Let us now praise the outfielder who is as valuable to his team for keeping runners from crossing home plate as he is for driving runners in. Maybe guys like Denard Span or Michael Bourn. Among other things, these defensive wizards know how to use another underappreciated player: the cutoff man.
There is no greater place on the baseball field to manufacture runs than off of the opposing team's outfield. Sure, you can steal on a catcher with a weak arm or take advantage of a pitch in the dirt, but that usually gains you only 90 feet. At a minimum, taking advantage of an outfielder allows you to get runners into scoring position. And a runner can often gain two bases on one play. The stakes are much higher when a ball is hit to the outfield than on a passed ball or a bobbled grounder in the infield.
When runners are on base and a ball is hit to the outfield, the outfielder has to decide how to throw to the plate. Do you one-hop the catcher? Do you make the big throw to the plate all the way on the fly? Or do you hit the cutoff man and let him make the final decision? A good baserunning team will know that this moment is an opportunity, based solely on the throw to the cutoff man.
There was a time during my preprofessional days as an outfielder when the cutoff man was just an insult. The cutoff man was an annoyance getting in the way of the missile launched from what I was told was my "plus" arm, an obstruction blocking my view of the action, resistance in the path of a throw that was destined to reach the base on the fly. In a game in college when we played an exhibition game against the minor league Vero Beach Dodgers, I threw a ball from center field to third base as hard as I possibly could -- which, had it been a well-attended game, might have beheaded the hot dog guy. Power trumped discipline and accuracy in those pre-draft days. At times, a la Shawon Dunston handcuffing Mark Grace, it was fun to use the cutoff man as a mole target. But then the pros came calling.
As time went on, I began to welcome the cutoff man -- in part because of the constant badgering of my outfield instructor, Jimmy Piersall, and also in part because as I got older, my arm became more tired. If I wasn't home in Philadelphia and able to get extra distance by bouncing my throws on the AstroTurf at Veterans Stadium, I was looking for a friend to cut the distance between me and the destination of a throw.
Piersall understood the role of an outfielder. He understood that it's as much about making good decisions as it was about having good speed. You have to take the right path; you have to go at the correct angle from that first step; you have to throw to the correct base.
Defending an outfield is a serious job, Piersall always said. In Little League, the poorer fielders are often banished to the outfield where, it's thought, they can do the least harm. But by the time you play in high school, there is no place to hide. A weak outfielder is going to do nothing but let the opposing team rack up more runs -- and quickly.
In the outfield, a physical or mental error usually means that a runner can advance more than one base. A misplayed ball also allows the batter who hit it to get into scoring position. Indecision allows a runner to go from first to third instead of having to stop at second. Taking the wrong route allows the ball in the gap to turn into a bases-clearing triple. Many of those kinds of defensive mistakes don't end up in the error column. An error in timing, judgment or understanding the field conditions without getting a glove on a ball can mean a double when it comes to official scoring.
When there is a runner on second base and a ball is hit to the outfield, the dance begins. As the batter takes off from home, he knows he must read the throw. If the outfielder airmails the ball over the cutoff man, the runner can keep going and move 90 feet closer to home. A low throw also prompts an on-the-spot decision. The hitter has to know if the runner from second is going to make it home uncontested. If it is uncontested, the hitter should know that a good infield will cut the throw off to prepare to redirect the ball to cut down a trailing runner. A good baserunner will see this unfolding and stay at first.
Utilizing a cutoff man isn't a sign of a weak arm. It's a sign that you have a strong understanding of how to play the ultimate team game.
Piersall used to love it when an outfielder practically spiked a throw into the ground. He would rather you rolled the ball to home than throw it over the cutoff man's head, even when that throw looked pretty and reached the catcher on the fly. The idea is that a low (or rolling throw) is going to freeze a good baserunner, putting the onus on him to determine whether or not the ball is going to be cut off. A bad high throw, on the other hand, takes the pressure off the runner and reduces the chance that he will make a bad read.
On so many plays at the plate following a hit, you see runners run into outs after the cutoff man takes the throw. If the runner is cruising into home without a play, what good is it to run into an out as the trailing runner? It only has value if you are trading yourself as the trailing runner in exchange for a runner scoring before you are tagged out.
Driving in runs certainly gets a lot of notice, but there are many more opportunities as an outfielder to give up (or prevent) doubles, triples and extra bases as opposed to hitting them. Most often the opportunity to give up a big inning comes not just from bad pitches and good hitting, but from bad routes, bad angles and bad throws. These poor plays are rarely seen on a scorecard.
Utilizing a cutoff man isn't a sign of a weak arm. It's a sign that you have a strong understanding of how to play the ultimate team game. A good cutoff man in a coordinated infield can create diversions and decoys, putting just enough hesitation and pause into a runner to keep him from taking that extra base -- all the more reason that a ball in the outfield needs to be treated like a hot potato. Get it back into the infield, cut down the runner's visibility and let the infield figure out what to do next. Most importantly, give your teammate a chance to cut off the ball.
The next time you're at a ballpark, watch the way Ichiro Suzuki plays the ball off the wall and throws it back to Chone Figgins in the infield. Watch how Adam Jones takes the right angle to prevent a ball from getting to the gap. You might not see Suzuki or Jones among the slugging or RBI leaders, but their managers and teammates know how important they are to their club's success. It's basic math: Keeping a run off the scoreboard is just as important as putting a run on it.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.