Joe Maddon figures it had been about 20 years since he last saw what he calls the “bible” of outfield defense.
He couldn’t have picked a better time to find it again.
From Mike Trout to Justin Upton to Jo Adell, outfield defense is a key focus for the Angels this spring. They want to return to the basics, perfect the fundamentals. And to do it, they are using a coaching method that traces to Joe DiMaggio, has been intertwined in Angels coaching lineage for almost three decades, and is detailed in a 20-page book that reads like a baseball instruction manual filled with drills, techniques and nuggets of advice.
“I brought it with me here, and we made copies,” said Maddon, in his second season as Angels manager. “Everybody’s gotten a copy of it.”
The book is authored by the late Sam Suplizio, a baseball lifer who played in the New York Yankees’ minor league system in the 1950s, helped bring prominence to the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., and was a driving force behind Major League Baseball awarding the expansion Colorado Rockies franchise to Denver after which he was encouraged to run for governor in the state.
It was during his time as a volunteer outfield instructor with the Angels in the 1990s, though, that Suplizio became a mentor to Maddon and current Angels outfield coach Bruce Hines. In that role, Suplizio would come to spring training every year and attended about 50 regular-season home games. He helped develop such Angels stars as Tim Salmon, Darin Erstad and Jim Edmonds.
And he passed out his homemade book, titled, simply, “Defensive Outfield Play.” The opening line: “Good defensive outfield play is one of the most important and most exciting phases in the game of baseball, yet it is rarely stressed and seldom taught properly.”
“I believe it’s the outfield bible,” said Maddon, who worked with Suplizio as an Angels coach from 1994 to 2005 and as a minor league instructor with the club for seven seasons before that. Hines, who joined Maddon’s staff this offseason, also overlapped with Suplizio while previously coaching in the organization from 1994 to 2008.
“I think if any outfield coach just works off of this pamphlet or booklet, you can become a really good outfield coach,” Maddon said. “It’s that complete. It’s that smart. It covers everything.”
There are few facets of the game Suplizio, who died in 2006, left uncovered.
Organized into sub-sections, his book addresses everything from proper pre-pitch stance (“taking a step or two forward to a bent knee position with your weight on the balls of your feet”) to breaking on a ball (“All outfielders will break on balls left and right by using the crossover step or short jab step”) to starting position based on the count (fielders should generally play to the hitter’s pull side in a hitter’s count, and the other way in a pitcher’s count).
There are drills honing in on each skill and even a list of the toughest plays for outfielder to make (No. 1: Charging a ground ball to throw out a runner.)
“I’m a big fan,” Maddon said, “because I think this an under-coached part of the game when it comes to technique and the fundamentals of doing it.”
One of Suplizio’s original inspirations was DiMaggio. By the time Suplizio reached the Yankees’ minor league system in the mid-1950s, the recently retired Yankees legend coached the organization’s outfielders every spring.
“I had the best instructor you could possibly have,” Suplizio told The Times in 1999. “He could impart what he did. A lot of guys can’t do that. … I went home, and I wrote down everything I learned that day.”
Suplizio kept those notes his entire life, incorporating many into his book. They made a big impact on several Angels players of that era.
In 1997, Maddon remembered using Suplizio’s drills with Angels utility player Tony Phillips before every game. During the season, Maddon didn’t think much of it. But that winter, Maddon got a call while he was hanging Christmas lights. It was from Phillips, thanking him for the help.
“It gave him a great comfort zone once the game began,” Maddon said. “Heck, I wouldn’t have known anything if I hadn’t gotten that from Sam.”
Salmon, who debuted with the Angels in 1992, said Suplizio was like an adopted father. Recently thumbing through the pages of Suplizio’s book, Salmon smiled while re-reading the words.
“I can hear Sammy’s voice in my head,” he said.
Despite losing his copy sometime around 2000, Maddon continued teaching the lessons by memory in his previous managerial jobs. In recent seasons, he saw it benefit players such as Dexter Fowler (who was acquired by the Angels this offseason) and Nick Castellanos, both of whom posted some of their best career defensive statistics with Maddon’s Chicago Cubs teams.
But Maddon longed to review the original book himself. Then, he got a message from Salmon this offseason, offering to duplicate his copy.
“Fish came to my rescue,” Maddon said.
This spring, the information has been put to use.
“On a daily basis, you keep progressing, you work different drills, and it doesn’t become stale,” Maddon said. “By the time a guy gets onto the field and it’s a regular game, man, you become unconsciously competent where you don’t have to think about it, and you just do it.”
Several of Maddon’s players have begun echoing the message too.
After posting poor defensive metrics in center field last season, Trout said “going back to the fundamentals” defensively was one of his biggest goals in camp.
“Coming in on the ball, getting better jumps, working on it in BP,” Trout said. “If you don’t work on it, it will show. At the end of last year, I started seeing the numbers, and I knew going into the offseason I had to improve. . . . I told [the coaches], ‘I’m trying to be the best outfielder, trying to win a Gold Glove. That’s the goal.’ ”
Maddon said Upton and Fowler are also refining their defensive technique, while Adell is hoping to clean up his fielding after making several defensive gaffs as a rookie last season.
“Just play the game loose and athletic and focus on what you’re trying to do,” Adell said. “When fielding a ground ball, watch it all the way in, get a good transfer, take it out of the glove, make a good one-hop throw to second. Because when the game speeds up, that stuff can get away from you.”
Maddon knows it sounds simple, but he’s confident it can be effective. He’s seen it work before. And now, he has the original texts.
“There’s no way you can convince me there’s a better way to teach it than what Sam taught us back then,” Maddon said, “and that we’re still utilizing today.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.