Launchpad An out-of-this-world outfield arm is more than a matter of anatomy: Positioning and range, velocity and accuracy must all coalesce to intercept the moving target

March 26, 2001

"A powerful outfield arm--it is a gift from the gods."
--Jose Guillen, Devil Rays rightfielder

On July 19, 1977, players with four of the best arms in history
stood in the rightfield corner of Yankee Stadium, shagging fly
balls and rifling them back to the infield. In a few hours the
48th All-Star Game would begin. Until then, the Pittsburgh
Pirates' Dave Parker, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Reggie Smith, the
Montreal Expos' Ellis Valentine and the San Diego Padres' Dave
Winfield were the show. "People still talk about it," says
Winfield. "We kept moving back closer to the wall, challenging
each other to cut loose. It was four peacocks displaying their
feathers."

One, though, stood out. Even today, 16 years after Valentine
vanished from the game, witnesses swear he owned the strongest,
most accurate outfield throwing arm of all time. "There's a
plateau where you can't throw the ball any harder and you can't
be any more accurate," says Montreal manager Felipe Alou. "That
was Ellis Valentine."

Few speak of Valentine anymore, though. From 1976 through '79, he
was one of the National League's best all-around players. Then,
on May 30, 1980, during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, a
fastball delivered by Roy Thomas struck Valentine in the face,
shattering his cheekbone and his confidence. Also, Valentine was
a drug and alcohol abuser. He was traded from Montreal to the New
York Mets in '81, and played a couple more seasons for them and
the Rangers. Whereupon Valentine disappeared.

So too did the era of the strong-armed outfielder. Yes, Winfield
enjoyed petrifying base runners for several more seasons; and
yes, gunslingers like Jesse Barfield and Bo Jackson and Mark
Whiten popped up from time to time. But more recently deadly
outfield throwing arms have gone the way of metal lunch boxes and
CHiPs. "Nobody throws well from the outfield these days," says
one National League scout. "Arms are so weak we grade on a curve.
Guys who are good, we grade great. Guys who are terrible--they're
still terrible, but there are a lot more of them."

Exceptions exist. Vladimir Guerrero, the Expos' 25-year-old
rightfielder, has perhaps the most powerful right arm since
Valentine's. Two years ago Gary Sheffield of the Dodgers was
leading off first base when Michael Barrett, the Expos' catcher,
chucked a pickoff throw into the outfield. Sheffield bolted,
reaching third by the time Guerrero retrieved the ball at the
rightfield wall. Sheffield kept going. "Vladie bare-hands the
ball," recalls Barrett, "and on one bounce from the wall gets
Sheffield at home. I was praying for a miracle. Vladie was it."

There are plenty of amazing Guerrero stories. There are plenty of
stories about Guerrero's off-the-mark throws, too. Says one
National League manager, "You run on him because you're not
always sure where the ball's going." Two years ago Guerrero
committed 19 errors; last season he cut that number to 10, but
that still tied him for most by an outfielder.

Save for Guerrero and the explosive Guillen, the best outfield
gunners are men who position themselves perfectly to make a quick
throw; who charge the ball and come up looking not at the base
runners but at the cutoff man. Florida Marlins rightfielder Mark
Kotsay doesn't have the power of a Guerrero or a Guillen but,
according to Marlins manager John Boles, is "better than those
guys, because he gets the ball fast, releases it quickly and
always hits the target." Indeed, most baseball insiders agree
that, while an outfielder can do little to enhance arm strength
("You can't just take a bad arm and make it a good one," says
Dodgers rightfielder Shawn Green), he can become a better thrower
by becoming a smarter thrower. Cincinnati Reds rightfielder Alex
Ochoa says too many of his peers miss the cutoff man. He,
however, tries to throw through the cutoff man. "You try to put a
hole in his chest," says Ochoa. "That way, if he has to cut it
off, fine. If he lets it go, the ball is straight and strong."

Smart throwers, says Green, take the conditions into account. If
the game is on turf, Green tries to make low throws that skid off
the surface. "Grass eats up the ball," he says. "So you have to
keep it higher longer."

It is no coincidence that Guerrero, Guillen and another
rightfielder with a cannon arm, the Toronto Blue Jays' Raul
Mondesi, grew up in the Dominican Republic. Baseball officials
bemoan the American schoolboy's limited dedication to the simple
rites of baseball development--tossing a ball back and forth with
a friend, pitching against the garage door. "American kids play
two games a week," says Fred Ferreira, Montreal's director of
international operations. "In the Dominican you pass a field at 8
a.m. and pass it again at 8 p.m., the same kids are still
playing. The good arms are Dominican arms, because they work."

Two U.S.-born players, Green and Kotsay, are among the game's
elite throwers. Both grew up playing baseball on a daily basis,
and both excel in the basics: hard charge to the ball, quick
pickup and glove-to-hand transition, rapid-fire recognition of
the situation and, most important, accuracy. "Mark does
everything to near perfection," says Boles. "That's why he's the
best."

Kotsay is not the best. The best is here, in Port Charlotte,
Fla., sitting quietly by his locker in the Rangers' clubhouse.
After all these years, I have found Ellis Valentine.

Only his name is Ruben Mateo. In many ways they are one and the
same. As a rookie with the Expos in 1975, Valentine was a
transplanted rightfielder stuck in center. As a rookie with
Texas in 2000, Mateo was a transplanted rightfielder stuck in
center. Like Valentine, Mateo has good power, above-average
speed and sparkling athleticism.

Last season, at 22, Mateo was in the Rangers' Opening Day lineup.
He played 52 games, batting .291 with seven home runs, 19 RBIs
and four outfield assists. Then on June 2, against the Arizona
Diamondbacks, Mateo broke his right femur when he stumbled across
first base. He missed the rest of the season, and thus few people
are aware of his skills. Those who have witnessed his throws,
however, are awestruck. "Ruben has the best arm there has ever
been," says Guillen of his fellow Dominican. "I have seen the
great ones--Vladimir, Mondesi, myself. Ruben is better than us
all."

Mateo's highlight throw--the one from two years ago at Double A
Tulsa, when he leaped three feet above the left-center fence,
stole a home run, landed and nailed the base runner returning to
first, on the fly--was only a glimpse. Mateo covers ground like a
deer, charges balls like a bull and can drill the ball from
right-center to third without a bounce. "I know it's not
possible, but Ruben's throws look like they rise," says Texas
pitcher R.A. Dickey. "He can release the ball from rightfield,
and it arrives at third at the exact same height. It defies
gravity."

In case you're curious, Valentine--the real, far-flung
Valentine--lives in Lancaster, Calif., 42 miles north of L.A.
He's 46, with a wife and three children, and he's large, 80
pounds heavier than his playing weight of 205, and very happy.
He runs a nonprofit youth and family counseling organization. He
follows baseball but only from a distance. "That," he says, "was
another life."

Seven years ago, when his son Jordan was born, Valentine was
disappointed that he hadn't saved many keepsakes of his glory
days. He found a company that produces videotapes of major league
games and bought 10 minutes of Ellis Valentine highlights. "I was
blown away to see the skills I had," says Valentine. "I've been
compared to a lot of the guys who throw well now. People say,
'Yeah, they can throw. But not like Ellis Valentine.'"

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY NITIN VADUKUL Guerrero's fearsome gun may be the best in the game, but he doesn't always hit the bull's-eye. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO The little-known Mateo has developed a reputation for producing awe-inspiring throws.

PICK SIX
Top Guns

Rangers third base coach Jerry Narron and his counterpart with
the Reds, Ron Oester, each names the three outfielders in his
league he's most wary of running on.

Narron

1. Raul Mondesi, RF, Blue Jays. Tops in the American League
in pure arm strength.

2. Jay Buhner, RF, Mariners. Has a strong arm, knows the runners
and knows how to play hitters.

3. Bobby Higginson, LF, Tigers. An underrated arm. He's real
accurate and gets to the ball quickly.

Oester

1. Andruw Jones, CF, Braves. Has a strong arm and plays so
shallow that he gets to the ball quickly.

2. Peter Bergeron, CF, Expos. Plays shallow and charges really
well.

3. Shawn Green, RF, Dodgers. Arm isn't as strong as Vladimir
Guerrero's, but he's a lot more accurate. Does everything
right.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)