Blue Jays: Who would be on the all-time defensive team?
Defence is often overlooked as part of a teams composition, however, I would like to compose a team of the best Blue Jays defenders of all time.
I initially intended on writing this article a month or two ago as it is more an “off-season” kind of thing. But since we are living in a perpetual off-season at this moment, I thought it would be a good time to bring it back. We, as a society, are struggling at times to find bright spots during Covid-19 pandemic And what is better than writing about the good times in the Blue Jays past.
I know defence can be a subject that many fans don’t seem to care about when we talk about player acquisitions or when we talk about the greatest players in team history. But it is an essential part of building winning ball clubs and often gets overlooked. That is until the team has a butcher at a position and it is all anyone can talk about. I am sure everyone remembers “E 5” before he became Edwin.
When I started to look at the best defensive players in the organization’s history. I had to make a decision. Do I pick the defensive player who provided the most defensive value to the Blue Jays? Or do I pick the best defensive individual seasons by a Blue Jay? A player could be the long time catcher and provide a lot of value but another player could show up for one season, have an incredible defensive season, and then disappear.
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I have decided to do both. I have picked a player who provided the most value defensively and another player who had the best defensive season. In most cases, they are the same player anyways though. I also admit that I am only 33 years old and don’t remember or wasn’t alive during the 80s teams. So I have relied heavily on fangraphs.com defensive measures. I admit that older defensive measures can be flawed but it is all I have to go on for the older teams. I also will never use fielding percentages(errors) as a way to measure defence. If I have to explain why it may take a second full article. Better yet, go read the first baseball abstract by Bill James from 1977. He could explain it far better than I ever will.
Without further adieu, here is my list.
Total Defensive Value: Russel Martin
Over 4 seasons from 2015 through 2018, Martin provided some of the best defence the Blue Jays had ever seen. He accrued 21 defensive runs saved and caught 71 runners trying to steal bases in 3367 innings behind the plate. It is difficult to compare older generations in terms of framing numbers since those numbers didn’t exist a decade or two ago. But Martin was an excellent framer. Ernie Whitt finished in second place on my overall value list. While Whitt wasn’t as great defensively as Martin, he caught far more innings behind the plate and provided almost the same amount of value. But I erred on the side of defensive talent for this one.
Single Season: 1997 Charlie O’Brien
Some may not remember him other than the pioneered the hockey-style catchers mask. But in 1997 he put up a 16 Total Zone (runs saved) and caught 31 runners on the base paths. He wasn’t a Blue Jay long, but he did have arguable the best single-season behind the plate.
Total Defensive Value: Willie Upshaw
This one was tough for me because there were two viable candidates for the job, Upshaw and Olerud. Even though I idolized John Olerud as a left-handed batter growing up, I had to defer to the numbers. Upshaw, in 7 seasons as the Blue Jays first baseman, put up a 40 TZ (total zone), had 7777 PO (putouts), and 697 A(assists). Olerud played 6 seasons, had 33 TZ, 6193 PO, and 481 A. Upshaw provides more value due to the fact he played a bit more.
Single Season: 1987 Willie Upshaw
In 1987, Upshaw put up 14 TZ of his 40 TZ career with the Blue Jays. He had 1169 PO and 127 A.
Total defensive value: Orlando Hudson
I know this one will ruffle a few feathers out there, but Roberto Alomar was not the best defensive second baseman in Blue Jays history. He was very flashy, he was an incredible batter, he was the best overall second baseman in the team’s history but his defensive numbers are not that spectacular. Alomar had -26 TZ, 1322 PO, 1906 A, 392 DP(double plays) in 6002.2 innings. Hudson, on the other hand, had 27.9 UZR(the successor to TZ in 2002), 690 PO, 2279 A, 502 DP in just 3789.2 innings. Hudson made as many if not more plays than Alomar did in a little more than half the time at second. My guess is that he had a much bigger range than Alomar or he was just positioned better. Could it be both?
Single Season: 2004 Orlando Hudson
I don’t think I need to sing Hudson’s praises much more aside from the fact he put up a 15.9 UZR season in 2004.
Need I say more? Actually, yes I do. The late Blue Jay great Tony Fernandez takes the cake in terms of longevity and single-season defensiveness for the Blue Jays. He should be called Mr. Blue Jay in my opinion. He played more defensive innings as a Blue Jays infielder than anyone except for Carlos Delgado. All while being incredibly sound defensively. In 9436 innings at shortstop, he put up a 59 TZ, 1979 PO, 3199 A, and 700 DP. No one else is in the realm for any of those numbers. His best defensive season was 1989 in which he put up a 13 TZ. I cannot say enough good things about Tony Fernandez and he will be sorely missed.
Total defensive value: Kelly Gruber
Many will remember Gruber as the mullet sporting third baseman from the infamous non-triple-play in the 1992 World Series. But many will forget how good he was on the hot corner for several years as a Blue Jay. In 6643.1 innings, Gruber put up a 17 TZ, 601 PO, 1609 A, and 107 DP. If given enough time Josh Donaldson (12.8 UZR in 3643 innings) may have passed Gruber in total value but as it stands Gruber wins in my book.
Single Season: 1988 Kelly Gruber
In 1988, Gruber put up a 14 TZ season. I know what you are thinking. He had a total of 17 TZ as a Blue Jay and 14 of that came in one season. Yes, it’s true, but it doesn’t change the fact he provided more total value than any other Blue Jays third baseman even if most of it came in one season.
Total Defensive Value: Reed Johnson
Although he played far fewer innings than the guy I have in second place, Shannon Stewart, Johnson provides far more value. In just 2517 innings in left field, Johnson put up a 34.3 UZR, with 541 PO and 20 A. Even if we combine Stewart’s UZR and TZ (he played through the change of the one stat to the next one), he would only have a number of 14.9 runs saved in 6218 innings. Leftfield is not one of the best positions that the organization has ever filled. There have been a lot of butchers in left. Remember early 2015 when they were sticking anyone out there, like Chris Colabello.
Single Season: 2000 Shannon Stewart
Shannon Stewart had a career in left field for the Blue Jays that amassed 13 TZ. In 2000, he had a 17 TZ season. In other words, the rest of his time in left field, aside from in the 2000 season, he was giving the other team runs.
This should come as no surprise to any of you that “Devo” was the best center fielder the Blue Jays have ever had. Don’t come at me with Kevin Pillar references. They are not in the same realm defensively. White has more TZ in the 1992 season (33 TZ) than Pillar had UZR in his entire career with the Blue Jays (27.4 UZR). Also, they both played virtually the same amount of innings in center. Devo had 72 TZ with 1809 PO and 33 A in 5 seasons with the Blue Jays. He was a gazelle out there and he needed to be with the butchers that were beside him out there. He is an underrated hero of both Blue Jays World Series teams.
Total defensive value: Jesse Barfield
This one was not very close. Barfield was a great defender. He put up a 110 TZ with 1987 PO and 110 A over 8 seasons with the Blue Jays. The guy in second was Alex Rios with 55.2 UZR. Not too shabby, but not in the realm of Barfield’s number. Unfortunately, I am too young to remember him in right. I wish I could have seen him play. He clearly had a great range and a cannon for an arm. He has 5 of the top 7 assist seasons for a Blue Jays right fielder.
Single Season: 1987 Jesse Barfield
In 1987 Barfield put up a 23 TZ with 344 PO and 16 A. It seems like he had a season like this several times. But this one was definitely the best of them all.
If this list has done one thing for me, it is the realization that the late 80s Blue Jays teams were very good defensively. I grew up thinking the 1992 and 1993 Blue Jays best players offensively and defensively that the Jays ever had. While some of those ideas remained to be true, many new ones were formed. Offence will always be the larger deciding factor in creating a winning team but sprinkling in some good defence is also vitally important as well. Most players on this list were large parts of winning teams.