Of the three basic components of baseball--pitching, hitting and
fielding--only one is practiced with greater skill today than
ever before. Pitching? Please. That discussion begins and ends
with two words: Colorado Rockies. Hitting? Another swing and a
miss. Major league players struck out more often last year than
in any other season, despite a strike-shortened 144-game
schedule. No one has hit .400 since Ted Williams, 55 years ago,
and Roger Maris's home run record has stood virtually
unchallenged for 35 years, longer than Babe Ruth's mark endured.
This is a glove story: Boy meets ball, boy gets ball. In no
other aspect of the game but fielding has the evolution of
equipment, playing conditions and overall athletic ability
translated into such an unequivocal upgrade. Last season
fielders committed one error for every 52.9 chances, a 30%
improvement from 1975. And shortstops, who play the most
challenging position, averaged one error every 34.4 chances,
making them 33% more reliable than shortstops of 20 years earlier.
To even the best glovemen of, say, 40 years ago, today's
state-of-the-art fielder would have seemed like something out of
science fiction: a 6'4", 220-pound shortstop, who is armed with
computerized scouting reports of hitters' tendencies and a
large, ergonomically designed glove of fine leather, gobbling up
grounders on fields--some of which are carpeted--groomed more
neatly than an Augusta fairway and who flubs as few as three
plays over a 162-game season.
That robostop, Cal Ripken Jr., has handled more consecutive
chances without an error (431 in 1990) than anyone who has ever
played the position. Likewise, no one has ever handled more
errorless chances consecutively at second base (484 from June
1994 to July 1995) than Roberto Alomar. Talk about your heavenly
alignments: This year they will play next to one another in the
Baltimore Orioles' infield, forming what should be the best
double play combination of all time.
In Chicago the Cubs start the only right side of an infield in
history in which both the first baseman (Mark Grace) and second
baseman (Ryne Sandberg) have won at least three Gold Gloves. In
St. Louis the best fielding shortstop of all time, Ozzie Smith,
has returned for a 19th season with the Cardinals, though he may
lose his starting job to a younger gloveman, Royce Clayton. In
New York the Mets will start a shortstop, Rey Ordonez, who
already promises to be as good as or better than Smith, even
though he has yet to play a major league game. In San Diego the
Padres will start an entire outfield of former Gold Glove
winners: Rickey Henderson in left, Steve Finley in center and
Tony Gwynn in right. The reigning Gold Glove catchers, four-time
winner Ivan Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers and Charles Johnson
of the Florida Marlins, are not yet 25 years old. It turns out
the game is in good hands.
"I think players catch the ball better than they ever did," says
Buddy Kerr, 73, a slick shortstop for the New York Giants from
1943 to '49, who now scouts for the Mets. "They have more speed
and quickness and the advantages of better gloves and fields.
Marty Marion was a great shortstop, but I don't think anyone was
better than Ozzie. And I can't believe anybody was better at
second base than Alomar."
Two veteran Toronto Blue Jays scouts, Bobby Mattick, 80, and Al
LaMacchia, 74, were discussing second basemen in spring training
this year when they decided that Alomar was the best ever at the
position. "Tony Lazzeri and Charlie Gehringer were good second
basemen," LaMacchia says. "They were good in the area they
covered, but they didn't have the range Alomar has. That's the
big difference between a guy like him and the guys from the old
days. They didn't have that quickness."
Unlike the main hitting and pitching records, most of the
significant fielding records have been set in recent years. With
the exception of third baseman Brooks Robinson (1955 to '77),
the career fielding-average leaders at each position all have
played exclusively in the post-1961 expansion era: catcher Bill
Freehan, first baseman Steve Garvey, second baseman Sandberg,
shortstop Larry Bowa and outfielder Terry Puhl.
Similarly, the consecutive errorless games records have been set
in the past 11 years, with one exception: third baseman Jim
Davenport, who played 97 games without booting a ball from July
'66 to April '68. The other marks are held by catcher Rick
Cerone (159 games), Garvey (193), Sandberg (123), Ripken (95)
and outfielder Darren Lewis (392).
Those players had advantages not enjoyed by, say, Pee Wee Reese,
who once made 47 errors in a season for the Brooklyn Dodgers; or
Alvin Dark, who committed 45 errors for the pennant-winning 1951
New York Giants; or, especially, by John Gochnaur, the Cleveland
Indians shortstop whose modern record of 95 errors in 1903 is
likely never to be broken. Those advantages include the following:
--Better gloves. Today's mitts provide better flexibility and fit.
--Artificial turf. In the 1990s there have been 11% fewer errors
per fielding chance committed on turf than on grass. During this
period shortstops have made 23% fewer errors on rugs than on
grass. Of the five shortstops with the best fielding percentages
in history (minimum 1,000 games), four have played mostly on
artificial turf. In order of their defensive prowess, they are
Bowa, Tony Fernandez, Smith and Spike Owen. The exception is
Ripken, who ranks third. The best fielding teams in history--at
least statistically--were turf teams: the 1988 Minnesota Twins
committed the fewest errors (84), and the 1990 Toronto Blue Jays
had the highest fielding average (.986).
--Improved playing conditions. Most outfield walls are padded,
and fields are vigilantly maintained. "That started with Peter
Ueberroth as commissioner in the 1980s," says Giants general
manager Bob Quinn. "He liked to say, 'The field is your stage.
Always make it look good.'"
--High-tech scouting reports. Satellite television, computers and
advance scouts help define hitters' tendencies in greater
detail. "You know where somebody hits the ball on two-strike
counts and who swings early in the count," says the Montreal
Expos' 60-year-old manager, Felipe Alou. "All of that is in
black and white. We didn't know any of that when I played. We
just positioned ourselves in the vicinity of where somebody
usually hit the ball."
Says Texas Rangers general manager Doug Melvin, "I think guys
today have more agility and flexibility. They make plays every
night like diving flat-out in the outfield and crashing into
walls that I don't think players in other eras made as often.
Maybe the best fielders today are the best ever. But overall?
I'm not sure defense is better than in the past."
This being a glove story, there must be a catch. This is it:
While players catch the ball better than ever, they don't have
the same instincts or grasp of fundamentals as their
predecessors. "There's no question the players now are better
athletes," says LaMacchia. "If a scout saw Hack Wilson or Yogi
Berra today, he'd never recommend either of them. Lou Boudreau
couldn't run, and neither could Luke Appling. They weren't real
good athletes. But they had the instincts.
"Now you've got guys like [Kansas City Royals shortstop] Jose
Offerman. He has all the physical tools, but he doesn't know how
to play the game. Players today don't listen. They feel they
know it all, so they don't work on fundamentals."
Players might be rushed more quickly to the big leagues today,
but when they arrive, they are armed with an unprecedented
amount of instruction. Today, a typical minor league team has a
manager, two coaches and a roving instructor. "When I played in
the minors," Alou says, "we had one manager and six baseballs
for batting practice. Sometimes one or two of us didn't hit
because all the balls were lost."
"Even 15 or 20 years ago, you had a minor league manager and
that was it," says Cubs skipper Jim Riggleman. "Maybe some
things were missed then. Nothing is missed anymore. Believe me,
there are people working hard and covering all the areas. There
are no excuses for people to get to the big leagues not knowing
how to play. If a player gets to the majors and isn't
fundamentally sound, it's his own fault."
Major league managers routinely pay lip service to defense. As
Giants manager Dusty Baker says, "If you mess up three to six
plays a game--say two errors, some double plays not turned,
things like that--it's the same as letting the other team bat 10
or 11 innings to your nine." But front offices don't put their
money where their mouths are: They reward offense and overlook
defense. "We don't put enough value on defense," says Boston Red
Sox general manager Dan Duquette. "How many $3 million players
are there because they play good defense? [Indians shortstop]
Omar Vizquel (page 68) and [Marlins centerfielder] Devon White
may be it. It's true we don't reward defense like we do offense."
Says Cubs centerfielder Brian McRae, referring to a teammate,
"Look at Sammy Sosa. He was a good defensive player who went
downhill in the field last year. He made 13 errors. Led the
league's outfielders in errors. But he hit 36 home runs and
wound up with a $5 million contract. It's the same in
arbitration. Defense doesn't matter. They pay for offense."
Moreover, some teams have proved you can win championships with
mediocre or even bad defenses. Toronto general manager Gord Ash
says the Blue Jays earned the 1993 world championship with "only
adequate defense. We won that year because of our offense."
The Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers each won divisional
titles last season despite having the worst defenses in their
respective leagues. This year Boston figures to be even poorer
defensively because it is converting a former shortstop and
leftfielder, Wil Cordero, to second base and sending an inept
gloveman, former DH Jose Canseco, back to rightfield. Referring
to a lineup packed with beefy sluggers, Duquette says, "It's the
kind of team fans like to see at Fenway Park."
Says one scout, "Look at the Indians. They were the best team in
the league, and they had only one good infielder, Vizquel. The
rest were below average. And they had only one good outfielder,
[Kenny] Lofton. The other two [Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez]
Increasingly, teams who are weak defensively try to compensate
by loading up with big hitters or, as the Dodgers did last
season, with a pitching staff that gets a lot of strikeouts. The
ball simply isn't put into play as much as it used to be. For
example, the records for most chances at each position except
catcher (where strikeouts count as putouts) have stood since at
No position better illustrates the evolution of athletes and
offensive emphasis than shortstop. Twenty years ago the 24
starting shortstops weighed an average of 168 pounds, batted
.250 and homered once every 185 at bats. Last year the 28
starting shortstops weighed an average of 181 pounds, hit .260
and homered once every 49 at bats. And yet shortstops in 1995
committed 19% fewer errors than their 1976 counterparts.
Baseball has squeezed out the light-hitting shortstop who hung
on only because of his glove. Players like Dal Maxvill (who
averaged .217 while lasting 14 years), Mark Belanger (.228, 18
years) and Bud Harrelson (.236, 16 years) would have little
chance of being long-term starters now. "Today you couldn't
carry a guy like Belanger," says Orioles manager Davey Johnson,
Belanger's former teammate. The prototype is Ripken or National
League MVP Barry Larkin (6 feet, 195 pounds) of the Cincinnati
Reds. The next generation of shortstops includes the Rangers'
Benji Gil (6'2", 182), the New York Yankees' Derek Jeter (6'3",
185) and the Seattle Mariners' Alex Rodriguez (6'3", 195).
Once teams leave spring training, they rarely practice defensive
drills, other than a coach hitting routine grounders and fly
balls. Few players, even the best fielders, labor at defense the
way they do offense. The Giants' Gold Glove third baseman, Matt
Williams, for instance, likes to take only 30 to 40 grounders
each day. "Quality is better than quantity," says Williams, who
first took pride in his defense as a sophomore in high school.
Whenever Smith feels his hands aren't "soft enough," he fields
hard ground balls on his knees at the edge of the infield grass.
"It takes your lower body away and forces you to rely on your
quickness," Smith says. "I've done that all my life." On his
first day in spring training this year Smith flawlessly fielded
grounders at shortstop and--without turning his head to
look--blindly fired one perfect feed after another to second base.
This is a golden age of middle infielders, with Alomar, Larkin,
Ordonez, Ripken, Sandberg, Smith and the Houston Astros' Craig
Biggio. And as Grace notes, "More and more teams are putting a
better defensive player at first base rather than just a big ox
who hits the ball out of the ballpark." He counts Jeff Bagwell
of the Astros, Rico Brogna of the Mets, David Segui of the Expos
and J.T. Snow of the Angels among the young first basemen who
are smooth with the mitt. (Third base, a position that does not
place a premium on athleticism beyond quick reflexes, has shown
no statistical fielding improvement over the past quarter
The evolution of outfield play is a mixed bag. Outfielders run
down the ball better than ever, but their lack of arm strength
is universally bemoaned by baseball executives. "You used to see
a lot of guys thrown out at home and on the bases," Baltimore
general manager Pat Gillick says. "Now it's rare."
"Scouts tell me that the last thing on their list is arm
strength," says Baker. "Kids just don't throw enough to build up
arm strength. You look for someone who can run the ball down."
In 1930, Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Chuck Klein set the
modern record for assists, with 44. Sixty-three years later
another Philadelphia outfielder, Lenny Dykstra, threw out only
two runners all year. In 1958, Al Kaline led American League
outfielders with 23 assists, and Roberto Clemente led the
National League with 22. Of active players, the Dodgers' Raul
Mondesi is the closest to those classic gunners. He led all
outfielders last year with 16 assists.
"Guys today cover their mistakes with speed," LaMacchia says.
"Joe DiMaggio glided after balls. He didn't have to dive. But
now they make spectacular catches after they misjudge fly balls.
How many true centerfielders are there today, guys who can run
it down and throw people out? Devon White, [the Seattle
Mariners'] Ken Griffey Jr., [the Atlanta Braves'] Marquis
Grissom. That's about it."
Says McRae, "Good defensive players are naturals. You're either
a good defensive player or you're not. Look at Ryan Klesko with
Atlanta. I mean, he's worked hard and gotten a little better out
there, but he's only going to be so good."
Defense, despite its improvement, is the least appreciated side
of the game. "Brooks Robinson made the Hall of Fame primarily on
defense and Ozzie Smith will, but that's it," says Yankees
manager Joe Torre. "It's not recognized enough."
In this era when players catch the ball better than ever,
routinely fill the nightly highlight shows with acrobatic plays
and get to balls Tony Lazzeri only dreamed about, there is just
one sure place to find the true value of defense. Ask a pitcher.
"It's huge," says Braves lefthander Tom Glavine, whose
career--along with those of pitching mates John Smoltz and Steve
Avery--turned around in 1991. "Things changed completely that
year when we got [third baseman] Terry Pendleton, [shortstop]
Rafael Belliard and [first baseman] Sid Bream. It made us more
confident. We knew we didn't have to make the perfect pitch, so
we threw more strikes. I can honestly say, we would not be the
pitchers we are today if we had kept the same defense we had in
'88 and '89. Other people may take it for granted. But defense
is a pitcher's best friend."
Graphic by Kinuko Craft
BEST ALLTIME FIRST BASEMEN
1. KEITH HERNANDEZ
National League record holder for career assists; best ever at
playing the bunt.
2. GEORGE SISLER
Quick and agile; may be the best throwing first baseman.
3. VIC POWER
One of the smoothest fielders at his position, even though he
TODAY'S BEST FIRST BASEMEN
1. MARK GRACE, CUBS
Has the best range and hands at his position.
2. J.T. SNOW, ANGELS
Has no weaknesses; .996 fielding average in four major league
3. ANDRES GALARRAGA, ROCKIES
Nicknamed the Cat for good reason; led first basemen with 129
double plays in '95.
BEST ALLTIME SECOND BASEMEN
1. BILL MAZEROSKI
Undisputed master of the pivot.
2. EDDIE COLLINS
Led the American League in fielding nine times in the early 1900s.
3. ROBERTO ALOMAR
The complete package: range, arm, hands.
TODAY'S BEST SECOND BASEMEN
1. ALOMAR, ORIOLES.
2. CHUCK KNOBLAUCH, TWINS
Stands in against runners and turns double play as well as
3. CRAIG BIGGIO, ASTROS
Two Gold Gloves the past two years; not bad for a former
BEST ALLTIME THIRD BASEMEN
Human vacuum cleaner won 16 Gold Gloves, a record for nonpitchers.
2. BUDDY BELL
Terrific at diving for a ball and then making a quick,
3. GRAIG NETTLES
Had no weaknesses.
TODAY'S BEST THIRD BASEMEN
1. MATT WILLIAMS, GIANTS
Three-time Gold Glover may be better defensively than offensively.
2. KEN CAMINITI, PADRES
Makes spectacular diving stops and has rocket arm.
3. WADE BOGGS, YANKEES
Gets better with age; didn't win first Gold Glove until 36.
BEST ALLTIME SHORTSTOPS
1. OZZIE SMITH
No one made the diving stop better than he did; perhaps best
fielder at any position.
2. LUIS APARICIO
Got to balls in the hole and threw out runners from there like
few others could.
3. HONUS WAGNER
Known more for his eight batting titles, he was the best of Dead
Ball era in the field, too.
TODAY'S BEST SHORTSTOPS
1. OMAR VIZQUEL, INDIANS
Makes more plays bare-handed than some major leaguers do with a
2. BARRY LARKIN, REDS
Skill afield contributed to his selection as NL MVP in 1995.
3. MIKE BORDICK, A'S
Quick and reliable; made only 10 errors in 1995.
BEST ALLTIME RIGHTFIELDERS
1. ROBERTO CLEMENTE
Best arm ever; led National League in assists five times.
2. AL KALINE
3. HANK AARON
All-around defensive excellence overshadowed by his Ruthian feats.
TODAY'S BEST RIGHTFIELDERS
1. RAUL MONDESI, DODGERS
Best arm in the game.
2. TIM SALMON, ANGELS
Has good range and rarely makes a mistake.
3. JAY BUHNER, MARINERS
Skills unappreciated by fans; very few base runners test his arm.
BEST ALLTIME LEFTFIELDERS
1. BARRY BONDS
Tops at cutting off balls hit down the line; no one has played
as shallow, yet he rarely allows balls to get over his head.
2. CARL YASTRZEMSKI
Master of Fenway's Monster; led American League in assists seven
3. RICKEY HENDERSON
With his great speed, makes putouts in areas of leftfield where
few others have ventured.
TODAY'S BEST LEFTFIELDERS
1. BONDS, GIANTS
2. BRADY ANDERSON, ORIOLES
Even better in center, but needed in left this season; has speed
3. HENDERSON, PADRES
BEST ALLTIME CENTERFIELDERS
1. WILLIE MAYS
Speed, style and the most memorable catch in history.
2. JOE DIMAGGIO
Graceful and deceptively fast.
3. TRIS SPEAKER
Revolutionized the position in the early 1900s by playing shallow.
TODAY'S BEST CENTERFIELDERS
1. DEVON WHITE, MARLINS
Best at climbing the fence and keeping the ball in the yard.
2. KEN GRIFFEY JR., MARINERS
Six straight Gold Gloves; gets to everything--or breaks his
3. KENNY LOFTON, INDIANS
Covers more territory than anyone else at his position.
BEST ALLTIME PITCHERS
1. JIM KAAT
Big (6' 4 1/2") and quick, he won 16 straight Gold Gloves.
2. BOB GIBSON
One of the finest athletes to play the game; he got to
everything hit near him.
3. BOBBY SHANTZ
Amazingly quick and nimble off the mound.
TODAY'S BEST PITCHERS
1. GREG MADDUX, BRAVES
Is there anything he can't do?
2. MARK LANGSTON, ANGELS
Seven-time Gold Glover gobbles up everything.
3. TOM GLAVINE, BRAVES
Superior athlete--he was drafted by the NHL's Los Angeles
Kings--is quick off the mound.
BEST ALLTIME CATCHERS
1. JOHNNY BENCH
No one was better at blocking pitches in the dirt or throwing
2. JIM HEGAN
Masterfully handled the extraordinary Cleveland staffs in the
late 1940s and early '50s.
3. BOB BOONE
Brilliant at calling games, and only Carlton Fisk caught in more
than he did.
TODAY'S BEST CATCHERS
1. CHARLES JOHNSON, MARLINS
First rookie catcher since Bench to win a Gold Glove.
2. IVAN RODRIGUEZ, RANGERS
Has best arm in baseball.
3. DAN WILSON, MARINERS
Threw out 34% of runners last season.