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SOLID DEFENSE: AN IMPORTANT INGREDIENT TO WINNING GAMES.

It was a quiet afternoon in late September at Wrigley Field when an array of reporters gathered around the dugouts, discussing baseball and watching batting practice.

The topics of interest were the playoff races and the players favored to capture Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards. As names were discussed for MVP and top rookie honors, the offensive stats for these players were recited--home runs, RBI, on-base and slugging percentage, OPS and runs scored.

What appeared to be an afterthought were the defensive abilities of the candidates. Great defenders often are overlooked when it comes to individual awards, and Baseball Digest is equally at fault for often using offensive accomplishments as the guide to measure a player's value in naming our Player of the Year recipients.

Outstanding defensive players deserve recognition no matter what their on-base percentage, home-run output or RBI totals indicate about their production at the plate.

As Cubs manager Joe Maddon has always expressed, "Defense wins championships. To get to the Promised Land, we've got to catch the ball. Make the routine plays."

That's the key, making the routine play and getting the sure outs.

"You can judge good defensive players through their natural ability and how they move around the field without getting any instruction," said 11-time Gold Glove winner Omar Vizquel. "You can teach certain elements on how to play the position, but there is one thing you can't teach, and that is instincts. Instincts that a player has on balls that take bad hops, slow groundballs, the ball taking a detour or something like that. Making plays on those types of balls hit to you can't be taught. They have to be instinctive moves and that is what separates the good defensive players from the great ones.

"The final step I had to make before I was ready to play in the major leagues was to make the routine play," Vizquel said. "If shortstops show they can make the routine play 10 out of 10 times, there's a pretty good chance they'll stay with a big-league club. Obviously there are going to be spectacular plays made, but managers lose their head when there is a groundball they expect you to make the play on and you don't make it. So infielders have to make sure they consistently make the routine plays.

"I think my strength was that I made the routine play and I thought about the game, how plays were going to develop outside the box, and not staying mechanical when making the same plays all the time. You have to improvise a little bit and I think the way I analyzed the game allowed me to stay in the game longer. I studied how hitters hit the ball and always knew who was pitching and how they worked certain hitters. I would then position myself around those situations."

To give great defensive players their due--using defensive stats DRS (Defensive Runs Saved, indicating how many runs a player saved or hurt his team in the field compared to the average player at his position, with a score of zero being average), range factor, putouts, assists and errors--here is one writer's selection, excluding pitchers, for a 2017 All-Defensive Team:

1B: PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT, D-BACKS

Although Cincinnati's Joey Votto and 2016 N.L. Gold Glove Award winner Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs make this a tough choice, Goldschmidt gets the nod. He was among MLB leaders for defensive runs saved (10) at his position, with Rizzo having a DRS of 10 and Votto with a league-leading 11.

Since 2015, Goldschmidt ranks as the best first baseman in the majors at handling poor throws from other infielders--93.2 percent scoop rate. As for range, Goldy's 8.99 range factor ranked second in the majors behind Mark Reynolds' 9.28, and Goldschmidt finished with a .997 fielding percentage.

2B: DJ LeMAHIEU, ROCKIES

After capturing the N.L. Gold Glove Award in 2014 and winning a batting title in 2016, LeMahieu continues to round out his all-around game with outstanding defense. He led all MLB second basemen in assists, ranked third with a .989 fielding percentage, third with a 4.71 range factor, and his nine defensive runs saved (DRS) was tops among players at his position--edging Ian Kinsler (6), Whit Merrifield (5) and Brandon Phillips (5).

"He's not the flashiest player at his position, but he makes the plays," manager Bud Black said. "He covers a lot of ground and he positions himself well. He's got good hands and is smooth on his feet. He'll make the routine play, turn the double play and, like most great defensive players, he'll make the spectacular play."

3B: NOLAN ARENADO, ROCKIES

Arenado is the Brooks Robinson of the 2010s. He has won the Gold Glove in each of his four major-league seasons and should win his fifth in 2017. Arenado has all the tools a great defender at third needs: good hands, quick feet, strong arm and tremendous instincts. He led MLB third sackers in assists, fielding percentage (tied with Anthony Rendon) and in DRS with a 20, while placing first overall among players at his position with a defensive WAR of 2.3.

"I've worked hard to be a good defensive third baseman," Arenado said. "I take a lot of pride in my defense, and for me the final step at being able to play the position was my foot work. I always had good hands and a strong arm, but once I learned how to be quick and move to the ball, everything fell into place for me."

SS: ANDRELTON SIMMONS, ANGELS

At a position filled with young players developing into outstanding defenders, Simmons is the top defensive shortstop in the game. In 2017, he ranked No. 1 in DRS (32), and was among the leaders in fielding percentage, assists, putouts, innings played and range factor. The 28-year-old Simmons led all players with a 4.2 defensive WAR reading and holds the highest single-season defensive WAR mark in history, when he registered a 5.4 reading in 2013. As a two-time Gold Glove Award winner, Simmons is the premier defender at his position.

LF: MARCELL OZUNA, MARLINS

Ozuna is probably the best athlete among players at his position, a spot at which three other players deserve mention for their defense; Justin Upton of the Angels, Brett Gardner of the Yankees and Alex Gordon of the Royals have been considered solid leather men in left. Ozuna put up outstanding offensive numbers in 2017, with 37 homers, 124 RBI and a .924 OPS, but his defense was just as impressive. He finished second at his position in DRS with 11, behind Gardner (17) and just ahead of Gordon (9) and Upton (8). Ozuna's .984 fielding percentage ranked fourth in MLB (five errors), but he finished second in total chances (320), putouts (305) and range factor (2.07) behind Upton, who had 335 total chances, 318 putouts and a 2.17 range factor. But Upton committed eight errors (.976 FA), most among left fielders with 100 or more games played.

CF: BYRON BUXTON, TWINS

Buxton was frequently showcased in highlight reels with his outstanding catches in center field, and manager Paul Molitor frequently indicated that his young center fielder's defensive play was an immeasurable component to Minnesota's success. Buxton's league-leading 24 defensive runs saved among players at his position is no surprise. His routes to balls, along with his ability to track difficult flyballs and line drives, are excellent and he makes all the routine plays. Although his arm is not highly rated, his defensive play scores high praise from teammates. "That guy has changed the game for our pitching staff more than anybody," teammate Brian Dozier told Pioneer Press reporter John Shipley. "And I'm not talking about the running-up-against-the-wall catches; I'm talking about even little bloopers in the gaps, plays that people don't really see. I don't care if he hits .180; that guy changes the game more than anybody I've seen in this game over my six years, defensively."

RF: MOOKIE BETTS, RED SOX

When speaking about top-rated defensive stars that play right field, the two names that quickly come to mind are Betts and Jason Heyward of the Cubs. Both players make the position look easy to defend and cover a lot of ground. But with Betts playing more games and almost twice as many innings in right, he gets the nod as the position's best performer. In 2017, he led all bigleague outfielders with 31 defensive runs saved and ranked first among right fielders with 366 putouts, 379 total chances and a 2.44 range factor. He doesn't have the strongest throwing arm, but Betts gets the ball in quickly with accuracy, which often keeps runners from attempting to take an extra base.

C: TUCKER BAPIMHART, REDS

Even with 2016 Gold Glove Award-winning catchers Yadier Molina of St. Louis and Salvador Perez of Kansas City still going strong, Cincinnati's Barnhart is quietly emerging as the game's best defender behind the plate. In 110 games, he led all catchers in assists (89), DRS (21) and defensive WAR (2.8) by a large margin. He also threw out 32 of 73 baserunners attempting to steal (44 percent), posted a .999 fielding percentage, and was charged with only one error and four passed balls in 926.1 innings. The 26-year-old Barnhart, whose catching skills are what elevated him to the major leagues, is one of the most improved catchers at pitch-framing and among the best at throwing out potential basestealers and blocking balls.

UTILITY: JAVIER BAEZ, CUBS

During the 2016 postseason, when his performance earned him co-MVP honors in the NLCS, Baez developed a reputation as one of the best up-and-coming defensive stars in the game. He made game-changing plays at second base that impressed fans and opponents. Baez has displayed outstanding ability as a second baseman, shortstop and third baseman, giving Cubs manager Joe Maddon tremendous flexibility on where to position his defenders and what players to use in different situations. The Puerto Rican-bom Baez has tremendous baseball instincts with outstanding coordination, footwork, quickness and arm strength to play all infield positions at a high level. Over the last two seasons, he has played 70 games at third base, 98 at shortstop and 139 at second. In those appearances, he has tallied 21 defensive runs saved. If there were a Gold Glove Award issued to utility players, Baez certainly would be the front-runner to capture the honor.

With so many great defensive players in the major leagues, some may disagree with these selections for the top glove men at each position. Analyzing the long list of players who deserve recognition for their defense helps one appreciate how solid defensive play has always been an important, but often overlooked, ingredient to winning games.

By Bob Kuenster
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Title Annotation:WARMUP TOSSES
Author:Kuenster, Bob
Publication:Baseball Digest
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2017
Words:1808
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