How Twins outfielders are learning to make the wall their friend
MINNEAPOLIS — Byron Buxton, reigning Platinum Glove Award winner for the American League, has some simple advice for young outfielders learning to make plays on the warning track and beyond.
"Don't be afraid of the wall," Buxton said before leaving for a rehab assignment at Triple-A Rochester. "As long as you're not afraid of the wall, you're fine."
Crashing into the wall in pursuit of highlight-reel catches has become such a part of Buxton's oeuvre that he can scarcely handle his errands without the subject coming up. Seeing him stagger off the field last month after a particularly harrowing collision with the wall in Seattle only added to the cautionary advice.
"Now I go to the grocery store or Target, and people say, 'You need to stay off that wall,'" Buxton said with a smile. "They don't talk about anything else."
What does he tell his concerned fans?
"I say, 'That's my home,'" he said. "The only way for you to make those plays is you have to get comfortable enough to not let that wall scare you away. I just treat the wall as one of my friends. Now I have my mind set to where I know I'm going to take that hit, I know it's going to hurt, and I just hold onto the ball. I'm over the fear."
As Mike Quade travels through the Twins' minor-league system to work with the organization's young outfielders, he must guard against the temptation to grade them on the Buxton scale. Especially when it comes to aspiring center fielders such as Akil Baddoo, Jacob Pearson and Aaron Whitefield.
"It's a little difficult for the kids because we've got an all-world guy playing in the big leagues who's blessed with great instincts, fearless nature and unbelievable speed," says Quade, a former Chicago Cubs manager who returned to roving after three years managing at Triple-A Rochester. "Even if Buck technically isn't perfect from time to time, he can outrun his mistakes with the best of them."
Buxton's willingness to splay himself into outfield walls tends to complicate Quade's lesson plan, as well. The young man who coined the "Nothing Falls but the Raindrops" mantra is also at the forefront of an industry-wide transition to warning-track magic as an answer to the the launch-angle revolution.
"When I was coming up 30 years ago, it was not that big a point of emphasis," Quade said. "My message to the kids, at every level, is the game is played at the wall. People are striking out, hitting homers and doubles. If you play ridiculously shallow nowadays, you go back, you pick it up off the warning track and you hit the cutoff man."
Throughout the Twins system, outfielders are being taught to play a little deeper in order to familiarize themselves with plays at the wall. It's not enough to play the caroms properly; now it's about taking away extra-base hits — even home runs at the wall.
"Back in the day, once or twice a week you'd see a play at the wall that turned a game," Quade said. "Now, you turn on ESPN and it's five or six times a night. That doesn't mean we're going to let somebody stand on the warning track, but kids are playing deeper, and you could make the argument it makes good sense."
It's true that the minor leagues are more about development than game-to-game outcomes, but if young outfield prospects will be required to make plays at the wall in the majors, the skill needs to be honed in the bushes.
"Not everybody is as comfortable, but you've go to do it," Quade said. "You try to give them some helpful hints as to how to protect themselves, things they can do to avoid the collision. It's tough when you're on the dead run. You'll see a lot of times guys will be short of the wall, not even make contact with the wall and not finish a play. Well, they knew it was there."
Peeking is good
Twins outfielders got a lot of ink in 2017 for their willingness to play shallower than they had in the past, but that didn't last long. The need to go back on balls and run down rockets at the wall drove that mid-season adjustment.
"Even the second half of last year, it was much more strategic when we'd play shallow," said Twins major league coach Jeff Pickler, who works with the team's outfielders. "Too much was made out of it. We weren't really playing as shallow as everyone thought we were, but it was a nice topic."
With runners on first or second, Twins outfielders might shorten up in order to take away the extra base, but otherwise corner outfielders Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler have been taking away more hits than ever as they race back toward the wall.
"Every time you make a move to eliminate something, you're opening up something else," Pickler said. "You're trying to give yourself the best opportunity going into the wall. If you can get there a step sooner so that you, the ball and the wall are not all arriving at the same time, that's helpful. If you have the ability to peek, that quick visual of where that wall is can really increase your instincts."
Partly because of this adjustment, Twins outfielders are tied for seventh this season in defensive runs saved (nine) and they rank eighth in ultimate zone rating.
"I feel more comfortable this year going back on the ball," said Rosario, who appears headed for his first career all-star selection. "Right now, I'm not scared to go to the wall. I try to make the play."
Even Robbie Grossman, not noted for his defense, made an impressive running catch over the weekend to take away extra bases on the track in left.
"You've got to know where you are on the field," Grossman said. "If you have enough time, you try to take your eye off the ball, find the wall and then work back to the ball. Most of the time you know that wall is coming. Hopefully you have enough time to reach out and feel for it, but most of the time you don't."
As Quade tells his minor leaguers: "The best way to make a play at the wall is to get to the wall. Guys are drifting, running with the ball, that's not the right idea. You try to teach guys to go back hard, and I mean just explode. You know when quality contact has been made: 'I've got to go!'"