failure to communicate. But how does that happen? Is everyone yielding to extreme politeness? Are they wondering whose turn it is to be on TV? Is someone not invited to someone else’s birthday party and so they aren’t speaking?

Effective communication between teammates can prove a difficult beast to tame. However, it’s a dragon easily slain with a single word from a single man. How is it that players capable of hanging on to a ball through a fence, over a wall, and going 80 miles an hour miss a tee ball task?

I defer to your wisdom in the comments.

19 Responses

  1. LDS

    Couldn’t agree more MBE. Bad fundamentals have plagued the Reds for several years now. It’s on management

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      What fixes that? Real question. Hire someone who will make them practice pop-ups for an hour each day and otherwise focuses on basic skill building? How high up in management does this go? Is the blame ultimately Bell’s or the position coaches?

      • Melvin

        “Is the blame ultimately Bell’s or the position coaches?”

        Manager has the title and gets paid for it. Ultimately it’s on him even if the coaches aren’t “up to snuff”. If need be replace the coaches. Accountability. If the manager is not “up to snuff” then……….

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        (sigh) I’ve started wondering more often what this team would look like with a complete managerial overhaul.

      • Melvin

        “(sigh) I’ve started wondering more often what this team would look like with a complete managerial overhaul”

        That’s a bold statement that I applaud you for. Tipping my hat to you. 🙂

    • greenmtred

      It may be on somebody, but fundamentals are taught from Little League onward. The pop-ups falling to the turf in the middle of three converging fielders occur on every team, at every level. What I take from this is that it’s not quite as simple as it looks: humans are imperfect, and even simple tasks aren’t always performed perfectly. In the case of the pop-up, whether it’s called or not, wouldn’t there be a smidgen of doubt in your mind as you approached, at speed, the convergence of one or more other players, also at speed? Does the guy who called it actually have the best chance of catching it? If I called it, did the others all hear or see me do so? Will one of them run into me at full speed?

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        That’s what I think the answer is to “How on earth did no one call that????!!”– everybody is computing all the factors and wondering if he’s the best choice to grab it.

        Maybe we need to start firing some Little League coaches…

  2. Rednat

    The communication aspect is interesting. In 10 to 15 years will Spanish be the primary language on the field and in the clubhouse? Is that a factor now with the errors?

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Good point. In the situation, though, I think it would be fairly obvious what “Got it!” or “Mine” means. Maybe each team can set up a code word that people of all languages can use.

  3. Mark Moore

    Great article again, MBE. My playing days (HS baseball, rec league softball) and my coaching days (Jr High level baseball) are long past. I was decent, but never more than that. Nobody would ever come pounding at my door looking to sign me. Frankly, I was a better coach than a player by a long shot.

    Fundamentals are still key. It’s why they start ST drills that way. Yes, the heat of a live game happens and players react, but that reaction is based on the fundamentals drilled into them at every level.

    I just hope we don’t have any season or career ending collisions because somebody just HAD to get the ball.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I’m impressed by anyone with enough baseball skills to avoid getting automatically sent to the far reaches of the outfield.

  4. Wildcatbill

    There is not a game goes by with me not uttering the phrase sometimes with colorful words attached that I don’t say you was taught this in pee wee ball. I don’t say it on one handed fly ball catches anymore, cause everyone of them is that way. I don’t know when the MLB PLAYERS start getting a pass from there coaches and managers but if it’s a problem and it is, perhaps they should attach a fine of say 100 bucks to each error caused by non fundamental plays. But you have some way of getting thru if coaching doesn’t do it. We use to have to run laps.(Babe Ruth)

    • Mark Moore

      I noted on the game wrap-up thread that the days of “Kangaroo Kourt” enforcements are long gone. Some of that should be, but not all of it IMO.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I’m wondering why Bell just didn’t make everybody catch pop flies for an hour before BP. It’s definitely in the category of “well, you can’t do it either,” but— ffs, it feels like drops/miscommunication happen every single game.

  5. Andrew Brewer

    I noticed that the waving of the arms is usually the best and final way to call a ball yours. Outfielders usually get the preference because it’s easier to catch it coming in with the play in front of them than for the infielders going out. Among outfielders, the center fielder rules. The problem of course is that the fielders are all watching the ball while converging to make the play. If the outfielder calls it, the infielders should clear out. Short Stops make catches in the outfield behind third often enough. If three players are converging and all of them could make the catch, then it might just come down to who calls the loudest or makes his presence known with gesticulation. We certainly don’t need outfielders wrapping themselves around De La Cruz on a blooper to left !

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Terrific reply. And the hand-waving, if they can handle it, would certainly overcome any language barriers.

      • Andrew Brewer

        We had the left fielder and De La Cruz converging on one in today’s game, which could have been a problem. The new rule for the Reds is “leave Elly alone if he is going after one”. The Reds won today against the Phillies 8-1, and just maybe your article got them thinking.

      • Melvin

        I missed that one. Did our CF/SS go out and get another one?