It has long been accepted — and for good reason — that the worst choice ever for Gold Glove was Rafael Palmeiro in 1999. To argue against Raffy is to be arguing for belligerence sake … the man played 28 games at first base that year and 135 games as a designated hitter. A blunder of that magnitude — giving a guy a gold glove when he played barely a month’s worth of games at a position — cannot be topped … unless they decide to give a Gold Glove to someone who played 27 games in left field or an Oscar to Marisa Tomei for her light comedic turn as Joe Pesci’s girlfriend.
Still, there is something that has bothered me about the heaping abuse rained down on Palmeiro and the voters for that blunder … and it’s simply this: Palmeiro WAS a good defensive first baseman — or at least he was widely viewed as one when he played. He won the Gold Glove in 1997 and 1998, and to little objection. He seemed mobile and alert at first base; his Total Zone numbers are quite good. Bill James judged him to be a Grade A fielder. So, yes, he was a comical choice in 1999. But it was really a case of his good defensive reputation outlasting his defensive usefulness. People just hadn’t noticed that he got old (at least defensively). That’s an old story: A lot of good defensive players won Gold Gloves after they stopped being good defensive players. Palmeiro is just the most obvious of the group.
And so, while I think it’s virtually impossible to argue that there has ever been a less deserving choice than Palmeiro in ’99, I also think that there have been a lot of, er, “interesting” choices. That’s the word of the day: Interesting. Some choices are interesting because, best I can tell, they did not seem to be especially good at fielding. But other choices are interesting because I might have expected them to get more recognition, based on their defensive reputations.
Who is the worst defensive player to win a Gold Glove? Though that’s not what this ended up being about, I do have someone in mind — you will have to read down. First, though, I probably should say that I don’t think it is Derek Jeter. When I teased this column on Twitter, more than half of the people who responded assumed that when I said “worst Gold Glove winner,” I was talking about Jeter. I suppose this is because his defense has been much maligned in places like, um, this blog. I do think Jeter is the strangest FIVE-TIME Gold Glove winner because several advanced defensive stats suggest he is mailbox immobile and that ground balls hit two steps to his left or right will always look like line drives in the box scores in the morning paper.
But a lot of people — a lot of people who play and watch baseball for a living — believe Derek Jeter is a good fielder. Are they wrong? Maybe. But maybe the numbers are off. For a long time, people thought .300 hitters were good based on them being .300 hitters. In any case, for me the worst Gold Glove winner has to be someone who is universally viewed as a poor fielder. I don’t see that as the case for Jeter. Many people will continue to insist that Jeter’s a fine defensive player who stays on his toes, makes smart plays, is the best in the game at slow rollers he has to charge (he’s always had great numbers on those plays), and is an every day shortstop who doesn’t make many mistakes.
As long as there’s a white-hot argument revolving around Jeter and his defense, I don’t think he could possibly be the answer.
For this exercise, I look only at the players who won one — and only one — Gold Glove. It seems to me that if a player won multiple Gold Gloves then there are some people who believe that player to be excellent defensively. But one Gold Glove, well, yeah, that could have just been a mistake. There have been, by my quick count, 96 players who have won a single Gold Glove in their careers. Some of them — like Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Zimmerman — are young and active you would expect them to win more.
So, here I list off the positions, the players who won only once (and there might be a couple of players missing … let me know if I missed any), and then some of those interesting choices that struck my mind:
Catcher: Ten catchers have won the Gold Glove only once.
Joe Torre (1965); Randy Hundley (1967); Carlton Fisk (1972); Jody Davis (1986); Mike LaValliere (1987); Sandy Alomar (1990); Kirk Manwaring (1993); Jason Varitek (2005); Russell Martin (2007).
An interesting choice: Carlton Fisk.
Well, anyway, it shocked the heck out of me. Fisk won the award his first full season, 1972, and growing up a baseball fan at that time I remember that he sure had a reputation among announcers and writers as a great defensive catcher. But not only did he never again with the Gold Glove, he was supplanted by Thurman Munson, then Jim Sundberg, then Lance Parrish — of those, really only Sundberg had the reputation as a defensive genius. It’s pretty clear that the coaches and managers simply did not view Fisk as a special defender.
An interesting choice: Joe Torre.
He would later have a strong reputation as a decidedly bad defensive catcher … and he would have his famous 1971 season as a third baseman. Torre’s playing career made him a borderline Hall of Famer, and I suspect it was his defensive reputation as a catcher that has kept him out.
First base: Nine first basemen have won the Gold Glove only once.
Mike Jorgensen (1973); Chris Chambliss (1978); Mike Squires (1981); Mark McGwire (1990): Will Clark (1991); Jeff Bagwell (1994); Doug Mientkiewicz (2001); Kevin Youkilis (2007); Carlos Pena (2008).
An interesting choice: Will Clark
The people always seemed to think that Clark was a defensive wizard — he certainly LOOKED incredibly smooth out there. Everything about Clark’s game seemed graceful. To my mind, he had the most beautiful swing of his time. And though I can’t say I saw Clark play a lot, I have memory after memory of Clark making some great scoop at first base, or making a diving play. But rating a players’ defense by feel tends to lead you to overrate players who look good like Clark. Bill James ranked him as only a C+ fielder, and his numbers suggest he was pretty good when he was young but lost it as he got older.
An interesting choice: Mark McGwire.
He must have been a reasonable first baseman because he only played 37 games at DH in his career. In fact, since the DH rule went into effect, only four players have hit 500 home runs while playing fewer than 2% of their games at DH.
1. Barry Bonds, 762
2. Alex Rodriguez, 613
3. Mark McGwire, 583
4. Mike Schmidt, 548
Over the same time frame, seven players with 500 homers played at least 10% of their games at DH, and three — Jim Thome, Reggie Jackson and Frank Thomas — have topped 20% at DH.
In any case, Bill James ranks McGwire as the worst defender to win a first base Gold Glove.
Second base: Thirteen second basemen have won the Gold Glove only once.
Frank Bolling (1958); Charlie Neal (1959); Ken Hubbs (1962); Glenn Beckert (1968); Doug Griffin (1972); Davey Lopes (1978); Doug Flynn (1980); Jose Lind (1992); Robby Thompson (1993); Chuck Knoblauch (1997); Mark Grudzielanek (2006); Dustin Pedroia (2008); Robinson Cano (2010).
An interesting choice: Davey Lopes.
Davey Lopes was, at times, a great offensive player. He certainly was a great offensive player in 1979 when he walked 97 times, hit 28 homers, stole 44 bases (while being caught four times) and scored 109 runs. That was his best offensive year, but he had darned good offensive years in 1974, ’75, ’77, ’78, and his last full year in 1983. Defensively, though, his reputation was kind of muddled. I could imagine being surprised that Lopes ever won a Gold Glove. And I could imagine someone else being surprised that he won only one.
Bill James thought Lopes — almost by default — deserved the Gold Glove in 1977. That year Joe Morgan won his fifth in a row. The following year, he probably did not deserve it — Manny Trillo probably should have won it. But Trillo won in ’79. Sometimes the Gold Glove seems on time delay.
An interesting choice: Ken Hubbs.
At second base (and shortstop) you will find a handful of fairly obscure players — Charlie Neal, Doug Griffin, Jose Lind — who were viewed for a short while as defensive wizards.
You probably know the story of Ken Hubbs, though to be honest it hasn’t really been told very often. He was a kid from California who in 1962, at age 20, was named the starting second baseman for the Chicago Cubs. He was tall for a second baseman at the time — 6-foot-2 — but smooth. He had almost no power, and he struck out a ton (he led the NL with 129 strikeouts his rookie year) but at least he hit a pretty empty .260 and he looked good enough in the field to win the Gold Glove and the Rookie of the Year. The next year, his average tumbled to .235, the rest of the numbers tumbled with them, and the voters decided that they had to be out of their minds to give their award to a second baseman not “Bill Mazeroski,” and the next five years they gave the award to Maz.
After the 1963 season, Hubbs decided to take on his own fear of flying by taking flying lessons. He got his pilots license in January, and a month later was caught in a storm and crashed into Utah Lake. He was just 22 years old when he died. He is the only second NL baseman other than Bill Mazeroski to win a Gold Glove between 1960 and 1967.
Third base: Nine third baseman have won the Gold Glove only once.
Jim Davenport (1962); Ken Reitz (1975); Aurelio Rodriguez (1976); George Brett (1985); Kelly Gruber (1990); Scott Brosius (1999); Travis Fryman (2000); Mike Lowell (2005); Ryan Zimmerman (2009).
An interesting choice: George Brett
Brett was widely viewed as a dreadful third baseman in his younger days because he had an erratic arm and so committed a lot of errors (26 in 1975 and 1976; 30 in 1979). In Kansas City, the word was if you were sitting behind first base you needed to stay alive on grounders to third — more than one person wore a helmet to games. But the errors — and Brett’s general humbleness when it came to his own defense — probably masked the fact that he was really a good defender. He got to everything, was a very smart and driven player — he has a positive defensive WAR every year from 1975-80.
The late 1970s in American League was really a golden age for defensive third baseman — Brooks Robinson was at the end but still widely respected, Graig Nettles was terrific. Buddy Bell was terrific, Aurelio Rodriguez had the greatest arm I’ve ever seen for a third baseman, Doug DeCinces could really pick it — and that probably made people look down on Brett’s defense. He could have won a Gold Glove in that time, but didn’t. By the time he won it in 1985, he was an elder statesman and the award felt a bit like a lifetime achievement award (he was a full-time first baseman by 1987) but people in KC say he was a defensive marvel that year when he almost singlehandedly carried the Royals offensively to the World Series.
An interesting choice: Ken Reitz.
He was a smart and solid player but not exactly a defensive whiz. The year was 1975, the coaches and managers apparently did not yet know how good Mike Schmidt was defensively. They figured it out, and Schmidt won the next nine Gold Gloves.
Shortstop: Seventeen shortstops have won the Gold Glove only once.
Ernie Banks (1960); Ruben Amaro (1964); Leo Cardenas (1965); Jim Fregosi (1967); Dal Maxvill (1968); Bud Harrelson (1971); Ed Brinkman (1972); Butch Metzger (1973); Rick Burleson (1979); Robin Yount (1982); Alfredo Griffin (1985); Ozzie Guillen (1990); Jay Bell (1992); Neifi Perez (2000); Cesar Izturis (2004); Michael Young (2008); Troy Tulowitzki (2010).
An interesting choice Neifi Perez.
I remember in 2001, when the Royals made their doomed Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez trade, some people were calling it a “swap of Gold Glove winners.” Well, they had both won Gold Gloves in 2000, but the idea of Jermaine Dye and Neifi Perez being “Gold Glove winners” would soon become kind of comical, Dye because he lost whatever speed he might have had* and Neifi Perez because he was apparently on a mission to become the worst player in baseball and he was not about to let competent defense stand in his way. By the numbers and by reputation, Neifi Perez seemed to be a pretty good shortstop in 2000. And with Coors Field somewhat masking his nightmarish offensive game, he seemed to be a pretty good everyday player. The Royals sure as heck fell for it. In 2002, for Kansas City, he was the worst player I have ever seen.
*In 2000, I remember a coach telling me: “Watch when Jermaine Dye gets on first base. They will ALWAYS throw over even though he’s absurdly slow.” Sure enough, it did seem that pitchers did often throw over to first base though Dye did not steal a single base all year. The coach, as you probably guessed, was making a point about how there is racial profiling in baseball.
An interesting choice: Michael Young.
Well, here you go: I don’t want to kick a man while he’s trying to get traded, but I think Michael Young’s Gold Glove at shortstop in 2008 is probably the most bizarre in the award’s odd history.
By the numbers, Mike Young was a pretty dismal defensive second baseman from 2001 to 2003. His defensive reputation was OK, I guess, but it wasn’t great. He certainly did not win a Gold Glove, nor do I remember his name really coming up much. In 2004, he switched to shortstop to replace the departed A-Rod, and I remember there being real questions about how he would handle it. Well, he had his first really good offensive year (he had 200 hits in 2003 and hit .306 but he had a 97 OPS+). In 2005, he won a batting title. And he stayed at shortstop. My clear recollection when I talked to people around the game is that people viewed him as “an offensive shortstop,” meaning that he was out there because of the bat. At best, people would say he was wrestling the position to a draw.
And then suddenly, almost inexplicably, he won that Gold Glove in 2008. As far as I know, nobody thought he was a good defensive shortstop — not the traditionalists, not the advanced baseball thinkers, not the fans*.
*According to Tom Tango’s Scouting Report — and this is voted on by fans — Young was rated a 48 defensive player, with 50 being league average. His first step was rated a 28. And that seems about right to me.
I call it almost inexplicable, but I’m pretty sure I can reconstruct why it happened — Derek Jeter had won the award three times in a row from 2004-2006, and the voters were taking a lot of heat over it. The advanced numbers numbers consistently showed Jeter to be a well-below-average defender, maybe even the least productive in baseball. The inside baseball people mostly chose to stick with Jeter and rip the numbers because Jeter has a much higher approval rating than numbers. But after a while you could sense that it was beginning to dawn on sheepish coaches and managers that, at the very least, Jeter was not a GREAT defensive player.
So, it seems to me like they looked for someone else. This wasn’t easy because there has not been a great defensive shortstop in the American League in some time. In 2007, they gave the award to Orlando Cabrera, which was kind of a weird choice. And in 2008, they gave the award to Young.
At the time, the pick was just weird. But seeing what has happened since then has turned it into legendary. Just months after he won the award the Rangers decided to move him to third base to play rookie Elvis Andrus at shortstop. This year, they decided to move Young off third base and sign soon-to-be-32-year-old Adrian Beltre to an enormous five-year, $80 million deal.
From Gold Glove shortstop to DH in two years … I’d say that’s probably unprecedented.
After Michael Young won the award, the voters decided they might as well just start giving it to Derek Jeter again.
Left field: Nine left fielders have won the Gold Glove only once.
Frank Robinson (1958); Norm Siebern (1958); Jackie Brandt (1959); Wally Moon (1960); Willie Wilson (1980); Dusty Baker (1981); Rickey Henderson (1981); Carlos Gonzalez (2010); Carl Crawford (2010).
An interesting choice: Willie Wilson.
Willie Wilson was a great left fielder. A truly great left fielder. He really might have been the fastest player ever to play in the Major Leagues, which allowed him to get to balls that nobody else could have reached. And his one defensive weakness, his arm, was pretty well masked out there. He had enough arm and enough accuracy to get 10 to 14 assists a year out there, most of them at the plate or on some runner trying to sneak into third base. As his teammate Frank White said, he made up for his arm with his quickness and the aggressive way he would charge balls.
But Willie Wilson as at best an average center fielder, maybe even subpar. The arm was a serious detriment to him there, and though he had remarkable speed he was much better in more of a closed environment. I think Willie Wilson is a great reason why when they give out the Gold Glove they should give it out to THREE OUTFIELD POSITIONS. Yes, center fielders are almost always the best overall defenders, just like shortstops are almost always better fielders than or first basemen. But Willie Wilson was the best defensive left fielder of his time, and should have won more Gold Gloves because of it.
An interesting choice: Carlos Gonzalez
CarGo was a terrific hitter in 2010 … but it’s sort of strange that the voters decided to give him a CarGold Glove. The Rockies moved him around like a utility player. He played all three outfield positions, and all three of them about the same amount of time (63 games in left field, 58 games in center, 40 games in right). His plus minus, Total Zone and UZR all suggest he was subpar in center and right and only pretty good in left field. Odd choice.
But you know what I only just noticed? The Gold Gloves in 2010, in the American League at least, for the first time since the early ’80s had a left fielder (Carl Crawford) a center fielder (Frankie Gutierrez) and a right fielder (Ichiro). The National League had two center fielders (Michael Bourn and Shane Victorino) and Gonzalez who played all three positions. We are so close to doing what I just talked about in the Willie Wilson section; so close to giving Gold Gloves BY INDIVIDUAL OUTFIELD POSITION. That, of course, would be great. I don’t think CarGo was the best defensive left fielder in the NL, but in only left field he was probably as good a choice as any. I would have dropped Victorino and chosen Jay Bruce to win the right field Gold Glove.
An interesting choice: Dusty Baker
He was 32 years old when he won his first and only Gold Glove. From what I can tell, he was certainly no better a fielder than he had been the first nine years of his career. But he did hit .320. Sometimes a good defense is a good offense.
Center field: Seventeen Sixteen center fielders have won the Gold Glove only once.
Vada Pinson (1961); Bill Virdon (1962); Mickey Mantle (1962); Vic Davalillo (1964); Tom Tresh (1965); Reggie Smith (1968); Bobby Murcer (1972); Rick Manning (1976); Juan Beniquez (1977); Rick Miller (1978); Bob Dernier (1984); Darin Lewis (1994); Ellis Burks (1990); Mike Cameron (2006); Nate McLouth (2008); Matt Kemp (2009); Franklin Gutierrez (2010).
An interesting choice: Tom Tresh.
He played a lot of centerfield in 1965, replacing the Mick out there, and there seems little to suggest he played it exceptionally well. He played almost no center field after 1965. Tresh was an amazingly adaptable player — moving from shortstop to the outfield and back to shortstop in a fine career that began with a Rookie of the Year award. He was a good player in ’65 — he slugged .477 and posted a 124 OPS+. The Gold Glove was certainly an effort to reward that season and his versatility. But it was one of the odder choices of the 1960s.
An interesting choice: Nate McLouth.
I wrote above that Michael Young has a case as the most bizarre choice in Gold Glove history. Nate McLouth would be one of the five nominees. He was odd because, on the one hand, most non-Pittsburgh casual baseball fans probably had never heard of him, and on the other, the advanced stats like John Dewan plus/minus (minus-37) and UZR (minus-12.3 runs) suggested he was a much better candidate for being moved from center field, by force if necessary. It is indeed a rare thing for a relatively obscure player with terrible defensive numbers to win a Gold Glove. The guy usually has something going for him.
The numbers suggest McLouth was markedly better in 2009 — not great but much better — before regressing badly both at the plate and in the field in 2010. McLouth was a very good player in 2008. He led the league in doubles, slugged .497, stole 23 bases, scored 113 runs. But his defense had little, perhaps even nothing, to do with his good year. The coaches and managers were undoubtedly wildly split on their third outfielder and the voting system is badly flawed and he was given a Gold Glove. Then everybody had to defend it, which made people sound even more ridiculous. It was just a bad pick.
Right field: Twelve right fielders have won the Gold Glove only once.
Jackie Jensen (1959); Roger Maris (1960); Tony Oliva (1966); Al Cowens (1977); Ellis Valentine (1978); Sixto Lezcano (1979); Jay Buhner (1996); Shawn Green (1999); Jermaine Dye (2000); Jose Cruz (2003); Bobby Abreu (2005); Jeff Francoeur (2007).
An interesting choice: Ellis Valentine.
The best right field arms I can remember seeing — so this would be just after Roberto Clemente — are as follows:
1. Ellis Valentine
2. Dwight Evans
3. Jesse Barfield
4. Cory Snyder
5. Ichiro Suzuki
6. Dave Parker
7. Andre Dawson
8. Dave Winfield
9. Vlad Guerrero
10. Jose Guillen
This is obviously not a scientific study but simply from memory. The last two — Vlad and Hosey — had bazookas for arms but they often had no idea where the ball was going. I loved watching Winfield throw the ball but it took him like a half hour to go through his motion. But to me, at least in the bright yellow sun memory of childhood, Ellis Valentine’s arm was like myth. It will never be topped.
Bo Jackson is not on this list because despite his crazy strong arm he only played 63 games in right field.
An interesting choice: Jay Buhner.
Every now and again, a player will be rewarded by the Gold Glove voters by looking “solid” out there. Jay Buhner was almost certainly not a good defensive outfielder. He has negative defensive WAR numbers every year from 1990 until he retired in 2001. According to Bill James defensive statistics, he ranks as a D+ outfielder. His range factor was below league average every year, often staggeringly so.
But Jay Buhner did not make errors … and he looked solid. If you have two players, and one looks sturdy under a fly ball, while the other looks shaky, it doesn’t really matter to the mind that both caught the ball. The sturdy player LOOKS like the better fielder. And this is even true if the shaky player is much faster and turns many more fly balls into outs. I think this, as much as anything, is why we should keep trying to find defensive statistics that work. Because the mind plays tricks on us. And while Jay Buhner was an extremely likable player. he should not have won a Gold Glove.