Ask a Major League GM if defence is as important as offence and pitching, and they’ll probably tell you “of course it is.” But despite teams like the Royals showing just how key stellar defence can be to winning a Championship, most clubs’ priorities are pitching, then hitting.
From a fan perspective, though, defence is king. It involves freakish athleticism that anyone can appreciate—just like football. You don’t need any context—you don’t need to understand pitch types or spin rates or framing or hitting counts or how a hitter works the zone—it’s simple and aesthetic. Sure you can geek out about shifts, but defence highlights are the definitely the best baseball highlights.
Back in March, Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan ran a poll that asked “What Type of Baseball Dork Are You?” In other words: which component of the game do you enjoy the most—pitching, hitting, or defence?
Pitching won out, but there’s a lot of selection bias going on here because Fangraphs’ readers (actually, the subset of the readers who would care to vote in a baseball poll) are baseball nerds, and a baseball nerd will always cream in his pants over pitching.
Now that your mind is on defence, let me introduce this column, which will be a weekly one going forward. Every Tuesday, I’ll pick a defensive theme (back to the infield, foul territory catches, trick plays, etc.) and pick the three or so highlights that are the cream of the crop in that theme. (I realized that’s the second time I’ve used the word cream in this article, yikes.)
I’m starting things off close to home in Toronto, home to the noble Rogers Centre. We’ve got a trio of Blue Jays outfielders spanning the full length of Toronto’s playoff drought fighting it out to be the one who did it best. You can probably guess what these highlights are going to be from the title, so I’ll get to the highlights.
#3. Rajai Davis robs Casey McGeehee (2012)
- Davis’ height: 5’10”
- Height of wall: 10’0″
- Estimated vertical: 3.1 ft.
Side note—this was how I estimated the verticals:
Thankfully, the SkyDome was constructed with a uniform 10 ft. fence all the way round the outfield, so using that constant height I was able to translate the proportions in ruler-on-computer-screen centimetres into real-life feet.
Davis gets extra points for being the shortest of the three at 5’10”, but I don’t think I was alone in being surprised that he was that tall. The ball is well above the fence, so there’s no doubt it’s a robbery, but to me the hangtime of this would-be home run from McGeehee takes points away from Davis. He had time to look at the fence and jog up to the warning track before making the catch. Still, the two steps he takes before planting his right foot below the West Jet sign are the graceful steps of a high jumper, and his dismount into a low fluid squat is pretty too.
#2. Devon White robs Leo Gomez (1994)
- White’s height: 6’1″
- Height of wall: 7’0″
- Estimated vertical: 3.4 ft.
OK, yes, the title is a straight up misleading as this catch was at Camden Yards in Baltimore, but how could I not include it? White is taller than both Pillar and Davis, so even though his vertical is slightly better than Davis’, if you account for height it’s actually the least impressive of the catches.
The beauty of this catch lies in the percentage of White’s body that is over the fence when he gets the ball in his glove. It’s his entire torso, up to the belt, and his glove is reaching a good foot behind the fence. Many center fielders wouldn’t have even made an attempt at a ball hit that far. Devon White always would. (More on him later.) Also +1 for the dramatic backward somersault dismount.
#1. Kevin Pillar robs Tim Beckham (2015)
- Pillar’s height: 6’0″
- Height of wall: 10’0″
- Estimated vertical: 3.7 ft.
Kevin Kiermaier is the best all-around center fielder in baseball today, and he deserved the gold glove last year, but Pillar makes more impossible, highlight-reel catches. Anyone who watched him last season knows that. And anyone who thought it was a small sample-size fluke got a quick response:
The beauty of this grab is that Pillar doesn’t have any time to wait under the ball and size up his leap. He goes at this wall in a full-on sprint and somehow moves laterally along the padding to snag the baseball just above the fence like he’s the fucking Prince of Persia.
At the very apex, it looks like he hangs in the air and rotates horizontally a few degrees to pick the ball off the top of the fence like a ripe apple for Rosh Hashana. The fact that he also had the highest vertical seals the deal for me.
How would you rank the catches?
Don’t worry, I’m still not done with Devon White. Besides winning two World Series rings with the Jays in ’92 and ’93, you could make the case that behind guys like Andruw Jones and Willie Mays he is one of best center fielders of all-time. His 35.1 Def (composite stat of UZR and DRS that aims to capture a player’s total defensive contribution adjusted for positional difficulty) in 1992 is the third-best mark ever, behind 1998 Andruw Jones (37.4) and 1999 Andruw Jones (38.5).
Only eight center fielders have ever posted 30+ Def marks and 2015 Kevin Kiermaier (32.0) was one of them. Between 1987 and 1993, White turned in six seasons of 20+ Def, and if he hadn’t turned in a dismal -24.2 Def over his last three seasons, he would’ve finished with +66 Def, good for 21st all-time among center fielders.
Here are two other classic Devon White highlights for the persistent among you who read this far.