Pitchers Can't Catch

Pitchers are terrible fielders. If confirmation is requested, the first couple of weeks of this shortened season provide more than enough evidence.

Thankfully for the White Sox, much of this ineptitude has been displayed by the opposition, helping the local crew to an 8-8 record thus far after losing a 5-4 decision in 10 innings to Cleveland on Sunday night.

Go back to August 2nd in Kansas City in a 2-2 game in the top of the seventh. After Nicky Delmonico, who last week was demoted to practice time in Schaumburg, singled in two runs, reliever Glenn Sparkman was summoned to stop the bleeding with two outs and two men on base. All Sparkman had to do was retire Danny Mendick to keep the Royals in the game.

Mendick complied by hitting a dribbler just to the left of the mound, which Sparkman, a 4-year veteran, easily fielded before launching a soft toss far over the head of first baseman Salvy Perez as Eloy Jimenez and Adam Engel scampered home. The Sox added another run to go ahead by the final count of 9-2.

Last Tuesday against Milwaukee in a tense pitching match-up between Lucas Giolito and the Brandon Woodruff, the Sox led 3-2 thanks to a mammoth two-run homer by Jimenez and José Abreu's go-ahead single, which turned out to be the deciding blow.

Woodruff and Giolito had long since departed when lefthander Brent Suter came out of the Milwaukee bullpen to pitch the eighth and ninth innings. He held the Sox in check on a yield of just one hit, that being a slow roller toward the mound in the top of the ninth off the bat of Luis Robert. Suter gloved the ball but threw off balance past first base, allowing Robert, who was credited with an infield hit, to race to second base. Suter, who has been an effective reliever since his debut in 2016, then retired the next two batters.

Sox pitchers contributed their own porous defense last week. Closer Alex Colomé, who's converted all four of his save opportunities, emulated Suter in the bottom of the ninth on Tuesday after retiring the first two hitters. Ryon Healy, who runs like an ox, topped one back to Colomé, who had to move a step or two to his right.

Having successfully fielded a comebacker with his bare hand a few days prior, Colomé appeared undecided whether to repeat the technique on a ball he easily could have handled with his glove. Or, heaven forbid, with two hands. Instead, the ball escaped his grasp and squirted toward third base. Healy generously was credited with an infield hit.

Omar Narvaez, who can still hit but can't catch, followed with a base hit, and suddenly the verdict was in doubt when our fellows should have been in the clubhouse celebrating. However, Ben Gamel hit a smash to Abreu who retired him unassisted to keep Colomé's success streak intact.

The Sox weren't as fortunate on Friday night against Cleveland when Aaron Bummer was summoned by manager Ricky Renteria to protect a 1-0 lead in the top of the sixth inning. That may seem a bit early for a set-up man as talented as Bummer, but he was making his 23rd appearance when called upon to get four or more outs.

Renteria should not be second-guessed because the Indians had a pair of their best hitters - Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana - coming to the plate, and starter Dylan Cease, while he held Cleveland scoreless over five innings, had thrown 99 pitches while walking five and hitting a batter.

Bummer got a double play to close out a scoreless sixth before retiring the first two hitters in the seventh. He then walked Delino DeShields but got Cesar Hernandez to hit a one-bouncer just to the left of the mound. Bummer had plenty of time to get the runner but he hurried his throw, which bounced far in front of Abreu, who couldn't handle the missile.

One pitch to José Ramirez was all it took for Bummer to signal that his arm was aching, and that was the end of his night. In fact, after a diagnosis of a "strained bicep," the Sox put their star pitcher on the 10-day IL. Many of us, this writer included, have strained a bicep raising a beer mug, but by the next morning, not 10 days later, we've felt no ill effects. Bummer's injury appears far more serious than the Sox are disclosing.

Questions also can be raised, such as, did the lefthander hurt his arm on the throw to first? If not, had he made an accurate toss to end the inning, would he have exited the game injury-free? Exactly when did Bummer hurt his valued left arm?

Retreating back to my original premise, Bummer had plenty of time to field the ball, set his feet, and make a throw to first. But he's a pitcher, a species seldom noted for its fielding prowess. Consider that during spring training, pitchers spend a decent amount of time practicing covering first base. But how much emphasis is placed on fielding ground balls and comebackers? While infielders handle hundreds, if not thousands, of ground balls, pitchers are busy throwing simulated games, side sessions, and working on their repertoire.

Once the season begins, the other eight defenders are given instruction and practice during pre-game drills. Not so with pitchers, and it shows. With the season a quarter completed, pitchers have made 42 errors compared to 39 for shortstops, who handle far more chances.

Pitchers' inability to catch and throw is somewhat baffling if you consider that the most outstanding pitchers - those who keep advancing to the next level - in youth baseball often are the best players on their teams. Many of them play another position, frequently shortstop where defense is paramount. Not only that, but the majority of the elite pitchers in sandlot baseball also can hit. Can it be that once they're paid for their services, they become unidimensional, concentrating only on their ability to throw strikes while developing a variety of pitches?

Jon Lester is pitching in his 15th big league season and has won almost 200 games, yet he can't throw to first base. He's the poster boy for non-fielding pitchers.

Of course, there are outliers. Mark Buehrle helped his cause mightily when he pitched for the White Sox, winning three Gold Gloves and another with Miami in 2012. Jim Kaat pitched 25 seasons in the big leagues and won 16 Gold Gloves along the way, while Greg Maddux, winner of 355 games, was voted best fielding pitcher 18 times, including 13 in a row from 1990 to 2002.

This is impressive, but it also shows that over an extended period of time, no other pitchers could challenge guys like Kaat and Maddux. Adept fielding pitchers were and are few and far between.

The best one today probably is Zack Greinke, now in his 17th season with six Gold Gloves - all in the past six seasons - under his belt. Greinke, who continues to pitch effectively for the Astros, is as versatile as they come notwithstanding Shohei Ohtani. Greinke owns a lifetime batting average of .225. As a Dodger in 2013, he slashed .328/.409/.788. He must have been a terror as a Pony Leaguer.

Don't look for any defensive improvement on the part of pitchers any time soon. You won't find coaches tapping out ground balls hours before the day's opening pitch the way they do for infielders. Pitchers simply are too fragile. There's no time or dedication to making pitchers better fielders. Just make sure the other eight guys can catch and throw.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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