The first time JT Riddle played the outfield he was a freshman for the Kentucky Wildcats pressed into duty as a right fielder because of injuries. An infielder by trade, Riddle didn’t take long to be tested. In his first game as an outfielder, Riddle gunned a baserunner down at third base on a field-stretching throw from right.
With the Miami Marlins, Riddle had to wait for his second game as an outfielder for a similar opportunity. Christian Yelich slapped a single to center in the top of the first inning Wednesday, and Riddle saw an opportunity. Making his second career start in center field, Riddle pounced on the bouncing ball and threw out Yelich at second base as the MVP outfielder tried to leg out a double for the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.
“He’s a really good athlete,” third baseman Brian Anderson said Wednesday. “I’ve played with him, I played against him in college, I played with him in pro ball coming up through the system and I’ve seen the kind of plays he can make at shortstop, so putting him out in the outfield where he can really run, show off his arm a little bit, it’s pretty special what he’s going to be able to do out there.”
Riddle, who had exclusively been a shortstop in MLB before making his first appearance in center Sunday, is making his third consecutive start in center for the Marlins (23-36) on Thursday as they go for a three-game sweep of the Brewers (34-28) at 2:10 p.m. in Milwaukee, which means Miami can stick with a new-look defensive alignment. With Riddle in center, Harold Ramirez can move from center to his more natural position in right field full-time and fellow outfielder Garrett Cooper can move in from right to first base, where his future ultimately might lie.
In their 8-3 win Wednesday, the retooled defensive alignment paid dividends for the Marlins. Riddle added another outfield assist -- the second of his career -- in the second inning, when he hit Miguel Rojas for a perfect cutoff throw and the infielder threw out a runner at home. In the first, Ramirez took a home run from outfielder Lorenzo Cain with a perfectly timed leaping catch at the right-field wall. Even Cooper’s move to first worked out as he turned a tricky double play, scooping up a ground ball by Yelich, making the throw to second for the first out and getting back to first base to complete the play.
“What we always talk about is trying to limit outs, don’t give teams extra outs, don’t give away outs,” manager Don Mattingly said. “Just the little plays last night ... those things are huge in the course of a game. It saves pitches where next thing you know you’re not getting into your bullpen until later.”
Miami enters Thursday with 13 wins in its last 18 games, and most of the success has been fueled by strong pitching and improving offense. The defensive play has been critical, too. The Marlins didn’t make a single error on the first five games of this latest road trip and haven’t allowed an unearned run in 13 games.
The extremely early returns are promising from the altered lineup. Riddle had been statistically a below-average defender in 70 innings at shortstop this season, worth negative-32 total zone total fielding runs runs above average when extrapolated out to an average 1,200-inning season. In 20 innings in center, Riddle is off to a great start, worth 53 total zone total fielding runs above average per 1,200 innings. His presence also moves Ramirez, a sub-par fielder, to a less important defensive position in right.
Cooper has seen a similar uptick from negative-40 in 163 2/3 innings in right field to seven in his 25 1/3 innings at first base.
“We feel pretty comfortable with Coop in right or Coop at first — pretty much anybody anywhere. Obviously, we think certain spots are best for guys, so we try to do it, but guys have been playing good defense,” Mattingly said. “Things have kind of been going our way so far.”