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20 greatest defenders in MLB history

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While most baseball stats revolve around hitting and pitching, the best defensive players in MLB history deserve just as much attention as elite hitters and pitchers.

After all, great defensive players are the ones helping pitchers and making the accomplishments of hitters more impressive. That inspired us to put together a list of the best defensive players in MLB history.

Best defensive players in MLB history

Of course, it’s hard comparing players who play at different positions. For instance, the best shortstops of all time require a different set of skills than the greatest outfielders. Also, certain positions tend to attract a larger percentage of the greatest fielders in baseball.

In any event, we tried to be as neutral and impartial as possible when putting together our list of the 20 top defensive players in baseball history.

20. Torii Hunter

Torii Hunter was one of those players whose defense was worth the price of admission. He wasn’t always graceful like the other elite defensive center fielders in baseball history. But he could cover plenty of ground and played as hard as anyone, meaning he would scale walls and even run into walls to make catches.

       

Hunter could track down just about any ball hit in his vicinity and needs to be acknowledged as among the best defensive players ever.

19. Mike Schmidt

There is no question that Mike Schmidt is the best third baseman in MLB history, and it’s because he hit over 500 homers while also being an elite defensive player.

The 10 Gold Gloves he won during his career put him in elite company among third basemen and all defensive players in MLB history.

18. Carl Yastrzemski

While his three batting titles, 452 career home runs, and his 1967 Triple Crown highlight Carl Yastrzemski’s career, his defensive prowess is not to be overlooked. Despite having to move to first base late in his career, Yastrzemski was an elite defensive left fielder for most of his career, winning seven Gold Gloves.

Keep in mind he had the challenge of trying to navigate the Green Monster throughout his career but did so in a way that showcased his defensive skills.

       

17. Johnny Bench

Between his ability to manage pitching staffs and his ability to control the running game with his arm, Johnny Bench is one of the all-time catching legends. Those traits allowed Bench to win 10 straight Gold Gloves during his career on top of being one of the best hitting catchers of all time.

Bench also handled the rigors of catching better than most, starting at least 100 games behind the plate in 13 straight seasons, showing uncanny durability in addition to his unquestioned defensive skills.

16. Bill Mazeroski

Most people know Bill Mazeroski for his walk-off homer in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. But even if that never happened, Maz would still be known for his exceptional defense. He won eight Gold Gloves, which was a driving force in the Veterans Committee putting him in the Hall of Fame.

No second baseman in baseball history could turn a double play like Mazeroski. He was masterful at that and remains among the all-time leaders in assists, putouts, and fielding percentage among middle infielders.

15. Roberto Alomar

Among second basemen in baseball history, nobody was better defensively than Roberto Alomar. Granted, he did a lot of other things well, but Alomar also won 10 Gold Gloves, more than any other second baseman in MLB history.

His instincts for the position were superb, enabling Alomar to showcase incredible range to go along with his soft hands. He was able to make difficult plays look routine while making spectacular defensive plays few second basemen could even dream of making.

14. Ken Griffey Jr.

In addition to his amazing career as a hitter, Ken Griffey Jr. ruled the 90s with his defense in center field. He won 10 straight Gold Gloves from 1990 to 1999, proving that there was nobody better during that decade.

With his athleticism, Griffey was a highlight play waiting to happen. He could leap, dive, and climb walls better than anyone in baseball history, making catches that other center fielders wouldn’t even attempt.

13. Jim Kaat

In a way, Jim Kaat was the left-handed version of Greg Maddux, even before there was Greg Maddux. Pitching between 1959 and 1983, Kaat had a long career that included 16 consecutive Gold Gloves between 1962 and 1977. He played for three different teams during that streak and also led the American League in wins in 1966, which was one of three seasons that Kaat was an all-star.

Eventually, Kaat’s defense was appreciated enough for the Golden Days Era Committee to put him in the Hall of Fame in 2022, as his sound defense helped him to win 283 games in his career.

12. Roberto Clemente

While he’s known for so many great accomplishments, including four batting titles, Roberto Clemente’s defense is sometimes overlooked despite the fact that he won 12 straight Gold Gloves from 1961 to 1972.

He was always among the leaders among right fielders in putouts and fielding percentage. Clemente’s defense was one of the reasons why he was a perennial all-star, and he continued to play at a high level until the end of his career.

11. Keith Hernandez

While he’s been unfairly left out of the Hall of Fame, Keith Hernandez is among the best defensive players in MLB history. In fact, his defensive prowess is a big reason why Hernandez belongs in the Hall of Fame.

He revolutionized how first base was played because of how far he played off the bag and how much ground he was able to cover, impacting every other infield position. Even though first base isn’t always a position with strong defensive players, that only makes Hernandez stand out that much more. The 11 straight Gold Gloves he won between 1978 and 1988 is more than any other first baseman in baseball history and warrants recognition among the best defensive players ever at any position.

10. Tris Speaker

Even though most of today’s fans never saw Tris Speaker first-hand, he’s remembered fondly as a great defensive center fielder. Why else would he be nicknamed “the Gray Eagle” or have the outfield he covered known as “the place where triples go to die?”

Unfortunately, the Gold Glove award wasn’t around during Speaker’s era, but it’s a safe bet that he would have won a lot of them. He also holds the all-time record for outfield assists, proving that he had a great arm in addition to covering a lot of ground.

9. Nolan Arenado

Even before his career is over, Nolan Arenado has done enough to be considered an all-time great defensive player. He’s the only infielder to ever win the Gold Glove in each of his first 10 seasons in the league, including his rookie season.

Starting in 2017, Arenado started a consecutive streak of Platinum Glove Awards that was at six and counting heading into the 2023 season. He makes the plays that nobody else can make, which is why when all is said and done, Arenado could prove himself to be the best defensive third baseman ever.

8. Andruw Jones

During the late 90s and early 2000s, nobody played a better center field than Andruw Jones. He won 10 straight Gold Gloves from 1998 to 2007, which is why he should be considered a more serious Hall of Fame candidate.

Few in baseball history have dared to play as shallow in center field as Jones did because he always trusted his abilities to go back on the ball. Jones also had exceptional arm strength, putting him among the elite defensive center fielders in baseball history.

7. Honus Wagner

Honus Wagner was far more than just a speedster with an incredibly valuable baseball card. In addition to winning eight batting titles, Wagner was known primarily for his defense.

The same athleticism that helped Wagner lead the National League in stolen bases five times also allowed him to play elite defense at shortstop, leading some to consider him the best shortstop of all time.

6. Greg Maddux

The only thing Greg Maddux did better than pitch was field his position. Of course, the fact that he was so good at fielding his position is part of what made him a good pitcher who racked up 355 career wins and once won four consecutive Cy Young Awards.

Maddux was always ready to field as soon as he released the ball, helping him to prevent countless hits. Between 1990 and 2008, Maddux won the Gold Glove in all but one season, giving him a record 18 in his career.

Each year, it was a foregone conclusion that Maddux would win the Gold Glove, but because he was among the best defensive players in MLB history regardless of position, he earned each one of them.

5. Omar Vizquel

There aren’t many shortstops who are in the same stratosphere as Omar Vizquel in terms of defense.

Among shortstops, he’s the all-time leader in games played and double plays turned while being tied for the all-time lead in fielding percentage. Naturally, Vizquel won 11 Gold Gloves during his career, twice setting the record for the oldest shortstop to win the award, doing so at age 39.

That’s a testament to how good he was defensively throughout his career. Vizquel was also as smooth and reliable at shortstop as any player, once going 95 straight games without an error, which is amazing for any position, especially at shortstop.

4. Brooks Robinson

No third baseman in baseball history has ever manned the hot corner like Brooks Robinson. Nicknamed the human vacuum cleaner, Robinson is among the best defensive players in MLB history at any position. Anything hit near him was going to become an out that looked routine.

Few third basemen have ever moved better to get to balls or had a quicker release than Robinson. He led American League third basemen in fielding percentage 11 times, more than any other player. More importantly, Robinson’s streak of 16 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1960 to 1975 remained an MLB record for a long time, cementing his place in baseball history.

3. Willie Mays

The amazing catch that Willie Mays made in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series is just the tip of the iceberg for what he accomplished defensively during his career. Mays was a true five-tool player, which meant that he could cover tons of ground in center field and also had a strong arm.

Those skills allowed him to win 12 consecutive Gold Gloves during the prime of his career from 1957 to 1968. Few center fielders in baseball history have played as shallow as Mays did because he had limitless range and the incredible ability to go back on the ball, which he showed during “The Catch.”

2. Ivan Rodriguez

Among catchers, it’s hard to imagine anyone being better than Ivan Rodriguez. Pudge spent over 20 years in the big leagues, winning 13 Gold Gloves. More importantly, he earned each and every one of them.

With his rocket of an arm, Rodriguez controlled the running game in a way that most catchers can only dream about. He threw out at least 50% of base stealers in nine of his 20 seasons and had a career caught-stealing percentage of nearly 46%, well above the average of 31%.

That’s the highest caught-stealing percentage in MLB history while Rodriguez also ranks first in games played behind the plate and second in putouts among catchers. If it matters, the Hall of Famer could hit too, amassing over 300 homers and winning seven Silver Sluggers.

1. Ozzie Smith

For those who saw him play, there was nothing like watching Ozzie Smith play defense. He could make spectacular plays almost look routine, helping him to earn the nickname the Wizard of Oz.

Smith was so athletic that he would sometimes perform backflips on the field. After that, playing shortstop didn’t seem that difficult.

During his Hall of Fame career, Smith won 13 straight Gold Gloves with his defense being the biggest reason why he was a 15-time all-star. Among all of the great defensive players in baseball history, Smith is the best player at the toughest position, which is why we rank him as the best defensive player of all time.

1 thought on “20 greatest defenders in MLB history”

  1. “which is why he [Andruw Jones] should be considered a more serious Hall of Fame candidate.”
    Andruw Jones didn’t reach 2000 hits; until the election of Tony Oliva by the veterans committee last year, NO player who debuted after integration had made the Hall with fewer than 2000 career hits; Andruw Jones kind of fell off a cliff at 31 career-wise, early for Hall of Famers; and last year, Jones received 58% on the BBWAA ballot with four years to make up the last 17%, so he’s certainly getting Hall of Fame consideration now.

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