Some could say that playing the outfield is like flying, because when the ball is hit in the air and the only thing between it and you is blue sky and white clouds, for a moment, gravity is in disbelief. It somehow knows your speed and that you moved two steps to the left before the pitch was thrown, and it wonders if that’s enough for you to prevent the inevitable.
All things that go up must come down. And of course this is true in baseball. But when a centerfielder chases down a fly ball and catches it in mid-air, it feels like the laws of nature were somehow ignored, as if Superman has swooped in at the last second to keep the falling object from crashing to the surface.
And this is how we measure outfield defense. Which players are the best at catching the ball before it touches the ground?
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For Brandon Nimmo, his movements in centerfield have more closely resembled a Sunday driver than a skilled pilot. Instead of taking the most efficient route to the ball, it’s like his internal mapping system downloaded the wrong coordinates and consequently instruct him to take two extra turns before reaching his destination, as you can see in the play below.
During his first press conference of Spring Training, Nimmo talked about his desire to improve on defense, and how the analytics motivated him to play a deeper centerfield.
“I think early on in the season (in 2020), I think honestly I was playing too shallow,” he said. “And so that was keeping me from catching a lot of balls I think the metrics would say are very catchable balls. That was something we tried to improve on at the end. There was definitely a couple of balls that I just screwed up on. And in 60 games, that’s gonna be highlighted. You’re not gonna have the longevity to make that up.”
When Nimmo says “very catchable balls,” this isn’t just anecdotal. Statcast is able to calculate catch probability by considering a fielder’s starting position and speed relative to the distance and hang time of the ball put in play. We can see this visualized in the graphic below. Based on Nimmo’s speed and positioning, he should be able to catch all of the balls hit in the upper region of the graph boxed off in black.
This also shows us how often Nimmo misplayed a “catchable” ball that was not recorded as an error. Focusing on fly balls to centerfield with at least a 60% catch probability, we find Nimmo let four such plays turn into trouble last season. If we expand the filter to 35% catch probability, he let ten turn into hits. To put that number into perspective, Jackie Bradley Jr., who had more opportunities in center last season, only let two such fly balls land in the outfield grass.
Nimmo not only misses on the routine plays, but he fails to make up for it with the occasional spectacular grab.
As I mentioned in the beginning, playing the outfield is a race against gravity. Brandon Nimmo has above average speed, so with proper positioning, he should be able to reach a fair share of fly balls.
After watching dozens of videos of Nimmo’s defense in centerfield, I found that his biggest problem was exactly what he identified through the metrics. When balls are hit over his head, he can get discombobulated in deciding which direction to turn on his way to the ball. You can see that again here.
By playing a deeper centerfield, the play unfolds in front of him. Instead of needing to worry about which direction to turn his body when running back on the ball, he can focus on perfecting his first step so shallow plays don’t turn into annoying base hits, as he did in this September game when he started to play closer to the wall.
However, that doesn’t completely solve the problem either. Watch on this play how Nimmo turns a short pop-up into an adventure.
There’s still a lot of work to do for Nimmo to become a suitable centerfielder. But while several players have recently voiced their frustration with analytics taking over the game, in focusing on defense it is one area where following the data might be the difference between a player like Nimmo maximizing his ability to defend his position — and thus potentially earn more money in the future — versus losing at-bats because he is such a liability on the field.