Jimmy Rollins has been one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. Currently in his 14th season with the Philadelphia Phillies, the charismatic 34-year-old has won four Gold Gloves. Among shortstops who have played at least 10 seasons, he is second all-time in fielding percentage, behind only Omar Vizquel. Advanced metrics also show him in a favorable light.
Rollins has put up some pretty good offensive numbers, too. He has more than 2,000 hits, nearly 200 home runs and more than 400 stolen bases. But when all is said and done, he will be remembered most for his glove.
Rollins talked about his defensive game when the Phillies visited Fenway Park earlier this week.
David Laurila: Baseball has seen its share of excellent defensive shortstops who don‘t contribute much with the bat. How valuable are players like that?
Jimmy Rollins: How valuable are they? That’s tough to say, really. The game is played on both sides of the ball, and if you’re a guy who can’t hit, you’re not going to be on the field. That’s just the way it is.
DL: What about someone like Brendan Ryan?
JR: He’s an exception. He’s an exceptional fielder, but many of those guys aren’t playing. But to that point, defense… you’re not going to hit all the time, so you have to be able to save runs. That includes doing things that might not get seen over the course of one particular game, but show up in the win-loss column when it’s done.
DL: Is there a psychological advantage for pitchers who know they have great defense behind them?
JR: I don’t know, but if they have run support, they definitely have a lot more confidence. But knowing the routine plays will be made — the defense will make the plays behind them to pick them up — I’m sure that makes their job easier. But confidence comes from — truth be told — being up [on the scoreboard].
DL: Do you pay much attention to defensive metrics?
JR: I’ve seen them, but I can’t really tell you what any of it means. I’m sure they mean something. Defensive positioning helps increase how many balls you get to, but range is always going to factor into that — how far you’re going left and right, the plays you make and don’t make. Getting outs when they’re needed, making big plays, turning double plays — especially double plays; those are big. I’m sure there’s a measure for that. Doing those things when they count is how you measure up. I’m not sure if there’s a metric system for that.
DL: Joe Maddon told me you can create a better shortstop by putting him in the right position more consistently.
JR: That’s true. Some balls you can get to, but you’re not going to make a play at first, so it doesn’t matter if you stop it or it gets by you. A hit is a hit. There are some balls you can dive for, but what happens if you do that and kick the ball away? It’s already going to be a hit, so you’re maybe turning a single into a double. Part of defense is being smart. Anther part is natural ability. But that’s along with knowing the hitters, going over scouting reports and knowing their tendencies — putting yourself in good position.
DL: Do reports play a big role in your positioning?
JR: For me, it’s always situational. I’ve been around long enough to know guys’ tendencies and what our pitchers are going to do. Knowing the situation — and knowing what this guy does — I try to position myself in that regard. If there’s a guy I’m not familiar with, I’ll look to see what the report says and make adjustments accordingly. Is he pulling or trying to stay up the middle? What I’m seeing with my own eyes is going to give me a better idea of what he’s doing that day.
DL: Where are your eyes focused when the pitch is delivered?
JR: Where his bat is at the contact point. Is his barrel toward right field, center, left? I’ll make the adjustment there. And I’ll look at the pitch. If it’s a curveball or slider — something off-speed — that’s obviously going to speed his bat up. But if it’s a good fastball and he seems to be a little late, I’m going to play him a little opposite. That may not be his tendency, but today that’s where he is.
When the ball comes out of the pitcher’s hand… you see the catcher set up, so you get an idea of what you’re trying to do. As balls come into the zone, you see where the bat path is. A lot of it is anticipation, obviously, but you’re also reading. You’re anticipating, you’re reading, you’re reacting. Reading and reacting go hand in hand. You kind of see it all in one big picture.
DL: Are some pitchers easier to play behind than others?
JR; As long as the guy is throwing strikes, you’re pretty happy. You’re more likely to be involved in a play, as opposed to him running 3-2 counts all the time and walking guys. Then you get a little stale — you haven’t had a ball hit to you. You haven’t moved. You like to stay loose as much as you can.
DL: Is the key to having soft hands from the waist down?
JR: Footwork? That’s where it starts. It’s like hitting in that sense. If you get your feet in the right position, early enough, the softer your hands are going to be. If you’re late, you’re going to be stiff and rigid. You have to give yourself time.
Once again, anticipation is important. If the ball is going to go here, or if it’s going to go there, what are you going to do? That way, when it happens you’re not late. You’ve already thought about it, so you just read. You’ve taken thousands of ground balls, so you’ll be able to make that play.
DL: Omar Vizquel committed 183 errors [at shortstop] in just under 12,000 chances.
JR: He’s the man. He didn’t even use his glove half the time, it seems like. That makes him seem even more crazy. Ozzie [Smith] and Omar are two of the greatest at making plays that make you say: “There’s no way that play should have been made.” But somehow they found a way to get it done.
DL:You have one of the highest fielding percentages all-time. Do you see that — turning everything you touch into an out — as your claim to fame?
JR: I like to try to think of it that way. This year has been a little different, but yeah, if I can get to it — and be in the right position to make a throw — I feel I should get you out. Sometimes the ball is going to put you in a position where the runner is just too fast. You do everything right, but he still beats it out. Then you take solace in knowing he’s probably the only one who would. The other 99 percent, I get out.
When the ball is hit in my direction, I want the pitcher to have confidence it’s going to be an out, no matter where it is. That’s not always going to be true, but I like to think it will be.
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.