SweetSpot: Jesse Barfield

You probably saw that Yoenis Cespedes did it again on Wednesday, misplaying a ball but recovering to show off his cannon and throw out Albert Pujols. That's nine assists on the season for Cespedes (four against the Angels), with eight coming in just the past 16 games, the first outfielder with that many assists in a 16-game span since Bernard Gilkey in 1997.

One thing you sometimes here is that outfielders with great arms don't rack up a lot of assists because runners never test them out. That simply isn't true. Look at some of the outfielders with a reputation for having a great arm:
  • Roberto Clemente led his league five times in outfield assists and ranked second four times.
  • Al Kaline led the AL three times and was second twice.
  • Dave Parker finished first, second or third in the NL each year between 1975 and 1980 (including 26 in 1977).
  • I mentioned Ellis Valentine in yesterday's post on great throws. He tied for the major league lead with 24 assists in 1978.
  • Jesse Barfield led the AL five times (three times reaching 20 or more assists) and was second twice.
  • Ichiro Suzuki twice led the league and three other times finished in the top three.
  • Royals left fielder Alex Gordon is known for his strong arm and he's ranked first, second and first in the majors the past three seasons.
  • Gordon's ex-teammate Jeff Francoeur has a cannon, and when he hit well enough to remain in the lineup he racked up 19 assists in 2007 (first in the majors), 16 in 2011 (second) and 19 in 2012 (first).

You get the idea. Here are the year-by-year top 10 leaders in outfield assists. Sometimes there are exceptions. Alfonso Soriano was never known for his great arm but he led the majors with 22 assists in 2006 and 19 in 2007. Maybe his arm was was better than it was given credit for or maybe he just had two great seasons in left field. (According to play-by-play data on Baseball-Reference.com, 23 of his assists over those two years falls into the "other" category of assists from those listed, which mostly means batters trying to stretch a base hit into a double.)

There are also some outfielders who can get high assist totals because they're good at charging balls. Barry Bonds fits this description as he didn't have a strong arm but led the NL in assists in 1990 and ranked in the top four five other times between 1987 and 1995. Tim Raines had a weak arm but had a 21-assist season. This is part of what made Ichiro such a good right fielder; I've always thought his actual arm strength was overrated a bit but he was so good at coming in on the ball he was effective at holding runners.

Still, assists aren't everything. Preventing a runner from advancing doesn't show up in the assist column but has value. Thanks to play-by-play data that goes back to the 1954, we can track this information and compare an outfielder's ability in preventing runner advancement to other outfielders. Baseball-Reference lists a category called Rof, which is Total Zone Outfield Arms Above Average -- the number of runs above or below average an outfielder saved based on baserunner kills and runner advancement. For example, go here for 2013 and go to the second table and click on the Rof column to sort by the leaders.

I went and looked at each season since 1954. A lot of the same names show up among the leaders year after year. I also noted all seasons where an outfielder saved at least seven runs above average or led the majors (if it was below seven). Using that definition, these players showed up most often:

Jesse Barfield: Six times
Dwight Evans: Five times
Roberto Clemente,, Andruw Jones, Raul Mondesi, Larry Walker: Four times
Bobby Abreu, Johnny Callison, Rocky Colavito, Jim Edmonds, Jeff Francoeur, Cesar Geronimo, Alex Gordon, Ken Griffey Jr.: Three times.

That's a pretty decent proxy list for "Best arms of the past 60 years."

One more thing we can do. We can look at the percentages of times a baserunner was "held." For right fielders, Baseball-Reference looks at five situations (single with runner on first, single with runner on second, double with runner on first, flyout with runner on third and flyout with runner on second) and then calculates the percentage of times the baserunner didn't advance, or hold percentage.

Here are how some right fielders fared in that area in their careers (numbers only while playing right):

Raul Mondesi: 52.7 percent
Alex Rios: 51.2 percent
Ichiro Suzuki: 50.8 percent
Jeff Francoeur: 50.7 percent
Bobby Abreu: 50.2 percent
Ellis Valentine: 49.4 percent
Larry Walker: 49.2 percent
Jesse Barfield: 49.0 percent
Vladimir Guerrero: 48.8 percent
Al Kaline: 48.3 percent
Roberto Clemente: 48.1 percent
Dwight Evans: 46.7 percent
Dave Winfield: 46.2 percent
Dave Parker: 44.7 percent (he was above 50 percent early in his career and then got fat and slow)

Anyway, that's not meant to be comprehensive, just some names I looked up. The MLB average has changed a little over time. For example, during Abreu's career, the average MLB hold percentage was 46 percent. For Barfield, it was 42.5 percent. During Clemente's career the hold percentage was 40.9 percent. So the hold percentage has increased through the years, which could be the result of various factors: Better arms, more athletic right fielders who can charge the ball, smaller ballparks compared to the multi-purpose Astroturf stadium of the '70s and '80s, slower or more cautious baserunners and so on.

Two more notes. The best season an outfielder had with his arm, at least according to Rof, is tie between Barfield in 1989 and Richard Hidalgo of the Astros in 2003, both 14 runs better than average. Barfield split that season between the Blue Jays and Yankees and racked up 20 assists with a hold percentage of 53 percent in right field (he also played a bit of center that year). Barfield didn't win the Gold Glove that year (he won just two) as the AL Gold Gloves went to Devon White, Kirby Puckett and Gary Pettis, three pretty good center fielders. Hidalgo, playing right field, had 22 assists and a hold rate of 56 percent.

Finally, maybe the most obscure name I came across was an outfielder for the expansion 1977 Blue Jays named Steve Bowling. Other than 14 games with the Brewers in 1976, that was his only season in the majors. He played 87 games in the outfield that year, but started just 58 of them and yet piled up 14 assists, second-most in the AL. Did he have a cannon for an arm? Who knows, but maybe the best arm of the past 60 years belongs to him and not Clemente or Barfield.
Here's the funny thing about great throws: How many do you remember? Specific throws, I mean? Of course, there's the Bo Jackson throw to nail Harold Reynolds and the Ichiro Suzuki throw early in his first season in Seattle that helped establish his reputation for having a great arm.

But do many others pop into your head? Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline are known for their legendary arms, but did either one have a signature throw? Certainly, Pirates or Tigers fans of a certain age may remember a specific throw, but from the days before widespread TV broadcasts, visual evidence is spotty. If for some reason you think maybe Clemente's arm strength has been exaggerated through the years ... you're wrong. Here's one example, from the 1971 World Series, late in his career. It didn't catch a runner but held one at third and provides pretty solid evidence of his cannon.

Well, I'm thinking the throw from left field made by Yoenis Cespedes on Tuesday night is one we'll remember for a long time. I was watching the end of the Yankees-Mariners game when Twitter exploded -- this time, with good reason. It was definitely an all-timer.

The best throw I ever saw in person was back in the '80s, sitting in the right-field stands at the Kingdome. Somebody hit a ball into the right-field corner and attempted to stretch the hit into a triple. Jesse Barfield fired a laser all the way to third to get the runner. I had a perfect, direct line right behind Barfield to view the throw. Amazing. Barfield was known as having the best arm in the game in the '80s. Although there's no video of that throw (at least that I could find), here he is throwing out Chili Davis at third base. And here he is throwing out Mariners catcher Matt Sinatro on a base hit -- only a big deal because Sinatro was on third base to start the play.

As a kid, I watched the 1979 All-Star Game in Seattle, in which strong-armed Dave Parker threw out two runners. That second one ... wow. Also: Bring back those all-yellow Pirates jerseys!

Another outfielder of that era known for his powerful arm was Ellis Valentine of the Expos. Here he is with the Mets throwing out Pete Rose and Dale Murphy. Another strong-armed -- but also famously wild at times -- Expos right fielder was Vladimir Guerrero. But when he was on target, he did things like this.

One throw that some of you may remember from 1998 was from another Pirates right fielder. Jose Guillen's throw from the warning track was impressive enough that MLB Network named it the most unbelievable throw of all time.

Former pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel was known for his terrific arm. Here's a fly ball to medium-deep center in which the runner decides not to tag up -- probably a good decision. Here's a pretty good one to catch a runner at third from deep right-center.

Of course, in his short time in the majors, Yasiel Puig has developed a reputation for his great arm. Here are four from his rookie season.

Here's one from 2010 that Yankees fans will remember: Backup outfielder Greg Golson throws out speedy Carl Crawford at third base for the final out of an 8-7 victory.

Here's one I just learned about: Joe Ferguson cutting down Sal Bando at the plate in the 1974 World Series. The Dodgers played Ferguson, a catcher, in the outfield at times because they had Steve Yeager.

The most famous throw in World Series history may be George Foster getting Denny Doyle in the iconic Game 6 of 1975. Mets fans would like to forget Derek Jeter's relay throw to nail Timo Perez in Game 1 of the 2000 World Series.

Anyway, we could go on and on. I didn't even mention guys like Carl Furillo, Dwight Evans, Larry Walker or Raul Mondesi. Greatest throw ever? Maybe it is Cespedes or Guillen. It's definitely none of these.

The greatest play ever made

September, 5, 2012
From Tuesday's chat:

Andrew (Toronto): Caught two straight games in the recent Jays/Rays series. I'd never seen a game end with an out at the plate live before ... and then I saw it two games in a row. Gotta love baseball. Do you have a favourite "I can't believe I saw that with my own eyes" moment?

Me: OK, here goes. Greatest play I've even seen, bar none. Mariners-Blue Jays, 1985 I believe. Gorman Thomas up, Phil Bradley (former Missouri football player) on second. Thomas base hit, here comes Bradley, here comes the throw (forget who made the original throw). Bradley DESTROYS Buck Martinez at the plate, but Martinez holds on to the ball. I believe he broke his leg on the play. Or maybe his collarbone. (Note: He broke his leg and dislocated his ankle.) Meanwhile, Thomas keeps running. While laying on the ground, Martinez throws to third base, but it goes into left field. For some reason, George Bell is actually backing up the play. Here comes Gorman. Here comes the throw. Remember, Martinez is STILL ON THE GROUND. He can't get up. The one-hop throw goes right into his glove, Gorman tries to dance around the tag, but Buck makes the play. Greatest play I've even seen.

With apologies to Willie Mays, there's never been anything like it. Anyway, I'd never seen a replay of the play; didn't think it existed. And then last night Joey Taylor (@CustomTaylord) sent me a link via Twitter. Video! Somebody dug it up. And it's pretty much as I remember it. Jesse Barfield made the original throw, Bradley did destroy Martinez, and Gorman did dance around Martinez. A 9-2-7-2 double play.

Anyway, I'm not allowed to link directly to the video, but if you find Joey's Twitter feed or go to a certain web site that hosts videos and search for Buck Martinez, I'm sure you can find the video, although it doesn't quite show the entire play in all its glory.
Drew Butera is the Minnesota Twins' backup catcher. Which means, with Joe Mauer out, he's their starting catcher. And, yes, he's hitting .122.

Butera went went 1-for-3 Wednesday afternoon, which actually raised his average to .122. Butera hit .197 in 155 plate appearances last season and he's a career .214 hitter in the minors, so it's not exactly a surprise that he's far below the Mendoza. If you ask me, it's rather embarrassing that the Twins had no other catching option, considering Mauer's injury history. I don't care how good of a game Butera calls, he's not much more than the emergency guy you keep around in Triple-A in case three other catchers get injured.

Anyway, he's almost up to 100 plate appearances, which makes him eligible for a list I just created: Lowest batting average, at least 100 plate appearances, non-pitchers, since 1950.

It turns out 58 players (actually 55 players, since three guys did it twice) have achieved this, "led" by Brandon Larson's .101 mark for the Reds in 2003. He had 104 plate appearances and went 9-for-89. Larson had been Cincinnati's first-round pick in 1997, an infielder out of LSU. He hit nearly 200 home runs in the minor leagues, but never stuck in the majors. But at least he drew 13 walks and hit a home run. The lowest OPS of the 58 seasons belongs to Mike Laga, who hit .130 for the 1988 Cardinals, but with just one home run and two walks, good for a .130/.147/.160 line. Laga spent parts of nine seasons in the majors, mostly as a pinch-hitter, and hit .199. He hit 220 homers in the minors, including 29-plus four times, which is why he kept getting shots.

The three who did this three times: Tom Egan, a backup catcher for the Angels in the late '60s and early '70s; the famed Johnnie LeMaster, a Giants infielder who somehow fashioned a 12-year major league career; and Mike Benjamin, who did it in 1991 with the Giants and 2002 with the Pirates (and just a missed third season in 1992).

The most plate appearances for a player who hit under .150 since 1950? Ray Oyler ... shortstop on the 1968 World Series champion Tigers. He hit .135 in 247 PAs. Brandon Wood hit .146 in 243 PAs last season with the Angels.

We can console Butera a bit by pointing out some good players who achieved this dubious feat, including Darryl Strawberry, Harold Reynolds, Jesse Barfield and Steve Berthiaume's favorite player, Don Money.