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Monday, July 11, 2011

Why Outfield Assists are on the Rise in MLB

One of the most exciting plays in baseball is seeing the runner barreling towards home plate while the catcher is waiting for a throw from the outfield to try and tag him out. Another is seeing somebody hit a triple as there’s usually a showdown at third base between runner and third baseman. Both plays rely on an excellent throw from the outfield and they ultimately come down to one player’s arm against another’s legs.

According to MLB statistics, fans are being brought out of their seats more often this year due to these thrilling plays and outfielders should reach 900 assists this summer for the first time since back in 2001. The Kansas City Royals have been leading the way in this resurgence with their outfielders having 31 assists already by July 4, compared to their total of 21 all last season. On a personal basis, Shin-Soo Choo of Cleveland had 14 assists while left fielder Alex Gordon of the Royals was just one behind him.

But while there’s more excitement in the game this season some experts are actually blaming the rise in assists on a downfall in offense not fielders’ arms. The feeling is, with fewer home runs being hit, more players are being sent home by their coaches from third base to produce runs. Being aggressive has led to more outs because runners have been taking more chances to score. Basically, there has been more chances to earn assists this year. It doesn’t mean outfielders’ arms are any better.

Another reason for the increase in assists is because the outfielders are playing deeper when power hitters are at the plate and runners are trying to take advantage of their positioning by going for an extra base. This has led to the most runners being thrown out in the MLB in the past decade. Some experts also feel more players are being gunned down because the ballparks are smaller these days.

But at the same time, some managers and third base coaches, such as then Royals’ Eddie Rodriguez and the Cardinals’ Jose Oquendo feel in general that outfielders’ throwing arms are on the decline and players can afford to be more aggressive now. Pittsburgh’s Nick Leyva doesn’t agree though, and said outfielders are taking more pride in earning assists and the Angels designated hitter Bobby Abreu agreed with him.

MLB recently surveyed all of the third-base coaches informally to see who owned the best outfield arms and 23 different players were mentioned, nine in the American League and 14 in the NL. In the AL, Ichiro Suzuki of Seattle won the poll and was followed by Jose Bautista of Toronto and Choo. In the NL, the top vote-getters were Matt Kemp of the Dodgers, Jayson Werth of Washington, and Jay Bruce of Cincinnati.

Most coaches agreed that having a good arm is just one component of a good outfielder. They added that good fielders have to hustle after balls, run them down and be good at catching. It was also agreed that many fielders with great arms don’t earn as many assists because their reputations precede them and runners don’t want to take a chance with them.

A prime example was the late great Roberto clement who earned 65 assists between 1960 and 62. After that, there weren’t many runners who wanted to test him. But the opposite is also true. Fielders are relatively unknown often earn more assists since runners don’t know how good their arms are, such as the Royals’ Gordon.

Whatever the reasons are, we’re seeing more excitement in MLB this season with runners attempting to get as many bases as they can. Some are making it and others are sitting ducks.

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