The 10 Best Defensive Players in MLB Entering 2021 Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 8, 2021

The 10 Best Defensive Players in MLB Entering 2021 Season

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    With strikeouts rising on an annual basis, defense is becoming something of a dying art form in Major League Baseball. Yet some are doing what they can to keep it alive.

    We thought we'd honor these guys by counting down the top 10 defenders in MLB right now.

    We did our best to narrow down our list of candidates by looking for players who have been and still are standouts in the field. This way, we avoided overhyping defenders—e.g., Luis Robert, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Trent Grisham—who only just put themselves on the map in last year's 60-game season. 

    In actually ranking our 10 picks, we considered their defensive metrics and what, exactly, they bring to the table in the field. We wanted them to be prolific with the former and spectacular in the latter.

    We'll begin with some honorable mentions and then count down the top 10.

Honorable Mentions

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    Lorenzo Cain
    Lorenzo CainAaron Gash/Associated Press

    CF Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins

    His blazing speed has served him (and his metrics) well in the field, so it was tough to leave him out of the top 10. Our issue is that he just hasn't been able to stay healthy for a full season.

          

    CF Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers

    He opted out early in 2020 and he's about to turn 35 in April, so it's fair to have some reservations about how he'll perform in 2021. Ideally, he'll resemble the guy who had 68 outs above average between 2016 and 2019.

          

    C J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies

    Only one catcher is in our top 10, but this guy made it hard not to add a second. He's perhaps the best catch-and-throw guy behind the dish, and his framing is a lot better than it used to be.

           

    CF Victor Robles, Washington Nationals

    He led all outfielders with 22 outs above average in 2019, so he clearly has it in him to be a defensive wizard. We're just waiting on a larger body of work. 

         

    2B Kolten Wong, Milwaukee Brewers

    Here's a two-time Gold Glover who easily leads second basemen with 41 defensive runs saved since 2018. There just wasn't room for him in the top 10.

10. C Roberto Perez, Cleveland

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    No defensive position is more important than catcher, but the catch (sorry...not sorry) is that only so much of what catchers do can be quantified.

    The easiest things to quantify are how well they police the running game and how they help out their pitchers, be it through their framing or their blocking. To these ends, Cleveland has a dandy in the person of Roberto Perez.

    His framing is generally excellent and his catch-and-throw talent is as good as it gets. He led the American League with a 41 percent caught-stealing rate in 2019, and then all of MLB at 71 percent in 2020.

    Yet Perez's best talent is surely his blocking. He's never had more than five passed balls in a season, and he's recorded zero in each of the last two campaigns. Out of all catchers who caught at least 1,200 innings since 2019, the next-lowest figure in the passed balls category is seven.

9. SS Nick Ahmed, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Though he made his major league debut in 2014, it's only in the last three seasons that Nick Ahmed has established himself as a dependable everyday presence for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

    In the process, his defensive contributions have been nothing short of astounding. He had 10 more outs above average than any other defender in 2018, and his 51 total defensive runs saved since that season rank second behind only Matt Chapman.

    If this is coming as a surprise, it might be because Ahmed isn't actually much of a highlight-reel guy despite his excellent metrics. His defensive brilliance is more so a matter of efficiency, as he's a sure thing for outs on easy plays, not-so-easy plays and everything in between.

    But thanks to his strong throwing arm, Ahmed can and does make the occasional play in the hole and up the middle. So even if he isn't the most celebrated defensive shortstop, he's truly one who can do it all.

8. CF Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    It's hard to believe that Cody Bellinger started his pro career as an everyday first baseman.

    Indeed, that's just one of several positions that the Los Angeles Dodgers have used Bellinger at since his debut in 2017. He's logged over 1,900 innings at first base, but also over 1,000 in center field and hundreds in both right field and left field.

    Versatility-wise, Bellinger may never have another year like he did in 2019, in which he accounted for 27 defensive runs saved while moving between right field (20), center field (3) and first base (4). With Mookie Betts in right field for the foreseeable future, it's center and first or bust for Bellinger.

    But as evidenced by the MLB-high 11 outs above average that he racked up at those positions in 2020, that ought to be just fine with the Dodgers. It's as if Bellinger's exceptional athleticism and low-key dangerous arm are his tickets to excel at any position.

7. SS Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs

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    There may be no nickname in MLB right now that's more appropriate than "El Mago."

    From the moment he first debuted with the Chicago Cubs in 2014, Javier Baez has been a regular on highlight reels. The only question is which of his talents will be on display in a given highlight. It could be his quickness, his agility, his range, his strong arm or his uncanny tagging ability.

    Though Baez is nowhere near the top of the leaderboard in defensive runs saved since '14, that's partially a function of him having only settled in as Chicago's everyday shortstop in 2019. Since then, he's accounted for more DRS than any other player at the position.

    To their credit, the Fielding Bible voters have a better track record than Gold Glove voters of honoring Baez's brilliance. Whereas he only just won his first Gold Glove in 2020, he won his fourth Fielding Bible award last year.

6. SS Francisco Lindor, New York Mets

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    The New York Mets have previously had it pretty rough at shortstop, racking up fewer defensive runs saved at the position than any other team since 2015.

    Now along comes Francisco Lindor, who ranks fourth in DRS and second in ultimate zone rating among his fellow shortstops since that fateful '15 season.

    What's more, Lindor has achieved those numbers in style. According to Inside Edge Fielding data, he's been the best at converting plays rated as "unlikely" (40-60 percent out probability) and "remote" (10-40 percent out probability) out of all shortstops who played at least 6,000 innings between 2015 and 2019.

    Consider this confirmation for what your own two eyes have told you about Lindor's defense: If there's a ball he can't get to or a throw he can't make, they haven't been invented yet.

5. SS Andrelton Simmons, Minnesota Twins

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    It feels vaguely explicitly sacrilegious to have Andrelton Simmons rated so low, but we just can't help but be worried about the Minnesota Twins newcomer after what happened in 2020.

    Per both defensive runs saved and outs above average, he actually played below-average defense for the Los Angeles Angels last year. Maybe that was just small-sample-size noise. Or, maybe it was an unavoidable byproduct of him injuring his left ankle in back-to-back seasons.

    Regardless, it's safe to make the following assumption for 2021: If Simmons stays healthy, he's going to be an elite defender.

    Whether it's his quick reactions, his endless range or his strong arm, any one of Simmons' defensive qualities has been liable to stand out throughout his nine-year career. And given that he has by far more DRS and a higher ultimate zone rating than anyone since 2012, it's an outrage that he's won "only" four Gold Gloves. 

4. 3B Matt Chapman, Oakland Athletics

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    No thanks to a hip injury that ended his season early, last year wasn't Matt Chapman's finest hour on defense. He recorded a mere two for both defensive runs saved and outs above average.

    But when healthy—which he hopefully will be throughout 2021—he is arguably the best defensive player at any position. 

    Even though he didn't debut for the Oakland Athletics until June 2017, Chapman still leads all players in DRS over the last four seasons. For both 2018 and 2019, he wasn't just a Gold Glover but a Platinum Glove winner as well.

    Chapman is getting more reliable on routine and easy plays as time passes, and his athleticism and all-out effort level give him good range.  And any ball that he gets to is likely to be an out because his throwing arm, which once allowed him to hit 98 mph as a pitcher, is arguably the best of any infielder.

3. CF Kevin Kiermaier, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Kevin Kiermaier debuted for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013 and settled in as a regular in 2014. Then in 2015, he planted his flag as MLB's best defensive center fielder.

    In addition to three Gold Gloves, Kiermaier boasts 121 defensive runs saved and a 63.3 ultimate zone rating since the '15 season. Both marks are easily the best (see here and here) among his fellow center fielders.

    It's best not to blink when Kiermaier is on defense. His average sprint has topped 29 feet per second in each of the last six seasons, and he's quick both in reacting to the crack of the bat and in getting up to speed. As a result, he covers a ton of ground in a flash.

    Even if Kiermaier can't get to a ball, he's still a threat to make outs with his arm. Just ask fellow defensive wiz Cody Bellinger, who fell prey to a 101 mph throw from Kiermaier in 2019.

2. 3B Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Nolan Arenado has been in the majors for eight seasons now, and each of them has resulted in him winning a Gold Glove.

    That in and of itself is enough justification for the newest St. Louis Cardinal's inclusion in this list. But we'll add on anyway, starting with the fact that Arenado ranks third among all fielders in defensive runs saved since 2013.

    As for how he does it, the most underrated aspect of Arenado's defense is that he rarely ever screws up. Simply using errors as an example, he's made only 91 over 9,225 innings at third base. That's a rate of one boot for every 100 innings he plays.

    Of course, that's not what regularly lands Arenado on highlight reels. What gets him on those is how quickly he moves despite generally not being very fleet of foot, as well as his talent for making strong, accurate throws from every possible angle.

1. RF Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    The Boston Red Sox groomed Mookie Betts first as a second baseman and then as a center fielder, but he ultimately found his way to right field on a full-time basis in 2016.

    Since then, no player in MLB has accounted for more defensive runs saved or a higher ultimate zone rating.

    Now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Betts' athleticism does much of the heavy lifting for him on defense. He has above-average speed in general, and he's quick to react and get moving. And while there are more efficient route-runners, you'll never see him completely misjudge a ball in the air.

    All that allows Betts to have seemingly limitless range. And while he cuts a relatively diminutive figure at 5'9", 185 pounds, no runner should ever be in a rush to test his arm. So even if right field isn't atop the defensive spectrum, we'll posit that nobody in MLB plays his position better than Betts.

              

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. All videos courtesy of Major League Baseball, via YouTube.