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The Game’s Most Defensive

Atlanta shortstop was the game's most defensive player in 2013. Can he keep it up?

Atlanta shortstop was the game’s most defensive player in 2013. Can he keep it up? And would he want to?

Announcers are fond of saying that certain players are in the game because of their glove. And of course this is true. From the catcher who calls an outstanding game to the shortstop with an arm strong enough to gun out a runner from deep in the hole, great defense is as old as the game itself. But have there been players who have literally been in the game because of their gloves – players whose gloves are more valuable than their bats? That’s what this article is going to investigate.

The research on this one was simple because I concerned myself with only two stats, oWAR and dWAR. Basically, oWAR is the value a player produced only with his bat. And dWAR is the value he produced only with his glove. Once we know a player’s oWAR and his dWAR, we can truly measure if someone is in the game because of his glove. Simply, a player is in the game because of his glove if he produced more value with it than with his bat.

Protest if you like that oWAR and dWAR aren’t really on the same scale because replacement for oWAR is replacement level and replacement for dWAR is average, but I think this simple measure holds water. First, we’re dealing with precisely the same biases for each player. And second, it makes sense that replacement level on defense is average – players, as we know, are in the majors for their bats. That’s why there will be so few players on our list.

There are 507 non-pitchers in our initial HoME database. So all I did was take those players, subtract their oWAR from their dWAR, and voilà! Here we’re going to profile the seven players who reached double figures in WAR during their careers whose dWAR eclipsed their oWAR. We’re going to call them the seven most defensive-orientated players in baseball history. Before we get to those seven players, let’s look at the ten who just missed the list.

Player           dWAR-oWAR
Paul Blair         -0.1
Frank White        -0.7
Davy Force         -1.2
Wilbert Robinson   -1.6
Art Fletcher       -2.1
Terry Pendleton    -3.0
Jim Sundberg       -3.2
Omar Vizquel       -3.9
Ozzie Smith        -4.4
Phil Rizzuto       -5.1

And just one more chart before we get going. This is a chart of the usual suspects, those whose bats eclipsed their gloves by the most.

Player           dWAR-oWAR
Ty Cobb            -161.8
Babe Ruth          -157.5
Ted Williams       -139.6
Hank Aaron         -136.4
Barry Bonds        -136.0
Stan Musial        -133.9
Mickey Mantle      -126.1
Frank Robinson     -121.6
Tris Speaker       -121.4
Lou Gehrig         -121.1

Now, back to our regularly scheduled article, the seven most defensive players in baseball history.

At number seven, with 1.4 more dWAR than oWAR is Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville. Maranville may be in the Hall, but he lasted only three ballots in his HoME career. The reason for his quick removal from consideration – and this will come as no surprise – is that he couldn’t hit. A career OPS+ of 82, which is 18% below average, says that. Maranville was the second real mistake of commission that the BBWAA made (the first being Pie Traynor in 1948) when they voted him into the Hall on his fourteenth ballot in 1954. I don’t need to go into depth about what a poor selection this was; Joe DiMaggio finished fourth in the voting.

The sixth most defensive player even to wear a glove was another Hall of Famer, this one with 1.6 more dWAR than oWAR, shortstop Joe Tinker. Tinker, like his Cub mates in the Franklin P. Adams poem, was an iffy choice for the Hall. But it’s hardly fair that we call him a bad choice, even if he doesn’t make the HoME. See, he was first eligible on our 1921 ballot, and he’s been considered nine times at this point. Tinker has a decent case, a case that is based not just on the defense numbers we see here, but on the even better defensive numbers Michael Humphreys uncovered in research for his book Wizardry. Looking at his measure, Defensive Regression Analysis (DRA), Tinker grades out as the second most valuable defender in history. Keep reading to find out who’s number one.

The number five player on our list is our third consecutive Hall of Famer, Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski, who put up 4.9 more dWAR than oWAR. Unlike Maranville, who was wonderfully respected in his time, and Tinker, who was immortalized in verse, Maz was the first player elected to the Hall, that I know of, specifically because of his defense. The Vets put him in in 2001 after the BBWAA had 15 cracks at him and only once gave him over 34%. Maz hasn’t yet been considered for the HoME. He first becomes eligible in our 1978 election, the results of which should be known at the end of February. If I may offer a little preview here, Mazeroski is going to have a difficult time. His case is fairly similar to that of AL contemporary Dick McAuliffe, except McAuliffe could hit a bit and didn’t have a magical pivot.

At number four, with an “impressive” 9.3 more dWAR than oWAR is our highest ranking and most defensive catcher, Bob Boone. Interestingly enough, the thing for which Boone is best known for, at least in highlights, is a play that he flubbed and was bailed out on by Pete Rose. Even at his best, Boone wasn’t that valuable a player. For example, from 1976-1979, the only four years of his career when he reached 100 OPS+, Boone ranked only #12 among catchers in WAR. And that’s when he was at his offensive best! Of course, Boone did something during his career that no catcher did before him, which is get behind the plate for 2200 games. Since then he’s been passed by everyone named Pudge. But no matter. Boone was an elite defender. Even when his bat was as bad as it was at the end, he could still call a game and handle a staff. That’s what kept him around for 19 seasons.

Earning the bronze medal in our battle of defensiveness is a third baseman. No, it’s not Brooks Robinson. Even Buddy Bell was far too good a hitter to rank here. The third most defensive player in history is Royal, Yankee, and Brave, Clete Boyer. As a Yankee, Boyer was especially adept with the leather. He played in New York from 1959-1966, and though he never won a Gold Glove on any occasion, he probably had more defensive value than any 3B in the AL, even Brooks. According to dWAR, Boyer outpaced Robinson 15.4 to 13.0, and DRA had Boyer crushing Brooks (who improved as he aged) by a whopping 122.9 to 57.2.

The second most defensive player ever is the single most valuable defender in history according to DRA, Germany Smith. Smith was a 19th century defensive wizard at shortstop for the American Association’s Brooklyn Grays and later for the National League’s Cincinnati Reds, among others. According to dWAR, he’s just the 25th best ever (Ozzie Smith is the best), but in the dWAR – oWAR statistic, his 14.3 trails just one player ever. Smith was on the HoME ballot in 1906 and again in 1911. He didn’t make it, mainly because he’s the 19th century version of the guy who’s number one on our little list.

And here he is, the most defensive player ever, with a dWAR – oWAR number of 24.8, better than the next two guys combined. Drum roll, please. It’s Baltimore Oriole shortstop Mark Belanger. In Belanger’s 14 seasons in the majors during which he came to the plate at least 200 times, he hit better than .228 just thrice. He had a career SLG of .280. He had a career OPS+ of 68. If there’s one player in the game’s history who announcers could honestly say was in the game for his glove, it was Mark Belanger. For what it’s worth, Belanger could his against certain pitchers. He had a .367 OBP in 62 PA against Nolan Ryan and a .406 mark in 64 trips against Bert Blyleven.

Well, there you have it, the most defensive players in the game’s history. The defense rests.

Miller

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