What makes a Play of the Year?

I got to thinking of this question Sunday afternoon, when I saw loads of hype over a Manny Machado play at third base against the Yankees. The inevitable comparisons to Brooks Robinson piled after this one: “You’re gonna see that one for a few years!” Really, Gary Thorne? It was a great throw — somewhere around 150 feet, according to the SportsCenter highlight — and Machado has obviously become a great third baseman. But I have a hard time putting this specific play in any pantheon wider than, say, one of the top plays of the day.

I think the issue, for me, is one of novelty. Blame the 162 games season — with 2,420 games and some 131,220 outs (give or take, depending on extra innings and such) total — almost every play will have a little overlap with something else we’ve seen elsewhere. But Machado’s play, for example, is basically this play Evan Longoria made against Machado earlier this year without the bobble.

Novelty alone doesn’t do it for me, either.

Consider this play by Victor Martinez from earlier in the season:

It’s a great recovery, and among the most fun highlights we’ll see this season. But a better first baseman probably snags the ball on the first bounce and doesn’t need to make the long snap back to the pitcher. It has a “Wow!” factor, and it’s something we probably won’t see again this season, but it doesn’t show the raw fielding skill I’d prefer to see in a “Play of the Year.”

So what do I look for? I did some soul searching, and this was the first play that popped into my mind. Pirates fans — the especially long-suffering kind, at least — will remember this one:

That was Brian Giles off Brandon Phillips in 2003 — yes, Brandon Phillips was on the Indians in 2003 — and it’s really the only specific play I can remember from 2003. It was all over Baseball Tonight for weeks, and it’s the one play that stuck in my mind from their year-end Web Gem show.

It shows some skill — he had to range in order to get to the wall with a chance to jump for it. It shows novelty — the wall climb, especially in the day before MLB Advanced Media had every big play up on the internet within five minutes of it happening, was the kind of thing most fans would never or even had never seen before. And it made a big impact on the game — Giles stole a clear home run from Phillips.

Another obvious one, for my money: Ben Revere‘s August 2011 catch for the Twins against Vladimir Guerrero and the Orioles.

Again, it’s the perfect combination of amazing range, perfect timing, and taking away what would have been a sure double, at the least — even with Vlad’s dead knees on the bases.

For my choice of this year’s Play of the Year — Play of the First Half, let’s say — I have the luxury of searching through MLB.com’s “Must C” tag (link: ). It’s very convenient. I’ve come up with a few contenders:

Those four are the ones that really stood out to me. They all feature rare baseball situations – a double play from one knee, a robbed home run, a conquest of Houston’s moronic hill, and a brilliant understanding of a baserunning situation combined with excellent execution. Beauty, our course, is in the eye of the beholder; perhaps you have a play you think beats those. That’s fine. I just know I take the Potter Stewart approach to Play of the Year quality plays: they’re hard to define, but I know them when I see them.

And for me, when I saw Sunday’s Machado play, I knew it was an incredibly difficult play. Machado’s arm is absurd, and ranks up there with anybody else in the league. But that specific play just didn’t inspire the sense of baseball magic I get from the other plays above, and as such I can’t make it my Play of the Year so far.

Comments (9)

  1. Given the situation, my play of the first half is Will Venables catch in center field against the Giants – the game was over, or so everyone thought… But he made an unbelievable Jim Edmonds-like catch and sent the game to another inning (12th or 13th or so) when the Padres would end up winning. A game saving catch in amazing fashion… That has my vote

  2. ‘Maybe the defensive play of the year…for the Orioles’
    -Gary Thorne

  3. The Trout diving catch against the Pirates. It’s not just the dive, but look at the distance he covers just to give himself a shot at the catch! http://wapc.mlb.com/play/?content_id=28239019

  4. LOVE the Carlos Gomez helmet tip after Hicks robs him- it’s like he’s just as pumped about that catch as the fans are, even though his team was losing.

    With that Machado play though… in my mind it easily beats the Longoria play because he doesn’t get to plant his feet and throw, his momentum is carrying him away from first base, and he isn’t even facing the field when he starts the throwing motion. To pick that ball off the grass, then wheel and fire that bullet… good lord. (and i don’t mean to to say the Longo play wasn’t incredible)

  5. I agree that Venable’s catch is spectacular, especially given the circumstances, as Roger points out.

    Ben Rever’s April catch against the Reds, however, has been strangely neglected.

    http://wapc.mlb.com/play/?content_id=26305439

  6. It made me think of the Dewayne Wise perfect game catch. Rajai Davis’ and Travis Snider’s wall climbs last year were pretty awesome.

  7. For whatever reason, Endy Chavez’s catch in the 2006 NLCS to rob Rolen of a home run always sticks out in my mind.

  8. All of the plays you mention from this year are great, but I don’t think any of them will take on any sort of all-time status (not your barometer, but just saying).

    In terms of all-time best, Gary Matthews Jr. had a ridiculous catch in Texas a few years back that might be the best I’ve seen, though the Revere one is insane. Ozzie Smith had some doozies, including a diving barehanded stab and throw from his rookie year with the Padres.

    Jim Edmonds was a human highlight reel when he played too. His diving basket catch in Kansas City was probably his best, but he had loads of other great catches.

    The DeWayne Wise home-run robbing, bobbling, perfect game-saving catch was pretty phenomenal too, though more for the circumstances of the catch than the catch itself.

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