Identifying the elite arms in the game
When scouts and veteran baseball people lament the way the game has changed since the good old days, few topics are more grouse-worthy than the lack of strong outfield arms.
Where have you gone, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline and Jesse Barfield?
Some of the complaining has merit. Kids in the states are too focused on their iPods and MySpace sites to spend as many hours throwing a baseball as, say, young boys in the Dominican Republic. Over time, indifference takes a toll on the talent in the pipeline.
I know one thing. If these guys went to the county fair, there wouldn't be a stuffed animal on the premises. They'd have them all.
Dodgers third base coach Rich Donnelly on the game's best outfield throwers
"Maybe the average guy isn't quite as good,'' Lamont said, "but the outfielders who throw real good are right up there with the guys of 20 years ago.''
It takes more than a hose to rank among the elite. The best outfielders are confident enough to play shallow defensively. They charge the ball with abandon and get rid of it quickly, with pinpoint accuracy. And while they're most dangerous charging straight at the target, they can also throw a seed while flat-footed or moving laterally in either direction.
One of the truest marks of a strong throwing arm is how the ball reacts after it lands. When it's coming from a pea shooter, the ball hits the ground and dies. When launched from a cannon, it skips and gives the illusion of picking up speed.
We talked to four third base coaches -- Lamont, Houston's Doug Mansolino, the Dodgers' Rich Donnelly and Toronto's Brian Butterfield -- and asked them which outfielders have the stuff to make them break into a cold sweat at night. The elite throwers are so gifted, Donnelly claims the baseball actually sounds different as it's whirring toward the infield.
"It's what I call an 'Oh, brother' arm," Donnelly said. "When the guy throws it, the guys on the bench all go, 'Oh, brother.'"
This week's "Starting 9" is devoted to the game's best outfield throwers. Many of them don't appear among Major League Baseball's assist leaders, because the word is out that testing them is a losing proposition.
"I know one thing," Donnelly said. "If these guys went to the county fair, there wouldn't be a stuffed animal on the premises. They'd have them all."
In his first career game at Tropicana Field -- with his mom in attendance -- Young threw out Ichiro Suzuki at third base. According to Dave Smith of Retrosheet, it was the first time in Ichiro's major league career that he was thrown out from right field while going first to third.
Young has nine assists this season, but they're sure to come more sparingly as teams catch on to his special gift. In one recent game, Young threw to first base and nearly caught Kansas City's Mike Sweeney making too wide a turn after a single. Sweeney tipped his cap in tribute.
For all the talk about his lack of maturity and sense of entitlement, Young plays the game properly. He hits cutoff men and backs up other outfielders. He also has the natural arm strength to throw flatfooted and still unleash what Butterfield calls a "missile'' to home plate.
When Toronto plays Tampa Bay, Butterfield finds himself casting some anxious looks toward manager John Gibbons in the dugout.
"Young plays so shallow in right field,'' Butterfield said. "I'll look at Gibby and say, 'Geez, if we get a base hit with two outs here, there's no way in the world I can score my guy from second base.'"
Ichiro was a dominant force in right field -- ranging toward the line and into the gap, leaping at the fence and finding all sorts of ways to thwart rallies on a nightly basis. You could calculate his impact by the number of opponents who refrained from going from to third or stretching singles into doubles because of his arm.
"He's very smooth,'' Mansolino said. "He has a very good transition from groundball to glove to hand to throw. Everything is in one piece.''
Said Butterfield: "He's textbook. Just the way you would draw it up.''
Although Ichiro is well above average in center field, he no longer casts the same shadow over a game defensively. And while his arm is still top-notch, he doesn't generate nearly as many "oohs'' and "ahhs'' as he did in right.
"The best guys want you to run on them,'' Mansolino said. "They're not afraid of the challenge. They have total confidence in their abilities, and they know if you make the wrong decision, you're out. They take a lot of pride in that. It's what makes them good.''
Few outfielders play their position with the self-assurance of Francoeur, who brings an aggressive, football mentality to the field each day. That's no surprise, given that he was bound for Clemson as a defensive back when Atlanta offered him $2.2 million to play baseball.
In an interleague game against Toronto at Turner Field last June, Francoeur chased down a Vernon Wells shot toward the line, jammed on the brakes, then turned and fired a strike home to nail Russ Adams for a double play. The sequence earned him a nice, fat star in Butterfield's personal notebook.
During a recent Phillies-Mets game, a New York radio broadcaster observed that Victorino has an above average arm in right field. Shortly thereafter, Victorino unleashed a throw to nail Carlos Delgado at the plate. "Above average'' doesn't quite do him justice.
It's rare to see a 5-9, 160-pound outfielder throwing the ball with so much zip, but Victorino is full of surprises. He's particularly dangerous in the cramped right field confines of Citizens Bank Park.
Victorino and Arizona's Eric Byrnes win points for entertainment value because they put so much body English into their throws.
"One day they're going to pick up the ball and be charging so hard they run into an infielder,'' Donnelly said. "Just watch them -- don't watch the ball -- and you'll see. They leave the ground, spin around and wind up on the ground flat out. If you see it in slow motion, it's a beautiful thing to watch.''
Hawpe was a sidearm-throwing first baseman at Louisiana State University and early in his professional career with Colorado. The Rockies moved him to the outfield in 2003 and he began throwing straight over the top, to the everlasting dismay of opposing baserunners.
The arm strength always has been there. Hawpe once pitched on the Cape Cod League, and some of his Colorado teammates are convinced he could throw 90 mph plus if the Rockies tried him on the mound.
Hawpe recorded 10 outfield assists in 2005 and 16 last year, second most in the majors behind Washington's Alfonso Soriano. He has three this year, but it's hard to rack up assists when opponents stay nailed to the bag.
All of Hamilton's wondrous skills were on display in a 9-3 victory over Colorado on May 6. He hit two homers, made a fine running catch on Hawpe and threw out the fleet Willy Taveras going first to third.
Reds manager Jerry Narron has compared Hamilton to Bo Jackson athletically, although Roy Hobbs also would do nicely. As a thrower, Hamilton's only drawback is a slightly long release.
Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman, in his 34th season in the booth, watches Hamilton and sees a throwback to Dave Parker, Ellis Valentine and other powerful throwers who've passed through Cincinnati as Reds or visiting players through the years.
"His throws are so precise, it's mind-boggling,'' Brennaman said. "He'll unfailingly give the catcher a throw on a bounce he can handle. It's unreal.''
Sure, Jones might have slipped a notch defensively and qualify as overrated in the field. We'll leave that debate to ESPN.com's Jayson Stark and Jones' agent, Scott Boras. But through the years, third base coaches have learned that you challenge him at your peril.
Jones plays extremely shallow in center. He's very accurate and blessed with more than enough arm strength. When Donnelly ticks off his list of personal nemeses, Jones ranks at the very top with Hawpe.
"When the ball comes out of his hand, it looks like he hit it with a fungo bat,'' Donnelly said. "His mechanics are perfect. If you watch his follow through, he'll leave the ground and be five feet in the air. He'll actually be levitating.''
Hunter, six-time Gold Glove award winner, doesn't have a Kirby Puckett-caliber arm. But he possesses a quick release, is very precise and gets lots of "carry.'' He's also not averse to a little gamesmanship.
"A lot of these guys will bait you by starting a jog and then picking it up, or looking nonchalant going to a ball,' Mansolino said. "They'll bait you into running on them. Torii is a guy who'll bait you.''
While Hunter derives an advantage from getting truer hops on his throws on the Metrodome's artificial surface, he also has to play deeper to guard against balls that might scoot into the gap. The turf cuts both ways.
Three or four years ago Guerrero would have ranked at the top of this list. Now you can make a case, because he's regressed so much defensively, that he doesn't belong among the game's elite outfield throwers.
Guerrero still has a 70 grade arm on the 20-80 scouts scale, but his outfield play has slipped noticeably because of injuries and wear-and-tear. He doesn't reach some balls and is frequently in a poor position to throw, causing him to miss cutoff men and throw the ball off line with regularity. Opponents have noticed and taken more liberties against him.
"He can still intimidate you with his arm,'' said a scout, "but his body is starting to slow down. He continuously looks older and older every year -- except in the batter's box.''
Guerrero can embarrass a third base coach in two ways. "If you say, 'There's no way Vlad can throw this guy out' and you send the runner, he's liable to throw a stream of milk and get the guy by two steps,'' Mansolino said.
The alternate scenario: The third base coach holds the runner out of respect for Guerrero's arm, and Vlad heaves one off the backstop. Either way, the coach can end up looking foolish.
Michael Cuddyer, Twins: A former infielder, he's surprisingly athletic and adept at playing the outfield baggy at the Metrodome. Cuddyer leads the majors in outfield assists this season. When he nabbed the speedy Willie Harris of Atlanta last week, it was the ultimate testament to his skill.
Carlos Beltran, Mets: He's very fluid and has all the tools, but doesn't bring his "A'' game to the park each night the way, say, Hunter does. In his book, "The Fielding Bible,'' John Dewan points out that baserunners advanced on Beltran with regularity during the 2005 season.
Jose Guillen, Mariners: Guillen isn't the same imposing presence after Tommy John surgery, but it pays to be on guard when he cuts it loose. "I don't know if he shows his arm off as much these days, but he'll use it when he has to,'' Lamont said.
Mark Kotsay, Athletics: Kotsay lacks the pure arm strength of some of these guys, but he's quick to the ball and invariably on target.
Jim Edmonds, Cardinals: Once among the best, he's lost the fear factor through a combination of age and injuries.
Others of note: Mike Cameron, Padres; Matt Kemp, Dodgers; Austin Kearns, Nationals; Gary Matthews Jr., Angels; Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, Blue Jays; J.D. Drew, Red Sox; Nick Markakis, Orioles; Mark Teahen, Royals; Willy Taveras, Rockies; Carlos Quentin and Eric Byrnes, Diamondbacks; Elijah Dukes, Devil Rays; Nelson Cruz, Rangers; Carlos Gomez, Mets.