Over the last decade you’ve probably gotten used to certain names popping up among the shortstop Gold Glove and Fielding Bible Award winners.
Andrelton Simmons, Nick Ahmed, Brandon Crawford, Carlos Correa and Javier Báez are probably the first players you think of.
Although it may be too early to offer proclamations of excellence, the early-season editions of the Defensive Runs Saved leaderboard may offer some clues to some new names (ones not as well known as Wander Franco) trying to establish a high standard of defensive excellence.
We’ve already mentioned a couple of them – Astros rookie Jeremy Peña for one.
Peña has replaced Correa at shortstop and the Astros defense hasn’t missed a beat. Houston leads the majors in Defensive Runs Saved and Peña has hovered around the shortstop leaderboard since Day 1.
“Jeremy has shown elite defensive skills,” said Astros bench coach Joe Espada. “He has a quick first step and smooth and natural actions to both his left and right. He demonstrates good decision-making capabilities which will keep him at shortstop for his long-term future.”
Also in the AL West, the Angels have been right there with the Astros both in overall record and in shortstop defensive play.
This was a case in which the team had a change of plans. When shortstop David Fletcher got hurt early in the season, the Angels turned to Andrew Velazquez, a waiver claim from the Yankees.
Velazquez plays defense such that he lives up his nickname, “Squid.” Simply put, he has a lot of range.
And that’s not necessarily the best part of his game.
“What impresses me most about the way ‘Squid’ plays defense is how quick and smooth and accurate his arm is,’ Angels manager Joe Maddon said earlier this week. “He’s never in a hurry. He’s got this internal clock about him. I know that dog is man’s best friend. Squid is a pitcher’s best friend.”
In about a half-season’s worth of innings at shortstop, Velazquez has 10 career Defensive Runs Saved, in line with what an elite defender would do.
The Orioles have a long climb upward and prospects like Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez coming to lead the charge.
But another player, Jorge Mateo, may carve out a future role for himself if he keeps playing defense like he has this through the first month-plus of the season. He currently leads the majors in double play conversion rate, having converted 31 in 37 opportunities (84%).
“His athleticism, his range, his first-step quickness, the arm strength, the ability to throw the ball from all arm angles. ” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said, ticking off the list of Mateo’s attributes. “He’s got great footwork, so he’s always in position to make a strong throw, which is why we’ve turned so many double plays this year.”
Lastly, Nico Hoerner of the Cubs just went on the injured list, suffering a sprained ankle after colliding with an umpire. But before he did, he played as steadily at shortstop filling in for Simmons as he previously had at second base (9 Runs Saved in 68 career games at second). Maybe he won’t go back to shortstop when he returns, but wherever Hoerner plays, he impresses.
“Versatility isn’t the right word,” said Cubs broadcaster Doug Glanville. “He’s kind of the ultimate shift defender, a modern player who can function at a high level on defense no matter where they put him. He can go in the hole to his right, backhand and execute that really well.
And then you’ll see him shift on the right side of the field, play really deep and make throws from tough angles going right or left. He seems to teleport. He has good instincts, sense of fundamentals, and anticipates really well. He’s fun to watch.”
So watch out Andrelton, Nick, Brandon, Carlos, and Javier. There are some newcomers with dazzling ability coming for your awards.
For more smart baseball talk, check out the latest episode of our baseball podcast, featuring Padres outfielder, Tony Gwynn Jr.