The Third Degree

The article in the latest Sports Illustrated about Blue Jays superstar Josh Donaldson was a fun read.  Anybody that has watched that guy at length understands why he is one of the premier players in baseball right now.  His extreme ability on both the offensive and defensive sides is complimented by the exciting way he carries himself and how hard he plays the game everyday.  In addition to the main Donaldson article however, Sports Illustrated gave a defensive enthusiast a Christmas gift in July, a couple of inserts about Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado and their insane abilities with the glove.  What became clear throughout the literature was that while each guy’s greatness at the third base position is defined a little differently, the defensive qualities that they each embody are critical to success at such a difficult and important spot.  Also it may be helpful to know that as I write this, these three guys lead baseball in DWAR and Range Factor for third basemen.  Lets take a look at each guy.

As you may know, Donaldson spent the majority of his time in the minor leagues as a catcher, which in and of itself is a position that takes a lifetime to master.  Donaldson however was given an opportunity to earn a job after an injury to a third baseman in Oakland’s camp in 2012, and the way in which he seized that opportunity defines him as a player.  

“But what gets lost in the story is that Donaldson, who still needed to outperform the other third basemen in camp, had worked all offseason to be ready for the opportunity.  He had gone to the Dominican Republic for winter ball and told the manger that he wanted to develop his skills at third.”

This is a guy that for his entire professional career had been a catcher, and took the initiative to learn another position…..just in case.

“I’ve always needed to try and find ways to separate myself,’ Donaldson explains.  ‘As someone who wasn’t the biggest and strongest, I’ve always thought that I had to outwork everyone else.”

That passage speaks for itself, not only in Donaldson’s words but in his actions.  And there’s more…

“In Oakland, while Donaldson was adjusting to third base, ‘We had to literally take him off the field and say ‘Let’s try again tomorrow,’ and he’d be upset because he didn’t get it right,’ says Gallego.  ‘His first step quickness was unbelievable, his eyesight was supernatural, and his range would increase every single say.’  All those years as a catcher-knowing how to block balls in the dirt and get to his feet to throw-facilitated the transition.  Still Donaldson had to learn to read the first hop of grounders and to detect patterns in how balls would come off the bat based on the pitch.  He was a perfectionist.”

As is clearly shown, Donaldson’s proficiency as a third basemen was a direct result of his mindset; his willingness to take the initiative, do the dirty work, and not stop until he had mastered it.  Take note too of what what contributed to his strong transition (eyesight + first step = range) and what some of the final hurdles were….read the first hop….detect patterns.  More than just simple footwork and hand drills contributed to his transition into an All-Star third baseman, and his existence as a gritty, baseball rat helps define and enhance his game with the glove.

Nolan Arenado is bar none my favorite player in baseball right now.  Some of the plays he makes look easy are ones that a lot of guys only dream about making.  Arenado’s brilliance isn’t just a product of his natural abilities, as he is admired by those around him for his attention to detail and work ethic.

“In high school, where Arenado played shortstop, he was uninterested in defense.  But when the Rockies took him with the 59th pick of the 2009 draft and moved him to third, he began to see the beauty of fielding, of reacting to almost imperceptible factors and studying batters’ tendencies to place himself on the right patch-nay, blade- of grass for every swing.  ‘I try to get myself in the right spot all the time,’ Arenado says.  Utility Inifielder Daniel Descalso lauds his work ethic, the thousands of grounders he fields in practice every week.”

I find it interesting that the best defender in baseball is a guy who was relatively uninterested in defense for the majority of his life.  I can fairly confidently guess that Nolan was naturally one of the best defensive shortstops is California high school baseball, but would he have gotten to the elite level he is at now (two gold glove awards in his first two seasons) had he not bought into the importance of work on the defensive side?  The answer is no.  His attention to the finer points of playing the third base position give him that edge, and his steady, consistent routine and work ethic allow him to maintain it.

Manny Machado’s blurb in SI may have struck me the most out of any of the three guys.  It’s easy to see that Manny has tools, but which tool is the most special?

“Opinions vary on what makes Machado a great defensive third baseman.  Showalter cites his timing and speed.  Third base coach Bobby Dickerson first says it’s Machado’s hand-eye coordination, then decides it’s footwork.  ‘His accuracy is what amazes me,’ says centerfielder Adam Jones.  ‘His ability to throw on the run’ says shortstop J.J. Hardy.  ‘At all different angles’ says Jones.  ‘Yeah, all angles’ nods Hardy.  ‘That’s what’s crazy.’  ‘It’s all about vision,’ Machado himself says.”

So between the manager, a member of his coaching staff, two players with seven combined gold gloves and Machado himself, each one cited a different part of Machado’s game that impresses them the most.  Vision, timing, speed, footwork, accuracy from different arm angles, throwing on the run.  These qualities demonstrate Machado’s vast array of physical skills, and I’d venture to guess that he’s focused and diligently worked on developing these skills up to this point and continues to do so daily.

As evidenced by a quick look at what goes into each of these guys’ games, there are a lot of factors that contribute to being one the best third baseman in baseball.  As coaches, evaluators, we need to take note and incorporate ways of working on these physical skills with our players.  As an athlete, start with the gritty Donaldson mindset, appreciate and incorporate attention to detail and routine like Arenado and work on mastering all the physical parts of your game like Machado.  Grab the latest Sports Illustrated as well and read the whole article for even more context.

Ryan Serena
Rogue Baseball

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