Monday, December 21, 2009

Best Fielders

Hat tip to reader Chris for sending in this gem of a topic. I'll be doing a mini-FJM here. Rob Neyer had a fairly interesting piece, granted it was horribly written, about the Best/Worst Fielders of this decade. I've been debating doing something like this, mainly because I find baseball defense fascinating. Intricacies of positions always amaze me, and because of this, I will let you all suffer through my analysis. This being the end of 2009, we can all see how alluring it is to make best of the decade lists: Best music videos, best rappers, best celebrity sex tapes. Clearly the best defenders was coming.

Gold Glovers of the decade

Hopefully, you don't need to bat .300 and hit 30 homeruns to make this list. I will only bring you a few positions at a time, and also be giving my keys to each position. After a few posts of that, we will tackle Rob's worst of the decade section.

Let's assume that your job is to come up with a list of the five best-fielding shortstops in the major leagues.

Or you are a horribly dorky blog writer that finds this fun.

Just to narrow the field a bit, you decide to consider only those shortstops who started at least 120 games this past season. That's 17 shortstops … and 21,240 (and 1/3) innings.

That seems quite arbitrary.

Has anyone watched all 21,240 innings? Has anyone watched more than a small percentage of those 21,240 innings?

I'm guessing people associated with baseball. Like, I don't know, people who's job it is to write baseball columns. O, people like Rob Neyer, may watch a decent percentage of those innings.

And that's just the shortstops.

And that is a bad sentence and paragraph.

Anyone who says you can't judge fielders unless you see them play every day is essentially saying you can't really judge fielders at all, because nobody sees every fielder every day.

There are people who compile highlights of the best plays everyday. Then, they show these on programs such as Baseball Tonight, or if you are intelligent, MLB Network. If you pay even a little bit of attention, you notice the same people keep showing up. That can't be a coincidence.

So, we reject that notion.

He's so defiant. He needs an exclamation point here.

We believe that one can judge fielders with some confidence, with the help of statistics -- here, I've relied on Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating

You've gained respect in my eyes, Rob.

-- and any other evidence at hand (including Gold Gloves).

You just lost that respect.

With all that in mind, here are our choices for the best defensive players of this decade:


I have no idea how you can judge one good defending pitcher from another. They get maybe 16 balls hit to them a year. They cover first sometimes, but besides being light on your feet and a little grace, there is nothing separating mediocre from great here. There are a few things you can do as a pitcher that puts you in a better position to field slow rollers up the middle. One being controlling your windup. Some guys, K-Rod (how frustrating is it that we can't get baseball clips on Youtube?), don't give a shit where they land, and would not ever be caught dead fielding a ground ball. Other guys like Mark Buerhle are great fielders because they are soft tossers who position themselves well after throwing the pitch. These guys pitch to contact and tend to be older pitchers (guys who have lost a little on their fastball).

The other big part of pitching defense is holding runners close. I've gone over this already, but it is absolutely important to mix up timing to the plate and vary throws to first. Another big thing is speed to the plate. This ensures the runners has the shortest amount of time possible to steal a base. Again, guys who excel at this tend to be soft tossers who pitch to contact.

What does the best fielding pitcher of the decade need to have then? 1) They need to be a soft tosser. 2) They need to be left handed (helps in picking people off). 3) They need to be old. (Note: I made this list before reading Rob's comments) enough to have lost everything their fastball once had. With that, lets introduce Rob's pick:

-- Kenny Rogers

Now retired, Rogers won Gold Gloves at the ages of 39, 40 and 41

Old, Check.

… which leads to an obvious question: How brilliant was he, when he wasn't ancient?

How is that the obvious question? I have the obvious answer, though, very mediocre. He consistently earned a 4-5 FIP, which has nothing to do with defense, except it measures how well he faced opponents offenses. Wait a second, that's the definition of defense. O well, lets just count how many gold gloves he won.

Well, he also won Gold Gloves when he was 35 and 37 … which leads to … Never mind.

I cheated, I read ahead.

Rogers was incredibly athletic after releasing the pitch,

Incredibly athletic, or great at positioning himself after the throw?

and the left-hander was also quite hard to run on.

Lefty check.

The truth is that he probably should have started winning Gold Gloves long before he hit his middle 30s.

Nope, because you have to be old and crafty to be a good defensive pitcher. That's the truth. You need to get over trying to throw fastballs past hitters. You need to focus on sound mechanics that leave you in a great fielding position. Also, this conversation starts and ends with Maddux. Watch his mechanics, flawless. He is in position to field as soon as he releases. Rob Neyer 0, Zach 1.

I did not realize I would be rambling this much. I will be back tomorrow with a breakdown of Catchers and possibly First Basemen.


  1. Just thinking...should Maddux really be considered for best fielding pitcher of the decade? He was one of the worst at holding runners on, but also did a solid job of keeping runners off base in his prime (90's). In no way would I consider pine tar hand as one of the best fielding pitchers of the decade...who else is there to choose from though?

  2. Also Maddux is not a lefty. Greg obsessed about his delivery so much that when he would do bullpen sessions he used to get angry when his cleat marks were not all in the same spot (I know its crazy but true).

    Zach I see flaws in your theory...

  3. On second thought, Maddux won it from 1990 to 2008 with Mike Hampton only beating him out once in '03. That's almost a 20 year reign, unprecedented. How could he not get pitcher of the decade if he won 8 out of the 10 years possible? Rob 0, Zach 1, reader Chris 1.

  4. Isn't Ankiel technically the best fielding pitcher of the decade? I mean, come on, the dude plays centerfield.