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Quote of the Day: Jayson Werth explains the perception of outfield defense

Apr 5, 2013, 11:04 AM EDT

Jayson Werth AP

Defense is really hard to measure and its metrics, however useful they may prove to be, are often imbued with some misleading information. For example, in yesterday’s Pirates-Cubs game I saw a 5-6-3 double play on a ball hit to the right of the second base bag. Viva la shift, but the fact is that that sort of thing becomes invisible after the game is over. It’s not a major thing. Just a weirdness about defense.

Not that you can always trust your eyes either. Especially when you’re watching on TV. Jayson Werth did a great job of explaining that in Tom Boswell’s latest column:

Of [Denard] Span’s sprinting catch in front of the right field scoreboard on Wednesday night, Werth said, “He made it easy. Not saying Bryce wouldn’t have made that play. But it might have been one of these miraculous plays that he makes, where you’re like, ‘Oh my God! What an unbelievable play!’ Denard, like, jogs the last five steps, no problem. That’s where TV, it’s kind of like hockey in a sense. It doesn’t do the outfielders justice.”

I used to always notice this with Andruw Jones games back when he was with the Braves. He made a lot of spectacular looking plays, sure, but it was the boring-looking plays which always provided the true value of his defense. He’d camp under some ball as if he’d been there all day. Because he had been. His range was so great and effortless that he’d casually shag the balls someone less-talented than him would have to dive for.  That’s what Werth is describing here.

The Werth quote, by the way, comes in the course of a really nice article. Boswell describes the Nats’ defense over the course of the Marlins’ series. It’s the kind of column that is really necessary specifically because defense is still so hard to measure and because our eyes — unless we’re watching every play from a good vantage point like a sportswriter is — can so often deceive us when this stuff comes up.

  1. goskinsvt - Apr 5, 2013 at 11:08 AM

    Craig…praising a Boswell article? What sign of the apocalypse is this, 3 or 4?

    • dlf9 - Apr 5, 2013 at 12:11 PM

      Boswell, in the days of Earl Weaver, was an amazing writer. He clearly loved the game and had an analytical mind. He created and popularized Total Average, an offensive metric that incorporated power, speed, and discipline like a simpler (and less accurate) rate stat version of James’ Runs Created or Palmer’s Linear Weights. At the same time, articles like “Ballpark Wanderer” celebrate the simple joy of sitting high above right field at old Tiger Stadium with a beer in his hand just soaking in the pleasure of the game. His compilation books “Why Time Begins on Opening Day” and “How Life Imitates the World Series” were utterly outstanding. Next to Roger Angel, he was my favorite.

      Like most of us, I think that Boswell has lost a couple of mph off his fastball, but he can still pen columns like the one Craig links to.

      • APBA Guy - Apr 5, 2013 at 12:51 PM

        Totally agree. As a kid, I barely understood some of Shirley Povich’s stuff in the Post. When Boswell came along I was old enough to appreciate his special qualities. Then he started spreading out to other sports and as you say, lost something.

  2. jbartlett79 - Apr 5, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    This same thought occurred to me on a foul pop out to Jackie Bradley in last night’s BOS-NYY game; he made a catch with one hand on the wall along the foul line, but didn’t crash into the wall or need to slide.

    I couldn’t figure out how he made it look so casual; I guess the answer is that he got there fast enough, and took a true enough line, that he was able to slow down before impact and camp under the ball. Great play. No one noticed. Yawn.

    • unclemosesgreen - Apr 5, 2013 at 1:32 PM

      It’s so funny you said that, because the column made me think of JB Jr. as well, in comparison to Jacoby Ellsbury. JB Jr. is nowhere near as fast as Ellsbury, but his first step is always perfect. His reads off the bat are incredible, whereas Ellsbury will often start ambling in to his 2 o’clock, then suddenly take off to his 10 o’clock and make a diving catch.

      The only reason JB Jr. is in left is because Ellsbury practiced to be the starting CF all spring, it’s the Choo – Heisey dilmena writ large.

  3. heyblueyoustink - Apr 5, 2013 at 11:30 AM

    Good defense seems to be typically underpraised with sports in general these days.

  4. natstowngreg - Apr 5, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    Uncertainty was watching a looper over the infield at RFK, destined for certain singlehood in short center. Then you remember, Andruw Jones is out there. He might catch it! Occasionally, he did.

    Not saying Denard Span = Andruw Jones as a defensive CF. Few have ever been as good, Willie Mays and Junior Griffey come to mind immediately. But Span’s play in right-center is exactly why Mike Rizzo wanted him, and gave up a good prospect to get him. Well, there was also getting on base a couple of times and scoring a couple of runs.

    • voteforno6 - Apr 5, 2013 at 11:47 AM

      Indeed…I was at all three of those games, and I remember that play by Span in particular. He made it look easier than other center fielders that I’ve seen.

  5. El Bravo - Apr 5, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    If Jesus said it, it must be true.

    • gerryb323 - Apr 5, 2013 at 12:27 PM

      I think Werth and Reddick could have a killer beard competition.

  6. louhudson23 - Apr 5, 2013 at 11:55 AM

    Holy shit….the existence of something on a basebal field which can’t be quantified……only enjoyed and appreciated….

    • Kevin S. - Apr 5, 2013 at 12:25 PM

      We’re not that great at quantifying it yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be quantified eventually. Also, lose the false dichotomy.

      • stevegoodfriendilovebaseball - Apr 5, 2013 at 12:31 PM

        Exactly that.
        The ability to quantify defense and the appreciation and enjoyment of defense are NOT mutually exclusive.

    • 18thstreet - Apr 5, 2013 at 1:54 PM

      Good grief, do you think us stat geeks don’t enjoy baseball?

      I love the advanced stats (hell, the basic stats, too) because they reveal things my eyes can’t see. It’s not a replacement.

      • schmedley69 - Apr 5, 2013 at 5:07 PM

        I have no problems with stat geeks enjoying baseball. The ones that try to suck the life out of it for others by constantly telling them that their opinion is wrong is what gives the rest of you stat geeks a bad name.

      • 18thstreet - Apr 6, 2013 at 8:46 AM

        Well, I think you’re wrong to think that.

  7. Sorbet Te Charta Saccus - Apr 5, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    A similar thing happened with Jason Heyward in Right Field against the Phillies last night…he looked like he was confused as to whether the CF was going to get to the ball, and at the last second, he dove and made a routine fly out look like a great catch. And the thing was, they had just minutes before shown the footage of him getting his gold glove before the game.

  8. missingdiz - Apr 5, 2013 at 1:58 PM

    While living in Canada I watched Blue Jays games frequently. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better outfielder than Devon White.

    • Shayna - Apr 5, 2013 at 4:30 PM

      I too remember Devon White’s beautiful play in the outfield. He was a gazelle, flying over the turf and making it seem as though the ball had been headed for his glove from the moment it was hit. It seemed not so much that he was running forward as that the earth was rolling back beneath him. In 35 years of baseball-watching, I’ve never seen anything like it. Glorious.

    • cur68 - Apr 5, 2013 at 6:25 PM

      Totally agree. My favourite Centre Fielder ever. He seemed to always be there, plenty of time, never in a hurry. If he had to lay out for one, then no one else on earth could have got it but him.

  9. fthrvic - Apr 5, 2013 at 3:01 PM

    Is that a picture of Jayson Werth….or Sasquatch?

    • jcmeyer10 - Apr 5, 2013 at 3:46 PM

      And to think people have been looking in the woods all this time and not in the Nationals outfield.

  10. bdemps42 - Apr 5, 2013 at 4:21 PM

    Two words: Jim Edmonds. He made terrific plays too often for my tastes. Granted I did not get to see him at the beginning of his career in person, but it certainly seemed that as he got older he figured out how to dive for balls much more often than was necessary. Then I saw it in person. He started off pretty well on a ball and then slowed down as he got closer to it and then he was flying through the air.

  11. macjacmccoy - Apr 5, 2013 at 6:30 PM

    So pretty much opposite then the Heyward diving catch from last night? It made the highlights as a great catch but it was a play even an average defender would make standing up consistently . The fact that Heyward had to dive for it only should magnify how badly he misread the ball off the bat, the horrible route he took, and the bad jump he got on the ball. Instead it was lauded as a great catch. With the biggest offender being the Phillies play by play announcer Tom McCarthy.

  12. denny65 - Apr 6, 2013 at 4:16 AM

    Outfielders par excellence? Let’s start with Cesar Geronimo and go from there. No one glided under the ball more smoothly and effortlessly than him. I’m reminded of Geronimo every time I watch the Mariners’ Franklin Gutierrez on the move; Dave Niehaus dubbed him “death to all flying things” for a reason.

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