The art of diving catches

Most outfielders dive for catches as if they're falling headfirst off the hood of a car, their bodies dropping at a high angle, both hands extended in front of them. They might glove the ball. Briefly.

But then there is the matter of the crash-landing. Elbows touch down against the ground, jarring the rest of the body; the head, the arms, the hands are rattled, and the ball often shakes loose.

But as Braves center fielder Andruw Jones pursues a looping fly ball, he swoops in low, dropping his whole body toward the ground -- so that when he dives, his body is almost parallel to the playing surface.

His gloved left hand is extended in front of him, pocket to the sky, but as Braves coach Bobby Dews has noticed, Jones does not reach with his right arm; rather he uses his right hand and arm like a counterweight. He is airborne, about to land, but his body is balanced, coming in at a low angle. If there is such thing as perfect mechanics for making a diving catch, these would qualify, and it's part of the reason why Jones is arguably the best in the game at executing this particular play.

This is not a skill Jones practices now, as a veteran of nine major-league seasons; he once worked on it in the minor leagues, but no longer. Now there are probably 10 to 20 moments in each season when Jones begins to move at the start of the swing -- before contact, Dews notes -- and reads the ball off the bat and reacts. "And my instincts take over," he said.

Jones' internal radar determines almost immediately where the ball will fall, and then he closes on that spot. And dives.

Because of his mechanics, Jones is much less likely to get hurt diving for a ball -- and the chance for injury is significant. Outfielders tend to impale some part of their arms into the ground as they land -- an elbow, or a gloved hand, perhaps. Their full weight falling forward can then serve to snap a wrist, a hand, sprain an elbow, drive a shoulder out of its socket. It's little wonder that some outfielders are reluctant to dive.

"You're going to get hurt sometimes when you dive -- your shoulders, your back, your knees," said Jones. "But you don't think about that; you're trying to make a play. That's what you get paid for, that's what you've dreamed about."

Joe Simpson, the Braves broadcaster and former center fielder who played nine seasons in the majors, said, "You've got to be fearless to be that good at playing the position he plays."

When longtime major leaguer Derek Bell played the outfield, for example, he would almost never dive for balls hit in front of him. Teammates wondered if Bell had ever learned how to dive for a ball, while scouts speculated that years of playing on artificial surface in the Toronto Blue Jays organization had made Bell reluctant to dive -- because if he missed, the ball would almost certainly kangaroo past him.

But Jones is almost always aggressive, depending on the game situation; if a one-run lead is dependent on whether he catches a looper over the infield, Jones will dive. When he misses an attempt at a diving catch, he usually manages to knock the ball down. Rarely will Jones miss the ball altogether, with the ball bounding past him for an extra-base hit. "If you're diving and realize you're not going to catch the ball, you use your body to block it," he said.

He does not make mistakes in reading balls hit directly at him, Simpson said, and does not get caught in-between while attempting a diving catch. Because of the way he holds his glove in front of him, pocket up, there is almost never a question of whether he short-hopped the ball. Either he catches the ball cleanly or knocks it down. "He usually gets leather on it, somehow," said Simpson. "Part of the reason you don't see balls go past him is that he usually catches them. Of the 10 he dives for, he'll catch nine of them."

When an outfielder dives on a ball hit in the gap, there is usually the inherent risk of colliding with the right or left fielder. But Jones doesn't have many near-misses with the other outfielders, Simpson said. "His co-outfielders have so much respect for him -- to a fault, sometimes -- because they expect Andruw to get everything, so even when they have to run a long way, they're cognizant of the fact that Andruw is going to get there," Simpson said.

It is less likely, Jones said, that he will dive for a ball to his right; it's a much tougher play because he must try to backhand the ball. Mostly, he dives on balls hit to his left, on his glove side, and on balls hit in front of him.

But before any dive, there must be the desire to make plays. Some outfielders have it, Jones believes, some don't; he watches other outfielders move and believes he can sense whether they have that instinct. "You've got to have in your mind that you want to catch the ball," said Jones. "That's where the diving catch comes from, first."

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.