By Mark Simon
We staged a Tournament of Defensive Excellence last week to pick the top defensive player of the 21st century, which we put to votes on Twitter in an NCAA-style competition. Andrelton Simmons edged out Matt Chapman to win the championship.
This got us to thinking about individual teams and whom we would select as the top defensive player of this century for each franchise. Using a combination of Defensive Runs Saved, Baseball-Reference’s Defensive WAR, Sean Smith’s Total Zone Runs, and general observation, we made a pick for each team. We did the NL teams yesterday, so we’ll do the AL teams today and include links to highlight videos with the players names where we can.
Third baseman Manny Machado is the choice over shortstop J.J. Hardy. Machado had three seasons with at least 15 Runs Saved, finishing in the top two at the position in each of those years. He peaked with 27 Runs Saved there in 2013.
Boston Red Sox
This is another one where a tie is necessary given that second baseman Dustin Pedroia has won four Fielding Bible Awards and Mookie Betts has won three. Pedroia led second basemen in Runs Saved twice and has recorded at least 10 Runs Saved six times. Betts is the only player to record at least 30 Runs Saved at an outfield position in two different seasons.
Chicago White Sox
“Alexei!! Yes!!” Yeah, we’ll go with Alexei Ramirez (the first-name reference was a callback to the final out of Mark Buehrle’s perfect game). He had three great years from 2010 to 2012 in which he finished among the top four shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved in each season.
Our runner-ups are Buehrle and Joe Crede. Buehrle won four straight Fielding Bible Awards at pitcher. Crede ranked top-five in Runs Saved by a third baseman three times with the White Sox.
With the sincerest of apologies to Francisco Lindor, we’re going to pick catcher Roberto Perez. Lindor is terrific, but he’s only finished in the top five in Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop once in his five-year career. Perez is coming off the best Defensive Runs Saved season by a catcher not named Yadier Molina. The previous five seasons, he put up fantastic numbers as a backup and stood out in pitch framing, pitch blocking, and shutting down the stolen base.
Highly-popular third baseman Brandon Inge was also highly adept at the hot corner. In 2006, the Tigers won the AL pennant. Inge was a key player on that team both with his bat and his glove, as he led third basemen with 21 Runs Saved. Inge followed that up with 17 more the next season. In all, he had four seasons with at least 10 Runs Saved at the hot corner and saved eight at catcher in 2003 before converting to the infield full-time. We’ll take him over Placido Polanco and Austin Jackson.
If you didn’t follow the Astros in the 2000s, you probably didn’t realize how good their shortstop Adam Everett was, because he rarely made the highlights for his hitting. Everett’s 34 Runs Saved in 2006 were the most at the position until Simmons had 40 in 2017. His 110 Runs Saved from 2003 to 2007 were the most of any player. He’s the choice over outfielders Jake Marisnick and Richard Hidalgo.
Kansas City Royals
We’re going to pick Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain in tandem here, perhaps a cop-out, but also a testament to how good both were. Gordon is a four-time Fielding Bible Award winner in left field, routinely posting great numbers with both his glove and his arm. Cain won the first of his three Fielding Bible Awards with the Royals and had three straight seasons with at least a dozen Runs Saved in center field. Playing side by side, they won a championship with the Royals in 2015.
Los Angeles Angels
We’re going to go Andrelton Simmons here for all the obvious reasons (he won our Tournament of Defensive Excellence, he’s about to pass Adrian Beltre for most Runs Saved, and he has the single-season mark for most Runs Saved, though Darin Erstad makes a compelling case too.
In the three seasons prior to the invention of Runs Saved, Erstad recorded 29, 14, and 39 Total Zone Runs (a stat that existed prior to DRS). Those are staggering totals. Erstad never replicated that in Runs Saved, perhaps because of injuries and his move to first base (where he did win a Gold Glove).
Center fielder Torii Hunter led the position in Runs Saved in 2003 and 2004, the first two years of existence for the stat, and he probably would have led it in one of the three previous seasons had the stat existed then. The choice here was between Hunter and Byron Buxton and the feeling was that Hunter proved his greatness over a longer period of time than Buxton has to this point.
New York Yankees
Outfielder Brett Gardner ranks sixth in Defensive Runs Saved, a stat that dates to 2003. That makes him better than all but one outfielder in that span (Jason Heyward) and it’s fair to say that makes him better than any Yankees player within that time. We won’t deny the greatness of Mark Teixeira at first base, but Gardner’s consistent excellence merit his selection here.
Third baseman Matt Chapman lost to Andrelton Simmons in the Finals of our Tournament of Defensive Excellence. That he made it that far is probably a tribute to both his greatness and to recency bias. Nonetheless, he’s simply too good not to pick, having led the majors in Runs Saved at third base in each of his first three seasons. He has more Runs Saved the last three seasons than any other third baseman has in the last five. Yes, Mark Ellis and Eric Chavez are also good choices, but it’s Chapman who emerges on top.
Ichiro Suzuki won 10 Gold Gloves (and three Fielding Bible Awards) in his illustrious career and currently ranks second in Defensive Runs Saved among right fielders. It’s a close call, but we’ll pick him over Adrian Beltre, Brendan Ryan and Kyle Seager. Perhaps it’s a sentimental choice (it helps that Beltre won for another team), but Ichiro’s numbers help make the pick a little easier. From 2003 to 2006, Ichiro averaged 15.5 Runs Saved per season and totaled 30 in 2004 to lead right fielders. In his prime, his arm was feared for its strength and its accuracy and he made many great plays with his glove.
Tampa Bay Rays
On a per-inning basis, you could make the case that there’s no one better or more valuable in the field than Kevin Kiermaier. Staying on the field has been challenging for Kiermaier, but he’s played enough to be labeled the Rays best defender of the 21st century. His 111 Runs Saved in center field are the most in MLB over the last five seasons. You could make cases for Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford but neither has a stat that matches up with that one.
It’s Adrian Beltre again, and it’s a testament to his excellence that he was a) selected as the defensive face of the 21st century for two teams (Dodgers being the other) and b)was picked here, despite his time here representing the back end of his career. Beltre saved 57 runs in eight seasons manning the hot corner, leading the majors in Runs Saved at the position in 2016. He was a little more consistently good than Ian Kinsler or Elvis Andrus, which is why we put him No. 1.
Toronto Blue Jays
There are three worthy options here in second baseman Orlando Hudson, and outfielders Alex Rios and Kevin Pillar. I don’t think there’s a wrong answer here. I’ll go Pillar for an intangible factor – fans of his dress up in Superman costumes as a salute to his defensive excellence. He did save 52 runs in center field in a three-year stretch from 2015 to 2017. Only Kevin Kiermaier saved more there in that time.