It's all for one, one for all among outfielders
Communication with each other the key to good defensive play on hits and fly balls
WASHINGTON -- The signals Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth relays when a new hitter steps to the plate are subtle, but the little pieces of information they impart are crucial.
Werth is the veteran of Washington's outfield, in his third season with the team and seventh in the National League East. Center fielder Denard Span was acquired in a trade with the Twins this offseason, and 20-year-old Bryce Harper is new to left field, while Werth remains in a familiar spot with a familiar team.
He takes the initiative to make sure the unit runs smoothly. That sometimes means flashing what Span calls "sign language" to help guide their positioning.
"Maybe if a runner's on first base or something, he'll make a gesture for us to move back to cut the double off so the guy can't score from first, just little stuff," Span said. "Or he'll signal at me that he has this gap, and I can go ahead and maybe cheat a little bit to the other side."
This is the sort of communication that can help ease things for a new outfield, something several teams are experiencing this season. The Braves, who swept a three-game series from the Nationals this weekend in Washington, are another example, with brothers B.J. and Justin Upton joining Jason Heyward.
Throughout the spring and now into the season, these newly constructed outfields have worked to gain the familiarity and comfort level that will allow them to function optimally as a unit.
"We're getting better and better," Justin Upton said. "We're not quite all on the same page yet. We're still having to communicate quite a bit out there and get used to reach other, but that's small stuff compared to the overhaul we had in Spring Training, of kind of getting to know each other and know each other's range."
The Braves' outfielders, like those of the Nationals, played together nearly every day during the spring, a workload that a longer-tenured group might not need.
For Justin, that presented an opportunity to figure out which fly balls his brother could get to and how much ground he needed to cover, as well as who would be responsible for what in different situations. With the season under way, they can use scouting reports to help with positioning and spacing.
One factor working in the Braves' favor is the overall defensive skills of the players involved. As Heyward said, "It makes things a lot smoother when you can cover as much ground as we can."
Other teams also pushed more skilled glove men into their outfields this offseason. The Angels, for example, put rangy Peter Bourjos in center field, sliding Mike Trout to left and leaving room in right for Josh Hamilton, a former center fielder himself. The Nationals have players with experience in center on both sides of Span.
"I think we're still learning each other, but I have to say this has been one of the easier transitions, because all three of us are good athletes," Span said. "We have good instincts, and that makes it a little easier, I suppose, than playing outfield with one or two guys who aren't as athletic or doesn't cover as much ground. But all three of us could play center field."
Communication can help outfielders squeeze the most out of their abilities.
It can be something that happens through advanced preparation. It also can be something that happens on the fly, such as an adjustment in alignment or one player knowing when to take charge of a fly ball and when to give way.
"It's the same way with the shortstop and second baseman," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "You need to play alongside each other a lot to get to know where they're going to be at on certain balls, who's going to have the better play on it, and that's a communication that a lot of people overlook, and it's very important, that relationship between the center fielder and the corner guys. You've got to be out there and running around and chasing down balls to see what the limits of each guy are."
That knowledge is something that cannot be forced. You learn by doing, and experience is by far the most effective tool.
Heyward saw a good sign during Spring Training when an opposing batter hit a ball into the right-center gap, one either he or B.J. could have caught. They made the play -- "like clockwork," according to Heyward.
"There's nothing you can do to speed it up but get reps," Heyward said of the transition. "That's it. I feel like with a lot of things in this game, you can't get better any faster than playing and implementing it. You can talk about it, you can work on it, you can get a feel for it, but you can't live it out until it happens."
Andrew Simon is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.