Rolen never ceases to amaze
Jays third baseman showing AL he's one of the best
TORONTO -- Scott Rolen has a habit of making the most difficult of plays look routine. Years of honing his craft at third base has made that possible, helping Rolen to become arguably one of the best defenders the game has ever produced at the position.
Take Wednesday night in Seattle, for example. Richie Sexson chopped a pitch to the ground, sending it skipping down the line toward the Blue Jays third baseman. Rolen glided to his left, crossing the chalk line as he chased down the baseball.
With no time to spare, Rolen realized gloving the grounder wouldn't do. With his back to first base, the third baseman snared the ball with his bare hand and threw across his body, delivering a strike to the other side of the diamond for a fourth-inning out.
For those paying close attention, Rolen's effort was a rare play -- one that maybe only a few third basemen in history could have pulled off.
"I turned to the person sitting next to me and said, 'That might be the best slow-roll play I've ever seen,'" Blue Jays bench coach Brian Butterfield said. "A big body like that, that can move with that type of athleticism and that grace and with a tremendous throwing arm and tremendous accuracy -- it's amazing to watch."
It was just one in a long line of defensive gems that Rolen has provided in the first half of his inaugural tour with the Blue Jays. Toronto was well aware it acquired a sound defender when the club swung a trade with St. Louis to land Rolen in January -- seven Gold Glove Awards in his first 12 seasons were ample proof.
In that sense, Rolen has simply lived up to his reputation. Even so, he's still had those around him awestruck by his abilities in the field. Cito Gaston has only been back in the manager's chair for Toronto for a little more than two weeks, and even he was ready to put Rolen alongside the game's greatest.
"He might be the best third baseman I've ever seen," said Gaston, who is 64 years young with decades of playing and coaching experience. "Play after play, and tough plays -- he's the best one I've ever seen. Every throw is right on the money and he plays the ball on the short hop. You can see why he has seven Gold Gloves."
Rolen's seven Gold Gloves came over his last dozen years in the National League, where he spent parts of seven seasons with the Phillies and six with the Cardinals. Only Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson (16) and Mike Schmidt (10) have earned more Gold Gloves at the position than Rolen in baseball history.
If Rolen maintains his current play, he could be in store for an eighth accolade, joining Matt Williams and Robin Ventura as the only third basemen to capture Gold Gloves in both leagues. Rolen earned his first after only his second full season in the big leagues in 1998, took home five in a row from 2000-04, and picked up his last in '06.
Through Sunday, the 33-year-old Rolen boasted a .984 fielding percentage at third, representing the best mark in the American League and the second-highest percentage in baseball. Rolen's .902 zone rating was tops in the game, while his 2.92 range factor was first in the league.
"He's off the charts," said Butterfield, who doubles as Toronto's infield instructor. "He's fundamentally sound, he catches the ball in the right position and he moves his feet to get a good hop. He's had great teaching."
|"He's the best [third baseman] I've ever had and he's the best I've ever seen, and I've been fortunate to be around some good ones -- some great ones, really."|
|-- Bench coach Brian Butterfield|
During Rolen's early years with the Phillies, he spent countless hours on practice diamonds with the late John Vukovich -- a coach with Philadelphia for all of Rolen's seasons there. The techniques that Rolen uses to this day came from Vukovich's instrumental guidance.
"He basically taught me the position," Rolen said. "In Spring Training, we'd go out early and try to kill each other -- see how many we could take and make it a personal competition. For the most part, he sweat with me every day. I owe him as much defensively as anybody."
One part of Rolen's style that he said came from Vukovich is the wide starting stance that gets the third baseman's 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame as low to the ground as possible. At a spot where the defender is often less than 90 feet away from home plate, that type of positioning can help make quick reads and reactions on sharply hit balls.
"Clete Boyer was one of the great third basemen of all time," Butterfield said, "and he always talked about putting your eyes closer to the ground. It's such an advantage, but sometimes it's not that easy for a great big body to get down into a lower stance, because that's a long way to go."
Rolen added that fielding balls with a backhanded grab was a problematic issue early on in his career. Through thousands of ground balls, Vukovich helped Rolen reach a point where backhanding balls essentially became the third baseman's preferred approach.
From his view on the opposite side of the field at first base, Toronto's Lyle Overbay has marveled at Rolen's skill.
"Those backhands, I don't know how he does it," Overbay said. "It goes right into his glove every time. For me, it's a little bit easier, because I have a big glove. He doesn't. It's amazing how that ball gets into that pocket all the time.
"It's fun to watch. He never ceases to amaze you."
Overbay has also been the beneficiary of Rolen's powerful throws, receiving relays to his chest so often that, when one of the third baseman's tosses is slightly off target, the first baseman is caught by surprise.
"There was one time where he had to kind of go back on a ball," Overbay said, "and he threw it off balance and he threw it in the dirt. I panicked, because it was like, 'Whoa, I've never seen that before.'"
That last sentiment is a common reaction when those within Toronto's clubhouse are asked about Rolen. It's the same response: Rolen is a defensive third baseman unlike others they have seen -- worthy of being listed among the game's greatest at the hot corner.
"He's the best I've ever had and he's the best I've ever seen," Butterfield said. "And I've been fortunate to be around some good ones -- some great ones, really."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.