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July 18, 2000
Catching the Damn Ball
This is the second in a series of rankings of major-league defenders, highlighting the top ten and bottom five at each position. The ratings are a combination of Zone Rating, Range Factor and my best (and admittedly grossly flawed) assessment of the job they're doing.
1. Troy Glaus, Anaheim. Glaus is ridiculously athletic for a guy his size. He looks like a huge, corn-fed Nebraska lineman, but he has remarkable flexibility, above average mechanics and technique and is exceptional at taking advantage of defensive opportunities as they arise--read: catching people napping. He could probably play shortstop well enough to start for most teams. Glaus makes a few errors, but he will make fewer over time--a statement you may consider repeated for the next guy on the list.
2. Adrian Beltre, Los Angeles. One of a quartet of ridiculously valuable third basemen playing in California, Beltre is the least polished defensively. His initial movements are exceptionally fast, and often in the right direction. His footwork is outstanding, as is his mobility in all directions. Watch his throwing motion carefully...and don't try it at home.
3. Tony Batista, Toronto. Batista has tremendous range and would be one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball if Toronto chose to play him there. He has a quick release of the ball, makes off-balance throws very well and has adapted his attack angle well to playing on turf.
4. Scott Rolen, Philadelphia. Rolen is probably at his peak defensively. He's quite good at all facets of defense, particularly charging bunted balls. His positioning is more static than other defenders, but I'm never sure how much of that the player is responsible for compared to the coaching staff. Rolen is very steady and practiced in his movements, which would normally lead me to expect him to age well defensively, but I'm worried that his injuries will soon sap him of range and flexibility.
5. Robin Ventura, New York. Ventura is smart, predictable and starts the double play as well as anyone ever has. Watch him throw the ball to Edgardo Alfonzo to start those things. The ball always arrives at the right spot, which isn't easy a lot of times when you're moving and trying to throw to a particular point. Ventura's ability to do this is absolutely uncanny.
6. Mike Lowell, Florida. I can't tell you how surprised I am to see Lowell here. His footwork is absolutely impeccable; I had never concentrated on his defense before, and what a shock! His anticipation and attack angle are great, giving him time to make a good solid catch and throw each time. He reminds me of Matt Williams at the same age, but with slightly less quickness. I don't know if he moves to his right well enough to be considered for a more demanding position, but who cares. This guy can pick it; if you have kids who play, make them watch this guy!
7. Phil Nevin, San Diego. Athleticism and arm strength are sure nice things to have. Nevin has absolutely mastered the various defensive moves that he's made. He's not young by baseball standards, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him actually improve as a defender. He makes the occasional misstep, but makes up for it with a rocket of an arm and quick hands. Probably my favorite third baseman to watch these days.
8. Jeff Cirillo, Colorado. I was very surprised when Cirillo moved to third base a few years back, as I didn't think he had enough of an arm to play over there. (More than a few coaches think it's better to hide a weak arm at third base rather than at second base; I disagree.) It turns out that he does have a relatively weak arm, but his release is very quick. He has good range to the front, left and right and goes back exceptionally well on balls hit in foul territory.
9. Matt Williams, Arizona. Williams is still a graceful and effective defender. His footwork and technique are still pristine, and he wastes no motion in making plays. If he had started his career at shortstop he'd probably still be there, and he'd probably be headed for the Hall of Fame.
10. Cal Ripken, Baltimore. Yes, I know he's 40. Check him out! Watch his positioning, footwork and release. If he's healthy, he's still an irritating-as-all-hell defender to play against. Ripken's ball release is smooth and his throws are quick and accurate. As an A's fan, I can't tell you how much agony this guy's positioning has caused me over the last 18 years. And few would ever accuse me of favoring an aging veteran....
1. Dean Palmer, Detroit. Here's the Baseball Prospectus defensive challenge of the day: identify one thing that Palmer does well defensively compared to his peers. I've tried and failed. He's one of the worst defensive third baseman ever to walk the face of MLB, but probably not worse than Carney Lansford.
2. Michael Barrett, Montreal. Barrett is clearly not used to the position. His movements are tentative and dramatic, his footwork sporadic and sloppy (the footwork is different when throwing from third to first than from catcher to second.) and his instincts are not yet honed. He'll be better by next year, something I don't think I can say about...
3. Eric Chavez, Oakland. Yeesh. Chavez's footwork is non-existent. Good third basemen make throws on balance probably 65 to 70% of the time. Chavez makes about half his throws off-balance, causing inaccuracy and lost velocity. This costs the A's in lost double plays and extra baserunners. I don't know if Chavez is going to get better. He's a natural with the bat, and might have a career similar to Will Clark's--both offensively and defensively. I think he and Ben Grieve may be battling for the first-base job sooner than the A's would like.
4. Mike Lamb, Texas. This is probably unfair, because it's heavily tinted by me seeing Lamb in the worst possible light. I got tapes of him in four games, and yecccch!! Bad positioning, bad decisions, tentative footwork, erratic throwing motion, technique that would have a high-school coach telling Lamb to run laps. His numbers aren't that bad, and I'm told that two of the games I saw were while he was pretty sick.
5. David Bell, Seattle. Bell is probably not really the fifth-worst defensive third baseman in baseball, but he's similar to Jay Bell in a lot of ways, and I wanted you to take a look at him. His technique and movements are pretty solid, but slow. I wonder sometimes if when that happens, it's the result of too much thinking on the field, rather than just reacting. Watch David Bell and see if you can identify something he's doing in preparation for fielding (rocking back onto his heels?) that may be causing the strange delay.
That's all for now. Next up: inspiring lots of angry mail from Derek Jeter fans.
If you have any comments, questions or suggestions (preferably limiting yourself to those that are anatomically possible), feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to time constraints, I will not able to personally respond to most e-mails, but know that every one of them is read and given thought. Thanks for reading.
Gary Huckabay can be reached at email@example.com.