Sunday Notes on Tuesday: Defense, Defense, Defense — Jackie Bradley Jr & more

Jackie Bradley, Jr. might win a Gold Glove tonight. He should. The Red Sox centerfielder is an American League finalist at his position along with Adam Eaton and Adam Jones. He easily outpaced both in Fielding Bible balloting, with only National Leaguer Juan Lagares ranking higher.

Then again, Bradley probably didn’t hit well enough to win a traditional Gold Glove. [Yes, the ghosts of Derek Jeter and Rafael Palmeiro continue to haunt.] The 24-year-old rookie put up a scary-bad .198/.265/.266 slash line in 423 plate appearances.

His defensive numbers, which included 14 defensive runs saved, tell another story. Bradley was immaculate with the glove and his peers took notice. Mike Trout told me, “He takes away hits. He made some unbelievable catches against us in Cali.” Kevin Kiermaier said, “He’s made a name for himself as far as defensive goes. He can lay out to make a diving catch and he can show off his arm by throwing guys out.”

Bradley had 13 assists and a throw that didn’t result in an out showed off his arm strength every bit as well the baker’s dozen. In a game at Fenway Park, speedster Jarrod Dyson scored on a sacrifice fly to medium-deep center, barely beat Bradley’s laser beam to home plate. “I was booking it and the play was closer than I thought it was going to be,” Dyson told me afterward. “All of your great arms are in the corners, and his ranks up there with anyone’s.”

Royals first base coach Rusty Kuntz agreed, saying “[Bradley] looks like the real deal. About the only centerfielder I can think of who has that good of an arm is Adam Jones.”

Of course, Jones can hit. Bradley, to this point, hasn’t. His minor-league numbers are good – .290/.394/.456 in 1,058 plate appearances – but against big-league pitchers he’s been a left-handed-hitting Mario Mendoza. That’s going to have to change if he wants to play every day. Red Sox general manager said as much in a postseason press conference.

“He had a tough year offensively, but he has a track record of hitting as an amateur and in the minor leagues” said Cherington. “That hasn’t happened yet in the big leagues, but the defense is elite. I think it’s simple: He’s got to find himself as a hitter.”

Speculation abounds that Bradley will soon find himself playing for another team. The Red Sox have Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo to man center field, and both are expected to provide punch. Opinions are mixed on Bradley’s bat going forward, but there is certainly risk in dealing him. Many players have struggled early in their careers – Ozzie Smith had a .522 OPS in his age-24 season — before becoming capable hitters. The youngster fully expects to become one.

“It’s a matter of developing consistency,” Bradley told me in the final week of the season. “It’s not about having to make any huge adjustments. You’re doing stuff you’ve done your whole life. Sometimes you hit a stretch where you just can’t get any tread on the tires. You’re feeling good but not getting any knocks.

“Sometimes an adjustment is mental, knowing you’re going to break out of it. You can be doing all the right things, and swing at all the right pitches, but nothing is falling. That’s just baseball. My confidence will never waver. My head will never be down. I know what I can do.”

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The Mariners’ shortstop duo learned the nuances of their position at different times and in different ways. Chris Taylor enrolled at the University of Virginia already well-schooled in defensive technique. Brad Miller received his best tutoring post-college.

“It was two spring trainings ago,” said Miller, who was drafted out of Clemson in 2011. “It was my first big-league camp and I got to work with Brendan Ryan. He was the guy who really opened my eyes to reading hitters and knowing what the pitcher is trying to do. Before that, I was mostly just focusing on fundamentals.”

“For me, it started in high school with a private instructor named Billy Weems,” said Taylor, who was drafted out of UVA in 2012. “He works a lot with high school infielders on things like not positioning yourself in the same spot every time. That was a big step for me in high school, learning how to read swings and position myself where the ball is likely to be hit.”

The infielders likewise have different backgrounds in regard to defensive shifts.

“We didn’t shift much at Clemson,” said Miller. “But there was this one hitter for Georgia Tech, Daniel Palka, who we did it to my junior year. He’s a left-handed hitter with legitimate pop and I think it got in his head a little bit. I think he went 0-for-the weekend with us shifting him. Toward the tail end of the year we did it to a select few other lefties as well. That was my first exposure to it.”

“If you know anything about Virginia, they have some different shifts,” said Taylor. “If you watched our defense, I might have been in double-play position all the way in the six-hole. And sure enough, a ball would come right to me and we’d turn two. We kind of pitched into our shifts. We had a little less freedom to position ourselves where we wanted. The coaches had a lot of control there.”

Chris Woodward is in charge of positioning the Mariners infield. He goes over the scouting reports with each individual infielder and determines if a shift is in order. His young shortstops – Taylor is 24, Miller 25 – trust his judgment, regardless of where they’re asked to play.

“It’s up to our infield coach how much we shift, but I agree with it, for sure,” said Taylor. “I think it takes a lot of hits away. I don’t know the numbers, but I’ve heard that statistically it makes sense. I’ve seen it play both ways, but more often than not it’s helpful for us.”

“You play your odds,” agreed Miller. “It’s about playing the percentages and if they go the other way, good for them. That’s just good hitting. David Ortiz is easy to shift, because he’s going to look to drive the ball. On the other hand, Dustin Pedroia will change his approach pitch to pitch. He’s a nightmare to position, because he can do anything.”

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Francisco Lindor and Deven Marrero don’t share the same prospect status. The latter is highly-regarded but not top tier. The former is a consensus Top 10. Both are shortstops who finished the season in Triple-A, Lindor with the Indians and Marrero with the Red Sox.

They do share things in common, most notably reputations as excellent defenders. Each is rated the best defensive infielder in his respective system.

Lindor and Marrero have been rivals at multiple levels. I caught up with both late in the season to get their impressions of the other.

“The kid has some really amazing gifts the whole world is going to see pretty soon,” Marrero said of Lindor. “He’s got unreal skills on both sides of the ball. He gets people out and looks good doing it. That’s what stands out about him. He does it with a swagger that’s fun to watch.”

Does Marrero feel he and Lindor have similar styles?

“They’re kind of similar, but I’d say he has more Latin in him than I do,” opined Marrero. “But we both get people out and that’s our goal.”

“The kid can play,” Lindor said of Marrero. “He’s got really good hands and his hitting has come a long way from when I saw him last year in High-A. He’s one of the best defensive players I’ve seen in all of the minor leagues. He gets to a lot of balls, but more importantly, he makes every routine play.”

Like you try to do?, I asked Lindor.

“There you go,” responded Lindor. “That’s what I pride myself on.”

——

Brad Miller is a big fan of Adeiny Hechavarria. Defensive metrics aren’t kind to the Marlins shortstop – he had a below average UZR and a minus-3 DRS this year – and Miller has ideas on why that is.

“Hechavaria, down in Miami, plays half of his games on the fastest infield going,” said Miller. “He gets to balls there that other guys don’t reach. Texas has a really fast infield, too. Places like Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium have grass that’s a little thicker. Guys reach balls there that are through the hole in Miami.

“Things like that make defense harder to quantify. There are so many factors that go into it. There’s positioning, the speed of the runner – think of all the times a close play would be different if the runner was faster or slower. There are a crazy amount of factors.”

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A thought on the Fielding Bible’s new “multi-position” Gold Glove, which was awarded to Lorenzo Cain:

Cain is a fine defender and strictly speaking he did see action at multiple positions. He played 93 games in center field and 77 in right field. Is that enough versatility to justify his winning the honor? The esteemed panel thinks so, but I wonder if maybe the spirit of the award demands more positional differentiation.

Ben Zobrist played 79 games at second base, 38 in left field, 31 at shortstop, 19 in right field and 7 in center field. Is Zobrist as good with the glove? No, but along with Josh Harrison and Brock Holt he’s the definition of a multi-position player. Cain really isn’t.

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I asked Miller and Taylor about defensive versatility during our conversations at Fenway Park this summer. At the time, Holt was on his way to playing every position but pitcher and catcher this season. I asked each how challenging it would be for a shortstop – often the most-athletic player on his team – to do what Holt was doing.

“I have a little experience with [moving around] from college,” Taylor told me. “My freshman year I was kind of bouncing around between second, short and third, and even a little bit in the outfield. That can be tough. You have to put a lot of work into getting comfortable everywhere you play. Instincts are a big part of any position, but you also have to be comfortable. What he’s doing is pretty impressive.”

“I’ve played infield my whole life,” said Miller. “Playing in the outfield is probably harder than we think. Those guys have seen a thousand fly balls. It’s reaction and instinct, just like it is for us in the infield. Playing third base, it’s still the same angles – you’re on the same side of the field – and at second base it’s all about footwork. Different positions have their different intricacies. [Holt] can handle all of that. I’ll say this about him too: he’s a throwback baseball player.”

——

The eye test and numbers don’t always see eye-to-eye, which is a big reason adding a statistical component to the traditional Gold Glove awards was such a good idea. Beginning last year, the SABR Defensive Index was incorporated into the selection process.

The coaches and managers who vote on the award have historically relied on what they saw over the course of the season, as well as what they heard. Some admit that bias and inadequate sample sizes routinely impact their ballots. Unfortunately, that’s understandable. If you don’t see Kole Calhoun and Yoenis Cespedes on a daily basis, can you adequately assess their defense without the help of metrics?

Why am I using Calhoun and Cespedes as examples? My own observational bias. Cespedes is a finalist for the traditional Gold Glove and he finished third in Fielding Bible balloting. I was at all 30 games he played at Fenway Park this season and what I saw was basically bad-read Jonny Gomes with a good arm. Maybe it was unfamiliarity with playing in front of the Green Monster and Cespedes excelled defensively in Oakland?

As for Calhoun, who is a finalist for a traditional Gold Glove, what I saw is what most coaches saw – a relatively small number of games. Based on my limited observations, he was even better than his metrics and his tenth-place finish among Fielding Bible right fielders. He displayed a strong arm and I watched him rob Brock Holt of a home run, a catch Calhoun told me was the best of his career.

Ultimately, I didn’t see enough of Calhoun and Cespedes to accurately measure their overall defensive value. As for my inherently biased eyeball view, there is a chasm of difference in their glove work.

——

Speaking of Calhoun’s defense, the subject came up when I talked to him this summer. The article I subsequently wrote addressed only his offense, so here is what he had to say about run prevention:

“It’s a huge focal point with this organization,” said the Angels’ outfielder. “You can do so much with the bat, but this organization has always been focused on defense and pitching — keeping runs off the board. Coming into pro ball, that was an area I knew I could improve upon. My throwing was part of it. I’ve always had a fairly decent arm, but it wasn’t always accurate. A lot of that was needing to stay under control. I would try to do way too much and throw the ball as hard as I could every time. I got a lot better once I started to control that.”

Here is what his manager had to say:

“First of all, he’s a gamer,” said Scioscia. “ He plays at one speed. He runs hard and loves to play every aspect of the game. He applies himself on the defensive end, which is something we expect. He’s been extremely productive for us on both sides of the ball.”

——

Defensive ability comes into play on official scoring decisions, which is a reason ERA is an imperfect stat. The words “ordinary effort” appear multiple times in the Rules of Official Scoring and exactly how that is interpreted on a given play is subjective. Every one us has watched what we felt was a catchable ball elude a fielder without an error being charged, and vice versa.

I think we all agree with the error charged to Gregor Blanco when Alex Gordon’s line drive skipped past his glove and to the wall in World Series Game 7. (Juan Perez could also have been charged with an error on the play, but that’s beside the point.) Why do I bring this up? Because multiple publications (not this one) questioned whether Gordon should have tried for an inside-the-park home run. Apologizing in advance for my snark, what they apparently meant was “Little League home run.” There was a single and a two-base error, kids.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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baltic wolf
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baltic wolf

I hope that Jackie Bradley Jr. gets the award, but I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t. He only played in 127 games and unfortunately the lack of hitting will probably hurt him even though it’s not supposed to.

As an Orioles fan who has seen Bradley play against the Birds a number of times, I’m utterly amazed by both his range and his arm. I keep thinking: “Shades of Paul Blair!”

If the Red Sox are willing to part with him , I hope the Orioles would be interested in making a deal to see if they can help Jackie with his hitting woes.
If he could bring that average up to just .240 or thereabouts, his glove in CF would tremendously boost our OF defense—then we could move Jones to RF to take advantage of his arm.

More important: having Bradley in CF would allow the corner OFs to shade more towards the lines–just as having Blair four decades ago allowed Buford and Frank Robinson to shade closer to their foul lines—something all Baltimore pitchers would benefit from and appreciate.