2004 is filled with moments I’ll never forget. At the top of them was a defensive play - a catch from Jim Edmonds that I still believe is the biggest and best I’ve ever seen.
Edmonds was known for his amazing ability to make impossible plays. As an Angel, Edmonds was a flashy player, but also viewed as an inconsistent showboat. Edmonds had a penchant for drama, no doubt. Part of that was personality, but an equal part was necessity.
Edmonds was never a burner. He had good-not-great speed for a center fielder and he made himself into an elite defender through soft hands and a knack for gobbling up fly balls from awkward postures. Edmonds had perfected the diving catch. Backward, forward, sideways, over-the-shoulder, over-the-wall, Edmonds caught everything with style.
That made him a regular fixture on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and their daily Web Gem segments.
So, yes, Edmonds worked hard to make himself into a show, largely because that was how he got outs. He backed up the flashy glove with rare offensive talent from a center fielder. Ironically, “Hollywood” Jim was unappreciated in LA and sold off for spare parts, but grit-n-grind oriented St. Louis fans fell in love with him and his flash almost immediately.
If it wasn’t for Ken Griffey Jr. chasing records during the same era, Edmonds would have been the best center fielder of his generation and a certain Hall of Famer. Instead, he exited the ballot early, a travesty that will hopefully be rectified by the Veterans Committee.
In typical Edmonds’ style, perhaps his greatest play came in the biggest moment with the most cameras. The Astros and the Cardinals were bitter rivals in the early and mid-2000s. In 2004, the ‘Stros and Cards both reached the NLCS stocked full of talent. The series went back and forth to a Game 7 in St. Louis that mismatched the legendary Roger Clemens against the lowly but reliable Jeff Suppan.
The Astros got into Suppan immediately, with Craig Biggio hitting a homer to open the game. The Cards went in order in the first. The second opened with the Astros putting more pressure on the Cards’ starter. Suppan walked Jeff Kent, coazed a fly ball out of Morgan Ensburg, and gave up a single to Jose Vizcaino. That brought up catcher Brad Ausmus with a chance to break the game open.
Here’s what happened:
Watch that a few times just to appreciate it and try to catch some of the fine details: like how far Edmonds had to go and the impossible angle of his dive. Did you notice also the light way that Edmonds lands before popping up and making a throw back to second to try and doube-up Kent? I’ve never seen anyone better at making the outfield grass look like a slip-and-slide slathered in dish detergent. (Try it now.)
Statcast wasn’t around for plays like this. This was an NLCS game, though, and there are plenty of camera angles. We have the information we need to use some fuzzy math and pseudo-science to find the details of this play.
How Far Did Edmonds Go to Make the Catch?
A video editor and some elementary Photoshop skills make it possible to place Edmonds’ position at around the moment of contact and find the approximate moment of the catch. In the replays, the camera cuts to the overhead view just after the ball is struck. Edmonds is already leaning toward left-field, but he has not yet turned his body. His left foot, then, can be used as a marker for Edmonds starting position.
The end of the play creates a problem that we can only partially solve: Edmonds is off the ground at the moment of the catch. His dive would have carried Edmonds several feet beyond where his feet left the ground and his body would continue for several more feet before touching down. All of that makes it difficult to center the ball, his glove, his feet, and the ground. Fortunately, we have an acceptable solution. There is a shadow on the ground just below Edmonds’ feet while he is in his dive. Since we started by marking his left foot, we can simply use this shadow to mark the spot on the ground relative to his foot in the air. From foot-to-foot is, to me, an acceptable way to measure the ground distance Edmonds traveled.
From there, we have to somehow superimpose the moment of Edmonds catch onto the same frame as contact and use ratios to calculate the distance traveled. The easiest way to calculate distance is to set a known height on the field and then use that as a measurement tool. The wall works perfectly for this and it measures around 37-39 pixels, which now equals 8 feet (at the wall).
We can then use the wall and the right edge of the Budweiser sign in the final frame to figure out the angle and distance to the shadow under Edmonds’ feet at the point of the catch. Once we have that angle, we can transfer it over to the first image, and voila, we have the moment of contact and the moment of the catch on the same frame, plus or minus some margin of error.
The distance Edmonds traveled? Somewhere in the range of 56-59.5 feet.
How Difficult Was This Catch?
56-59.5 feet might not seem very far. It is though. Using frame rates, we can easily calculate the time it took from the ball to leave the bat to the exact moment of the catch. That time is 3.67 seconds.
From the moment Edmonds saw the ball struck (almost 350 feet away), he had 3.67 seconds to read the ball’s flight, start his sprint, travel 56-59.5 feet and launch himself backward for an over-the-shoulder basket catch. It took me 15 seconds just to write that last sentence. 3.67 of hang time is almost nothing for a centerfielder to work with.
But it was enough.
The best way to understand this catch is to place it in context with some contemporary comparables. We only have the eye-test for Edmonds catch, but we have Statcast data for today’s outfielders.
That’s where Harrison Bader comes in. Bader is probably the best center fielder we have seen in St. Louis since Edmonds. He is also known for some flashiness and inconsistency – though his inconsistency is statistically obvious.
In 2019, Harrison Bader had one opportunity to duplicate Edmonds’ 2004 NLCS play. Statcast tells us that Bader had one play last year where he traveled 59 feet in 3.6 seconds into left-center and made a diving attempt on a sinking fly ball. I don’t have video of this play because nothing good happened here. Bader could not make the play. No out was recorded. Instead of a highlight-reel out that I could track via video, it becomes a base hit struck by some unnamed batter in any one of 128 games Bader played in last season.
(If anyone wants to go searching for it or has a way to coax that video out of Baseball Savant’s search functions, let me know.)
The point, though, is that Statcast tracked all the information on that unseen play from Bader. That catch, with a 59’ travel distance and 3.6 seconds of ball flight, had a 20% chance of being made and would have ranked as a 5-star catch. Bader, faster than Edmonds, probably more toolsy as a defender than Edmonds, and certainly much younger than Edmonds, couldn’t do it.
Roll that back into context.
In the second inning of Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS, the Cardinals were facing Roger Clemens and were already down 1-0. With two men on base, Brad Ausmus hit a sinking fly ball into left-center. Jim Edmonds had 3.67 seconds to react to the pitch and sprint 56-59.5 feet. He doesn’t quite make it. So, he dove backward and sideways, laying out fully prone, to make an over-the-shoulder catch. The catch had around a 20% chance of being made and would rank today as the highest possible rating by Baseball Savant’s current system.
A “Web Jim” indeed.