Adeiny Hechavarria was catching everything, like he usually did, during an infield practice in spring training 2018 when manager Kevin Cash started to wonder about better ways to get the players prepared.
“We’re just sitting there,” Cash said, “and it’s just so routine like, ‘What are we getting out of this?’ ”
He asked former bench/infield coach Charlie Montoyo, who had some ideas from his time in the minors about ways to make the drills more challenging, more up-tempo and, most importantly, more game-like.
First, they tried getting closer to the fielders and hitting soft, cushioned “rag balls” harder. Noting how “the players loved it,” and how competitive they were about it, they went back to hitting regular baseballs from home plate.
To put a further spin on the drill, the balls would be tossed by a staffer so they came off the coach’s bat similar to live action. To add some juice, Cash often would hit the balls himself, talking smack to the players who made misplays, or mocking awe over a good play.
“It’s something I believe in because it’s the closest thing to game speed that you can do besides playing balls off the bat during (batting practice),” Montoyo, now the Jays manager, said Monday.
“Kevin deserves all the credit because he allowed me to do it. Then he took over the ground balls, made it even better by hitting them himself, and made it fun. We saw how guys got better.”
That drill remains an almost daily staple of pre-game work — even on days when there is no batting practice, when it’s a day game after a night game, when it’s hot or cold, or whatever else that players would prefer to avoid.
And a major reason they feel they have the best defensive infield — and outfield for that matter — in the major leagues.
“We do a lot of things different than other teams, like taking live balls off the bat every day,” said Rodney Linares, the third base and infield coach. “We pride ourselves in being a really good defensive team. The guys have bought into the whole notion that there’s no egos, just come out and do the work. And it’s paid off. Guys have played really, really well. ... It’s a privilege. You get excited. It’s really fun to watch these guys do what they do every day.”
Statistics, both basic and advanced, show how good they are.
The Rays’ .9894 fielding percentage going into play Tuesday was the best in the majors, just ahead of the Astros, and their 26 errors were one off the lowest. Per the Sports Info Solutions metric that calculates defensive runs saved, the Rays were by far the best, their overall 57 well ahead of second-place Houston’s 36, and ranking first in infield (including 14 on shifts) and outfield.
“We’re the best in the league,” second-year pitcher Josh Fleming said. “If I’m out there and any ball hit in the gaps, I know it’s getting tracked down. Any ball on the infield, we’ve got guys who are going to make those plays.”
“I just love it,” said veteran pitcher Rich Hill. “I take the term, ‘They’re buzzing on defense’ from hockey because I’ve been watching a lot of playoffs. So I started using that. And they really are. Everybody’s sound. … The whole sum of their parts are what makes up the squad and everybody is really just doing their job — a very Belichickian/New England Patriots term, but it is something that everybody’s doing.”
The athleticism of the defenders is a big benefit, allowing for versatility in the infield and blanket coverage in the outfield, where the Rays at times start three legit centerfielders in Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot and Brett Phillips. “We’re confident in what we can do,” Kiermaier said. “The guys were able to run out there day in, day out; it’s amazing.”
Another key factor is the analytic data that leads to the positioning and shifting (in three primary alignments, with some adjusting allowed) that often puts them in the right spot. “I think we’ve gotten to the point where everybody’s so comfortable doing it,” Linares said.
And it helps they are willing to work at it pretty much every day.
“It’s definitely something that I think every single guy out there prides himself on,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said. “No one’s going to come in and just be like, ‘I’m too good for ground balls today.’ ”
Linares said the players know the benefits given how run prevention, through pitching and defense, is the key to their success.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished so far this season defensively and hopefully we can keep it up,” Linares said. “At the end of the year our goal is to be the best defensive team in the big leagues.”
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