April 13, 1998
A Subjective Look at Defense
The league's best and worst, eyeballed and ranked
Tapes of people playing defense.
I really believe that the average baseball fan can get a lot more enjoyment out of watching the game if they understand the actual 'fundamentals' that we've all been told since the age of 5 (for me at least) are lacking in today's players. If you watch a lot of baseball, you might consider investing $20 or so in Tom Emanski's Baseball World videos (the ones with a stilted Fred McGriff), and pay careful attention to the nuts and bolts of body positioning and movement.
Anyway, I wanted to sit down and come up with a top 5 and bottom 3 defender list for each position in baseball. These lists aren't based on anything except my own flawed skill as an observer, and I'll try to explain why I've chosen each member of each list. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the difference between players, I've arbitrarily decided to call the best current player at each position 100, and drop off linearly from there. I'll also try to add a little historical context; none of the current second basemen, in my opinion, is as good a defender as Bobby Grich was.
Hopefully, you'll take a second look at some of these players, and perhaps notice something you didn't see before. If you're fortunate enough to attend a lot of games in person each year, try to spend a game or two concentrating ONLY on one player in the field. If you watch the action, you're missing most of the productive effort of the defender -- the positioning, jump, and first step.
1. Charles Johnson, Florida Marlins 100
28. Mike Piazza, Los Angeles Dodgers 65
This is really only a judgment of part of a catcher's defense. Managing the pitcher is probably more important than footwork, release, plate blocking, and framing, which is basically what I looked at here.
Charles Johnson is the best defensive catcher I've ever seen. All of the top five are very solid, but Johnson is just amazing. Body always square or cocked, unbelievably quick footwork that's picture perfect, and always in the proper position to receive the ball. Scary good.
I do not understand why Mike Matheny has a major league catching job. Watch him catch sometime. His release is slow, his footwork is bad, and everyone knows he can't hit. Mike Piazza has several flaws in his release -- it's not just the slow release times of the staff. His left hip trails his right ever so slightly, causing him to have to double clutch when he throws, if he wants to finish his throw properly. If he doesn't, the ball will sail up and to the right, which is where most of his throws go.
1. Travis Lee, Arizona Diamondbacks 100 [Keith Hernandez 105]
28. Fred McGriff, Tampa Bay Devil Rays 75
Travis Lee is way too athletic to be at 1B already. Watch his stance compared to other 1Bs. Feet are closer together, with weight shifted forward onto the balls of his feet, rather than balanced between heel and ball. Results are a very quick jump on the ball. One thing Lee does exceptionally well: choose a line on which to throw the ball. Most 1B are pretty good at this, but occasionally hurt themselves by not giving themselves a line with respect to the baserunner and other infielders. Lee always picks a clean line. David Segui is underrated with the glove; Joyner, Olerud, and Giambi are in a tightly bunched group just ahead of Grace and Bagwell.
On the other end of the spectrum... has there ever been a worse defensive first baseman than Frank Thomas? My God, he's positively horrid out there. I couldn't find instances of Frank making a throw at all to nail a lead runner, and his body is almost always out of position to either scoop a ball, make a throw, or field a grounder. (ed. note: after several years of watching hundreds of Thomas games, there have been only two instances where I've ever seen Thomas throw out a runner anywhere other than first.) Dick Stuart could have been worse, I guess. If I'm the White Sox, Valdez plays first, Thomas DHes, and Sierra gets released.
1. Bret Boone, Cincinnati Reds 100 [Bobby Grich 115]
28. Eric Young, Los Angeles Dodgers 78
Sure, he may not have developed with the bat, but no one in baseball has a quicker crossover step than Bret Boone, and his positioning seems to be outstanding as well. A weak crop overall -- none of these guys is near the inner defensive circle historically. Ray Durham and Scott Spiezio are both surprisingly quick; Spiezio will probably be the best defensive 2B in baseball in a couple of years, considering he's played about 150 games there or so.
The bottom three all suffer from the dreaded "Please hit it to my glove side" disease. They crossover badly (or, in Carlos Baerga's case, not at all), and as a result, balls hit to their right have a pretty good chance of being hits. I suspect I underrated Damion Easley, but I couldn't find any tape of him that was any good.
1. Matt Williams, Arizona Diamondbacks 100 [Mike Schmidt 112, Brooks 109]
28. Wade Boggs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays 80
People claim Matt Williams has lost a step, but if he has, I sure didn't see it. Moves both directions exceptionally well, hips are always in position to field and throw, and he's always in position. An unbelievably strong field of defensive 3Bs; I can't think of a time in history when so many have been so good. Cal Ripken's weak arm is more than compensated for by his very quick release and deft positioning; Jeff Cirillo and Scott Brosius are probably the two best at charging bunts. Ken Caminiti's arm is unbelievably strong, and he goes to his right better than any other 3B.
At the bottom of the scale, Wade Boggs is worn out, Ron Coomer's the new Carney Lansford, and Mike Blowers aspires to be. Actually, Coomer doesn't dive that much, but his reaction time is just mindbogglingly slow.
1. Jose Valentin, Milwaukee Brewers 100 [Ozzie Smith 114]
28. Kurt Abbott, Oakland Athletics 75
Alex Rodriguez was much better than I thought. Derek Jeter wasn't. Jose Valentin is a darkhorse MVP candidate, and a superb defender. Watch him go to his right on groundballs -- he begins setting his body for the throw before he actually gets to the ball, and doesn't seem to give up any range doing it. I have no idea how he does that, but it's unbelievably cool. Deivi's probably the best in the league, but he's out right now with an injury that could hurt his range, so I bumped him down. Ordonez was in the upper-middle of the pack, above the majority of shortstops, but not anything to build a team around or anything. Barry Larkin has lost a lot in the last three years.
Lou Collier must have some sort of undiagnosed vision problem or something. His form and fundamentals are fine, and he's got quick movements, but his reaction time is way slower than everyone else. Very odd. Kurt Abbott's an ox with a strong arm and no range, and Derek Jeter, despite his presence in a big media market and fame, is a dismal defensive shortstop. There's not one fundamental thing that he does well. He could singlehandedly kill a groundball staff. I have to apologize to Alex Rodriguez for ever comparing the two of them. Since Jeter can hit and plays in the Big Apple, he'll undoubtedly win a Gold Glove or two. So did Kirby Puckett, and he didn't deserve them either.
1. Mike Cameron, Chicago White Sox 100 [Dwayne Murphy 103]
82. Ryan Klesko, Atlanta Braves 77
Ken Griffey has dramatically improved as an outfielder. As recently as three years ago, TV directors would routinely beat Griffey in terms of tracking the ball. The ball would come off the bat, the camera would switch to CF, and then, Griffey would start running after it. Griffey's GlacierBreak [tm] led to lots of exciting catches that reasonable outfielders would have made easily. Those days are gone -- at least in the Kingdome.
Even so, Griffey still isn't among the best outfielders. Mike Cameron and Andruw Jones are both scary good. Cameron prepares properly, takes a great line to the ball, and beats out Jones because he doesn't hotdog-coast to the ball like Andruw does -- he gets there, readies his body, and makes a perfect catch nearly every time. Brian Hunter is pretty much a younger version of Devon White, who is still excellent with the leather. Both can cover an OF in about six or seven full strides, and both have superb speed.
Next time you're watching a game, take note of the different stances many OFs (particularly CFs) use against different batters and in different parks. Cameron offsets his right foot a little bit against (I think) batters without a lot of power, and pivots his body ever so slightly depending on the hitters' tendencies. Think about the huge effects that even a half-step quicker jump can make in terms of covering ground. That's a LOT of base hits taken away over a career.
Those bottom outfielders generally aren't out there for their leather. I'm not exactly sure why Gregg Jefferies is out there at all. Yes, Ryan Klesko has "improved" with the glove, much like Frank Thomas has. After this year, maybe Klesko, who looks much better in the couple times I've seen him this year, will be up to passable. That's less likely for people like Glenallen Hill and Gary Sheffield. But Sheffield can hit, and maybe Hill can pitch relief.