S.F. Giants: Their Greatest Defensive Player in History, Position by Position
Defense is one of the trickiest things in baseball. It's nebulous, intangible, very, very hard to measure and never truly appreciated until it's gone. The Gold Glove, one of baseball's most prestigious awards, is also one of the most criticized, as fans clamor for their own players to win the prize.
As sabermetrics and statisticians have developed more and better metrics to analyze offense, defensive metrics remain controversial and inefficient. What is an error? Is good defense defined by the ability to lay one's body on the line and make a diving play, or by the speed, range and instincts to get to the ball before the last second?
Given the lack of reliable information, sometimes it just comes down to anecdotal evidence, a player's reputation, and the faith his teammates have in him to make the play when it's necessary.
Here are the best defensive players in San Francisco Giants history for each position.
Pitcher: Kirk Rueter
For those who watched the Giants before the rise of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, Kirk Rueter was a mainstay of the pitching rotation. He was traded to the Giants in 1996 and played until he retired in 2005, and to this day remains the winningest left-handed pitcher in team history.
It's hard to understand how Rueter could be an effective pitcher without understanding the role his defense played. Rueter, who never had overpowering fastballs or strikeout stuff, posting just a 3.84 K/9 through his career and relied on pitching to contact and producing weak ground balls, often fielding them himself.
Rueter personally turned 47 double plays in his nine years on the Giants, including 11 in 2001, and made just five errors. He had a reputation as a good-luck charm, always squirming out of tough situations by eliciting a key ground ball just at the right time.
Catcher: Mike Matheny
Before the crash at home that ended Buster Posey's season, fans and the Giants management were beginning to worry about the toll that the catching position would take on Posey's body, particularly the repeated foul tips that bounced off his mask throughout the course of a game.
While concussions are naturally a concern throughout professional sports, this danger hits home especially profoundly for Giants fans who remember Mike Matheny.
Matheny, a three-time Gold Glove winner, joined the Giants in 2005 after the failed A.J. Pierzynski experiment. He won his fourth Gold Glove in 2005, when he started 127 games (117 complete games), committed just one error and turned 13 double plays. He also threw out a league-high 39 of 102 potential base-stealers (38 percent) and led the league in assists among catchers with 77.
Sadly, Matheny's career was cut short in 2006 when he was removed from a game after several foul balls struck his helmet. He suffered a serious concussion and never truly recovered from post-concussion syndrome. He retired before the 2007 season.
First Base: J.T. Snow
Today, when the first base position is defined by players like Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard and other big sluggers, it's tough to remember defense-first players like J.T. Snow.
Snow, the son of former St. Louis Rams wide receiver Jack Snow, had a similar build to his father's and was known for his skill with the leather rather than the pigskin. Snow played for the Giants between 1997 and 2005, and won four of his six Gold Gloves while wearing the orange and black.
He had a .995 fielding percentage throughout his career (63 errors in 13934 chances) and was known for his good hands and ability to scoop throws out of the dirt and save his teammates from getting errors. Snow retired in 2006 and remains an adviser and instructor in the Giants organization.
Second Base: Robby Thompson
If you start talking to a Giants fan today about an oft-injured second baseman with excellent defense and good instincts at the plate, they'll probably think you're talking about Freddy Sanchez. Ask a fan from the late '80s and '90s, and they'll know you're talking about Robby Thompson.
Before Freddy graced the shores of San Francisco, Thompson made up half of the double-play duo with Jose Uribe, sporting the orange and black from 1986-96. He won a Gold Glove in 1993 and All-Star berths in 1988 and 1993. He turned 873 double plays in his 11 years, and had a career fielding percentage of .983.
Thompson's career was limited by a string of injuries. He had knee surgery after his first major league season, and a pinched nerve in his leg made him miss the All-Star game in 1988. He had a leg injury again in 1993, and broke his cheek when he was hit by a pitch later that year, but finished the game in spite of it.
He was beaned again in spring training in 1994, and surgery on his shoulder took him out for the season in June of that year. He retired at age 34.
Shortstop: Omar Vizquel
Yankee fans have Derek Jeter and his gravity-defying plays at shortstop; Giants fans have Omar Vizquel from his four years with the team.
Vizquel has wowed fans for a long time—a very long time—and remains in the majors today as the league's oldest position player at age 44.
Vizquel, a three-time All-Star, won 11 Gold Gloves, including nine consecutive awards from 1993 to 2001, and two in his time with the Giants. Vizquel also tied Cal Ripken's record with 95 consecutive games without an error, the then-longest record for an American League shortstop.
Vizquel holds a career .985 fielding percentage (best among shortstops with at least 1,000 games played), and has turned 1,776 double plays in his 23-year career (most by a shortstop in history).
For the Gold Gloves that he won with the Giants, Vizquel set and re-set the record for oldest recipient of the award at shortstop (38 and 39 years old), and holds the record for most games played at shortstop ever. Given his skill and longevity, Vizquel continues to be an inspiration at the position.
Third Base: Matt Williams
While younger Giants fans may only think of Matt Williams as the third-base coach for the rival Arizona Diamondbacks, older fans remember Williams for his solid contributions to the Giants franchise.
Williams, aside from his tremendous power at the plate, was a solid defender at the hot corner. He won three Gold Gloves as a Giant, four total in his career, and was selected as an All-Star four times in his 10 years as on the Giants.
He made just 191 errors in 5,388 chances in his 17-year career, and his .963 fielding percentage was very impressive, compared to the league average of .952.
Left Field: Barry Bonds
I am a fan of Barry Bonds, let's just get that out of the way now. But before Barry Bonds became the controversial, divisive figure that will go down in history, he was a tremendously talented five-tool player.
Bonds won eight Gold Gloves in left field—five with the Giants—and set a standard for power and speed that has never been matched. His prowess in the outfield and his arm were stellar, and he put up tremendous numbers year after year.
His defense faded in his later years, as one would expect, and he relied more on reading hitters and positioning than raw speed as he aged. In his 22 seasons he had a .984 fielding percentage (97 errors in 5,907 chances) and made an impressive 173 assists.
Center Field: Willie Mays
It's really hard to understand what an amazing player Willie Mays was, and the attached video should give an idea of the skills this man had.
Aside from his goofy, video-game numbers at the plate and his massive home run power, Mays was consistently an elite fielder.
Mays won the Gold Glove in the award's first year of existence, and won 11 more Gold Gloves in a row after that. What's more, Mays tamed the wild outfield in the Polo Grounds in New York. The Polo Grounds were absolutely monstrous: just 279 feet to left field and 258 feet to right field, but 483 feet to center field. Keep that in mind in the video above, when you see how far and how fast Mays ran to catch the ball.
On top of his speed, he threw with amazing power and accuracy. After the catch in the film, Mays threw the ball all the way home to prevent a run. Mays had 195 outfield assists in his 22 seasons, and had a career fielding percentage of .981.
Mays has gone down in history as one of the best all-around players ever to play the game, and he absolutely deserves the adulation.
Right Field: Nate Schierholtz
Watching Nate Schierholtz play defense is absolutely amazing.
Aside from the occasional game-saving diving play, Schierholtz is best known for having an absolute cannon of an arm in right field.
One of my favorite memories of Schierholtz came last year (1:40 into the video above), when Ryan Howard hit a shot to right field. On what should have been an easy double, Schierholtz fielded the ball cleanly and fired it back into second base, picking off Howard as he walked the last few feet to the bag.
Schierholtz is by far the youngest player I've mentioned, but he's already made a name for himself because of his defense, often coming into Giants games late as a defensive replacement. He's become an expert on AT&T Park's quirky right field wall, and has made just six errors in his five seasons so far, with 25 outfield assists.
He has played right field almost exclusively, but moved to left field when the Giants acquired Carlos Beltran, and seems to be taking to left field quickly.