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Mini baseballs and pancake gloves: How (and why) the Red Sox are improving infield defense

Christian Arroyo said the Red Sox' infield drills "get everyone kind of locked in with their hands and their eyes."Barry Chin/Globe Staff

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Red Sox third base coach Carlos Febles and infielder Christian Arroyo were zeroed in on the art of turning a double play early Thursday morning.

The pair had a student and teacher bond with Febles, who works with the infielders, affirming or correcting Arroyo’s moves around the second base bag. Febles fed baseballs to Arroyo from a machine cranked up to moderate speed. This allowed Arroyo to work through double plays at a steady pace. Going too fast would, perhaps, disrupt Arroyo from hammering down the mechanics.

In this drill, Febles wanted Arroyo to work behind the bag, not making his move toward second until he was certain where the machine would deliver the ball.

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“The main thing is you have to see the flight of the baseball and use your legs,” an animated Febles explained. “To me, everything you do on the field, you have to use your legs. You cannot start your legs before seeing the baseball.”

Carlos Febles has been working with the Red Sox infielders on their defense.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

With each rep it appeared Arroyo got the hang of it, staying behind the bag before pouncing. Febles clapped his hands emphatically once the round was over before reflecting with Arroyo on the session and what the infielder took from it. At that point, Febles walked back to the machine and started feeding baseballs through it again.

It’s been the routine for Red Sox infielders this spring. Each morning, just before batting practice and other infield work on the back fields at Fenway South, infielders plant themselves on a sliver of turf outside the clubhouse.

It’s divided into two sections. On one side, Febles delivers flies to the infielders. On the other, it’s all about grounders. The players start on their knees. Glove-side grounders; grounders in front of the player; backhand grounders; glove-side grounders with in-between hops; grounders in front of the player with in-between hops; backhand grounders with in-between hops. The infielders then stand up and repeat the movements in their usual ready positions, but at a slow pace, utilizing miniature baseballs, and sometimes a pancake glove. Both require intense focus and attention to detail. If you don’t look the ball in, you’re likely to boot it.

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The Red Sox are using miniature baseballs for some of their infield drills this spring. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the smaller baseballs and the regulation-sized baseball.Julian McWilliams

“I like them a lot,” Arroyo said of the drills. “Because it allows me to focus on catching the ball in my pocket and getting it in a sweet spot and also with the transfer for the smaller ball. We’ll sometimes do double-play feeds with them. Then when you grab the regular ball it feels like a beach ball.”

Much of the goal, Febles said, is to isolate the hands from the rest of the body.

“Then when we get on the field, that’s when we work on angles and first-step quickness,” Febles said. “Here, it’s all about hand work.”

Entering the 2021 season, manager Alex Cora said he wanted the Red Sox to make more of a commitment to defense. Yet the Sox still struggled, committing the second-most errors in baseball (108) behind the Marlins (122).

That forced Cora and his staff to come up with another plan. They began these drills last season, but this year it’s been more consistent.

“It worked out well for us the last part of the season,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts said. “And also in the playoffs. It helped me, personally, and I’m going to continue to do it.”

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Bogaerts’s area of improvement was his backhand, Febles said. So, when it was his turn, Bogaerts took grounders to his backhand with miniature baseballs and a pancake glove.

Xander Bogaerts takes a ground ball as teammates Rafael Devers, Christian Arroyo, and Bobby Dalbec look on during a recent workout.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

On the other side was first baseman Bobby Dalbec. Febles shot baseballs through the machine with Dalbec mimicking receiving snap throws from the catcher. Febles said Dalbec has a tendency to reach for the ball instead of getting into his legs. This creates more of a distance between the tag and the runner. When Dalbec gets into an athletic and crouched stance and waits for the ball to come to him, that cuts the distance between the tag and the runner significantly.

“Now, it’s a straight-down, quick tag,” Febles said.

There’s no quick fix to some of the Sox’ defensive woes from 2021, but consistency in the proper movements builds fundamentally sound players who make routine plays routinely.

“I think the drills help get everyone kind of locked in with their hands and their eyes, just getting us moving,” Arroyo said. “The more you do it, when it happens in a game it’s natural.”


Julian McWilliams can be reached at julian.mcwilliams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @byJulianMack.