As documentarian Ken Burns noted, baseball is the one game in which the defense -- not the offense -- possesses the ball. With this in mind, MiLB.com continues its "Defensive Gems" series. We are featuring a top prospect at each position who also happens to be an elite defender. In deciding which players to focus on, this reporter polled six scouting directors and relied on his own research. In our seventh edition, we move to the mound, where we zero in on a fleet-of-foot fielder (Jake Odorizzi) and a pickoff artist (Tony Cingrani).
After every single pitch Jake Odorizzi throws in a game, he has the same cautioned thought. Mentally exhausting, it would seem, but it's not.
"Once it leaves my hand, I have to expect every time that it's going to come back to me," Odorizzi said. "That's the way I think about it."
The dreaded comebacker is not the only difficult play a pitcher has to make. But Odorizzi (MLB.com's No. 45 prospect), who was optioned to Triple-A Durham on Tuesday following December's blockbuster trade from the Royals, is also adept at the others. And the explanations are pretty simple.
A three-sport career at his Illinois high school predated his mobility around the mound, and his boringly standard mechanics have required only subtle alterations since the Brewers drafted him 32nd overall in 2008. As one American League scout summed up, "Jake is a plus athlete with quick feet, nice agility and solid body control. He gets off of the mound well and shows good range to both sides."
"Your better pitchers have solid mechanics, and he has that," added Doug Henry, Odorizzi's pitching coach last season at Triple-A Omaha. "He drives down toward the catcher, which puts him in a good spot to field the ball when he's done. He's lined up to home plate."
During PFPs in big league camp -- Pitchers Fielding Practice, which includes covering bases, throwing to bases, fielding bunts, defending squeeze plays and turning double plays -- Odorizzi is fine-tuning, not fixing, alongside the likes of Jeremy Hellickson.
"We have a Gold Glover here in 'Hellie.' One Gold Glove, and we'll try to keep it inside the locker room. If not someone else, him again. It's friendly competition during PFPs," said Odorizzi, who has felt at ease on the infield since his days as a prep shortstop. "It comes fluid to him, and it comes fluid to me, too."
That was on display, if only briefly, in the first of Odorizzi's two Major League starts for the Royals last season after a 15-win campaign in the Minors.
"It was a chopper over my head. I had to go back on it, reach over my head and make an off-balance throw to first. There might be some video of it online [at :20 below]. That was one of the tougher plays I have made," Odorizzi said. "It just comes down to habit, really. I didn't think anything of it. I just went after it and tried to make the best throw possible after I did get it. It just comes second nature to me."
Maybe the truest test of a good pickoff move is whether you can pick off your fastest teammate ... unless that teammate happens to be Billy Hamilton, the most prolific base-stealer in Minor League history.
"I have done it with Billy at first," said Reds prospect Tony Cingrani, who teamed with Hamilton last season at Class A Advanced Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola. "It wasn't as good back then because my leg kick was a little higher.
"But he still stole second and third base."
OK, so not even Cingrani can stop Hamilton, but his eight pickoffs in 16 Southern League games in 2012 give him credibility among a group of prospects (the Braves' Julio Teheran, the A's Sonny Gray and the Cardinals' John Gast among them) that play the cat-and-mouse game especially well.
How does Cingrani pull it off? For starters, he has a way of contorting his 6-foot-4 frame so that baserunners don't know where he's headed with the ball until his plant foot falls at a 45-degree angle on the mound. He recalled being issued just one balk in 26 outings last year.
"I get loaded on my back side and I bend my back knee and come over [to first]," said Cingrani, who learned the move working with his coach at Rice University. "It looks like I'm going home because I bend my back knee and explode home when I do go home."
Also important -- his long arm path and the "bounce" in his delivery (see video below).
It's not all physical, however. While keeping his mind on on the batter in the box, Cingrani has to weigh the following: the runner's speed, his propensity to steal, the ball-strike count, the number of outs and the score -- a lot for a 23-year-old to think about.
"He has a pretty good idea of who's going to run and who's not, so he knows when to key on that guy and when to not to worry about him," said Tom Brown, Cingrani's pitching coach with the Blue Wahoos. "He does a real good job of slowing the game down and separating it into segments. He's a very confident guy. I mean, very confident."
In a start for Brown last June 27, Cingrani retired the first 14 batters he faced, then nabbed the first man to reach with his patented move to first. He ended up striking out 15 over eight scoreless innings that night.
"If somebody got on, he picked 'em right off," Brown recalled. "I've never seen anyone dominate a game in every phase the way he did that night."
Cingrani was optioned to Triple-A Louisville on Tuesday night.