Ozzie Smith has met a number of good shortstops in recent years.
A first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2002 and arguably the bestliving fielder, Smith’s been tapped in recent years to present Gold Glove awards to shortstops. Perhaps no shortstop can match Smith’s heyday with the Cardinals in the mid-1980s, though he had plenty of praise for MLB’s current crop during a conversation this weekwith Sporting News.
“I think the turnaround in Kansas City has been Alcides Escobar,” Smith said. “(Xander) Bogaerts in Boston. You have so many. Brandon Crawford.”
Baseball’s changed a lot since Smith was at his peak in the ‘80s, when artificial turf blanketed many stadiums and speedy players such as Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines ruled the game.
“Today, it's the long ball and the dominating arms,” Smith said. “But I've always been biased because of my defensive prowess. I've always enjoyed the defensive gems that you get a chance to see, and I think that's one of the most important parts of the game that is overlooked. It's your defense that puts your offense in position to win.”
Even in his early seasons with the Padres, when Smith struggled to keep his batting average above .230, he put his teams in position to win with his fielding.
Heblossomed into perhaps the best defensive shortstop of alltime as well as an improved hitter after his trade to the Cardinals in December 1981. Looking back on it, though, with metrics that exist now, there were signs during Smith’s first four seasons in San Diego of greatness to come. One sign of future greatness: his 43 defensive runs above average, tied for 14th-best among shortstops in their first four seasons, according to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool.
Smith also won his first of 13 consecutive National League Gold Glove awards in 1980 and hadhighlight-caliber footageas early as his rookie season.
There’s one shortstop in baseball today matching and arguably exceeding the defensive clip at which Smith played in the early part of his career:Andrelton Simmons of the Angels. Though he’s won Gold Gloves in just two of his first five seasons, Simmons is already at 129 defensive runs above average — more than halfway to Smith’s lifetime total of 239. Simmons’ 113 defensive runs above average over his first four seasons are also tops for all shortstops in baseball history.
Simmons began his career with the Braves, where one of his coaches, Terry Pendleton, passed along word ofthe young shortstop to Smith, his former teammate in St. Louis. Asked to offer more thoughts on Simmons, Smith, who comes across as soft-spoken and reserved, initially talked in broad terms.
“For all shortstops, it's really about range and being able to cover ground,” Smith said. “I think today, guys are expected to present a lot more offense than was expected when myself and other shortstops in the American League that were not great offensive players (played the game).Offense is expected a lot more today than it was when we as prototypical shortstops were coming up.”
Does Smith see Simmons as having a shot at the Hall of Fame?
“Yeah,” Smith said. “But the thing is, it's time, whether or not he can do it over an extended period of time. I think that's the thing that separates the guys. ... Time is going to determine his greatness, and how hard he's willing to work will determine how far he goes.”
Baseball was all about hard work for Smith.
“For me, I wasn't born a big guy,” Smith said. “I've always worked extremely hard to become better at what I was blessed with.”
Asked which shortstop in today’s game most reminded him of himself, Smith said, “I guess Simmons probably from a range standpoint, but Alcides Escobar covers a lot of ground as well. I think those two guys more than anybody else remind me most of me.”
Escobar doesn’t have the sabermetric numbers that Simmons does. In fact, advanced stats rate Escobar as a below-average player. That being said, Smith stressed that Escobar brings other things to the table for Kansas City.
“I think that Alcides Escobar is really one of those quiet leaders over there,” Smith said. “He gives them offense, and he gives them defense.”
Baseball has been transformed in recent years by the advent of sophisticated software to track defense. Asked whether he wished this software could have been around during his career, Smith said, "Not really. The software and stuff doesn't play the game."
He added, "I never get caught up in statistics too much."
Seemingly few shortstops in baseball history have played with the kind of abandon Smith did in hurtling himself toward line drives, offering range that would seem unmatched. But Smith sees less showy things that shortstops do as important, too.
“I think guys, they give their all,” hesaid. “They're working extremely hard. Some people are blessed with more range than others. I think you'll see that with most shortstops, they catch the balls that come to them. That's really they're job.”
He added, “When I'm talking to young shortstops or young players, it's all about making the routine play on a consistent basis. Great plays take care of themselves. But you want to put yourself in a position where you're making that routine play consistently. If you're doing that, you're doing your job and you're probably helping your team win.”
Smith gave his interview as part of a promotional effort with Kingsford Charcoal to get fans talking more about baseball. He added that fans who use the hashtag #BestOfBaseball on Twitter or Kingsford’s Facebook page can win a VIP trip to the 2017 All Star Game.