Assessing Eloy Jiménez’s defense from one catch he made, and one he didn’t

Every White Sox fan paying half attention to the 2020 season could tell you the most difficult catch made by one of their outfielders last year: Luis Robert’s incredible diving catch right of center in Kauffman Stadium on Sept. 5.

But few might guess which outfielder came runner-up to Robert’s effort. At least if he hadn’t been mentioned in the headline.

While Robert led the way in degree of difficulty by running down a fly with a 15-percent catch probability, Jiménez contributed his own five-star effort on this Bryan Reynolds line drive at PNC Park on Sept. 9, a mere four days later.

This one had a catch probability of just 20 percent. The pitch tracker shows a mistake, and Dane Dunning is bracing for an ugly outcome. Reynolds split the left-center gap, which wasn’t great since Robert was positioned toward the right center. Only one man could possibly get the job done…

… and against considerable odds, that one man got the job done.

We’ve seen Jiménez yield to Robert even on fly balls well within his jurisdiction, and to amusing results. PNC Park’s cavernous left-center gap — and the shift deployed on the lefty Reynolds — offered no such overlap between the outfielders, meaning that Jiménez had a chance to flag down a ball in the canyon without the threat of Robert approaching.

Given the freedom to fly, Jiménez didn’t even have to leave his feet.

Jiménez hadn’t made a catch that difficult before, and he didn’t make one in the small sample size afterward. That makes it easy to write off as a fluke, but a couple of elements of his game explain how it was even possible. As awful as he looks in the field, it’s not the fault of his top-end speed, which has been in the 60th-70th percentile in his time in the league.

It might also surprise you to learn that Jiménez finished tied for third in Statcast’s outfield route metric with Mike Trout. He’s fast enough, and he takes a decent line to the ball when tested. Once in a while, the stars align and those skills combine to create something beautiful.

* * * * * * * * *

Five days later, Jiménez botched what should’ve been an easier catch, threatening a ninth-inning lead that Alex Colomé ultimately preserved for a key win over the Minnesota Twins. Byron Buxton opened the ninth inning with a hammered liner to left. It was a rocket at 108.9 mph, but Jiménez was positioned correctly.

The only problem was that his feet wasted no time taking him out of position.

While Statcast grades Jiménez’s routes as above-average, and his reaction time is merely slightly below average, his burst metric — the feet covered in the 1½ seconds after the initial jump — is bottom five in the league.

Then you go back to the route leaderboard, and you see that four of the top six outfielders in that metric are deep in the hole at their positions, and Nomar Mazara — who finished atop the route leaderboard — is a hair below average himself. Alex Gordon is the only one whose route made up for pedestrian reaction and burst in his jump.

The players with the best route scores seem to be rewarded for their caution. Because they’re slow to react in that first second or so, their initial moves are likely to be more precise than the guys who are quicker in moving in the general direction. My puppy is learning to play fetch, and Chief doesn’t start running until the ball approaches a stop. Statcast would praise his route efficiency, but it’d slam him for his reaction and burst, and he’d deserve every bit of it.

Anyway, Statcast gave this a catch probability of 99 percent, because it only required Jiménez to move 30 feet in a little over three seconds. Unfortunately, as the numbers indicate, Jiménez can often make a mess of those first three seconds when they’re all he has.

* * * * * * * * *

So let’s go back to that first catch. Jiménez hauled in that drive in part because the ball was launched far enough away from him to give him no doubt about the kind of effort it’d require. PNC Park’s dimensions allowed Jiménez to run full speed for several seconds without worrying about encountering a wall, and Robert’s positioning removed that threat from the equation as well.

That’s a very specific situation, and one Jiménez probably isn’t going to encounter most of the time. The alleys aren’t nearly as spacious in Guaranteed Rate Field, and like MSNBC, Robert pretty much owns the turf left of center. Jiménez is supposed to command everything toward the line. Again, he can show some authority when he’s shaded toward the alley and he knows he has to run hard immediately …

… but when he’s less certain about direction and speed, it can get messy in a hurry …

… especially if there are complicating factors like warning tracks and walls.

* * * * * * * * *

What’s perhaps most frustrating about Jiménez in left field is that sometimes it works. Eleven days before his mishap on Buxton’s drive, Jiménez flagged down a slightly softer version of the same line drive off the bat of Whit Merrifield. The read looks confident, he times the leap properly, and the start-to-finish product left the Royals booth wondering why his smooth effort didn’t match the scouting report.

It’d almost be easier if he didn’t make plays like this one, because then Rick Renteria wouldn’t have felt compelled to leave him out in the ninth inning and risk giving up an inside-the-park homer to Buxton, and Tony La Russa won’t have to wrestle with the same this year. The Sox could either set up a permanent caddy, or rotate him in and out of the DH spot, or DH him two-thirds of the time like Marcell Ozuna in Atlanta, crossing fingers for similarly sexy results. But with so many other bats struggling to stay out of DH or an even more entrenched corner at first, the White Sox are pretty much stuck with it for at least one more year.

There’s a chance that he could improve enough to stick without question, because he did patch some of the biggest bugs over an atrocious first few months to be a more ordinary kind of liability. Further improvement remains within his reach. I just think it’s outweighed by the likelihood that Jiménez is more or less this left fielder, with calm stretches interrupted by misplays on catchable flies at inopportune times.

His defense was always questionable during his prospect days, but it wasn’t supposed to be this ugly. Then again, his frame hadn’t filled out back then, either. Perhaps the added mass makes those uncertain first steps costlier than they used to be. He’s not likely to get lighter or faster, so unless he can somehow bend time to cram four seconds of movement into three seconds of action, he’s going to have to improve his instincts. After watching him figuratively and sometimes literally run in place over his first 1½ seasons, it’s hard to tell which one is easier for him to realize.

(Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire)

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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denny

Good article, Jim. It is apparent to all who watch W Sox games that as an outfielder, Eloy would make a perfect DH. The argument seems to always have been that he’s too young to be relegated to DH and not even try to develop his defensive skills. Who works with him on defense? I thought I read somewhere that Aaron Rowand was hired as a sort of organizational roving instructor. Maybe he’s involved?
Also, I’d love to see a comprehensive article on the W Sox outfield defense as a whole. Commentary on Engle-Eaton-Robert-L Garcia strengths and weaknesses is warranted as well IMO. For the Sox to perform at a playoff-contending level, OF defense is a concern to me.

MrStealYoBase

Maybe Rowand can teach him how to run into a wall without spending a week on the IL

Willardmarshall

Would solve a lot of problems if he could achieve adequacy in the field, wouldn’t it? Collins, too….

Trooper Galactus

Collins has to solve a lot more than just adequacy in the field.

asinwreck

Excellent analysis, Jim. Is Chief above or below Nick Williams on the organizational depth chart for when Eloy and Eaton inevitably get injured?

Oddvark

I wonder if the team ever considered giving him more time in the minors to work on his defense before promoting him to the bigs for good when he was 22 years old?

andyfaust

Oh, that’s funny

denman

Seriously? How soon we forget late 2018 when Eloy was putting up video game numbers at the AA and AAA levels and Hahn explained keeping him in the minors by saying:  “We‘re not developing a 21year-old DH,”. At the time Hahn’s comment was generally dismissed as a cover for service time manipulation; now, we see Hahn was telling it like it was. I think Jim’s analysis hits the mark in pointing out that Eloy’s initial burst difficulties keep him for performing at an average or above level defensively. That strikes me as a problem amenable to coaching.
 According to McEwing, Abreu improved his defense greatly simply by getting comfortable moving his feet with the pitch. I’d suspect that Boston and other coaches are working on some comparable adjustment for Eloy and it mostly remains a question of his muscle memory growing accustomed to movement that feels unnatural. So long a Jimenez expresses a desire to play outfield and show a dedication to improving, I say he deserves the opportunity to improve through experience.

andyfaust

I took it more as a joke.

joewho112

That’s the joke

Right Size Wrong Shape

I’m sure all Sox fans would have been on board with that. I know I for one wouldn’t accuse them of gaming the system to get an extra year of arbitration or anything…

shaggy65

By the eye test I felt like his 2020 was better than his 2019 and I honestly expect his 2021 to be better still. If “burst” is his biggest weakness then that sounds like a confidence and agility issue. He needs to learn to trust his initial read and to course correct while already on the run. Confidence should continue to improve with practice. Agility could improve if his trainer works on it.

He’ll probably continue to make a few bad plays every year, but I can live with those. Honestly, my bigger issue with Eloy’s defense is his throwing. If only we can improve his burst time from ball in glove to ball out of hand…

asinwreck

RIP the great Henry Aaron.

I have never been one for autographs, but when the opportunity to get a ball signed by Mr. Aaron came about in 1979, I did it. The signature’s a little faded but it is still a proud possession.

Very glad this came to pass just a month ago.

I Had a Hammer is well worth your time to understand what this man achieved in the times he had to face.

asinwreck

GrinnellSteve

This is a very sad day. Hank Aaron was one of the most dignified men to ever wear a baseball uniform.

peanutsNcrackerjack

I wonder what Jimmy Piersall would have to say about Eloy’s defense.

mikeyb

Ok so if his problem is that he needs to be allowed free range to roam, the answer seems clear: Eloy needs to play CF.

HallofFrank

“from a health perspective” he might be right. Corner OF have more potential walls and players to run into.

Trooper Galactus

Dustin Fowler would probably agree.

Right Size Wrong Shape

I tried to remember this before and everyone said I was crazy, but I swear there was a team who experimented with putting their slowest outfielder in center and their better players in the corners. I can’t remember who it was though.

joewho112

I was just pondering what an Engel-Jimenez-Robert configure would do. I would love to see an experiment but I doubt anyone is gutsy enough to try

joewho112

Thinking about Eloy specifically, he stinks at balls hit at him. In LF those become 2B (usually) whereas in CF those become 3B/HRs.

mikeyb

Ok well now the more I think about this, the more I need it to happen. This would be so much fun.

Joey Gallo becoming a serviceable center fielder despite less-than-stellar speed in his scouting reports suggests some guys can make it work without the prototypical tool set.

jhomeslice

I agree, put Eloy in Center! Thanks for the laugh.

jorgefabregas

Dan explains why Giolito has the highest ZiPS projection of any pitcher

https://blogs.fangraphs.com/digital-love-why-zips-thinks-lucas-giolito-is-top-of-the-charts/

andyfaust

Pretty cool Thanks for sharing this. Hope it shakes out this way.

GrinnellSteve

This was a great read. Bring on Opening Day!

joewho112

Notice that Cease is one of the biggest strikeout rate underachievers.

Eagle Bones

Chief is a gold glover in my book, burst ratings be damned. Don’t worry Jim, I had to teach our dog (a retriever no less) to play fetch when I met her mother years back. She would immediately chase the ball (great burst, reaction and route efficiency), but wasn’t aware she was actually supposed to bring it back, she’d just leave it there and then run back to me (terrible error rate). He’ll be high-pointing bounces before you know it (though with him, those high points probably won’t be more than a foot or so off the ground).

Last edited 1 year ago by Eagle Bones
metasox

High grade for The Will To Fetch

MarketMaker

further complicating the issue is eloy’s tendency to hurt himself out there. i think he can improve to where he adds more value in LF than at DH, but if being in LF means he goes on the shelf more often, then delaying the inevitable might not be a good idea.

MrStealYoBase

The real issue is his tendency to injure himself. Even if he reduces the boneheaded plays to a half dozen a season, if one or two of those result in a 15-day IL stint it changes his value significantly.

As long as there aren’t better option in the outfield, he has a spot. But giving him reps shouldn’t be prioritized over adding another good player.

HallofFrank

It depends on the player. The Sox should really try hard to avoid moving Eloy to DH right now. The difference in value long-term is likely significant.

denny

Plenty of teams win with wicked-fielding LFers. 69 Mets with Cleon Jones, 79 Phils with Luzinski, Big Red with Geo Foster, and our W Sox won 99 games with Kittle out there.

It seems there’s a school of thought that the DH is some sort of lesser position or that you’re not a ‘real’ ballplayer if you don’t play the field. Instead, it simply another position and an important one. And players such as Eloy need to concede that and play where the team needs you. You can’t tell me that the W Sox wouldn’t have been better last year if Engel was in LF instead of on the bench and Eloy was the DH instead of EE.

dickschr

This is stolen but I don’t remember from whom

What will Ron Kitle do if you hit him 50 fly balls?

Catch 22

dickschr

Thinking about it a little more, it was someone doing a Karnack (sp?) imitration

HouseOfTheRisingSox

Luzinski.

Trooper Galactus

Sorry, I was too busy hoping Engel would replace Mazara in RF every day and that they’d just flip between McCann and Grandal at DH/C.

Shingos Cheeseburgers

Left of Center is to Luis’s right therefore we can deduce that he is in fact a democratic socialist.

jhomeslice

I think we are stuck with Eloy in left. Can only hope that he improves, really, and does not hurt himself out there. But 9th inning of big/close games with a lead, they should use a defensive replacement. I recall that game against the Twins vividly, wondering before that play happened why they had him out there.

Engel may be a better hitter than people think, let’s hope so. It’s a shame he did not play more last year vs RHP to find out, rather than stubbornly keeping Mazara out there. But if Engel is a poor hitter like he was prior to 2020 for most of the time, he would make their lineup too weak to simply put Eloy at DH, Engel in left, and say “problem solved”. In addition they would have no place to put Vaughn once he is ready, although I read that he has played multiple positions before other than 1b, and would be open to exploring. Maybe he can play left eventually. But all it takes is a couple weak spots in the lineup to make a great offense much less so, as we saw last year with Mazara/EE. I don’t think Engel/Eaton playing together is a good solution. But Eaton only averaged playing like half a season the past 4, does anybody really think he will play even 90 games? He was a pitiful signing compared to someone like Pederson, who hits for a lower average but has more power, and at least is a good bet to stay healthy. Engel is likely to play 80+ games in RF. Whatever the most positive people think about this offseason, they added very little depth, and are likely to have to trade for a RF and/or SP this season because they were too cheap and did not have enough foresight to address this winter. You can see the problems they will have this season coming from a mile away. No depth whatsoever. Pathetic.

Last edited 1 year ago by jhomeslice
Greg Nix

It’s been a long time since Little League, but isn’t the standard fielding advice to start going back on pretty much every ball if you can’t immediately read it? Seems like Eloy could make at least a marginal improvement on his initial burst by just doing that.

Soxfan2

I wonder if a simply changing Eloy’s positioning in LF may improve his reactions.

I remember a few years ago, I read a FanGraphs article about the Pirates and their unique OF positioning. I don’t remember the full extent of the article.

Maybe positioning Eloy closer to the line and farther back may improve his reactions? He’d have a better idea of where the wall and fence are. He then may be able to utilize his speed on balls hit towards CF and balls he needs to come in on. That also would allow for shallow hits to drop in.

I could absolutely be 100% wrong but just a thought.

Berrys Wallbangers

That is what the Phillies did with Greg Luzinski in the late 70’s. They also had him face directly at the centerfielder. That would reduce the chance of Eloy running over Robert.