This week’s respondents are Matt Habel, Steve Mancuso, Jim Walker, Tom Mitsoff, and Chad Dotson.
Our Daily Reds Obsession: Who is the best defensive player you’ve ever seen in a Reds uniform?
Matt: Billy Hamilton is definitely an easy answer because I have never seen anyone consistently make the plays that he does, let alone another Reds player. However, there are several other recent players that I feel could also be worthy of the honor, including Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart. Those two made up a very strong middle infield that was really fun to watch, especially considering the team was having success at the same time. BP definitely had a flare to his game that doesn’t show up in the numbers but did make for some good entertainment, which in the end is what it is all about.
Steve: Johnny Bench. Every aspect of his catching was exceptional. Bench won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves in his age 20-29 seasons. Bench revolutionized defense at his position, catching one-handed using a hinged glove. Bench shut down the opposing team’s running game. For example, in 1972, the NL average was 80 steals given up per team; the Reds allowed just 31. From 1970-76, the Reds played 42 postseason games and Bench allowed just two SB, while throwing out 13 attempts. Bench was known for calling a great game and for being quick applying tags at home.
As points of comparison, Billy Hamilton’s best dWAR season has been 1.8 WAR. Brandon Phillips twice had 1.6 dWAR seasons. Johnny Bench averaged 1.7 dWAR for 10 years. Three times Bench exceeded 2.0 dWAR.
Jim: Billy Hamilton is a great defensive center fielder. Eric Davis may have been as good or even better. What about Cesar Geronimo at the same spot? Then there is the incredible run of Reds shortstops dating back to beginning of my memories in the mid 1950’s broken only by the interval between Barry Larkin and Zack Cozart. But for my money Johnny Lee Bench is the best Reds defender I’ve ever seen in person or on TV. Bench defined how the catcher’s position is still played today. In the succeeding years there have probably been players who did one thing or another better than Bench; but, nobody before or since approaches him as the entire package behind the plate. As Bench’s manager Sparky Anderson once said, “Don’t embarrass (anybody) by comparing him to Johnny Bench”.
Tom: There are some Reds players who come to mind for me for their defense over the years, and they may not be the names everyone would expect. During the Big Red Machine era, I was pretty young and didn’t fully appreciate what I was privileged to watch (particularly Johnny Bench’s defense). Since then:
Second base: Brandon Phillips, no question
Shortstop: Dave Concepcion, should be in the Hall of Fame
Third base: Tony Fernandez, 1994 (he was a career shortstop who the Reds signed and put at
third base and was always outstanding) and Buddy Bell
Catcher: Tucker Barnhart, well-deserved Gold Glove
Left field: Adam Duvall, best by far
Center field: Billy Hamilton, Cesar Geronimo, Paul Blair (1979 – he played 75 games for the NL
West champs that year, and the former Oriole Gold Glover was still amazing on defense)
Right field, first base and pitcher: none.
Chad: I caught the tail end of Johnny Bench’s career, but he was pretty much a corner infielder by the time I was old enough to enjoy baseball. Same with Davey Concepcion. I watched Barry Larkin’s entire career, and marveled over his defensive prowess. Mike Cameron was great for one year. Paul Janish could pick it. More recent Reds such as Brandon Phillips, Zack Cozart, and Billy Hamilton deserve mention, as well.
But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a peak defensive performance in a Reds uniform that is better than 1999 Pokey Reese. Reese, playing mostly second base that season, won the Gold Glove (the first of back-to-back awards) and he absolutely deserved it. Think about this: Reese was a 4.3 WAR player that season, despite a wRC+ of 85 and an OPS+ of 86 (.285/.330/.417). It was the greatest defensive season in Reds franchise history by Fielding Runs (29) and 5th overall in Defensive WAR (3.2).
But forget the metrics. I’ve never seen a player that seemed to make every single play like Reese did that year. I was not a fan of Reese as a player, to say the least, but for a brief time, he was simply brilliant with the glove. (Let’s forget about that one other time.)
Blame Chad for creating this mess.
Chad launched Redleg Nation in February 2005, and has been writing about the Reds ever since. His first book, “The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds” is now available in bookstores and online, at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. You can also find Chad’s musings about the Cincinnati Reds in the pages of Cincinnati Magazine.
You can email Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.