To play like a Hall of Famer, you’ve got to practice like one.
Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson has miles to go before he reaches Cooperstown, but he’s already learning from one of the game’s greatest infielders. Swanson, the first selection in the 2016 draft, spent the off-season before his first full year in the big leagues training with Barry Larkin after he was introduced by his agent Victor Menocal. The 2012 Hall of Fame inductee, in turn, put Swanson on to life with a flat infield training glove. Little did he know the man he’d be turning double plays with and the big-league infield coach who'd be hitting him groundballs were some of the glove's biggest fans.
The leather training glove, a slightly misshapen disc with just a bit of give around nine or ten inches in, has been a personal favorite of Braves infield coach Ron Washington’s since 1995, when he was with the Mets in the early stages his career on the bench. Second baseman Brandon Phillips, who joined Atlanta this winter after a 10-year stint in Cincinnati, has used one since 2007. Together, whether they knew it or not, they influenced the 23-year-old Swanson to use a training glove on a daily basis.
Washington, a well-traveled coach who Eric Chavez credited for his Gold Glove award in 2004, requires all of his men to put on a flat glove for about 10 or 12 minutes as the team goes through its early work around four hours before gametime. They’ll take grounders from a shorter distance, around the infield grass, in order to warm up their extremities. Most opt to leave the flat gloves behind as they go out for their normal infield during batting practice later on, but Phillips emerges from the clubhouse with his flat glove tucked in the waistband of his pants. The veteran’s enthusiasm for the glove was apparently strong enough to convince Swanson to make it part of his daily preparation too.
“When Wash got here, we started pretty much using them every day, and then I was starting to buy in more and more to it,” Swanson said. “Then I saw [Phillips] using it every day, and then it just kind of started to become part of my routine.”
The flat glove, Washington says, teaches players to receive ground balls with their hands rather than with their gloves, allowing a player more room for error with their normal glove on in a game. Training with a small glove that lacks depth will force players to catch the ball in the middle. They must use two hands to catch a ball they can get in front of, and make a perfect reception on a backhand
“If you use your hands right, then you have a lot of area for error,” Washington explained. “And if you just use the glove, you eliminate your range of error. So that’s why I like to use the training glove. And then when they put their regular gloves on their hands, they know where their hand is inside that glove. And they always take the hand to the ball.”
Aside from training the hands, the glove helps the Braves middle infield get the blood flowing during warmups. Using the flat glove assures that each infielder finds his form and rhythm before actually putting on a glove, eliminating lazy receptions and working the feet. In fact, Phillips says the foot workout is the reason he began to use the flat glove in batting practice. He found himself lazily using one hand with the regular glove, and the unforgiving flat glove has forced him to get in front of more grounders.
Getting in front and receiving the ball out there is something Washington—like every infield coach—preaches. He’ll lay out three baseballs in front of his infielders, have them get down on their knees, and then put their hands out to receive the ball. Then, they’ll stand up in a fielding position, keeping their hands in the same place. This is where they’re to catch the ball.
“Everything you do, you want to do it forward,” he said. “Your eyes, the glove and the ball stay in line. You’re in the middle. The eye, the glove and the ball stay in line. Because you can always catch what you see.”
Swanson says the best piece of advice he received from Larkin was to “make the routine plays every time,” so it’s no surprise he’d be so willing to work on these fundamentals as much as he can before games, or that Larkin would be a fan of the flat glove. With natural fielding ability present, Swanson’s willingness to work could one day win him a Gold Glove. Considering the Braves’ start on defense—ranking fifth in defensive runs above average—working the fundamentals seems to be a winning formula.
“Dansby is a real advanced kid,” Washington said. “He’s a student of the game of baseball. He already does things correctly. And all my drills do is just help him to maintain. I call it maintenance.”
So, what do a 64-year-old infield coach, a 35-year-old veteran and a 23-year-old top prospect have in common? Nine inches of leather. Sometimes, it’s the little things that can forge the biggest bonds.