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I spent the last few days looking at tapes. Primarily boring tapes.


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.


Catchers:

Best

1. Charles Johnson, Florida Marlins 100
2. Kirt Manwaring, Colorado Rockies 88
3. Terry Steinbach, Minnesota Twins 86
4. Ivan Rodriguez, Texas Rangers 85
5. Jorge Fabregas, Arizona Diamondbacks 80

Worst

28. Mike Piazza, Los Angeles Dodgers 65
29. Eddie Taubensee, Cincinnati Reds 65
30. Mike Matheny, Milwaukee Brewers 63


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.


First Basemen:

Best

1. Travis Lee, Arizona Diamondbacks 100 [Keith Hernandez 105]
2. David Segui, Seattle Mariners 94
3. Wally Joyner, San Diego Padres 92
4. John Olerud, New York Mets 92
5. Jason Giambi, Oakland Athletics 90

Worst

28. Fred McGriff, Tampa Bay Devil Rays 75
29. Mo Vaughn, Boston Red Sox 73
30. Frank Thomas, Chicago White Sox 50


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.


Second Basemen:

Best

1. Bret Boone, Cincinnati Reds 100 [Bobby Grich 115]
2. Ray Durham, Chicago White Sox 99
3. Tony Batista, Arizona Diamondbacks 93
4. Craig Biggio, Houston Astros 91
5. Scott Spiezio, Oakland Athletics 90

Worst

28. Eric Young, Los Angeles Dodgers 78
29. Joey Cora, Seattle Mariners 76
30. Carlos Baerga, New York Mets 72


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.


Third Basemen

Best

1. Matt Williams, Arizona Diamondbacks 100 [Mike Schmidt 112, Brooks 109]
2. Jeff Cirillo, Milwaukee Brewers 98
3. Scott Brosius, New York Yankees 96
4. Ken Caminiti, San Diego Padres 95
5. Cal Ripken, Baltimore Orioles 94

Worst

28. Wade Boggs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays 80
29. Ron Coomer, Minnesota Twins 78
30. Mike Blowers, Oakland Athletics 74


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.


Shortstops

Best

1. Jose Valentin, Milwaukee Brewers 100 [Ozzie Smith 114]
2. Deivi Cruz, Detroit Tigers 99
3. Jay Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks 95
4. Omar Vizquel, Cleveland Indians 93
5. Gary DiSarcina, Anaheim Angels 91

Worst

28. Kurt Abbott, Oakland Athletics 75
29. Lou Collier, Pittsburgh Pirates 75
30. Derek Jeter, New York Yankees 72


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.


Outfielders

Best

1. Mike Cameron, Chicago White Sox 100 [Dwayne Murphy 103]
2. Andruw Jones, Atlanta Braves 100
3. Brian Hunter, Detroit Tigers 98
4. Darren Lewis, Boston Red Sox 97
5. Devon White, Arizona Diamondbacks 97
6. Ray Lankford, St. Louis Cardinals 96
7. Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants 96
8. Jim Edmonds, Anaheim Angels 96
9. Ken Griffey Jr., Seattle Mariners 94
10. Jon Nunnally, Cincinnati Reds 94
11. Steve Finley, San Diego Padres 93
12. Otis Nixon, Minnesota Twins 93
13. Tom Goodwin, Texas Rangers 92
14. Marquis Grissom, Milwaukee Brewers 91
15. Kenny Lofton, Cleveland Indians 90

Worst

82. Ryan Klesko, Atlanta Braves 77
83. Troy O’Leary, Boston Red Sox 76
84. Glenallen Hill, Seattle Mariners 76
85. Tony Gwynn, San Diego Padres 76
86. Al Martin, Pittsburgh Pirates 75
87. Jay Buhner, Seattle Mariners 75
88. Gary Sheffield, Florida Marlines 74
89. Manny Ramirez, Cleveland Indians 74
90. Gregg Jefferies, Philadelphia Phillies 73


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.