A few months ago, I was asked the simple question, “what does defensive excellence mean to you?” My simple answer: the ability to change a game with your glove. As we see each year in October during the World Series chase, there are undoubtedly games that shift one way or the other because of defense. One team may win a pennant because of its ability to catch and throw the ball cleanly, while another may head home if it does the opposite. Runs are the game’s currency, and a team’s ability to prevent them on defense is just as important as a club’s ability to score them on offense.
Having come up as a good-field, no-hit infielder, I have always had a love for the glove. It was my ability to play defense that afforded me the opportunities to play in college and professionally when my bat was lagging behind. Further, being around coaches who preached the defensive fundamentals helped me appreciate the nuances of being out in the field and how it often directly played into the end result of a game. When I struggled with the bat, those coaches showed me that there was still a lot I could do with the glove to help us win. That strong belief in the value of defense would later become a big part of my foundation as a coach and would eventually propel me into roles with the Red Sox that were entirely defensively oriented as our current infield and former outfield coordinator.
Defensive excellence looks a bit different for infielders than it might for outfielders. My foundation and ability to understand infield allowed me to see outfield in a completely different light and then, as I learned the detailed parts of outfield play, much of my belief system shifted when it came back to doing a lot of the work on the infield side. But regardless of the position, when you’re talking about elite defenders, the bedrock is reliability. Do you make the routine play, routinely? No matter how many highlight-reel plays you make, if you cannot be relied upon to make that routine play every single time, then you cannot be considered an elite defender. It’s that fundamentally sound reliability from which defensive excellence can be built.
Everything starts with the fundamentals. Simple, foundational work—like hand rolls for infielders or flipped pop ups for outfielders—helps ingrain proper technique into a player’s system so that they have good habits in place for when the more challenging reps and plays to come down the road. Those fundamental drill reps that allow you to isolate specific parts of defensive play are necessary in order to become a fundamentally sound player. Without that base, it’s going be an inconsistent road as you work your way up and try to develop into a reliable and, eventually, elite defender.
While most think of the physical skills needed to play defense, there is also an intellectual aspect of defensive excellence that is a separator between the good and the great. So, we aren’t just referring to the web gems that you see every night on MLB Network; we are also talking about decision making, like throwing the ball to the right base or being in the correct spot on the diamond just in case the play happens to end up there. We are talking about being fearless in not being afraid to make a challenging play. We are talking about smart aggression, knowing within the situation of the game when it’s appropriate to take a chance and when it’s time to play it safe.
Engaging the game is the mental skill of playing defense. It’s understanding the situation and the scoreboard, the combination of which helps drive players’ decisions. When you are constantly teaching that side of the game—which may be in between innings when a guy makes a good or bad decision, or prior to the next game the following day—in the same way that you’re consistently teaching the physical aspects, you are now tag-teaming the fundamentals of the game with the feel for the game and now have a great recipe for defensive success.
Lastly, there is also a significant element of athleticism that comes with defensive excellence. When you think about like a guy like Nolan Arenado and all of the things that he’s able to do at third base, he’s a complete game changer and is arguably the best defensive infielder of this generation. His athleticism and instincts—on top of solid defensive fundamentals—allow him to do some things that a lot of guys won’t even try, and few coaches would ever dare teach. He makes so many different plays in so many ways. Could you imagine a coach telling Arenado there is only one way to field or throw the ball? He is the poster-boy for coaches to let athletes be athletic.
The better athlete you are, the more options you have to make plays. For years, coaches have argued over whether or not infielders should funnel ground balls or to push through them. Outfield experts have long debated fielding a ball with the glove foot forward versus the throwing foot forward. Well, in both cases, why not do both? Often times the play dictates what the fielder does and not the other way around, so the more ways a defender can field the ball, the better a defender will be with different options at play.
There is a path for every player to find their way to becoming productive defensively. First come the foundational fundamentals that will enable you to become routinely reliable. Then comes the feel for the game when you learn what to do and when to do it. Lastly, when you add your own individual athleticism to the pie, your love for the glove will be there on display for all to see every time you take the field.