Extensive fieldwork paying off for Fields
Third baseman plans for defense to match skill with bat
TUCSON, Ariz. -- The following depiction of Josh Fields' collegiate fielding technique at third base should be filed under the heading of, "Kids, don't try this at home."
"I didn't have enough time to work, so it was just, 'Get in front of the ball, let it hit you and then pick it up and throw the guy out,'" said Fields of his defensive work at the hot corner for Oklahoma St. "Now, with players' speed at this level, you have to catch it cleanly."
In fairness to Fields, his past competitive time did not solely belong to baseball. A good portion of his athletic year was spent figuring out how to elude and escape Big 12 pass rushes as the Cowboys' quarterback and then hooking up with All-American wide receiver Rashaun Woods for one big play after another.
But times have drastically changed. Fields has given up the helmet and shoulder pads for the relative safety of the White Sox uniform. At 25 years old and with 111 Major League games on his resume, Fields also finds himself penciled in as the team's starting third baseman.
His offensive skills never have been an issue. Over just 373 at-bats during the 2007 season, Fields belted out 23 home runs, 17 doubles and produced 67 RBIs. Those numbers project out to 37 long balls and 109 RBIs over a full, 162-game ledger.
Check out any stop during Fields' four-year professional career and the numbers on offense back up the White Sox high hopes attached to his selection with the 18th overall pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. But there's always one caveat to this forecast of greatness.
When it comes to playing defense at third base, Fields is no Joe Crede. It's a mantra Fields probably hears in his sleep, courtesy of the reminders from a few vocal fans at U.S. Cellular Field.
"Whenever you are hearing, 'Joe would have got to it,' I kind of wanted to say, 'Hey, everyone knows Joe would have got to it and I'm not Joe,'" said a focused Fields, forcing out a smile when talking about a comparison that has followed him since joining the White Sox. "That's hard. You mix their expectations with your own, and you start trying to play outside of what you can actually do.
"There were some ground balls I didn't get to that Joe gets to, yeah. But you know what? I feel like I played pretty good over there, actually.
"As long as I stay focused and remember what I can do ... I have to play my game. If people start yelling because I'm not getting to certain balls, I have to calm down and remember to get the balls I'm supposed to get."
Here's the truth of the matter, a point reiterated countless times during the first two weeks of Spring Training. When Crede is healthy, very few third basemen in the game can do what he does with the glove.
Now, here's the follow-up to this particular theory. Fields has turned into a serviceable, if not reliably solid, player in the field. This change became noticeable near the end of last season, after the left field experiment with Fields came to a close, and he returned to third.
According to manager Ozzie Guillen, the defensive development of Fields has increased exponentially since watching him take that first ground ball.
"Oh my God. Night and day," Guillen said. "This guy worked hard. He went to the Minor Leagues and worked with [infield instructor] Manny Trillo and the coaches. They did a tremendous job, and he's still working with [bench coach] Joey [Cora], who gives me the report every day. If we play with him, I don't see any problem."
"He's getting better," added Cora of Fields. "He got a lot better from the first time we saw him a few years ago to now. He made a lot of strides. He still needs to do a lot of work, but he's getting there."
Cora didn't get to watch Fields' work in person during this past offseason, but he laid out a plan of attack that Fields followed. Fields went through drills such as fielding ground balls from his knees, while also using the infamous kid-sized glove, which barely covers his adult hand.
The overall goal is to have Fields a little bit quicker on his feet and to stay balanced while getting down on the ball, according to the White Sox bench coach. Cora also wants Fields to work on his arm angle and the way he positions his glove.
Using that tiny mitt might be an annoyance for Fields. But it reinforces the point of keeping his eye on the ball.
"You know, I hated that thing at first," said Fields with a laugh of the unusual glove. "Now, I can see how much it has helped me. It forces me to focus and concentrate on watching the ball into the glove. You also have to have your footwork. It all has to be correct in order to catch the ball."
All of this work clearly has paid major dividends, with Fields looking more comfortable and natural at the position during Wednesday's Cactus League opener.
Sure, Fields isn't a carbon copy of Crede on defense, and if honesty prevails, he might never reach that exalted level. But at a time in the not too distant future, Fields' glovework might match his top-notch power production with the bat -- a concept agreed upon by at least one defensive standout turned member of the White Sox coaching staff.
"Very solid, no doubt," said Cora of Fields. "He has good hands. It's a matter of working with his legs and his feet. There's no doubt in my mind he can do it. He's a good athlete."
If nothing else, Fields has given up the block and smother fielding approach used in college.
"Just because I hadn't put that much time into it, I wasn't surprised that I had a lot to learn and a lot of different things to do after they drafted me," said Fields of his defense. "But I knew the best way to learn was to keep going and keep playing, with the most important thing for me being game experience. You have to be over there reacting to the ball in a game.
"I've been able to tell a difference, and it was nice to know [Guillen and Cora] have been able to notice that difference, too. My goal is to be as good as Crede, no question about it.
"You always want to set your goals high, but any third baseman playing wants to be as good as him," Fields added. "I do know I can be a good third baseman, good enough for any Major League team."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.