Q&A: Brendan Ryan, Shortstop Supreme

Brendan Ryan is the best defensive shortstop in baseball, despite what Gold Glove voters want you to believe. The slick-fielding Mariner is annually snubbed, but he boasts the highest UZR at his position during the past three-plus seasons. The Fielding Bible panelists have noticed. They awarded him their own Gold Gloves in 2010 and 2011. Most Seattle fans have, as well, although they probably wouldn’t mind a little more offense. Doing his best Ray Oyler impersonation, Ryan is currently hitting just .165/.288/.248.


David Laurila: Why are you a good defensive shortstop?

Brendan Ryan: I take a lot of pride on the defensive side. Even going back to high school, it is something that has come a little bit easier to me. I also came up in the Cardinals system and worked with Jose Oquendo. He really helped me simplify my footwork, and everything else. We spent hours and hours and hours working together. Beyond that, you have to throw in instincts, you have to throw in positioning — all of that stuff. It’s kind of a hard question to answer.

DL: The Fielding Bible rates you as the top defensive shortstop in baseball. Does that make up for not winning a Gold Glove?

BR: It’s definitely been a little bit frustrating. I don’t know that I even finished in the top five the last three years or so. Truthfully, I’ve felt that I should have at least been in the discussion. Last year, I got hurt a little bit at the end and that probably didn’t help. I’m not sure.

You can say things about being in a big market, and it seems like offense is definitely taken into consideration. The top three guys were [Erick] Aybar — who won it — Asdrubal [Cabrera] and [J.J.] Hardy. They’re all good defensively, but they had pretty good offensive years as well. At minimum, I’d like to be among those getting consideration.

DL: How familiar are you with stats like UZR?

BR: I hear a little bit about it, especially at times like this when the offense is nonexistent. My brother will try to be positive and drop some stuff on me like that. He’ll share stats like UZR and WAR. I think they’re fun to hear about.

DL: Metrics show that you have great range to your right. Why?

BR: A lot of it is positioning and a lot of it is trust. One thing I do out there is trust my instincts — I trust where I feel that the ball is going to be hit. For instance, when [Jason] Vargas is on the mound, I know the way he typically commands the ball, so I have a really good feel for where the ball is going to be hit. I have a decent feel for a lot of players who have been in the league for more than a couple of years. I know their tendencies. If you know where the pitch is going to be, and what it‘s going to do, you kind of know what the hitter’s bat path is going to be. You’re really just playing percentages and tendencies.

Most of the time, I’m moving one way or the other on the pitch. Say that Vargas is pitching and it’s a cutter in to a righty. I can kind of shuffle to the right and get a head start. It’s almost like cheating. You can’t move so early that you’re giving something away, but even so, there are times where I’m almost running, because I know where that ball is going to be hit.

Say it’s Brandon League. He’s got that super-turbo, two-seam sinker. If it’s a righty hitting, maybe once a season somebody stays inside it and goes up the middle. If that happens, you get burned on it, but 99% of the time you’re moving the right way. The idea is to make everything look simple. The idea is to not have to make a back-hand, or dive for a ball.

DL: Do you have better range to your right than you do up the middle?

BR: I think I probably do. The play on the backhand — the one where [Derek] Jeter likes to go with the jump throw. That’s what he does best, so it’s good for him, and I’ll do it from time to time. But for me, it’s more the backhand and throwing on the run. I’m able to get a lot on that throw, so it’s easier for me to do it in that fashion.

DL: Do you see yourself as having a specific defensive style?

BR: I know that I want to be fearless. I want to get anything I can touch. Anyone who is having fun out there would probably say the same thing. It would even be fun to play without a third baseman at times. No disrespect to Kyle [Seager] or [Alex] Liddi, or anybody, but I want to get to everything. When I’m out there, I want every ball hit to me. That’s even more true when my offense is where it is. I’ll take all 27, no question. The 27 all being different plays would be even more fun.

DL: What is the proper way to catch a ball hit in the air, behind you?

BR: For me, the biggest thing about going back on fly balls is communication. It’s knowing that I’m not going to be the one who ends up in the hospital. Not that anyone should be, obviously, but I’m over the top with communication out there. That makes it so much easier on the guy who’s going to get the ball, whether it’s an in-betweener or a pop up in no-man’s land.

I want the outfielder telling me. If he’s saying, “You, you, you,” he’s taking himself out of the play. I know he’s under control and isn’t going to run into me, so I can completely sell out and make the most athletic play I’m capable of making.

DL: What is your glove of choice?

BR: I use an 11-and-a-half [inch] Rawlings. It’s a model I’ve used since college. Your glove becomes almost like a part of your hand. You’d give up your car before you’d give up your glove. That’s the scariest thing — that something is going to happen to it.

When you’re fielding a ball, your glove is basically an extension of your hand. The louder it hits, the less soft it is. You almost want a dead fish hand, like you’re catching an egg. You don’t want it completely flexed, it’s almost like you want it to be dead.

One thing a lot of kids are taught is to field the ball with their top hand above their glove hand, like it’s an alligator mouth. That’s taught everywhere, but when you do that you can feel the tension in your forearms. That’s not the right position. At least it’s not what I was taught when I was drafted by the Cardinals and worked with the great George Kissell. He showed me how to catch a ball with my hands side by side, and how they’re a lot softer that way.

A lot of people don’t know about George Kissell, but he’s a Cardinals legend. He came up with a lot of the philosophies they use over there. He taught Oquendo. To me, Oquendo is the greatest infield instructor there is. You asked why I’m a good infielder. He’s one of the reasons why.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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11 years ago

Love Ryan’s work on defense!

It’s a pleasure to watch him play for Seattle.