Ben Revere made what could be the catch of the year last night. In the bottom of the second inning with no outs and Jay Bruce on second, Todd Frazier nailed a Cliff Lee pitch and hit a scorching low fly ball to deep center field, just a bit to the right of dead center. Revere picked it up quickly and ran full speed to his left and back. The ball appeared to be going over his head until Revere, at the last second, lept and caught the ball while being fully laid out in almost a flight position. Amazingly, he didn't drop the ball upon landing. Instead, he got up and was able to hit the relay man to double Bruce off first, who had already rounded second and had no chance.
The play was so good, it got a "wow" from the unflappable Cliff Lee (at 0:19), a freak-out from Scott Franzke (0:40), and a laugh from Charlie Manuel (1:40). The clip below has the play from three different broadcast perspectives. It's worth watching the entire thing to marvel at just how amazing the catch was.
There is no doubt that Revere made a sensational catch, one that we're going to see again and again this year (and beyond). Nothing in what I'm writing here is meant to detract from how incredible the catch was.
But I want to write here to think about how a great catch is not necessarily the result of a great play. In fact, the two are entirely different.
Think about what makes a great catch like Revere's. It's not the fact that he caught a ball hit to that particular spot. He could have done that without making a great catch if he had been standing in the exact spot where the ball would have landed. That out from the same exact batted ball would have been utterly unremarkable.
What makes the catch great is that he was, until the very last moment, nowhere near the spot where the ball would have landed. Rather, in order to make the catch he made, he had to run at full speed, hurl his fully stretched body into the air in a way that most human beings would never be able to do, and then catch the ball without dropping it when he fell.
There are many different ways that a player could find himself in that position, and this is why a great catch does not necessarily equate to a great play. Here are five possibilities:
1) The player was poorly positioned. Great fielders know how to position themselves better than poor fielders. In his prime, much of Chase Utley's defensive value was usually attributed to his superior positioning. The result might not have been flashy plays (though he had his fair share), but that's because he's getting to more balls than others without the need for flashy plays at the end. A poorly positioned player is more likely to have to make a diving catch because he wasn't where he should have been to more easily field the ball.
2) The player got a bad jump. Even a well-positioned player has to have the right immediate read on the ball. If an outfielder goes in rather than back on a ball that would be over his head, he will have to recover to make the play. Recovering is going to take time, meaning the fielder could have otherwise gotten to the ball quicker. A bad jump can lead to an incredible catch that could have been avoided with a better jump.
3) The player took a bad route. A well-positioned player who has a great jump on the ball might take a bad route to it. Tracking fly balls is a difficult thing to do with some really interesting science behind it. We don't need to get into that right now, but needless to say, a bad route to a ball could result in an amazing play because the fielder did not take the correct path that would have put him in a position to make an easy play.
4) The player didn't run fast enough. Even doing everything else right, a player who is slow or who doesn't run fast enough toward the ball will find himself needing to make a great catch when a faster player would get to it without that need.
5) The player was well positioned, got a great jump, took a great route, and ran that route blazingly fast and the only way the catch could be made was if it was a great one. Of course, even the best positioned outfielder who reacts perfectly to the ball and takes the best and speediest route to it will find himself needing to make a great catch because the ball simply couldn't be caught otherwise. These are indisputably the great catches that are also great plays.
Are the others though? Can we say that a player made a great play when he was poorly positioned and had to make up for that poor positioning by making an incredible catch? Or any of the other of the first four things that might explain a great catch? The highlight reels will be happy, but should we say that the player made a great play? I think it's hard to do so because the player only made the catch because of something else he did wrong.
So where does Ben Revere's catch from last night fall? It's really hard to judge whether he was well positioned without knowing much more about Frazier's tendencies against pitchers like Lee, so I'll give Revere the benefit of the doubt on that one. Likewise, Revere is undoubtedly fast and seemed to be running at full speed, so I'll rule out that he wasn't running fast enough.
But what about his jump and route? The best continuous view of the entire run preceding the catch comes from the 0:56 mark in the linked video. In this different clip Chris Wheeler said it looked like Revere misjudged the ball at first (0:30). In the video embedded above, it's hard to tell because the camera is originally positioned on the batter. But, it does appear that Revere makes a slight body turn right after the camera pans to him that indicated he may have misjudged how deep the ball was going to go. It's really hard to tell though without having a camera shot trained on him from the crack of the bat.
His route is more visible, as we get almost the entire route in the camera view after missing the initial jump. His route is to his side and then back as opposed to back and then to his side. Although it looks like he might be close to overrunning the ball in his horizontal motion, it's hard to fault him for that given how hard the ball was hit.
Thus, I have a little bit of a question about his jump and route, but only a small smidgeon of one and not enough to outweigh all the other evidence that he truly made an incredible play here.
That being said, and the reason for this post, is that it's important to understand that the two things -- a great catch and a great play -- are absolutely not the same thing.