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November 3, 2004

American League Gold Glove Awards

What the Numbers Say

by Clay Davenport

The American League handed out their Gold Gloves yesterday, and the results have us scratching our heads, wondering just who the voters had given their ballots to for filling. Let's look through their choices, and compare them with ours.

Pitcher: Kenny Rogers. Since 1999, The AL's Gold Glove Award for pitchers has gone to Rogers in even years and Mike Mussina in odd years. Rogers is a fine choice for the honor, with good numbers throughout his career. Rogers tied with Jake Westbrook in our rankings for the top spot in the AL, with six runs above replacement (RAR) and five above average (RAA). (For the rest of the article I'll say that as simply 6/5, with the runs above replacement first and the runs above average second, as I consider both of them when selecting the top player.) For his career, he's 60 and 41, which ranks 16th alltime in RAR and 10th in RAA. No complaints.

Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez. Rodriguez is not the catcher he used to be. He's reached the age, and the game count, where the toll on his body is cutting into his skills. After winning 10 Gold Gloves, he's getting the typical reputation coast that plagues this award. He has more RAA (175) than any catcher in history, and is third in RAR (492), behind two catchers who've played 400 more games than him. In 2004, though, Rodriguez threw out just 19 of 59 would-be base stealers, which edges out 2003's 20-of-60 for the worst mark of his career. He's now a fairly average catcher. I think the best choice would have been the Twins' Henry Blanco, who tops my list with a 38/14, has always been excellent in the field, but can't hit. Oakland's Damian Miller, second in the league with a 36/10 and a consistent history of such production, would also have been a good choice.

First base: Darin Erstad. First base is probably the toughest position to rate from the official statistics, since received putouts swamp everything else in the line. John Olerud has won in three of the past four years, a payback for deserved awards not won earlier in his career, but he's clearly been trending downwards and probably wasn't strongly considered after being forced out of Seattle. Doug Mientkiewicz lost his job, and Rafael Palmeiro is old, to clean up the list of prior winners in the league. Our stats actually say that Palmeiro would have been a deserving winner again, leading the AL with a 17/11 score. Carlos Delgado was second, at 16/10, which I find suspect; and Erstad was third at 14/8. I think Palmeiro should have won, but Erstad is a reasonable selection.

Second base: Bret Boone. This is Boone's fourth award, his third in a row. It can only be attributed to incumbency, as he has terrible ratings (11/-13) this season. However, since there isn't anyone else in the league who had won a Gold Glove at second base before, he's the default option. My clear choice here is the Blue Jays' Orlando Hudson, who easily led the league with in 2003 (his rookie year) with a 47/25 mark and followed that up with a league-leading 37/16 this year.

Third base: Eric Chavez. Chavez has won the last four Gold Gloves in the AL, and has led the league in our stats three of those four years. This year, I gave him a 29/10, just enough to beat out the defending Gold Glove shortstop-turned-third baseman, Alex Rodriguez (31/7). The statistics and the voters are in agreement here.

Shortstop: Derek Jeter. I'll come back to this one.

Outfield: Ichiro Suzuki, Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter. Ichiro! has been an outstanding fielder since he came into the league, and even though his 21/5 rating in 2004 was the worst mark of his career, it was still better than what any other right fielder in the league accomplished. No problem there. Hunter has an excellent reputation, but since 2001 the statistics haven't matched that reputation, and he only rates as a 14/-4 this year. I don't think that is a proper rating; there is something screwy with the infield/outfield adjustment for the Twins this year, as both Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas have ratings far higher than usual for them, and that is probably coming at the expense of the outfielders. Wells is seen as an average center fielder, putting up a 20/1. I think Mark Kotsay (37/16) should have gotten a spot, as he was the only outfielder in the league with a really strong rating. Johnny Damon had a good (29/8) rating, and led the league with 348 putouts, the lowest league-leading CF putout mark in the AL since 1965 (when Ken Berry led with 331).

Back to shortstop.... Let me think about this from the voter's side. The two-time incumbent, Alex Rodriguez, is playing third base this year, so he's ineligible. Omar Vizquel won it for years and years before that, and is still pretty decent; he could contend. Orlando Cabrera has won a Gold Glove in the NL, but that was before he hurt his back, plus he didn't play enough in the AL. The players who had the best statistics at shortstop this year--Miguel Tejada at 50/19, Cristian Guzman at 46/17 and Carlos Guillen at 42/16--all have mediocre histories, combining for a -102 RAA career mark prior to this season. Bobby Crosby (35/6) did a nice job, but he's a rookie, and you don't give rookies a Gold Glove unless they knock your socks off. So the award goes to Jeter, whose 32/3 mark is actually respectable.

Of course, if Tejada, Guzman, and Guillen are going to be rejected for their mediocre career marks coming into this season, then Jeter, with his -138 career RAA entering 2004, should have been tossed out with Fox's "Skin" ("His father is the district attorney!") As you can see, numbers for shortstops were very strange this year, almost as if the entire position was redefined in the offseason. Let's take a closer look at Jeter's performance for the last five years, or, rather, the Yankee shortstop performance:


        A  PO  DP   E     R
2000  -20  +1  -6  -8   -25
2001  -24  +1  -4  -1   -21
2002  -17  -3  -5   0   -19
2003  -25   0  -7  -8   -25

2004  -12  +6  +3  +7    +3
These are the "internal" numbers from the fielding routine, showing where the program is allocating its numbers. The improvements in Jeter's overall numbers didn't come from a vast increase in range; he still gets a very poor rating for assists. But everything else was turned around: a +6 jump in putouts, a +10 turnaround in double plays and a whopping +15 in errors. The errors we can attribute to Jeter alone, unless someone wants to proffer evidence that official scorers were unusually lenient for him this year; we can even suggest that the gain in errors is responsible for the gain in assists, as the two are roughly equal and opposite.

The gains in other categories may have as much to do with changes around him as changes with him. Double plays and middle-infield putouts are extremely interactive in nature, and in 2004 Jeter had new players on either side of him and big changes in the pitching staff. Is it possible that these effects were entirely responsible for Jeter's past hideous ratings? I'd say that it was possible, but unlikely, since the assist deficit was his biggest problem. Even there, the argumentative could say that the assist deficit came from playing too far into the hole, and that having a fielder like Rodriguez at third base allowed him to move towards a more normal spot; that he had the skills, in other words, but was just out of position. If that was the case, then Jeter's brutal defensive numbers were Joe Torre's fault, not Jeter's. That could be true, but again we've reached a spot where we are passing the buck to a third party in order to give Jeter absolution. Unless the evidence is overwhelming, we have to assume that responsibility lies with the player himself, not with others.

It could also be that the fielding ratings don't measure what we think they do. I have no illusions that they are anything other than a coarse tool for the job, a sledgehammer where a jeweler's hammer is desired. They get the right answer often enough to point us in the right direction, but throw a screwball or two into the mix as well. I think Jeter did do a lot better this season, albeit not enough to justify a Gold Glove--he got that primarily for one hard-nosed dive into the stands last July. Gold Gloves sit on the mantle forever, to corrupt a phrase, and whatever we at BP may think about it, Jeter now has one.

--

Baseball Prospectus' Gold Glove Awards, as named by Clay Davenport:

P: Kenny Rogers, Rangers
C: Henry Blanco, Twins
1B: Rafael Palmeiro, Orioles
2B: Orlando Hudson, Blue Jays
3B: Eric Chavez, Athletics
SS: Miguel Tejada, Orioles
OF: Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
OF: Mark Kotsay, Athletics
OF: Johnny Damon, Red Sox

We'll announce the NL awards tomorrow.

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