Welcome to the Great Baseball Skills Competition, a week-long breakdown and ranking of baseball’s elite and unique talents. Each of the next four days, we’ll take an aspect of the game and profile the players who best demonstrate specific skills, such as hitting a fastball, snapping off a nasty breaking ball, dashing around the bases or taking away a home run.
Today’s focus is on those who have the best defensive traits (for those wondering, though Kevin Kiermaier is not featured, you’ll find him later in the week).
Weigh in with your vote below. We’ll pit the winners of each day’s competition against each other on Friday to determine who possess the best skills in baseball.
The skill: the barehanded assist
What makes him great: Baseball history has a way of etching things in stone. One of those permanent beliefs is that Brooks Robinson remains the greatest defensive third baseman ever. Challengers to the throne such as Buddy Bell, Graig Nettles, Scott Rolen and Adrian Beltre have been considered and ultimately dismissed, but maybe Arenado will finally be the guy placed on the same level as Robinson — and rightfully so, as he has already won four Gold Gloves in his first four seasons.
A play he makes better than anyone is the barehanded assist, thanks to his amazing quickness, athleticism and throwing accuracy on bunts and dribblers. He made 22 such assists in 2016, ahead of No. 2 Martin Prado‘s 19 and No. 3 Todd Frazier‘s 11. Expand the numbers to the past three seasons, and Arenado has made 62 barehanded assists, way ahead of Josh Donaldson‘s 34 and Frazier’s 33.
There are some elite defensive third basemen in the game — Beltre is still superb, Manny Machado has won two Gold Gloves and Anthony Rendon has enough range that allowed him to capably play second base in the past. But I’d argue that it’s Arenado’s ability to come in on the ball that clearly separates him from the others. Robinson won 16 Gold Gloves, the most ever for a non-pitcher. Arenado might just be the guy who can catch him some day. — David Schoenfield
They said it: Arenado is the best all-around defensive third baseman in baseball, and while many other top third basemen can make the same barehanded plays, what separates Arenado is his special range and ability to get to balls that most others can’t quite get to. — ESPN Insider Jim Bowden
The skill: pitch framing
What makes him great: Posey was the best in baseball at getting his pitchers extra called strikes last season. By our measure, he recorded 241 more than the average catcher would have on the same assortment of pitches. In second place for 2016 was Yasmani Grandal at 221.
Posey was almost equally good at making sure pitches in the strike zone were called strikes and getting pitches out of the strike zone but close called as strikes. “Subtle glove manipulation” is the key to his success, according to longtime Rockies catching instructor Jerry Weinstein.
Added our Jim Bowden: “His consistent targets and setup are so solid and special that it can be deceptive to umpires on certain pitches that land outside the zone, but give the illusion they are on the black.”
With Bumgarner, Posey widens the outside part of the strike zone against a right-handed hitter. With Cueto and Samardzija, he gets the extra strikes at the outer, inner, top and bottom edges of the zone. Most importantly, Posey gives his pitchers peace of mind. — Mark Simon
They said it: What Buster Posey does with pitch framing is criminal. We think of framing as making a pitch look pretty, but what he is doing is framing the hitter — setting the hitter up for imminent failure and somehow putting the blame on the hitter. Posey has a future on the wrong side of the law if he so desires. — ESPN baseball analyst Doug Glanville
The skill: ability to make plays in the hole
What makes him great: Simmons is basically on another planet with this skill. Even though he played just 124 games in 2016, he made the most plays in the hole that Baseball Info Solutions labels above average (plays that are usually made less than 50 percent of the time): 22 of them, with Elvis Andrus second with 16.
The three-year window paints an even more dominant picture: Since 2014, Simmons has made 71 plays above average in the hole; next-best is Jean Segura with 29 (who didn’t play much shortstop last season). Simmons hasn’t won a Gold Glove since 2014 — losing out to Brandon Crawford in 2015 and Francisco Lindor in 2016 — but actually leads major league shortstops in defensive runs saved over the past two seasons, so his overall defensive metrics remain outstanding despite the lack of hardware.
To make the play in the hole, you have to have arm strength. Simmons pitched some in junior college, flashing a 98 mph fastball, and some teams actually wanted to draft him as a pitcher, but Simmons wanted to play shortstop. Unlike Derek Jeter, who made the play famous with his jump toss, Simmons actually has the quickness to get to the ball, plant his feet and fire those rockets across the diamond. — Schoenfield
They said it: Simmons’ ability to go deep in the hole, pivot in midair and throw with tremendous velocity to get runners out at first base shows off his athleticism, quickness, hand-eye coordination and focus, making him baseball’s best defensive shortstop in the hole, period. — Bowden
The skill: home run robbing
What makes him great: Mike Trout is amazing at just about everything, but when it comes to home run robberies, he’s in a class by himself.
He has nine home run robberies since the start of 2012, his first full season with the Angels. That’s the most in the majors in that span. Carlos Gomez ranks second with six. Trout had one last season, and it came on his birthday, when he robbed Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin of a grand slam.
Trout’s prowess is a tribute to his fearlessness (he gets to the wall at full speed), his careful approach (he doesn’t crash into the wall — he properly scales it, occasionally using it to ascend higher) and a long reach that allows him to pull balls back that are well beyond the fence. Trout is so good, he can take the wrong route, turn himself around and still easily orient himself to rob a home run.
Three of Trout’s home run robberies have come in one-run wins, meaning his catch basically made the difference between victory and defeat. — Simon
They said it: Mike Trout’s home run robbing is the work of a great painter like Michelangelo, ironically fitting the man who painted the Sistine Chapel. Art, beauty, and of course, good scaffolding. Trout apparently has an invisible scaffold in his tool belt for how he not only effortlessly defies gravity on the way up, but how he can just hang on the wall waiting for the ball to return to Earth.
Then again, for the younger generations reading this, Trout could also be a ninja turtle, also fitting as he seems to teleport and reappear under the baseball. Does he eat pizza, too? Only he can answer that question. — Glanville