Every year, we see new spectacular plays from the defensive maestros of Major League Baseball. As exciting as any homerun, an amazing defensive play will get crowds roaring. When those plays come at key moments in big games, the feats become legendary. We decided to take a look at some of the defensive pioneers that pushed the limits of what is possible with a baseball mitt.
Here are our top ten MLB defensive plays of all time:
10. Rarely will you see a catcher in full armor sprint and leap over a fence to make a catch. However, Sandy Alomar Jr. did just that on August 2, 1994 to secure a foul ball that went sailing almost out of reach. The height and trajectory of the ball makes it a difficult catch when there are no obstacles, yet Alomar had to climb a fence and stretch his arm at an awkward angle to reel in one of the most impressive plays by a catcher of all time.
9. Nearly all MLB outfielders have great throwing arms as a necessity, but certain players, like Ichiro Suzuki for example, make the unbelievable throws that set them apart. On April 11, 2001, Ichiro demonstrated why certain throws are coined “laser beams” when he hurled a ball from right field to throw out Terrence Long at third base. Though he is neither the first or last outfielder to throw out a runner, the power and precision of this throw is incredibly difficult to match.
8. Ken Caminiti was a world-class third baseman. He won three Golden Gloves awards (1995-1997), and he provided us with possibly the greatest play from third base ever seen. In a combination of insane reaction time, body control, and arm strength, Caminiti fielded a diving stop at the third base foul line only to flip around and throw a canon to first base while still sitting on the ground. With this play, he set the bar for what a professional third baseman could do.
7. Defensive pioneer, Ron Swoboda, showed off his athleticism in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series by making a massive full-extension diving catch. At that time, this catch was one of the most amazing defensive plays, and the World Series stakes made it infinitely more impressive. The Mets went on to pull an extraordinary World Series upset over the Orioles, carried in part by Swoboda’s defensive and offensive prowess.
6. Otis Nixon was renowned for his speed. He tied the MLB record for most stolen bases in one game in 1991, and on July 25, 1992, he used the same speed and athleticism for one of the most impressive homerun robberies ever. After a dead sprint, Nixon managed to soar over a high outfield wall to steal the homerun from Andy Van Slyke. This catch also saved the win for the Atlanta Braves, keeping their 13-game winning streak alive.
5. With all of the superhuman athleticism on display, here is a play that demonstrates the equal importance of quick thinking. In the 2001 ALDS Game 3, Derek Jeter saw that a throw from right fielder, Shane Spencer, did not have enough power to beat the runner going home, so Jeter sprinted from his position at short stop to intercept the ball and give it a quick flip to the catcher for the tag out. This play let the Yankees maintain the lead, win the game, and ultimately, win the series.
4. You cannot have a defensive play countdown without Willie Mays’ iconic catch. In the 1954 World Series, Mays managed to make a then-unthinkable, over-the-shoulder grab while running full speed towards the outfield wall. Making this play even more spectacular were the dimensions of the field, as New York’s Polo Grounds stadium had a center field depth of 483 feet, meaning that Mays covered some serious ground to track down this ball. This catch taught following generations of fielders to never give up on a play.
3. Jim Edmonds, an outfield hero, made his definitive defensive play on June 10, 1997. One-upping Willie Mays’ legendary catch, Edmonds made a full-extension diving grab after sprinting towards the outfield wall. Although he was already a world-class outfielder, the sheer coordination and athleticism required for this play cemented Edmonds as one of the all time great defensive players of the game.
2. Ozzie Smith’s career made him THE pinnacle of shortstops. With 13 consecutive Golden Glove awards, excellent batting, and incredible speed, Ozzie was a human highlight reel. On April 20, 1978, Ozzie made some defensive magic with a diving barehanded grab and throw-out to prevent a base hit. Watch the clip here to get Ozzie’s first-hand account of the defensive play that dropped jaws and helped make him legendary.
1. Catchers are the punching bags of baseball. Not only do they throw themselves in front of stray pitches and foul balls, but they are also the only player on the field who can be legally (and ruthlessly) tackled by runners. On July 9, 1985, Buck Martinez showed us the indomitable grit of the catcher by getting crushed at home plate, making the out while breaking his leg, and then tagging a second runner from a seated position, ignoring the broken leg bone. With this play, Martinez saved two runs, and he demonstrated the utmost level of toughness, mental fortitude, and game awareness ever seen in MLB history. For this incredible feat, he gets our number one pick in the MLB’s Most Impressive Defensive Plays of All Time.
As the current superstars of baseball continue to chart new territory in defensive capabilities, always remember the pioneers of the glove. The players in this list opened the door to new possibilities in the sport, and showed the world how athleticism, intuition, and determination could combine to create spectacular feats. As baseball continues to flourish, we look forward to the next round of athletes pushing the limits of the sport, and inspiring the future generations of players.