Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gold Gloves and questions of defensive stats

The Gold Glove Awards came out this week —
American League honors Tuesday, National League on Wednesday — and they were, as always, accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Rob Neyer on
the AL awards: The voters made two excellent choices: Evan Longoria and Mark Buehrle. They made some defensible (pun intended) choices. And with (Derek) Jeter and (Torii) Hunter and (Placido) Polanco and especially (Adam) Jones, they just flat blew it, overlooking true excellence in favor of gaudy hitting stats or superficially impressive defensive performances. Well played, sirs. Again.

You can find, interested, similar criticism of the AL awards here and here; of the NL awards, here and here, with the first of the NL critiques far harsher than the latter. And if you make the effort, I'm sure you can easily find more.

Now ... The Gold Glove voting system is flawed. Badly flawed.

  • The electorate — managers and coaches — fill out a blank ballot with one name for each slot.
  • They do this at a time of year when many of them are preoccupied with preparing for the playoffs, getting into the playoffs or finding a new job for next year. (Really, how much effort do you suppose Ron Gardenhire put during the final days of the regular season into identifying the league's three best defensive outfielders?)
  • The totals are not announced; it is possible that Jeter got every vote at shortstop, and it is possible that he got 25 percent of the votes.
  • And, finally, the whole thing is run by a sporting goods company that would probably rather see the awards go to famous players than to obscure ones.

With all that lousy process involved, it's amazing they ever get anything right.

And yet ... to some degree, these ugly trophies reflect the conventional wisdom on the field — that Joe Mauer really is a better defensive catcher than Gerald Laird, that the aging Torii Hunter is still a wizard, that Derek Jeter is a great shortstop.

These are claims not supported by the newfangled defensive metrics. By the numbers, Franklin Gutierrez was far and away the best defensive outfielder in the league. By the numbers, Laird was better than Mauer behind the plate. By the numbers, Jeter has spent his career a below-average — and at times absolutely terrible — shortstop.

So we have a choice: Either the managers and coaches are absolute idiots about baseball, or there are things on defense we still haven't figured out how to measure.

I'll take the latter. Consider, for example, the plus-minus system designed by John Dewan. Carlos Gomez shines in this stat. In 2008, he was a plus 35 in center; last year, playing about half time, he was a plus 17. That seems right to me — even Hunter in his prime didn't cover the ground Go-Go does.

But Gomez makes mistakes. Not just the errors he's charged with. He misses cutoff men so often it became a running joke. He'll chase a fly ball to the wall so aggressively that the carom bounces past him. These things aren't charged as errors, and they don't get penalized in plus-minus — but they cost bases and they cost runs.

Hunter doesn't get to balls that Gomez does. But he doesn't make the mental mistakes Gomez does.

Jeter ... I don't think he's the best shortstop in the league. I think Elvis Andrus was; and if not him, Erick Aybar. But, as I wrote earlier this year, Andrus is a rookie, and most managers have seen him in a handful of games. His time will come, maybe as soon as next season.

Meanwhile, Jeter not only showed improved range this past season, he continues to be consistently in the right place at the right time. The Punto play in the playoffs, while it came too late to be a factor in the voting, is an example. How many shortstops would have just fired to first in a vain attempt to throw out Denard Span — or, short of that, eaten the ball? A lot. Maybe most. Jeter was aware that Punto might try to take the next base.

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