The great gloves: Ozzie at short, Jones in center ...

From Ozzie Smith at shortstop to Andruw Jones in center field, Rob gives his list of the greatest defensive players by position.

Originally Published: July 26, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

You don't need me to tell you how good Ozzie Smith looked. If you were a baseball fan in the 1980s, you remember. And if you're a baseball fan in 2002, you'll have ample chances to see the videotape this weekend, on the occasion of The Wizard's richly deserved entry into the hallowed Hall of Fame.

But you know, looks aren't everything. Omar Vizquel looks great -- even greater than Ozzie, sometimes -- but Vizquel's not in the same class as Ozzie with the glove. He's not even in the same school.

It's difficult to escape the conclusion that Ozzie Smith is the greatest defensive player at his position, and quite possibly the greatest defensive player at any position.

How do we know? How can we measure Ozzie's greatness? By looking at the evidence that doesn't show up on the videotape. By looking at not only his reputation, but also his statistics.

How good was Ozzie's reputation? Beginning in 1980, he won 13 straight Gold Gloves.

There are, of course, problems with Gold Gloves. Players sometimes win them, at least in part, because they had a good year with the bat. More often, players win them because they won them last year, and it's easier to write down the name of the guy who won last year than figure out if somebody was better this year. Ozzie certainly benefited from this tendency; of his 13 Gold Gloves, he deserved "only" eight or nine.

What about fielding statistics? It's often said that "they don't mean anything," but that doesn't stop virtually every broadcaster from trotting out fielding percentages, which are simply the number of plays made (putouts plus assists) divided by total chances (putouts plus assists plus errors). Crude, certainly, but still indicative of something.

How good were Ozzie's fielding percentages? He led the National League eight times; the first time in 1981, the last time in 1994.

There are, of course, reasons to doubt fielding percentage as a measure of defensive greatness. After all, it's more important to field a lot of balls than to field the balls cleanly that you happen to reach. That is to say, fielding range is generally more important, especially for a middle infielder, than fielding reliability.

And to measure range, we can look at "range factor," which is simply the number of plays -- putouts plus assists -- that are made per nine innings.

How good were Ozzie's range factors? He led the National League eight times; the first time in 1981, the last time in 1993.

There are, of course, problems with range factor. An infielder's range factor can be significantly influenced by the pitching staff, both in what kinds of balls are hit (ground ball vs. fly ball) and where they're hit (left-handed pitching means more balls to the left side of the infield, and vice versa). Range factors, just like fielding percentages and Gold Gloves and, yes, the naked eye, can deceive us.

There are, it seems, problems with everything. But when you have a player who excels in everything, as Ozzie does, then you probably don't need to dig any deeper. You probably don't need to consult even more sophisticated analysis, like Clay Davenport's Fielding Translations or Bill James's Win Shares (though, since you brought them up, Ozzie's at the top of those lists, too). Ozzie Smith played for nearly 20 seasons with different teams and different pitching staffs, and the only constant was his excellence by virtually any measure you can imagine.

Add everything up, and it's difficult to escape the conclusion that Ozzie Smith is the greatest defensive player at his position, and quite possibly the greatest defensive player at any position.

So Ozzie's the greatest shortstop, but what about the other positions. Below are my picks for the single greatest defensive players at each position (excepting pitcher, where we can only hazard a wild guess between Bobby Shantz, Jim Kaat, Bob Gibson, and half a dozen others) ...

Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez
If you don't consider "working with pitchers" a significant part of a catcher's job, then Pudge is your man. No catcher, not even Johnny Bench, controlled the running game like Ivan Rodriguez. If, however, you do think that the pitcher's performance is significantly impacted by who's behind the plate, then you might want prefer Jim Hegan. The Cleveland Indians won the World Series in 1948, after which manager Lou Boudreau said of Hegan, "As much or more than any man, he was responsible for what we did."

First Base: Vic Power
Some people thought Vic Power was too good for his position. Though he once said, "I was born to play first base," over the years Power's managers asked him to play 139 games at second base, 89 games at third base, and 56 games in center field. He did play enough first base to garner seven straight Gold Gloves (1958-1964), though.

Second Base: Bill Mazeroski
So fast on the double play, they called him "No Touch," and Mazeroski recently became the first second baseman to gain election to the Hall of Fame based almost entirely on his defensive prowess.

Shortstop: Ozzie Smith
Everybody knows about Ozzie's range. But he was adept at the more subtle skills of his position, too. Keith Hernandez, who played with Ozzie in St. Louis, later said, "On double plays, when he was taking the ball from me or Tommy [Herr], he'd straddle the bag. When he knew which side the ball was coming to, he'd fake in the other direction and draw the runner's slide. Bill Madlock is the best I've ever seen at taking out the pivotman, but Ozzie left him in the dust."

(In passing, it's worth nothing that some of Ozzie stiffest competition at shortstop is provided by two other Cardinals: Marty Marion and Dal Maxvill.)

Third Base: Clete Boyer
Yes, even better than his contemporary, Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. From 1961 through 1965, both Boyer and Robinson served as everyday third basemen; Boyer for the Yankees, Robinson for the Orioles. And while Robinson won the Gold Glove all five years, one can convincingly argue that Boyer actually played better defense in three of those five seasons. How much range did Boyer have? Beginning in 1960 the Yankees won five straight American League pennants, and Boyer played 75 games at shortstop in those seasons.

He could throw from his knees as well as anybody else could throw standing up.
Bill James on Clete Boyer

Bill James wrote, "Boyer would dive for a ball, knock it down, then throw the runner out at first base from his knees. I've seen other people do it, but Clete did it all the time. He could throw from his knees as well as anybody else could throw standing up." Boyer later recalled, "Even when we took infield practice, I knew people were watching me. Guys from the other team. Fans. I was on stage. I loved it..."

Left Field: Duffy Lewis
Before the Green Monster, deep left field at old Fenway Park featured a 10-feet-high incline at the base of the fence. Lewis, who played left field for the Red Sox from 1910 through 1917, became so adept at negotiating that incline that it became known as "Duffy's Cliff." That's just a form of hearsay, of course, but Lewis made a lot of plays, too ... even though he had to compete with his teammate Tris Speaker, one of the greatest defensive center fielders, for every ball hit to left-center field.

Center Field: Andruw Jones
Yes, selecting Jones over Willie Mays or Curt Flood is a clear violation of the Pokey Reese rule. But Jones is just so brilliant with the glove that even should his performance drop off significantly over the second half of his career, he'd still probably rank as the best ever. Nobody gets a better jump on the ball, nobody has better instincts about when and where to dive ... and he's got a strong, accurate arm, too.

Right Field: Larry Walker
He's got six Gold Gloves, and though he didn't deserve any of them -- like Barry Bonds, who also won a bunch of Gold Gloves in left field, it seems odd to award Gold Glove to corner outfielders over center fielders -- Walker really is a great right fielder, perhaps the greatest. It's true that he's yet to experience the inevitable decline ... but then again, he's 36, so how long could his decline last?

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