In a little twist on the top ten list, this All-Time Indians article isn’t the top ten at one particular thing. Instead, it is the top one player at ten different positions. Of course, there aren’t ten defensive positions in baseball, so, in addition to the normal nine, a bonus player will be included as utility man. For the regular positions, there is a minimum of 400 games played at that position. For the utility man, there is a minimum of 400 games at any position and at least 100 games played in at least two positions (not including different outfield spots). Since only two starting pitchers have played in 400 games, the limits have been dropped to 130 games and relievers have been excluded.
Included in the discussion to find the best are fielding percent, total chances, Gold Gloves and statistics important to individual positions like caught stealing numbers for catchers and outfield assists. While making spectacular plays may impress on TV, since most of the players considered played before regular video availability, long term consistency will be of much more importance. Despite there being almost 2,000 men who have played baseball in Cleveland history, only about 160 players made the cut after the limits on games played were considered.
Chico Salmon – Utility Man – 1964-68
It is hard to be a long term utility man as usually, the player is good enough to eventually become a starter or dispensable enough that they don’t stick around long. Salmon is the perfect example of one who did and was successful. Salmon played for the Tribe from 1964 through 1968 and played at least 30 games at six different positions.
While many players, like Joe Carter and Coco Crisp were officially considered for the role because they had more than 100 games at two different outfield positions, their statistics are less meaningful than those of Salmon’s who played a considerable amount of time at both middle infield positions. Salmon also didn’t just move from one position to another based on roster changes from year to year. He played games at at least four positions every year with the Indians playing in seven total during 1967.
Runner-Up: Chuck Hinton
Greg Swindell – Starting Pitcher – 1986-91, 1996
There isn’t one stand-out defensive pitcher in Indians history, but Swindell has a couple things going for him, despite a much shorter career than most of the other pitchers considered. While he only played in 166 games, Swindell committed less errors than any other pitcher considered all while having more pick-offs than any other pitcher in Cleveland history (except for Rick Waits, with whom he is tied with 20). In addition, while it may not be entirely up to the pitcher, 53% of base runners were caught stealing with Swindell on the mound, better than all but four other Indians pitchers.
Runner-Up: Wes Ferrell
Jim Hegan – Catcher – 1941-42, 1946-57
This may go completely against the argument that gave Swindell the pitcher spot, but Hegan deserves credit here for staying around longer than anyone else ever. Primarily known during his career as a defensive specialist, Hegan played in more games as a catcher than any other Indian and played more than 900 games more than the runner up.
Obviously just playing a lot of games is not enough for this distinction, but Hegan has the stats to back him up as well. While his .990 fielding percent isn’t the best ever, it is better than both Sandy Alomar, Jr and Ray Fosse, the two Indians catchers to have won Gold Gloves. He also holds the team record for pick-offs with 31 and caught 51% of attempted base stealers, better than all others considered by four percent.
Runner-Up: Joe Azcue
Vic Power – First Baseman – 1958-61
This decision was an obvious one as Power holds two of the biggest deciding factors when determining defensive greatness of those who played before the common era. He is the only Indians first baseman to win a Gold Glove at his position and he won three and he is the all-time leader in fielding percent at .995. While a great fielding percent may not be immediately impressive for a first baseman, Power wasn’t typical as he made almost an assist per game (.95) more than any other Indians first baseman by .16 per game.
The next eight first basemen are almost indistinguishable after Power, but Hargove comes in at second best due to playing the most games of the group while holding a .994 fielding percent. Also, only Hal Trosky has more total assists in his career than Hargrove and he did so in 342 more games.
Runner-Up: Mike Hargrove
Roberto Alomar – Second Baseman – 1999-2001
The Indians have had quite a few great second basemen, including three Hall of Famers of the 13 qualifiers, but none was flashier than Robby Alomar. Alomar is the only Indians second baseman with a Gold Glove and he won three with the team, one each year he was in Cleveland. In addition, no one comes close to his almost perfect .988 fielding percent. Making him look even better was the fact that he played next to Omar Vizquel, making him part of the greatest middle infield in team history.
Duane Kuiper deserves some credit as well as the only other second baseman with a fielding percent about .980. While offense isn’t considered at all for these rankings, Kuiper’s is of note as it was nonexistent, meaning his defense was the only reason he was on the team and he still stuck around for 774 games.
Runner-Up: Duane Kuiper
Ken Keltner – Third Baseman – 1937-49
Here is another situation where the longest tenured player at the position was also the best defender. Keltner spent 12 years with the Tribe and his 1,492 games were three hundred more than the next longest tenured player, Bill Bradley. In addition to coming in third among qualifiers in fielding percent, Keltner obviously had some range as he made 3.22 plays per game, more than all but seven (of 17) qualifiers.
There has been one Gold Glove winning third baseman in Indians history, Travis Fryman, but he had terrible range and was most likely overrated when he won the award due to the greatness at shortstop and secondbase that he played along side. As the leader in fielding percent and a decent range, Willie Kamm comes in second ahead of Fryman and Graig Nettles.
Runner-Up: Willie Kamm
Omar Vizquel – Short Stop – 1994-2004
Quite possibly the greatest defender in Cleveland history, Vizquel holds a team record with eight Gold Gloves won consecutively from 1994 through 2001 (he also won in 1993 with the Mariners). In addition to the hardware, his .985 fielding percent is 0.006 points better than the second most efficient defender, Frank Duffy. The 944 double plays he was involved in are third in team history behind fellow short stop Lou Boudeau and long time first baseman, Hal Trosky. Boudreau comes in second in consideration as the longest tenured short stop who still carried a .973 fielding percent and the best range factor in team history.
Runner-Up: Lou Boudreau
Michael Brantley – Left Fielder – 2009-Current
The Indians had less left fielders qualify for this top ten than any other position with just ten players making the cut. Of these, six can be considered mediocre to absolutely terrible fielders, so saying Michael Brantley is the best Indians defensive left fielder of all time doesn’t mean a whole lot. He does rank first in fielding percent with a .995 and has made more assists per game played than all but Charlie Jamieson and Jack Graney, but both of those were poor fielders otherwise. While Joe Vosmik did have considerably more assists in a much longer career, his 36 errors in seven years look embarrassing compared to Brantley’s four.
Runner-Up: Joe Vosmik
Cory Snyder – Right Fielder – 1986-90
The Indians have had some great arms in right field, but only the best can win and that was Cory Snyder. Shin-Soo Choo and Shoeless Joe Jackson also had guns in right, but Snyder out-threw both of them. Choo and Snyder are extremely easy to compare as Snyder only played one less than Choo as an Indian. In that time, Snyder had almost 100 more total chances and made 19 more outfield assists.
Runner-Up: Shin-Soo Choo
Brett Butler – Center Fielder – 1984-87
Offensively, the Indians have had a ton of great center fielders, but defensively, the group is easily decreased to five, and all are fantastic. More Indians center fielders have won Gold Gloves than any other position and the eight total at the position are tied with Omar Vizquel for most at one position. While the majority of those (four) were won by Kenny Lofton, he actually had a pretty poor range factor and won the awards largely for his diving plays and above the wall catches. While these are impressive, they don’t make him the best ever.
The other three options are three Gold Glovers, Grady Sizemore, Rick Manning and Vic Davalillo along with Brett Butler. Unlike the corner positions, arm strength is not as important, but Butler did make 40 assists in his 601 games, a better rate than the rest of the top five outside of Lofton. Butler is also tied with Sizemore for best fielding percent at any position in team history (.993) and has the best range factor of those players considered. This is certainly a close call and arguments for any of the five could be well founded, but as a center fielder, the most important thing is to make all the plays possible and Butler did that.
Manning comes in a close second as, while he didn’t have the arm, his range factor was second best to Butler and he had a similar fielding percent (.987). Surprisingly, the speedsters Sizemore and Davalillo were somewhat lacking in range and were well outperformed by Butler and Manning.
Runner-Up: Rick Manning
While the 1980’s Indians teams weren’t necessarily known for their defensive prowess, it is interesting to note that three of the ten players listed (Swindell, Butler and Snyder) played together from 1986-1987. The most impressive duo was, of course Vizquel and Alomar, who played together for Alomar’s entire tenure with the team. Finally, Hegan and Keltner’s careers had a slight overlap, most importantly in 1948, when the Indians won their last title. In addition, the runners up at both short stop, Boudreau, and left field, Mitchell, were also on this championship winning team.