Take a look at Charlie Blackmon’s defensive charts and you’ll notice that he has a good side, one where he’s made a higher percentage of catches than the other. On the one hand, that seems strange: humans are largely symmetrical creatures. On the other, maybe it makes perfect sense: most people have dominant hands and eyes and move better in certain directions.
Nowhere is the latter point more painfully clear to me, personally, than on the basketball court. As much as I practice going to my left, I usually do something very silly when I attempt the feat in a game. If I get to the left and actually get to the hoop, my mechanics fall apart when I get there, and I end up doing a strange thing with my right hand that leads to cuss words more often than points.
So when I saw this map for Blackmon, I figured it was all about that first step. See those hits over his left shoulder that are colored blue? Those are relatively high-percentage catches that have fallen into play against him. Must not be stepping well in that direction, I figured.
But when I asked the outfielder about those hits and his first step, he laughed. First, he thanked me for highlighting his shortcomings. Then he said something surprising — “I prefer the ball to my left,” he said. “There’s something I don’t like about running towards a ball to my right.”
And yeah, it’s a bit strange from a first-step point of view, anyway. Usually your better step is to your dominant side. At least it’s that way in basketball. So the lefty outfielder probably likes taking that first step to his dominant side… and yet he still ends up conceding more hits to that side.
The answer is, for many of you, already obvious. For those of you not shouting at your screen, let’s return to basketball one last time. In basketball, you could theoretically be as good to the left as you are to your right — because you can use both hands. In baseball, one hand is shackled to a glove.
“I can’t reach as far to that side,” said Blackmon, “the glove hand is reaching across my body on that side. I don’t think it’s my first step.” Yeah, to some extent, Blackmon might be giving up hits to his throwing side because his glove is on the other hand. Duh!
Let’s take a look at a couple of other lefty center fielders to see how they’ve dealt with the issue. Denard Span (left) suffers from the same issue, it looks like, and even Jacoby Ellsbury (right) has trouble with balls over his left shoulder.
And a few right-handed center fielders would be interesting here, right? Kevin Pillar (left) has problems like a lefty, which is a bit weird. Adam Jones (right) seems to maybe lose a few easier-to-snag balls to that stretch across his body with the glove hand, though.
If you’d asked me ahead of time — me, with my basketball-related bias — I would have said that most center-field defenders would would be better to their dominant side. In fact, if you remove those that didn’t play much last year and look at the remaining 29 center fielders’ production last year based on images like the ones seen above, it looks like an almost even split: 16 are better to their dominant, throwing side and 13 are better to the glove side.
You have to remember simple mechanics when you’re looking at numbers sometimes. It’s tempting to read a heat map and blame everything on first steps to certain sides. But you have to remember that a defender reaching across his body with his glove loses valuable inches when he’s going in that direction. It’s not basketball they’re playing out there.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.