Commentary

Gold Glovers of the decade

Ichiro was a no-brainer, but some of the other choices might come as a surprise

Originally Published: December 21, 2009
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Ichiro SuzukiOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesIchiro provided a warning during his rookie season: Don't even think about running on him.

You still hear it, sometimes … Numbers are useless when it comes to defense. You just have to watch the guy play.

If only we could.

Let's assume that your job is to come up with a list of the five best-fielding shortstops in the major leagues. 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. Has anyone watched all 21,240 innings? Has anyone watched more than a small percentage of those 21,240 innings?

And that's just the shortstops.

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. So, we reject that notion. 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 -- and any other evidence at hand (including Gold Gloves).

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

Kenny Rogers

Rogers

P -- Kenny Rogers

Now retired, Rogers won Gold Gloves at the ages of 39, 40 and 41 … which leads to an obvious question: How brilliant was he, when he wasn't ancient? Well, he also won Gold Gloves when he was 35 and 37 … which leads to … Never mind. Rogers was incredibly athletic after releasing the pitch, and the left-hander was also quite hard to run on. The truth is that he probably should have started winning Gold Gloves long before he hit his middle 30s.

Ivan Rodriguez

Rodriguez

C -- Ivan Rodriguez

All that stuff I said about statistics? When it comes to catchers, you can forget about them. Mostly, anyway. Because one of the catcher's biggest jobs is supposedly working well with the pitchers, and to this point nobody's yet figured out a good way to measure that ability (if it even exists). But there are some things we can look at, and Pudge does well in most of those things. He won five Gold Gloves in this decade. He threw out 41 percent of the runners who tried to steal against him (and with his reputation, a lot of runners just didn't bother). And at 38, he just got a two-year contract for $6 million.

Albert Pujols

Pujols

1B -- Albert Pujols

It almost seems unfair. Most players, even the greatest of them, have an Achilles' heel. But not Albert Pujols. He runs well. He hits brilliantly. And his fielding? After playing some third base and some left field, Pujols finally settled in at first base in 2004, his fourth season. Since then he's utterly dominated all first basemen in the sophisticated defensive metrics. Not coincidentally, he's the only four-time winner of a Fielding Bible Award.

Chase Utley

Utley

2B -- Chase Utley

Utley still hasn't won a Gold Glove, but that's the voters' fault because he's deserved three or four of them already. And what a strange trip it's been. He began his college career as a shortstop, then spent some time at DH before finally shifting to second base. In the minors, the Phillies turned him into a third baseman, but that shift was reversed when third baseman David Bell joined the franchise. Finally, Utley was back at second base, where he belonged. Frankly, Utley doesn't have the arm to play third base, and his relatively weak arm does hurt him when trying to turn double plays. But he still has the range of a shortstop, and makes an immense number of plays to both his left and his right that most second basemen simply don't make.

Adam Everett

Everett

SS -- Adam Everett

Everett has never started 150 games in a season. He's started more than 120 games in a season just twice. That's the best explanation for Everett's failure to win even a single Gold Glove: The voters prefer every-day players. And they particularly like every-day players who can hit at least a little. That's just not Adam Everett. But despite his general lack of playing time, he has easily saved more runs in this decade than any other shortstop: 87 runs, to be (approximately) precise, and 18 runs per 150 games. Everett turns 33 this winter, and he's not the fielder he once was. But for five or six years, there simply wasn't a shortstop who could make more plays than Adam Everett.

Scott Rolen

Rolen

3B -- Scott Rolen

Ripping the Gold Glove selections never really gets old … but the voters do sometimes come up with the right answers, and Rolen's six Gold Gloves in this decade line up nicely with the metrics. How spectacular was he? When the Blue Jays traded Rolen to the Reds last summer, an enterprising blogger seemed to have little trouble finding 10 defensive gems that Rolen had made with Toronto in less than two seasons.

Carl Crawford

Crawford

LF -- Carl Crawford

Left fielders don't often win Gold Gloves, and Crawford's still waiting for his first. Oddly, though, his defense got him another award: All-Star Game MVP. It happened this past summer, when Crawford went above the fence to steal a go-ahead homer from Brad Hawpe in the seventh inning of what would become yet another American League victory.

Andruw Jones

Jones

CF -- Andruw Jones

Forget the past two seasons. Remember instead the Andruw Jones who patrolled center field for the Braves from 1998 through 2007, and he just might have been the greatest center fielder since Willie Mays. Of course, Jones will not be remembered as the second coming of Willie Mays, who played a good center field into his late 30s; it now looks like Jones' days as an every-day center fielder ended at 30. But this wasn't due to a lack of ability. It was due to a surplus of weight. Between injuries and ballooning to 240 pounds, Jones simply wasn't the fielder (or the hitter) that he had been. But, oh, what a fielder he had been.

Ichiro Suzuki

Suzuki

RF -- Ichiro Suzuki

Ichiro's fast. He's not just fast for a right fielder. He's just flat-out fast. Ichiro can throw. The most replayed throw by an outfielder in the entire decade is probably Ichiro's laser to nail Terrence Long at third base, early in Ichiro's rookie season. Afterward he asked, via a translator: "Why did he run when I was going to throw him out?" And Ichiro's got instincts, too. In his seventh season in the majors, he shifted from right field to center, and played there well enough to win yet another Gold Glove. Oh, and the Gold Gloves … in nine seasons, Ichiro has never not won a Gold Glove.


Sorry, but we just can't resist offering the worst fielders, according to UZR per 150 games (except for catchers):

C -- Michael Barrett

Hey, he tried. But Barrett, an ex-infielder, threw out only 22 percent of aspiring base stealers.

1B -- Carlos Delgado (minus-4/150G)

Delgado hasn't been the new Doctor Strangeglove, or even the new Marv Throneberry. These days, the truly awful first basemen usually get moved to an easier position.

2B -- Jose Vidro (minus-11)

Tough fight between Vidro and Alfonso Soriano. Vidro wound up at first base, Soriano in left field.

SS -- Michael Young (minus-11)

Moving Young to third base in 2009 was one of the big reasons for the Rangers' winning season.

3B -- Ty Wigginton (minus-15)

Not a bad outfielder, but Wigginton just hasn't handled third base (or for that matter, first base) well.

LF -- Hideki Matsui (minus-15)

Are the Angels serious about playing Matsui in the outfield with some frequency?

CF -- Bernie Williams (minus-24)

Remember when Williams still wanted to play, but the Yankees wouldn't let him? This is why.

RF -- Brad Hawpe (minus-22)

Some American League team needs to take pity on the Rockies and trade for Hawpe.

Rob Neyer is a senior writer for ESPN.com and regularly updates his blog. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.