To have a winning season, baseball teams must play great defense. Giving the opposition extra outs and more opportunities to score runs can spell disaster. Most casual fans often overlook the importance of defense.
Last Thursday and Friday, during Opening Days for the 30 Major League teams, I saw how important it is to have a good defensive center fielder. Nearly all of the teams with good defensive center fielders won their openers and put less stress on their pitching staffs. The teams that didn't have good defense in center were in trouble.
According to an old baseball adage, teams that are strong up the middle win championships. Teams without good catchers have problems with their pitching staffs and runners taking extra bases on either passed balls or stolen bases. A good catcher can coax a decent outing from a struggling pitcher.
The double-play combination of a second baseman and shortstop is vital to the success of any team. Since pitchers can't strike out every batter they face, they must have players behind them who can cover ground and catch balls.
Both second basemen and shortstops need adequate range to prevent grounders from getting to the outfield. They need good communication between themselves and quick reflexes to complete double plays.
A shortstop -- playing the second-most physically demanding position on the baseball diamond -- must have a strong arm because he must make long throws. If a team has a great defensive shortstop, magical things can happen.
Many people, including me, believe the outfielders have easier defensive jobs than catchers and infielders. The center fielder is the captain of the outfield. Although the center fielder sometimes has the weakest throwing arm on the team, he must be athletic.
Many modern stadiums have gigantic outfields, so the outfielders need to cover much ground. Since the center fielder should cover the most area in the outfield, he usually is the fastest player on the field. He sometimes needs to help either the right fielder or the left fielder. He needs to have an ability to read the ball coming to the outfield.
In the early days of the 2011 season, I have witnessed the importance of having great defensive center fielders to the success of a team. If the teams don't have a good center fielder, they make their pitchers work harder and give the opposing teams more scoring opportunities than they should.
In the first inning of their first game, Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson made an awesome diving catch to help C.C. Sabathia. This remarkable catch prevented Sabathia, facing the strong middle of the lineup for the Detroit Tigers, from having a baserunner. The catch fired up the team.
Josh Hamilton, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player, has been moved from center to left to make room for Julio Borbon.
Playing left means Hamilton will have fewer opportunities to catch balls than he would have while playing center. His aggressive style of playing defense will still drive him to make diving catches and crash into walls. While in center, he only had one wall to crash into, but playing left gives Hamilton two walls to worry about.
If the Rangers had a bona fide center fielder, the position change for Hamilton might make sense. In my opinion, the Rangers don't have a good defensive center fielder. During Spring Training, Borbon often made mental mistakes in center. On the first batter in the opener, Borbon bumped into the right fielder causing a routine fly ball to drop for a two-base error. Several times during the game, he didn't get adequate jumps to field catchable balls.
Many people thought the main problem of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2010 was the defense of Matt Kemp, their center fielder. Kemp has the athletic ability to be a magnificent center fielder, but he doesn't always seem to read balls well off the bat. Misplaying balls into extra-base hits didn't help a somewhat weak pitching staff. The Dodgers hope Kemp's defense improves to help a weak offense.
The quality of play in center field is vital to a team. It will be interesting to see how the center fielders around baseball play.
Sarah D. Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.