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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gold Gloves Meaningless, Laughable...As Usual

For those of you acquainted with the sabermetric argument for defensive statistics, there won't be much news here, but I want to make my annual rant about the Gold Glove voting, which serious students of the game stopped taking seriously a long time ago, but which is still used to incentivize contracts, on Hall of Fame plaques, and by a hoard of ignorant pundits annually.  Here's the basics.

Obviously, we all prefer the aspects of the game which can be measured with our own eyes.  Unfortunately, defense is something that can only effectively evaluated over the long term (even one season is kind of a small sample size).  Every athlete in the league is capable of the occasional web gem.  We can't allow ourselves to be conned into hyperbolic attestations based on a single play or short series of plays spanning a few games.  As a result, nobody can hope to see enough baseball each season to be capable of making reasoned judgements without consulting some form of statistic.  If you watch your team everyday, you probably know pretty confidently which of your defenders are good, great, fine, weak, and ugly, and you could probably get confirmation of those observations using statistics.  But you can't make a reasoned, objective judgment about how your shortstop or left-fielder stacks up against the rest of the league, because you watch the 29 other teams but rarely.  To make the Gold Glove a meaningful award, the voters have to rely of some conglomeration of statistics.  Otherwise they are, as I've stated ad nauseum, meaningless and laugable.  

I openly admit that no defensive metric is perfect.  Every position demands a variety of skills and every player brings a different tools to the table.  Vlad Guerrero still has an exceptional throwing arm, but as he showed during Game One of the World Series, he's no longer very flexible or fleet of foot.  Juan Pierre has exceptional speed, but has a noodle arm and the tendency to take meandering routes to balls in the gap.  Any defensive assessment is, at last, imperfect, regardless of how much observational and statistical data we bring to the table.  We should, however, recognize that the advanced metrics (UZR is the most readily available) are based upon the charting of every play that every player is involved in.  As such, they do a lot of work that our eyes cannot.  There are flaws in the charting systems, certainly, but they get better with every passing year.  And, if you are really geeked on defense, you can look at something like John Dewan's Fielding Bible, which will breakdown not only "overall" defensive performance, but analyze how players approach specific types of plays (coming in v. going out, up-the-middle v. in-the-hole, around the bag v. off the line, etc.).

Since no one stat tells the whole story (although UZR comes pretty close), certain comparisons are too close to call.  Rob Neyer might suggest that Brett Gardner was marginally better than Carl Crawford this year, but both were extremely good.  And Neyer would happily admit that the small difference between them could be related to their ballparks, pitching staffs, and the simple fact that they didn't get exactly the same set of potential chances.  As such, I don't think it's all that unreasonable to give Crawford the hardware.  He's been an elite defensive outfielder for far longer than Gardner, so we know there's nothing the least bit flukey about his 2010 numbers.  The same can honestly be said about the choice of Evan Longoria over Adrian Beltre and Kevin Kouzmanoff, the choice of Troy Tulowitzki over Brendan Ryan, the choice of Albert Pujols over Ike Davis, etc.

All told, I'd say 13 of the 18 Gold Glove recipients were at least modestly deserving this season, which is actually pretty good, so I'm going to reserve my comments for the ones who clearly weren't:

Derek Jeter -4.7 (#7) 3.78 (#8) .989 (#1) 6.63 (#2) 38 (#9) -11.8 (#9) 6.5 (#1) 1303 (#4) 6 (#1)
Elvis Andrus 0.1 (#4) 4.48 (#4) .976 (#4) 5.61 (#6) 46 (#6) 1.3 (#4) -2.6 (#8) 1291 (#5) 16 (#4)
Cliff Pennington 9.9 (#2) 4.93 (#1) .966 (#7) 5.01 (#9) 53 (#4) 9.4 (#1) 0.6 (#5) 1304 (#3) 25 (#9)
Alexei Ramirez 10.8 (#1) 4.89 (#2) .974 (#6) 5.09 (#8) 67 (#1) 8.4 (#2) 1.0 (#4) 1376 (#1) 20 (#7)

Let's get this out of the way.  Derek Jeter won his fifth Gold Glove for his performance in 2010.  Jeter has become the posterchild for all that is wrong with the voting process.  There's no doubt, in fact, that the exposes which originated out of Baseball Prospectus a few years back actually spurred Jeter to rededicate himself to defense and in '08 and '09 he was better than he'd ever been (though still not nearly the best).  At this point, however, his age has merely caught up to him, and even stalwart Yankee fans will admit he's best.  He has hardly any mobility on either side and has one of the weakest arms at his position.

What he is, however, is very sure-handed on balls hit directly at him, which explains his league-leading fielding percentage.  It also explains why Alexei Ramirez created nearly twice as many outs outside the average shortstop zone and was involved in nearly 100 more plays.  According to FanGraphs, all that range (not to mention his incredible throwing arm) helped Ramirez to save his team approximately fifteen more runs than Captain Intangible over the course of the 2010 season.

Jeter's isn't the only Gold Glove causing accusations of Yankee bias...

AL 1B (8 Q): UZR RF FPCT ZR OOZ RngR ErrR INN Errors
Mark Teixeira -2.9 (#5) 9.11 (#6) .998 (#2) 2.78 (#3) 43 (#2) -6.4 (#7) 4.0 (#1) 1291 (#3) 3 (#2)
Daric Barton 12.1 (#1) 10.00 (#1) .993 (#7) 2.54 (#8) 69 (#1) 13.1 (#1) -1.1 (#7) 1333 (#1) 10 (#7)

Mark Teixeira won for the second season in a row, even though he was hobbled by a bad ankle for much of the year, which severely limited his ability to stray away from the bag.  Like Jeter, Teixeira handled balls hit directly at him with tremendous ease and was excellent at caroling throws from his infielders, but so was Daric Barton and Barton also demonstrated the most range of any first baseman in the game.  As you can see from their UZRs, this probably shouldn't have even been a close race.

AL 2B (8 Q):                  
Robinson Cano -0.6 (#5) 4.99 (#3) .996 (#1) 5.06 (#5) 45 (#1) -7.5 (#8) 5.6 (#1) 1393 (#2) 3 (#1 T)
Mark Ellis 9.9 (#1) 4.98 (#4) .995 (#2) 5.12 (#4) 18 (#8) 4.5 (#2) 3.4 (#2) 986 (#7) 3 (#1 T)
Orlando Hudson 9.8 (#2) 5.31 (#1) .987 (#3) 4.73 (#7) 36 (#2) 9.6 (#1) 2.3 (#3) 1067 (#6) 8 (#3)

Part of me really wanted to believe that Robinson Cano had earned this accolade.  And, in a way, he has.  A few years ago Cano was a severe liability in the field, but one could tell this season that he'd been putting in a lot of work.  He's got a great arm and extremely quick hands, which make him stellar at turning the double play.  And, like the other Yankee infielders, he's extremely efficient with the chances he gets.  However, also like the other Yankee infielders, he's got limited range.  As you can see from the table above, guys like Mark Ellis and Orlando Hudson are nearly as efficient, but also make far more plays.

Obviously, you can see a common theme developing here.  The Gold Glove voters still lean heavily on things like errors and fielding percentage and, as a result, they actually punish many of the most exceptional fielders.  Yes, but ranging far out of their positions, guys like Hudson or Ramirez might be more likely to misjudge a hop, boot a grounder, or rush a throw, thus getting themselves charged with errors.  But they also convert the lion's share of those balls into outs, while Jeter and Cano don't even have a chance in many similar situations.  Their errors are called hits...and there are a lot more of those.  

NL OF (32 Q): UZR FPCT OOZ RngR ErrR INN Errors Assists
Carlos Gonzalez -2.7 (#21) .996 (#2) 53 (#21) -1.8 (#18) 1.2 (#2) 1224 (#14) 1 (#1 T) 8 (#7 T)
Shane Victorino 2.6 (#15) .995 (#5) 67 (#11) -2.0 (#19) 1.1 (#4) 1265 (#9) 2 (#5 T) 11 (#1 T)
Jay Bruce 20.2 (#2) .992 (#8) 84 (#5) 19.8 (#1) 0.6 (#11) 1199 (#15) 3 (#9 T) 7 (#14 T)
Andres Torres 21.2 (#1) .997 (#1) 80 (#6) 18.8 (#2) 1.3 (#1) 1120 (#21) 1 (#1 T) 7 (#14 T)
Angel Pagan 15.1 (#4) .987 (#13) 97 (#1) 9.8 (#5) 0.3 (#15) 1256 (#11) 5 (#22 T) 10 (#3)

The Gold Glove voters did a much better job with the AL outfield this year, perhaps in part because there was a major outcry in 2009 when Carl Crawford and Franklin Gutierrez both got snubbed.  Unfortunately, they didn't necessarily take what they'd learned and apply it in the NL.  Jay Bruce and Andres Torres were clearly among the most valuable defensive players in the game, yet neither of them got the credit they deserved.  Instead, the voters opted for the reputation of Shane Victorino and the offensive production of Carlos Gonzalez.  Now, both CarGo and Victorino are decent outfielders, so they aren't the worst possible options, but Torres and Bruce were superlative.  I'm guessing this is also a situation where the "outfield assist," one of the least useful stats in baseball, got a little too much play.  CarGo and Victorino each have good arms, but neither is anywhere near as good as Bruce.  Still, they each managed more assists.  I expect that has much to do with the fact that nobody runs on Bruce.

The choice of Gonzalez over Torres is really troubling.  Both played all three outfield positions in '10, but got the bulk of their work in center.  I love CarGo, but there just isn't any way he was better than Torres.  Torres got to more balls, even though he played 100 fewer innings.  He went outside his zone for catches far more often.  He had just as many assists.  Like CarGo, he made only one error, and, because he had more chances, he actually led the league in fielding percentage, the stat that usually makes Gold Glove voters all giddy.  I don't get it.  But maybe that's the point.

Here's who I would've voted for:


C - Joe Mauer (Minnesota)
1B - Daric Barton (Oakland)
2B - Orlando Hudson (Minnesota)
3B - Kevin Kouzmanoff (Oakland)
SS - Alexei Ramirez (Chicago)
OF - Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle)
OF - Franklin Gutierrez (Seattle)
OF - Brett Gardner (New York)
P - Mark Buehrle (Chicago)


C - Yadier Molina (St. Louis)
1B - Albert Pujols (St. Louis)
2B - Brandon Phillips (Cincinnati)
3B - Chase Headley (San Diego)
SS - Brendan Ryan (St. Louis)
OF - Andres Torres (San Francisco)
OF - Jay Bruce (Cincinnati)
OF - Michael Bourn (Houston)
P - Livan Hernandez (Washington)

Defensive Stat Glossary:
UZR - Ultimate Zone Rating (as figured by FanGraphs)
RF - Range Factor (as figured by ESPN)
FPCT - Fielding Percentage
ZR - Zone Rating (ESPN)
OOZ - Outs Outside Zone (FanGraphs)
RngR - Range Runs Saved (FanGraphs)
ErrR - Efficiency Runs Saved (FanGraphs)


Anonymous said...

"We can't allow ourselves to be conned into hyperbolic attestations based on a single play or short series of plays spanning a few games."

"Vlad Guerrero still has an exceptional throwing arm, but as he showed during Game One of the World Series, he's no longer very flexible or fleet of foot."


Hippeaux said...

This is a great point.

Except...point me to the evidence, any evidence, that Vlad is still a good outfielder.

Unfortunately, in some cases (not all cases), what you see is what you get.