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.)

26 Responses

  1. Bill

    Griffey Jr, but in a Mariners uniform. Larkin, Hamilton, Rolen, and BP are the first ones I think of. Eric Davis also comes to mind, but I was young and only really remember his diving catch in the World Series and the injury that occurred during the catch

  2. cfd3000

    Johnny Bench. He’s the single biggest reason I’m a Reds fan. He was not only the best defensive catcher ever (if you offer Ivan Rodriguez as your preference I’ll acknowledge that’s not a bad choice but politely disagree). Henry Ford once said in reference to developing the mass produced car something like “If you had asked people what they wanted they’d have said faster horses”. Bench was the catching version of the first sports car after a century of catching horses. Larkin, Phillips, Reese, Hamilton, Davis, Rolen, Geronimo, Concepcion – all excellent. Bench – transformed the game.

  3. Matt Esberger

    Concepcion set the standard on how to play short on astroturf but hard to overlook pre-injuries Eric Davis or Johnny Bench in his prime. For the one year we had him, Mike Cameron was no slouch in center.

  4. TR

    Not many seasons when the Reds have not had an above average defense, so it’s a tough call but I’ll go with Bench, Concepcion, Larkin and Phillips.

  5. thekidredblog

    In my time the best defensive player on the Reds I have seen would be Brandon Phillips. With the Reds he won 4 gold gloves and never had a fielding percentage below .977. His dWAR for the Reds was 8.5. If that doesn’t say great defense, I don’t know what does.

  6. Ethan L

    BP and BHam for me. Adam Dunn was close to making my list…

  7. IndyRedMan

    I’d riding with TR…..Bench, Concepcion, Larkin, and BP. Adding Billy > Eric Davis and Cesar Geronimo. To be honest…I was 9 when in 1975 so I wasn’t exactly breaking down the BRMs defensive prowess! Even a 9 yr old could see Bench was pretty good though! A guy runs….ball is waiting for him when he gets there. Next:)

  8. doug dorger

    Great names all and a really tough task picking one. I give the nod to Roy McMillan, smoothest SS I ever saw. 2nd place vote to Juan Castro.

    • Bill

      I’ll go along with Little Mac & also Johnny Temple.

  9. BigRedMachine

    It has to be Bench. As already stated he changed what it meant to play behind the plate. But perhaps as important he gave me hope showing that a slow, heavy set guy could dominate in a sport. As a slow, heavy set kid I became a baseball fan and a Reds fan for life because of Bench.

    Anyone remember his restaurant in Northgate? Had a huge chair in the waiting area that was a catchers mitt. I remember sitting in the chair for as long as possible.

    • Matt Esberger

      I think Johnny had a few restaurants. I remember 1 downtown and another on Kemper Rd in Tri-County. Pete had one off of Galbraith Rd in Springfield Twp back in the late 70s. My dad took us out of school to there one time.

  10. kmartin

    Bench. I loved the way he could gun the ball to first to pick a runner off without coming out of his crouch.

    • kmartin

      I loved game four in the 1976 World Series against the Yankees. I believe the Reds were ahead 3-0 with Nolan on the mound and Yankees were rallying. Bench picked Graig Nettles off 2B with a laser throw. Nettles looked dumbfounded. I suspect he had no idea a catcher could make a throw like that.

  11. JB WV

    Morgan was better all around, no doubt, but Phillips is the best-fielding 2b I’ve ever seen. Bench was amazing. During his last year he hadn’t caught in a while. First game back a runner tries to steal second, Bench short-hops a throw in the dirt and throws a missile to nail him at second. Big man, quick as a cat.

  12. Scott Carter

    As already noted, the guys on the Big Red Machine were terrific defenders starting with Bench behind the plate, then Conception, Morgan and Geronimo top the middle and truthfully although defense was not the reason they were playing but the corner spots were pretty well manned as well. The Big Red Machine is most noted for their offense but they were a very good defensive machine as well.

    • JB WV

      At one point they set a record with 15 straight errorless games.

      • Ernest Howerton

        I remembered a streak of 15 games but I didn’t realize BRM did that.As far as best defensive player,I think Billy is #1,Bench a close 2nd,Concepion#3. Geronimo was great in center for the Reds as I can still see him roaming out there with a canon for an arm.Pokey Reese had just as much range as Ozzie did in his day.I can’t remember what yr. the Reds had their rookie league team in Princeton W.Va. but Pokey played there in his first yr. straight out of high school in South Carolina.His range was crazy because he could glide over behind 2nd from SS and when most would dive,he was still on his feet.He was the 18th overall pick that yr.Jim Bowden had came down to watch the team and I asked him how could a kid this good wait till the 18th round to be picked.His reply was “I have to tip my hat to Julian Mock who was the Reds chief scout because of his age was the reason”

  13. KDJ

    Bench. The fact that he was a catcher only makes it that much more significant. An outfielder may not be involved in three plays in a game. The catcher may call pitches, distract the batter, calm and focus the pitcher, direct the infield, impact the running game, work the umpire, frame pitches, block the plate, stop wild pitches, and field the position.
    The catcher is key in every pitch of the game.
    Honorable mention to Concepcion, Hamilton, and Phillips.

  14. Jason Linden

    Chad is right. At least for those of us not old enough to have seen Bench, it was Pokey Reese. He was transcendent. Better than Cozart or Phillips or Hamilton.

    • big5ed

      I heard a scout say once that Pokey Reese would win a Gold Glove at any of the 7 outfield/infield spots. Said he had the best first step, ever.

  15. Tom Corcoran

    Roy McMillan, Bench, and Germino come to mind. Phillips and Morgan close behind. I saw them all, but it is difficult to compare different positions.

  16. Pete Snow

    Can’t argue with Bench. I’ll never forget Pokey Reese In 1999. “The Big Big Road Machine” sure was fun to watch! Hard to believe that nobody has mentioned Eddie Milner. One of the most underrated defensive
    CFers of all time.

  17. Josh G

    a little surprised E.D. didn’t get a little more love on this thread