Good-fielding pitchers help themselves on mound
Buehrle, Reds hurlers rank among the best at saving runs with their gloves
Short of telling him to keep the golf clubs in the bag, the surest way for a manager or pitching coach to get a disdainful roll of the eyes from a pitcher in Spring Training is to mention "PFP" -- pitchers' fielding practice.
"Guys will say, 'Oh, man, we've done that 18 days in a row,'" Reds manager Dusty Baker said this week. "And I'll say, 'Yeah, and this makes 19.' Guys might hate it, but the repetition is important -- extremely important.
"We work on it big-time. We tell our pitchers to take it seriously. It can be the difference between winning and losing."
Baker and Cincinnati pitching coaches Bryan Price and Mack Jenkins have driven home their messages with the clarity of a cloudless springtime sky in Arizona or Florida.
According to "The Fielding Bible" calculations of John Dewan and his staff, the Reds were the best in the Major Leagues last season in handling the defensive aspects of pitching, saving 23 runs with their gloves. Only the Nationals, with 98, had more wins than the Reds' 97.
Arizona Diamondbacks pitchers were second with 16 runs saved, one more than the Cardinals' staff. The Blue Jays' staff saved 10 runs, a number that should rise with Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey bringing their advanced defensive talents north of the border. The Dodgers and Rays also saved 10 runs from the mound.
While the catcher is considered the leader of the infield, set apart by his tools and multiple duties calling pitches, guiding pitchers and setting defenses, the man on the mound -- the fifth infielder -- is critical to defensive containment. His glove is there to be used, along with his athleticism, knowledge, anticipation and instincts.
Moving from the White Sox to the Marlins as a free agent, Buehrle maintained his reputation as the best fielding pitcher in baseball by saving 12 runs for himself, a remarkable figure given he works every fifth day. The Major League leader in runs saved at any position was Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney with 28, one more than Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan.
The Cards' Jake Westbrook saved 11 runs, followed by the Reds' Johnny Cueto (eight) and Randy Wolf (seven with Brewers, Orioles). Dickey, the National League Cy Young Award winner for the Mets, saved six runs, as did the Reds' Mike Leake, Zack Greinke (Brewers and Angels), Ricky Romero (Blue Jays) and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw, a 2011 NL Gold Glove winner, will be joined by Greinke at the top of the Dodgers' rotation this spring.
Four of Cincinnati's starters were on the plus side of the defensive equation, saving a total of 22 runs. Barely trailing Cueto and Leake, Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey each saved four runs. Mat Latos was neutral, neither saving nor giving back any runs defensively.
"Mat's working hard on it, getting better," Baker said. "Homer has really come along. Johnny is outstanding, especially when you consider the deception in his delivery. Bronson has been one of the best fielding pitchers for years, and Mike is an athlete who plays it like an infielder."
At the other end of the spectrum, giving away runs with mound misplays, were the Pirates (-17), Padres (-16), Astros (-15), Yankees (-14) and Indians (-13). Their pitchers didn't help themselves.
"Most of the errors, I've found, come from relievers," Baker said. "They've usually just come in the game and have all that adrenaline pumping. Most of the errors come on throws -- especially to second base. Guys aren't used to taking something off the ball and throwing to moving targets, so you see a lot of balls sail into the outfield."
The fifth infielder operating in the heart of the diamond often overlooked gets in the company of the four gloved bandits intercepting bullets from first to third base.
"The only time most people pay attention to [the pitcher] is when he makes an error," Baker said. "But being able to handle balls through the middle -- he's the closest guy to me if I'm hitting -- takes away the first-and-third on those 20-hop grounders to center. Being able to make good throws to first and take them is just as important. That's why PFP is so valuable.
"It helps to be a good athlete and have a good delivery, but even then you have to work at it. When I managed Greg Maddux with the Cubs, he worked as hard as anybody. Look how it paid off for him [with 18 Gold Gloves]. He was the best for a reason -- he never stopped working at it."
By measure of Gold Gloves accumulated, the best of the modern era defensively beyond debate are Maddux and Jim Kaat. They set the standard with consistent, sustained brilliance.
Second to Maddux and his Major League-record 18 Gold Gloves, Kaat won 16, tying Brooks Robinson for second all-time. Maddux's run from 1990 through 2008 was interrupted only by Mike Hampton in 2003. Kaat's run of 14 straight began in 1962.
Rounding out the top six are Bob Gibson (nine Gold Gloves), Bobby Shantz (eight) and Mark Langston and Mike Mussina, with seven each. Ron Guidry, Phil Niekro and Kenny Rogers each won five.
In today's game, Buehrle stands alone, claiming the distinction from "The Fielding Bible" as the best defender at his position for a fourth consecutive season. His 2012 Gold Glove for the Marlins was his fourth, tying him with Jim Palmer.
The Rays' Jeremy Hellickson and Jake Peavy of the White Sox were co-AL Gold Glove winners in 2012. In addition those already mentioned, the Cards' Adam Wainwright, the Tigers' Justin Verlander, the Braves' Kris Medlen, the Rays' David Price, the D-backs' Trevor Cahill and Joe Saunders also grade highly.
Buehrle has mastered the art of defense in the fashion of stylish lefties through the years, such as Shantz, Harvey Haddix, Kaat, Tommy John, Guidry, Fernando Valenzuela, Rogers and Langston.
Kaat, who won his first Gold Glove at 23 and his last at 38, tells a fascinating story about how he came to author his long-running glove story.
"As a pitcher," he said, "you have to anticipate the balls being hit back at you. I was fortunate. I grew up as a radio baseball fan. Baseball is a great radio game to use your imagination. We didn't have the pictures back then.
"I heard announcers describe Bobby Shantz's motion, and he was the Gold Glove winner at that time. And I would mimic his motion in my backyard -- jump toward home plate, land on the balls of my feet.
"When I went to my first Spring Training, after some pitching and fielding drills, the coach said to me, 'You look just like Bobby Shantz.'"
Kaat and Maddux were textbook examples of how a smooth delivery and balanced landing position can protect a pitcher against the agony of a baseball imprinted on his anatomy. Both were blessed with Kaat-like quickness.
"The pitcher is the closest guy to me as a hitter," Baker said. "He's worried about delivering the ball to a location, first and foremost, so he has to make a quick transition to being ready for a shot right back at him. He has to think and act quickly, for his own self-defense.
"Maddux used to throw the ball on the outside and take a little off, expecting the ball to be hit right back at him. Fernando [Valenzuela] was like that; he was one of the best I played with. Tommy John used to pitch batting practice to us without a screen; he wanted to get in the habit of handling balls drilled back at him.
"I faced Kaat; he was really athletic. He became a sinkerball pitcher like [John] after coming in as a power pitcher. Gibson, I faced him only a few times. He was such a great athlete he was able to make plays even though he fell off the mound to the first-base side."
Defense actually starts for a pitcher before a pitch is thrown. Keeping runners anchored is a valued skill.
Cueto and Ryan Hanigan, who caught all but one of Cueto's 33 starts, erased nine of 10 men attempting to steal in 2012. That doesn't even count the six runners Cueto picked off. Greinke and Dickey were next best with four pickoffs each.
Throwing out 64 percent of basestealers overall, the Reds were third in the NL behind the D-backs and Cards, nine points better than the league average. Cincinnati's 3.34 team ERA, despite playing in a hitter-friendly home park, was eclipsed only by the Nationals' 3.33 in the NL.
Even if he doesn't have a great pickoff move, a pitcher can control the running game with a quick release home and by throwing frequently to first base.
Only 42 runners have stolen on Buehrle over the past nine seasons. He has picked off 31, and 48 have been thrown out trying to steal.
Personally saving more than one run every three starts has helped keep Buehrle in games. Combined with his control and quick pacing, he has exceeded 200 innings for 12 consecutive seasons, the first 11 of them with the White Sox.
How many of his 174 wins against 132 losses are the product of his defense is open to debate, but it has been helpful, beyond argument.
It's safe to say Maddux would not have retired with 355 wins -- the eighth-most victories of all-time -- or Kaat with 283 (31st) if not for their matchless defensive skills.
A 2010 play by Buehrle remains framed as the pitchers' answer to Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder World catch and Ozzie Smith's gallery of astonishment.
In the fifth inning of a 6-0 home victory for the White Sox over the Indians, Buehrle deflected Lou Marson's bullet with a kick save and raced toward the first-base foul line. Snatching the ball with his glove hand, he made a no-look, fade-away toss between his legs to first baseman Paul Konerko, who barehanded the toss for the out.
"When stuff like that happens," Buehrle said in the afterglow, "it surprised me just like it did 40,000 people here today. It's one of those when you are running over ... you are saying, 'Do I slide and spin or grab the ball and throw it?' Every thought went through my head but that one."
The drudgery of PFP can't prepare a guy for everything.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.