Minor League Spotlight: Delino DeShields' Center Field Defense

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We take a look at some of the tape on the young minor league season to assess top prospect Delino DeShields' move from second base back to the outfield, where he began his professional career.

This isn't specifically a mailbag post, but it was prompted by a question in the comments section of the April 12 minor league recap:

The Big Wojciechowski:

My question is about (DeShields') move to the outfield. Has anyone seen for themselves or read any reports about his play in centre [sic] field? He's obviously fast enough but how does his arm look out there and just his general routes and play out there. Do we think he could be a plus defensive centre fielder?

Defensive questions in the minor leagues are actually fairly difficult questions to answer sometimes, particularly when we're not privy to seeing a player in game action with regularity. That said, we do have one advantage with a player in Corpus Christi: MiLB.tv. So at the very least, we can take a look at some of his defensive chances and break them down. Even in this scenario, however, our conclusions will be limited because A) we can only observe his chances, and not even usually the first step in those cases, and B) sample size issues.

B is a much more valid concern than it might at first seem, but the number of chances a center fielder gets in a Texas League game is usually a fairly small number.

One thing worth noting is that center field isn't exactly a new position to Delino. He played outfield and third base in high school and for the Atlanta Blue Jays summer team; and center field through his first short season as a professional, before being converted to second base prior to playing in Lexington at the beginning of the 2012 season. Between high school, that short season, the AFL, and now the young season in Corpus Christi, it might be better to think of him as an outfielder who was unsuccessfully converted to the middle infield, rather than a middle infielder who has recently been converted to the outfield - particularly given that he was never a smooth defender at second base to begin with.

With that out of the way, let's go to the tape...

The Situation:
April 4, 2014. Corpus Christi Hooks at Tulsa Drillers (COL)
Bottom of the fifth inning, one out, none on.
The Hitter: Tyler Massey (LHB)
The Pitcher: Aaron West (RHP)

Deshields4-4_medium

(Ignore everything written in the top left-hand corner of the screen. This was the Drillers' first broadcast of the year and everything about it was clearly a work-in-progress.)

This is a bit of a fairly routine play, with the exception being that DeShields was shading toward right field for the left-handed pull hitter, who instead lined the ball left of center. DeShields makes a quick read, jogs in on the ball, and catches it easily about chest-high.

The Situation:

April 4, 2014. Corpus Christi Hooks at Tulsa Drillers (COL)
Bottom of the eighth inning, none out, none on.
The Hitter: Tyler Massey (LHB)
The Pitcher: Aaron West (RHP)

Deshields4-4_2_medium

Similar positioning for DeShields (more on that later) against the same batter with the same pitcher on the mound, and again he has to range to his right, though this time he's also jogging back toward the wall. He makes an over-the-head grab on the move (you could argue that you'd rather he had run a little faster, arrived at his spot, and positioned himself better to make the catch, but we'll take the result.) Again, as far as we can tell, a good read off the bat, a good route to the ball, and a secure catch.

Okay, so when he's not challenged, DeShields looks competent, making good initial reads and taking efficient routes to the ball. What about on more-difficult plays?

The Situation:
April 6, 2014. Corpus Christi Hooks at Springfield Cardinals (STL)
Bottom of the seventh inning, two out, none on.
The Hitter: Patrick Wisdom (RHB)
The Pitcher: Matt Heidenreich (RHP)

Deshields4-6_medium

With the right-handed hitter, DeShields is shaded toward left field. Wisdom drops a duck snort to shallow right-center. Though we can't see DeShields' first step here, by the time the camera reaches him, we can get a sense of his route, which is not the most efficient route. At the beginning of the clip, he's coming in at a steeper angel, and there's a brief moment of indecision before he switches to a more right-to-left angle. He also comes in at a slow jog - playing at a faster speed, there's a chance he makes this catch, but in no case is it an easy one to make. This is most likely a single against any center fielder in the world. DeShields keeps the play in front of him and doesn't over-extend himself to make something out of nothing.

The Situation:
April 7, 2014. Corpus Christi Hooks at Springfield Cardinals (STL)
Bottom of the ninth inning, two outs, none on.
The Hitter: Jonathan Rodriguez (RHB)
The Pitcher: Brady Rodgers (RHP)

Deshields4-7_2_medium

Among all the plays in this series, this might show the limits of DeShields' comfort zone the best - both positive and negative. It's the first time in the series we've seen him make a full sprint to the ball, arriving in his spot in right field even before right fielder Andrew Aplin. Unfortunately, we can also see some of the issues with fielding well-hit balls. DeShields has made a bad read here, and seems unsure of where his body is in relation to the wall. After slowing down, he loses sight of the ball and overruns its carom off of the wall. If not for Aplin's johnny-on-the-spot barehand, this double becomes at least a triple.

The good news is that DeShields will get better at fielding balls off of the outfield wall. It's something that comes up infrequently, is unpredictable (especially in away games like this one), and requires adjustments when a player moves to (or back to) the outfield. Approaching a wall at a full sprint is not an enviable task, but it is one that is required of most big league center fielders.

The Situation
April 10, 2014. Corpus Christi Hooks vs. Tulsa Drillers (COL)
Top of the second inning, two outs, none on.
The Hitter: Brian Humphries (LHB)
The Pitcher: Ross Seaton (RHP)

Deshields4-10_medium

This is the first truly bad read we've seen in this series from DeShields. The twenty-nine-mile-per-hour wind from right to left plays a part, but overall this is a bad read, as DeShields chooses a bad route to a ball on which he could have made a play. A better angle to the ball results in an out; this effort results in a double. It's worth mentioning that DeShields was positioned pretty far to left field and had to make almost a full sprint to even be in the neighborhood of this play, which was pretty much to straight center field. Still, this is an area where he will need to improve - reading balls off the bat, adjusting for wind, and setting a straight course.

That's for the bad news. Now for some good news.

The Situation
April 7, 2014. Corpus Christi Hooks at Springfield Cardinals (STL)
Bottom of the third inning, one out, bases loaded.
The Hitter: Aldemys Diaz (RHB)
The Pitcher: Colton Cain (LHP)

Deshields4-7_medium

There are a lot of moving parts to this play. With the bases loaded, the deep fly ball is going to score a run. It's incumbent upon the center fielder in this situation to make the play and to quickly throw the ball in to prevent any other runners from advancing, which is exactly what DeShields does. He calls off his left fielder (Preston Tucker), settles under the ball, and fires it in after securing the catch. He doesn't try to make the play at home; nor does he hesitate in getting the ball in. There are some timing issues with the catch, but nothing to worry about. True, the location in which DeShields fields the ball helps keep the runner on second, but he still does an admirable job - and for someone with arm strength questions, the former third baseman should be commended for playing within his means.

Conclusions

I chose the phrase "playing within his means" with care in the last paragraph, for when DeShields does that, he is a more-than-adequate defender in center. His reads, routes, and decisions aren't where they need to be just yet, but he should be able to continue to refine them as he gets more looks in the outfield. All things considered, he's just not ready to be a major league outfielder yet. There's work to be done, but that should hardly be surprising.

He shows good instincts and a mature approach in the outfield - adjusting on the fly, being aware of the situation, and knowing what to do with the ball once he has it. With refinement in his reads, as well as in some of the nuances of playing the outfield, particularly on the road, he could easily be a plus defender on the corners, but with enough speed and quick-twitch athleticism to play center, should he need to.

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