How Nats prepare young outfielders for what they will see in games

Here is a list of the young outfielders (and their ages) that were in attendance at Nationals instructional league workouts in October:

Andry Arias, 20
Gage Canning, 23
Justin Connell, 21
Jeremy De La Rosa, 18
Braian Fernandez, 21
Jorge Hurtado, 20
Daniel Marte, 18
Ricardo Mendez, 20
Roismar Quintana, 17
Jake Randa, 22
Cody Wilson, 24

Outfield/baserunning coordinator Gary Thurman worked with these players on the fundamentals the Nats want every outfielder to master as they make their way through the system.

We will capsule a few of these outfielders this offseason. Last week, Thurman talked about the potential he sees in De La Rosa.

Thurman played outfield in the major leagues from 1987-1993 and parts of 1995 and 1997 with four teams. Most of his time was spent with the Royals, where he played in 325 games over six seasons. He stole 65 bases and was caught 18 times for a .783 stolen base percentage.

Thurman said the coordinators and coaches liked to break up fundamentals and situations each player might see in games and focus on them for one part of workouts, whether it is tracking fly balls, throwing to a base, getting a jump on line drives or playing balls off the wall.

Nationals-Helmets-Dugout-Sidebar.jpg“We work on different things different days,” Thurman said. “Normally, we have early work (on) team defense. Sometimes we get to work on two different things like maybe infield/outfield communication. We will take infield, he gets to throw to bases. We also have to work on angles to baseballs, reading the ball off the bat, drop steps and look-offs. There’s a lot of things mentally with situations that we work on.

“We don’t work on everything in one day. It’s just way too much to try to do so we just concentrate and focus on one area every single day. Maybe it’s first-step quickness today. Maybe it’s balls in the gap. Maybe it’s looking off a baseball and running towards a spot and trusting that you are going to be able to take the correct angle for three or four steps and pick the baseball up again. It might be balls on the wall on the ground or balls on the wall on the dirt.”

Once each outfielder gets to a ball in play, he must learn to throw to the cutoff man or the base necessary to prevent runners from advancing. Thurman said this part of playing outfield is critical. The throws must be on target. Otherwise, one overthrow could lead to a big inning.

“There’s a lot of things that go with playing the outfield,” Thurman said. “It’s not all physical; it’s mental as well. And we do work with situations as well. We just want to put those guys in the same situations as much as possible so they can recognize the situation and make adjustments on the fly. Accuracy in our throwing program is a huge part of our throwing program. We really try to harp on the small details of the outfield as well.”

I asked Thurman about how it was different for right-handed and left-handed outfielders throwing to a base or all the way to home plate. Did they have to take different angles on their throws because they threw the ball off a different shoulder?

Thurman said it really doesn’t matter which side they throw on, except when they are playing defense as a corner outfielder.

“When a lefty is playing right field the ball tends to sink and run towards the line, so he can’t give up on that baseball,” Thurman said. “Not as much as he can in left field because in right field, it’s a backhand for him as opposed to a forehand in left field. Just little things like that that may be a difference.

“Seeing the ball into the strike zone when you are in left field with a right-handed batter, you won’t be able to see it as well, so you really have to concentrate in that situation. It’s the same with playing right field, seeing the ball into the strike zone with a left-handed hitter up you can’t see it as well so we really have to concentrate.”

A couple of seasons ago, third base coach Bobby Henley broke down how each outfielder uses small index cards to tell them where is the best place to set up in the outfield on defense for each batter. Thurman said minor league outfielders use these cards as well, but they just are not as sophisticated as the analytical data available at the major league level.

“We move with two strikes,” Thurman said. “It’s not as defined as it is in the major leagues because they do have a lot more information. But the tendency for a hitter when you got somebody throwing 97 mph or (even) 91 mph - are they going to pull that baseball? Center fielder has a lot to do with it because he can read the swing. He knows if the guy is late or what not. As we go up in levels, we start talking about (defensive adjustments during at-bats) in more depth.”

Watching an outfielder track and catch a ball on the run is one of the most exciting plays to watch in a baseball game. In football, when running a pass pattern, a wide receiver does not stare back at the release of the ball by the quarterback. Instead, he trains his eyes on a quadrant in the sky above him as he runs where he believes the football will be. This gives him the best chance to adjust his speed to get to the ball. This same technique is used in baseball and Thurman says outfielders practice this play.

“We have a drill that we have called look-offs,” Thurman said. “Our first three or four steps, you have to read the trajectory of the ball, the speed of the ball, guess where it’s going to be, take your eye off the ball and run to that spot. Check the baseball again to make sure you are on the right angle. If you can’t catch it, maybe put your head down one more step and that’s the best effort you can give.

“We have a one look-off drill, a two look-off drill. Normally, that precedes balls on the wall in the air because in the look-off drill, it also gives you time to feel comfortable and look at the wall to find the wall, to know where you are so you’re not running into the wall. That drill is two-fold: It helps them going to that spot and increasing their range because they can run in a better running position and it also gets them ready to find the wall when they are communicating with their off outfielders. He is saying, ‘Hey find the wall!’ and his instincts tell him - that time clock in his head - that wall is coming pretty soon, I better peek at it.”

Many fans might think an outfielder just goes back on a ball to try to find it and catch it. But as Thurman explains, they practice each possible scenario with every outfielder so they can be better prepared when that play happens in an actual game.

“What I like to tell the guys is everybody does the big things,” Thurman said. “It’s who does the very small, minute things the best is going to have the best opportunity to win and be successful.”

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