Ranking MLB's 10 Best Defensive Shortstops

Molly TowCorrespondent IJuly 5, 2013

Ranking MLB's 10 Best Defensive Shortstops

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    Shortstop is, perhaps, the most complex fielding position in baseball, both in terms of execution and defensive statistics. In the MLB, while no one is even close to being as skilled as Dutch phenom Andrelton Simmons of the Atlanta Braves, all-around powerhouse Troy Tulowitzki and defensive specialist Pedro Florimon make a valiant effort.

    What follows is a list of the top 10 shortstops in the MLB. While a handful are big-name stars with well-rounded games, the majority are glove wizards who fly under the radar. To be an elite shortstop, you need sure hands, a rocket for an arm, consistency, double-play adroitness and athleticism, and the guys who made the cut all embody this cocktail of skills to a certain degree.

    I used three general criteria to rank shortstops, each with its own subset(s):

    1. Composite advanced metrics: Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS)

    2. Component advanced metrics: Range Factor (RF) and Double Play Runs above average (DPR)

    3. Metrics from the days of yore: Fielding percentage

    The composite metrics are the most comprehensive (and wildly complicated) statistics, so I weighed them more than the rest when making my choices. Component metrics are significantly more specific, and so are less telling of a shortstop's overall ability, but they did factor into my decisions somewhat.

    And because I'm a traditionalist, good old fielding percentage has its time of day here and was considered as much as the component metrics.  

    Here are the top shortstops right now in baseball, in ascending order.

    Statistics are accurate as of July 4.

    Statistics are from ESPN and FanGraphs.

Honorable Mentions

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    Everth Cabrera (seen above)

    Composite Metrics

    Everth Cabrera has a UZR of 3.7, good enough for 10th of all qualifying shortstops in the majors. His dWAR is 0.5, which puts him in a four-way tie for 13th place, and his DRS of one has him in a five-way tie for 12th place.

    Component Metrics

    Cabrera's RF of 4.65 is a laudable sixth place in the majors whereas his 0.9 DPR puts him in a tie for fifth.

    Fielding percentage: .988 (fourth)

    Cabrera just narrowly missed the cut here. From his simpler stats alone, it appears that he's deserving of his own slide. On a broader scope, however, he's just average. As seen in the accompanying video, he's got great instincts and can think well on his feet.

    He's still a fairly young 26, so it's definitely plausible that his other stats could improve as he moves into his prime.  

     

    Brendan Ryan

    Composite Metrics

    Brendan Ryan's UZR is an ugly -1.1 which has him sitting in 20th place among all qualifying shortstops. Oddly enough, though, his dWAR is .9, which puts him in a three-way tie for sixth place. In terms of DRS, he is in a four-way tie for seventh with a value of four.

    Component Metrics

    Ryan's RF is 4.35, good enough for eighth among qualifying shortstops. His DPR of one impressively has Ryan in a tie for third.

    Fielding percentage: .969 (20th)

    Ryan doesn't make the cut for several reasons, the first being that his UZR is unforgivable. I couldn't tell you why the discrepancy exists between UZR and dWAR in this case, seeing as they're usually fairly congruent, but here lies the occasional perils of advanced metrics.

    Ryan's fielding percentage is also of notewhile it won't make or break a player in my rankings, it's clear that Ryan isn't in the top couple of tiers when it comes to reliability.  


    Jean Segura

    Composite Metrics

    Jean Segura has a UZR of zero, which slots him in 18th place. His dWAR is only 0.2, bad enough for 21st, and his DRS is -2 (18th). Just wait, he's salvageable.

    Component Metrics

    Segura's RF is an outstanding 4.78, which has him siting in fourth in that cateogry. His DPR of 0.8 (seventh place) is also of note.

    Fielding percentage: .976 (16th) 

    Segura is more of a case of portending. It's true; his composite stats are currently laughable, so he's obviously not in the top 10. But remember that the guy only recently turned 23.

    His RF puts him among the top-tier shortstops in that category, and that's something you can't really teach. He's clearly a gifted athlete and is a treat to watch, so I'd say the future is bright—he just needs to polish up the dull spots.

10. Alexei Ramirez

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    Alexei Ramirez can be considered a veteran at this point, but he's still pretty spry. Since the Chicago White Sox have become irrelevant, it's easy to forget about Ramirez. He may be 31, but judging from the video above, he hasn't lost his instincts (or his ups). Here's how Ramirez measures up:

     

    Composite Metrics

    Ramirez has a UZR of 4.0, which slots him ninth among qualifying shortstops, and his dWAR of 1.1 (tied for fourth place) does him one better. His DRS of five puts him in a tie for fifth among qualifying shortstops.

     

    Component Metrics

    Ramirez's RF of 4.05 is the 15th-highest, showing that he's not quite as nimble as he was in his prime, but he proves to be adept at turning two, as his DPR of 1.6 is the best in the league among shortstops.

     

    Fielding percentage: .959 (24th)

    Ramirez's recent onslaught of errors is cause for concern, but the rest of his numbers still put him among the premier shortstops in the game. If his fielding percentage was middle as opposed to dismal, he'd likely move up several spots, but you can't have your shortstop botching every other play, which is why he sits at No. 10.

9. Stephen Drew

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    In an interview with Peter Abraham of telegram.com, Stephen Drew noted that while his game doesn't contain the wow factor that others in his position boast, consistency and efficiency are paramount for him:

    Some guys can do a lot of fancy stuff. But I try and make a hard play look routine. Every time I take ground balls when working out, I’m always in a game mode. I never change that.

    Drew's numbers aren't outstanding, but they do speak to his point, as does the video above. Teammate and fellow infielder Jose Iglesias can make some superstar plays up the middle, but his move to the hot corner is a testament to Drew's reliability. Here's how Drew shakes up in comparison to others at his position:

     

    Composite Metrics

    Drew's UZR of 5.4 puts him in seventh place among qualifying shortstops, while his dWAR of 0.6 and DRS of two put him at 12th and 11th, respectively.

     

    Component Metrics

    Drew has a RF of 4.32, good enough for 10th place. His DPR of -0.5 puts him at 20th. 

     

    Fielding percentage: .989 (tied for second)

    In that same Abraham article, Boston Red Sox manager John Farell praised Drew for what he's brought to the team:

    He’s in many ways a very dependable defender. Sometimes that doesn’t show as flashy where it might catch the average fan’s eye. But when you look up after a hard-hit ball, and he’s standing right there or ranges up the middle to his glove side, he’s a very good defender.

     

    There is a possibility that Jose Iglesias takes over shortstop duties in the near future, but as of now, it's Drew who qualifies. While Drew is middling in terms of most of his stats, the superb fielding percentage is hard to ignore. This, in combination with his impressive UZR, gives Drew a leg up on Ramirez, who seems on the precipice of falling apart despite great numbers.

8. Elvis Andrus

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    Sometimes, it seems like Elvis Andrus has been a longtime Texas Ranger, but he's only 24. He debuted when he was just 20 years old, so he likely still has room for improvement.

    Last year, he was actually recognized by American League managers as the best defensive shortstop in the AL, and in an interview with T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com, Texas manager Ron Washington had this to say about Andrus:

    He has been outstanding. You can see the maturity. The most consistent part has been making the routine play. He's going to make errors, because he's going to get to more balls that most other guys, but he's not booting one every four or five days.

    The statistical portrait of Andrus is as follows:

     

    Composite Metrics

    Andrus' UZR of 4.4 is the eighth-highest among qualifying shortstops. However, his dWAR of 1.1 and DRS of six (both fourth place) put him in the company of the top-tier guys.

     

    Component Metrics

    Andrus' has a shockingly low RF of 3.78, which puts him at 24th (26 qualify). He's a bit better in his role as half of a double-play combo, as his DPR of 0.2 has him in a three-way tie for 10th. 

     

    Fielding percentage: .977 (four-way tie for 11th)

    Andrus' Range Factor is surprising and unfortunate, seeing as the rest of his numbers are quite impressive. He'd be higher on the list if not for his component metrics and fielding percentage—the Rangers clearly benefit from his presence on the field.

    But sound fundamentals and covering good ground are hallmarks of an elite shortstop, and in those areas, Andrus is still a work in progress.

    His UZR and DRS are both higher than Ramirez's, and his dWAR and DRS are higher than Drew's, while more of his secondary stats are mediocre to average, which is why he's slotted at eight. Look for a rise in the rankings in coming years.

7. Yunel Escobar

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    Journeyman Yunel Escobar has great hands and thinks quickly on his feet, as seen from the accompanying video. While he isn't seen in the best light due to the eye-black debacle last year, one can't deny that the Tampa Bay Rays are getting their money's worth and more from the Cuban defector.

     

    Composite Metrics

    Whichever way you look at it, Escobar's defense is solid in terms of this category. His UZR of 5.7 is sixth among all qualifying shortstops as is his dWAR of 0.9. His DRS of four puts him in a four-way tie for seventh-best.

     

    Component Metrics

    Escobar's RF of 4.04 puts him in 16th place while his -0.4 DPR slots him at 19th.

     

    Fielding percentage: .987 (tied for fifth)

    While none of Escobar's statistics put him among the top tier in any category, his composite metrics speak for themselves. He's in the seventh spot as opposed to sixth because his component metrics and DSR pull him down a bit, and the following candidate is just a hair stronger both in this area and in UZR.

6. Alcides Escobar

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    Yes, it's another shortstop named Escobar. No, they're not related. But yes, they're essentially the same player. And Alcides is just a smidgen better.

    In May, Mike Bauman of MLB.com predicted that Escobar would eventually win a Gold Glove. In an interview with Bauman, Kansa City Royals manager Ned Yost sung Escobar's praises after a game in which the shortstop made a game-saving, slick play:

    He's as good as anybody. He's a phenomenal defensive player. He always has been. From the minute I saw him, he's been making plays like that.

    You know, I liken him to Andruw Jones. When Andruw Jones first came to the big leagues (with the Atlanta Braves), he'd make plays in the outfield, and we'd go: "Oh, man, did you see that?" And we'd talk about it for days.

    While Escobar isn't quite outstanding enough to crack the top five, his defense is still noteworthy.

     

    Composite Metrics

    Escobar's UZR of 6.0 slots him in fourth place among all qualifying shortstops, while his dWAR of 0.9 has him in a three-way tie for sixth. His DRS of four is just above-average, as it puts him in a four-way tie for seventh in the majors. 

     

    Component Metrics

    While Escobar's RF of 4.11 is only 13th-best, he's tied for fifth place in DPR with a 0.9 rating.

     

    Fielding percentage: .967 (21st)

    Alcides Escobar edges out Yunel due to his higher UZR and slightly elevated RF. Heading into the top five, we start to encounter those that encompass the best of the flashy, durable and reliable.

    Escobar's fielding percentage and RF take away slightly from his UZR, which is why he sits at six. Escobar is only 26, meaning his prime will soon be upon us, so it's possible that he'll rise in the rankings in the next several years in a similar way to Andrus.

5. Pete Kozma

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    With all of the hype around the St. Louis Cardinals and their sizable crop of potential All-Stars, Pete Kozma either goes unnoticed or else is pegged as one of the weakest players on the team. While it's true that his offensive statistics are mediocre at best, that label doesn't carry over when it comes to his fielding.

    St. Louis' first-round draft pick from 2007 wasn't expected to play much this year as the Cardinals initially had both Rafael Furcal and Ronny Cedeno on their roster, but Furcal's decision to have Tommy John surgery and St. Louis' eventual release of Cedeno provided an opening for Kozma at short.

    At the end of May, Kevin Reynolds of the Yahoo! Contributor Network wrote about the "stability Kozma has injected into the Cardinals' infield," so jumping to extreme conclusions about Kozma's talent may not be warranted. 

     

    Composite Metrics

    Kozma's UZR of 6.3 is the third-best among qualifying shortstops in the majors, while his dWAR of 0.8 (three-way tie for ninth) and DRS of four (four-way tie for seventh) are just above-average.

     

    Component Metrics

    The 25-year-old has a RF of 4.66 which has him sitting in fifth place, while his DPR of -0.1 (16th) is below-average to middling. 

     

    Fielding percentage: .989 (tied for second)

    Kozma cracks the top five namely because of his UZR, RF and fielding percentage. While his dWAR and DRS aren't as noteworthy, they balance out the former group of stats in such a way to seat him at No. 5.

    His dWAR is just a hair below the Escobars' while his UZR bests the two by a greater margin, but it's his fielding percentage and RF that definitively solidify his higher ranking. The primary reason for Kozma sitting below the top four is the gap in composite metrics.

4. J.J. Hardy

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    J.J. Hardy is quintessential durability. He is always on the field. The 30-year-old has the most full innings played of all shortstops in the majors with 763. He was last year's Gold Glove winner as well as Wilson's Orioles' Defensive Player of the Year.

    If he wasn't on fans' radars before 2012, he is now. In an interview with Eduardo Encina of the The Baltimore Sun in 2012, Baltimore manager Buck Showalter had this to say about Hardy:

    He’s making two or three plays every night and it was so impactful. And I happen to think J.J.’s substance is his style. I don’t know if flashy is the word, but he can do things that other people can’t do.

    I'd say the Hardy play shown above falls under "things that other people can't do." It's a combination of control, cat-like reflexes and pure athleticism. Here's the skinny on Hardy:

     

    Composite Metrics

    Once in a while, there's a UZR/dWAR discrepancy, and Hardy is a curious case of that. His UZR is just 2.7 which is 11th-best, but his dWAR slots him as third from the top. The tiebreak deciding where Hardy is on the continuum ranging from average to elite is a DRS of seven, which is also good enough for third-best.

     

    Component Metrics

    While Hardy's RF is just 4.02 (seventeenth), his DPR on 1.0 (third-best) is quite impressive, considering the fact that, throughout the years, it has constantly been up in the air as to who his double playmate will be (this happens when you have the oft-injured Brian Roberts as your projected starting second baseman).

     

    Fielding percentage: .983 (10th)

    Hardy makes it into the top four due to the current number of weighty third-place standings he holds. He's clearly a level up from the Escobars and narrowly tops Kozma in terms of his composite metrics, which is why he falls above them, but his UZR, RF and fielding percentage are underwhelming when compared to the remaining three on this list.

3. Troy Tulowitzki

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    Troy Tulowitzki is not your typical shortstop. While most middle infielders are on the shorter side and scrawny, Tulo is listed at 6'3", 215 pounds.

    In March, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports averred that "he manages the defensive wizardry of a player three inches and 20 pounds smaller." In 2011, he won his second Gold Glove of his career. While being injury-plagued has brought up questions about whether or not he's still suited for the rigors of shortstop, he remains one of the best.

     

    Composite Metrics

    Tulo's UZR of 6.5 is good enough for second-best of shortstops in the majors, while his 0.8 dWAR has him in a three-way tie for ninth place and his DRS of five in a tie for fifth. 

     

    Component Metrics

    Tulowitzki's RF of 4.89 is third-best among qualifying shortstops. Although the remaining candidates hold the top two RFs, Tulo's range is arguably more impressive given that his genetic makeup is atypical for a shortstop. But as seen above, he can lay out with the best of 'em. His DPR of -0.2 is below-average at 17th in the league. 

     

    Fielding percentage: .996 (first)

    Tulo's UZR, range and fielding percentage could have him vying for runner-up on this list, but unlike Hardy, his durability is a blaring issue.

    His latest injury is a broken rib that he suffered in the second week of June, and while he may return soon, staying on the field has never been his strong suit. The top two are both flashier, statistically range from a little bit to overwhelmingly better, and when it comes down to it, healthy.

2. Pedro Florimon

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    The consensus is that the Minnesota Twins have finally found an everyday shortstop. In an interview with Tyler Mason of Fox Sports North, Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan noted Florimon's natural talent:

    The one thing that we've always talked about with Florimon, he's got every skill you're looking for out of a shortstop, but it's a matter of finishing the plays. He's finishing plays. He's certainly not a guy that you have to worry about, "All right, what's going to happen." You don't have to guess.

    As seen in the accompanying video, Florimon has quick hands and is generally speedy. While he occasionally sacrifices accuracy in the name of pizzazz, he's considered by most measures to be one of the most elite shortstops in the game.

     

    Composite Metrics

    While Florimon's UZR of 5.9 slots him in fifth place among qualifying shortstops, his dWAR of 1.4 and his noteworthy DRS of nine are second-best in the league.

     

    Component Metrics

    It's hard to top this list's No. 1 in anything, but Florimon does so in range with an RF of 5.59 (first). His DPR of 0.2 has him in a three-way tie for 10th.

     

    Fielding percentage: .977 (five-way tie for 11th)

    Florimon out of the bunch is seemingly worthless on offense (he has a lifetime .220 average), but he makes up for it by covering ground in the middle infield like no one else can.

    He's above Tulo due to a talent-infused blend of composite and component metrics, but there's still no contest between him—or the rest of those who rank—and the No. 1 on this list.

1. Andrelton Simmons

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    When it comes to defense—shortstops and beyond—the caliber of Andrelton Simmons' talent is rivaled by few.

    If the video above isn't enough the to convince you, check out this barehanded snag.

    Simmons was just named the Defensive Player of the Month for June by ESPN. In an interview with Mark Simon of ESPN (found in the preceding link), Braves general manager Frank Wren had this to say about the phenom:

    To go along with great hands, arm and athleticism, he has excellent awareness on the field. His ball exchange and quickness of his arm are the true separators.

    The quickness of the exchange on his relays and DP turns are as good as I have ever seen, and have been instrumental in saving a number of games.

    Just how great is Simmons? Here's the rundown:

     

    Composite Metrics

    Simmons is unparalleled here. His UZR of 11.3, dWAR of 3.1 and DRS of 24 are the best of all shortstops. Even if you cut all of Simmons' composite stats in half, you'd still probably have a player who ranks in the top 10.

     

    Component Metrics

    Simmons' RF of 5.04 and DPR of 1.2 are both second among all qualifying shortstops.

     

    Fielding percentage: .985 (tied for eighth)

    Simmons is No. 1 because not only does he lead UZR, dWAR and DRS, but he leads them by an enormous margin. While he trails one player in both RF and DPR, these margins are miniscule in comparison. What's even scarier is his age: Simmons is only 23. He won't be slowing down anytime soon.