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Fundamentals, chemistry are keys to team's success

Shortstop Ian Desmond hopes to have a hand in the Nationals' improved defense this season.
Shortstop Ian Desmond hopes to have a hand in the Nationals' improved defense this season. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In his first full year as manager of the Orioles, Earl Weaver looked at his magnificent infield defense of Brooks Robinson, Davey Johnson, Boog Powell and Mark Belanger -- one of the finest ever assembled -- and wondered how he could maximize their skills.

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So, the Earl of Baltimore told his groundskeeper to let the infield grass grow extra long. That way, with players who eventually won 29 Gold Gloves, nothing would get past them. Then, Weaver waited and watched for a month. The O's seldom made a spectacular defensive play. But their opponents constantly did, converting plays at the very edge of their defensive range.

One day, Weaver finally figured it out. "Cut the grass extra short," he told his grounds crew. Suddenly, as if by magic, Brooks, the Blade and Davey were making backhand stabs, diving stops and acrobatic throws all over the infield. Their foes: Nothing. Every difficult play seemed suddenly just beyond their reach.

By letting the grass grow, Weaver had actually neutralized much of his players' superior range. They really could get almost everything -- and too easily. Only the true rockets got past them. It was the mediocre fielders with limited range that he had helped. They were just barely good enough to take advantage of the weeds.

That's how precisely baseball has calibrated itself over a century.

Nothing has ever mystified baseball thinkers, even the Little Genius, like defense. Everybody knows it's important. But, mostly, that wisdom is as imprecise as Casey Stengel's quip that, "I don't like those guys who drive in two runs and let in three." You can count RBI and errors. But it's a nightmare to try to quantify exactly how many runs a player's defense saves, or costs, his team.

In recent years, plenty have tried. It's a noble cause. But perhaps a quixotic quest. The current sabermetric methods to quantify defense (and everybody seems to have one) are certainly an improvement over our past ignorance. But I don't trust any of them because they so often produce nonsensical results.

Last year, for example, my favorite baseball stat site (http://baseball-reference.com) said that the defensively atrocious Nationals had a horrid score of "-39.0" in Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average on the road. But, at home, the Nats were +18.0, the mark of a very good team, by the exact same stat. That's just more sun-rising-in-the-North nonsense, like a respected site (http://fangraphs.com) that claims Derek Jeter has lousy range at shortstop in some years, average in others, but somehow was exceptionally good last year. What, he suddenly got much younger and "rangier" at 35?

Defensive analysis may still be murky -- enjoy the new stats, but check them against what your eyes actually see -- but it's indisputable that defense is vital. Because it is so contagious.

As examples, consider the '88-'89 Orioles and the '09 Nats. In '88, the Orioles started their season 0-21 and ended 54-107. They made 118 errors, close to the league average at that time. Worse, they had little outfield speed with Joe Orsulak their best defender. On opening day in 1989, one of three young swift rookie outfielders, Steve Finley, made a spectacular catch crashing into the right field wall. He hurt himself, but the O's won and a tone was set.

Suddenly, every run -- in fact, every base -- mattered to the Orioles. If Mike Devereaux, Brady Anderson and Finley were willing to throw themselves all over the outfield, and sometimes above or into walls, just to prevent one ball from falling to the ground, all the other Orioles had to care, too.

From valuing defense on a team-wide basis, it is just a split-second's work to grasp the importance of old-fashioned fundamentals throughout the rest of the game. How can you bear to waste an effort like Finley's by messing up one of the sport's simple but infuriating plays, like hitting the cut-off man, keeping the double play in order, never messing up a bunt situation or missing a sign?


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