Pretty good (defense) for an old man
By MARK SIMON
One of the interesting articles in The Fielding Bible – Volume V – is about the defensive aging curve and the idea that a young player usually reaches his defensive peak very early in his career.
But even with that said, there are still players who perform at high levels when they’re considered to be old. I wanted to see who those were within the 17-season history of Defensive Runs Saved.
Let’s see what we’ve got.
Note: All references to age refer to the player’s age on June 30 of that season.
The player with the most Defensive Runs Saved in a season at age 40 or older is …
Omar Vizquel was a defensive wizard who aged well. He had 16 Runs Saved with the Giants as a 40-year-old in 2007. There aren’t many 40-year-olds in the majors these days that could rival Vizquel. Heck, there aren’t that many 40-year-olds in the majors any more. No one has had that many Runs Saved at age 39 or 38 either.
Ichiro Suzuki came the closest to matching Vizquel. Even at the end of his career, Ichiro could still make a strong impact in the outfield. He had 14 Runs Saved with the Yankees in 2013.
The player with the most Defensive Runs Saved in a season at age 37 or older is …
One of the most impressive things about Adrián Beltré’s Hall-of-Fame caliber career was how his numbers went against the aging curve. Beltré’s was someone who got better as a hitter he entered his 30s. Beltre was an excellent defender throughout his career. He had 17 Runs Saved in 2016 with the Rangers at age 37. He also hit .300 with 32 home runs that season.
The player with the most Defensive Runs Saved in a season at age 36 or older is …
Someone whose name I didn’t expect to see here. Rey Sánchez had 18 Runs Saved in 91 games as a shortstop with the Rays at age 36 in 2004. That put him just ahead of Beltré and former Mets second baseman José Valentín, who had 17 Runs Saved for the division titlists in 2006.
Age 36 is the last age at which there is a considerable sample of players who saved at least 10 runs in a season. Among the 36-year-olds to do that are Mark Grudzielanek (15 with the 2006 Royals), outfielders Marlon Byrd (12 with the 2014 Phillies) and Torii Hunter (12 with the 2012 Angels), and Hall-of-Famers Chipper Jones (10 with the 2008 Braves) and Larry Walker (10 with the 2003 Rockies).
The player with the most Defensive Runs Saved in a season at age 35 or older is …
Grudzielanek shows up here again, but not alone. He had 23 Runs Saved as a second baseman for the 2005 Cardinals, the same number that Craig Counsell had for the 2006 Diamondbacks.
More recently, former Diamondbacks catcher Jeff Mathis has 20 Runs Saved as a 35-year-old in 2018. He deserves considerable credit not only for doing this as a catcher, but for doing it in only 63 games behind the plate.
The player with the most Defensive Runs Saved in a season at age 34 or older is …
This is the last one we’ll do because Counsell puts everyone to shame with his 2005 season in which he saved 30 runs for the Diamondbacks.
What’s amazing about Counsell’s age 34-35 run was that he did it at two positions. His 30 Runs Saved in this year remains the standard-setter for second basemen (matched by Chase Utley of the Phillies in 2008). The next season, he moved to shortstop and recorded 20 of his 23 Runs Saved in 88 games there.
This reminded me of a quote I’ve shared a few times on this blog from former Padres manager Andy Green, who said he learned how to play defense by watching Counsell. Keep in mind that prior to 2013, Defensive Runs Saved combines Range & Positioning for infielders (post-2013 positioning is not factored into the Runs Saved total). Counsell was someone who knew where to go.
“I saw him instinctively moving around the diamond,” Green said a few years ago. “Every time a ball was hit, he was right where the ball was hit.
Counsell was one of those players who found ways to adjust. It’s not easy, but it’s possible and it’s something to watch as your favorite defenders get older.