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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.

---

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. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

16 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

kcboomer

One BP writer rates Moustakis as the Royals best prospect and another says he has gotten fat.

Nov 12, 2009 11:50 AM
rating: -3
 
Matthew Avery

These two things are not mutually exclusive.

Nov 12, 2009 12:20 PM
rating: 11
 
drmboat
(754)

Based on your past perception of what constitutes a "fourth outfielder", it sounds like Desme has a very good chance to be a valuable player. I think you sometimes forget that a "fourth outfielder" should be 91-120 on the list, despite the fact that the guys you label as such (Victorino, McLouth, etc.) routinely finish in the top 50 of all OF.

Nov 12, 2009 12:07 PM
rating: 0
 
billfer

How does Polanco rank as a middle infield mistake? Hill and Pedroia had cases as well, but Polanco in addition to the low error total led all second baseman in UZR and was 4th in +/-. I think there are 3 or 4 guys who could have won the GG at second, and Polanco was definitely one of that group.

Nov 12, 2009 12:30 PM
rating: 2
 
NYYanks826

"...giving out an award based on reputation isn't a valuable process."

I completely agree that giving out the Gold Glove awards based on reputation isn't a valuable process, but aren't you being a little hypocritical, since you're a frequent advocate that All Star Game berths are awarded to players with the best past performances/reputations rather than the players who have had a three-month hot streak?

Nov 12, 2009 12:37 PM
rating: 0
 
Dr. Dave

This argument only works if you think that being in the All-Star game is an award, in the same sense that a Gold Glove or Cy Young is. I'd say it isn't -- the rules about having to have a player from each team are enough to make that pretty clear.

The purpose of giving awards is to recognize achievement. If you make those awards based on reputation, you're playing the "famous for being famous" tail-chasing game.

Nov 12, 2009 13:44 PM
rating: 4
 
dpratola

Not hypocritical at all, I think. Joe favors All-Stars with a longer history of great performance than 10 weeks, but it's performance he's talking about, and reputation only as it is backed up with evidence. The problem with the Gold Gloves is that defensive reputation (e.g., Jeter, current season notwithstanding) may have a quite weak correlation to actual performance. IOW, if managers at least know what OBP is, and many even consider it in their evaluations of players, the same can probably not be said about UZR or any other advanced defensive metric.

Nov 12, 2009 13:34 PM
rating: 0
 
BelongstotheReds

Am I missing something, or do specific defensive metrics (not just as a component of WARP) not show up anywhere on BP? I find it a little unconvincing when you refer to metrics that aren't readily available. In the case of Kemp, for example, my recollection is that at least some of the better-known methods have ranked him favorably. Not moreso than Cameron, perhaps, but you can't tell from this article.

Nov 12, 2009 15:25 PM
rating: 0
 
jtrichey

I would like to see a breakdown of Kemp's defensive case as well. He ranks very highly in the FRAR stats here on BP. He also was 2nd in the league in outfield assists, which I'm not sure if any of the defensive metrics take into account. I think Kemp was deserving, or at least extremely close to the top 3 in the NL. Can somebody provide some deeper info?

Nov 12, 2009 16:28 PM
rating: 0
 
greensox

We're going to be hearing from these quarters about how great the Rangers are for the next 5 years; good lord Shapiro is still considered a top shelf gm

Nov 12, 2009 17:54 PM
rating: 0
 
nschneider

Very slightly off-topic, but this has been bugging me.

I understand that these are much more basic fielding statistics than those referenced above (which I don't know where to find), but something about the fielding stats shown on ESPN site confuses me. In the American League, the rankings at each of 2B, SS and CF for regulars are almost exactly the reverse of each other when sorted by range factor and zone rating. I've noticed inconsistencies in the past, but the anti-correlation this year is almost perfect. Without getting into a discussion of the weakness of these stats, can someone explain how this is possible? Am I mis-interpreting the Zone Rating number (I'm assuming that a higher number means the player got to a higher percentage of balls hit into his "zone")?

Nov 13, 2009 09:15 AM
rating: 0
 
Freshwillis

http://www.fangraphs.com/ is the place for UZR. http://www.fieldingbible.com/ is the home of +/- from previous years, I believe you need to buy the Bill James handbook, or subscribe to Bill James Online to get 2009 stats.

Nov 13, 2009 11:06 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

All of the +/- data dating back to 2004 is on the James site. It's not the easiest stuff to access - the full data set is organized only by player, and beyond that all you get are skimpy Top 10 leaderboards at each position for each year. But it's there.

Nov 15, 2009 10:05 AM
 
Ira

In thinking about the idea of post-season awards, I've come to a conclusion. All of the awards are fine, with the exception of the MVP, which is misnamed. They are fine, because they are all "beauty pageants". What do I mean by that? Well, its possible to measure a woman's dimensions and shape and skin tone and hair color and gait and whatever to come up with a comparison of all of the attributes of the contestents and then declare a winner by the weighted average of all of these attributes with some accepted standard. But that's not whats done. The contestants are judged, and each judge has his or her own standards by which they judge the human form. From this judging, they vote on who'd the "best" and on down the line. Its very subjective.

Post season awards are done exactly the same way. Judges (the BBWAA for most awards, the players and coaches for the Gold Gloves and I think Silver Slugger) make their votes subjectively. We can say that they made mistakes, or that they are biased towards past winners, or that they don't even do a good job judging, but in the end, its still a beauty pageant. For the Gold Gloves, in particular, players are more judged on skill than performance. Who cares if Jeter can go into the hole and do a jump throw to get a runner. If Elvis Andrus can stop 60 more ground balls in 22 fewer innings, then Andrus is the more valuable. But Jeter got the Gold Glove because no one votes for the chick from Ethiopia regardless of how pretty Ethiopians think she is (that's an analogy. I don't really know the record of Ethiopian entrants in the Miss Universe contest. I know, however that its mis-named, since I keep rooting for Miss Alpha Centuri and she never wins).

Nov 13, 2009 12:13 PM
rating: 5
 
jtrichey

irablum, that is a beautiful and apt analogy. I think you summed the whole thing up so well that you are going to forever take the fun out of reading all the griping that comes every year during award time. Good, good stuff.

Nov 13, 2009 21:45 PM
rating: 1
 
JimmyJack

How did Greg Maddux not win another one?

So what if he retired and all…

Jeepers!

Nov 14, 2009 13:49 PM
rating: 1
 
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