There’s Always a Catch

This should not be a riddle. There are too many riddles in this universe, this country, this state, this zip code. We accept there will always be some unanswerable questions; it’s part of the bargain for living in a boundless, knotty orb. But this is baseball. The day of the apex of human knowledge – or the robot uprising – is one day closer, and a fair number of us spend a large amount of our time thinking about the game. So what’s the right way to catch a fly ball?

Two hands? That’s what I was told. I’m sure you were also told this. You could probably still hear an elder screaming “two hands” so loudly it traversed time and space and occasionally still echoes in your head. Using both of your hands was the “proper” way to handle anything. Only a neanderthal would pass the carrots at the dinner table with one hand, et al.

Juan Lagares uses two hands when he makes a routine catch.

But not when he’s chasing down a fly ball trying to run away from him.

Nobody uses two hands when they have to chase a ball in the gap or when they have to dive. There’s no time, even for a guy like Lagares. Yet it’s just as important to secure a baseball and lock it in a vise no matter how little time you have to react. So I ask again, and this is important since ground balls are quickly growing extinct: how am I catching this fly ball?

“I was always taught to use two hands.” That’s what Mets right fielder Ryan Church said in May 2009. “I mean, if you have to reach for it well that’s one thing, but if you’re there waiting for it, then yeah, sure, two hands.”

Church had been asked for his thoughts on the matter by Sports Illustrated’s Kostya Kennedy because then-left fielder Daniel Murphy had recently dropped a routine fly. Mercifully that incident, unlike the other 2009 error, has apparently been scrubbed from the internet. The account of the error from newspapers featured Murphy, sunglasses down on a sunny day, taking a wrong step initially but ultimately finding himself right under the baseball. The ball doinked (my word) off of the heel of Murph’s glove. He was not using two hands, infuriating little league coaches everywhere.

The reason guys catch with one hand is because it looks cool. That’s the whole point of this game, remember, you’ve got to look good out there.

That was the tongue-in-cheek answer to Kennedy’s question by then Phillie Matt Stairs. He was right: Rickey Henderson was always the coolest, and he made what were known as “snatch catches.” They were optical illusions which made it seem like Rickey was emphatically informing you he was not buying what you were selling. He was still doing those in his mid-50s.

I finally got my answer a few years ago, completely by accident. I do not mean to brag, but I was reading a book. (I recommend reading those if you have the time. I used to worry that I tended only to remember one fact or story from each book, until I read that it is normal, thus perpetuating the cycle.) Former Time and Los Angeles Times writer Joel Stein wrote a book called Man Made: In Which a Dad Learns to Be a Man for His Son. The title explains the premise. For his baseball training, he turned to the then recently retired outfielder Shawn Green. The two met up at a sports bar on October 6, 2010. I know the date because of what Stein described was on television.

In the third inning, while I’m wondering if chili on a burger is really necessary, Shawn looks up at the TV and calmly says that Roy Halladay is about to pitch a no-hitter, much like Rain Man states how many toothpicks have fallen from the box. Only one person has ever pitched a no-hitter during the playoffs, and that was in 1956. But Shawn says he can tell by the way he is throwing that no one is going to hit him.

It’s possible Green goes to bars and calmly predicts no-hitters all the time on the off chance he’ll be proven right, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt based on the apparently secret information he gave to Stein.

When he teaches me to catch, I learn that outfielders put two fingers in the pinkie spot in the glove and none in the index finger hole because it makes it snap closed much more easily.

The videotape confirms Green used one hand.

He was never considered to be a liability during his career. Shawn Green also consistently posted a negative defensive WAR, even in 1999, the year he won a Gold Glove award. (Defensive WAR does not factor in prognosticating a postseason no-hitter.)

I tested Green’s technique out over the last few seasons in my rec league whenever I played the outfield (which was always). I started putting my pinkie and ring finger in the pinkie hole of my glove, my middle finger in the ring hole, my index finger in the middle hole, the thumb where it was meant to be placed, leaving the index finger hole empty and unloved, and any sexual jokes in the privacy of my home.

The new hand alignment definitely gave me a much better grip on the baseball, as ridiculous as it all sounded. Some of my palm became exposed, forcing the tip of the glove to sit a little higher on my hand, giving me the illusion that I could catch any baseball I had previously missed by centimeters — which, needless to say, used to happen constantly. Any discernible decline in my defensive play was thanks to alcohol and cake’s slow play into giving me a designated hitter’s physique.

Years after the publication of Stein’s book, Mike Chamernik at Uni Watch started researching what percentage of major-league baseball players exposed a finger on the back of their glove. Along the way he ended up confirming Green’s outfield technique with pitcher Cody Hall, who said some infielders and pitchers do it, too. Hall claimed a minor-league teammate had first taught him the technique, for which he had concocted a term that needn’t be repeated here.

Hall was drafted by the Giants and started his professional career in the summer of 2011 as a proud member of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. Everybody on that roster had played only with a San Francisco affiliate, so there’s no clear connection to Green specifically. Green probably did not invent the approach, and it is unknown who did. It is unknown which players wear their glove that way and which do not (although it’s a fairly big clue if the bottom of their hand is visible). It is unknown if this is privileged information, to which only All-Stars are automatically privy, only to be passed down to trusted individuals at the potential peril of breaking an Unwritten Rule. It’s unknown if I will disappear after the publication of this article, and if anyone will look for me. It’s unknown why there hasn’t been research conducted by a front office, to at least see if a specific finger placement leads to fewer injuries.

Shit. It appears I just invented more mysteries in this universe. Sorry about that. All the more reason to hold tight what we hold dear as much as possible.

Bless his heart, Roger was reared in Brooklyn, New York. He co-founded and co-hosts the Good Fundies podcast and website. He's too busy and self-involved to hate your favorite team. @yayroger and @goodfundies on Twitter.

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6 years ago

Always an *interesting* read…