MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Wave of young talent dazzling with leather

Fielders 25 and under ushering in new era of athleticism, skill on defense

Wave of young talent dazzling with leather

Defense, as indispensable as it can be, always stands a distant third behind offense and pitching when media insiders and fans discuss the state of the game. Rest assured, the people whose livelihoods depend on results never discount the importance of quality leather in the right hands.

"You see all the great plays on the highlight shows and think, 'Wow,'" Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "The athleticism we're seeing on the field right now is terrific.

"At the same time, consistently outstanding fundamental defensive play is what holds a team and a pitching staff together. You have a hard time winning without it."

Led by such dazzling gems as Andrelton Simmons, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado and Salvador Perez, this clearly is the dawn of a golden age of defensive mastery that could take its place with any of those that preceded it.

There was the era spanning Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Paul Blair, Curt Flood, Luis Aparicio, Brooks Robinson, Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench. Then came Ozzie Smith, Mike Schmidt, Bob Boone, Keith Hernandez, Don Mattingly and Ryne Sandberg. More recently we've been awed by Ivan Rodriguez, Yadier Molina, Ken Griffey Jr., Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Ichiro Suzuki, Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen and Adrian Beltre.

These kids now on display are more than all right. They're sensational, destined to carry on in the tradition of the legends.

Simmons is making plays reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz at shortstop. Vizquel-like Jose Iglesias and Elvis Andrus are right there with the Braves' wonder at a deep position that also features Jean Segura and Didi Gregorius.

Machado, Arenado, Brett Lawrie and Matt Dominguez are calling to mind Robinson, Schmidt and Beltre with their acrobatic gems at third.

DJ LeMahieu resembles his idol, Sandberg, at second base, where Jose Altuve is dynamite in a small package. At first, Eric Hosmer, Anthony Rizzo and Freddie Freeman are artists along the smooth lines of Hernandez and Mattingly.

The outfield is brimming with breathtaking talents. Mike Trout, Juan Lagares, Starling Marte, Jason Heyward, Bryce Harper, Yasiel Puig and Jake Marisnick are among those making eye-popping plays even Mays would applaud.

Behind the plate, formidable and in charge, Perez looks like a young Molina as the six consecutive Rawlings Gold Glove Awards were starting to accumulate for the Cardinals' on-field commander.

Where it all starts, on the mound, Patrick Corbin, Madison Bumgarner and Julio Teheran are emulating the likes of Bob Gibson, Greg Maddux and Jim Kaat with their run-saving leather work.

What these dazzling talents have in common is that they are 25 and younger, just coming of age and approaching the prime of baseball life. Equally impressive is the 26-to-29 age group, headlined by a remarkable collection of Gold Glove-level outfielders: Adam Jones, Gerardo Parra, Carlos Gomez, Carlos Gonzalez, Josh Reddick, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Lorenzo Cain, A.J. Pollock, Yoenis Cespedes, Peter Bourjos, Colby Rasmus and Leonys Martin.

But sticking with the younger cohort for now, Simmons led the Majors in defensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement) with 5.4 in 2013 -- matching in his first full season the highest number in history for any player, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Machado (4.3) was third, Arenado (3.6) fifth and Lagares (3.5) sixth.

Ozzie Smith, the all-time leader at shortstop with 13 Gold Glove Awards, led the Majors in dWAR four times, with a career high 4.7 in 1989. Vizquel, 11-time Gold Glover, had a season-best dWAR of only 2.5.

Braves coach Terry Pendleton, who early in his career played alongside Smith at third base in St. Louis, is eminently qualified to compare the Braves' rising star with the master.

"I know they were both born to play shortstop," Pendleton said in August. "[Simmons] is just so fluid. It's like, 'Put me there and leave me alone, I know what I'm supposed to do.' Ozzie was that way."

Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta's manager, marvels at the young man from Curacao who was credited with 41 defensive runs saved, leading the Majors.

"He's got a knack," Gonzalez said. "He's got a clock, court awareness, whatever you want to call it for the game that you can't teach."

Machado, at 21, led the Majors with 32 total zone runs, the number of runs above average a player is worth based on the number of plays made. It was the highest number by an AL infielder since Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger's 35 in 1975.

Machado's 4.3 dWAR almost matched the best of Baltimore icon Robinson. The 16-time Gold Glove Award winner and standard at third base had a career-best dWAR of 4.5 in 1968.

Arenado, who grew up in Southern California emulating Beltre, became the first rookie Gold Glove Award winner at third in NL history with an even better range factor (3.24) than Machado's 3.05.

Analytics can't do justice to the multiple tasks of catchers, but there is no doubt among insiders that the Royals' Perez is in a class all his own among young receivers.

"Salvador Perez has such a passion to play and a desire to learn," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "With a catcher, you want him to be able to breathe confidence, develop confidence in his pitching staff. Once he has that trust, they know he wants the pitcher to succeed more than he succeeds himself."

Defensive metrics remain a work in progress -- and not only with catchers. The Brewers' Gomez, whose 4.8 dWAR was surpassed only by Simmons, dwarfed the career-best season figures of Mays (2.1) and Clemente (2.5) -- leaders in the outfield with 12 Gold Gloves apiece. There's something very wrong about that.

On the horizon, a wave poised to crash ashore in baseball's Glove Story, is a rich group of athletes: outfielders Byron Buxton of the Twins, Gregor Polanco (Pirates), Billy Hamilton (Reds), George Springer (Astros), Jackie Bradley Jr. (Red Sox) and Tyrone Taylor (Brewers); shortstops Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox), Francisco Lindor (Indians), Carlos Correa (Astros), Hak-Ju Lee (Rays) and Addison Russell (Athletics); first baseman Dominic Smith (Mets), and catchers Christian Bethancourt (Braves), Austin Hedges (Padres) and Travis d'Arnaud (Mets).

Buxton, MLB.com's No. 1 overall prospect, has blazing speed, power, a strong arm and exceptional instincts, evoking Trout comparisons. Polanco soon could join Marte and McCutchen in a Pittsburgh outfield for the ages. Lindor, a 20-year-old Puerto Rico native, is said to be next in the long line of superlative Latin American shortstops.

The future is in good hands -- and flying feet.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.