DENVER -- The Rockies’ Ryan McMahon is at his best on plays at third base when he doesn’t have time to think; plays he says he made, “shoot, growing up, man.” It took a couple years to adapt to the thinking necessary to play second base.
Whether the fielding play requires him to turn his mind off or on, McMahon is one of the best in the sport in 2021.
And the rest of us are left to determine what that means, exactly. Some questions are sticky, such as: Will he be truly considered for a Gold Glove Award? And at what position? Others are sensitive, as anyone who has hung around Colorado for the last eight years can attest.
Going into play Friday, McMahon’s eight defensive runs saved (per FanGraphs) at second base were tied with the Phillies’ Jean Segura for the National League lead, even though Segura has played 650 innings to McMahon’s 334.
McMahon started Friday against the Marlins at third base, where his 10 DRS put him in a dead heat with Joshua Fuentes -- a teammate until he was recently sent down to Triple-A Albuquerque to work on his hitting. McMahon has played 472 innings there (Fuentes, 451 1/3). By comparison, the Padres’ Manny Machado (4 DRS) has played 822 innings.
McMahon grew up a third baseman but didn’t play there in any extended way until eight-time Gold Glove Award winner Nolan Arenado missed the end of last season with a shoulder injury. Arenado was traded to the Cardinals during the offseason.
It was a week into the season, April 8, at home against the D-backs, that McMahon had a chance to make a play that’s special, whether it’s Little League or big league.
“I had one against Tim Locastro -- it was do or die,” McMahon said. “And I was like, ‘All right. That was sick.’
“I kind of smiled after it.”
Some other types of plays have worked into McMahon’s highlight reel. There was the drop and spin he executed on a Johneshwy Fargas grounder against the Cubs on Wednesday, as well as a couple of athletic tag plays. (McMahon is listed at 6-foot-2 but plays longer because of his reach and jumping ability.)
McMahon takes pride in the fact that when he plays second, he’s one of the best, too.
“It just took a couple years,” McMahon said. “When I first got called up and played my first games at second base, that was the year that I learned second base. This year was my third year playing it, so I’m getting more used to it. I just learned and worked hard. I had Trevor [Story, the veteran shortstop] up the middle and DJ [LeMahieu, now with the Yankees] was here and taught me a lot.”
Part of McMahon’s magic has been playing solidly on defense even though he has had extreme swings in offensive performance, although he has been closer to steady this year.
“He hasn’t taken his offense to his defense, and that was one of the main things I was worried about at times,” said Stu Cole, the Rockies’ third-base coach and infield instructor. “He has put forth the effort to make plays, try to get outs, help our pitchers get out of jams.
“He’s very athletic. He wants to be good. He has worked hard to get the point he’s at today.”
McMahon’s positional question may take care of itself. The Rockies have been using rookie Brendan Rodgers primarily at second base. The plan was to move Rodgers to shortstop, his drafted and Minor League position, but Colorado did not deal Story before the Trade Deadline.
The next question isn’t so comfortable.
Arenado is still playing a standout third, now for St. Louis, even though he entered Friday with just three defensive runs saved. Days rarely pass without an Arenado highlight hitting the internet.
Manager Bud Black said after a recent game that McMahon deserves Gold Glove consideration. But that is different from placing McMahon above a player who has spent nearly a decade collecting them. The award is voted upon by NL managers and coaches, who are prohibited from voting for their own players, and there is a statistical formula authorized by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) as part of the equation for determining a winner.
“I don’t compare on the record or off the record,” Black said. “Nolan’s done it for so long. You know me, I want guys who pass the test of time. [McMahon] has got the skill set to stay healthy and have the right mental framework to be an everyday player, and the defense should be there.”
By taking a long range view, Black avoided the question of this year. Cole wants nothing to do with it.
“I was with Nolan for eight years and I’ve seen some tremendous things out of him,” Cole said. “But ‘Mac’ is a special player in his own right.”
McMahon, himself, sees Arenado’s track record as a goal. But he’ll appreciate any minds he has swayed in 2021.
“I’ll just keep doing my thing, but you’ve got to have goals like that,” McMahon said. “It’s a high honor, especially in this game. It’s something I’d love to be considered for and love to win, without letting it overtake my thoughts.”