Monday, April 30, 2012

Daric Barton & The Art of Fielding

This really isn't about about Chad Harbach's 2011 novel, though I highly recommend that book, especially to anyone who's ever attended a D-III college or played baseball. But on a related tack...

As Daric Barton proved Sunday, even the best
fielders aren't immune to the occasional bad game.
The Orioles trailed the Athletics yesterday by the count of 2-0 to begin the top of the ninth inning.  Oakland starter Bartolo Colon had shut down the O's for eight innings, collecting four strikeouts through 28 batters faced and 95 pitches thrown. The seven Orioles in Sunday's batting order who had participated in the nine-run shelling of A's starter Tyson Ross on Saturday were, by my count, a combined 6-for-21 (.286) on the day, and nobody had made it past second base. Colon was proving again why he is still valuable at age 38: a truly good starting pitcher can be nearly unflappable when he's in the zone.

However, the O's hadn't flinched. Tommy Hunter turned in a strong outing on the mound, allowing two late-inning runs after completing the first five unscathed. Darren O'Day had worked a 1-2-3 eighth inning and Pedro Strop had managed to keep the margin from growing in the ninth despite allowing a one-out double to pinch hitter Daric Barton.

To be sure, the pitching stats in this game were not "defense-independent," a distinction that many statisticians like the make in this era of SABR metrics.  In the fourth inning, Mark Reynolds, making his first start of the season at first base, fielded a sharp grounder down the line and whirled to turn an impressive 3-6-3 double play with J.J. Hardy for outs 1 and 2. The very next batter, Seth Smith, was gunned down at second on an assist from right-fielder Nick Markakis after his grounder hit first base and jumped over a diving Reynolds.  To start the following inning, left-fielder Nolan Reimold robbed A's catcher Kurt Suzuki of a homerun by reaching over the top of the left-field wall to make the grab.  Adam Jones got the next out with a sliding catch in center to keep Eric Sogard from reaching base. The fielding behind Hunter seemed to be aces all around.

But perhaps the most important defensive play for the O's happened in the final frame. With Strop on the hill, Barton on second and Smith on first after a one-out walk, Suzuki popped up to second baseman Robert Andino for the second out. The next batter, Sogard, grounded a ball to the right side. Reynolds muffed his chance, and the ball scooted through his legs onto the outer infield dirt. Andino was Johnny-on-the-spot, fielding the ball as it skittered away and tossing to Strop, covering first for the inning's final out. Had Andino failed to back up Reynolds on the play — a duty that tends to get overlooked, particularly when fatigue is a factor later in the game — Strop would've had to work at least one more batter in a bases-loaded situation, and that assumes Barton, who was probably running hard with two outs, hadn't scored from second on a play that would've otherwise been ruled an error.

Here's the kicker: the fielding wasn't done being the fulcrum of the game.

After the A's were retired in the top half, Barton went out to play first base in the bottom half after his pinch-hit appearance. Barton has only played two full seasons at the Major League level, both for the A's: the last time he did it was 2010, when he hit .273 and ranked first in the American League in putouts and Range Factor per nine innings, second in fewest errors committed and Total Zone Runs per nine innings, according to Baseball Reference. In 122 chances at first base this season, Barton had not made an error. He's the most experienced first baseman on the A's — it made absolute sense to put him out there in the bottom half. In fact, manager Bob Melvin had done it two days earlier, when Barton was inserted at first before the bottom of the 8th without being asked to pinch-hit beforehand; the A's won that game, 5-2.

Sunday, however, was a different story for Barton.  The first batter in the bottom of the ninth was J.J. Hardy, who sent Colon's 2-1 pitch on the ground back up the middle. Given that the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser seems to be the only major writer to have highlighted Barton's late-inning blunders (or at least, the most prominent Google search result), I'll let her narrate the action once the ball left Hardy's bat.

From's blog "The Drumbeat":
The first grounder was to Eric Sogard’s right and he made an off-balance throw to first base, but the ball took a big hop in front of the first-base bag, usually a play Daric Barton makes easily. He couldn’t handle the throw, and J.J. Hardy was awarded an infield hit.
With one out, Adam Jones hit a tapper to Colon’s right and Colon, who is usually a decent fielder, picked up the ball and rushed the throw, throwing what looked like a hard and pretty tricky bouncer past Barton.
That’s the one Barton really felt he should have had; he said he wasn’t sure if it was going to hit on the dirt or the grass, but he pulled at it a little too much and it went by him.
“I should have had ‘em both,” Barton said. “That’s my job, especially if they’re putting me in for defensive purposes.”
It was ruled a hit for Jones, and an error on Colon for Hardy advancing to third. That meant that all subsequent runs [scored by the runners on base, Jones and Hardy] were earned [and charged to Colon].
In case you missed the final three batters, Colon exited after his error in favor of closer Grant Balfour, who quickly blew the save by giving up a two-run double to Matt Wieters and a game-winning homerun to Wilson Betemit two batters later.

To be fair, the job of anyone fielding an infield ground ball is two-fold: A) field it, or at least keep it in front of you by any means necessary, and B) get it to the proper base as quickly and precisely as you can. Sogard's throw was rushed, and Colon's was sub-par for a veteran player; that said, Barton has probably seen lots of those throws throughout his career, and in a tight game like that, those are plays he must make in order to preserve the win. If he scoops only Sogard's throw, Jones arrives at 2nd base alone with two outs and the O's still down 2-0, with Wieters representing the tying run at the plate rather than the winning run.  If he somehow picks Colon's throw with Hardy at first, Hardy gets to second alone with two outs and Wieters at bat; either way, the endgame strategy likely changes for Melvin with two outs already in his pocket. Maybe he leaves Colon in to face Wieters. Maybe Balfour enters as as he did and still gives up a double to Wieters — with the tying run now on second and two outs, does he walk Chris Davis, now the potential winning run, just to set-up force-out opportunities at second and third? Probably not.

But, like Barton's bobbles, those scenarios all died in the post-game box score. With one play ruled an infield hit and another called a throwing error on Colon, Barton's fielding percentage remains a sparkling 1.000, tops in the league.  It's a strange day when the stats say you're perfect but the tape says otherwise.

"Some games just don't work out," Melvin told Slusser afterward.

Indeed. Some games feel quite like fiction.

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