Jeter has 'that sixth sense'
Derek Jeter has the necessary strong arm, but what makes him stand out are his tremendous instincts.
Ask any manager for his definition of the robo cutoff man, and, not surprisingly, he'll describe an infielder who is half-human, half-machine:
Strong arm? It's a must.
Quick release? Another requisite.
Foot-speed and soft hands? All necessary parts of the machinery.
It's the human element, however, that separates the great relay man from the very good one. It means being properly positioned, understanding how runners are reacting to an extra-base hit, even with one's back to the infield. In simpler terms, it's being in the right place at the right time.
"It's having that sixth sense," is how Mets' manager Willie Randolph put it, As a former second baseman and third base coach, Randolph understands the need for an internal radar -- and why he considers Derek Jeter the perfect blend of physical and perceptual skills.
Although Jeter does indeed have a strong arm, releasing the ball in a textbook, over-the-top delivery, he'll be forever remembered for his back-handed flip to Jorge Posada in Game 3 of the 2001 Division Series against the A's. With Jeremy Giambi on first base in the seventh inning, Terrence Long punched a double into the right field corner, and the A's were apparently on the way to tying the game, 1-1, when Shane Spencer overthrew Tino Martinez, the original cutoff man.
Yet, for reasons that Jeter still can't articulate, he'd drifted across the infield to act as the "trailer" -- the human insurance policy against overthrows. Trailers, however, rarely stray so far from their position, and the Yankees had never devised an alignment that would've required Jeter to be near the first base line.
But there he stood, in the perfect spot to grab Spencer's throw. While still in motion, Jeter delivered a reverse-shovel flip to Posada in time to nail the stunned Giambi, who never bothered to slide. Joe Torre called the play the turning point in the Yankees' subsequent conquest of the A's, although to this day, Jeter is at a loss to explain what he was doing between Martinez and Posada.
"I honestly couldn't tell you, but my instinct told me to get over there," Jeter said at the time.
For that, Jeter captures the Hot Stove designation as the game's top relay/cutoff man -- if for no other reason than his creativity. But Randolph says it would be a mistake to think of Jeter for only that reason. He is, after all, still part-machine and is blessed with the ability to throw straight, four-seam strikes.
That's no small perk, since a drifting, tailing relay throw can mean the difference between a snap-tag on a runner and one that requires reaching for the ball as the runner is sliding in safely. In that sense, there's no substitute for sheer arm strength, and scouts cite the Marlins' Alex Gonzalez as well as the Mets' Jose Reyes, assuming he stays healthy enough to play an entire season, as other models for high-velocity relays.
Those who rank high on quickness are Bret Boone and Omar Vizquel, and among the most creative is Roberto Alomar, who, even in the latter stages of his career, has impressed opponents with his mastery of the back-door play. For a relay man, that means taking advantage of a runner taking a lazy turn around third base, having been given an early "stop" sign by his third base coach.
After taking a throw from the right fielder and realizing the runner isn't attempting to score, most second basemen will fire a strike to the plate, usually for cosmetic reasons. Or else they'll hold the ball. But Alomar has a unique ability to spy on a runner at third who's not paying attention and -- while pretending to be throwing home -- will deliver a snap throw to third.
Randolph admits, "Robby always made me nervous, because he has a way of locking onto the coach more than the runner. If he saw that I was holding up the runner early, he knew a lot of guys would give up early and he had the nerve to throw behind him."
Of course, every team has a slightly different alignment for relay plays, depending on the respective arm-strength of the shortstop and second baseman. Conventional wisdom says the infielder with the superior arm becomes the first cutoff man, with the other infielder as the trailer. Still, there's no substitute for reading a play correctly.
No one understood that principal better than Cal Ripken, whose maintains a baseball-oriented web site called, fittingly, Ripken Baseball. One of the entries last year was a complete analysis of a failed relay in a game between the Blue Jays and Orioles. Written by Cal's brother, Billy, the site explains the situation in the sixth inning, with Melvin Mora on first base, taking off upon Miguel Tejada's base hit into the left field corner.
Toronto left fielder Frank Catalanotto cut off the ball and, knowing he didn't have a play on Mora going to third, instead fired to second base, hoping to keep Tejada from stretching his hit into a double. Trouble was, no one was covering the bag, as the Jays' infielders were already defending against an extra base hit. The throw sailed away, and Mora, who'd been holding at third, was able to score.
The mistake here? Ripken noted that on such a play, a second baseman's primary responsibility is to cover second base until it's determined that the result of the play is going to be a double or a triple. The second baseman then sets up as the trailer, about 10 feet behind the shortstop, who is already in the outfield ready to take the throw from the left fielder.
Ripken concludes the botched play was, "an example of a player not understanding his surroundings. In Toronto, where there is artificial turf, a hard-hit ball down the line almost always skips all the way to the wall for a double. In Camden Yards, where the grass is fairly slow and the ballpark is a bit smaller, balls hit down the line rarely make it all the way to the wall."
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.