Every year, at the conclusion of the Major League Baseball season, the MLB hands out awards to many of the games premier players. Every year, these awards are panned by critics and fans alike, usually wondering why their favorite players weren’t chosen.
Perhaps the most condemned award, especially by those of us who are more analytically inclined, is the Gold Glove Award.
The MLB seemed to catch on to that fact this season and implemented a “sabermetric component” in an attempt to help revitalize the legitimacy of the award.
This year’s Gold Glove finalists were recently announced and, to me, there appears to be progress being made. The inclusion of someone like Juan Uribe shows that the MLB is paying attention to the numbers, as Uribe is not someone who would typically pass the “eye test” that people have long based their defensive judgments on, but in reality was a pretty great defender and has been for the entirety of his 13-year career, especially at third base where he played 900 innings for the Dodgers this season.
However, this is not to say there weren’t still some odd picks in the list of finalists. The managers vote still constitutes a large portion of the selection process and these managers are still using the same “eye test” method, probably mixed in with some offensive contribution, that has controlled the fate of the award since its inception
To me, the eye test is a total cop-out, as no fan, let alone manager, can possibly watch every fielding attempt by every fielder throughout the course of a season through completely unbiased lenses as the advanced defensive metrics do. I will admit that the defensive metrics we currently have are far from perfect. But they at least account for every play on the same fair and unbiased scale for each player.
With that being said, here are what the finalists and winners of the Gold Glove Awards at each position might look like if voting were based strictly off advanced defensive metrics, free of human bias. So as not to overly complicate things, I used four defensive metrics to evaluate players. First, UZR and DRS made up the majority of the basis for my selections as they are the two most accepted and accurate defensive metrics. Though a little outdated, I still like to use RZR as sort of a tiebreaker for when UZR and DRS are too close to call. Then, just because, I included fielding percentage too. Though errors aren’t a good way to measure a defender’s ability or value, it’s safe to say that if a guy never makes an error of the course of a season he was probably pretty good, and if he made a ton of errors he probably struggled.
Catcher – Salvador Perez
The MLB included Perez and Wieters, but also had a weird pick in Joe Mauer. Mauer won the Gold Glove at catcher from 2008-2010, despite never being great behind the dish. These likely came as a result of his offensive achievements. Perez gets the nod here for being the best all-around catcher. Wieters, despite being hated by DRS this year for some reason, was still the league’s best pitch-blocker and has a sound reputation for being a good defensive catcher and pitch-framer. Yan Gomes was the snub at his position, having the most valuable arm behind the plate in the American League.
First base – Mike Napoli
This was the weirdest one, on both ends of the spectrum. First, the MLB included Chris Davis – who is average at best in the field – and Eric Hosmer, who one might think would be good based on his athleticism but is actually quite terrible. Then, Mike Napoli came out on top on in the numbers. Napoli, a 31-year old lifetime catcher, played his first full season at first base this year. He also was diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition at the beginning of the year that voided his original contract with the Red Sox, and in reality he would have DH’d for almost any team in the AL that didn’t have David Ortiz. He basically had no reason to be good in the field. Yet, no matter what metrics you look at, Mike Napoli was the best defensive first basemen in the American League, and it really wasn’t close.
Second base – Dustin Pedroia
Pedroia – who already has two Gold Gloves under his belt – and Zobrist were head and shoulders above the rest of American League second basemen this year. Robinson Cano had a great year defensively in 2012 and rightfully won the Gold Glove. This season, it seems he was included by the MLB more for his reputation and offense, as he didn’t grade out much better than average by any defensive metric. Kinsler wasn’t loved by UZR, but he still had the second best DRS and RZR of any qualified second basemen, which is why he edged out Brian Dozier and Cano for my third finalist.
Third base – Manny Machado
This one was easy. It’s no secret that Manny Machado is incredible defensively, as his conversion from already Gold Glove-caliber shortstop to third base went even better than expected. Longoria and Donaldson were second and third, respectively, in each of the remaining categories, making them easy choices. Notably absent is Adrian Beltre, who has been an elite defensive third basemen his whole career and has won four of the last six Gold Gloves. However, at 34 years old, his age may be starting to wear on him as he posted his first negative defensive season since 2007.
Shortstop – Alcides Escobar
After the AL third base being the easiest choice, the AL shortstops were the hardest. The two Escobars had almost identical stats, and Yunel has been a better defender over his career, but Alcides had a miniscule edge in UZR and RZR. Florimon was also a sneaky choice to rival the two Escobars, as he led all qualified shortstops in both DRS and RZR. J.J. Hardy was a fine choice by the MLB, as he has been one of the premier defenders at shortstop for nearly a decade, but the defensive talent pool at shortstop is deep, as always, and Hardy just missed the cut this year.
Left field – Alex Gordon
Gordon has won the American League left field Gold Glove the last two seasons, and will likely win his third consecutive this season. He had the best ARM rating of any qualified outfielder in the American League with above-average range to go with it. The MLB’s selection of Andy Dirks was panned by some analysts, but I find it to be justified as he had the highest RZR of any left fielder with 500+ innings and was second in UZR.
Center field – Lorenzo Cain
Noticing a trend? This is now the third Kansas City Royal deserving of a Gold Glove and we still have one position to go. A hugely important, mostly unnoticed reason for the Royals success this year was that they were baseball’s best defensive team and it wasn’t even close. Their 79.9 team UZR dwarfed the second-place Diamondbacks (51.1) and third-place Orioles (39.9). Cain was one of the main contributors, playing elite defense at arguably the sport’s most difficult position. Ellsbury and Rasmus had great years as well – and were on the field more – but Cain was the best during his time in center, earning him the nod.
Right field – Shane Victorino
This offseason, the Red Sox took part in a current trend in the MLB by throwing away the idea of “corner outfielders” and simply trying to put the best possible athletes – usually natural center fielders – in the three outfield spots. Just a few examples being the Indians with Drew Stubbs (and Michael Brantley to an extent), the Pirates are with Starling Marte and now the Red Sox by signing Victorino to play right field. As you can see, it paid off, as Victorino had easily the best defensive season of any American League outfielder. Also, notice who snuck in at the third spot? David Lough, who racked up a full win’s worth of defensive value in just 577 innings for the, you guessed it, Kansas City Royals.
Catcher – Russell Martin
I know, blasphemy, right? Yadier Molina has won five consecutive Gold Gloves and will probably make it six this year. He is incredible and one of the greatest defensive catchers of all-time. However, Russell Martin is pretty incredible himself and goes greatly unappreciated for his abilities behind the plate. He has a great catcher arm, in fact the most valuable in the MLB this season, and was the third-best pitch blocker in the MLB. While trying to concoct a way to cheat and give this award to Molina, I considered talking about pitch framing, the impact it has on a pitching staff and how that goes undetected in catcher’s defensive stats while Molina might be the best at it. But then I remembered that Martin is a pretty great pitch-framer, too which contributed a great deal to the success of Pirates pitching this year. Molina is a great catcher, but Martin was better this year and it would be pretty cool if he is rewarded for it.
First base – Anthony Rizzo
This was only one of two positions with the same three finalists as the three finalists chosen by the MLB. Good job MLB! Yonder Alonso and Brandon Belt are both pretty good with the glove for first basemen, but these three were clearly the best. Something tells me Gonzalez and his three Gold Gloves will end up winning another based on his reputation, but Rizzo was better across the board. Paul Goldschmidt also has a pretty nice showing, proving that he can do just about everything well and is already one of the league’s best players.
Second base – Darwin Barney
You can probably figure that Darwin Barney is a pretty great defender because otherwise why would he play every day for a Major League team. Part of that is probably because it’s the Cubs, but it’s mostly because Darwin Barney is a defensive wizard. You could probably say the same thing about DJ LeMahieu, too, though it doesn’t fully explain why Walt Weiss insisted on batting him second. There’s really not much else I can think to write about this one, besides maybe that the Cubs are kind of like the National League Royals in that we’ve had three positions and already three Cubs, except different in that it didn’t help lead them to any kind of success.
Third base – Juan Uribe
As I mentioned in the intro to this piece, Juan Uribe even being selected as a Gold Glove finalist shows a step in the right direction for the MLB and an even bigger one if he ends up winning it. By looking at him, you might not assess him as an elite defender on account of his, let’s say “shapely,” frame. However, he had a remarkable year at third base for the Dodgers, adding somewhere in the vicinity of two wins with his defense alone. This should not shock anyone, as he has a career UZR/150 of 19.7 at third base in a sample size of nearly 3,000 innings. In addition, he held his own at shortstop for nine years, logging close to 8,000 innings of above-average defense. Not to be lost in all of this is that Nolan Arendo appears to be exceptional at third base too, with a ridiculous 30 DRS in his rookie season that rivals Manny Machado. Also, hey, look. Another Cub!
Shortstop – Andrelton Simmons
It has been written on this site many times how ridiculous Andrelton Simmons is. He just had maybe the best defensive season ever. Basically, right now, he is to defense what Miguel Cabrera is to offense. He is going to win his first Gold Glove this year, which is a thing that, barring injury, will happen for many, many years to come. He has the potential to build a Hall of Fame career pretty much entirely with his glove, in the vein of guys like Ozzie Smith or Omar Vizquel. The Atlanta Braves are very lucky to have him, and you should watch him play shortstop with any chance you get. /gush
Left field – Starling Marte
As I wrote earlier, by playing Starling Marte in left field the Pirates are also taking part in the current trend of disregarding the preconceived notion of corner outfielders and just putting center fielders in the corners. Having two centerfielders in your outfield is very valuable defensively, and Marte is also an above-average hitter, making his role on the Pirates team a very valuable one. The MLB picked Eric Young Jr. over Carl Crawford, which isn’t a terrible selection as Young had the second highest RZR of any left fielder with 400+ innings and also edged Crawford out in DRS, 2-1. However, those two slight edges over Crawford didn’t make up for Crawford’s 8.6 – 3.9 edge in UZR.
Center field – Carlos Gomez
In addition to Carlos Gomez’s breakout year with the bat, he had an insane year with the glove in center field – one of the main reasons why, along with being one of the game’s elite baserunners, I picked him as my National League runner-up MVP on my Internet Baseball Awards ballot over on Baseball Propsectus. But I’d also really like to talk about that second name there. Some of you may have read Juan Lagares’ name and said, “Who?” My answer to “Who?” would be: “One of my favorite players in baseball after reading Jeff Sullivan’s piece on Lagares and his arm.” Uncovered in that piece, besides who is Juan Lagares, is that Lagares’ arm in center field this season was arguably the most effective arm since we began accumulating advanced fielding data in 2002. Dude has a great arm, but is even better at positioning and taking optimal routes to outfield ground balls by using his experience as an infielder. Lagares shows pretty great range in center, too, and the way he adds value with his arm makes him one of my biggest snubs in the MLB’s selections.
Right field – Gerardo Parra
Here’s the other position with the same three finalists as the three chosen by the MLB. Good job again MLB! Jason Heyward might have come out on top if he played a full season, but since he didn’t the award is probably Gerardo Parra’s to win. Parra has always been a phenomenal outfielder, but also has always been a part-time player due to his nasty platoon splits at the plate. This year, injuries forced him into the lineup on a nearly everyday basis and he was rewarded with recognition for his abilities in the field.