Given baseball’s proclivity for numbers, the ways to quantify Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed’s defensive prowess this season seem innumerable.
There’s fielding percentage (.987, second among shortstops), defensive runs saved (18, first), total chances per nine innings (4.41, second) and even something called percentage of outs on balls in which a fielder is given no more than a 10 percent chance to make a play (11.8 percent, first).
Or, we could just let Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo describe anecdotally what Ahmed has done this season.
“I put my hand in his glove one day, and his glove is a really small glove,” Lovullo said. “But he plays like it’s 14 inches long. When a fielder does that, you know he’s doing a lot right.”
Ahmed routinely provides examples of just how good he is in the field, with the latest coming in the fourth inning last Tuesday night against the Angels.
Outfielder Eric Young Jr. hit a ball deep into the hole between third base and shortstop. Ahmed back-handed the ball but had no time to plant his leg and throw. So he jumped a bit, threw across his body and had enough on the ball to throw Young out.
“He makes it look easy,” Diamondbacks infielder Daniel Descalso said. “The great ones make it look easy, and he’s one of the great ones we have in this league.”
A play like the one on Tuesday is why shortstop has been Ahmed’s favorite position since he was a kid.
“You move around, use your athleticism, make all kinds of different plays,” Ahmed said, “plays on the run, in the hole, long throws, around the second-base bag, going after popups. There are just a lot of different things to do out there, and I’m athletic. Blessed with that.”
It takes more than just athleticism to field at Ahmed’s level, however. He’s athletic, for sure, but he reached this point through a lot of sweat equity, including working out with his younger brother, Mike, who is in the Dodgers’ minor-league system, every winter back home in Massachusetts.
Practicing outside usually isn’t an option, and finding an indoor facility the size of a baseball field isn’t easy. So the brothers work in a small indoor space, always tinkering with their workouts to keep them interesting and competitive.
One staple is to have a machine shoot tennis balls at them. The brothers take turns fielding them bare-handed to help develop “soft hands.” With every successful catch, they move closer to the machine.
“We try to make practice harder so when the game comes, it becomes easier and second nature,” Ahmed said, “compared to working at a slower speed and then the game being a little too quick for you.”
Some of what Ahmed does is incredibly simple. Playing catch, for instance. For him, it’s not a mindless way to warm up. He watches every ball hit his glove, then looks at the ball in the glove, then watches as he grips it properly.
It’s something he picked up from someone back home who once heard a catching instructor teach his players to do it.
“Ooooh,” Ahmed thought at the time, “I kind of like that.”
He’s done it ever since, and it’s something he emphasizes every time he works with kids.
“I tell them all the time, you can learn from anybody,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be somebody who technically has a position of coach or an authority above you.”
That drill, if you can call it that, is one reason Ahmed is such an accurate thrower. Of his six errors this season, only one has been via throwing.
“It’s like a pitch-back,” Lovullo said, holding his glove-hand hand to his chest. “He comes back to you in the same spot very time.”
Ahmed deserves to win a Gold Glove this season, but more importantly, he’s established himself as the Diamondbacks’ every-day starter. Ahmed has career highs in home runs (16), doubles (26) and RBIs (57).
More impressive, Ahmed has made it to this point without ever being the top shortstop prospect in an organization. When he was drafted by Atlanta in 2011, the Braves already had Andrelton Simmons. Since being traded to the Diamondbacks in 2013, Ahmed has had to compete with a number of players, including Chris Owings and Didi Gregorius.
Gregorius is with the Yankees, Owings is at Triple AAA Reno and Ahmed has started 119 games.
That Ahmed, 28, is the one left standing with the Diamondbacks is not lost on him. He admits reflecting occasionally on his journey, but he also tries to heed advice from a chaplain: be content, not complacent.
“I definitely enjoy the moment, enjoy what I doing,” Ahmed said, “but I don’t get complacent. I always try to work and get better.”
Reach Somers at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @kentsomers.