15 of MLB’s Best Catches NOT Made by Willie Mays

Ricky Bobby says “if you ain’t first, you’re last” – we tend to disagree.

Photo by Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you know all about “The Catch”: Willie Mays’ revered, over-the-shoulder grab at the Polo Grounds, saving Game 1 of the 1954 World Series for the New York Giants. This hallowed out is often touted as the greatest catch of all-time…but why? What makes a catch great in a sport that can have upwards of 40 catches in a single game?

Maybe the most basic element that makes a catch something special is the sheer athleticism required to make it happen — whether it’s a Superman-like dive or a Spiderman-esque jump, some plays just seem superhuman. Sometimes it’s the contextual moment that makes the usual become the extraordinary — this can be post-season implications, a player facing their previous team, or even an impending trade deadline. Other times it’s that “extra” element — a quirk of the stadium, the nachos in the fan’s hands, or the other player in the way.

But just because a catch isn’t a 250+ foot run, in a tie game, during the World Series, in a massive ballpark, doesn’t mean it’s not remarkable. We contend that there’s something to be said for these 15 excellent MLB catches made by players not named Willie Mays.

15. Lance Berkman – HOU v PIT – 5/18/02 

Being a Major League centerfielder is hard, and from 2000 to 2016, it was even harder in Houston. Whether you knew it as Tal’s Hill or The Grassy Knoll, Houston’s outfield anomaly was the stuff of nightmares for outfielders and fans alike – this wasn’t the case for Lance Berkman, resident Tal’s Hill defender, on May 18, 2002.

On this day, Berkman made the 30-degree incline his own with a twisting, over-the-shoulder, mid-fall grab to retire Rob Mackowiak. Did this catch happen in a particularly important game? No, not really. Does that change the amount of skill and coordination needed to make the play? Not at all. And hey – Berkman may not have stuck the landing, but he did finish off the grab with a shiny smile!

14. Yasiel Puig – LAD @ NYM – 5/22/14

Yasiel Puig has a reputation for garnering a lot of attention – it might not always be for the best reasons, but at many times there’s no doubting why the Dodgers have kept the kid around. Take, for example, this insane grab he made in his second season in the majors…

It’s the bottom of the 2nd inning at Citi Field and Wilmer Flores is up to bat with a man on first and one out. Flores makes solid contact on an 0-2 pitch and it looks like the ball is destined for the gap in right center – enter Yasiel Puig. To say that Puig laid out for the catch is an understatement. Running at full speed, he covered unbelievable ground (if you listen, the crew was actually calling it Kemp’s ball) and dove to make the spectacular, mid-flight, backhanded catch. While he couldn’t turn the double play on the throw back to first, the catch was impressive enough on its own to earn a standing ovation in New York.

13. Ben Revere – PHI @ CIN – 4/15/13 

Ben Revere’s catch against the Reds on Jackie Robinson Day 2013 was every bit as impressive as Puig’s above, but twice as dynamic. Revere had to speed in order to catch the hard-hit fastball to right center field. Once he realized the ball had him beat, Revere made a flying leap and, at full extension, was able to control the ball in the very tip of his glove. But he didn’t stop there! Revere looked up after the catch and saw that Jay Bruce had advanced from 1st base, around 2nd base and was halfway to 3rd. So he used his canon of an arm and launched the ball back to 1st to turn the unbelievable double play.  

As a matter of full disclosure, this catch could have been more routine had it not been for an initial misplay by Revere, but that notwithstanding, the recovery and succeeding grab were beyond impressive.

12. David Wright – NYM @ SD8/9/05 

You could be forgiven for not having seen this one – it’s the Mets, it’s the Padres, it happened in San Diego well after the east-coast folks had turned off the TV – but despite all of the odds stacked against this catch, it really was remarkable. Unlike most of the catches on this list, David Wright didn’t rob a home run or even an extra-base hit, and this didn’t happen in a game of any real significance either – so why does it make the list? My answer: just LOOK at it.

A funky bloop single can really change the complexion of an inning; usually there’s nothing that the defense can do to defend it and it can easily work a pitcher into a bind. Wright didn’t just assume the out, though, and instead tracked the ball into shallow left field, reached out with his bare hand, and made the catch as he fell to the ground.  With this catch, David Wright made sure the Mets didn’t have to worry about an early rally…and he did it with style.

11. Steven Souza Jr. – WAS v MIA9/28/14 

I am not a Nats fan, those who know me would probably tell you that I am a Not-Nats fan – but you bet that even I was cheering for Steven Souza Jr. to make this catch, because who doesn’t love a no-hitter? But this no-hitter saving grab was particularly exciting: it made the final out of the game, completing the franchise’s first no-hitter as the Nationals and its first ever in Washington.

The catch itself wasn’t bad either, especially considering the gravity of the situation. Souza’s lunge is reminiscent of several of the other catches on this list, but has the added flare of being the lone no-hit saving play to earn a spot. Souza’s catch featured a long run, a lunging snag, and a mosh pit in the middle infield. The perfect way to cap off a near-perfect game of baseball.

10. Kevin Pillar – TOR v TB – 4/15/15 

We all know that Bo knows baseball, but in this game against Tampa Bay, Kevin Pillar reminded everybody that he knows baseball, too. Pillar did his best Bo Jackson impression after his breathtaking play in left field. This was just your run of the mill blowout game, with Tampa Bay trailing Toronto by 8 runs in the 7th inning – a stark contrast to the charged setting that witnessed catch #11 – but whenever a player challenges the limits of physics, it begs recognition.  

The outfield wall at Rogers Centre is 10 feet tall and Kevin Pillar is listed at exactly 6 feet, so it doesn’t take a mathematician to see that the wall has a sizable edge in this matchup. Despite the difference, Pillar managed to scale the wall in left field and corral a ball that had cleared the fence, denying the Rays of what seemed to be a no-doubt home run.

9. Torii Hunter – AL @ NL – 7/9/02 

Ahh the midsummer classic… in 2002, a beautifully meaningless game designed to celebrate the game’s best and brightest – and celebrate it did. Even though there was nothing on the line and even though the players on the field weren’t used to playing against one another, Torii Hunter made an incredible catch (making a play on a ball that the right fielder had given up on) and taking away a home run from Barry Bonds.

Part of what makes this catch so great, though, is the atmosphere of fun about it. After the play, Bonds just shook his head and smiled, not really believing what had just happened, and then further met Hunter in the outfield where the two jostled with one another playfully. You know a play has to be more than good when Barry Bonds is applauding it – especially when it’s a play against him!

8. Endy Chavez – NYM v STL10/19/06 

Perhaps the only thing more exciting than hitting a home run is robbing one – ask a Mets fan. Not only did Endy Chavez steal a home run from Scott Rolen, he turned it into an inning-ending double play. And did I mention that it was a tie ballgame that also happened to be Game 7 of the NLCS?  

Let’s take a moment to appreciate everything that went into this catch. First, there’s the moment, which we’ve already covered but bears repeating – it’s Game 7, World Series or bust, and Endy is playing in a packed Shea Stadium. Needless to say, there was more than a little tension in the air…. Then there’s the run, the jump, and the catch – Rolen smacked the ball convincingly to the left field corner meaning Chavez (playing in left center) had to hightail it to the left field wall to give himself any chance at a play. Once he made it to the wall (in under three seconds, mind you), Chavez timed his jump perfectly, reaching over the fence to bring back the home run with a snow cone catch. The cherry on the top of this defense sundae was the laser of a throw doubling up Jim Edmonds at first base to end the 6th inning. Unfortunately for Chavez and the Mets faithful, the Cardinals ended up winning the game (and eventually the World Series) – otherwise this catch might have ended higher on this list.

7. Sandy Alomar – CLE v. DET – 8/2/94

It’s a bird… It’s a plane… Nope! – it’s Sandy Alomar flying over the netting behind home plate. Let’s think about that for a second – it’s Sandy Alomar and he is hanging over the netting behind home plate… with a foul pop-out in his mitt. This play has acrobatics, athleticism, and some pretty remarkable determination on the part of Alomar.

Catchers are notoriously slow, a chronic condition that isn’t helped when they’re wearing all of their equipment, but that didn’t stop Alomar here.  He chased the foul popup back over the fence and leapt up to make a play on what is usually a foul ball out of play. Alomar slammed into the netting and hung there above some of the fans who were just as stunned as he was. It was the crash and the catch that turned heads at The Jake.

6. Josh Donaldson – TOR v TB6/24/15

It takes a lot of guts to jump and dive when you know that you are going to land on the ground – I know we see ballplayers do it fairly often, but you sure aren’t seeing many of the adults around your office doing it on the regular. Even in the Majors, it’s not everyday you see somebody with the gumption to dive into the seats and fans to make an out.

Donaldson propelled himself through the Tropicana Field infield, undeterred by the 80 feet of turf, the railing, the family of four in the front row, the first row of seats, or the man in the second row that stood between him and the foul popup. In an effort to make this incredible play, he threw himself into a pile of bodies and concrete and metal and plastic – all for what was no less than a guaranteed strike. Donaldson wasn’t robbing a home run, no, but he was willing to lay it all out on the line with a little less at stake, which in my book adds even more points for the effort.

5. Ken Griffey Jr. – SEA @ DET8/9/98

Junior is famous for making more than a few amazing catches, but if you ask me, this one is his most impressive. Though it might not have all the glamor of Mays’ catch, this grab checks off most of the boxes, helping it to its spot as #5 on the list.

First, you have to take into account when and where the game was being played. This catch was made before the Tiger’s played in Comerica Park, meaning Junior had to contend with the upper-deck that extended out beyond the lower bowl – which you can imagine made tracking the ball very difficult. But that’s not all – since this was a day game, there was the added excitement of the shadow that the overhang cast, which made losing a fly ball far easier than catching one. Next, you have to appreciate just how fast the ball came off Luis Gonzalez’s bat. He smoked it. The ball was a line drive that only took about 5 seconds to get from home plate to the wall in right-center field just over 370 feet away. Then there’s The Kid’s run, jump, and grab – if it weren’t for some remarkable speed, a massive leap, and the perfectly timed grab, this long ball would have been going home as a souvenir, but instead it was just one long out for Luis Gonzalez.

4. Ichiro Suzuki – SEA v LAA5/2/05 

Ken Griffey Jr. was the best outfielder the Mariners had – until Ichiro. In 2005, Ichiro was in his 5th season in the Majors and was already a 4-time All-Star and Golden Glover, so his making a catch was nothing out of this ordinary. But this catch against the Angels was extraordinary, even by Ichiro’s high standards.

Chasing back a well-hit ball off the bat of Garret Anderson, Ichiro scaled Safeco’s outfield wall to wrangle the out. Ichiro walked up the wall as if there were a ladder leading to the first row of fans, and keep in mind, he is listed as 3 inches shorter than your average MLB outfielder, so it’s not as if he had size on his side.  He practically plucks the ball out of a fan’s lap, reminiscent of something that might happen along the first or third base line.  It’s one thing to lean or extend into the stands, but Ichiro ascended like a firefighter saving a cat from a tree to complete this vaulted catch.  Sure, it may have been early in the season, and no Seattle did not end up winning the game, but that does not take anything away from the sheer athleticism required to make a catch like this.

3. Gary Matthews Jr. – TEX v HOU7/1/06 

When Mike Lamb stepped into the batter’s box, he was thinking one thing – hit a single to hit for the cycle. What he hadn’t been thinking was to swing for the fences and push another ball out into the stands – but just in case, Gary Matthews Jr. ruled out that option for him anyway.

As soon as the ball cracked off of Lamb’s bat, Matthews retreated toward the fence in straightaway center, taking a few quick glances behind him to eye up the wall. Then, at precisely the right moment, Matthews made a soaring leap, and launched himself to the top of the fence where he was able to get under the ball and complete a stunning play. This grab doesn’t need any sugarcoating, it was the 8th inning in the Lone Star Series, and it was one of the best catches baseball has ever seen.

2. Kevin Mitchell – SF @STL – 4/26/89

This list has long runs, barehanded catches, and even a few plays that ended up being harder than they needed to be – this catch by Kevin Mitchell has a little bit of all of those and a sprinkle of style on the side. One of the oldest plays on this list, Mitchell’s grab has proven to be one of the best in the game time and again.

The play starts with a long pop-fly from Ozzie Smith that was headed for the corner in left field. Mitchell misjudged the ball, leaving him out of position to make the traditional play but with some extra effort and head of steam, he did the unthinkable and snatched the ball with his bare hand. The grab is one thing, but the casual air about Mitchell when he makes this spectacular play is what really cements it as our penultimate catch.

1. Jim Edmonds – ANA @ KC – 6/10/97 

Simply put, Jim Edmonds made the best catch in non-Willie MLB history on June 10, 1997.

When the ball jumped off of David Howard’s bat, Edmonds’ only chance at erasing an extra-base hit was to turn on his heel and make a dead sprint deep into the outfield. This means that not only did Edmonds need to move quickly, but that he had to take his eyes entirely off the ball in order to get into position. Powering full-tilt toward the warning track, Edmonds then needed to dive and, mid-dive, make (and maintain) a snowcone catch, sliding no fewer than 5 feet from the outfield grass onto the dirt of the warning track.

This catch is shades of Willie Mays plus a diving sliding snowcone catch, upping the difficulty exponentially. 

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