Weekly Dime–Top Ten Greatest Defensive MLB Players of All Time

Defensive ability in baseball may be the most subjective. Compared to hitting and pitching, stats and scouting reports on a player’s defensive skills appear more generic and are somewhat rooted in the eye test. Yes, in today’s game there are plenty of defensive sabermetrics that showcase how good a player is; such as, Defensive WAR, FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average), Defensive Runs Saved, Total Zone Total Fielding Runs, etc.; and we’ve been able to dig through older generations and calculate defensive stats based on putouts, assists, errors, zones, etc.  But as you move further and further back in time, the scientific stats become fuzzier and fuzzier. You’re forced to observe the amount of Gold Gloves, or view as much available footage as possible, and/or get your hands on as many readable first-hand accounts. 

Growing up in the SportsCenter/Baseball Tonight era, I was fortunate enough to watch great defensive players make incredible plays on a nightly basis. One has to wonder what it would’ve been like watching Mays, Clemente, or Robinson highlights every week on Baseball Tonight if it existed. Or having MLB Network then. Dang, that would’ve been awesome. That being said, I’m aware of my bias for players from 1980 (the year I was born) on. But, using my cheesy algorithm and deep-dive-research, I tried to stay as objective as possible. My formula breaks down as such: Defensive stats, importance of position, consistency, athleticism (range, arm, accuracy, speed), and legacy. 

Honorable Mention

Johnny Bench, Mark Belanger, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Schmidt, Ichiro Suzuki, Barry Bonds, Luis Aparicio, Nolan Arenado, Torii Hunter, Al Kaline, Yadier Molina, Ryne Sandberg, Jim Edmonds, Tris Speaker, Bill Mazeroski, Cal Ripken Jr., Paul Blair, Andrelton Simmons, Roy Campanella, Frank White, Alex Gordon

I know I’ll get some flak for mentioning Alex Gordon since I’m a lifelong Royals fan, but it is important to note that Gordon is tied with Bonds for the most Gold Gloves ever in left field with 8. Two of which are platinum. Belanger’s defensive stats are definitely worth noting but there’s a lack of complete evidence for me. I had the pleasure of watching Griffey Jr., Ichiro, Hunter, and Edmonds play and wouldn’t be mad if they made someone else’s top 10. Schmidt, Aparicio, Kaline, Sandberg, and Campanella  solidify what it truly means to be consistent. 

The players that will forever cause some major second-guessing of this list are Johnny Bench- an amazing defender who basically reinvented the position, Yadier Molina- a dominant presence behind the plate that shutdown running games, and Bill Mazerowski, known as “No Touch”, for his quick release and incredible ability to turn the double play- was an almost perfect second baseman and fundamental defensive icon. When it’s all said and done, Nolan Arenado will be in the top 10. He’s the second greatest defensive third basemen I’ve ever seen but complete body of work isn’t quite determined. 

10. Greg Maddux 

Reasons For: 18x Gold Glove winner (most at any position), 546 putouts (most by a pitcher) 39 putouts in a season (1st all-time)

Reasons Against: Position (only playing every 5 days)

In Summary: Nearly 2 decades of Gold Gloves is impressive. But what might be even more impressive is how good of a pitcher Maddux was combined with his defensive skills. Arguably the most accurate pitcher with precise location was also able to immediately get into a defensive position for a slow-roller, quick comebacker, or a smashing line-drive and consistently get outs. Oh, and he’s also considered one of the greatest double-play starters with those quick feet and an almost automatic accurate throw to second. If only he could’ve pitched every day…  

9. Keith Hernandez

Reasons For: 11x Gold Glove winner (most ever by a first baseman), 120 Total Zone Runs (1st all-time for 1B), 1,682 career assists (3rd all-time for 1B)

Reasons Against: Position… kind of…

In Summary: Stats aside, Hernandez created a new style of defense by his ability to take away the bunt from an opponent’s arsenal by charging so aggressively. He had such a strong and accurate throwing arm, the Mets re-routed their relays through him. Based on his quick instincts, not only did Hernandez play really far off first base, he made brilliant diving plays to his far right and left. Then you add the fact that first basemen are involved in almost every fielded ground ball in the infield and Hernandez’s superior ‘pick it’ reputation… he had to crack my top 10.

8. Roberto Alomar

Reasons For: 10x Gold Glove winner (most for a second baseman)

Reasons Against: Sabermetrics

In Summary:  So all of the modern-day sabermetric stats hurt Alomar’s case to be in the top 10, but this is where I have to make a stand with basing everything solely on stats when it comes to defense. Having seen Alomar play growing up, he was hands-down the best defensive second baseman of my generation. He was smooth and  fundamentally sound, but most importantly, had incredible range. The best I’ve ever seen, even up to today. As I researched all of the other great defensive second basemen before and after him, I acknowledged the robotic stats they produced but couldn’t find a definitive answer on accounting for the range factor. I honestly believe his 10 Gold Gloves weren’t based just in flashy-ness but in a unanimous agreement that nobody is getting to the same ground balls Roberto got to. In this case, the eye test wins out for me. There, I planted my biased flag. Speaking of being biased…

7. Omar Vizquel

Reasons For:  11x Gold Glove winner, (2nd all-time shortstops), .985 fielding percentage (tied for 1st all-time for SS), double-plays turned (1st all-time), lowest errors in a season with 3 (tied for first all-time among SS) (8,050 assists (3rd all-time for SS)

Reasons Against: Overall Legacy

In Summary: Although Vizquel checks off a lot of requirements for my top 10, such as, stats, consistency, and athleticism; his legacy seems to be centered only around his era. The legends before him and those after him appear to overshadow how good Vizqel actually was. From respected historians to the common fan, Vizquel usually lands in the conversation as “Oh, yeah. He was really good, too.” Not only did I grow up watching his highlight reel on a nightly basis, I actually got to see him play in person on a handful of occasions. On ALL of those occasions I saw Vizquel make at least 2-3 dazzling plays per game. Defensively, he is SO much better than, ‘really good’.

6. Andruw Jones

Reasons For: 10x Gold Glove winner, 24.4 defensive War (1st among center fielders all-time) 253 Total Zone Runs (2nd overall all-time, 1st among CF) 

Reasons Against: Short career

In Summary: Nearly every advanced metric on the board says Jones was probably the best defensive outfielder ever. The smooth-gliding, basket-catching Jones was legendary for both his exceptional jumps on fly balls and the perfect routes he took tracking them down. While Jim Edmonds made some incredible diving catches throughout his career, using the same trajectory, Jones is camping under and catching them at the hip. Had he stayed in better condition for another 5-7 years, he would easily have the most Gold Gloves for an outfielder and possibly the most for a position player. 

5. Roberto Clemente

Reasons For: 12x Gold Glove winner, 254 assists (1st all-time among outfielders since live-ball era), 204 Total Zone Runs (1st among RF)

Reasons Against: Hmmm… I got nothin’.

In Summary: The consensus is in, Clemente is the greatest defensive right fielder of all time. The stats are there. The accolades are there. The athleticism is proven by way of old footage. The legacy is there. That arm… So, how important is right field to defense? Well, considering how many guys Clemente threw out at 2nd, 3rd, and home is one part. The rest is the level of difficulty when it comes to running catches in the corner or the right-centerfield gap, fielding base hits cleanly while transitioning to a perfect crow hop, robbing home runs, playing the ball perfectly out of the outfield corner wall, etc. Clemente did all of that better than anyone else. If you tried to fictionally or robotically create the perfect right fielder, they still might not be as good as Roberto Clemente.

4. Ivan Rodriguez 

Reasons For: 13x Gold Glove winner, 14,864 putouts (1st among catchers) 2,227 games caught (1st all time), 29.6 dWAR (1st among catchers) 164 Total Zone Runs (1st among catchers) 

Reasons Against: The existence of Johnny Bench and Yadier Molina

In Summary: A great catcher does many things but we’ll start with Pudge’s arm. Not only did he throw out runners who were stealing, he threw them out even taking a lead. Basically, don’t even think about running on him. 661 career base-runners caught stealing. 88 pickoffs! Yes, he was great at calling games, framing, blocking the plate, etc. But that arm was his biggest weapon. Specifically, his catch and release topped with pin-point accuracy to wherever he was throwing. What isn’t accounted for in sabermetrics is the simple fact that teams eventually stopped running on him. They didn’t dare. Why would they? Catcher is not considered the most athletic position but possibly the most important to a defense. Having Pudge helps any team significantly. 

3. Brooks Robinson 

Reasons For: 16x Gold Glove winner (most by position player) 293 Total Zone Runs (1st all-time all positions), 39.1 dWAR (3rd all time, 1st among third basemen)

Reasons Against: C’mon. Really?

In Summary: “The Human Vacuum Cleaner” may be the greatest nickname as far as describing how good a player is defensively. You can’t think of Brooks Robinson without thinking about defense. He’s the king of the hot corner. Since the stat, Defensive Runs Saved, wasn’t created until 2003, there’s no telling how many runs Robinson would’ve been accounted for saving and how far ahead he would be from the #2 third basemen. See, Brooks was great fundamentally, but his specialty was robbing hitters of extra base hits. He cooled the hot corner with incredible instincts by fully diving and laying out on hard hit ground balls and line-drives, then swiftly getting to his feet, and gunning down runners with that strong, accurate arm. Since his first full season at third base in 1960, Robinson went on to win 16 consecutive Gold Gloves. That’s a little over a decade and a half of being acknowledged as the best at your position. If you would like to visit a quick master class, please watch the 1970 World Series highlights where “the Human Vacuum Cleaner” wins MVP and makes an incredible play, after play, after play….

2. Willie Mays

Reasons For: 12x Gold Glove winner (most by center fielder)

Reasons Against: Sabermetrics, blah, blah, blah

In Summary: As I write this article I’ve learned 2 common things: The running theme of me fighting the sabermetric-statistical system, and the strong bias I have for players in my era. But, when it comes to Willie Mays, I’m forced to look beyond both of them. First, it doesn’t matter what time period Mays played in because, even today, he would be a phenomenal defensive center fielder and arguably the best. Put him in any modern-day ballpark and Mays is running down fly balls in the gap, over his head, against the wall, robbing home runs, diving all over the place, and throwing guys out. Secondly, it is important to know that Mays was one of the first known players to play extremely shallow daring opponents to hit it over him while taking away bloopers and positioning himself to throw base-runners out in scoring position. Even if the ball wasn’t hit to him, his presence in shallow center alone, forced players to rethink their approach. Everyone knows about “The Catch”,  which is a great play; but his immediate spinning, accurate throw may be more impressive since it stopped a tagging runner from advancing. At least to him, it was. Like most players in his era, there’s limited video evidence of his defensive highlights. “The Catch” is only available because it happened during the World Series. There’s another incredible play of Mays running down a long, deep fly ball in right center where he leaps out with one hand fully extended, makes the catch while simultaneously running into the fence and his teammate in mid air. That play, to me, sums up and defines what Willie Mays was all about. I can only imagine how many great plays we never got to see. The Gold Glove Award wasn’t handed out until 1957. Mays’ career began in ‘51. “The Catch” was in ‘54. He could’ve easily won 18 Gold Gloves. Sabermetrics does not clearly include presence, instincts, and most importantly athleticism when it comes to defense. “The Say Hey Kid” may in fact be the greatest overall baseball athlete to ever play the game.

1.  Ozzie Smith 

Reasons For: 13x Gold Glove winner (most by a shortstop), 44.2 dWAR (1st all-time every position), 8,375 career assists (1st among SS), 12, 624 career chances at SS (1st among SS), 1,590 double plays turned (2nd among SS), 239 Total Zone Runs (4th overall, 2nd among SS)

Reasons Against: Zero

In Summary: “The Wizard” was a walking web-gem. To avoid sounding redundant about sabermetrics, I will just say this.. No other player in the history of the sport was more instinctive, dependable, acrobatic, jaw-dropping, and game-changing-worthy than Ozzie who played the most difficult position in baseball. Ranking #1 in Defensive WAR checks off the sabermetrics argument. His 13 consecutive Gold Gloves proves his consistency. His highlight reel showcases his athleticism. His legacy lies within his nickname. His range was impeccable. His wizardry wasn’t just with ground balls, but his ability to run down bloopers and make fearless, over-the-shoulder catches before impact with a racing outfielder. Oh, those double-plays. Whether flipping a ball with his glove or receiving a throw while transitioning from glove to throwing hand while keeping a foot on the bag, then leaping above a sliding, cleat-first base-runner and throwing the ball on a dime; were both works of art.  There have been some amazing plays in baseball history. But the one that captures both Smith and the difficulty of the position (and possibly my all-time favorite play) is when a ground ball was hit to Smith’s left, he started his beautiful dive with his glove hand but the ball hit a tiny rock and bounced in a crazy direction opposite of its trajectory, and within half-a-second, Ozzie instinctively caught the ball bare-handed mid flight, fell to the ground, bounced back up, and gunned down the runner in time. “The Wizard” wore jersey #1 and, in my opinion, he’s without a doubt the #1 defensive player of all time. 

*Shoutout to my baseball-lovin’ family and friends who I thoroughly enjoy discussing and debating with- Uncle Tom, Pops, Josh, Eric, Bud, Clark, Q, Cory, Cash, Brandon, and Aaron. 

Author

  • Ryan_Hughes

    Passionate storyteller and lifelong Royals, Chiefs, and Mizzou Tiger fan. Graduate of Chicago's Second City Conservatory and selected writer for the CBS Diversity Showcase. A member of the sketch comedy group, "Genuine Jerks". Founder of Planet H Productions located in Southwest Missouri.

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