It’s always fun to debate who the greatest of all time is and in baseball, that discussion usually revolves around the game’s most formidable hitters. However many forget about the great defensive wizards who have been stealing outs on MLB fields for years. These are the best fielders ever at each of their positions.
A quick note before the list. One of the main reasons defense isn’t talked about as much is because it is significantly more difficult to assess than hitting. Defensive metrics are either extremely complicated and require advanced Statcast data or are not very reliable or consistent.
Additionally, Gold Gloves have often been given out arbitrarily or inaccurately based on things like errors and fielding percentage so Gold Gloves alone aren’t the answer. Often the only way to evaluate defense is by watching players field their positions or referring to people who know the game best making these discussions extremely open-ended and unpredictable. Now, on to the list.
The Best Fielder Of All Time At Each Position
Pitcher: Greg Maddux, CHC/ATL
Greg Maddux is one of the greatest baseball players who ever played. He is one of the best starting pitchers ever for his remarkable efficiency and dominance on the mound and he was the best and most consistent defensive pitcher of all time. He was the winner of 18 Gold Glove awards including an incredible 13 consecutive from 1990-2002. He even won two after his age 40 season. Those 18 Gold Gloves are the most by any player in history, at any position and his 13 consecutive are the second most all time.
Another way of displaying his defensive excellence and consistency is through Fangraphs’ Def (defensive runs above average). A metric by which he ranks as by far the greatest pitcher of all time at 185.6 runs with second place being his teammate Tom Glavine at 169.1. He ranks 49th all-time among all players in defensive runs despite only playing every fifth day, that is one spot ahead of Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell despite only playing less than one-third of the innings that Trammell did.
Honorable mentions: Tom Glavine, Jim Kaat
Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez, TEX/DET
Ivan Rodriguez is one of the greatest catchers of all time, both with the bat and behind the plate but this was still one of the toughest decisions on the board. Rodriguez and Yadier Molina were both extremely close and made the choice extremely difficult. Rodriguez came out on top, though, mostly because of his incredible run at the start of his career. After playing only 88 games in his rookie season, he won the next 10 Gold Gloves and finished with 13 overall in his career, the most by any catcher.
Rodriguez is also eighth all-time in dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) and first among catchers at 29.6 as well as second all-time among catchers in Fangraphs defensive runs. Not to mention he made some incredible highlights in his career like this play at the plate against the Giants in 2003. His overall athleticism behind the plate and remarkable baseball IQ make him the greatest defensive catcher of all time.
Honorable mentions: Yadier Molina, Gary Carter
First Baseman: Keith Hernandez, STL/NYM
First base is an extremely difficult position to evaluate defensively. Pretty much all advanced metrics that have information before the past decade don’t evaluate first base properly or fairly. Most metrics treat first base the same as any other infield position thus discounting some of the most important aspects of the position like scooping and receiving throws and protecting the rest of the infield from erratic throws.
The almost universal opinion on the greatest defensive first baseman is Keith Hernandez. As reflected by his 11 Gold Gloves. Hernandez is considered the best because of his unparalleled ability to protect against the bunt, often causing opposing teams to move away from the strategy altogether, along with his unique mix of range and reflexes that helped him play the position in his incredible way. As well, he is known for having one of the best-throwing arms of any first baseman of all time. This combination of unique skills makes him a unicorn in his position which we may not see in the game again.
Second Baseman: Bill Mazeroski, PIT
There aren’t many players that made more out of their career from pure great defense than Bill Mazeroski. Mazeroski’s glove single-handedly carried him into the Hall of Fame and made him a baseball legend in Pittsburgh and around the game for decades. He played in an era when second base was considered a defense-first position usually manned by a light-hitting player with a really strong glove and he fit that bill perfectly.
While not a good hitter at all (World Series Game 7 walk-off homer notwithstanding), he was just a pure phenomenal fielder who was not only recognized for his greatness in his time with eight Gold Gloves but also via modern statistics. Fangraphs defensive runs put him third among second basemen at 200.5 and first all-time in dWAR at 24. As well, he is first all-time in total zone runs (a stat that measures defense based on range) among second basemen 147. Overall, Mazeroski’s glove is one of the most renowned in baseball history and metrics show he is the greatest second baseman in the history of baseball.
Third Baseman: Brooks Robinson, BAL
Who else? Without a doubt, the late great Brooks Robinson is the greatest defensive third baseman who ever played and with his recent passing now seems like the perfect time to remind everyone just how unbelievably great he was. Everyone understood how much better he was than everyone else so well that he won a record 16 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1960-1975 and everyone agrees Robinson deserved every single one.
Using dWAR he is the third greatest fielder (39.1) and by far the greatest third baseman ever. In fact, the difference between him and second-place Adrian Beltre is about equal to the entire career of noted great fielder Matt Chapman. Using Fangraphs’ defensive runs Robinson is also third all-time and first among third basemen with 359.8. In that case, the difference between him and second-place Beltre is almost the same as the career value for Mike Schmidt who is 13th all-time. This is not to mention that he is also first in baseball history in total zone runs. Also by a lot.
Honorable mentions: Adrian Beltre, Scott Rolen
Shortstop: Ozzie Smith, SDP/STL
Again, who else? Ozzie Smith is probably the consensus best defensive player of all time. He was capable of doing things on a baseball field that no one had seen before or since and was truly The Wizard. His defense is what made his reputation, it made him one of the best shortstops ever and a first-ballot Hall of Famer with over 90% of the vote.
His career included 13 Gold Gloves and it is honestly somewhat surprising he didn’t win more. He is first in dWAR, first in dWAR (by a lot), second in Def (to catcher Yadier Molina), and fourth in total zone runs. He is by far the greatest fielder at arguably the most important defensive position on the field, a position that has been played by some of the greatest defensive wizards the game has ever seen.
Left Fielder: Barry Bonds, PIT/SFG
Barry Bonds is known for many things: being one of the greatest hitters in history, his ties with PEDs, and his home run chase late in his career fueled by said PEDs. That is also the reason many remember him as the big slow home run hitter who couldn’t field when he was in his mid to late thirties and forties. Before that though he was an unbelievable all-around player and especially a dominant left fielder.
From his rookie season until 1998 (when he allegedly began using PEDs) he had a dWAR of 13.6 which would be first all-time among left fielders but the later years of his career dragged that total down significantly. As far as Fangraphs’ defensive runs go, he is by far the best left fielder of all time even including the downturn at the end of his career, Overall, before the back end of his career, Bonds was a legitimately excellent fielder for over a decade and is the greatest in an admittedly weaker crop of left fielders.
Center Fielder: Andruw Jones, ATL
Andruw Jones takes the top spot in this absolutely stacked position. There are several inner circle Hall of Famers and all-time greats who have graced center field in the past but Andruw Jones is the best defender of them all. His career is mostly based on his peak, during which he won 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards and was the best center fielder in the world not named Ken Griffey Jr.
By Fangraphs’ Def he is far and away the best center fielder ever, as with dWAR and total zone runs. He amassed the best volume stats of any center fielder ever despite being just 11th all-time in innings at center. That shows just how elite he was fielding his position, on an inning per inning basis there is an argument to be made that he is one of the greatest defensive players in history, at any position.
Right Fielder: Roberto Clemente, PIT
Roberto Clemente‘s defensive ability is tough to just capture with statistics. It’s tough to fully understand just how great he was without watching some of his highlights, I mean this throw is just silly. I can also try to measure it by saying that he won the Gold Glove in the last 10 seasons of his career before his tragic death at the age of 37 and could easily have won more.
Both dWAR and Def have him as a top-three right fielder all time and he is also first among right fielders in outfield 74 ahead of Hank Aaron who was also quite good and played significantly longer. His excellent overall fielding ability and his unparalleled throwing arm are what make him the greatest defensive right fielder who ever played.
Fielding has always been the most difficult thing to measure so evaluating it has always been a challenge. This list is based on what information is available and what experts have said, as well as what their reputations were during their careers. The list isn’t perfect but it is a great way to appreciate the greatest defensive players who ever took the field. Especially Brooks Robinson who passed in recent days and should be remembered for his remarkable defense on historic teams.