With today's big, symmetrical and carpeted ballparks, and with the Vince Colemans and the Devon Whites burning up the base paths, outfield defense—particularly throwing—is more important than it has ever been. But is outfield defense better than it used to be?
"Players today are much more talented than they were 30 years ago," says Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn. "The one exception is outfielders' arms. Kids don't throw as much as they used to; they concentrate on hitting and lifting weights. Playing catch is too pedestrian." Many in the game agree that strong arms are few and far between. But some see signs that the outfield rifle may be making a comeback.
Says Oakland third base coach Rene Lachemann, "In the last couple of years we've had more guys with strong arms coming into the big leagues." Kansas City manager John Wathan says, "You may not see the accuracy or the fundamentals—cutoff men get missed more than ever—but the skills are coming back."
SI polled third base coaches in both leagues to get their votes on the best and worst arms in the majors. Among American League outfielders, Cleveland's Cory Snyder was the nearly unanimous first choice, though Kansas City's Bo Jackson, it was agreed, could match Snyder on strength and quickness of release. Behind them came Jose Canseco of Oakland and Jesse Barfield of New York, though some coaches said Barfield has slipped in the last two years. Honorable mention in the poll went to Minnesota's Kirby Puckett, Boston's Ellis Burks, California's White and Detroit's Gary Pettis. Cited as rising throwing stars were California's Dante Bichette and Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr.
Andre Dawson of the Cubs was the winner in the National League, with Pittsburgh's Andy Van Slyke coming in a close second, and his teammate Glenn Wilson finishing third, followed by the Reds' Eric Davis and the Braves' Dale Murphy. Said one coach, "Darryl Strawberry has a great arm, but he gets to the ball in bad position, is slow in his release and is erratic when he releases it. Then you get guys like Coleman and Tony Gwynn, who weren't blessed with great arms yet have built up their arm strength through hard work and have learned to charge balls well, so they're tough to run on."
When the third base coaches were asked to list the outfielders they would try to run on, they named Toronto's Lloyd Moseby, K.C.'s Willie Wilson and California's Chili Davis in the American League. The Mets' Mookie Wilson and Lenny Dykstra, Montreal's Otis Nixon and San Diego's John Kruk were ranked among the most vulnerable outfielders in the NL.
Last year Stats, Inc., a sports statistics service that charted every ball hit in the majors, compared the estimated number of opportunities that base runners had to advance on each outfielder to the number of extra bases actually taken on them. Statistically, by this measure, the best outfielders in the majors at stopping runners were Boston's Mike Greenwell in left, Eric Davis in center and Barfield in right. The worst? Atlanta's Dion James in left, the Dodgers' John Shelby in center and Detroit's Chet Lemon in right.
There are several reasons for the Twins' poor start this season, including a lack of depth in starting pitchers and Jeff Reardon's struggle to regain the high-riding zip on his fastball. Another reason, says manager Tom Kelly, is that "Gary Gaetti's changes are something that take getting used to." For five years, Gaetti was the tough, fiery, vocal team leader, but last September he converted to a form of evangelical Christianity that has radically changed his priorities. He now spends more and more time with his religious mission and less and less with baseball and his teammates. "It's a far different team personality now," says one of Gaetti's closest friends on the team. "Before, he was the Twins."
Boston's Roger Clemens thinks that one reason National League pitchers have more confidence in their fast-balls than their AL counterparts do is that they have to swing a bat. "When I batted against [Dwight] Gooden in the '86 All-Star Game, I realized how tough it is to hit a 90-mph fastball," says Clemens. "National League pitchers may be helped by batting because they realize how tough it is. When you don't bat, you tend to give the hitter too much credit."
The Orioles will take LSU pitcher Ben McDonald with the first pick in the June 5 free-agent draft, and the Braves, who will pick second, have narrowed their focus to four high school players: catcher Tyler Houston of Las Vegas's Valley High School and outfielders Paul Coleman of Frankston (Texas) High, Jeffrey Jackson of Chicago's Simeon High and Earl Cunningham of Lancaster (S.C.) High.
One college player who has dropped out of the draft sweepstakes is first baseman/pitcher John Olerud of Washington State University. Olerud, the '88 Baseball America college player of the year as a sophomore, would have been one of the first two players selected, but he suffered a brain-related seizure due to an aneurysm this last year, causing him to miss most of the '89 season. He is now playing again for Washington State and announced on Sunday that he will return next season to complete his senior year.
BYE, BYE, BENITO?
Trader Jack McKeon of San Diego has become so frustrated with catcher Benito Santiago's hardheadedness—and by his own inability to deal minor league catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. for a first-rate outfielder or third baseman—that he says he is considering trading Santiago instead and using Mark Parent and Alomar behind the plate. McKeon benched Santiago in favor of Parent four times in five recent games after telling Santiago, to no avail, to stop swinging at everything. Last year Santiago hit .148 with runners in scoring position....
How far 1986's "best young outfield" has fallen in Toronto. Barfield is gone, George Bell is on the block, and so is Lloyd Moseby, who was pulled for a pinch hitter twice in the last week. The new phenom for the Jays is roadrunner Junior Felix, whom scout Epy Guerrero signed out of a track meet in the Dominican Republic. At Triple A Syracuse (N.Y.) this season, Felix twice bunted for doubles. In each case, while the third baseman waited to see if the ball would roll foul, Felix rounded first and steamed into second....
When Kal Daniels recovers from his knee injury, the Reds may trade him to the Cubs for Shawon Dunston. The plan is to put Dunston at third and move Chris Sabo to leftfield, despite the fact that Dunston and Sabo, who were All-Stars last July, have been struggling lately. Dunston has hit .191 with one homer since the All-Star Game; Sabo has hit .216 in the same period....
What has happened to Texas's Bobby Witt? When he pitched in Boston on May 6, he was consistently clocked at 2-3 mph slower than Mike Smithson. Several Red Sox hitters couldn't believe this was the same pitcher who once threw in the mid-90s....
Don Mattingly is one of 10 AL players who had no homers in 100 at bats through Sunday. "I always start slowly," says Mattingly. Mattingly ditched his pigeon-toed, coiled stance in spring training. "He's changed his style entirely," says Royals coach Bob Schaefer, Mattingly's minor league manager in Greensboro (N.C.). "He used to start so far back that his head was over his back leg, but he's much farther forward now, and he is off-balance on his front foot."
...The Expos and the Astros got into a brawl on May 10 after a Larry Andersen pitch just missed Montreal's Spike Owen. A few of the Expos went straight for Houston pitcher Danny Darwin, who broke Hubie Brooks's wrist with a pitch two years ago and hit Expo catcher Nelson Santovenia with a pitch on May 8. Darwin emerged from the fracas with scratches on his face....
The Yankees have been shopping DH Ken Phelps, admitting that when they traded for him last August, they made a mistake in bringing an alleys hitter to a lefthanded pull-hitter's park. Before going to New York from Seattle, Phelps had a homer every 13.64 at bats. This year he has had one in his first 60 at bats....
And talk about a bad start: The Giants' Tracy Jones has seen his lifetime average drop from .299 to .289 in the first six weeks of the season.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Most young pitchers who make it to Double A start to think Big Time, and when they read about the latest contracts of Orel Hershiser and Frank Viola, they begin to think Big Money. Not Jim Chenevey, Harvard '87. He was regarded as one of Oakland's better pitching prospects after an 11-7 season in A ball at Madison (Wis.) last year, but when he was assigned a bullpen role at Double A Huntsville (Ala.) this spring, Chenevey retired at 24. "It was time to move on," he says.
Last winter, Chenevey worked in New York City at the investment banking company of Goldman Sachs, and he could have gotten a well-paid permanent position there but declined the job. Instead, the first week of June he will start a new job as economic development planner for the Omaha Indians. This is not a Cleveland farm club, but a tribe of some 4,000 with headquarters on a reservation in Macy, Neb. The Omaha Indians' gain is the Oakland Athletics' loss. Says Walt Jocketty, the A's director of baseball administration, "I couldn't guarantee a Cy Young Award for Jim, but he was a helluva prospect."
Manager Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers has lost 30 pounds since the beginning of spring training. In Los Angeles, television viewers can still see Lasorda in full paunch in a commercial, filmed last year, in which he is hawking bread. But another TV ad is due to hit the airwaves soon in which the new svelte Lasorda (or is that Marcello Mastroianni?) will be pitching a liquid diet product.
St. Louis reliever Dan Quisenberry, who has appeared in 616 games over 11 seasons, made only his third career hitting appearance on May 6. In a display of new batting style, Quisenberry lifted his left leg before he swung at the pitch. "Mel Ott did it, and it worked for him," said Quisenberry. "But I'm not sure if I'm lifting the right leg." His chopper to second was handled easily by San Francisco's Robby Thompson. Explained Quiz, "I thought they were in a zone, but they were playing man-to-man."
Baltimore p.r. director Rick Vaughn was perusing catching records last week and called the Elias Sports Bureau (the official major league statistician) to inquire about the active leader among catchers for consecutive errorless games. Elias discovered that Boston's Rick Cerone was not only the active leader but that his current mark of 158 was a major league record, eclipsing Yogi Berra's 148. Vaughn promptly notified the Red Sox, who notified Cerone. Two nights later, Cerone dropped a pop fly to end the streak at 159.
•Since he signed a four-year, $8.7 million contract with the Cardinals in 1985, shortstop Ozzie Smith has hit .276, .280, .303 and .270. He has driven in 54, 54, 75 and 51 runs and stolen 31, 31, 43 and 57 bases. He was re-rewarded Saturday with a two-year, $4.3 million extension.
•Outfielder Ben Oglivie, 40, is with the Brewers' extended spring program, trying a comeback after an aborted career in Japan and a February knee injury.
•Oakland's rightfielders, sans injured Jose Canseco, did not have a homer through last weekend.
•Since Sept. 25, Milwaukee has gone 0-12 versus Chicago. The Brewers are 0-4 against the White Sox; the Packers are 0-2 against the Bears; and the Bucks are 0-6 against the Bulls.
TAKING THEIR CHANCES
Chances Per 9 Innnings
Kevin Elster, Mets, 1
Cal Ripken, Oriles, 11
Ozzie Guillen, White Sox, 15
Dick Schofied, Angels, 7
Ozzie Smith, Cardinals, 12
Tony Fernandez, Blue Jays, 7
SOURCE: STATS, INC.