Watching the Red Sox this past year made it hard not to notice that the outfield of Benintendi, Bradley and Betts was filled with guys that were all especially good fielders. Benintendi is now the only one of the three no to win a Gold Glove award for his work in right field although he did have only four this season and 12 outfield assists. Betts is a three time Gold Glove winner, and the winner of the Wilson Overall Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2016, logged 7 assists and one error this year for a fielding percentage of .996. Bradley is thought of as one of the best center fielders in the league, winning the Gold Glove Award this season while throwing nine runners out on the bases and committing six errors.
There is, however, a question of evaluating whether a player is a great fielder in a historical sense, let alone compared to their contemporaries. All three of these fielders made dynamic plays in the field throughout the season, and Betts is one of the most graceful outfielders I have seen over the last 30 years. Unfortunately, there isn’t a measurable way to show smooth fielding and big plays on the field with statistics. You can measure assists, putouts and errors, but these stats are problematic when it comes to assessing the ability of a Major League player.
An error is usually scored only when the ball physically hits a player trying to field it and can’t make a play they would be expected to make. If the scorer thinks the play is too difficult for the fielder to make, it’s a hit. If a fielder trips over their feet and lands on their face fifteen feet away from where the ball lands, it’s a hit. If the ball hits a rock in the infield or a divot on the wall and the fielder turns their glove the last way at the last minute and misplays it, it’s an error. If a player is sprinting across the field and a ball that an average player wouldn’t come close to hits the heel of their glove and bounces out, it’s an error. On any error, it comes down to the official scorer and the stadium has to wait for their ruling to see if it was a playable ball or not.
A player could have a reputation for having a strong arm from the outfield and opposing runner will refuse to take an extra base. Without the opportunities to make a play their assist numbers will way down. Much like a shutdown corner in football where the quarterback is so scared of throwing an interception that they avoid an entire area of the field.
Putout numbers could be high for a player because they have a ton of speed and can get to more balls. They could be low because they are a corner fielder with fewer chances because of a small foul territory or there are ground ball pitchers on their team that don’t give up as many fly ball.
There is one fielding stat that is especially nice to see how skilled a fielder is compared to his contemporaries and that is the not so simply named “Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average,” or Rtot for short. This factors in the total number of plays made and factors in a number of defensive stats and compares them to other players at the same position. That means a positive number is above average and a negative number is below. A higher positive number means they’re especially good. When I think about it all I realize I don’t have a clue what it really means, but bigger numbers sure look nice. I find that from 8-10 is pretty damn good and 15 or more is especially pretty damn good, any more than 20 is better than that. This makes things easier, but unfortunately Rtots aren’t available before 1953.
A lot of times the eyeball test really is the best factor for finding a defender’s worth. This isn’t to be confused with a player’s reputation. Gold Glove Awards are nice for finding who the best defenders of an era are, however there’s a surprising number of players who have won those awards without playing 30 games at their position (Rafael Palmeiro won the 1999 1B). Sometimes a player wins the award a year after their best year based on the reputation they have from previous years. It helps to hear about big plays, or comparisons from players who have been around the game forever because not all the stats have been around since 1901, and the Gold Glove award only goes back to 1957.
In the end, I’ll be a hypocrite when it comes to evaluating fielders, taking into consideration Gold Glove Awards, errors and assists, but there is some truth that comes from those measurements as imperfect as they are. And so, in the spirit of the Red Sox outfield loaded with talented gloves, here’s part one of the best fielding outfields in MLB history starting with the National League. Oh yeah, I doubt this is a complete list.
Hall of Famer Klein had the best offensive year of his 12 ½ year career, the highlight of a spectacular five year run. He had career highs with a .386 AVG, .687 SLG, 59 doubles, 158 runs and 170 RBI, but it was his 44 outfield assists and 10 double plays that are modern MLB records for outfielders. This was one of three seasons that Klein led the league in assists.
O’Doul started his career as a pitcher whose bat proved to be much more reliable than his arm. Hell, his legs were more impressive than his arm, he was described as being able to “run like a deer, unfortunately, he throws like one, too.” The speedy left fielder would track down everything in left to offset his wild arm. Center field was manned by Denny Sothern who added 15 assists in just 81 games and only 9 errors in an era when the equipment could be known to contribute to misplays in the field.
1951 Dodgers: LF Andy Pafko, CF Duke Snider, RF Carl Furillo
Furillo strong arm in right led the league in outfield assists from in 1950 and 1951 with 18 and 24, respectively. He converted six double plays from the outfield in ‘51 with only five errors all season. The “Reading Rifle” once threw out Pirate Mel Queen at first on a throw from right, robbing the runner of a hit by two feet. His assist numbers dropped after 1951 as runners stopped testing his arm. Even if he wasn’t throwing runners out, he was holding doubles into singles with his masterful play of bounces off the tricky right field wall of Ebbets Field. Not exactly a cool head, in a rivalry game with the Giants, heated trash talk escalated to Furillo telling the pitcher Ruben Gomez to “stick it in his ear.” Gomez was close, he drilled Furillo in the hip. Furillo ignored the pitcher in the ensuing scrum and sought out Giants manager Leo Durocher whom he grabbed by the neck and choked like he were Bart Simpson about to call CPS.
Hall of Famer Duke Snider was the star of the Dodgers outfield through the ‘50’s and through the move to L.A.. While the Dodgers were in Brooklyn Snider was in the debate for the best center fielder in New York along with Mantle and Mays. In high school, Snider was a quarterback with a gun of an arm capable of tossing a football 70 yards. In 1951 Snider completed 12 outfield assists with only 5 errors.
Furillo and Snider didn’t have a consistent left fielder in 1951 until the Dodgers made a mid season deal for Andy Pafko with the Cubs who totalled 30 home runs that season between the two teams. Pafko committed only one error for each team that season for a .993 percentage and 14 outfield assists over the whole season.
1967 Cardinals: LF Lou Brock, CF Curt Flood, RF Roger Maris
Hall of Famer Lou Brock started his career with the Cubs considered a one trick pony, and it wasn’t even as a base stealer. He was originally thought of as a power hitter who struck out a lot due to a blast to center field at the Polo Grounds that made him one of only three players ever to hit a home run to that area of the park. When he was traded to the Cardinals he emerged as the best base stealer in the league, snapping Maury Wills’ run at that title, but his glove was still referred to as a “rock” due to issues with errors. By 1967 Brock was still making errors (12), but his range was expanding (276 putouts) and he was getting outfield assists (13) to the point that he was an above average fielder (4 Rtot). The previous season, he had 9 errors, 19 assists and 269 putouts, but an Rtot of only 2. The reason for that was that he had an abysmal 35 games in right field in ‘66, committing 6 errors.
It seems that Brock just needed to get out of right field and the acquisition of Roger Maris sure helped. This was his first season removed from the Yankees and his last full season in the majors. Maris had been a gold glover in 1960 in a year where he had 6 assists, 4 errors, a .985 percentage and a 19 Rtot. Maris had a better fielding percentage and fewer errors in ‘67 (.991 and 2 errors) and an Rtot of 10 in right field.
Anchoring the Cardinals outfield was Curt Flood in center. Flood won seven straight Gold Gloves from ‘63 to ‘69, was a three-time All-Star and went to three World Series with the Cardinals, winning it all in ‘64 and ‘67. Flood is considered one of the best fielding outfielders in baseball history, by the mid-60’s he was considered to be even better a center fielder than Willie Mays. His ‘67 fit that mold, four errors, 315 putouts and four assists. From September ‘65 to June ‘67 Flood played 226 games without an error, for 568 consecutive chances, both were NL records. In June ‘67, Flood completed the first unassisted double play from the outfield in the majors in 25 years. After the 1970 season a disagreement with management went sour and the Cardinals traded him to the Phillies, a city and organization known for poor treatment of minority players as punishment. Flood threatened to retire rather than report to the Phillies. This tactic of threatening to retire to negotiate a better trade for the player was common practice at the time but this time the Cardinals did not give in. This precipitated the most important labor dispute in sports history that although it did not benefit Flood’s career, it resulted in the opening of free agency and fair contracts for all major leaguers in the future. Flood essentially ended his career at the age of 31, having played twelve full seasons, logging 1861 hits, leading the league with 211 hits in ‘64 and a career .293 batting average.
1978 Montreal Expos: LF Warren Cromartie, CF Andre Dawson, RF Ellis Valentine
If you were playing in the National League in 1978, you sure as hell shouldn’t have tried to take the extra base if you were playing the Expos. This Montreal team should have been the future of baseball. Hall of Famer Gary Carter was only 24 years old as was Warren Cromartie and future All-Star Larry Parrish, and Hall of Famer Andre Dawson and Gold Glover Ellis Valentine were both 23 years of age. Ellis Valentine had a spectacular year, tied for the league lead in outfield assists with teammate Warren Cromartie at 24, 25 home runs, 13 steals, a .289 AVG and 18 Rtot in right field. Valentine only had one more full seasons as a big leaguer, even at his young age. He was a physical phenom, 6’4” with tape measure power with the bat. His arm was so good that Pete Rose raved that it was one of the best he had ever seen. Teammate Andre Dawson, who is often thought to have one of the best arms in the outfield in MLB history claimed Ellis was far better than himself. He could overthrow the cutoff man throwing home from the warning track, but his career was already on the downturn by his mid-20’s.
Tim McCarver once noted, “One wonders about Ellis. There are those with far less talent doing much better. Is it motivation? Desire? I can’t answer that.” Jonah Keri wrote in Up, Up and Away, “...Valentine showed remarkable on-field resilience even as he turned his insides into an elaborate chemistry experiment,” to describe the mixture of injury (playing on astroturf and taking an pitch to the face) and his endless appetite for cocaine and greenies to get him up and alcohol to bring him down. When he retired from baseball he went into drug rehab and later started a second career as a certified drug counselor.
Left fielder Warren Cromartie had an equally spectacular 1978 season, racking up 24 outfield assists and an Rtot of 23. He was never the power hitter of Valentine or Dawson, but he had the best AVG (.297) on the ‘78 Expos and racked up the most hits (180) in a lineup that sported three future Hall of Famers (Gary Carter, Tony Perez and Dawson). Cromartie never hit more than 14 home runs in a season with the Expos, but in 1984 he left the US to play in Japan with the Yamiuri Giants where he had three straight 30+ home run seasons.
Hall of Famer Andre Dawson was the only outfielder of the trio not to lead the league in assists in 1978, but he logged 17 of his own from center field and an Rtot of 12. He was the NL Rookie of the Year the year before and two years later he started a run of eight Gold Gloves in nine years. With the ridiculous number of assists from the Montreal in ‘78, it’s little wonder that runners decided to not even both risking to take the extra base the next season and all of their assist numbers plummeted.
1989 Pirates: LF Barry Bonds, CF Andy Van Slyke, RF Glenn Wilson
There aren’t very many teams with outfields that won two Gold Gloves in the outfield in the same season and this was the case for the Pirates from ‘90 to ‘92 with Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke, however each one of those years, the Pirates sacrificed defense in right for power. It probably wasn’t the worst move to make because the Pirates were an under .500 team in ‘89 and the next year that they moved Bobby Bonilla to right field and Jeff King took over at third, the Bucs finished first in the NL East. Van Slyke won five consecutive Gold Gloves from ‘88 to ‘92 and Bonds won eight out of nine Gold Gloves from ‘90 to ‘98.
Bonds was exclusively playing left field in 1989 and managed to convert 366 putouts and 14 assists. Both of these numbers are pretty high for a left fielder, normally it’s center fielders with more than 366 putouts in a season and right fielders with more than 10 assists. Bonds created a lot of chances for himself with his range and strong arm and it’s reflected in his incredibly high Rtot of 37. It’s pretty shocking he didn’t get the recognition to win the Gold Glove award that year.
Van Slyke didn’t quite play as many games as Bonds and so he didn’t have as many putouts, 339 to go with his 9 assists and 5 double plays for an Rtot of 13. Van Slyke wasn’t just the best defensive center fielder of mid-’80’s and early ‘90’s, but a great leadoff hitter as well. He was a three-time All-Star with two Silver Slugger Awards. “Slick” led the league in triples (15) in ‘88 (also hitting 25 home runs, driving in 100 RBI, and stealing 30 bags) and hits (199) and doubles (45) in ‘92 while also finishing second in the NL in batting average (.324). He only played 13 years in the majors, most of that with the Pirates, collecting 1562 hits, 245 stolen bases (with a 80.6% success rate), 164 home runs, and a .349 OBP.
Glenn Wilson played half the season with the Pirates and gave the Bucs outfield their best coverage under Bonds and Van Slyke. In only 85 games in right for the Pirates he made 163 putouts and four assists for an Rtot of 13, 17 between Pittsburgh and Houston for the full season. In his career, he led the league in outfield assists twice, tallying 18 or more assists each year from ‘85 to ‘87.
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn won five Gold Gloves and is considered by some to be one of the most overrated fielders in modern baseball history. It’s true that Gold Glove voters can have a tendency to apply their eye test for defense to how well a batter wields a bat, this was the case with Gwynn’s 1989 Gold Glove when he was so far below league average for fielders that his Rtot was -23. Not every season was so horrendous for Gwynn, his Rtot in ‘91 was an especially good 28 after he had 8 assists, only 3 errors and 291 putouts in right, the final season he won a Gold Glove. The next season he was almost as good, recording an Rtot of 19, thanks to 270 putouts, 9 assists and only five errors in 1991.
Gwynn was joined in the outfield with Darrin Jackson who had a career year, his only full season as a starter, with 436 putouts, 18 assists, 9 double plays, and only 2 errors to post a 29 Rtot in center. He never hit especially well, but his ‘91 and ‘92 seasons he did hit 21 and 17 home runs. Unfortunately, in the following years Jackson played on three teams in under two seasons, didn’t get out of the minors for two seasons then split 1997 with two more teams. Jerald Clark was another player who never really had a chance aside from 1992 with the Padres and he gloved his way into making an impression by making 285 putouts, 10 assists, 4 double plays and only three errors for a 12 Rtot over the corners of the outfield, mostly of which was in left. 1992 was Jerald’s fifth year in the league and first full season. It was his last with the Padres and the next year he had his second, and last, full season, playing for the Rockies. 1992 was a year where the Padres outfield was populated by two one-hit wonders and a Hall of Famer where all three happened to rack up the best they were capable of performing on the outfield grass.
1999 Braves: LF Gerald Williams, CF Andruw Jones, RF Brian Jordan
Andruw Jones was a new species of center fielder. Fueled by the yellow sun of Earth, he broke into the majors when he was just 19 years old and became one of the youngest players to homer in the World Series. He finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting at 20, and at 21 he won his first of ten straight Gold Glove awards. He wasn’t just graceful, or fast or have a strong arm, or play mistake-free baseball. He made the most difficult plays look simple, he would turn after a third out catch and calmly throw the ball out of the stadium. He was superhuman in the outfield and the numbers backed him up. In ‘98 he had 20 assists and only two errors in center. The next year he had 492 putouts, and an Rtot of 36, his career high. Jones didn’t have the best batting average in his career, hitting only .254, but he did compile 1933 hits, 434 homers, hitting 30+ in seven seasons, was a Silver Slugger and went to five All-Star games.
Brian Jordan was one of the handful of players to play in the NFL and pro baseball in the ‘90’s along with Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders. Jordan was in the same defensive backfield as Sanders from 89’ to ‘91. When Jordan was promoted to the Cardinals MLB league squad, he retired from football to focus on baseball. In 1999 he joined the Braves and became the everyday cleanup hitter for the first time in his career, securing his spot by hitting 23 homers and driving in 115 RBI. His all around athleticism was on display from right with 9 assists, only three errors, three double plays, 295 putouts and a 17 Rtot.
Gerald Williams spend much of his career as a fourth outfielder. He had a little more of an everyday gig with the Braves in ‘99 and the Braves were rewarded with 17 homers, 19 steals and a .275 AVG. Williams had only three errors to go with 9 assists, mostly playing in left with a 10 Rtot. In 1997, Gerald and Braves teammates Mark Wohlers and Pedro Borbon made a cameo in an episode of Saturday Night Live. The appearance could be described as “too obscure.”
2001 Diamondbacks: LF Luis Gonzalez, CF Steve Finley, RF Reggie Sanders
The Championship Diamondbacks team powered their way to through the season and the playoffs with big arms and big bats, but they also had pretty stellar defense. Finley was a five-time Gold Glover, winning in 2000 and 2004, both years he was actually a below average fielder, compared to ‘01 when he had an Rtot of 3. In ‘01 he only committed two errors for a percentage of .994, with six assists and three double plays. That year was not one of his best years at the plate, hitting only 14 homers and posting a .275 average, over his career he collected 2548 hits, 304 homers and 320 stolen bases and 2001 was the only year he took home a Championship ring.
Gonzo broke out as a power hitter in ‘01 hitting 57 home runs in his only season with more than 31. A change in his stance was attributed to his emergence, he was reaching his peak years and he started playing at the second highest altitude park in the league in Phoenix. Artificial means are often speculated for such a drastic boom for he or any other player with sudden pop in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, although he was never officially named. He played 161 games in left that year, didn’t commit a single error all season and threw out eight runners from the outfield. Gonzalez was more than just a one-year wonder with 2591 hits, 354 homers and a .367 onbase percentage, a Silver Slugger and a five trips to the All-Star Game.
Reggie Sanders only had one error in the outfield in 2001, and if you’re keeping track that’s only three errors all year from the three guys who started the most games. Sanders was the right fielder, although over his career he played anywhere in the outfield that his team needed. He only had five assists, but three double plays and a nine Rtot. He also had a career high in homers (33) this year. Over a pretty nice career he hit 304 homers and collected 1666 hits over 17 years, playing for eight different teams over that span.