|Thursday, May 2
Updated: May 3, 11:15 AM ET
Johnny O provides some slick D
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
For a player standing 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, John Olerud has spent an alarming amount of his career in the shadow of others. In Toronto, Joe Carter hit the home runs and Robby Alomar made the plays. New York was the Bobby-and-Mike show. And now, Olerud's two-plus seasons in Seattle have been dominated by A-Rod's goodbye and Ichiro's hello.
Yet it is Olerud's 6-foot-5 frame and corresponding, gargantuan wingspan that make him perhaps the most underrated first baseman in baseball. There is a prejudice among those who evaluate defense to rave at gallant, backhanded dives and carp at errors, while ignoring all the more routine plays in between. But if you want to keep the plays of other infielders routine, you might not be able to do better than John Olerud. Consider the following:
Other infield teammates such as Edgardo Alfonzo and David Bell have shown less drastic but similar effects of having and not having Olerud as their first baseman. This might not be the most scientific measure of his skills, but it's an underappreciated aspect of a position often forgotten at the far end of the defensive spectrum.
More balls hit into play are touched by first basemen than any other position on the field; a regular there handles about 1,300 chances a year, with middle infielders next at about 700. Of course fielding a groundball and throwing it are much tougher tasks than receiving those throws. But a first baseman who can turn bad throws into outs makes everyone look better.
"Most people don't pay attention to these things," one American League scout says. "McGwire, they said he had no range, but what a target at first base. And he was great at picking out throws in the dirt. So he's not saving base hits, but geez. ... When they say lack of defense, they mean lack of range, and those are really two different things."
Olerud has won just one career Gold Glove -- with the Mariners in 2000, when for the first time in his career he led his league in the conventional measures of fielding percentage (.996) and assists (132). But his numbers in those categories are rarely so noteworthy. Last year, for example, he made nine errors and had an 8.89 range factor that was not only middle-of-the-pack but well behind noted DH-to-be Jason Giambi (9.94).
Of course errors, assists, range factor and other statistics still leave defensive evaluation as murky as Lenny Dykstra's dip cup. The best way to clear it up might be to apply Bill James' new Win Shares approach -- one in which Olerud happens to shine.
Perhaps only the most masochistic will drink in the entire derivation of James' defensive ratings -- unless you need more "Estimated First Base Un-assisted Putouts" in your diet -- but the method goes to great lengths to distill fair evaluations from conventional numbers that are contaminated by so many outside agents. The right-handedness of a pitching staff can lead to more first-base assists. Flyball pitchers make for fewer first-base putouts, as does a small foul territory in one's home park.
Taking all this into account, Olerud emerges as probably the best defensive first baseman of his time. Since he became a regular in 1991 his glove placed him in his league's top two in fielding Win Shares six times in 11 years; he placed first three straight seasons, from 1998-2000, each time by wide margins over more recognized defenders such as J.T. Snow and Rafael Palmeiro.
Not one to talk much about himself, Olerud simply jokes that it's just as well that he's 6-foot-5 because, "I've never been much of a jumper." (Sure enough, he has the hang time of an anvil.) But depending on how you assess the geometry, the semicircle his long body can reach without leaving the bag has about 4-6 percent more area than one a 6-foot-2 first baseman covers. Olerud can seamlessly stretch for high and wide throws, scoops the low ones, while also making his own throws on the 3-6-3 double play sure and true. As one scout put it, "He makes everything look easy." "His arm is as accurate as there is -- he's a control pitcher at first," Mets manager Bobby Valentine raved in 1999. "And he's very good at picking out of the dirt ... other relatively errant throws go unnoticed because of his fluidity and size. There's never that throw that is so high where he has to leap. He makes that play by staying on the bag. If he's (leapt) twice, I'd be surprised."
Of course, Olerud is an offensive asset as well -- though he doesn't show a first baseman's conventional power he hit .302 last year with a .401 on-base percentage, almost exactly his career marks of .300 and .404. (He batted .316-4-14 with 16 walks in 24 games this April.) Alex Rodriguez credits Olerud (and Edgar Martinez) with helping him appreciate the plate discipline that added the final dimension to his game the past two years.
And in the end, Olerud's teams win. His Blue Jays took the AL East in 1991 and then the World Series the next two years; the Mets improved from third in '97 to second in '98 to the NL wild card in '99; and Seattle won the AL wild card with him in 2000 before its amazing 116-win performance last year. His personal winning percentage of .551 from 1991-2001 is higher than every team except the Braves (.608) and Yankees (.564).
"Everybody says you can just put anyone at first base," Braves manager Bobby Cox says.
Not if you want to win.
Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.