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Glove maestros eye Best Play, Defense Award

MLB.com

Throughout the long history of Major League Baseball, fans have always been amazed by great defensive plays. That will never change.

But the sport continues to evolve, and now fans can appreciate even more how incredible the plays are. With the advent of Statcast™, we can now quantify how far that center fielder ran, how difficult that ground ball in the hole was for that shortstop to get to, how hard that line drive to the third baseman came off the bat.

Throughout the long history of Major League Baseball, fans have always been amazed by great defensive plays. That will never change.

But the sport continues to evolve, and now fans can appreciate even more how incredible the plays are. With the advent of Statcast™, we can now quantify how far that center fielder ran, how difficult that ground ball in the hole was for that shortstop to get to, how hard that line drive to the third baseman came off the bat.

Vote for the 2017 Esurance MLB Awards

With that in mind, the five nominees for the Esurance MLB Award for Best Play, Defense in 2017 represent a group that's been as carefully vetted as ever. The finalists represent the elite of the elite in a category that overflows with contenders every year from the fielding gems we see on highlight videos every night from April through September.

This year's nominees include Cubs shortstop Javier Baez's historically long route to a sliding foul popup catch, White Sox outfielder Adam Engel's robbery of a Brian McCann home run and a fan's impressive grab in the bleacher seats, and Indians center fielder Austin Jackson's masterful, acrobatic negotiation of the tricky Fenway Park wall to pilfer a homer from Hanley Ramirez.

Cast your vote for the Best Play, Defense Award

It also almost wouldn't be a Defensive Play of the Year competition without submissions from perennial Gold Glove third baseman and Rockies slugger Nolan Arenado -- who turned in a stunning, improvisational, literally seat-of-the-pants putout against the Giants -- and Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier  -- who did his usual Kevin Kiermaier things on an unbelievable sprint-and-layout catch in a clutch ninth-inning situation to make this distinguished list.

The Esurance MLB Awards annually honor Major League Baseball's greatest achievements as part of an industry-wide balloting process that includes five groups, each of which accounts for 20 percent of the overall vote: media, front-office personnel, retired MLB players, fans at MLB.com and Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) members.

The MLB Awards are an all-inclusive program, encompassing the top players and performances from both the American and National Leagues from Opening Day through the end of the postseason.

Hall of Famers, team general managers, broadcast-booth legends and you will be among those helping to pick this year's Best Major Leaguer in addition to the winners in the following categories: Best Pitcher, Rookie, Defensive Player, Manager, Executive, Personality, Postseason Moment and Postseason Performer.

One winner in each category will also be recognized for the year's Best Offensive Play, Defensive Play, Single-Game Performance, Fan Catch, broadcast call and Player-Fan Interaction.

In addition to the aforementioned categories, a panel of MLB experts will identify and recognize the season's Best Moments and Trending Topics.

Video: 2017 MLB Awards: Best Play, Defense - Javier Baez

Baez's terrific catch against the Nationals in Washington on June 26 came after he covered 132 feet, which qualifies as the longest distance in Statcast™ history on a putout by a shortstop. And then comes the sliding catch, which is just the cherry on top for a player who has come to embody the nickname he wore on his back during Players Weekend -- El Mago, or "The Magician."

"That popup was stupid good," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after that game. "He went so far. ... I don't know who else makes that play."

Video: 2017 MLB Awards: Best Play, Defense - Adam Engel

This category seems to always include a few cases of outright home run larceny, but in Engel's case, he was a two-time offender. Not only was he able to keep his focus and time his leap to take a certain homer away from McCann in his team's game vs. the Astros on Aug. 8 in Chicago, but he also had to prevent an eager fan with a perfectly positioned glove from providing a cushy resting place for the would-be souvenir.

Speaking of home run-saving grabs, Jackson's on Aug. 1 at the old ballpark in Boston's Back Bay won't soon be forgotten. With fans practically giddy for what looked like a sure game-busting long ball off the bat, Jackson did an all-too-familiar flip over the wall of the home team's bullpen beyond the center-field wall and came up with the pearl, pulling off a catch of a ball that had a 73-percent hit probability, according to Statcast™

Video: 2017 MLB Awards: Best Play, Defense - Austin Jackson.

"That was one of the best catches I think I've ever seen," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "I've been in the game a long time. That's a hard wall out there and a lot of guys run away from it. Austin went up and over. That was one of the most exciting plays I've seen in a long, long time."

Arenado knows as well as anyone that you can't give up in baseball -- not when there are two strikes and you're in the batter's box, and certainly not when a ground ball bounces off your glove on a dive attempt. Arenado's astonishing recovery and body control to roll over and still throw out Giants pitcher Ty Blach at first base on June 28 at AT&T Park remains one of 2017's smash hits in the field.

Video: 2017 MLB Awards: Best Play, Defense - Nolan Arenado

And let's not forget Kiermaier, who usually figures out a way to make it onto this list. His five-star catch of Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.'s fly ball with the Rays up a run in the ninth inning on Sept. 15 came after a sprint of more than 100 feet, according to Statcast™, which gave the play an 18 percent chance of being made.

"That was pretty spectacular," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "I've seen three years of spectacular plays. That's probably right there at the top."

Video: 2017 MLB Awards: Best Play, Defense - Kiermaier

The MLB Esurance Awards are worth watching, too. Some of the winners who accepted their trophies in person or live on the MLB Awards winners' program last year included Francisco Lindor, David Ortiz, Mike Trout, Anthony Rizzo and Corey Seager, so there's star power everywhere you turn.

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.