Top Infield Defender in the Minor Leagues: Jose Iglesias (Boston Red Sox)
At times it can be difficult to succinctly describe something as impressive as Iglesias’ defense. BP’s Chris Mellen noted that he thought Iglesias’ defense “has actually gotten better than when he first came over from Cuba,” which seems impossible given the quality of his leather upon arrival. Iglesias does it all in the field; he has uncanny instincts for the position, excellent first-step quickness, and the foot speed to parlay that into plus-plus range. His hands are truly exceptional and his footwork is near flawless, allowing him to remain in balance and make accurate throws. He has the ability to make the routine plays look mundane but can then leave you in awe as he makes the spectacular plays seem far too simple. Iglesias is an elite defender and there really isn’t anyone close to him in the minor leagues.
Other Players Considered: Adeiny Hechavarria (Miami Marlins)
In a non-Jose Iglesias world of infield defense, Hechavarria would likely run away with the title of "Best Defender." Unfortunately, he lives in a world not only populated by but dominated by Jose Iglesias. Hechavarria has excellent defensive attributes and could win Gold Gloves at the big-league level; he’s just not Jose Iglesias and that leaves him on the outside looking in.
Top Major League Infield Defender: Adrian Beltre (Texas Rangers)
All-Time Tool: Ozzie Smith
How to Identify It: The flashy plays deep in the hole, behind the bag or charging toward home plate are easy to spot when you are looking at defenders. They stand out like a sore thumb and force you to acknowledge them for what they are, tremendous plays. But behind that flashy play there is much more to scouting infield defense. How a fielder reacts to the ball at the instant of contact can speak volumes about whether he will be able to make the play. Even the slightest hesitation or being just a degree or two off in the original angle of attack can lead to a missed opportunity. When the defender gets to the ball, you want to see him under control, balanced, and showing well-orchestrated footwork to prepare for the impending throw. Exhibiting range on ground balls isn’t the only thing you must pay attention to, as there can be a difference between that range and the range a player shows on a ball hit in the air. Noting this difference is important. How the hands work when fielding the ball is another critical element to identifying the quality defender. A good defender will cradle the ball into the glove, showing a softness that is reserved for the handling of newborn children, fielding it cleanly in the pocket without any apparent bobble. The transfer to the throwing hand should be just as clean. For good infield defenders, everything from the first step to the fielding of the ball, and on through the release of the throw, should appear smooth and fluid.
Top Outfield Defender in the Minor Leagues: Jackie Bradley (Boston Red Sox)
Watching Jackie Bradley patrol center field is a breath-taking experience. Like Iglesias on the infield, Bradley employs exceptional instincts for the position. He consistently shades hitters the right way and his initial jump at the crack of the bat is almost always correct. He reads the ball so well that while many players would still be making their first split-second decision he is already off chasing down the ball. While Bradley isn’t a burner in center field, his instincts and first step give him above average range; he can go get it from gap to gap, has little trouble on balls hit over his head, and even excels charging in on balls. Bradley isn’t quite elite in the outfield but his plus-plus glove plays up a grade because of the instincts he shows on a daily basis.
Other Players Considered: Albert Almora (Chicago Cubs), Avisail Garcia (Detroit Tigers), Aaron Hicks (Minnesota Twins)
Both internal to the BP Prospect Staff and in external conversations with scouts, Almora was right there with Bradley as the top glove in the minor leagues today. Almora’s instincts rate as well as Bradley’s and there was a growing sentiment that in the end Almora could be the better defender in center field. Avisail Garcia is a gifted defender and earned mention from several folks, but he lacks the premium up-the-middle defense of the others considered for this list. Among corner outfielders, however, I challenge you to find a better defender in the minor leagues. Hicks and his Twins teammate Byron Buxton both factored into the discussion as well. Buxton isn’t quite there, but has the raw tools to project to an impact defender at maturity; Hicks can go get it in center field and could be a Gold Glove-caliber defender once he settles into the big leagues.
Top Major League Outfield Defender: Peter Bourjos (Los Angeles Angels)
All-Time Tool: Ken Griffey, Jr.
How to Identify It: Outfield defense can be one of the most misleading skills on the baseball field; largely because the glossy veneer of a diving catch can be difficult to see beyond. A late jump or poor route to the ball can force a defender to dive when a better player may have gracefully trotted under the ball for an easy out. Without focusing on the player in person, it can be difficult to discern such nuances. The best outfield defenders have a seemingly instantaneous, and consistently correct, reaction to the batted ball. At the moment of contact, the defender breaks, and that initial decision on which way to break can make the difference between catching the ball and coming up a fraction short. The best defenders don’t take a step back before charging hard on a blooper over second. Similarly, the initial angle of pursuit can make a huge difference. You want to see the outfielder take a direct path to his intersection with the ball, not a “banana” route that suggests the player misread the ball off the bat and is now trying to adjust on the fly. You know the good defenders when you see them because everything looks easy in the outfield. They seem to glide to the ball without a ton of effort. They’re just always there, no matter how far into the gap or how far over their head the ball is hit.
Top Catching Defender in the Minor Leagues: Austin Hedges (San Diego Padres)
Heading into the 2011 draft, amateur scouts raved about Hedges' defensive abilities. His catch-and-throw skills are superb, including tremendous footwork, a quick transfer from the glove to his throwing hand, a lightning-quick release and an arm that rated as one of the best in the minor leagues. On top of all that, he shows an excellent ability to block both fastballs and breaking balls, keeping nearly everything in front of him. He is lauded for his ability to work with his pitching staffs and shows a feel for calling a good game. His pitch framing, while already good entering pro ball, has improved dramatically since signing. Hedges does it all behind the plate and he could be waiting in the wings to take the crown of best defensive catcher in baseball once Yadier Molina is ready to relinquish the title.
Other Players Considered: Christian Bethancourt (Atlanta Braves), Carlos Paulino (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Bethancourt has the raw tools to equal or better Hedges as a defender, but he lacks the consistency and can rely too heavily on his 80-grade arm at the expense of footwork. Paulino also received considerable praise as one of the best defenders around. He lacks the loud defensive tools of Hedges or Bethancourt, but he is very consistent in the application of his defensive abilities.
Top Major League Catching Defender: Yadier Molina (St. Louis Cardinals)
All-Time Tool: Johnny Bench
How to Identify It: The nuances of defense behind the plate are not apparent in one sitting or even over the course of a series; rather, they come out over time and careful observance. It’s not all about gunning down hopeful basestealers or back-picking a guy at first base. That’s the sexy part of what catchers do, but it’s not everything. You need to see how they block the ball in the dirt, including how they handle both fastballs and breaking balls, and how well they control the ball as it ricochets off their body. But it’s not just the ball in the dirt; you also have to see how they handle pitches that are right on the cusp of being in the dirt but can still be caught. How a catcher receives the ball is another critical element worth watching. You want to see a catcher receive the ball softly with the glove turned the proper way, avoiding being handcuffed and not boxing the ball. In addition to all that, how are they at calling the game? Are they able to pick up trends with hitters or even their own pitchers and make in-game adjustments? Scouting the defense of a catcher is an extremely complex task that takes focus, patience and above all, time to let the skills show during games.
Previous Top Tools
Article discussed and debated by the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Team. Constructed and delivered by Mark Anderson.
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Gimme Devon White (or maybe an early Andruw Jones) anyday. I'll never forget White's catch off David Justice's laser beam in the '92 World Series. He made it look easy. So many times, White would be camped under a ball for which another player would be diving. He had his shortcomings as an offensive player, but he was amazingly fluid & full of grace.
We can probably add Dwayne Murphy and a bunch of others to the discussion. As great as Griffey was, I don't see how he makes the top 20 on the defensive side of the ball.
Jackie Bradley is similar to that out in center. He doesn't have White's wheels, but those instincts and precision are there. Often, as formersd mentioned, those types due tend to get lost a bit when looking back because they were always there in the right spot or making things look easy that the difficulty/execution gets taken for the norm rather than something special.
In a world in which CF was covered by the great Curt Flood, the graceful Andruw Jones, the dynamic Devon White,the superb Amos Otis and Paul Blair, and where 2/3 of the Earth is covered by water and the rest by Gary Maddox, the correct answer to this question is still Willie Mays. But these guys never saw him, so how can they know?
I fully expect the answer is, 'Scouts are good.' But I still have a hard time with it.
Once the tools have been identified, it becomes a deep dive on how those tools are progressing and watching for the developmental clues. Building the story and picture over multiple looks and snapshots.
Maybe, its a couple of innings of putting the isolated camera on how a particular player gets set in the field and reacts to the crack of the bat. Or, watching how another player takes their lead at first base after reaching, reads the delivery, takes their first step, etc. Zoning in on a hitter's body language and reaction to the pitches being thrown to them. Narrowing down the focus after some of the broad points like how fast they run, how hard they throw, or how quickly they swing the bat.
Watch how he sets up, if he moves when he sees the sign from the catcher, etc. Watch where he goes when the ball is hit.
Do that long enough and you'll see some balls hit to him. If he breaks one way and then another, you know he probably broke wrong, even if you weren't watching the ball.
Along the lines of the "Scouts are good" thought, ability and experience do play a role in the scouting process. I've been around some scouting veterans that seem more engaged in bleacher chatter and gossip than the play on the field, yet when pressed, they saw details of the game that I wouldn't be able to pick up on multiple viewings. It's almost creepy and Jedi-like how a properly trained eye can observe multiple things taking place on the field while also telling war stories to other scouts participating in the same process. Experience and knowing what to look for are major components.
Obviously, not everybody has such scouting gifts and/or experience, so I find it best to really sit on a player for a long period of time to gather such particulars of the skill-set. If you watch long enough, the actions start to become representational. I spend half my life at fields watching games and I can't take photographs of all the actions all of the time.
The basic point is that if you really want to see how a fielder breaks to a ball or reads the ball off the bat and you aren't a Jedi, focus on the player throughout a game. You can hear the ball off the bat and follow the trajectory while watching the initial movements of the fielder in question.
Best ever? Now that is the real debate, as that is very subjective and I might favor a different player every day of the week. In a pool of 80-grade tools, its very difficult to identify the one that stands above the rest. I remember throwing out names like Cameron and Hunter, two gloves that burned a hole in my memory when I first started focusing on the particulars of tool identification. I know that I can make a case for both, just as many can make a very good case for Griffey.
Did you happen to ask the scouts about White's defence? Would it also have been an 80, or more likely a 70 or 75?
Was Anthony Gose under consideration for best OF defense in the minors? I don't have a great sense about his instincts, but the speed and the arm give him a great base, and his UZR in centre last year was spectacular in a very small sample.
Gose wasn't prospect eligible this year, so he wasn't in contention on the MiLB side.
Well gosh, if it's just the glove, that should be easy enough... just look at who has the highest fielding percentage (removing throwing errors and assists)... if you want a rough calc though and leave the throwing errors and assists in, Griffey's fielding percentage of .985 was only .002 better than other centerfielders of that time period.. which is "better" but not "All-Time Best"
And hey, if we are just looking at glove, don't we need to reevaluate the other positions? Find someone with fewer passed balls per game than Johnny Bench? Maybe Casey Kotchman instead of Ozzie Smith for being able to catch such a high percentage of balls without making an error?
Eh.. I'm sorry, I think the criteria of this evaluation changed partway through since I thought "glove" included "range".
If you like, I'll send you my scout school materials to help explain the process. If you want to take such a critical stance like this, you might want to understand how the evaluation occurs first.
My interpretation of Jason's comment was that he was polling glove, i.e. ability to catch the ball, as a distinctly separate tool from arm or range. He used a term called "raw glove score" which seemed to have a different definition than "glove". It also used a "8" grade instead of a "20-80". So, yes, I thought that "raw glove" meant "basic ability to catch the ball" along the idea of "that guy has great range but stone hands" or "he doesn't get to much but he catches what he gets to".
I can admit that I most likely read it incorrectly but thanks Brian for at least seeing part of the reason why I was confused.
When I attended a Cubs fantasy camp a couple years ago, I was told that taking the "direct path" wasn't always the correct play. Sometimes, the "banana route" that you describe was the preferred route if that put the outfielder in a better position to fire the ball straight back to the infield after the catch. During outfield drills, we were instructed to try and end up facing the infield after we made the play so that our throws would be more direct.