McDonald: Braves stress the importance of defense

From Anna McDonald at on July 22, 2014, with SABR member Fredi Gonzalez:

Andrelton Simmons’ eyes tell him everything. He stands where the infield dirt meets the outfield grass. He prepares, knowing where each batter tends to hit the ball. He anticipates where the swing and the pitch will intersect, yet he says his fielding precision at shortstop comes down to one thing: what he sees when the ball hits the bat.

First, Simmons said, he observes direction. Is it a ball he has to go in to get? Or does he have to go back and away from the cut of the grass?

“You anticipate it, but you can’t really predict where [the ball] is going to go because some guys are just quick with their swing,” the Atlanta Braves shortstop said before a game in St. Louis. “Some guys might get jammed. You’ve got to see it. He might be trying to pull, but the pitcher might have thrown the ball where he didn’t want it to go.”

It is in there, those moments when a pitcher does not have his best stuff on the mound, where the Braves really see Simmons’ impact on the field.

“A guy just so happens to get jammed a little and he hits the ball up the middle, and there’s Simmons; smack, he’s out,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “A different shortstop, the ball goes through.”

Fielding is the one aspect of baseball where our eyes convey a different story to everyone. Where someone sees good range, another will perceive better positioning. Where one evaluator notices reaction time, another observes slower velocity off the bat. One fielder might think he needs to go back, another will see he has time to let the ball come to him.

Looking at the numbers, they leave room to debate the best fielders, too. Take defensive runs saved (DRS). Jason Heyward rates the highest in the majors with 25 DRS this season. But use ultimate zone rating (UZR) and the Kansas City Royals’ Alex Gordon leads the majors at 23.7 — with Heyward second.

Gonzalez said he listens to everything he can about advanced statistics. The stat packet he receives is about two inches thick, and as he flips through it each day he’ll usually find a magic number to help with the game matchups. Some days, though, there are no numbers to help him prepare for the game.

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Originally published: July 22, 2014. Last Updated: July 22, 2014.