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.
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:
- Brandon Phillips turns a 4-3 double play from his knee with a ridiculous throw
- Aaron Hicks robs Carlos Gomez of a home run
- Carlos Gomez climbs Tal’s Hill
- Gerardo Parra gets the outfield assist after a barehand pickup
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.