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November 5, 2004

Prospectus Today

The Golden Jeter

by Joe Sheehan

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I've had a couple of days to let Derek Jeter's Gold Glove bounce around my brain. After getting over the initial "huh?" reaction, I have to say that the award isn't all that surprising. More importantly, though, it provides another opportunity to think about what the Gold Glove Awards really are, and to think about how much weight we should place on them.

One thing is clear: Jeter won the award while having the best defensive season of his career. Clay Davenport ran a chart on Wednesday that showed Jeter as an average shortstop in '04, after four years in which he average about 22 runs below average. Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating, which uses play-by-play information to evaluate defensive performance, reaches a similar conclusion, pegging Jeter as the worst shortstop in the game from 2000 through 2003, and slightly below average (four runs, to be exact), in '04.

When you recognize that Jeter had a peak season, his winning a Gold Glove doesn't seem that out of place. As Lichtman writes, "If Jeter can be considered average, good, or even very good, by the public, writers, commentators, his peers, managers and coaches, etc., when he has dismal years in UZR, surely he can be considered great when he has a mediocre year in UZR (like this year)."

How did Jeter achieve this peak? I think you can get a bit lost in the numbers trying to sort this out, but Clay makes a good point in mentioning that Jeter's error rate dropped precipitously this year, allowing him to pick up a few extra assists as well. He also added runs on putouts and double plays, upgrades that might be influenced by the Yankees' changes at third base, second base, and on the mound.

One popular interaction theory is that Jeter benefitted from the presence of Alex Rodriguez at third base. I see that as after-the-fact rationalizing, not least because the same theory--a quality infielder to his right--was often used to explain away Jeter's poor defensive statistics back when Scott Brosius was a Yankee.

How fielder interactions affect defensive metrics is an area that will have to be explored as we come to rely on these tools. For now, though, the safest conclusion is that the effects aren't enough to invalidate the metrics.

I think Jeter is the same defensive player he's always been, with a mix of skills that, while visually appealing, doesn't translate to top-tier defensive performance. Jeter is still the best in the game at tracking pop-ups. His strong arm and good range to his right allow him to make plays in the 5-6 hole that look spectacular. However, he still doesn't go to his left all that well, which causes him to miss balls up the middle that other shortstops reach. That adds up to a lot of singles, and consequently, poor defensive numbers.

Jeter's average rating this year, after four seasons of near-worst performance, is the kind of 20-run blip we see from hitters all the time. While defensive performance occurs within a much smaller range than offensive performance, fluke seasons do occur. I'd equate Jeter's year to, say, Darin Erstad's 2000, a season in which everything went right for no apparent reason, one that looks completely out of context with the rest of his career. It's Brady Anderson's 1996, or Cristian Guzman's 2001.

One of the biggest problems I have with Gold Glove voting is that it doesn't recognize this variance in defensive performance. We know that baseball players aren't stat-generating robots, that their performance at the plate each year can vary due to a variety of factors, not least of which is the nature of baseball. Look at the top 10 in EqA for any season, and you'll see a significant amount of turnover. Look at the best hitter at each position in each league, and you'll see some consistency--left field, National League comes to mind--but just as many situations where the top player changes from year to year.

Gold Glove voting occurs as if this kind of change didn't exist. Win one, and you're on your way to winning a bunch more, just because you won that first one. The NL Gold Glove Award winners included just one first-time honoree (Cesar Izturis) and a combined 39 previous awards. The AL had two first-time honorees, Jeter and Vernon Wells, both at positions where the previous winner was ineligible for the honor (Rodriguez and Mike Cameron).

Jeter's Gold Glove Award tells us more about the voting process than it does about Jeter's defensive performance in 2002. We know that the coaches and managers making their selections aren't looking at the data presented above. I'd go so far as to say they're not voting based on their visual impressions of the players involved, either, because none of these people watches baseball to evaluate defenders for Gold Glove voting. Even if you think that the opinions of informed observers are the most valuable tool for evaluation, managers and coaches are still the worst people you could ask. They're just not watching baseball games with that in mind.

If the Gold Glove Award was a good measure of the top defensive players in each league, then we would see more players receiving them, and fewer players winning five or more. No, the voting is going according to reputation, and reputation is driven by the circular "who's a Gold Glove defender" and your presence on highlight reels. With the AL's incumbent Gold Glove winner playing third base, and the guy before him regarded as a fading player, there was a no answer to the first question. That led to the second, and not to simplify this too much, but Jeter probably won his award when his teeth hit the back of a seat behind third base on July 1.

Gold Glove awards tell you which player has the best defensive reputation in the league. In many cases, that coincides with the actual best defender--Eric Chavez, Jim Edmonds and Todd Helton are among the deserving winners this year--and at the least, tend to be given to good defenders. For the most part, though, the awards provide little real information, and the voting process is enough of a mess as to render the awards useless as an evaluative tool.

--

I'd promised an Arizona Fall League update. Honestly, I didn't see enough baseball on my trip, catching just two games thanks to some scheduling issues and an ankle injury I suffered while out in Phoenix. I did get to talk to many of the top minor league analysts, from John Sickels to Jim Callis to the minds behind the Mastersball AFL Scouting Guide, so if you have specific questions, drop me a line and I'll try and answer them.

The biggest impressions were made on me by J.D. Durbin and Jesse Crain. I can see both providing 80 innings of high-caliber relief for the Twins next year, giving them a bullpen that would rival the recent Angels' pens for depth of power arms. Durbin may get a shot as a starter, but there are enough concerns about his stamina that I think using him out of the pen is the best idea.

In general, the two games I saw were shy of prospects and played sloppily. The AFL just isn't the showcase it was when the league began, as teams send fewer and fewer top prospects, particularly pitchers. I think the league can be improved, most notably by introducing some higher-quality pitching into the mix, be it fringe major leaguers or top independent-league prospects or even rehabbing major leaguers who need the work.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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