The Best MLB Defender at Every Position in 2020 Season

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2020

The Best MLB Defender at Every Position in 2020 Season

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The abbreviated 2020 Major League Baseball season will feature many statistical anomalies. 

    That factored into our recent ranking of the best offensive performers, and it'll hold true with this look at the top defenders at each position this year.

    We used FanGraphs' defensive metrics as a guide but included the eye test and recent award results (i.e. Gold Gloves).

    There is a know-it-when-we-see-it aspect here, especially in a truncated campaign.

Pitcher: Zack Greinke, Houston Astros

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Zack Greinke is a six-time Gold Glove winner. At age 36, he could rest on his laurels. 

    But the right-hander doesn't have to do any such thing. He still checks in as the best defensive pitcher in baseball, and his glovework leads all MLB hurlers by a wide margin.

    The Astros will likely sneak into the postseason as the second-place finisher in the AL West. That may be their ceiling. But don't look for any other pitchers to surpass Greinke in the defensive department in 2020.

    Honorable Mention: Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

Catcher: Christian Vazquez, Boston Red Sox

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Christian Vazquez is 30 years old. He's controllable for the next two seasons with a $7 million club option for 2022. He's hitting .265 with five home runs. His biggest asset, though, is his defense, which rates best among big league backstops.

    Here's a highlight reel if you require visual evidence. Note the throws especially, which let you know why Vazquez ranks third among active catchers with a 39.5 percent caught-stealing percentage.

    The rebuilding Red Sox have a number of decisions to make regarding their roster. Vazquez's elite receiving capabilities make him both a foundational piece and an intriguing trade chip.

    Either way, he'll be a difference-maker behind the dish for someone.

    Honorable Mention: Austin Nola, Seattle Mariners/San Diego Padres

First Base: Matt Olson, Oakland Athletics

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The Oakland Athletics' Matt Olson won a pair of Gold Gloves in 2018 and 2019, and he's on pace for a third consecutive prize.

    Among qualified first basemen, Olson is second to Jose Abreu in defensive runs saved (five) and second to Anthony Rizzo in ultimate zone rating (2.7).

    As Alex Coffey of The Athletic put it, Olson "can read the game like a clairvoyant, anticipating how a baseball will bounce before it's batted."

    He's also hitting a scant .190 and will have to pick it up offensively to make up for the loss of All-Star third baseman Matt Chapman, who underwent season-ending hip surgery.

    With the leather, though, there are none finer.

    Honorable Mention: Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs

Second Base: Cesar Hernandez, Cleveland

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman Jose Ramirez rightly get most of the praise in Cleveland's infield, but Cesar Hernandez deserves some kudos at the keystone sack.

    The 30-year-old is having an underrated year with the bat, posting 16 doubles and a .263 average. Most essentially, though, he paces second basemen with a 4.0 UZR and is tied for second with five DRS, behind only Nicky Lopez.

    He gobbles up ground balls, has the range to make difficult plays look routine and has committed just three errors in 413.2 innings.

    As Jason Kipnis' heir apparent, he's doing his part to establish himself as an indispensable member of Cleveland's infield.

    Honorable Mention: Kolten Wong, St. Louis Cardinals

Shortstop: Francisco Lindor, Cleveland

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Speaking of Cleveland's middle infield, let's home in on a two-time Gold Glove winner (in 2016 and 2019) who is deserving of the honor again this year.

    Francisco Lindor leads all MLB shortstops with a 3.9 UZR. He's a human highlight reel whose ability to get to balls deep in the hole and make the throw are virtually unparalleled. 

    He's also 26 years old and set to hit free agency after the 2021 campaign. Penny-pinching Cleveland probably can't afford to keep him and may dangle him on the trade market this offseason.

    For the moment, he's a defensive wiz at a premium position on a squad with deep October aspirations.

    Honorable Mention: Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

Third Base: Nolan Areando, Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Nolan Arenado has won a Gold Glove for his play at third base every season since he reached the big leagues in 2013.

    Behold the highlights. There are at least a half-dozen plays there that possibly no other human being on the planet could have made. Arenado's combination of range and arm strength are truly breathtaking.

    You want stats? Arenado leads all players, not just those at his position, in UZR (6.7) and DRS (13). Watch him and you'll conclude no one holds down the hot corner with more aplomb. The numbers back that assertion up.

    Now, will the Rox trade him ahead of his potential 2021 opt-out? That's unknown. But Arenado's ability with the glove is undisputed.

    Honorable Mention: Manny Machado, San Diego Padres

Left Field: Tyler O'Neill, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Tyler O'Neill has been putting it together offensively for the St. Louis Cardinals as they fight for playoff position in the National League Central.

    The 25-year-old has also flashed his defensive credentials, leading MLB left fielders with eight DRS, and he's been drawing praise for his defensive capabilities from coaches and teammates since his rookie year in 2018.

    His athleticism allows him to get to balls other left fielders wouldn't dream of catching and makes the job of his fellow outfielders exponentially easier.

    Add up his leather and his lumber, and O'Neill will solidify his place as an essential part of the Cardinals future.

    Honorable Mention: David Peralta, Arizona Diamondbacks

Center Field: Trent Grisham, San Diego Padres

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Trent Grisham landed on the San Diego Padres' roster as a trade-deadline acquisition from the Milwaukee Brewers in November.

    The 23-year-old has an .821 OPS with nine home runs. Most eye-openingly, though, he's led all MLB center fielders defensively.

    He's displaying his skill on both offense and defense, as highlighted by The Athletic's Dennis Lin, and the Padres are appreciating it.

    "The way Grisham's moving off the ball, gliding, running down balls, that's been big," Padres manager Jayce Tingler told reporters

    Big indeed.

    Honorable Mention: Kevin Kiermaier, Tampa Bay Rays

Right Field: Stephen Piscotty, Oakland Athletics

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Athletics right fielder Stephen Piscotty is working his way back from a right knee injury. Oakland hopes the 29-year-old can recover in time to boost its postseason push.

    No matter what, Piscotty's 3.9 UZR, ranked No. 2 among right fielders, and No. 2 defensive rating make him a contender for the top slot at his position.

    Others can make their case. Our runner-up, Kole Calhoun, possesses a howitzer arm in addition to his superlative range.

    But Piscotty's overall D rates among the best in the game at any position.

    Honorable Mention: Kole Calhoun, Arizona Diamondbacks


    All statistics current as of Thursday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.