Great defensive plays on a baseball field have always had the ability to take our breath away. In that way, nothing has changed.In fact, technology has allowed today's fans to watch and appreciate Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays and others at least as much of fans of a half-century ago. Hundreds
Great defensive plays on a baseball field have always had the ability to take our breath away. In that way, nothing has changed.
In fact, technology has allowed today's fans to watch and appreciate Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays and others at least as much of fans of a half-century ago. Hundreds of baseball's greatest moments are right there on our phones and tables, and what can be better than that?
Anyone can watch the time Robinson grabbed Lee May's grounder in the 1970 World Series and then spun and threw him out from foul territory, all in one slick motion.
And there's Willie Mays outrunning a towering Vic Wertz fly in the 1954 World Series.
But as much as we romanticize the defensive beauty of Robinson and Mays, our respect for defense has changed for this simple fact: Now, more than ever, teams appreciate that preventing a run is the same as scoring one.
This column is about appreciating how good baseball's best defensive players are. This isn't just about athleticism or speed or instincts. In this arena, it's all those things.
It's the outfielder going over the wall to bring a home run back into the park and the shortstop diving in the hole to stop a grounder and somehow making a perfect throw across the diamond.
It's that first baseman who saves a dozen errors a season by moving quickly and scooping throws out of the dirt.
Finally, it's that guy behind the plate, the one who understands the whole of the game, from the opposing hitters to the umpire to the guy he's working with on the mound.
His job is to make the pitcher comfortable and confident, to understand what's working and to get his pitcher into a confident rhythm.
Here are 10 players who are an absolute joy to watch:
1. Kevin Kiermaier, Rays CF
Kiermaier was something of a legend inside the game before he ever played a big league game. Almost anyone who saw him play in the Minors told of a combination of speed, instincts and athleticism that made even the most difficult plays seem routine. As a result of Kiermaier's defense, he ranked third in the American League in WAR last year, behind only Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson.
2. Andrelton Simmons, Angels SS
It's not just that Simmons makes every single play. That he can go to his right or his left. That he can make the big throw from the hole or the spinning throw from behind second base. That he can rush in and barehand a ball or sprint out to the outfield and make plays. It's that Simmons does all these things, that he makes them seem so routine, that he never seems rushed.
3. Kevin Pillar, Blue Jays CF
Pillar has perfected "The Leap." He's so fast and so instinctive that he seems to outrun the ball, and when he's within range, he goes airborne to snag fly balls, changing a game's momentum in an instant. Pillar is so good that he makes some really difficult plays -- for instance, sprinting in and grabbing a ball off his shoes -- look routine. He's also absolutely fearless, routinely bouncing off walls, the warning track, etc. In short, he's a joy to watch.
4. Brandon Crawford, Giants SS
Don't let those 58 extra-base hits or that .782 OPS overshadow the really impressive part of Crawford's game. That's defense. No shortstop plays the position better. He makes all the difficult plays -- the stabbing catches of liners, the barehanded grabs in front of him and the huge throws -- look routine.
5. Billy Hamilton, Reds CF
OK, Hamilton is fast. This is the thing that got him to the Major Leagues. Combine that blazing speed with the instincts to gauge the bat off the ball, and you have a special player. He routinely outruns fly balls behind him and to both sides. But Hamilton also has a feel for where the ball will be. When he arrived three years ago, some of us figured all his highlights would be delivered from running the bases. His greater impact may be in the outfield.
6. Adrian Beltre, Rangers 3B
Great third basemen have quiet bodies. They simply react. They're positioned to make a play in an instant. Few have ever played this position better than Beltre, an 18-season veteran, including the past five with the Rangers. He has methodically constructed a Hall of Fame resume, based on his offensive production and on his numbingly consistent defensive play.
7. Adeiny Hechavarria, Marlins SS
Hechavarria's range is what separates him from others. He makes all the plays in the infield, getting to balls in the hole and making rocket throws to first. But the part of his game that's really special is his ability to sprint out into left field and make plays. He's so good that Miami outfielders can play a step or two deeper because Hechavarria can cover some of their ground.
8. Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays 3B
Donaldson's arm may be the best in the game. He understands the strength of that arm, too, in getting to balls and taking chances others wouldn't think of taking. Donaldson is athletic and fast and instinctive, and he makes impossible plays seem routine. When the Athletics decided to convert him from catcher to third base four years ago, they were blown away at how easy he made it all look. Donaldson may have won the AL Most Valuable Player Award last season because of 41 home runs and 123 RBIs, but defense is a huge part of his game.
9. J.J. Hardy, Orioles SS
Hardy may be the most underappreciated player in the game. "As long as my teammates appreciate me, that's all that matters," he said. His teammates do. In terms of being in the right place at the right time and understanding games and situations, there's not a better player in baseball. This praise should not overlook Hardy's athletic ability to get to balls and make plays. In ways large and small, he's close to a perfect player.
10. Russell Martin, Blue Jays C
Martin is more difficult to appreciate because we're not going to watch a dozen replays of the strikes he grabs for his pitchers or the way he allows them to settle into a comfortable routine. He also does a very good job controlling the running game with his arm. But Martin's teammates know and have raved about his game, and his unheralded contributions to winning, for years.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U.