Besides pitchers, infielders tend to have the strongest arms on the diamond. If we look at the last position player to pitch for each team, it breaks down like this.
The reason it adds up to 28 is because Josh Wilson, journeyman extraordinaire, was the last position player to pitch for the Diamondbacks, the Padres, and the Tigers. Considering Wilson has only managed to accumulate 0.3 WAR over eight seasons coming off the bench, he might be better off transitioning into the bullpen.
There’s no denying that infielders have to possess great arm strength to throw out speedy runners, but I think there’s another factor at play here. An overwhelming proportion of those 18 infielders were the kind of utility players that every team has to have on its bench. Guys like John McDonald, Steve Tolleson, Daniel Descalso, Jamey Carroll—guys who can comfortably defend multiple positions in an emergency. While some of them might indeed have live arms, the real reason they’re pitching so often is because they’re relatively expendable. A manager isn’t going to risk the arm of his backup catcher or a resting starter when his team is down big late in a game, which is usually the situation that forces a position player to take the mound.
One interesting case of a utility/bench guy who does indeed have a live arm is Cliff Pennington, who became the first position player in history to pitch in the postseason last year with the Blue Jays.
It almost looks like he got a few pointers from Marcus Stroman.
OK, I’ve talked myself in a circle and now I’m not sure at all which position players have the best arms, so I’ll ask you guys.
But enough about that, because this post is about the arms of outfielders, and the throws they make. In particular, the throws they make that remain airborne from hand to glove—release to catch. Obviously it makes sense to bounce a throw in some situations, but in my mind the throw “on the fly” is the most aesthetically pleasing kind of throw an outfielder can make. It’s a frictionless display of power that taps into the basic joy of seeing just how far you can whip a ball.
Throws on the fly break down into two main types: the rainbow and the frozen rope. We’ll see great examples of both and of course ample GIFs, so without further ado, welcome to Week 2 of Who Did It Best?
4. Yoenis Cespedes throws out Howie Kendrick at home plate
Estimated distance: 320 ft.
This throw electrified the league for a good week. If you didn’t know who Yoenis Cespedes was before June 11, 2014, you knew who he was after this play. The Cuban defector was already known for his nonchalant attitude in left field, and the announcers don’t even comment on the careless bobble that allowed this play to unfold. If you look at his legs in this picture, Cespedes is already in a throwing position despite not even having the ball in his glove:
After realizing his mistake, he jogs over gingerly (maybe the right word is saunter), slowing to take a quick look at Kendrick rounding third…
Before unleashing an arcing rainbowbomb on the fly.
There are two things that make this a legendary throw. The first is that Cespedes releases the ball flat-footed without any crow hops, which is probably what caused the high arc as he wasn’t able to get on top of it. The second is how the ball looks like it could sail straight into the seats but instead is almost magnetically attracted to home plate and decides to drop out of the air just in time.
3. Rick Ankiel freezes Jordan Schafer at third
Ankiel is the only guy on this list who actually was a pitcher. After coming second (to Rafael Furcal) in Rookie of the Year voting in 1999, Ankiel infamously lost his ability to throw strikes from the mound in the 2000 postseason. After a seven year hiatus, Ankiel worked his way back to the Majors as an outfielder, and on April 16, 2012, he did this:
Estimated distance: 350 ft.
This throw is somewhere between a frozen rope and a rainbow, with sick movement and deadly accuracy. Look at the catcher, he doesn’t even move an inch. Neither does the runner on third, Jordan Schafer. And it’s not like Schafer is some lumbering DH type who can’t be expected to tag on a fly ball 350 feet to right centre. He stole 27 bases in 2012, and has four 20-steal seasons on his resume. Here are two slo-mo angles of the throw.
This one shows his kinetic pitcher-like windup really well.
This one captures the incredible accuracy of the throw. The catcher’s feet do not move.
The obvious/painful irony here is that the guy couldn’t throw a strike from 60 feet but has no problem doing it from the outfield.
2. Ichiro cuts down Terrence Long at third base
Estimated distance: 200 ft.
This is probably the most iconic throw on the fly ever. The distance isn’t all that impressive, but it’s the straight and low trajectory of the ball that makes this one a classic. It’s the definition of a frozen rope; you could hang laundry off that throw for a month.
The announcers guess it’s about “six feet off the ground”, and it’s actually so low that it almost didn’t make this post because I couldn’t quite tell if it bounces before third baseman David Bell catches it.
1. Jose Guillen pegs Neifi Perez at third from the warning track
Estimated distance: 360 ft.
This was the hardest distance to estimate, so for the sake of transparency I’ll show you my work. Statcast is spoiling our children and ruining future generations.
Using the known distance from the warning track to home plate at Coors (370 ft.) and the known distance from home plate to third (90 ft.), I did a little Pythagorean Theorem to roughly calculate the distance of the throw. Obviously this isn’t a precise right-angle triangle but 360 ft. seems about right.
This throw gets my vote because it has everything: comedy, redemption, power, accuracy, awe. Guillen waits at the wall for a full second and looks like he has his leap timed perfectly before the ball suddenly hits him square on the head/shoulder and dribbles onto the warning track. He picks it up, takes one mighty crow hop, and uncorks a throw that defies classification. It’s arcing and at the same time flat. It’s warping the space and time 15-20 feet above the field. And then it hits the third basemen at the letters with plenty of time to spare. (The announcers guess he was out by “about five or six feet.”)
It’s worth noting that the runner, Neifi Perez, was coming from first base and probably had to hold up around second to make sure Guillen didn’t make the catch. It’s also worth noting that Perez led the NL in triples (11) the very next season and stole 13 bases.
I’m guessing this throw had some help from the thin Coors air, because it doesn’t look realistic. The title of the official MLB highlight is “Jose Guillen’s mutant throw from the warning track.” When you see this play, the natural reaction is to search for some exogenous cause that could possibly explain how this happened.
Honestly, how is this throw real?
That’s it for this week of Who Did It Best? Comment if you think I missed a better throw than these four, and make sure to cast your vote for your favourite throw on the fly!
BONUS HIGHLIGHT: Bautista completes a 9-3 putout of Billy Butler