Defense Even More Important With New Bat Standards
See also: Digging Into College Defensive Stats
Watch a Little League practice anywhere in America. How does practice begin?
Anyone who's ever played a day of baseball knows the answer, of course: with warm-ups. Maybe there will be a little stretching (maybe not), but there will definitely be throwing. Kids will line up and play catch with a partner. Coaches will pay little attention to this part of practice—nobody needs supervision for something as basic as playing catch—and players will goof around. Balls will sail over gloves and rattle against chain-link fences. Soon, practice will start for real.
For the most part, the routine doesn't vary much through high school and college, except errant throws become less frequent, and maybe a greater emphasis is placed on stretching. But from the time players are young, they are conditioned to not take warm-ups particularly seriously.
Creighton coach Ed Servais wants to shatter that mindset as soon as new players show up on campus.
"I hate that word—warm-up," Servais says. "I hate that word. That sounds to me like there's nothing structured about it, nothing organized about it. Gosh, do we really want our throwing program to be associated with that, when making plays is all about throwing and catching? Our practice starts with our stretching. The throwing part is a major part of our practice. Some coaches think that's part of the warm-up process, and I would disagree with that."
So after Creighton players loosen up with a supervised stretching regimen, they start Servais' 10-minute throwing program. They spend the first minute and a half five yards away from each other, down on both knees. After another 90 seconds, they back up to 10 yards and throw from one knee. Then they back up another five yards, stand with knees flexed, turn and throw while making sure their front side is closed to the throwing target.
Every 90 seconds, they back up five more yards, and with each progression they use their lower halves more.
"We end up emphasizing how important your lower half is in throwing—you don't want to do anything with dead feet in the throwing process," Servais says. "During that time, we're not going to drop the ball. The ball's not going to touch the ground. That's another of the pressure components we add. The kids really have a hard time with it the first couple days, but once they get comfortable with it, it's neat to see the progress they make."
It's so simple—just throwing and catching. But the emphasis the Bluejays place on that very fundamental component of the game goes a long way to explain why they are consistently one of the elite defensive teams in college baseball. In fact, in the seven years Servais has been the head coach at Creighton, his teams have committed just 370 errors—fewest in the nation. The next-closest team has made 408 errors in that span. Last year, the Bluejays tied Texas for the national lead in fielding percentage (.980)—the second straight year they led the nation, and the fourth straight year they ranked in the top 10.
The explanation for Creighton's defensive proficiency runs deeper than that, of course. Creighton—like another private school with modest baseball resources, Duke—believes it can exploit a sort of market inefficiency by committing fully to playing rock-solid defense. Those programs have shaped their very identities around being more fundamentally sound than their opponents. They excel at minimizing mistakes and forcing opponents to try to beat them, rather than beating themselves.
Heading into 2011, this philosophy looks wiser than ever. Everyone knows pitching and defense is important—it might be the most recited baseball cliché in the mammoth book of baseball clichés. But there is a strong sense from coaches across college baseball that an even greater premium will be placed upon defense starting this spring, as new bat standards take effect.
The new BBCOR-certified bats play more like wood. Coaches overwhelmingly reported a dramatic decrease in offense with the new bats during fall ball. The days of sitting back and waiting for a game-changing three-run home run are over. "It does seem like runs are at a premium," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner says. "If the bats play like a lot of us anticipate, it's going to be more low scoring. Defense is always important, but it may go to another level."
Teams that fail to execute routine plays, and give their opponents extra outs with which to manufacture offense, will suffer.
"I know a lot of coaches are concerned about the lack of run production that may occur, but I think it will still be a great game," Servais says. "I think people will learn to appreciate the beauty of defense and the double plays. There's going to be a major emphasis on that and a major emphasis on pitchers throwing it over the plate. The walk now and the hit-by-pitch will be even more important because everybody will be looking for runners any way they can. I'm excited about it—it's always been a passion of mine to teach the defensive side. I think the whole nation's going to be interested in defense."
Defense Can Be Taught
So how is it that certain programs so consistently excel at teaching defense? For that matter, how does one evaluate what makes a good defense? It's about more than just error prevention
, though that's a good place to start. But coaches have countless different perspectives on what is important when it comes to defense.
What follows is a rundown of some key philosophical tenets, points of contention and secrets of the trade from some of college baseball's foremost defensive minds.
1. Don't be a hero.
Blame "SportsCenter" or "Baseball Tonight" if you want. Or just blame the awesome power of human ambition. Every shortstop wants to make the Jeter Play from deep in the hole. Every center fielder wants to be Torii Hunter, laying out for a sinking liner in the gap to take away an extra-base hit. Every right fielder thinks he's Vladimir Guerrero, capable of launching a perfect strike from the warning track straight to the catcher's mitt to hose a runner by six steps.
"I read an article about Raul Mondesi winning the Gold Glove one time with a ton of assists, but he overthrew the cutoff man a ton of other times and ended up costing his team runs more often," Duke coach Sean McNally says. "Our menu for outfielders is simple: We just ask them to hit the cutoff man. We never prioritize throwing guys out or throwing straight to the plate. If you've got a guy who can throw somebody out, how often does that come into play? Over the course of 56 games, you win more if you hit the cutoff man. I want guys that can run; that's our No. 1 priority. Being able to cover ground, take good routes—speed is critical, for me."
Steady Eddie fielding the ball on a hop and hitting the cutoff man won't make the highlight shows. But he'll win college baseball games.
In fact, Tanner will tell you that kind of play wins championships. That's just what his Gamecocks did in 2010 with a defense that ranked 13th nationally in fielding percentage (.975) and first in defensive efficiency (.726, tied with Texas). That's nothing new for the Gamecocks, who are one of the steadiest defensive units in the country every year. But they don't try to be spectacular.
"My outfielders get a little upset with me, especially when they've got good throwing arms—we try to keep the double play in order," Tanner says. "You throw the ball to second, you don't get carried away with trying to get the lead runners, you prevent the five-run inning, try to keep it a two-run inning.
"I sort of teach what I call a conservative defense. I tell our players, we are unlike football and basketball. When you're on defense in football, if you want to blitz, you can send everybody. In basketball you can press the length of the court, force the action. In baseball on defense, you have to accept as it comes, you can't try to do too much; you have to make the plays that are presented to you.
"That's what I mean about playing conservatively—not trying so hard to make the great play. If you make a great stop in the hole, and you rush the throw, the guy's on second. Maybe you just don't throw it. If a runner's on first base, and our shortstop moves to his right, my teaching style is do not think it's a double-play ball. Get the force at second, and if he can turn it, he will. Don't try to make it quicker by making a great, acrobatic play. Just make plays."
That conservative mindset is very common around programs that tend to post the best fielding percentages. Part of it comes from an acknowledgement that amateur baseball players are just that—amateurs, who should not be expected to defend at the level of big leaguers. The average major league team fielded at a .983 clip last year—higher than the national leader in college baseball. The best big league teams fielded at .988, and the worst at .979.
"If a college team is fielding .975 they're good; if a big league team is fielding .975, they're the worst team in the history of baseball," UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie says.
Obviously, then, college players should not try to mimic everything big leaguers can do in the field.
"We've had a particular problem on the feed of the double play—we have a couple freshmen that want to do this backhand power flip to the shortstop," Gillespie says. "It's sort of a big league deal that certain major leaguers do, but it's an advanced skill, and I don't like it. It's gotten to the point I've had to say, 'No, you are not allowed to do that, it's going to end up in left field.' Well they're not on board with that. So I have to convince them somehow that what we believe about this deal is better than what they wanted to do. There are certain things that there is no debate about, I'm inalterable. If I'm wrong about it, well, that's just what I'm committed to."
Gillespie's bedrock principles of defense center around throwing mechanics.
"I'm a huge believer in getting your arm up to throw," says Gillespie, who coached a national champion at Southern California in 1998. "When guys drop their arm to throw, they're just Cadillac-ing it, they're being a cool breeze. Or they're having a lack of confidence. I think guys need to get their arms up to throw—it gives them the best chance for backspin rotation and accuracy. And no lob throws. On pickoffs, on bunts that get picked up, lob throws are the best way to get the ball thrown into the bullpen."
And Gillespie insists that infielders move their feet to throw; third basemen are taught to get their feet under them and develop a rhythm, rather than just catching the ball and firing immediately to second base on a force play.
But moving their feet too much is not good, either. Years ago, Gillespie adopted a favorite credo of late Cal Poly Pomona coaching legend John Scolinos: right, left, pick-it-up, right, left, throw.
"I think at all levels, most guys take four steps to throw because they have the time to do it," Gillespie says. "I think it's wrong for that to be the habit. You're not going to throw out (Shane) Victorino and (Jimmy) Rollins with four steps. Anybody that plays here or any place I've been, they'll say, 'Right, left, pick-it-up, right, left, throw.' They get sick of hearing that, but it is one of those things I really believe in."
Right, left, throw. Keep your arm up. Hit the cutoff man. You're not a big leaguer; you haven't earned the right to act like one.
"At the next level, you can see the Jeter plays, you can see the talented ones make really, really unique plays," Tanner says. "But where we are, you just try to make plays."
2. Be a hero.
But what if you're a college player with supreme talent who can make the really, really unique plays, but still be steady and fundamentally sound? What if you're Anthony Rendon?
There are countless stories about Rendon, a junior third baseman at Rice, making impossible bare-handed catch-and-throws in one motion to get outs, or diving to his right and throwing across the diamond from his knees to beat a fleet-footed runner. His defense, in fact, was a significant reason he won Baseball America's College Player of the Year award as a sophomore.
"His defense is what makes him what he is," one National League area scout said. "I'm a defense guy—I love defense. We know what the bat is. As an industry, we're always talking about a guy's bat. That's great, but if you can't play a position, you're not going to play in the big leagues. There's no such thing as a 22-year-old DH. Rendon can beat you even if his bat doesn't show up. And 70 percent of the time in the big leagues, their bat doesn't show up. But this guy is a future Gold Glove candidate—no question in my mind."
At Rice, Rendon is encouraged to unleash his dizzying defensive talents—not to be conservative. If he thinks he can make the dazzling play, he should try to do it, and if he makes an error, so be it. Of course, he made just five errors in 63 games last year.
Rendon is a special talent, clearly, but the Owls don't treat him any differently than the rest of their team. Rice coach Wayne Graham does not subscribe to the philosophy of "when in doubt, try to preserve the double play."
"I don't believe you can play that way at the college level," he says. "I think you have to try to make plays because it does a lot to the opposition and it keeps kids aggressive in their own minds. I don't think you can have them be conservative mentally, so we try to go for the great plays. With the bats the way they are now, some people would say, 'Don't go for the dive, try to preserve the double play,' but I anticipate us saying, 'Go for it.' That's the way I've coached for 40 years, and I don't think it'll change now. All in all, we'll err to the aggressive side. But we monitor it; there's a difference between aggression and recklessness."
Graham's philosophy is at the opposite end of the spectrum from that of Tanner, Servais, McNally and Gillespie. But the Owls ranked 25th in the nation in fielding percentage last year (.974), and fifth in defensive efficiency (.711).
Every coach must find a defensive philosophy that works for his own program.
3. Don't dawdle.
Maybe, as Gillespie contends, you won't throw out Victorino or Rollins from shortstop if you take four steps to throw. But how many guys can run like Victorino or Rollins?
It doesn't matter how many, according to McNally.
"We allow guys to be aggressive within our framework: attack the ball, train at a very fast tempo when we take our reps," he says. "We talk about Ichiro running down the line—if we practice at that speed, we'll never have to speed up when the game starts."
Creighton takes that uptempo mindset even further.
"We play what I call a fast break version of baseball," Servais says. "We try to get the ball into a pitcher's hands as quickly as possible and have him deliver it. We feel like if we play the pace I'd like to, the players will stay focused more. Most of our games are played in two hours, 15 minutes. I just know your ability to concentrate will be greater in a shorter time frame. Our practices are all geared toward two-and-a-half-hour practice times, because I hope we can play the game in two and a half hours, so they mirror each other."
Tanner said he picked up the same ideas about practice length from former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano, when Tanner coached the Wolfpack baseball team.
"When I was younger, I tried to see how much I could get done in a practice, but I'm not sure it was as effective as I wanted it to be," Tanner says. "I think I've learned to maybe condense my practices more than I did years ago. I try to get out to practice with a heightened awareness, so players are very attentive and with you. I always take batting practice, and any time batting practice is going on, there's a sense of urgency on defense. Guys play balls off the bat. Coaches hit fungoes all day long, and it's great practice, routine. But there's nothing like the real thing, nothing like balls coming off the bat. We put great emphasis, especially with the outfielders—that's where you learn to play outfield, learn to take angles, read balls off the bat."
4. If you can't teach it, don't preach it.
Servais believes it is important to simplify the game as much as possible. The more his players practice a select set of fundamental skills, the more proficient they will become at those skills. He draws a contrast between that approach and the more complicated West Coast style.
"We don't have eight different bunt defenses or five different pickoff plays to second base," Servais said.
Oregon's George Horton is the quintessential West Coast coach, a disciple of long-time Cerritos (Calif.) JC coach Wally Kincaid, whose ultra-detailed small ball style also influenced former Long Beach State coaches Dave Snow and Mike Weathers, current Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano, and countless others.
Horton's Ducks do not have eight different bunt defenses. They have 12.
If a runner is at first base, the Ducks have five different bunt defenses. If there are runners at first and second, or just at second with no outs, they have six plays. And they have another designed to defend a safety squeeze with runners at first and third.
One of Oregon's bunt defenses—No. 6—is designed for a specific situation: the ninth inning, with the Ducks leading by two runs. They almost got to use it last year in a regional game against Connecticut. Almost.
The point is, Oregon prepares for every situation Horton can dream up.
"When we talk to our teams about the importance of bunt defense and bunt offense, it probably hits home a little more about the details and the concentration levels in practice," Horton says. "A lot of coaches tend not to run the first-and-third trick plays even though they've got them in their book, because they'll just let the guy swing away. Now with the new bats, you might see more coaches try those plays more, so a smart coach works more on the first-and-third defense. That's certainly the page we're on here, and we've always emphasized those little details up here."
But coaches must be careful not to outsmart themselves. Gillespie tells a story from his days as the head coach at JC of the Canyons (Calif.), when his team faced Los Angeles Harbor JC, coached by Jim O'Brien. O'Brien ran a bunt defense where the second baseman crashed toward the plate and the first baseman stayed on the bag.
"I put that in—I thought that was cool," Gillespie says. "The players like those things—it's like the pistol offense. So one time we put that play on, and our righthanded pitcher fielded the ball and turned and threw, and he hit the second baseman right in the ear. If it wasn't serious, it was hilarious. He was fine, but we quit running that play after that."
If you're going to run a complicated defensive scheme, make sure you invest enough practice time in teaching it properly.
"It isn't what the coach knows, it's what the guys out there with the gloves know," Horton says. "You can't expect players to execute with competence if you don't invest the time."
5. Catchers better catch.
Sure, every coach would love to have Ivan Rodriguez—a catcher with a rifle arm who can shut down opposing running games with his reputation alone. But at the college level, arm strength takes a backseat. Every coach we talked with just wants somebody who can receive and block, first and foremost. The rest is gravy.
"I think there's way too much emphasis on arm strength in a catcher," says Servais, whose nephew Scott, now the Rangers' farm director, played 11 seasons as a catcher in the big leagues. "Let's assume in a normal nine-inning game there will be 140 pitches thrown, and he'll have to throw out two or three runners. So he first has to catch a ball and receive it firmly, maybe get a pitch or two called strikes. He's got to have good feet, got to have the ability to block pitches, so pitchers have confidence to throw some pitches in the dirt. He's got to have leadership ability. The TCU guy last year (Bryan Holaday) was a great example of that—there wasn't anybody better. They all pointed toward the catcher being key to that team."
"I think the most important thing for a catcher is that the pitcher's comfortable," adds Tanner. "Pitchers can throw a ball in the dirt when they want to waste a pitch ahead in the count, and the catcher's going to keep it in front of him. Give me a guy with an accurate arm—2.0(-second pop time) is fine with me—and can handle pitchers."
6. Think outside the profile.
Gillespie will tell you that having a good defensive shortstop is "very, very important." Coaches talk all the time about being strong up the middle, and there's no question that is crucial. But some coaches try to maximize their offensive potential by putting shakier defenders at the corners.
"As coaches, the first thing you always want to know is who's going to pitch against you," Gillespie says. "Well, if pitching's that important—and it is—then we're nuts if we don't emphasize defense, because we can really screw up our pitching if we don't have good defense. Yet we can all emphasize offense too much and screw up our defense, hope they don't hit it to him. Well, they are going to hit it to him—you can't hide anybody. So when we are rational, we try to emphasize defense at every spot."
So often, a team's worst defender gets stuck at first base. Servais thinks that's a mistake.
From 2006-09, the Bluejays were fortunate to have a rock-solid first baseman in Darin Ruf, who made just four errors in four seasons. Servais came to really value that stability.
"It's a security blanket for your infielders," he says. "If they make a throw to first and it's anywhere close to where it needs to be, the runner is out. As much as you preach proper footwork with infielders and being accurate with their throws, they're going to miss plays. The days of putting an unathletic guy at first because he's got a great bat, and trying to hide him out there, those days are long gone. I think you're starting to see that trend now—look at Dustin Ackley at North Carolina, he was an athletic guy playing first base."
McNally says he looks for a first baseman with range, and he's not afraid to put a middle infielder at first to improve his defense.
"If defense is going to be our thing, in every different way, the way we teach it and measure it, we've got to be creative," he said. "I've had a 6-foot-8 catcher and a 5-foot-8 first baseman at different times. I think ideally you'd have a 6-8 guy with range at first, and a more standard-sized guy at catcher. The tools we emphasize at different spots might be a little different than how people might generally look at it."
For instance, McNally emphasizes arm strength at second base, which is one reason he likes playing two-way standout Marcus Stroman at second, rather than short.
"A lot of times you'll see the guy with the arm at short, the guy with the better hands at second; I'm comfortable flip-flopping that," he says. "I like to have arm strength at second. If there's a bang-bang double play, a guy like Stroman can get you by a half step, or he can make the play up the middle. At short, I'd love to have a guy with both, but if I had to pick one, I want the hands. At third base, you have to make the play on a slow roller and make the throw from a lot of different angles. That's better for us than maybe having a big 6-3 guy with a big arm."
7. Instill a commitment to team defense—no matter what.
Most important of all is getting players to take pride in their defense and be accountable. During a clinic at January's American Baseball Coaches Association convention, Clemson coach Jack Leggett said every play in practice is charted, and players are given plusses or minuses that are tallied at the end of each practice. During practices at Mississippi, the player who made the best defensive play the day before wears a yellow t-shirt—an idea Horton said he might borrow.
At Duke, the coaches track ground balls in practice the same way they might track batting average. "If you take 100 ground balls in practice, we're going to track them—you were 99 for 100 today, or you were 83 for 100," McNally says. "Doing that makes players realize every rep matters."
When coaches place that much value on practicing defense, players begin to appreciate how much it matters.
"The thing I'm impressed most with our players is their ability to buy into it, because it's not what we've been taught a lot growing up," Servais says. "It's offense, offense, offense."
When players arrive at college campuses, it needs to be defense, defense, defense. Then offense.
"We explain to the guys, 'You play defense 120 pitches per game, and you hit four or five times,'" Horton says. "You get your name in Baseball America or the newspaper more often because of what you do on offense, not defense, so that's unfortunate. The very first discussions we have are defense, and we make it a zero-tolerance issue—they're not allowed to take their offense to defense. You see an outfielder or a shortstop who just left the bases loaded, he's got his head down—he's not committed to defense. Well, I would take him out of the game immediately. We have zero tolerance for guys that aren't willing to play team defense."
Coaches set the tone for their programs. If they make it clear they're serious about defense, players will be serious about defense.
Then it's just a matter of playing catch.