Glove guru: Rollins keys Phils' defense

Phils shortstop Jimmy Rollins anchors a defense that has played a big part in the team's success.
Phils shortstop Jimmy Rollins anchors a defense that has played a big part in the team's success.
Posted: April 03, 2010

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Jimmy Rollins hears it from his teammates in the dugout before many games, a phrase that perfectly describes his meaning to the Phillies during one of the franchise's finest eras: "As you go, we go."

As you go, we go. It is a natural thing for any team to yell at its leadoff hitter, coaxing him to set a tone for the game by beginning it with a dynamic at-bat. But for Rollins, it means more. While the shortstop is not the team's most valuable player, he anchors the Phils in several important ways.

A superbly gifted shortstop, Rollins has won three straight Gold Gloves and symbolizes the smooth defense that is one of his team's greatest strengths, and he serves as captain of an excellent infield.

Phillies third base coach Sam Perlozzo has coached some of the game's best shortstops, including 10-time Gold Glove winner Omar Vizquel. He said Rollins is as good as any of them.

"Jimmy is so consistent and good that he takes pressure away from everyone else," Perlozzo said. "He goes up the middle and turns and throws to first base better than probably anybody I've ever had. Everybody in baseball knows how good he is now."

And as a thoughtful man sometimes willing to express bold opinions, Rollins has come to represent the self-assurance of this team.

At least from the day in 2007 that he declared the underdog Phillies the "team to beat" in the National League East, Rollins has been the primary spokesman for this sometimes media-wary roster.

There was no clearer example than the day before last year's World Series, when every Phils player sat before print reporters and television cameras at a table in a Yankee Stadium hallway. The room was filled with high-profile stars such as Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and Chase Utley - but for the hour or so of availability that October day, nearly everyone crowded around Rollins.

It was a fitting role for a player who considers his baseball identity inseparable from the Phillies. "I have only been in this organization," Rollins said this spring. "It has never dawned upon me to leave. . . . It has definitely been a blessing."

Rollins' centrality to the team extends to the field. Manager Charlie Manuel often refers to Rollins as a "red-light" player, meaning that he is at his best when the cameras are on. Rollins loves playoff games, thrives on the largest stages, and is sometimes bored with the smaller ones. That personality creates a sometimes inconsistent player, but one who is often productive in memorable situations.

He is also a guy you want in the infield in any spot. The up-and-down reputation applies only to Rollins as an offensive player. No matter how he is faring at the plate, he is almost always a top defensive shortstop.

The other infielders are strong: Second baseman Chase Utley is nontraditional but effective; first baseman Ryan Howard is working to improve and is already better than some believe, and third baseman Placido Polanco is returning to that position after four seasons at second. But Rollins is the clear captain of the group, skilled at his position and striving every year to enhance his understanding of the job.

Though his natural talents include physical quickness and a strong throwing arm, Rollins separates himself as a shortstop with uncommon intellectual curiosity. With his coaches and fellow infielders, Rollins is eager to engage in theoretical discussions that will make him a better infielder.

"Catching the ball and throwing the ball, either you can do it or you can't," he said. "So we talk about positioning, when to play a guy this way or that way. That philosophy stuff is all I care about. Year after year, you still have to ask yourself those questions: Why am I going to do this, as opposed to that? That allows me to understand the underlying reasons behind a play."

As the Phillies move forward and try to extend their current run, determining Rollins' true value will be one of their most important decisions.

Over the winter, they elected to pick up the $8.5-million contract option on his contract for the 2011 season. After that, Rollins will be a free agent.

While it is, of course, far too early to determine what Rollins will be worth after two more seasons, the Phils must begin to think about it.

On the one hand, they are dealing with a franchise-defining player and top infielder with a proven ability to perform when games matter most. On the other side of the issue, Rollins will be in his mid-30s. What if his offense continues to decline?

For now, though, Rollins remains an essential player. Though his game is flawed in important ways, he - perhaps more than any other player - embodies the character of these memorable Phillies.

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