So here’s some good news … at least as far as this blog is concerned: The Gold Gloves are going all advanced metrics on us. For years and years now, the Gold Gloves have been the grumpy-old-man, get-off-my-lawn, in-my-day-we-would-walk-uphill-both-ways, they-call-this-music-it-all-sounds-the-same, how-do-you-program-this-VCR, I-can-tell-great-defense-with-my-eyes award, and it led to some pretty spectacular fiascos.
Here are just three:
— In 1999, Rafael Palmeiro won the Gold Glove even though he only played 28 games at first base all year … and 128 games at DH. Lee Stevens, who actually played regularly at first base for Texas that year, must have been some combination of Wes Parker, Vic Power, Keith Hernandez and Thor (Editor’s note: he was not. Lee Stevens was not a good defensive first baseman).
— In 2008, Michael Young won the Gold Glove for shortstops though nobody had ever really thought of him as a particularly good defender and though the defensive numbers available depicted him as not a particularly good defender. During the offseason, the Rangers announced they were moving Young to third base.
— In 1965, Joe Torre won a Gold Glove for his defense as a catcher. He was a first baseman within four years, then a third baseman, and many say that the reason he was not voted into the Hall of Fame despite some pretty stellar offensive numbers was because of his liabilities defensively as a catcher.
Then there’s the whole Derek Jeter saga …
There are many other weird choices — Nick Markakis? Joe Pepitone? Bobby Abreu? — that just kind of stick out, choices that make you look at their defensive numbers, flawed as those numbers might be, and ask: How did they happen? Players who excel at one particular thing — throwing in particular — tend to win Gold Gloves, even if the rest of their game is unexceptional. Then, of course, there are the players who develop great defensive reputations and are still winning Gold Gloves five years after they have have become grandparents. The most blatant of these was Bernie Williams, who was a good center fielder when he was young but basically stopped being one the day he started getting Gold Glove awards. He won four Gold Gloves in a row, more absurd by the year, and one of my favorite tidbits is that Hal Richman, who invented Strat-o-Matic, was early to realize: Bernie’s not a good defensive outfielder. Richman slapped a pretty poor defensive rating on Bernie’s card and waited for everyone else to catch up.
The issue at the heart of the Gold Gloves, I think, has always been the issue of seeing. Let me give you an example. The other day, I mentioned — in passing — that one thing you might consider in the Trout-Cabrera discussion is that Trout plays in a devastating ballpark for hitters while Cabrera plays in a good ballpark for hitters (though not a good ballpark for home runs). Since then, I’ve heard from many, many people who are OUTRAGED that I would call Comerica Park a good hitters park. They know, absolutely know, that Comerica is a pitcher’s park. They know it because of the dimensions. They know it because of the history as a pitchers park. They know it because of what they see.
Comerica Park has a multi-year ballpark factor of 105 — with 100 being exactly neutral and everything over 100 favoring hitters. That’s not a one year thing — it has been a slight-to-moderate hitters park for three seasons now. This year, Miguel Cabrera is hitting .385 at home, .339 on the road (last year, his average was only slightly better at home, but he slugged 150 points higher at Comerica). But we’re not talking about Cabrera alone here. The Tigers’ team as a whole is hitting 30 points higher and slugging 30 points higher at home. Opposing hitters are slugging higher at Comerica then they are in their own home parks, and hitting for exactly the same average. It was roughly the same the last two years. Comerica IS a hitters park, minus-the-home runs. Maybe it just has a good hitting background. Maybe it is just a place hitters feel comfortable. Maybe it will shift. But, the numbers tell you: At this moment in our history, Comerica Park IS A GOOD HITTERS” PARK.
And Angel Stadium has a multiyear ballpark factor of 93, like always, it’s a hitters’ dungeon.
But, that’s not what the eyes see. So it goes with Gold Gloves. The Gold Gloves are voted on by managers and coaches and through the years have been given to the ballplayers who LOOKED like they were playing good defense. Often the optics matched what is measurable. Ozzie Smith looked like the most amazing defensive shortstop. The numbers say he was the most amazing defensive shortstop. Stats point to Brooks Robinson being every bit as good as his aura. Most of the defensive greats — Johnny Bench, Bill Mazeroski, Frank White, Willie Mays, Omar Vizquel on and on — have great defensive numbers in addition to their rather obvious visual charms.
But sometimes the optics don’t match the numbers. And then what? Dave Winfield won seven Gold Gloves. Most of the defensive numbers I’ve seen suggest that he was a a subpar fielder in the years he was winning them. Was Robbie Alomar one of the greatest defensive second baseman who ever lived as was his reputation, or was he a good but not necessarily legendary second baseman that his numbers portray? Many of us have written countless words about Derek Jeter’s defense because the contrast is so fascinating — there are numbers that say he’s a TERRIBLE shortstop, like historically bad, and there are five Gold Gloves that say he was the best American League defensive shortstop of his era.
Truth is: I don’t know the answer to these conflicts. And, to be honest, I’m not sure there is a single answer — things are just more complicated than that.
I had a great conversation with Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre about Torii Hunter — Ryan had watched Hunter from the start of his great career and basically said there was something WRONG with the numbers if they did not calculate Torii Hunter as the best outfielder around (Hunter’s numbers were superior but variable until he turned 30 or so, at which point they dropped markedly). My response was that maybe there is something WRONG with the eyes because they tend to be nostalgic and because they tend to lock in on one thing, and one great Torii Hunter play sticks in the memory the way three bloopers that drop beyond his reach do not.
But I now wonder if the truth, as it often does, falls in the middle. There are things the eye sees that the numbers miss. And there are things in the numbers that the eye cannot possibly follow. What I like so much about the new Gold Gloves voting is that it will use advanced stats AND the eyes of some of the shrewdest people in the game.
Will that provide the right answer? I think that’s a loaded question. I don’t think there always is a RIGHT answer. I want a sensible answer. I want a good answer. I want an answer that stands up to history.
The Gold Gloves might be the most meaningful award in baseball because they define players in a way that MVP and Cy Young and Rookie of the Year do not. Those are awards that celebrate great seasons. But the Gold Glove DETERMINES great seasons. If someone wins a Gold Glove, people say: He must be a great defensive player. Unfortunately, that hasn’t always been true. It’s good to see Rawlings and SABR team up to make it more true.