The first time Joe Maddon saw the Angels’ emerging fan favorite play was 15 months ago in Chicago.
David Fletcher was making his Wrigley Field debut on a blustery afternoon. It was his only 93rd appearance in the majors, but he was already a star in the eyes of Angels followers.
Maddon, then manager of the Chicago Cubs, had never heard of Fletcher. The utility player hadn’t distinguished himself nationally yet.
In his second at-bat, Fletcher ripped a 3-1 fastball thrown on the outer third of the plate by veteran left-hander Cole Hamels into the ivy-covered wall in left field. The ball ricocheted. As it was chased down, Fletcher dug for second base. He arrived without a slide.
Surprised, Maddon asked a coach on his bench whether Fletcher was a top prospect. Was he “one of their guys"?
He became enamored.
“Honestly,” Maddon said in a video conference Friday, “it was love at first double.”
By the time the Angels hired him, Maddon had caught numerous glimpses of Fletcher on television and come to an easy conclusion: “Fletch has got to be on the baseball field.”
The Angels’ roster configuration might complicate including Fletcher in the daily lineup. The left side of the infield will feature free agent acquisition Anthony Rendon at third and four-time Gold Glove winner Andrelton Simmons at short. Aging veteran Albert Pujols likely will man first base too often to permit Maddon to slide All-Star second baseman Tommy La Stella to that corner. In the outfield, where Fletcher logged 146 2/3 innings in left last season and one Cactus League appearance in center this spring, Mike Trout, Justin Upton and Brian Goodwin figure to receive the bulk of the playing time.
Maddon will have to employ some creativity to figure out the conundrum. His effort would be worthwhile. Fletcher hit .290 with 30 doubles, four triples and six homers in 154 games last season. His on-base percentage of .350 was the second-highest on the team, behind Trout.
“I think with the couple of years of experience now in the big leagues, I think I’m in the best place I’ve been in in my career,” Fletcher said in a video conference call. “Just seeing all the pitchers around the league another time and those two years of experience and figuring out myself a little bit better and developing, I do feel I’m in the best spot of my career.”
Maddon has been effusive in his praise of Fletcher since becoming Angels manager in October. He referred to Fletcher, a Gold Glove candidate at third base last season, as a potential All-Star. Maddon said in spring training that team officials told him Fletcher was one of the Angels’ three best outfielders despite hardly playing there in his career.
Maddon's conviction has grown stronger the last few months. Fletcher, who at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds is smaller than the prototypical star, represents Maddon’s ideal baseball player: Someone who can hit consistently and with some power, defend several positions with average or better talent, run capably and lead by example.
“I often compare guys like him to good running backs,” Maddon said. “They have great vision, they see things. Not unlike Javy [Baez]. I had Javy in Chicago. He sees things. Javy, of course, has the power but, everything else, Fletch has a lot of the same kind of instinctive moments with the game. So, [if] you’re on the scouting trail, look for more of those.”
It was apparent in Friday’s intrasquad game that Maddon wasn’t alone in his appreciation of Fletcher. In his first inning on defense at second base, Fletcher ranged to his left into the outfield grass to snare a hard-hit ball. He easily turned the play at first base, eliciting a scream of support from Trout in center field.
“This young man is a very good baseball player,” Maddon said. “And I would imagine if you actually went up and down every one of the position players on this team and asked them what they thought about that, I would bet to a man they would say that Fletch has got to be out there somehow.”