Solving The Defensive ‘Equation’
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Late Friday afternoon, on the eve of his first promotion to the major leagues, Jonathan Diaz was in the middle of a discourse about defense on the diamond.
He was speaking specifically about awareness and anticipation, understanding the situation of the game and being proactive as much as reactive when balls are put in play. Though an infielder, to reinforce his point, Diaz marveled at the outfield excellence of his Pawtucket Red Sox teammate Jackie Bradley Jr.
“I told Jackie that he’ll never win a Gold Glove Award,” Diaz joked, “because he makes it look too easy.”
Diaz knows of what he speaks. He too has a habit of making the difficult look routine with a glove on his left hand. He’s also well aware that much of what makes a great play — especially for those who turn the extraordinary into ordinary — takes place well before contact.
“I think one of the key aspects of this game is to always try to think ahead,” Diaz said. “It’s almost like a game of chess, trying to anticipate everything that happens before it happens, so that you’re ready for it when it does occur.
“Every time I’m out there, it’s almost like an equation, trying to figure out the situation, all the things that (involve) the hitter, the pitcher, the inning, the score. All those things go into account, when you’re trying to figure out what the hitter’s trying to do, what the pitcher’s trying to do and then you just try to play the game accordingly.”
Neither surprisingly nor coincidentally, Bradley sees things the same way. He does it with what manager Gary DiSarcina suspects is “exceptional eyesight.”
“I see pretty good,” Bradley laughs. “The eye tests came out very well, I believe, in spring training. I think it was some ridiculous numbers like 20/12 and 20/15 vision…I guess that’s a pretty good thing.
“I think it all comes with being able to see where the pitcher is delivering, where the catcher is setting up. Reading hitters’ swings, that’s one thing I like to do. Just knowing who the hitter is and what tendencies (he) may have. Positioning yourself in the right position before the pitch is even made helps as well. Getting good jumps is something you work on, the footwork, the preparation beforehand. And as the pitch is delivered you get a certain feel for what (a) hitter can do with a certain pitch.”
By first investing the mental preparation, the physical act seems second nature.
“What’s obviously special about Jackie is just his instincts,” says George Lombard, who coordinates outfield instruction in the Red Sox system. “(Jackie’s) not the fastest guy in the world, but he just loves the game and he really competes at a high level and plays the game the way it’s meant to be played.”
For Bradley, the competition begins during batting practice. Again borrowing DiSarcina’s words, Bradley “power shags” while teammates hit in the cage. Simulating game-like conditions as much as possible, Bradley is the rare player who doesn’t use those pregame minutes, which often amount to an on-field social hour, for catching up with teammates. He’s more intent on catching fly balls.
Jackie Bradley Jr.
“I would love to say it’s consistent in this organization, but I would have to say that he’s an exception,” Lombard said, laughing. “I have not run across a player that gives that good an effort, day-in and day-out, just shagging. And as an outfield coach, there’s nothing (you) can do to create game speed other than live B.P. So for him to put that effort (into it) at a valuable time like that, it’s really going to further his career.”
“It’s definitely something I’ve always, always done,” Bradley explains. “I feel like it gives me an opportunity to see how my legs feel that particular day. You aren’t going to feel 100 percent every single day. You’ve got to know what you have for that day and give your all for that particular day. It allows me to check out the surroundings, the field, the playing conditions, how the sun may possibly be and I get to check out the backstop as well, visually, how I’ll see certain things.”
But lest one think it’s strictly serious business, Bradley makes it known that such hard work is in good fun.
“It’s just fun to me, just being out there catching fly balls and doing a couple of tricks here and there, just to mess around,” he adds, smiling. “It keeps it interesting.
“It all just comes with time and practice and doing it every single day.”