There are thousands of different statistics in baseball. Some statistics get lots of press – home runs, strike outs, batting average, RBI’s, etc. Some statistics are fairly new and haven’t yet been completely absorbed by the collective consciousness of average baseball fans such as BABIP, FIP, WAR, etc. Other stats may be underrated but are critical to the success of any team. One of these underrated statistics is the defensive assist.
In every game, the first baseman will make several putouts. With the exception of the few times each game that the first baseman may catch a line drive, or beat the catcher back to the base on a grounder, most of these outs are preceded by another defensive player snagging the ball and throwing it to the first baseman. If it wasn’t for Alcides Escobar, aka #ShortStopJesus, and Mike Moustakas, aka #Moose throwing leather all over the left side of the infield, Eric Hosmer wouldn’t be credited with nearly as many putouts.
For all their short comings, one thing the Royals have in good supply is strong defense. The left side of the field is covered by Gold Glover Alex Gordon, future Gold Glove shortstop Escobar, and the most improved third baseman in baseball, Moustakas. When Salvador Perez returns at catcher I believe he will significantly solidify our only current position of defensive weakness. Eric Hosmer plays strong defense, and Chris Getz, Jarrod Dyson / Lorenzo Cain can hold their own with the best of them. But there is one aspect of our defense that nearly outshines the others with consistently stunning and noteworthy performances – Jeff Francoeur and his lethal ability to gun down unsuspecting baserunners.
When I began writing this story, I started to research all the records for outfield assists so I could compare Francoeur to the great Carl Yastrzemski (he lead the league in outfield assists 7 times) and Roberto Clemente (led the league 5 times and many say he had the best arm ever), or talk about how some of the “so called” greatest players, such as Albert Belle and Barry Bonds were the easiest outfielders to run on, etc., etc. And then, I decided against it.
If given the choice, would you rather read about the history of the Grand Canyon, or would you prefer to stand on the edge, peering down into the magnificent canyon below while the sun set in the surrounding desert? Endure a tedious classical art lecture, or gaze opon the timeless face of the celebrated Mona Lisa? I decided not to engage in a boring discussion of defensive assists and simply pause for a few moments while we take in the majesty of the greatest outfield arm of our generation.
One of my all-time favorite baseball highlights is the video of Francoeur’s perfect, perfect, perfect throw to nail the Tiger’s Jhonny Peralta at third base on August 7 last year. Apparently, Peralta didn’t get the memo about Frenchy’s ability to throw runners out. I challenge you to find a more beautiful, almost breathtaking defensive play – Francoeur running toward the line to pick up the ball, whirling and launching a rocket to 3rd, capped by the ho-hum nonchalant tag made by Moustakas as if it happened every day. And check out the Tigers 3rd base coach’s reaction as he hangs his head during the slow motion replay, it’s classic. Click here to see perfection.
Then, fast forward to this season, May 1, 2012 and apparently Peralta was suffering a memory lapse evidenced by his ill-advised attempt to test Francoeur’s arm again. (Peralta would make a great subject for an SNL Weekend Update “Really?!?” skit.) Click here to see the result, as if you don’t already know. Don’t you just love watching Jhonny Peralta run the bases against the Royals? On the downside, this highlight would be a lot more enjoyable if the Royals weren’t losing 9-0 in the 4th inning.
Another of my all-time favorite defensive highlights is from September 7, 2011 when Michael Taylor of the Oakland A’s came to bat in only his 4th game and lined what appeared to be a sharp single into right field. Well, bad luck for Taylor, Jeff Francoeur was playing right field and as a baserunner you can never take anything for granted on a ball hit to Frenchy. Even more amazing to me is the fact that Hosmer went to first base to cover the throw from Francoeur. That is the definition of heads-up. Click here to see the embarrassing moment. Welcome to the big leagues rookie.
Last year, the ESPN blog ranked active outfielders’ throwing arms and came up with a virtual tie for the number one position between Francoeur and Shin-Soo Choo. In 2012, Choo has one assist, Francoeur has 5. End of discussion.
The difference between those who have the ability to throw out runners from the outfield and those who don’t is absolutely huge. In 2012, Francoeur is tied for the AL lead with 5 assists and only 16 other guys have two or more. Everyone else has one or none. Francoeur’s ability to throw out runners is similar to Willie Wilson’s ability to steal bases, or George Brett’s ability to hit for average, or Humberto Quintero’s ability to swing at the first pitch and tap a dribbler back to the pitcher – it’s far above the abilities of almost any other player in the league.
One thing worth mentioning in this story is that with all his talent, Jeff Francoeur didn’t lead the Royals in outfield assists last year. In 2011, that honor went to Alex Gordon. Remember this when you hear someone talking about an unfair arms race, they may be talking about the Royals rather than the Russians.
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