August 2, 2000
Catching the Damn Ball
This is the third 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.
Today, we prepare for a huge amount of angry e-mail from Yankee fans, and take a look at shortstops.
1. Rey Sanchez, Kansas City. He better be at the top. Rey Sanchez is one of those icons--the good-field, no-hit shortstop. (See also Incaviglia, Pete and Duren, Ryne.) Sanchez has a tremendously quick release, great balance and attacks the ball at damn near a perfect angle every time. He has aged exceptionally well; he, the next guy down and Rey Ordonez are really fun to watch. (Note that being exciting defensively is not the same thing as being excellent.)
2. Deivi Cruz, Detroit. Deivi Cruz is among the most boring shortstops in baseball to watch, because he does everything well. Most years, he'd probably be my choice for #1. His angle to the ball, footwork, throwing motion and movement on the field are all exemplary. He feeds the double play well, is always in position and communicates well with other fielders. I've never seen Cruz get even close to a collision with a Tiger outfielder, even beyond the scope of my research for this article. I'm willing to bet that over eight or nine years, starting a couple of years ago, Cruz will be the class of shortstop defense. And avoiding walks.
3. Alex Cora, Los Angeles. Alex Cora has the potential to be a really great defender, because he's already damn near great and he has a hole in his game that can probably be fixed with some coaching and practice. He does everything well except, of all things, go to his left. When he moves to his glove side to field a ball, he often makes an incomplete turn of his feet and torso to make a throw to first. When you move left, you need to either make an off-balance throw or move your feet and lower body to get in position to make a strong throw. Cora doesn't finish his rotation.
4. Miguel Tejada, Oakland. Miguel Tejada has a gun, rapid hands and impressive range. His footwork occasionally gets sloppy, and he also tends to play a little overaggressively at times, primarily to make up for the Hall of Shame defense he's surrounded by. Tejada's throwing motion is compact, quick and effective. His first step is among the best in baseball and he feeds the double play very well--important when you play with a porcelain second baseman.
5. Neifi Perez, Colorado. This is a very slick fielder. Neifi Perez's hands are very soft, he keeps his head in on groundballs better than anyone in baseball and he takes a very good angle of attack towards the ball. A lot of fielders will attempt to stretch their range by going back a bit on a ball, rather than cutting the angle. When this happens, the runner will often beat out the play, or a double play will be turned into a fielder's choice. Perez is excellent at taking an aggressive angle, fielding the ball and making the play quickly.
6. Royce Clayton, Texas. I think Chris Kahrl and I both have something of a soft spot for Royce Clayton. Clayton is a ballplayer, despite not being a great hitter, and being pretty much an anti-BP offensive player. He has tremendous footwork, plays intelligently, makes one of the best cutoff throw targets in baseball--check out his target acquisition and rotation after he receives the ball, and make your high schoolers watch it--and has very soft hands.
7. Damian Jackson, San Diego. Damian Jackson's footwork isn't quite up to major-league average, but he makes up for it with amazing athleticism. He's gotten a rough couple of errors this year that Ryan Klesko probably should have saved him. Jackson probably has the second fastest (release + flight) time of any shortstop in the bigs. If I recall correctly, Jackson had mentioned wanting to play second base instead of shortstop. That would be a shame; he's a very good defender who might be great later on and is a blast to watch.
8. Tony Womack, Arizona. Tony Womack is not a great ballplayer, but he's a great ballplayer to have on a team. He provides a defensive replacement at a couple of positions (not second base), a pinch runner and a guy who can put the ball in play if you need him to. He has adapted very well to shortstop, much better than I expected him to. He goes back on pop-ups better than just about anyone and does a competent job at the little things, like sneaking to the second-base bag and positioning his body for tags at the base. He will likely get better, but he's already very good at shortstop, and it's apparent that he worked his ass off to get that way. I wouldn't want Tony Womack on my baseball team at his present price, but I have a great deal of respect for his work ethic.
9. Alex Rodriguez, Seattle. Dear Red Sox Nation and Yankee Fan: send your hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex Rodriguez is the only one of the Trinity to deserve a spot on this list, and I fear that he won't deserve it much longer if he keeps damaging his knees. Rodriguez has very good footwork, positioning and technique. He reminds me of Cal Ripken about 13 years ago. His arm is strong, he moves well to his left--acceptably to his right--and he's smart about what to do with the ball.
Sometimes, life just isn't fair. He really is a very good defender. And one of the best offensive players in baseball. And well spoken. And a handsome man. And a free agent-to-be. I went to high school with a guy like this, who later went on to play for the 49ers briefly. He was all these things, and you still couldn't even begrudge him any of it because he was a sickeningly nice guy as well.
10. Rafael Furcal, Atlanta. I could tell you about his immature footwork and slow release, but instead I'll suggest that you try to watch him on TBS and not think of one of those skeeter bugs on the water. Or Spiderman. I don't know what is real age is, but Rafael Furcal is going to be an interesting player. I'm having an elongated argument in e-mail about the "All Fun-To-Watch Team", and Furcal is the starting shortstop. Joey Hamilton pitches, but that's a comic relief thing.
1. Derek Jeter, New York Yankees. Don't take this to mean that he should be moved from shortstop; he shouldn't. He costs the Yankees perhaps 20-30 runs a year with his glove, but makes that back easily with his bat. Defensively, Derek Jeter is positively horrible. He takes forever to release the ball, has no range, his footwork was best described by Joel Grey in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins and he will join the ranks of the defensively horrific who win Gold Gloves because of their charisma, the occasional highlight reel play, exposure and their offensive production. Kirby, Ken, Carney, Ryne...please welcome Derek!
2. Kevin Elster, Los Angeles. He retired a couple of years ago, you know. Alex Cora is wonderful defensively, and couldn't hit pollution if he fell into the Hudson. I'd rather start Cora.
3. Kevin Stocker, Anaheim. Kevin Stocker is pretty much done. He's lost more than a step, and now tries to cheat with positioning and weight shifting. Good positioning is always nice, but once you start to cheat by leaning, you're going to get burned a bunch. His arm is no great shakes and his technique in turning the double play is awkward and incomplete. He doesn't finish his throws well.
4. Rich Aurilia, San Francisco. Like Jeter, Rich Aurilia is bad defensively, but good enough offensively to play out there. Aurilia is a little bulky for a SS, and though he might be smaller than guys like Alex Rodriguez, he still kind of moves like a Buick. His fundamentals are reasonable and he has a solid arm. He just doesn't move well, has to take oversized strides a lot of the time and his balance goes awry as a result.
5. Barry Larkin, Cincinnati. He's pretty much done as a shortstop. I have no idea why the Reds bothered to re-sign him. Barry larkin had outstanding range; it's all gone now due to injuries and age. His footwork is still solid, but everything else has simply decayed. He will likely move to third base, where his bat will probably age one year better than it would otherwise.
If you have any comments, questions or suggestions (preferably limiting yourself to those that are anatomically possible), feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.