Nelson Cruz, the Texas Rangers right fielder, had a chance to make a walk-off catch in game 6 of the 2011 World Series. He failed to and his team lost that game and the series itself in game 7.
The Rangers were one strike away from winning the world series, or one out if the ball was put in play. Cardinal David Freese had one ball and two strikes and there were two out in the ninth inning.
Freese hit the next pitch off the right field wall for a triple. But Cruz was right there and appeared to be going to make the catch to win the game and the series. What happened? SI.com’s Tom Verducci thought Cruz was playing too shallow given the game situation. There were two runners on base and the Rangers had a two-run lead.
I did not see how deep Cruz was playing, but it really did not appear to matter. Also, his depth might have been dictated by his manager or a scout report or some such that I am not privy to. Although Cruz himself said if he had it to do over he would have been playing deeper. That is invalid 20/20 hindsight. Evaluation of his pre-hit depth must be based on what he knew at the time—before the hit—If he had played deeper before the hit, a shallow blooper could have tied the game, too.
I was never a great baseball player, but I played hardball until I was 61. I made a full-speed, shoe-string catch in right field in my next-to-last game. My position usually was the one Cruz was playing—right field. Laymen think of right field as where you put the weakest fielder because it is the least busy position. True in Little league, but in older competition, the right fielder is the outfielder with the strongest arm. He sometimes has to throw to third, but the left fielder never has to throw to first.
I am also a student of the game and the author of the books Youth Baseball Coaching and Coaching Teenage and Adult Baseball. When I wrote those books, I included a chapter about the best practices for playing each position. They have separate chapters for each outfield because each outfield is different.
Balls hit to left and right field curve outward towards foul territory. Balls hit to center tend not to curve much. Center fielders can gamble because they always have back up from the left and right field. Right and left fielders need to be careful about gambling to their foul territory side because they have no backup there. With regard to calling a ball hit in the gap, you consider the range of each guy and who is running towards his glove side. In day games, there are different sun angles. And so on.
When I wrote that chapter, I checked what every book I have on baseball—hundreds of them—said about playing outfield. I also read Major League scout Sam Suplizio’s famous treatise on how to play outfield and incorporated his teachings.
I have two problems with Cruz’s play on that ball, which was not judged an error by the official scorekeeper.
• violation of the run-don’t-reach rule
• misjudging the ball
I coached a number of sports, about 35 teams. I have written books about coaching baseball and football. In baseball, football and volleyball, I often found myself telling my players, “Run, don’t reach.” That means you need to go full speed to where you need to get your feet set so you do not have to reach to get the ball. In other words, when you catch a fly ball, I want your feet in perfect position so your arms can be relaxed and bent at the elbow for the catch. Of course, there are times when that is not possible no matter how fast you run.
In this case, it looked like Cruz did not go full speed to the ball by foot and thereby put himself in a position where he had to overcome poor location by reaching for the ball. If you look Cruz up, he is regarded as having excellent range. Good for him, but not on this play.
He is also 6'2" 240 pounds, which is markedly unhealthy according to doctors (a body mass index of 30.8 where over 24.9 is considered unhealthy) and not ideal for optimizing your running speed. (I know that one fat baseball player once responded to a woman who expressed surprise that he, an athlete, could be so fat. “I’m not an athlete, lady,” he responded. “I’m a baseball player.” Very funny. But I doubt it would be a good idea for Cruz to try that line on Hall of Fame pitcher and Rangers owner Nolan Ryan.)
Cruz’s manager Ron Washington said of the play,
He froze, and the ball took off. If he just takes the right route it's an easy out. You've got to stay behind the baseball and he didn't. I thought it was going to be caught. It didn't turn out that way.
Cruz was an all-star mainly for his hitting, but he has that good range statistically, too.
I commented when I saw the play that he misjudged the ball. So did the announcers. Laymen might figure that can happen to anyone. Not so.
Playing infield takes talent. I do not have it. My oldest son does. He can play any position. But I have to play outfield. Anyone can learn to play outfield. How? You learn the sort of best practices I put in my book chapter on each outfield position, pick the right glove (big and lays flat when you put it down, not those bowl-shaped infielder’s gloves), but mainly, playing outfield is experience. You do not misjudge fly balls because you have played the outfield a zillion times in games and during batting practice. Having someone hit fungoes to you (batter tosses the ball up in the air a couple of feet then hits it when it comes back down—roughly like a tennis serve) does not work because they do not curve outward towards foul territory like batting practice or regular game play.
Major league outfielders often run full speed towards a spot without following the ball with their eyes then turn and catch it. I cannot do that. They can tell where it’s going by the sound the hit makes. I played with metal bats (as an adult) and I cannot tell from the sound where it’s going. They have pro-level eyesight. They know how much it will curve based on how far of straight away centerfield the trajectory is. That, I can do.
In short, outfielders are not allowed to misjudge a fly ball. Infielders and catchers are allowed to misjudge pop-ups because they do all sorts of crazy curves. But hits to the outfield are far more predictable.
I had to make a catch very much like Cruz’s once. My semi pro team was playing the Salinas, CA high school baseball team in the winter at their home field. Their coach was one of their players on the semi-pro team. I had so many balls hit to me that day in right field that one of my teammates joked I was Miller Lite Player of the Game. The Salinas team was mostly right-handed batters (my books say they should learn how to bat left-handed instead), but they apparently had been well-coached to hit opposite field.
The hit in question was a high fly ball to the “fence.” I put fence in quotes because I believe it was not a fence per se. It was a thicket of brambles or a hill or some old desks or some such. But I did what Cruz did not. Ran full speed to where I thought it was going. I was not sure if it would fall in play or would be a home run until it came down. In the event, I had to extend my glove arm up straight (reach), but I did not have to jump. I could not get back far enough to catch it in front of my face with bent elbows like your supposed to because of the obstruction. My teamates feared I was not going to get it and they were relieved when I did. But unlike Cruz, I was not running when it came down. I was not afraid of hitting the obstruction because I ran to it first then faced back towards home plate and waited to see if I needed to jump straight up or come back towards the infield to catch it. As with Cruz, I was not concerned about runners—either because there were none or it was the third out.
Cruz looked off balance and amateurish on that play. I do not think it would have been a great catch if he had hustled as he should have and judged the flight of the ball like an experienced outfielder should. I think his lack of hustle and misjudging, not his pre-hit position caused it to be out of his reach. Proper hustle and judgment would have made that catch look like an up-against-the-wall, but still routine, play. The following night, a Cardinals outfielder robbed a Ranger of a home run with a catch he made look routine in spite of a little jump being required to get his glove over the top of the wall.
Excellent baseball players make routine plays, and difficult plays, look routine.
The kindest thing I can say about Cruz in this play is that maybe he did not see the ball hit, or come off, the bat. That happens. In semi-pro I sometimes did not see the ball come off the bat because there was a white building behind home plate. It should not happen in a Major League ball park if you are experienced and properly concentrating, but when it does, it causes you to arrive late at ground zero.
John T. Reed