The task seems so simple. “All you have to do is catch the ball and throw the ball,” Jose Cardenal says of playing outfield defense, “but you’ve got to know who’s hitting and who’s pitching.”
Cardenal emphasized the mental part of the game when providing tips on outfield defense at the Joe Maddon and Friends Coaching the Coaches Clinic earlier this month.
“Is he a pull hitter?” Cardenal said, pointing out the things outfielders need to be thinking about while waiting for their few plays a game. “Is he a little guy, rinky-dink hitter or a power hitter?
“You have to know game situations.”
Cardenal built his knowledge of the game over a lengthy career as a player, coach and front-office person in Major League Baseball. The Cuban-born outfielder played 2,017 games for nine teams over 18 seasons from 1963 to 1980 while hitting .275 with 329 stolen bases.
Concentration through long breaks of inactivity is part of the assignment, he said.
“If your mind’s not right, you can’t do it,” said Cardenal, who was a coach for four MLB teams. “You have to know how to throw to the right base. You have to know how to keep the deciding run from advancing. There’s a lot of things you have to think about.”
Cardenal spoke about how all fielders have to remain engaged, keeping themselves ready to react to a ball hit in their direction. He said it’s important that players not be thinking about their last or next at-bat when they are in the outfield.
Coaching outfielders is more than teaching them how to go after and catch a ball.
One key, Cardenal said, is that outfielders have to learn about when to throw to what base. He suggests having outfielders check their surroundings during pregame to learn the nuances of a park, checking things like the specifics of the warning track.
“Outfield play, you need to know how to go right, how to go left, how to charge a ball,” Cardenal said, “but the basic thing in how to become a great outfielder is learning from mistakes.
“Don’t make the same mistake twice.”
Cardenal stressed preparedness. Outfielders must be prepared to hit the right cutoff man if the ball is played to them. They also must know the proper position to be in for each new batter.
“If it’s a pull hitter and the pitcher’s throwing hard, maybe you have to play back just a bit more,” Cardenal said. “You have to know who’s playing next to you. You have to think, ‘How much can he cover? How much can I cover?’”
Cardenal made the trip to northeastern Pennsylvania to speak to the group of college, high school and youth baseball and softball coaches. The clinic provided them with instruction while also serving as a fundraiser for the Hazleton Integration Project, which Maddon, the Chicago Cubs manager, promotes in his hometown.