PEORIA, Ariz. — The movie “Moneyball” received six Academy Award nominations and a 94 percent Rotten Tomatoes approval rating while sparking a backlash in baseball circles for its simplistic take on the analytics vs. scouting debate. Baseball lifers chafed over the film’s harsh portrayal of Art Howe and its omission of the impact of pitchers Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder on the Oakland Athletics’ success.
But one scene in the movie resonated with anyone who has ever picked up a glove. During a pivotal living room sequence, Billy Beane tries to sell Scott Hatteberg on the idea of playing first base and downplays the difficulty of the transition. He solicits input from coach Ron Washington, who promptly undercuts him by pronouncing the move “incredibly hard.”
Many professional ballplayers who switch positions have the luxury of doing it in the minors, where mistakes are part of the developmental process and the crowds are small and generally forgiving. When the adjustment takes place in the big leagues, where every player is ostensibly a finished product and 30,000 people are in the stands, the stakes are higher.
This spring, four players with All-Star Games on their résumés and long-term contracts totaling $276 million are dealing with strange vantage points and information overload as they try to embrace the subtleties of a position change in the Cactus League. The regular-season opener is barely three weeks away, and they’re tasked with making something incredibly hard look like second nature.
Ryan Braun, Brewers, from left field to first base
Braun, the longtime franchise face, is no longer the focus of attention in Milwaukee. The Brewers spent $80 million on free agent Lorenzo Cain and traded four players to Miami for Christian Yelich, and the new arrivals adorn the cover of the team media guide. The Brewers would be happy with a healthy season from Braun, who logged an .823 OPS while missing 58 games because of calf and wrist injuries a year ago.
Manager Craig Counsell envisions Yelich, Cain, Braun, Domingo Santana and Eric Thames divvying up the roughly 2,800 plate appearances available between the three outfield spots and first base. Braun underwent back surgery in late 2015 and needs to be vigilant with his maintenance program to guard against a recurrence of an old problem.
Braun broke into pro ball as a third baseman and has made 1,296 MLB starts in the outfield, but first base is foreign turf to him. In his Cactus League debut against the Giants, he used an outfielder’s glove at first.
“There are going to be mess-ups, no question,” said Brewers coach Pat Murphy, who’s helping Braun with the move. “He’s never played first base. Never. It’s a huge transition, and there’s so much to learn. But he’ll make that transition as good as anybody in the game because of the athlete he is. He’s diligent about his game, and he will take care of business.”
Braun’s first 14 innings at first were action packed. He ranged over the mound to catch two popups, scooped multiple balls in the dirt, made an adept tag on a pickoff throw from catcher Jett Bandy to nab Rajai Davis, dived to save pitcher Jhoulys Chacin from an error and then committed an error with an off-target throw to Chacin. He has also tried to avoid mucking up the process by overthinking. After his first game, Braun told Milwaukee beat writers that he would not be providing daily progress reports.
“Until you get there and start running around playing the position, you don’t realize how much you know already,” Murphy said. “He’s done some things naturally. When you watch the way he can handle the intermediate throw, and you see him pick the ball the way he does and see his feet move in the infield, you think, ‘This guy’s got it.’ “
Braun’s ability to adapt could go a long way toward crafting a positive final act in Milwaukee. He has $57 million left on his $105 million contract extension, and that outlay will be a lot more palatable to the Brewers if he can stay on the field for 120-130 games and contribute an .800 or better OPS each season.
Dee Gordon, Mariners, from second base to center field
It came as no big shock when Gordon preceded Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich out of town as part of the Miami Marlins’ offseason roster purge.
The surprise twist: All four players are now outfielders.
Gordon broke in as a shortstop with the Los Angeles Dodgers and made himself into a Gold Glove second baseman with the help of infield coach Perry Hill in Miami. Now he’ll have to adjust to a whole new world view in center field. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, the quintessential free thinker, saw the dynamic potential of a Gordon-Jean Segura pairing at the top of the order, and the Statcast numbers convinced him that Gordon had the raw materials to play outfield. Gordon’s sprint speed of 29.7 feet per second is fourth best in MLB behind Minnesota’s Byron Buxton, Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton and Cleveland’s Bradley Zimmer — all center fielders — and he has the capacity to outrun the occasional bad jump or read.
Gordon had just returned from a vacation to the Bahamas with his girlfriend when he learned about the trade to Seattle. He immediately visited a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Miami and bought a red outfielder’s glove that has since been replaced by a different model and now sits in the trunk of his car. Gordon elicited some laughs when he told the story at a Mariners fan event, but the tone in his voice suggests he’s not fully recovered from the shock of having to reinvent himself at age 29.
“If I woke up every day just worrying about my world, I probably wouldn’t have the most productive day in the world,” Gordon said. “I’m gonna be all right with it. I’m a professional. I’m not here to cry about it. People tell me, ‘You’re a ballplayer,’ and I realize that now. I’m a ballplayer and I’ll adapt to the situation.”
Mariners coach Chris Prieto flew to Orlando, Florida, in December for the first of two offseason tutorials with Gordon. They sat down and discussed the finer points of center-field play and the best ways for Gordon to embrace the change. Prieto returned to Florida a month later and found that Gordon had already made substantial progress.
There’s still more Gordon must tackle to master his new position, as evidenced by some items on his spring to-do list. He’ll spend his time working on his throwing motion to generate more spin off his fingertips to get greater carry with more accuracy, staying on top of situations to have an idea where he needs to throw the ball before it’s hit to him, communicating with his fellow outfielders (a group that now includes Ichiro Suzuki), backing up second base in the event of errant throws and learning to read situations so he can change his depth and position in the middle of counts to gain precious extra steps.
During his spring tutorials, Gordon fields balls launched from a machine and fungoes directly off the bat, which behave less predictably. He looks natural on fly balls in the gap, while line drives hit straight at him or directly over his head pose more of a challenge.
“Once the season starts and we get the scouting reports, we’ll have a really good idea where he should play hitters,” Prieto said. “Right now, I want him to use his instincts. I want him to read swings and challenge himself to the pull side and the opposite side. He comes in every day and he’s looking to get better. He doesn’t just want to be a good center fielder. He wants to be a great center fielder, and it shows in everything he does.”
The Cactus League is notoriously difficult for outfielders because of the carry on fly balls, the blinding sun and the absence of cloud cover, so any atmospheric conditions that Gordon encounters during the regular season should be relatively benign by comparison. He realizes it is best to roll with the inevitable mistakes, but that’s not in his nature.
“I’m going to beat myself up,” Gordon said. “I’ll be agitated, for sure. That’s just how I am. I want to play good, and at the end of the year we’ll assess how well I play. I definitely want to help us way more than I hurt us. Hopefully, I don’t hurt us too often.”
Zack Cozart, Angels, from shortstop to third base
In 2014, Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons led the majors with plus-28 defensive runs saved. Cozart, then with Cincinnati, ranked second at the position with plus-19. Now, they’re teammates, with a shared goal of tormenting opponents on anything hit to the left side in Anaheim. Cozart, who ranked second to Carlos Correa among MLB shortstops with a .933 OPS and made his first All-Star team in 2017, had the misfortune of coming out in a tough winter for free agents. He landed a three-year, $38 million deal with the Angels while Todd Frazier took less to sign with the Mets and Mike Moustakas remains unemployed.
“There’s definitely some stress that goes with it, and a learning curve,” Cozart said. “If I was on a different team where I felt I should be the starting shortstop, then I’d be like, ‘Man, what am I doing playing third?’ But I feel like Sim is the only guy in the league that is probably better than me, so it’s an easy decision for me to move over and have a good attitude about it. Being the competitive person that I am, you want to perfect that spot and prove people wrong. Or if they’re saying you’re going to be good, to prove them right.”
At shortstop, Cozart was conditioned to think aggressively. At third, his first step is neutral or even back, and he’s getting used to the idea that he can knock the ball down and have time to recover and record an out. He’s sticking with his old shortstop setup as opposed to getting low and wide in the manner of his former Reds teammate, Scott Rolen. Beyond that, he’ll figure out the niceties of positioning as he goes. Angels special assistant Eric Chavez, a six-time Gold Glove Award winner, is helping with the transition, and he looks out from the dugout and sees Cozart’s mind spinning in a thousand different directions.
Cozart is still using his old shortstop glove — a faded black Wilson A2000 with six years of wear on it. It measures 11.5 inches and is slightly smaller than the typical third baseman’s glove. Cozart keeps one of those in his duffel bag, and he’s gradually breaking it in with daily games of catch.
In Cozart’s Cactus League debut, the Angels’ infield was playing in and Cleveland’s Ryan Hanigan hit a bolt directly at him. Cozart reached out in self-defense and snagged the liner, fully cognizant that it could just as easily have been a chopper requiring him to charge the ball and make an off-balance throw. Such is life at third base.
It brings some comfort to Cozart knowing that Simmons, the best defensive shortstop of his generation, is right by his side as a security blanket.
“If the ball is hit to my left, I’m like, ‘Sim, you got it,’ ” Cozart said, laughing.
Wil Myers, Padres, from first base to right field
Myers hit a career-high 30 homers last year, but he also struck out 180 times and batted .229 after the All-Star break. He went home to Charlotte, North Carolina, in October, worked with a personal trainer, loaded up on protein shakes and increased his weight from 201 pounds to a bulked-up 226.
“I’m tired of being tall and skinny,” Myers said. “I wanted to be tall and big.”
After taking a hard look at his career arc, Myers also began seeing a sports psychologist over the winter. He plans to maintain a regular regimen of mental skills training throughout the season.
“I’ve always been a guy who had great physical ability and never really put it together,” Myers said. “This is the first offseason I was like, ‘My mental ability is not where it needs to be.’ I felt like my talent has taken it as far as it will get me, and I have to continue to work to be more than just an average player in the big leagues. This offseason, I checked every single box and did everything I possibly could do.”
One development was beyond Myers’ control. Two days before the Padres’ first full-squad workout, the team signed Eric Hosmer to a franchise-record eight-year, $144 million contract. The first domino was moving Myers from first base to right field.
Myers is no stranger to the view from the pasture. After starting his professional career as a catcher, he moved to right field in the Double-A Texas League in 2011, and won the American League Rookie of the Year award while starting 68 games in right for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013. The Padres tried him in center field in 2015 and the experiment was widely regarded as a failure after he logged a minus-7 defensive runs saved.
“People said I was terrible in the outfield,” Myers said. “But I was also playing center field at the time, and I’m not much of a center fielder. Getting back to one of the corner outfield spots is going to be better for me, because it’s a position I know I can play pretty well.
“It’s not necessarily working on the fly balls. It’s all the little things: working on the wall balls and my footwork. Charging ground balls. Communication. Things like that. I think it will come back pretty quickly, and we still have plenty of time to get there.”
While it’s natural to assume the weight gain might put a strain on Myers’ legs, he’s more concerned about the state of his throwing arm. Myers focused on speed work during the offseason and thinks his jumps and outfield coverage could benefit as a result. But he arrived in camp with a first baseman’s arm, and he’ll spend the next few weeks focusing on lengthening out and getting greater extension on his throws.
Dave Roberts, now the Dodgers’ manager, tutored Myers on the art of center-field play in 2015. Now Padres coach Skip Schumaker is overseeing his transition to right. Myers, who can be searingly candid in interviews, concedes that boredom and inactivity in the outfield are a potential issue after being in the middle of the action at first base.
“Absolutely,” he said. “You’re out there by yourself, and you have to watch 150 pitches a game, if not more. There can be times when you’re kind of looking in the stands and you get distracted, but Skip is gonna be great. He’s going to hold me accountable a lot, and that’s what I need.”