Omar Vizquel and the 25 Best Defensive Infielders in MLB History

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IDecember 5, 2011

Omar Vizquel and the 25 Best Defensive Infielders in MLB History

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    When voting on whom to put in the Hall of Fame, both the writers and players take into account far too little of what it means to be truly great in the game of baseball. Throughout MLB history, players have been passed over time and again because those two groups fail to appreciate certain types of greatness.\

    Sometimes, the guys who miss the cut are those who simply do not play long enough to appease some notion of necessary longevity the writers admire greatly. Ralph Kiner suffered thus. He led the league seven times in home runs and three times in walks, and posted a .398 career on-base percentage in a 10-year career. The writers made him wait until his final shot, his 15th ballot, to enter the Hall, despite his dominance.

    More often, though, players get left out because they possess certain skills that the majority of writers fail to appreciate. Most prominent of those skills is a solid glove, especially on the infield.

    Writers are rarely wrong about who the great outfielders are. They make mistakes when handing out Gold Gloves, but almost all outfielders derive their primary value from offense, so it matters little in Cooperstown debates.

    On the dirt, though, they get hazy. Flash is sometimes confused for substance. Range, the most important factor in defensive aptitude, often gets lost in the shuffle when evaluating a defensive infielder. Even when the Hall of Fame is out of the question, or when a player is a lock, the problem of defensive evaluation leaves too many writers with unclear or downright wrong pictures of who guys who play second base, third base and shortstop really are. To set the record straight, here are the 25 best defensive infielders of all time.

25. Rey Ordonez

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    New-age defensive metrics are terrific, and a major basis for the formulation of this list. They capture range, rather than simply counting errors and great plays. They're the future of defensive evaluation.

    They are not, however, terribly reliable in single-season samples. Since they're also measurements of performance relative to average, rather than replacement or absolute runs saved, they do not allow us to definitively identify the best defensive season ever.

    If they did, though, it says here that Rey Ordonez's 1999 season as the starting shortstop for the New York Mets probably takes the title. He could not hit and his time as an elite shortstop was short, but while he shone, he shone as brightly as perhaps any player in the history of the position.

24. Troy Tulowitzki

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    Tulowitzki is barely 27 years old. He's only played five full big-league seasons. Yet, he is making a case already to join the elite ranks of defensive shortstops in MLB history.

    He has a rocket arm, and uses it exquisitely. He simply refuses to be rushed, relying on economy of motion and using his whole body on every play. He has won two consecutive Gold Gloves, and deservedly so. As advanced numbers get more refinery, Tulowitzki will be the first truly supernal fielder whose entire career will be captured by those figures.

23. Chase Utley

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    Just as he has been a catalyst for Ryan Howard's success at the plate, Chase Utley keeps Howard viable at first base with his superior play at second base.

    His range to his left keeps Howard from having to range much, which is important because Howard cannot. His arm allows him to cheat toward first and still make running throws back to the bag while moving up the middle. Incidentally, he's also scored 161 of the 864 runs Howard has driven in over his career.

    Someday, these guys will share a Hall of Fame ballot. The defense will take a backseat to home runs and RBI, and Howard will get more votes than Utley. That's sad.

22. Gil McDougald

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    McDougald played only 10 seasons. He retired at age 32, for reasons both personal and professional. He's remembered best as the man who nearly blinded Herb Score with a line drive that hit the studly young pitcher in the right eye.

    That's a shame, because McDougald was a wizard at all three important defensive positions on the infield. He shared time at all three, serving as a roving sort of nearly full-time player. He was used best and most often at second base, where he teamed very nicely with Tony Kubek.

    Frankly, though no one recalls McDougald this fondly, the man was on a track toward legitimate Cooperstown candidacy. Alas, a combination of hearing loss stemming from being struck by a line drive in batting practice and the specter of being stolen from the perennial champion Yankees by one of the expansion teams drafting to kick off in 1961 led McDougald to hang up his leather. Still, he was one of the great versatile glove men ever to sift dirt through their cleats, and an underrated batter besides.

21. Adam Everett

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    Call him Groundhog.

    Everett was born February 2, 1977, presumably with a glove on his hand. His range makes him a fairly good comp for a groundhog, too, and his hands were as good when charging soft grounders or sliding toward the hole as anyone who has ever played shortstop. His peak was short, but while he was at the height of his powers, he was an All-Star caliber player purely on the strength of his glove.

    He spent too much of his career focusing on trying to learn to hit, and never did. His best years were before he left Houston, where he was happy aiming for the short porch in left field and stopping opponent grounders from getting anywhere near it.

20. Bobby Grich

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    No clearer case of under-appreciated skills denying a deserving candidate induction to Cooperstown exists. Bobby Grich learned and grew while sharing the Baltimore Orioles infield with both Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger. He won four Gold Gloves there.

    He then moved on to the California Angels, where he continued to be an excellent defensive second baseman. Grich should have won another Gold Glove in 1985, and somewhere in the course of his 17-year career, he should have had a few top-five MVP finishes. He never got inside the top seven.

    Grich hit .300 just once. He had just one 30-homer season and one other exceeding 20 homers. He never stole 20 bases. He was a .266 career hitter. The writers, thoroughly unimpressed, knocked him off the ballot after one season. Yet, he had a .371 career OBP, and given his defensive and positional value, Grich should have merited at least 50 percent of the vote at some stage.

19. Ron Hansen

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    At a time when shortstops were usually shorter than six feet and weighed fewer than 180 pounds, Hansen was a sturdy six-foot-three, 200-pound Nebraskan athlete. While most infield instructors of the day pushed quick hands and light feet, Hansen simply stormed after the baseball with long, lithe movements and excellent body control.

    His range and arm were ill-appreciated for their difference. After being the best defensive shortstop in baseball in 1961, Hansen got no Gold Glove. Instead, the following year, he lost his job due to a blend of injuries and offensive anemia. After the 1962 season, the Baltimore Orioles dealt him (among others) to the Chicago White Sox for (among others) Luis Aparicio.

    For the next two seasons, Hansen mostly stayed healthy, and became once again the best defender of the shortstop spot anywhere in the game. He kept that title for both 1963 and 1964, before injuries began to eat at him and eroded his career.

18. Roy McMillan

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    In 16 seasons, Roy McMillan cost his teams (mostly the Cincinnati Reds, later the Milwaukee Braves and New York Mets) 239 runs at the plate, according to Baseball-Reference. How does such a player accomplish such a long career? This tidbit, from a 1957 story in Sports Illustrated, holds the answer:

    Shortstop Roy McMillan, for instance, is one of the great fielding shortstops of all time. Here is a ballplayer who quite literally thrills those who follow baseball closely. Daily he does quietly in the infield what Willie Mays does spectacularly in the outfield: he makes the impossible plays, plays that others make only in daydreams.

    He won three Gold Gloves, and at his peak, turned that prowess at the diamond's most premium position into top-shelf value. He was small and his arm was only slightly above-average, but his quickness made up for all of that. He's not remembered as prominently now, but he was a dominant defender.

17. Wade Boggs

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    Consistent doesn't do Boggs justice. He was a net positive at the hot corner in 16 of his 18 big-league seasons. He had quick hands, economic footwork and a knack for (like a center fielder might) moving in anticipation as a pitch came home. 

    Boggs defected from the Red Sox to the Yankees, and eventually promised his Hall of Fame plaque to the Devil Rays, but he was as tenacious about defending the hot corner as he was unscrupulous about personal and professional loyalties.

16. Adrian Beltre

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    It's possible that no third baseman has ever been as well-rounded a fit for the position as is Beltre. He does it all well.

    Beltre's glove-to-hand transfer is smoother than any in recent memory. He could be a second baseman in this regard. It's as handy a trick when starting a 5-4-3 double play as it is when charging high, slow hoppers. His arm is strong and dead-eye accurate.

    Beltre also had the little things down. His glove moves well to adjust to bad hops, knuckling line drives and errant throws. He knows how to guard the lines, and when not to. He protects the bag like a catcher blocks home plate on pick-off throws, as Matt Holliday found out the hard way during the World Series.

    Beltre caught some flak for his inability to stay healthy and offensively outstanding after a breakout year in LA earned him a megadeal in Seattle. His glove work, though, made him partially impervious to the ravages of SafeCo Field on offensive production, and Beltre was more valuable than most fans realized even during those years.

15. Mike Schmidt

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    Schmidt hit a lot of home runs, walked a lot and struck out a lot. From that, too many fans retroactively conclude that he was a lumbering power hitter, and little else.

    In fact, Schmidt was a great athlete near the third base bag. The quick wrists and long arms that made him a great power hitter also made him a sure-handed fielder and accurate thrower. He didn't have elite quickness, but he made up for it by positioning himself well, trusting his hands and getting rid of the ball quickly even if it took him an extra beat to reach it. That's how Schmidt won 10 Gold Glove awards.

14. Craig Counsell

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    Counsell is a fascinating guy whose career arc is unique. He's been an everyday shortstop once and an everyday second baseman twice, but he has spent most of his career coming off the bench, playing three infield positions regularly, and dominating defensively at each.

    Known best for his quirky batting stance and for scoring the winning run of the 1997 World Series (he also won a ring in 2001 with the Diamondbacks), Counsell is also a wizard with the leather about anywhere on the infield. 

    From 2001 to 2006, Counsell got a substantial amount of playing time for essentially the only six times in his career. During that span, he saved 85 runs, while playing over 1,500 innings each at second base, third base and shortstop. A Wisconsin native, he's settled down to finish his career in his home state, and though he'll never be remembered as brightly as some of his fellows on this list, he is their peer in at least this one regard.

13. Graig Nettles

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    Nettles has a valiant Hall of Fame case, though ultimately, perhaps not a salient one. He hit 390 home runs, but was a bit one-dimensional with the bat. What made him great was his defense.

    Brooks Robinson won six of the first seven Gold Glove awards Nettles earned, but he still grabbed two in his 22-year career. From 1970-78, Nettles averaged 17 runs saved at third base, and his overall average WAR for those nine seasons was 5.2. He lived in the shadows of greater third basemen, but looking purely at the leather, few have been better than Nettles.

12. Bill Mazeroski

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    Bill Mazeroski's shining moment came in October, 1960. In Game 7 of the World Series, he launched a walk-off home run that gave the Pittsburgh Pirates the title, beating with one stroke the mighty New York Yankees--who outscored Pittsburgh 55-27 in the Series even so.

    That's the best story of the career of the man they called 'Maz.' It's the one that put him in the Hall of Fame, however speciously (he finished with a .299 career OBP). But it's hardly microcosmic of that career.

    Mazeroski was not actually a hitter at all. He was a slick-fielding second baseman who batted more out of obligation than inspiration. He was good enough from that perspective alone, though, to keep a job for a decade and a half, and win another World Series with the Pirates in 1971. He was the premier second baseman of his era, a specialist in turning the double play.

11. Scott Rolen

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    Underrated defense comes in many packages, but most frequently, it seems, in the form of a power-hitting third baseman. Rolen has always been appreciated for his glove, but it's easy to understate his impact.

    At third base, lateral quickness is less important than having fast-twitch actions and a rapid catch-throw transition mechanic. A player must be able to accommodate bad hops and strange trajectories, not to mention extremely high velocities, more urgently than they must be able to demonstrate absolute range.

    Rolen is the physical, mental and habitual prototype of a third baseman. He has enough straight-line speed to reach bunts and slow choppers quickly, but the hand strength and body control to snag and throw them without rushing. He has won eight Gold Gloves, spaced over 13 years to prove his longevity.

10. Rey Sanchez

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    Despite a park-adjusted OPS 31 percent worse than league-average for his career, Rey Sanchez carved out a 15-year MLB tenure. He did it with his leather. According to Total Zone Runs on Baseball-Reference, Sanchez was five times the most valuable shortstop in the National League, and once the most valuable second baseman in the American League, at least with the glove. He earned five Gold Glove awards, but won none.

    The curse of such players is usually to drift from one team to another for eternity, and indeed, Sanchez played for nine teams in his career. Every winter, it seemed, someone would hem and haw and wonder whether the offensive atrocity was worth the defensive return. Each year, someone decided to risk it. Sanchez might not have been much, but what he did, he did very well.

9. Buddy Bell

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    Like Nettles, Bell is overlooked as a very useful player at an important position. He didn't have Nettles' nine-year run of great success but at his peak (1979-84), he was arguably even better. During that span, he was the best defensive third baseman in the game (Nettles having passed his prime), won six Gold Glove awards and racked up 5.8 WAR per season, according to Baseball-Reference.

    His Hall of Fame case certainly doesn't hold up well, but at his peak, Bell was a slick and very creative fielder at third base. He made life easier on his shortstops than perhaps any third baseman ever has.

8. Clete Boyer

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    Strictly speaking, Clete was not even the best Boyer to play baseball in the 1960s. His brother Ken was better at bat, had a higher peak and even won an MVP award.

    Clete, though, was something special with the glove. He seemed to be dirty from the waist up even as the game began, so often did he dive to stab would-be hits. The Yankees of those years hardly needed another slugger; that was the job of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra. Boyer filled his role admirably, though, and provided top-shelf defense behind a contact-oriented pitching staff for a fistful of World Series champion teams.

7. Cal Ripken, Jr.

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    Ripken is remembered for helping to reinvent the shortstop position as a haven for big, hard-hitting athletes. He's also remembered for his durability. Those are perfectly valid.

    The lack of recognition Ripken gets for his achievements afield, though, boggle the mind. He was a superstar fielder at baseball's most important position, particularly as his fundamental skill and athleticism intersected at the optimum point in his late 20s and early 30s.

    Ripken had a season to remember in 1991, winning his second AL MVP and adding 11 wins to Baltimore's ledgers all by himself. A big chunk of that value came from his defense, which was the best of his career that year.

6. Omar Vizquel

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    Omar Vizquel has spent too much of his career as the short man in long shadows. He made his big-league debut the same day, in the same lineup, as Ken Griffey, Jr. The Seattle Mariners traded him to the Cleveland Indians in order to clear the way for a young shortstop named Alex Rodriguez.

    In Cleveland, Vizquel played alongside Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Matt Williams and Roberto Alomar. Kenny Lofton, David Justice, Albert Belle and Carlos Baerga had big years in Cleveland and outshone Vizquel for much of his decade by Lake Erie. He then went to San Francisco, where he served more or less as a mentor and a PR boost for the Giants--who had a hulking, sulking PR nightmare playing left field every day. Since then, he's become a bench player.

    Moreover, he exists within a shadow that hung over him from birth. Vizquel is a Venezuelan shortstop, a distinction that means something more than anyone who is neither Venezuelan nor a shortstop can imagine. He has played for over two decades with the burden of expectations created by Luis Aparicio, Chico Carrasquel, Dave Concepcion and Ozzie Guillen. Vizquel was entrusted to extend the dynasty of Venezuelan shortstops into a new generation, and he did so with magnificent grace.

    He's the best bare-handed fielder ever to slip on a glove. He owns 11 Gold Glove awards. He has played more games than anyone in MLB history at shortstop, and more games than any other Venezuelan at any position. 

5. Pee Wee Reese

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    Chemistry between double-play partners is a critical concern. If it's not there, the infield defense will be dysfunctional.

    Pee Wee Reese well knew that. He was a four-year veteran by 1947, and had already established himself as the National League's premier defensive shortstop. When Jackie Robinson arrived on the Dodgers' roster, Reese was not exactly welcoming, but he certainly left the door open.

    By mid-season, the two were close, and the Brooklyn double-play duo was a chugging machine. Reese ended up being more famous for his willingness to reach out to a teammate of a different color than for anything he ever did while the ball was in play, but he and Robinson both deserve as much credit for working in sync on the field as for breaking barriers all around it.

4. Luis Aparicio

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    Aparicio was the first iconic Venezuelan shortstop, and retains that status even today. His number 13 became a source of identity for his cultural and competitive descendants, including Omar VIzquel and Ozzie Guillen. His smoothness and gusto in turning double plays set a new standard, as did his darting, scoop-and-fire quickness on sharp ground balls to his right.

    Like Vizquel and the others, Aparicio was never much of a hitter, but he more than made up for it. He was a winning player, as evidenced by one pennant (with the 1959 White Sox) and a World Series ring (won with the 1966 Orioles). Aparicio is also notable for his contact ability at the plate.

3. Brooks Robinson

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    They called him the Vacuum Cleaner, but that's insufficient. Whereas a vacuum cleaner is tethered to fixed radius by its cord, it seemed like Brooks Robinson could get to the baseball anywhere on the diamond. He made as many sensational plays going into foul territory and launching long throws to first base as he did diving far to his left on sharp ground balls and liners.

    Robinson the complete player was overrated, but his defense was every bit as good as the storytellers say it was. He helped make the Baltimore Orioles pitching staff look much better than it was, and that group was not bad in the first place.

2. Mark Belanger

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    Consider these two things:

    1. At one point, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Bobby Grich were each in their prime, and shared the infield for Earl Weaver's Baltimore Orioles.
    2. Belanger came after Ron Hansen and Luis Aparicio, and preceded Cal Ripken as Orioles shortstop.

    Belanger is king of the glove men, in that he did nothing else and so was never distracted by things like hitting or running the bases well. He simply played shortstop as well as it has ever been played. At his best, he averaged 26 runs saved above average at short from 1973-78.

1. Ozzie Smith

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    He's in the Hall of Fame for the trademark flip and the big home run in 1985, and a good case can be made that Ozzie Smith doesn't belong there.

    But that need not color anyone's perception of Smith as a fielder. When he wasn't flailing at the plate, he was a legend. Writers had long tossed the word 'acrobatic' about willy-nilly when it came to great shortstop play; Smith showed them what a true acrobat could do out there. He dove, rolled, improvised, flipped both himself and the ball and generally found ways to make plays most players simply lacked the coordination and instincts to make.