College baseball: How Arizona went about improving its defense by using a hashtag
Arizona baseball coach Jay Johnson stresses process over results. He preaches daily effort, preparation and improvement. It is the foundation upon which his program is built.
But sometimes, especially when dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds, you have to put a carrot in front of them. Enter assistant coach Sergio Brown and a hashtag.
Brown is in charge of Arizona's defense. He wasn't satisfied with his or the team's performance last season. So he created #977.
"I just went right to the result," Brown said. "We're going to win this thing. This is going to be our goal."
The Wildcats are off to a promising start. Arizona was not charged with an error during its season-opening sweep of Bryant over the weekend. In a related matter, the Wildcats surrendered only two runs in three games.
"It's a recipe for a good weekend," said Johnson, whose team faces No. 4 Arkansas on Wednesday in San Diego.
It's a tiny sample size, to be sure, but an encouraging one. Arizona finished with a .968 fielding percentage last season, third worst in the Pac-12. Entering this season, Johnson saw the makings of his best defensive squad yet.
It has looked the part so far.
"That just gives you more confidence on the mound," junior starter Michael Flynn said. "You don't have to be scared when something gets put into play. As a pitcher, that's the best feeling there is."
The pitchers worked quickly — two of the first three games lasted less than three hours — and the fielders were sharp behind them. Two sophomores in particular appear to have made significant strides since last season.
Third baseman Nick Quintana wanted to be lighter on his feet this year, and he looked nimble while charging in to field three bunts Saturday. All three required barehanded pickups. All three resulted in outs. Quintana also speared a line drive Sunday.
Second baseman Cameron Cannon made a diving stop to his left on a hard chopper in the hole Saturday. He later ranged across second base to stab a grounder up the middle, firing the ball across the infield for the out.
Johnson tasks his players with improving 1 percent every day. Asked to assess his defensive progress in that context, Quintana didn't hesitate.
"A hundred percent," he said.
Quintana committed a team-leading 19 errors and had a team-worst .856 fielding percentage last season. It was the first time he had played third base full time after playing shortstop for most of his life.
"No excuses," Quintana said, "but that was my first time at third, kind of unfamiliar with placement, the speed of the ball and whatnot. Just really working hard with Coach Brown. It's paid off."
Cannon made eight errors, third most on the team, in a part-time role at second and short. He always has had a penchant for making the spectacular play. So he and Brown have focused on fundamentals.
"Don't try to do too much. Really look the ball in. Follow your throw. The basics," Cannon said. "It's really as simple as that. Sometimes we try to make it harder than it needs to be."
Quintana, Cannon and outfielder Matt Fraizer were the key pieces of the 2015-16 recruiting class. Brown describes Quintana and Cannon as "great kids" who are "very coachable." But in some ways they're like most kids in that they require a little extra motivation to make fielding as big a priority as batting.
"There's never a team I've been a coach where I've had guys come in with their gloves and say, 'Hey, coach, let's go take extra groundballs.' It's always, 'Let's go get some extra hitting in,' "Brown said. "They're both offensive performers. They both have a chance to be pretty special offensively. So it really just came down to finding something new and different."
Which brings us back to #977. Brown enlisted a staff aide to help him research the records. To his surprise, it was the 2016 Wildcats — the first squad coached by Johnson and his staff — who set the mark.
"Obviously," Brown said, "that was a successful team."
Arizona finished second in the Pac-12 in fielding percentage that year. They came within a hit of winning the College World Series.
This article is written by Michael Lev from The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.