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Defensive performance of the year

Jim Cowsert/US Presswire

Shelley Duncan made a season's worth of incredible catches in one day, but was it enough to earn him the Defensive Game of the Year honor for 2011?

Context or quantity, what’s your preference? That’s the question that requires answering when trying to select which player had the Defensive Game of the Year in 2011.

It struck me that it would be an interesting project to try to determine the game in which a player did the most with the glove. Baseball Info Solutions charts every play of every game, tagging the best plays into 30 categories of Good Fielding Plays (GFPs). They denote the plays for which you’d likely put a star on your scorecard and keep a running count throughout the season.

Using a combination of their lists and anecdotal recall, I was able to come up with about 30 nominees. These were either players who made at least three out-producing GFPs in a game or made multiple plays of great significance to the ultimate outcome of the game.

After reviewing video for each candidate, it came down to two choices, and that’s where the context versus quantity debate comes into play.

My pick for the Defensive Game of the Year by a player goes to Brent Lillibridge of the White Sox. This selection is one that will be worthy of debate. Consider this: Lillibridge only played two innings in his game and handled two chances, but he made the biggest impact of anyone on the field.

Brent Lillibridge

vs Yankees (April 26)

On April 26 against the Yankees, Lillibridge’s team was down 2-1 in the eighth inning when Lillibridge was inserted as a pinch-runner for Carlos Quentin. Paul Konerko, and then homered off Rafael Soriano to put the White Sox up, 3-2.

Lillibridge wouldn’t get any action as Quentin’s replacement in right field in the eighth, but he became the game’s focal point in the ninth inning. The Yankees put two men on with one out for Alex Rodriguez. On a 2-1 count, Rodriguez hit a line drive towards the right-field fence.

Lillibridge, who was playing deep, sprinted back, reached out and made the catch, his glove parallel to the ground, his left leg up in the air as he leaned into the wall. That play got a “Mercy!” from Ken Harrelson, a hands-on-helmet gasp from Rodriguez and a smile from the runner retreating to second, Derek Jeter.

Kathy Willens/AP Photo

Brent Lillibridge got plenty of kudos for his glovework vs the Yankees

The second catch came two pitches later on Robinson Cano’s sinking line drive to right. This one required a quick sprint toward the line and a full-length dive.

Lillibridge’s glove hit the ground with the baseball with his body fully extended in the air. Cano’s helmet went flying in frustration as Lillibridge slammed the grass with his right hand and let out a yell in celebration.

We wrote about the difficulty of these plays earlier in the season. The second play had a 95 percent chance of being a hit, according to the research done by Baseball Info Solutions. That, combined with the win probability value of the two plays, which took the White Sox chances of winning from 65 percent to 100 percent, made this the choice to be the top honor.

Lillibridge had 12 GFPs in his 339 2/3 innings in the outfield, a pretty good innings-to-play rate. Lillibridge had six Good Plays in just over 200 innings in right field, the most by anyone who didn’t get charged with any Defensive Misplays & Errors (the opposite of GFPs). He had a penchant for great late-game glovework, preserving a 1-0 shutout for Jake Peavy with a tough catch in left-center in the eighth inning of one win, and robbing Coco Crisp of a go-ahead two-run home run in the eighth inning of another.

There is a worthy runner-up for Game of the Year from an unlikely source. In a 9-1 loss to the Rangers on September 14, Cleveland Indians left fielder Shelley Duncan made four fabulous plays on would-be base hits. The amazing thing was that three of them came in a row, for the last two outs of the first inning and the first out of the second inning, each by the 19-foot-high fence in left field.

On the first, Duncan tracked the ball off Elvis Andrus’ bat a little oddly, twisting his body to left center, before stopping and turning back to leap and make the catch right by the wall. The next two looked a little more natural. Both were similar in nature, requiring a full extension in the air with his glove hand, and in the same location, just in front of the last set of games listed on the out-of-town scoreboard.

The image atop this article shows the catch that ended the first inning, against Josh Hamilton, and has a little bit of a “look what I’ve got” quality to it.

The fourth catch came in the fourth inning and required Duncan to come toward the line, come in, and backhand the ball as he slid on the grass. It ended up being overshadowed because the Rangers ended up scoring eight times in the inning. Baseball Info Solutions didn’t award Duncan a GFP for the first catch, but did give him one for each of those last three.

Shelley Duncan

vs Rangers (September 14)

This was about as unlikely a combination of Web Gem-worthiness as you could imagine. In 248 other innings in left field over the rest of the season, Duncan only had one other GFP.

In the end, I selected Lillibridge over Duncan because I wanted to reward the game-saving nature of his plays. Lillibridge's plays were the difference between winning and losing, and their value trumped any others that came along the rest of the season. But before you have at debating this selection and the idea of “clutch defense” in the comments section, here’s a list of some of the other notable contenders, with links to the video so you can check them out for yourself.

Honorable Mentions

Sam Fuld, Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays' version of Superman had a pair of games that merit mention. On May 7 against the Baltimore Orioles, Fuld made a diving catch in the fourth inning, then went to the left-field fence to rob Matt Wieters of a home run with a leaping catch in the eighth inning.

Sam Fuld

Fuld

Then, on June 19 against the Florida Marlins, Fuld took away a pair of hits, one a line drive in the corner by Omar Infante that likely would have been a double, then came in to shallow left to dive and pick a ball off just before it hit dirt. That preserved a 1-1 eighth-inning tie in a game in which the Rays would score in the home half to win, 2-1.

Also among the best performances by an outfielder were Diamondbacks centerfielder Chris Young (three tough catches in Wrigley Field on April 6), and Astros right fielder Jason Michaels (three catches against the Braves on June 12).

Cody Ransom, Arizona Diamondbacks

Ransom, a Mesa, Arizona native, hit only .152 in 12 games and 33 at-bats for his hometown team but made one of his nine starts count on both the offensive and defensive end.

Ransom’s seventh-inning two-run home run off Clayton Kershaw made the difference in a 4-3 win that kept the Diamondbacks a half-game back of the Giants in the NL West, but that’s not why he’s on this list.

Cody Ransom

Ransom

Ransom made three fine defensive plays, twice going to his right to make difficult plays, then making a nice long throw on Juan Rivera’s ground ball for the final out of the game.

Other infielders worthy of notice were Orioles first baseman Chris Davis (three terrific plays on August 12), Phillies second baseman Chase Utley (four hit robberies vs the Cardinals on June 23), Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist (six GFPs against the Mariners on August 21), Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal (six GFPs against the Brewers on August 31), and Rockies third baseman Chris Nelson (three fine plays against the Cardinals on August 12).