Thursday, November 03, 2005

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

So, I was reading over the real Golden Gloves, and the Hardball Times' Golden Gloves, and Tangotiger's Scouting Report, and thinking about why some players appear to be so good or bad in the field, despite how good or bad they actually are.

Take the Mariners' outfield -- people think that Jeremy Reed is pretty awesome because he makes all these great diving catches, leaping, sliding, covering more distance than seems possible at first, turning doubles into outs. Now, Jeremy Reed actually *is* a damn good outfielder, regardless of dramatics. But why would anyone criticize Ichiro for not making dives and leaps and slides to get to the ball?

Some people realize that it's because Ichiro doesn't ever need to dive to get to a ball. It's really rare that a ball lands in the outfield that Ichiro could have gotten to by diving that he couldn't have gotten to running.

How does this happen? It happens because some outfielders have better instincts than others; some react immediately at the crack at the bat. Ichiro is one of those guys.

However, a casual fan often won't notice this, and a TV-watching fan definitely won't notice this.

Why don't they notice?

Simple. It's because we are all subconsciously trained to keep our eyes on the ball.

For example, suppose a fly ball is hit to right-center. What do we as fans actually perceive? We see the pitcher holding the ball, getting the signal from his catcher. We see him nod, wind up, and throw the ball. We see the batter react and swing and hit the ball. Then, we watch the ball fly up into the air, and follow its arc; we're probably vaguely aware of where it is, whether it's foul or fair. But it's not until this point -- when the ball has almost come back down to earth -- that we actually see where Ichiro, or Jeremy Reed, is positioned. And if the ball is really closer to right, chances are Ichiro is already under it, glove up in the air, left hand bracing the glove from behind.

We rarely perceive the actual moment where the outfielder takes off to get the ball, though.

Even on TV, when they'll replay a good catch ninety million times -- like a Jeremy Reed sliding catch, they'll show it from a few angles -- first the ball flying out there, then you'll see Reed running, then you'll see him sliding, then you'll see the actual catch, with the ball landing in his glove. You'll probably see the ball land in his glove from four different angles at four different speeds. But you won't see his launch moment, the nanosecond of reaction when the bat strikes the ball.

It's a little different for infielders, I think. The amount of time between a ball hit from home plate and between Yuniesky Betancourt adroitly running in, scooping it up, and firing it to first, is slightly less. The TV cameras will definitely have that play from start to finish, including the takeoff. Even if you're keeping your eye on the ball, the infield isn't so far out of your peripheral vision to prevent you from seeing the movement of the infielders, at least the ones in the path of the ball. I know that in the postseason coverage, even on TV, I could see Joe Crede getting a good jump on knocking down almost anything hit near third base, due to the angles.

Anyway, I have no idea whether this theory is crazy, but I think next year I'm going to force myself to think about who and where I'm watching, and see what the different players are doing. I'm going to try to appreciate the field movements as, say, Jose Lopez moves into short right field to back up Richie Sexson fielding a grounder out past first base, and as Jamie Moyer runs in to cover first, rather than just being shocked and delighted as they pull off a rare 3-4-1 non-double-play, and all I've seen is the path of the ball.

Damnit, I hate when I come up with ideas like this 5 months before the 2006 season starts!

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