Earlier in the season, I tracked down the recently traded Jamey Carroll
in the Twins’ clubhouse and picked his brain on the art of fielding.
A player’s offensive production tends to attract the lion’s share of the attention while the contributions with the glove go under-appreciated – especially if a player is not necessarily flashy. As Bill James once said, “Offense is making things happen. Defense is keeping things from happening. People would much rather watch things happen.”
People may not have noticed, but Jamey Carroll kept a lot of things from happening. He was signed following a disastrous stretch of defensive baseball which featured Tsuyoshi Nishioka at short and second and current third baseman Trevor Plouffe manning short and throwing bullets into the first base stands. Carroll had proven to be a stabilizing force in the infield.
By drawing on his years of experience he has been able to compensate for the lack of overall speed and declining reaction time as he approaches his 40th
“For me, personally, that is a big huge part of the game,” Carroll said in regards to positioning himself before each pitch. “Knowing the swing of the hitter, knowing the type of pitcher who is pitching and the type of pitches he pitches, knowing the hitter and if he is hitting good or not hitting good. Obviously I want to try to be in the right spot so I can field it cleanly and have time to make a good throw – that’s not always the case but I put that all into play before every pitch.”
Preparation was a key part of Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken’s success. In the book Men At Work
, George Will profiled Ripken’s outstanding defensive contributions and the shortstop said that what helped him become one of the game’s elite defenders was understanding the same things Carroll mentioned above: the hitter, the pitcher and the situation. One of Nishioka’s biggest downfalls was his lack of knowledge when it came to his opponents. In 2011, he attempted to rush a throw from short against the slow-footed Travis Hafner and wound up bobbling the ball while charging it hard. Had Nishioka had more familiarity, he may have waited back instead and made a clean play. (Maybe.)
Over his 12 year career, Carroll has contributed extensively at three positions in the infield. While spending the vast majority of his time at second base, he has also seen plenty of action at third and short as he developed into a utility player.
During his stay in Minnesota, playing next to him have been two displaced shortstops in Trevor Plouffe and Brian Dozier, two young players attempting to adapt to new positions. Where Dozier’s defense has been impressive at second base, Plouffe’s glove at third has left some things to be desired. Carroll’s positional diversity gives him the ability to understand the challenges for his former teammates.
“All three of them have something different about that makes either fun or more difficult,” said Carroll. “Like at second base, turning a double play with not being able to see the runner or see where you are throwing. At shortstop you have to constantly be on the move, you have to have some rhythm with more ground to cover. Then at third, where second and short you have some room to be able to get reads on the ball, at third it is either smoked to you or a chopper, you feel closer to the hitter so that has its own charm. I think if you are playing second or third, you’re footwork does not have to be as skilled as it does when you go to short and you realize how important it is and how much it really is needed. So I think playing those positions and then jumping over to short, it’s more challenging that way.”
With the analytics of the game expanding rapidly, especially the advent of advanced defensive metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating, I wondered if Carroll had ever been curious on how his fielding contributions stacks up to his contemporaries by the various new measurement systems. When I asked him about if he ever looked up those numbers, he shot me a look as if I inquired whether he sprinkled his glove with magic fairy dust to help him field better.
“Maybe when everything is all said and done I’ll go back and take a look,” he said. “I feel it is more of a jinx kind of thing. You can get caught up in it – more so with hitting because that’s something more effected on a daily basis. But you know when you make an error and it sticks with you. You know if you were out of position or feel like you made a mistake while reading a certain thing. I don’t understand the range factor and all that stuff.
It goes back to the fact that I’m a big believer in positioning. So when you start judging by range factor and certain guys have this or that, I almost take pride that I am in the right place at the right time instead of having to range for a ball.”
What about things that defensive metrics don’t measure or account for from infielders, like knowing where to be for outfield cut? One of the biggest knocks on Nishioka was that he would put himself in a poor or even wrong place to take cuts from the outfielders. Are there guys who have a better ability to position themselves to help reduce the likelihood of runners taking extra bases?
“I think it is pretty basic as far as where the play happens and knowing which base. Obviously when the ball is hit and how the ball is hit usually dictates where you need to line up to be. But you also factor in where it is to what particular guy as far as some guys you need to go farther out on and others you don’t but for the most part, where you line up for each base is pretty basic.”
Carroll falls in the camp of a spectacularly unspectacular defender. His range is not what it was when he was roaming the artificial infield of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium at the beginning of the century. The first step does not fire off like it once did. The arm, which was showcased in his inning of work in Kansas City recently, is not what it used to be. Nevertheless, Carroll has been steady and committed to his craft.