Omar Vizquel with the diving stop. (Credit)
Infielders and outfielders are constantly making plays that we mere mortals deem impossible.
But, maybe even we are giving some of these players, particularly outfielders, a bit too much credit for the plays they make. Outfielders making spectacular diving catches often steal the spotlight from the more incredible plays by infielders on SportsCenter's “Top Ten Plays” and Baseball Tonight's “Web Gems.”
Now, outfielders diving to catch or stop a ball are great plays and worth attention, but not at the expense of the feats of their infield brethren.
There are many reasons for why it is necessary for an outfielder to dive for a ball. Maybe the ball was hit hard and they did not have the time to get under the ball. Maybe the ball was hit softly and is falling quickly. Or maybe, and this is often the case, the outfielder misread the trajectory of the ball and has to hustle and dive for a ball they could have caught standing up. Sometimes they catch the ball and sometimes they don’t, but when they do, it is an instant “Web Gem” and usually ranked higher than a diving infield play.
The infield plays I am talking about are only when the infielders make a diving stop and throw the runner out. This does not include diving catches in the infield, but only ground balls.
What makes diving plays on ground balls so special is that an infielder has half the available time to react to the ball as the outfielder does. Additionally, the infielder not only has to make the diving stop, but they have to be able to get up quickly, and gain their balance enough to make a strong throw to get a runner seeking a base hit out.
An outfielder only has to make the catch, but the infielder needs to be able to make the play and the throw. That alone should be enough to persuade fans that infield diving plays are more impressive than outfield diving plays. But the fact that diving plays in the outfield are usually the result of a misjudgment makes it hard for me to understand how people rank them as better plays more often.
A diving infield play is by and large an elite Major League play, but a diving outfield play is not exclusive to the professionals, and can be seen frequently in college ball and even little league. When you watch these plays, keep in mind this difference between the two types of “Web Gems.”
In a video that shows some of the best defensive plays in MLB history, I have picked out some to make my point. At the 5:30 mark of the video, you will see a play by Omar Vizquel in the 1997 World Series. Vizquel ranges into the hole and makes the incredible play, but what is more important is that he got up and made one of the longest throws a shortstop can make.
Another great infield play is at the 9:52 mark, which shows Brandon Inge making a diving stab behind the third base bag and from his knees throws a laser to get the runner out. To make one of the longest throws on the infield from your knees and still get the runner out is preposterous. These are the types of plays that should be blowing our minds.
My final example of an elite infield play is at the 6:32 mark when in 1999, Roberto Alomar has the range to track down a ball in the hole that has reached the outfield and while still in his dive, he has the presence of mind to flip the ball to first base without really getting a good look at his target. Now, that is as good as it gets.
But for some reason, fans still prefer a dive in the outfield. At the 5:15 mark of the same video, one of the best plays an outfielder has ever made can be seen. In 1997, Jim Edmonds breaks back immediately on a line drive that is obviously well over his head. When it appears that the ball is going to fall for at least a double, Edmonds dives straight backwards and makes a basket catch, while in a superman dive.
It really is an impressive showing of athleticism, but the same cannot be said about his judgment. He did not break in at first, but if you look at where he was standing when the ball was hit and where the ball would have landed, that has to raise some questions. He was playing extremely shallow and if he were in better position, that catch may have even been routine. Also, it is not as if the ball was roped to center field. It hung up there long enough for Edmonds to get it, so if he were playing in the proper position, it would most likely have been a nice play, but one he was expected to make.
Another and better example of poor decision-making turning into cheers is a play in a video of the best plays of 2012. At the 1:53 mark is a play by Tigers center fielder Quintin Berry. He completely misjudges a fly ball by initially charging it. After realizing he has completely misjudged it, he tries to retrace his steps and eventually dives backwards and makes the catch.
Now, this was on a nine-minute video of the best plays of 2012. This should be tape of how not to play the outfield position, but instead it is celebrated. Berry looked like a little leaguer on that play, which usually is the case when one has to dive for a routine fly ball.
I’m sure you could find some outfield plays that are purely fantastic plays and I will give them props, but at the end of the day, all outfielders need to do to record the out is make the catch. Infielders need to make the stop and the throw.
So, no matter how you look at it, a diving play by an infielder is almost always more impressive than that of an outfielder. Give that a thought next time you see SportsCenter anchors hype up a catch that could almost as easily be viewed as an error than an out.
By: Matt Levine