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. Over the next six weeks, we will feature 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. We now move to center field, where the Red Sox's Jackie Bradley, the Blue Jays' Anthony Gose and the Twins' Byron Buxton were narrowly edged by the Yankees' Mason Williams.
In retrospect, Mason Williams finds it all too funny. During each of his pre-2010 Draft workouts for the Yankees, he was always instructed to line up at shortstop, not center field, where he transitioned his sophomore year of high school in Orange County, Fla.
"I'm a huge Derek Jeter fan, so to even think I maybe had a remote chance to play shortstop some time after him was huge," Williams, now 21, says. "I don't really know what went through their mind."
New York was undoubtedly seeking an eventual replacement for the club's aging captain two Junes ago, employing its first picks on teenage shortstops, Cito Culver and Angelo Gumbs. In the fourth round finally was Williams, the 145th overall draftee in his class.
And now? Baseball's 41st overall prospect.
An ability to hit and steal bases props up his profile, sure, but Williams is widely regarded as one of the game's next best defensive center fielders. This came with work. After adjusting his throwing motion -- moving from short, he raised his right arm's slot to generate more back-spin on the baseball -- Williams started learning the real nuances of his new spot: like focusing his gaze on home plate -- all while standing, bended at both knees, 300 feet away.
"He is really athletic, but he also reads the ball off the bat and has an ability to project where it's going to end up," says Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations. "I don't know how much of that is innate. I don't know how much of that is the time he spends doing this, but he was really good when he signed with us, so if he started at a high level, he has improved."
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BOB -- or Balls off the Bat -- has helped Williams the most in this most important of area of strong center field play. All of his Yankees coaches -- from Tom Slater and Ty Hawkins at Class A Short-Season Staten Island in 2011 and Carlos Mendoza and Greg Colbrunn at Class A Charleston in 2012 -- emphasized BOB on a daily basis.
"We ask the outfielders to move into different positions. We let them play shallow or in, we let them play regular depth and we let them play deep. When they're in, we challenge them to break on balls that are [hit] over their head," says Pat McMahon, who in addition to coordinating Yanks' international player development, teaches the system's outfielders. "You can fungo as many, you can pitching-machine a lot of balls to work that technique and footwork, but when there's added practice and it's live and playing it like a game situation, we think it's the best outfield defensive drill to help players continue to grow and get better."
So it's a step beyond "power shagging", the routine of another American League East center fielder of the future.
"I treat that BOB session like a real game," says Williams, who enjoys watching the first-step quickness of Major League glove men Austin Jackson (Tigers) and Adam Jones (Orioles). "I try to take the same reads and jumps and angles as I would in a game."
And how does he make his reads? Williams will watch the flight of his pitcher's pitch and the swing plane of the hitter's bat-head. These two pieces of information, once combined, get his cleats moving quicker in the direction of a fly ball or line drive that should be outside his reach. (An example of a read: If the batter's hack on an outside fastball is late, Williams can assume that the ball will cut away from him. A righty batter would strike the ball toward right-center, a lefty toward left-center.)
The head-start Williams chases gives him opportunities to lay out for would-be extra-base hits.
"His speed, quickness of the break, efficiency of the route give him range," Newman says. "There's [been] a bunch of dives, flat-out, full body-extended dives. One in Staten Island [in 2011]: He was diving away from the plate, in the direction of the fence. Not in, not even lateral. In is easiest and lateral is next. Away from the plate and toward the fence. You don't see that very often, and he made one of those."
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Williams also made one of these that same season: In the top of the eighth inning of Class A Short-Season Staten Island's New York-Penn League Championship clincher on Sept. 13, 2011, he completed -- with an immodesty after the fact that seems uncomfortable on his tongue -- a "Willie Mays kind of play."
"I was playing [the batter] a little shallow, but he got a good pitch and he drove the ball to center," he remembers. "Off the bat, I thought I was beat, so I literally turned around and put my head down and started running to the fence, and I look up, and I'm tied with the ball and actually have a chance. It was more of a basket catch. I stayed on my feet for that one."
The grab, among his favorites for its timing, kept the opposition's leadoff man off the bases in a game the Short-Season Yanks won for the crown an inning later, 2-1.
"Those plays, him going to the wall, aren't unusual," says right fielder Tyler Austin, a fellow '10 draftee who has played alongside Williams with three teams over the past two seasons, including in Staten Island. "He actually made a couple in Charleston that were exactly like that, plays where I'm like, 'Oh, that ball's going to the wall' and he just comes and makes the unbelievable play.
"I don't think I've ever played with a center fielder better than him. With him out there, it's just a lot of stress off the balls that I can't quite get to and he's running down. He's going to make the unbelievable catch every chance he gets."
Beyond that shortstop-like athleticism and BOB-taught positioning, there's this, too. Austin and McMahon allude to it; Newman calls it an acrobatic style that leaves no room for fear of fences; Williams refers to it simply as helping out his team, which will likely be Class A Advanced Tampa come April.
"If I have a chance to catch [the ball] -- wherever it is -- I'm going to go 100 percent and try to catch it," he says. "Whether that is standing up, or running to the warning track, or diving. Whatever it is, I'm willing to do it."