Defensive ability combines ability and aptitude
NEW YORK—When you think of Best Tools, at first blush you tend to think of them as easily quantifiable physical skills. A player either runs fast or runs slow. He has a strong arm or he does not. He can crush balls over the fence or he cannot.
On closer examination, though, all the supposedly simple physical tools have a subtler element, the certain something that translates physical ability into successful application on the diamond.
And when you're looking at the five tools of position players, no skill is more difficult to project than defense. Sure, it's hard for scouts to predict with certainty whether a player who can hit in high school or college—against usually inferior pitching, with metal bats—will hit in professional ball, and for that matter whether successful minor leaguers will hit in the major leagues.
But you can be pretty sure that a player who can't hit at one of those lower levels won't suddenly learn to as he moves up.
That's not necessarily so for defense, part of what makes that translation even more difficult. Players who fail miserably in the minor leagues can become good (or even great) defensive players in the minors. Derek Jeter famously committed 56 errors at low Class A Greensboro in 1993, and while his defensive value is the subject of much debate within baseball circles, suffice it to say the Yankees have been satisfied with his work there.
Third baseman Eric Chavez was regarded as a bat-first player when the Athletics made him their first-round pick in 1996. And even after he broke into the big leagues in 1998, our scouting report on him after the season began with this weakness: "Chavez needs more refinement on defense."
Chavez got the needed refinement, going on to win the American League Gold Glove at his position for six straight seasons (2001-06) before injuries derailed his career. Part of the reason might have come earlier in the scouting report: "Perhaps Chavez's most important asset is his ability to make adjustments."
As much as any skill in the game, defense cannot become a plus tool for a player unless he has not only the physical ability but also the aptitude—the ability to make adjustments—to put that ability to best use.
But which is more important? We went straight to some of the best defensive players in the game to get their answers. You won't be surprised to learn that they said it was a combination of tools and aptitude, but as they elaborated they revealed that it may be the instincts that are truly most important.
Learning On The Fly
Another factor that makes defense harder to rate than other tools is that some of baseball's best defensive players didn't even play their current positions as amateurs. So while players might have some polishing to do with their other skills as they move through the minors, they might be learning their defensive position from scratch.
Take Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, for example. He played mostly third base as an amateur, and the Expos made him a 35th-round pick out of Baseball Canada's academy in 2000. He played two seasons at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College instead, where then-Dodgers area scout Clarence Johns saw him and immediately projected him as a catcher. The Dodgers picked him in the 17th round in 2002 and he moved behind the plate in 2003.
As with Chavez, Martin's scouting reports note his inexperience and how he was learning the nuances of the position. But they also talk about his athleticism and aptitude and how quickly he seemed to be taking to catching.
Fresh off his Gold Glove last season, Martin said his physical skills and aptitude have allowed him to be successful and usually can be found with most successful catchers.
"I think it's a combination of both," he said. "You have to be athletic in a way, and instincts are important as well. I mean, instincts when it comes to reading a ball off the bat or reading a bat path before a ball is hit, or recognizing the spin on a breaking ball when it's going to hit in the dirt, stuff like that. But I think you need to be athletic as well."
Martin credited strong instruction for helping translate his physical ability into good defensive performance and giving him a feel for the position. He said he learned a lot from Steve Yeager, the longtime Dodgers catcher who was known for his defensive prowess. Yeager was a hitting coach in the Dodgers system when Martin was coming through, and he's now managing in the independent Golden League. Martin said Yeager taught him a lot of the basics about catching, as well as the mental aspect of the position, particularly pitch-calling and being a leader.
Like other players, Martin recognized a baseline of physical ability that any player has to have to be successful. No amount of instinct in the world can make up for a player who doesn't have the tools to perform the basic functions of his position. But even when enumerating the indispensable tools of a catcher, Martin mixed in traits that would be considered instincts.
"Pitch recognition is one of them," he said. "And you want to have soft hands, to be able to receive the ball well. And when it comes to blocking, you have to have some type of quickness. A lot of it's technique too."
While Martin made the tough move behind the plate, Rangers shortstop Michael Young may be an even more interesting case because he not only moved to a new position once he became a pro, but he then moved again in the major leagues.
Young was primarily an outfielder in college at UC Santa Barbara, but the Blue Jays recognized his value as a middle infielder and played him at second base and shortstop as he rose through the minors. The Rangers traded for him in the middle of the 2001 season, and he broke in as a second baseman in 2001 in deference to shortstop Alex Rodriguez.
Once Rodriguez left for New York, however, the Rangers moved Young back to shortstop and he has proven to be an above-average defender there. Like everyone else, Young recognizes a few skills that are essential at short, but he says instincts are more important.
"Tools are great; everybody wants them, but without instincts they don't mean much," he said. "If you don't have instincts, you're going to be in center field."
Young's speed and arm strength were regarded as his best tools in a 2001 BA scouting report, while his actions were considered better suited for second base. Improvement with his hands has allowed him to succeed at short, though.
"If you don't have hands, you can't play shortstop," he said. "There are so many plays to make that if you don't have the hands to make the routine plays you won't stay there."
Combining The Tools
There may be no player we talked to who better blends tools and instincts into a great defensive combination than White Sox third baseman Joe Crede. While he hasn't won a Gold Glove, Crede is recognized as one of the best defensive third basemen in the game, and when talking to him it's obvious why.
Crede says he spends as much time watching video of his defensive performance in games as he does his hitting. Particularly when he makes a mental note of something during a game, Crede said he'll watch those plays again to see if his mind and body are in unison.
"It's usually just something you felt out there defensively when something happens, whether it was a good play or a bad play," he said. "I'll watch it and see what I did, good or bad, whether with my feet or a throw or the way I played the ball or whatever."
That represents above-average aptitude, combined with physical skills that were always apparent. While scouting reports during Crede's minor league career don't rave about his defense, they consistently note his strong arm and soft hands. (It's interesting to note that in the 1999 White Sox Top 10 Prospects list, Crede was the No. 2 prospect behind another third baseman, Carlos Lee, noting that Crede would be a better defensive player. Uh, you might say that.)
And like most players, Crede says that once you get beyond the basic tools for a position, aptitude or instincts separate players from the pack. Crede said it was particularly noticeable for him this season, after a back injury limited him to 47 games last year.
"Third base is tough; it's a position where you have to be aggressive and make a lot of split-second decisions," he said. "I'm not being as aggressive as I think I should be, sitting back on balls and being passive, and that's what's leading to errors this year.
"There's not much time to make decisions at third base, so your instincts come into play a lot."
You couldn't ask baseball's best players to make a choice, because tools and instincts go hand in hand when you look at the best defenders on the following pages. But if you think of the major leagues as college, you might think of tools as the grades that qualify you for admission, while instincts allow you to graduate.