Who’s the best defender of the 21st century for each NL team?
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’ll do the National League teams today and include links to highlight videos with the players names.
Infielder Craig Counsell is the pick here (Brewers video, sorry!), just ahead of Nick Ahmed. We’ll reward Counsell for his 30 Defensive Runs Saved at second base in 2005 (which remains tied for the most at the position in a season) which he followed with a 20-Runs Saved season at shortstop in 2006.
Cubs bench coach Andy Green said he modeled his defensive game after Counsell’s because Counsell always seemed to know where he needed to be to make a play. That’s good enough for us.
We’ll go with both shortstop Andrelton Simmons and center fielder Andruw Jones, just ahead of Jason Heyward. Simmons won our 32-player Tournament of Defensive Excellence as the best defensive player of the 21st century, so that speaks for itself.
Jones lost to Simmons in the semifinals, but we’re not going to discount the eight Gold Gloves he won during the decade (among 10 overall) nor the three times in the 2000s that he led the NL in Defensive WAR (which used Total Zone Runs Saved, a predecessor to DRS).
Infielder Javier Baez won our Fielding Bible Award for multi-positional play three times and tied for the major league lead in Runs Saved by a shortstop in 2019, so he’s our pick, ahead of Anthony Rizzo. Baez has proven to be so great at defensive wizardry, enough to earn the nickname “El Mago” or “The Magician.”
There are a few options here. We’re going to pick center fielder Billy Hamilton over second baseman Brandon Phillips and first baseman Joey Votto. Hamilton had four seasons with at least 10 Runs Saved, finishing in the top eight among center fielders in each of those. Phillips would likely be the sentimental choice among Reds fans because of the many great plays he made, but overall we gauge Hamilton’s impact as a little greater.
Third baseman Nolan Arenado is the pick ahead of Troy Tulowitzki, though if you wanted to call this a draw, we wouldn’t object. Arenado has averaged 15 Runs Saved per season in his seven-year career. He’s won three Fielding Bible Awards and led third basemen in Runs Saved twice. Tulowitzki is certainly no slouch. He won three Fielding Bible Awards at shortstop. His 31 Runs Saved in 2007 are the fourth-most at the position in a season.
Los Angeles Dodgers
There’s only two years of Defensive Runs Saved data for third baseman Adrian Beltre with the Dodgers, but given that he saved 25 and 22 runs, good for second-most at third base in 2003 and 2004, we feel comfortable picking him as the top Dodgers defender. There were certainly other worthy candidates, including first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and catchers Yasmani Grandal and Russell Martin, but Beltre is too good to pass up.
The eye test and the numbers don’t match well for a number of Marlins, including those who won Gold Gloves in the 21st century. It feels like we should probably take Adeiny Hechavarria, Luis Castillo, Derrek Lee or Mike Lowell but would you crush us for taking Giancarlo Stanton?
Yes Stanton made a lot of mistakes in right field, especially in the early part of his career. But he was top five in Runs Saved there three times as a Marlin, peaking with 11 Runs Saved in his final season with the team. He’s the team’s all-time leader in the stat.
We’re guessing Marlins fans will not like this one, but that’s our pick.
Center fielder Lorenzo Cain has been with the Brewers for only two seasons, but he’s won two Fielding Bible Awards in that time at a premium position. He’s forcing his hand on this one with how good he’s been. He led NL center fielders in Runs Saved in 2018 and finished second in 2019, matching the single-season record for home run robberies in the process.
New York Mets
Similar to the Twins, this one comes down to a couple of center fielders. In this case, we’ll take Juan Lagares over Carlos Beltran. Lagares had three seasons as good or better than Beltran’s best defensive season with the Mets, saving 25 runs in 2013, 25 more in 2014, and 17 in 85 games in 2017. He finished in the top three at that position in each of those seasons.
Chase Utley ranks tied for eighth in total Defensive Runs Saved and most of that was done in a Phillies uniform from 2003 to 2015. Utley and Mark Ellis were the standard setters at second base. Utley’s 30 Runs Saved at the position in 2008 are still tied for the most at the position in a season. His fake-and-throw to help win Game 5 of the 2008 World Series against the Rays is still talked about by Phillies fans.
There’s no one close to Utley on the Phillies. His former double play partner Jimmy Rollins would probably be next in line, though for the short term (2000 to 2002), third baseman Scott Rolen was pretty great too.
Shortstop Jack Wilson edges out three-time left field leader in Defensive Runs Saved, Starling Marte, here. Wilson saved 32 runs in 2005, then 23 more in only 75 games in 2009 before being traded to the Mariners. He ended up leading the majors in Runs Saved as a shortstop that season with 28. Wilson was noted for making plays deep in the shortstop-third base hole, taking away base hits in high numbers.
San Diego Padres
Tony Gwynn Jr. and Adrian Gonzalez make for formidable options, but what catcher Austin Hedges has done the last three seasons beats out anything any Padres player has done. Hedges’ 52 Runs Saved are the most at the position in that time. He was the top pitch-framer by a considerable margin in 2019. The Padres are much better when he’s behind the plate than when one of his backups is.
San Francisco Giants
Asking Giants fans whom they would pick among shortstop Brandon Crawford or catcher Buster Posey seems the baseball equivalent of asking which child they would prefer. Since there’s no harm in it, let’s pick them both.
Crawford had back-to-back years of 22 and 25 Runs Saved in 2015 and 2016 and had a four-year run in which he ranked among the top five in that stat at shortstop. Posey led catchers in Runs Saved in 2015 and 2016 and has five other seasons ranking in the top five at catcher. His 121 career Runs Saved rank third among catchers behind Yadier Molina and Russell Martin since 2003.
St. Louis Cardinals
Yadier Molina is the all-time leader in Defensive Runs Saved for a catcher and that trumps anything that any other Cardinals player has done in this time. Molina has cemented a reputation as one of the best defensive catchers of all-time with his pitch-framing, pitch-blocking, and stolen base deterrence. On a lot of other teams, Albert Pujols or Scott Rolen would have done enough to be the pick, but not with this franchise. It’s Yadi, loud and clear.
In a couple years, the answer is probably going to be Victor Robles, who led all center fielders in Runs Saved in 2019. But for now, we’ll say Michael Taylor, who has played a very solid outfield in the limited time he’s played, totaling 31 Run Saved. Taylor saved 12 runs in 2017 and 13 in 2018, playing about two-thirds of a season in both years. He probably would have contended for a Fielding Bible Award if he’d played more, as he was a pitcher’s friend with how well he chased balls down and threw runners outs.