A few Sundays ago, when the Royals were playing the Red Sox, Boston’s Pablo Sandoval hit a feeble ground ball toward the mound. The Royals’ pitcher, Franklin Morales, fielded the ball, turned toward first base and promptly threw it into the fence beyond the right field foul line. With a runner on third, the Sox easily tied the game, 4-4. The Red Sox scored two runs in the 7th. Things looked grim for the Royals, but they rallied for four runs in the 9th and won.
Nonetheless, this pitcher’s blunder signals a stigma rampant among major league pitchers: They can’t field.
If a pitcher attempts to cover a ground ball or catch a fly ball, the odds favor disaster. If the grounder winds up in the pitcher’s hand or glove – and that’s a big IF – chances are good that his attempt to throw out the runner will end with the ball sailing into the stands behind first base, or beaning an inattentive ball boy, or skipping into the dirt away from the first baseman. There are other probabilities – the pitcher simply boots the grounder, or drops the ball, or drops the ball and kicks it while attempting to pick it up, or the ball gets stuck in the pitcher’s glove, among other mishaps – but you get the drift. Pitchers are too often a liability on defense.
The skills of today’s major league pitchers have been confined to throwing a ball from a sharp hill – the mound – toward a catcher’s mitt near the ground behind home plate. This itself is harder than it looks, for the mound is 10 inches above the playing field; for a novice, throwing from it feels like falling off a cliff. Conversely for a seasoned pitcher, throwing from a level surface – anywhere else on the field – can be a difficult and often awkward adjustment.
The need for a pitcher’s accurate throw from a place other than the mound invites trouble. Even the intentional walk can be high-risk. The pitcher remains high on the mound but the target, the catcher’s mitt, is no longer in familiar territory behind home plate; instead, the catcher is standing (not crouching), arm and mitt extended outward in the gesture of a Bahamian traffic cop. The intentional walk, a seemingly simple task, increasingly results in the catcher chasing a pitcher’s clumsy heave as it skips toward a backstop. Or into a dugout. Fielding and throwing errors among pitchers today are epidemic. The cause is simple: no practice. The probabilities for disaster will remain high until some brilliant coach decides pitchers need practice fielding and throwing to targets other than behind home plate. A lot of it.
The Royals won that Sunday game, barely, in a memorable comeback. Since then we have witnessed more errors by pitchers in Kansas City and throughout the major leagues. The Royals have been lucky (until recently), winning games that could have been lost and having built a fat lead in their division.
Late season, however, brings the pressure of playoff competition without that fat lead. The Royals will need pitchers who can field and throw accurately from places other than a sharp hill.
With no cure for the pitchers’ weakness, the feeble grounder may become the Major League’s new home run. Fun to cheer, agonizing to suffer.
– JOHN MARSHALL