December 28, 2012
In A Pickle
When you do an article search on this site for the phrase "Silver Slugger," you get 57 results, the first of which, by Gregg Pearlman, is apparently the 18th article ever written for Baseball Prospectus and the most recent of which is Geoff Young's piece about the Padres throwing their heft around the N.L. West this offseason. (That's #19056.) Young's Silver Slugger mention came because Jason Marquis won one. Pearlman was writing about Barry Bonds. (Or really about sportswriters' relationship with Bonds. This was October 1997. We were innocent once, and young.)
By contrast, when you search "Gold Glove," you see just a smidge over nine times the results. (The first of which, hilariously, is another Gregg Pearlman article -- this one includes a lamentation of the J.T. Snow trade—which is numbered "1" in our content system.)
Now that I've mentioned both phrases in this piece, I'm not actually righting the imbalance, but since I'm going to actually discuss the Silver Slugger but not the Gold Glove, at least the scales will be tipped a tad bit more in favor of the batting award in terms of mindshare and Q Score.
So. The Silver Slugger awards are decided the same way that Gold Gloves are: coaches and managers vote and they're not allowed to write in someone who plays on their own team. The website describing the award actually mentions batting average, on-base, and slugging, which is interesting, and says nothing about RBI, which is heartening, but then also includes the "general impressions of a player's overall offensive value" as a criterion, which is pretty vague.
Two things I can't tell, though I'll take your input, Dear Reader, if you have thoughts on the matter: (a) whether the awards are meant to value level of production as long as the player achieved a reasonable amount of playing time (as opposed to a cumulative-offensive-value approach) and (b) whether baserunning is considered part of "offensive value." Glancing at the history of the American League winners and noting that Rickey Henderson was out-Sluggered in his career by such players as Gary Sheffield, Albert Belle, and Juan Gonzalez, I think it's fair to suppose that baserunning is not at the fore of voters' minds when they mark their ballots. (Then again, maybe it shouldn't be—our Baserunning Runs shows Henderson being 170 runs above average for his career, compared to 598 Batting Runs Above Average. For context, those 170 runs are the most in our database and it's not particularly close (Henderson doubles up the ninth-best runner, Paul Molitor, which is astounding), yet Henderson's batting dwarfs his historic running in terms of contributions to his overall value as an offensive player.)
The intriguing thing to me about Silver Slugger voting is that we as outsiders have a much better handle on offensive value than we do on defense and pitching. Without downplaying the amount of research there still is to be done on hitting and hitters, the question of offensive value in the sabermetric realm has essentially been settled for decades—as Jim Albert and Jay Bennett describe in their book Curve Ball, George Lindsey published what we would now describe as linear weights for offensive events all the way back in 1963. While it took a while longer for researchers like Pete Palmer to fully develop the methods (and add elements like park factors), when we talk about True Average or Weighted On-Base Average, we're talking about offensive value metrics that, despite the "new-fangled" and "new-age" and "WAR WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR" descriptors with which they're saddled, were discovered/invented before Ruben Amaro was born and solidified around the time Billy Beane was struggling to hit in Double-A.