The Gold Glove awards for 2012 have been announced, and as usual there’s a little controversy. Well, can we even call it a controversy at this point? Rawlings releases a list of Gold Glove winners every year, it’s supposed to be a list of the top defenders at each position in each league, and it’s notorious for including players who really just suck at playing defense. It’s a pretty random award, actually. Sometimes players get in for playing great D, sometimes they get in for reputation after their skills have eroded, and sometimes they get in for their offense, their brand name appeal, or for being captain of the Yankees.
*Guys who can’t play defense, sample 1:
Derek Jeter is a great example of guys who shouldn’t win Gold Gloves but do for reasons having nothing to do with defense. He’s a great player, one of the top shortstops of all time, and a really, really weak defenders. During Jeter’s tenure with the Yankees the team has been known as a bad defensive team that wins consistently by beating everyone up at the plate, and playing a sort of okay left fielder at shortstop has a lot to do with that rep. But Jeter has won 5 Gold Gloves. He was given these awards, as far as anyone can tell, for being Captain of the Yankees.
Captain of the Yankees is actually a big deal, btw. They don’t always name a captain. In fact, after Gehrig retired in 1939 they didn’t name another until Thurman Munson in the 70′s. Joe DiMaggio Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra were never named Captain of the Yankees. When Mattingly retired in ’95 they didn’t name Jeter captain until 2003, after he had won 4 World Series. He won his first gold glove a year later, his 10th year as a pro, around the time most top defenders start to go into decline. Jeter had never been a great defender, but in his second decade in the bigs won 5 Gold Gloves as a steadily worsening SS after being named Captain of the Yankees.
Now, it’s real easy to look at Derek Jeter and say he isn’t a good defender. There isn’t really any debate here. Figuring out how to rate the players fairly and pick the best defenders at each position on the other hand is very difficult. A lot of people are so enamored with stats that they rate defense based on stats like Chances, Putouts, Fielding percentage, or more comprehensive ones like Defensive runs Saved or UZR.
I have pretty mixed feelings about stats in general. I both love and hate new stats, and I appreciate the limitations of old stats while still seeing value in them. I dislike WAR instinctively. I love the “new slash line” of OBP/SLG/OPS. I have ridiculous affection for some stats no one follows, like pitches per at bat (my favorite hitters really score this one). I think anyone who says RBI’s or wins by a pitcher don’t matter is an obvious fool, because they have forgotten the difference between finding value in stats that isolate a players performance and still appreciating stats that measure a players impact on team play. That’s really the tension between new stats and old stats, one proponents of new stats fail to see entirely.
The greatest strength of new style baseball stats is their ability to isolate individual performance from team performance, but this is also their greatest weakness. Team performance matters, it’s how we figure out who wins and loses, who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t, who gets the World Series and who goes home. Stats like RBI and ERA that can describe a players performance within the context of his teams performance have value because of this. They tell us what the player accomplished with his team. New offensive stats are great tools though, at least when taken in context. But to me defensive stats are all garbage, and always have been.
I know that’s pretty strong, but I have a reason for feeling this way:
I’m a Detroit Tigers fan, and Brandon Inge at his peak for the Tigers was one of the best defenders I’ve ever seen in baseball at any position. In his prime he was amazing, with an incredibly fast first step, an acrobats ability to catch and throw off balance, and a gun for an arm. He was a regular on Baseball Tonight’s Web Gems feature and for my money maybe the most exciting defender to watch since Ozzie Smith’s days with the Cards in the 80′s. He made circus catches nightly from the hot corner and he was a one man rally killing machine. He was also, according to most defensive stats, a mediocre to poor 3rd baseman. In other words, to a stat line, he didn’t look appreciably better than say, Derek Jeter.
How can a baseball player who plays great defense according to the eyeball test look bad according to the statlines? It’s simple, really. The incredibly fast first step, the acrobatic ability, the cannon arm all meant that he got himself into a lot of ridiculous situations a less athletic defender would have only seen from a safe distance. Inge got a lot of errors, but errors are usually given if a player is “in the frame”, basically within arms reach of the ball. Inge was athletic enough to get himself into the frame on balls that were well outside a typical third basemans range. And he took risks, trying to gun down runners off balance instead of holding the ball on close plays. So yeah, errors, but he got put outs so often on guys who would have been safe with any other 3rd baseman that his overall value to the team as a defender was, well, for lack of a better word, immeasurable.
Inge is one good example of a simple problem. Defensive stats can’t describe defensive performance accurately, and the more athletic the defender the less accurate the stats tend to be in describing their contribution. Some stats are better than others, of course. Joe Posnanski wrote a great post on his blog on the fielding bible and particularly the value of John Dewans Plus minus and run saved stats. Dewan generates some of the best defensive stats, but it’s important to note he does so by watching video of every game. No box scores used, he actually breaks down tape on every play. Like a scout does, watches and applies “the eyeball test”.
Rawlings tries for this in Gold Glove voting. Instead of letting fans vote, or players, or sportswriters they let coaches vote. Coaches are pros, they attend a full slate of games against teams in their league and should be able to evaluate the players accurately. Only they don’t. First off, they are working during games, not watching the other guys. Second, coaches are typically ex players who share a locker room with younger current players. Their interaction with players is as much big bro little bro as it is boss employee.
So who watches every game, analytically, but dispassionately, looking at teams and players to evaluate strength and defense? Only one group of people in baseball really do that, the advance scouts. They are baseball experts, they are at arms reach of the players, and they make money by judging other teams players critically and accurately. Awards given by sportswriters, players, or fans are all junk, there’s no decent stat to use to rate defenders (although the fielding bible does an exceelent job in handing out their own award) so my take is, let’s hear what the scouts have to say about it. They know which guys you’d rather hit away from, who to hold on base instead of trying to run for more with, and they aren’t shy about saying so. I think Rawlings would do better running with them than buying into a coaches poll that produces a Jeter type Gold Glove every year.