Gold Gloves: Cheers, Jeers, and Snubs

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The baseball awards season is in full swing now, with Rookie of the Year just having been announced (and by the way, Andrew Bailey, who won ROY in the AL, wasn't even the best rookie on his own fucking team), and Cy Young and MVP coming in the very near future. It's always interesting each year to look at who wins the awards, because it gives you a good idea of just how divorced the awards often are from the reality of the game. 
Gold Gloves: Cheers, Jeers, and Snubs
Perhaps no award more perfectly embodies this idea than the Gold Glove. Every year, players receive Gold Gloves based on reputation, the occasional highlight reel play, or the quality of their bat. It's exceedingly rare that a Gold Glove winner actually turns out to be the player who is the best defender at his position.

So with that in mind, I thought I might look at this year's Gold Glove winners and see which ones the voters got the rightest, and which they got the wrongest. Oh, and which players should be the most pissed off about being ignored, too. 

Every once in a while, the voters really do get it right, and I have these award winners to prove it. The two best choices the voters made: 

Yadier Molina, C, St. Louis Cardinals
I'll be the first to admit, I haven't always been all that high on Yadi. It's nothing against Molina, you understand, I just happen to belong to that faction of people who believe catcher defense is one of the, if not the, most overrated commodity in baseball. You know why I think that? Because I've based almost my entire philosophy about the game of baseball on listening to and then disagreeing with broadcasters, and those guys loooooove catcher defense. (I'm about half joking on this.) 

I will say this for Molina, though: he's probably the only catcher in the game capable of having a real effect on the opposition in the field. No other catcher in baseball both shuts down the opponents' running game so completely and actually manages to generate outs with his glove. And that, to me, is the key why Molina is such a special player: the real reason I think catcher defense is so wildly overrated is catchers do virtually nothing to help create outs. Molina, on the other hand, actively helps create outs with his arm. No other catcher does that to anywhere near the degree Yadi does. He's a weapon without any real comparable in the game right now, and he deserves all the defensive credit and awards he'll ever get. 

Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays
Everybody knows Evan Longoria is a remarkably good young player. Most of the credit he gets, though, is for his work with the bat. What isn't quite as well known amongst the general public is the fact that, as good as his bat is, his glove just might be even more impressive. 

According to UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), Longoria was worth 18.5 runs over an average fielder in 2009. That's nearly two full wins worth of value added just with the glove. And just so no one will say I'm basing my evaluation of his abilities on just one season's worth of data, Longoria's 2008 numbers are remarkably similar. He saved 14.9 runs over average in '08, and did so in just 118 games. Taken together, that gives us over 2300 innings worth of defense solidly in the 1.5-2.0 win value range. John Dewan's plus/minus system (found over at Bill James Online), puts Longoria in almost the exact same range, having him at +21 plays for 16 runs of value in 2009. 

You know that game everybody plays at some point in time, where you get to choose one or two players to start a brand new baseball team? Well, when I play, my first choice is Albert Pujols, followed immediately by Evan Longoria. Just saying, is all.

On the other hand, there's a reason Gold Gloves are so derided by so many serious analysts. The worst picks of the year: 

Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees
I know, I know, you've heard this song before, right? Captain Fantastic has been perhaps the greatest source of consternation amongst the stat crowd ever since all the newfangled defensive metrics became available. The metrics are remarkably consistent year in and year out in what they say, and what they say is Derek Jeter is a bad fielder. Unfortunately, such metrics seem to have little sway on the people who vote on awards and such, who say, "But he's the Yankee Captain! Look how many rings he has! And remember that one time against Oakland when he made that awesome play right by home plate? That was awesome!" 

The thing is, Jeter actually played better defense this year than he has in any other year since the advent of most of the defensive metrics. A big deal was made of him getting into outstanding shape coming into the season in an attempt to improve his range, and it actually appears to have made a difference. Both UZR and plus/minus have Jeter as a positive fielder in 2009 after years of below-averagosity. UZR has him at 6.6 runs better than an average defender; plus/minus likes him for 4 runs saved. Either way, Jeter had his best season in the field we have data for. So why do I still consider this such a travesty? 

Because you don't win Gold Gloves for being better than your own usual level of shittiness, that's why. Because those 4 runs above average by plus/minus rank Jeter as the 15th best shortstop in all of baseball. Fifteenth. Congratulations, Captain Jeter! You managed to reach the middle of the pack! 

Consider Elvis Andrus, the talented young shortstop for the Texas Rangers. UZR has him at 10.7 runs above average; plus/minus puts the number at 11 runs. Or Cesar Izturis, our very own former Cardinal gloveman extraordinaire: UZR 10.8 above average, plus/minus +11 runs. So why didn't either of them win? Because they're not Derek Jeter, that's why. 

Torii Hunter, OF, Los Angeles Angels
You can put Hunter squarely in much the same boat as Derek Jeter, except Hunter doesn't even have the weak defense of putting up a season above his own standards with the glove. No, Torii Hunter won a Gold Glove this year strictly on the strength of his reputation, with no real regard given to the fact Torii Hunter just isn't a very good fielder anymore. 

Now, back in the day, Torii Hunter really was an elite defender; go back to say 2001 or so and he's the man. Problem is, this is 2009, and Torii Hunter isn't that guy. He's the guy with the -1.4 UZR. That's right; UZR actually has Hunter as a below average center fielder. Plus/minus likes him better, as it has him saving 4 runs over the average fielder. Problem is, even that +4 number ranks him 12th among center fielders. Middle of the pack, and that's using the optimistic lens. 

See, this is the main problem with the Gold Glove awards. Players win them on reputation more often than their actual play on the field, and they continue winning them long after the skills that may have once made the award deserved have withered away. Hunter's Gold Glove this year is his ninth; UZR has him a positive fielder in exactly two seasons since 2002. He's a fair bit better by plus/minus; being average or better in four of the last six years, but he also hasn't ranked better than 11th since 2004. Still, Torii Hunter has a shelf full of Gold Gloves, and those awards tell voters he's good enough to vote for again.

The Snubs
There are plenty of players one could make a case for, but there are two who really, really stand out to me. One because he somehow gets overlooked for every award every year, despite being one of the top five players in all of baseball, and the other because he was almost incomprehensibly brilliant in the field this year, and chances are you've never even heard of him. 

Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia Phillies
I feel bad for Chase Utley. I really do. Ryan Howard won an MVP for having a really good September a couple years back, even though Albert Pujols destroyed him in virtually every statistical category. Jimmy Rollins won an MVP the year after that for stealing bases and being a loudmouth. Chase Utley, though, has never won an MVP. Never mind his WAR totals dwarf those of both his teammates. (In 2006, when Howard won the award, he was worth 7 wins above replacement. Utley has been better than that every season but one since 2005.) Never mind he's a better overall hitter than Howard and makes Rollins look like Aaron Miles. Chase Utley could teach Rodney Dangerfield a thing or two about a lack of respect. 

Chase Utley was the best second baseman in the NL by plus/minus at 14 runs above average; UZR had him at +10.8. He added over a win with his glove alone by either method, yet was shut out of the Gold Glove voting yet again. Instead, Orlando Hudson and his -3.3 UZR rating took home Utley's award. Maybe it's just because Utley doesn't have a cool nickname. After all, O-Dog is much easier to remember and cooler to say than Possibly The Best Second Baseman Since Joe Morgan. Just doesn't really roll off the tongue the same way, you know? 

I'm also giving an honourable mention here to Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers, who posted a brilliant 9.6 UZR this year after being an atrocious fielder the first few years of his career. Hopefully it's a turnaround and not just a blip; it would be nice to see the kid from Mizzou collect some hardware in the near future. 

Franklin Gutierrez, CF, Seattle Mariners
I know what your'e thinking. Your'e sitting there, thinking, "Why does that name sound so familiar to me? I know I should know who that is." Well, don't feel bad that Gutierrez' name isn't exactly on the tip of your tongue. He's young and just beginning to establish himself, he isn't much shakes with the lumber in his hands, and he plays in baseball purgatory. No offense to my colleague and Seattle native Keegan Hamilton, but the Mariners just don't really register on the radar of the rest of the country. Everybody knows Ichiro because he's so awesome he has forced his way into the collective consciousness, and Griffey still has a name that recalls the old glory, but other than that, the general public just doesn't pay much attention to Mariners. They play on the wrong coast, so all the games are late, they don't play in LA, Alyssa Milano doesn't show up on their broadcasts on a regular basis, and they've been rather bad for most of this decade. 

So no, I don't blame you for not knowing Franklin Gutierrez all that well. I will, however, tell you right now you should start paying attention, because he is something truly special. 

Colby Rasmus is one of the best young center fielders in the game of baseball; he tracks down fly balls with an elegant ease that belies his range. His UZR in 2009 was an outstanding 8.9 runs above average in center field. 

Franklin Gutierrez' UZR in 2009 was 29.1. 

Let that soak in for a second. Twenty nine point one. Nearly 30 runs better than an average center fielder. 

Plus/minus puts him at 24 runs above average. He made 43 plays an average center fielder wouldn't have made by that system; the next closest player to him was Tony Gwynn Jr. at 23 extra plays made. 

You can say whatever you want about one-year sample sizes, but Gutierrez was worth 21.3 runs for the Indians as a right fielder in 2008 -- in 97 games. Adjusted to 150 games, that's 33.5 runs. It's hard to believe, yes, but Franklin Gutierrez has averaged three wins on defense the past two seasons. He's an impact defender like no one else in the game right now. If you have a chance to actually watch a Mariners' game (I order the Extra Innings package every year, mostly so I can watch AL West games), I urge you to do so. Pay attention to how many balls are hit into the gaps that find gloves. Between Gutierrez in center and Ichiro in right, I don't know how you ever get a hit against Seattle. 

And, of course, he was ignored in favour of Torii Hunter. Reputation for brilliance vs. actual brilliance. Reputation wins the award every time.

Overall, I thought the voters did a decent job this year. Albert should have won over Adrian Gonzalez, but I guess at some point voting for Pujols just gets boring, so I can forgive the voters. Still, the Gold Gloves are one of the worst awards in a sport full of arbitrary and foolish awards, and until the voters start paying more attention to the new methods we have of actually tracking defense, I just don't see how anyone can continue to take them seriously. 
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