Web Gems & Premier Plays Induce Strong Feelings

Web Gems & Premier Plays Induce Strong Feelings

June 7, 2024 0 By Dan Freedman

In the interest of full candor, I have an addiction. I am addicted to great defensive plays. Sure, most of us are. We baseball fans delight in watching highlights of a home run robbery or a player diving into the stands to make a great catch. But my compulsion runs deeper.

For instance, I can tell you – within a minute or two – when Baseball Tonight’s Web Gems, the ESPN Top 10, and MLB Network’s Capital One Premier Plays, will appear on my screen. And I plan my viewing of other programs around this schedule. Every day I receive MLB’s Morning Lineup newsletter. I skim the stories and then click on the link for Top Plays. I do this EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. In fact, when I once realized that I had missed some, I went back and watched Top Plays from weeks before.

I believe this inclination follows on from my own baseball career, as I was always better with the glove than the bat. Watching a batter hit a ball a country mile is very cool; but watching a defender cover a ridiculous amount of ground, leave his feet, jump up, and throw a laser across the diamond, is just something special.

However, because I watch replays of anywhere from 10 to 30 great plays every day from April through October, I often feel sympathy for some of the hitters who are denied the fruit of their labor because their counterpart has done something mind-boggling. To that end, I mentally put these gems into six different categories:

1.            Robbery of an Underserved Hit (Outfield Edition): There are a surprising number of these. A batter hits a flair behind the infield, and the right fielder comes racing in to make a sliding catch. Or a shortstop ranges well behind third, up the line, to take a duck snort hit away from a batter who got jammed on a cutter. I love this version, as the batter has no valid justification to hang his head. He shouldn’t have been rewarded for this particular swing of the bat, so the fielder making a Web Gem makes this a simple transaction in my mind.

2.           Robbery of an Undeserved Hit (Infield Edition): Like it’s outfield cousin, this one involves a swinging bunt or a slow roller. Here the batter deserves slightly more credit, as he at least busts down the line to beat it out. Whatever the negative feelings are for his soft hit are made up for by his hustle for an infield single. But time and again we see Matt Chapman (or his ilk) attack the ball, barehand it, and throw on the run to beat the batter by a step. I also love when a shortstop charges behind the mound and throws on the run. But my favorite version of this is the ‘tweener between first and second, because now you have three players in action, with either the first baseman or the second baseman fielding off-balance, and then throwing to a moving target – the pitcher – covering, catching, and stepping on the bag while a runner bears down on him from behind. The beauty of these plays, when combined with weak exit velocity, allows me to feel like the ledger is even.

3.          Great Catch In Foul Territory: This one stings just a little more. The batter fought off a tough pitch, and in some ballparks he would be rewarded with another swing or two. But, the third baseman somehow heads straight back and makes an over-the-shoulder catch on top of or behind the tarp, robbing the player of his at bat. Or a second baseman ranges deep behind first and makes a sliding catch in foul territory. These plays have gotten even more interesting in the past few years with the advent of netting down the baselines. Now we have outfielders acting like Spiderman, diving into the net to make the catch. Again, my heart goes out to the batter, but these plays sure are great to watch.

4.         Robbery of a Sure Hit: We all love this one. A batter smacks a ball into deep left center; it has double written all over it. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the center fielder appears on our screen, leaps with an outstretched glove, and makes an impossible catch possible, as he rolls over and shows the world that he has the ball. Or a batter smacks a surefire single up the middle, only to have the short stop range too far to his left, dive, leap up, and make the throw to record the out. There is the scorched line drive that the third baseman dives for and takes out of the air with his glove actually behind him. Or maybe the worst version (from the hitter’s perspective): the stab of a line drive to first base that is turned into an unassisted double play. Two outs on one swing with a 100+ exit velocity may seem like the worst, but then there is…

5.           Home Run Robbery: This is the coup de grâce. A pitcher throws a ball 90+ MPH, the batter, in his 0.45 seconds to react, engages his swing and squares the ball up (he may or may not “barrel” it), and hits it 350+ feet. From the moment it leaves the bat, the hitter feels confident that he may have gotten – if not all – enough of it to take a slow trot around the bases. Meanwhile, the outfielder is ranging back, his feet hitting the soft dirt of the warning track, his non-glove hand feeling for the wall, and then he leaps. At that moment, it is truly a leap of faith. Faith that he has timed it right; faith that he has measured it right; faith that the wall will not inflict injury when he makes contact; faith that an overzealous fan will not obstruct his momentum or his potential catch (see, Hample, Zack). And then he does it. He reaches over the wall and takes a souvenir away; takes a run (maybe more) away; takes the fans’ breath away. Ask any outfielder, and they will tell you that this is the pinnacle of their profession, this is what they all hope and practice for, and you can see it on their face when they actually pull it off. And you can feel the batter’s pain. He is usually somewhere between first and second base when he realizes that his moment has quickly, and inexorably, become someone else’s moment. They typically drop their head. But, every-so-often, the batter will doff his helmet to the fielder, a show of mutual respect. I simply love that.

6.         Robbery of a Needed Hit: For years I thought the robbed home run was the greatest indignity for a batter. But, as I have grown older, and watched more and more baseball, I have come to learn that there is an even worse fate. Some batters are in a slump – they simply cannot buy a hit. Some guys are fighting for playing time, and need to make the most of every at bat. Some guys have been victimized by a slick fielder earlier in the game, and need to even things out. Now, to be clear, “Undeserved Hits” don’t fall into this category. To get my sympathy, they have to be sure hits. And the play has to befall a guy who can’t afford it. Chris Taylor, barely hitting .100, cannot have Francisco Lindor go into short left and make a jump-throw to first. Zack Gelof, hitting below the Mendoza line, with three dingers in 143 at bats, cannot have Jose Siri take a home run away from him. Every time I watch Web Gems, or MLB’s Top Plays, I keep a steady eye on the batter. It is rare, but also so very sad, when the same batter appears more than once in the same highlight package. I don’t care if you are Luis Arraez, Aaron Judge, or Randy Arozarena (the current holder of the worst batting average in baseball), having two righteous hits taken from you in one game is too much to bear.

Baseball is a marathon, and things tend to even out – for every snagged line drive there is a Baltimore Chop for a single; for every diving play in the outfield, there is a squib over the first baseman’s head. But, baseball is also a game of confidence. And it is easy to go into a downward spiral when nothing seems to fall – even well-hit baseballs. Hitting is hard enough with pitchers throwing at insane speeds, with unseen movement, from crazy arm angles. When a batter does well enough to do well enough, but repeatedly gets thwarted by the best defense on offer, it just doesn’t seem fair.

Not every series of Web Gems or Top Plays contains all six categories, but they usually check at least four of the boxes. To wit, last Sunday’s and last Friday’s editions: