Throwback in time: Outfield assists on rise

Throwback in time: Outfield assists on rise

Throwback in time: Outfield assists on rise
A triple is frequently touted as the most exciting play in baseball. It has nothing to do with the thrill of seeing someone sprint 270 feet -- but with the anticipation and prospect of the dash ending in a tag applied with the ball shot out of an outfielder's cannon.

The race between one man's legs and another man's arm is an adrenaline rush, a burst of action sure to lift rumps out of grandstand seats. The focal point doesn't have to be third base: Is there anything more rousing than a left fielder who doesn't concede that run on third, but charges the one-out fly, locked and loaded?

Old-time radio announcers used to say of a thrown missile, "You can hang a week's wash on that clothesline." Arms were measured in calibers. Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle -- they needed licenses for those guns.

Gradually, deterrent throwing, along with other subtleties, became eclipsed by a louder game. Now, has this lost art been rediscovered? Is the thrill of the throw back?

The numbers say yes. Assists by Major League outfielders are on a pace to top 900 for the first time since 2001. The spike is fronted by the Royals, whose outfielders already have more assists (31) than they had all last season (21). Cleveland's Shin-Soo Choo led with 14 assists last season; Kansas City left fielder Alex Gordon already has 13.

And, as often is the case, the numbers lie: Assists are up not because outfielders' arms are better -- but because offense is worse.

That appears to be the consensus among experts on the subject, Major League third-base coaches who have a similar credo to that of Kenny Rogers in "The Gambler" -- Know when to hold 'em ... know when to run.

"If there are less home runs, you don't wait around for them," said the Dodgers' Tim Wallach. "You try to be more aggressive on the bases. From talking to a lot of good third-base coaches that have done this longer than I have, if you're not getting any guys thrown out, you're not sending enough guys."

In other words, players are running into more outs because low-scoring games demand they take chances that turn out to be foolhardy. Only throwing opportunities are up, not throwing prowess.

Indeed, under the Sabermetrics microscope, Major League baserunners are actually taking the extra base at a greater rate than in any season since 2003.

That can be at least partly attributed to the power threats at the plate, said San Diego's Glenn Hoffman: "What helps is if you have a lot of power hitters, because they [outfielders] have to play deeper."

Yet, runners are also getting thrown out at a pace not seen since 2001. Partly, a ballpark factor.

"The ballparks are so small that you can't just send guys with two outs like you used to all the time on one-hop bullets," said the Giants' Tim Flannery.

Still, the two trends add up to a whopping contradiction that is perfectly fitting for this issue. Big league third base coaches couldn't even agree on whether the throwing skills of outfielders are improving or in decline.

"It's worse," Kansas City's Eddie Rodriguez said in assessing the overall throwing ability of outfielders. "Because nobody takes [pre-game] infield anymore. It's a lost art and that's a shame. We are maybe the only club that does it the first day of every series."

"I think there's less arms," concurred St. Louis' Jose Oquendo. "You've still got a few guys with different teams with good arms, but I think you can be more aggressive now than in the past."

Countered the Pirates' Nick Leyva, "I think [outfielders] are starting to take a little more pride in it. Teams are stressing it a little more. We don't necessarily take infield [practice], but if you notice during batting practice, our outfielders throw every other day. They throw to the bases. You didn't used to see that in the past."

And Bobby Abreu, the Angels' designated hitter who had a feared arm in his earlier days as a right fielder for the Phillies and Yankees, chimed in, "There are a lot of guys out there with great arms. It's always been like that, to me."

Highlighting such differences in opinion is the result of our informal poll of third-base coaches on the best outfield arms in their respective league. No fewer than 23 -- 14 in the National League and nine in the American -- received mentions.

Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki was voted the AL's top gunslinger, with Choo and Jose Bautista (who ironically just transitioned to third base for the Blue Jays) also getting a lot of support.

"Choo is probably the most respected arm because he can throw from the warning track and he's accurate and he gets on the baseball," said Seattle's Jeff Datz. "He does all of those things well."

The Dodgers' Matt Kemp, the Nationals' Jayson Werth and the Reds' Jay Bruce shared NL honors.

On one point, there was unanimity among the coaches: Arm strength is only one component of being a threat out there.

"If he's a guy that busts his butt getting over to cut off balls and things like that, those are the vital things I look for," said Houston's Dave Clark.

"Werth charges the ball," Oquendo said. "One of the key things is the way you charge the ball. Werth has a decent arm, but he charges it. He wants to throw you out. That's a guy that I keep my eye on more than some other guys. Same with Bruce. Some guys might have a cannon but they like to short-hop the catcher. The other guy who throws more accurate, that's the guy [to be wary of]."

"The arm strength doesn't determine whether you're a good outfielder," said Datz. "I don't think that the arm is a priority but it's an important aspect of an outfielder, sure. You don't grade an outfielder just on his arm, no, you got to catch the ball and run the ball down."

"It's not always about the arm," said Bob Dernier, who is the Cubs' first-base coach but previously instructed their Minor League outfielders. "It's about how well they hustle after the ball and how mechanically sound they are and catch and throw. There's more to it than having a great arm."

As for the ultimate contradiction: the greater the arm, the fewer the assists. People simply don't run on you, braked by your reputation. It happened to the legendary Clemente, after he had amassed 65 assists in a three-year span from 1960-62.

The converse is also true: Without a reputation, you can ambush runners. Consider Gordon, the converted third baseman.

Gordon will quickly become feared, says his manager, a former third-base coach.

"The ones that always scared me, coaching third, wasn't the right field strong arms, it was the left field strong arms that always made me nervous," Ned Yost said. "And I would not want to be coaching third base with Gordo in left field."

Sounds as though Gordon could join the ranks of Dernier's "government-level assassins."

"That's what I called the kids in the Minor Leagues," explained the former instructor. "We had challenges, and in order to get to the level of government-level assassin, you had to bull's-eye some people."

Tom Singer is a national reporter for Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.