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November 12, 2009

Prospectus Today

Melting Down the Gold Gloves

by Joe Sheehan

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Once again, the Gold Glove Awards were announced to a mix of applause, boos, and abject horror. The awards' legitimacy have been in question for years, as better ways of measuring defensive performance have come on line, and the patterns of awarding Gold Gloves-in some cases, like Supreme Court seats-became apparent. Gold Glove voting measures defensive reputation, rather than defensive skill or defensive performance, and while there are relationships among those things, giving out an award based on reputation isn't a valuable process.

The Gold Glove Award voting is the equivalent of the coaches' poll in college basketball or college football. A panel of people who are nominally experts in their field are asked to create a ranking whose legitimacy comes entirely from that expertise. The panel, however, is not asked to back up their votes with evidence; their ballots aren't made public, and their criteria for voting is largely unknown. The larger problem, however, is that whatever expertise they may bring to their job, they're ill-qualified to evaluate the pool of fielders (or teams) in question. A coach or manager has any number of tasks specific to his job, and "evaluating the relative merits of the opposition's defenders" isn't in the top 30. By the time he's sitting in front of his ballot, the information he has is built largely off of scouting reports, highlight reels, and whatever memorable plays may have been made in games against his team. You're paying for expertise, but as with the coaches' poll, you're not getting it.

This is how the best defensive player in baseball can be ignored in this process. Franklin Gutierrez did more to keep runs off the board than any non-pitcher in the game, ranking as the best defender by two top-shelf systems, Baseball Info Solutions' +/- and Mitchell Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating. He was far and away the best outfielder in the game, but given three slots, the voters couldn't land on the right answer. Ichiro Suzuki was a legitimate winner, but for Torii Hunter and Adam Jones to be awarded was simply a mistake. Hunter won it by reputation, this being his ninth Gold Glove, and his bat, this being his best season at the plate. Jones is the kind of young player these awards often overlook, would have been more qualified in 2008; his 2009 was marked by poor defensive performance, but also a strong offensive season-particularly at the beginning-that launched him onto the All-Star team and put him on the radar for this award. Jones has the skills that would seem to make him a good outfielder, but he did not convert balls in play into outs this year better than 20 other guys did.

In addition to Gutierrez, Carl Crawford was slighted by the selections of Jones and Hunter. Crawford was probably the second-best outfielder in the AL behind Gutierrez, even given his poor arm. In the infield, Elvis Andrus was the best shortstop in the league, but ignored in favor of Derek Jeter, who was at least an above-average defender this year. Aaron Hill should have won at second base ahead of Placido Polanco, who has a better reputation than Hill and the kind of low error rate that often wins these things. In light of the middle-infield mistakes, it's hard to get too worked up about awards going to good defenders such has Mark Teixeira and Joe Mauer, even if they weren't quite the best in the AL at their positions.

The National League didn't have the kind of laugh-out-loud mistake that snubbing Gutierrez was, but ignoring Chase Utley again does provoke a smirk. Utley didn't have the amazing statistical season he did two years ago, but he was once again the best second baseman in the league, and once again does not get an award for it. By UZR, Utley was the second-best defensive player in the National League. The question of who the most underrated player in baseball is will remain answered for some time, and will be even more apparent when Utley, who's damn close to a perfect player and who was no worse than the second-best player in the NL, finishes seventh or so in the NL MVP balloting.

The NL awards were marked by a lot of turnover, unusual for an award of this nature. The turnover was unnecessary. Michael Bourn wasn't a better defender than Mike Cameron was, and Matt Kemp and Shane Victorino certainly weren't. I can see a case for Bourn as a Gold Glove winner; his tremendous speed plays well at Minute Maid Park. But neither Kemp nor Victorino deserved the honor. In defense of the voters, this was a strange season in the NL, where the best outfield defenders did not play full seasons for one reason (Nyjer Morgan) or another (Matt Holliday). I suspect that a look at the voting would reveal a fairly split vote among a lot of outfielders, with the actual winners being not that far ahead of the pack.

Overall, this year's Gold Glove Awards did little to restore confidence in either the process or the results. With each passing season of data, we learn that Gold Glove Awards are a bit further from reality, a bit less a measure of actual defense, a bit less legitimate. Until Rawlings takes the voting away from the coaches and managers who clearly aren't serving them well and creates a process that acknowledges the objective record, we'll spend two days every November rolling our eyes and snickering at what those people produce. Polling coaches and managers in 2009 is the wrong input, and as such, we should not be surprised that we so frequently get the wrong output.

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I made a very short trip to Arizona this year, and since many of you saw one of the games I attended-the Rising Stars contest Saturday night-I don't have too much to report from the journey. The league has made some changes, bringing in pitchers from Japan to bolster a perpetual weakness and eliminating some games, but on the whole, it's a hitters' circuit and a scouts' showcase for which the statistics are essentially meaningless.

Tanner Scheppers was the most impressive pitcher I saw in my time there, catching his dominant fifth inning at the Rising Stars game. Scheppers topped out at 97 mph and looked for all the world like someone who could pitch the eighth inning against the Angels in six months. Two frames later, Dan Gutierrez was nearly as impressive with a fastball/curveball combination; Gutierrez was basically given away by the Royals because of behavioral issues, but if he can keep those in check, he's going to rise quickly in the Rangers' organization. Whatever optimistic noises I've been making about the Rangers were not quieted by what I saw in Arizona.

Here are some other notes from the trip, Quick Cuts-style: Mike Leake looked very polished up close, could come quickly. … Domonic Brown has a strong approach at the plate, showing skills to go with his excellent tools; he was the best position player I saw. … Mike Moustakas has gained a ton of weight, and not in any good way. … Donald Veal was impressive, locating his fastball and a very sharp curve; he looks like an effective reliever in the making. … Jason Castro is no Justin Smoak, but he can throw a baseball and is mobile behind the plate. … Daniel Moskos is at best a lefty specialist, and may never make the majors. … I liked what I saw of Chase D'Arnaud, who isn't quite the prospect his brother Travis is, but is closer to the majors. He could lead off for the Pirates come August. … Grant Desme's stats have gotten him a lot of attention, but he doesn't look like that kind of power guy, more a bat off the bench and fourth outfielder. … Starlin Castro looks like he's 12 and is skinny as a rail, but everyone raved about him.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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