The view from the press box behind home plate at major-league stadiums provides an unmatched view of a fly ball off a hitter’s bat, taking an arc that sometimes seems to magically intersect with a fielder’s path.
At first crack of the bat, the ball may appear to be headed with authority into the gap for an extra-base hit, and yet so often to the point of routine, it’ll slice or hook toward the outfielder for an easy out. The fielder doesn’t break a sweat. Big-league players learn to judge the batted ball on impact, and ultimately their ability to track down searing liners becomes instinctive.
When young players are brought up from the minors, the scenes become more adventurous, far less predictable.
Moises Sierra of the Toronto Blue Jays, a late-August call-up from Triple-A Buffalo who is auditioning this month as a possible replacement for Jose Bautista in the outfield, evidently has a dubious grasp of simple baseball fundamentals. His throws miss cutoff men and sometimes go to the wrong base or no base at all. He speaks with coaches after each game to sharpen his skills.
Beyond the basics, Sierra, 24, and other young players are challenged by a stream of factors to make the jump to baseball at the major-league level.
For one, many big-leaguers can hit the ball with a greater authority than they are accustomed to seeing in the minors, and the challenge of fielding is complicated by stadiums with third decks and foreign wind patterns.
“The game is faster up here,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said before Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim that capped a three-game sweep for the Halos.
In the first game against the Angels last Tuesday, Angels slugger Mark Trumbo scorched a line drive into the right-centre gap. It took one of those paths that are truly a disappointment for a hitter who’s put the full barrel on a pitch, slicing toward Sierra.
Reprieve. Sierra took an incorrect – inexperienced – path to the ball, undercutting it rather than moving diagonally to an end point and, by consequence, watched the ball soar over his head for a double.
“He hit it hard,” Sierra would later understate.
Sierra has also had some curious adventures on the base paths. In one game, he was thrown out at home and later got hit by a batted ball running between first and second base. In another game, he ran into a double play by allowing the second baseman to apply an easy tag before relaying to first.
Two other Blue Jays call-ups, second baseman Ryan Goins and outfielder Kevin Pillar, appear to have a sound grasp of fundamentals. Sierra is raw, but “as far as talent goes, he’s got as much as anybody,” Gibbons says. “It’s a matter of it coming out.”
And so the team is using September to teach and observe. It is in a position to be patient, which is to say, last place in the American League East.
Sierra is demonstrating an ability to hit to all fields, with power. His batting average was .367 over nine games, entering the series finale with the Angels.
Last Wednesday, he collected three of the team’s four hits – two doubles and a triple – in a game started by the Angels’ best pitcher this season, C.J. Wilson. “I try to make a good swing and not do too much. See the ball and hit it,” Sierra said after.
Sierra, a 230-pound right-handed hitter, added three more hits on Thursday, a double down the left-field line, a double down the right-field line, and a single over shortstop on an off-speed pitch.
The Angels scored a single run in four consecutive frames off Toronto starter J.A. Happ (4-6), who lasted 4 1/3 innings. With the score tied 1-1, centre fielder Anthony Gose made one of those fundamentally flawed plays, by throwing to third base when Erick Aybar tagged from second on a fly ball, rather than to second, and Aybar scored when the ball bounced away from Brett Lawrie. Jose Reyes’s solo homer and Sierra’s first double gave Toronto a 3-2 lead in the third. Kole Calhoun tied it with a solo homer and a Mike Trout double, his 38th, produced the go-ahead run in the fifth.
How a ballplayer reaches the majors without a firm grasp of fundamentals is a question Gibbons and many of his colleagues are addressing with increasing frequency. Talented players seem to be rising through minor-league systems at a quicker pace than in that past.
“They preach it, and work on it down there [in the low minors],” Gibbons says. “But it costs you. Maybe we should be a little more patient, but we shouldn’t have to be. Good fundamentals win; bad fundamentals lose.”
Talent trumps though, and the Jays are clearly intent on refining Sierra’s by drilling him on the fundamentals – and giving him the experience to track down liners with the same ease demonstrated nightly by Bautista.