Third-base coaches aren't ready to throw out their judgment and use advanced defensive metrics

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Daniel Murphy is greeted by third base coach Daniel Murphy is greeted by third base coach Tim Teufel after hitting a two-run home run off Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mike Fiers during the second inning of a game. (Sept. 14, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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Jim Baumbach Newsday columnist Jim Baumbach

Jim Baumbach is an investigative / enterprise sports reporter for Newsday. A Long Island native, he started working

Yoenis Cespedes showed off his cannon of an arm on consecutive nights last week, throwing out Angels runners at third and at home from the warning track -- on the fly.

The videos of the Oakland A's leftfielder's airmail deliveries instantly went viral, providing eye-opening evidence of what scouts often describe as "plus-plus" arm strength.

Those throws also gave Cespedes the major-league lead in outfield assists with nine. Entering Friday's games, Toronto's Jose Bautista and Cleveland's Michael Brantley had seven and Arizona's A.J. Pollock and Boston's Jackie Bradley Jr. had six.

Leading the league in outfield assists sounds nice, but there's a negative subtext to the statistic. In order to throw all those guys out, it means that those runners -- and third-base coaches -- felt comfortable challenging that outfielder's arm.

In reality, the true sign of respect for an outfielder's arm is when runners don't even test it. That's why those with the strongest and most accurate throwing arms often don't lead the league in outfield assists.

In this age of advanced statistics, Cespedes' throws also beg this question: Have we reached the point that third-base coaches will begin to use new-age defensive metrics that measure the strengths and weaknesses of an outfielder's throwing arm as part of their pregame preparation?

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We presented that question to the Mets' Tim Teufel and the Brewers' Ed Sedar, and the short answer is no.

Both veteran third-base coaches said they still get a report before every series from their advance scouts about how opposing outfielders have been throwing the ball lately. Those reports, they said, are based on the scouts' firsthand accounts of the other team's recent games, a practice that's been going on in baseball for decades.

Neither man said he relies too heavily on those reports. Instead, both have access to a video portal where they call up any outfielder's throw in any situation. This is where they both do the majority of their preparation.

"It's nice to have their opinion what their arm strength is and all that," Teufel said, "but I want to see it live and in action."

Teufel said he looks for five or six different throws from the outfielder on video -- in game situations such as charging the ball, going to his right or left or going back on a ball -- and uses those replays to help gauge whether to challenge the outfielder in a tight spot.

"If I have five or six throws, I can pretty much tell you what kind of arm the guy has compared to the other guys in the league," said Teufel, who is in his third year as the Mets' third-base coach.

The video portal gives the coaches access to every throw an active outfielder has ever made in the majors. But Sedar found that requesting that info of a player takes the system far too long to download. Plus the fourth-year third-base coach doesn't like to view plays that occurred before this season because the strength and accuracy of a player's throwing arm tends to change over time.

So before every series, he filters the data by inputting categories such as "team: Mets," "situation: runner on first" and "result: single" to see how any of the Mets' outfielders handled making throws in those situations. Then he'll refine it again, and again, until there's nothing left for him to see.

"If they've made throws this year," Sedar said, "I've seen them."

They take their conclusions with them onto the field and say they subconsciously fall back on them when they are faced with making a split-second decision whether to wave that arm around and challenge an outfielder's throwing arm or put up the stop sign.

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So will the day come when they use advanced defensive metrics in their preparation? Maybe. But neither man is holding his breath.

As Teufel said, "It's still a judgment."

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