Before reading, please make sure to check out part one of this Fixing Gold Gloves series. Every statistic mentioned here was explained there.
With that said, let us begin.
Validity of Gold Gloves
As with any stat, award, or combination of the two, context must be set. This award is for the best defensive player at a given position in a given season. Each season and each position is different. For some seasons, average to above-average play might be rewarded with a Gold Glove. In other seasons, a player will finish second in Major League Baseball in the applicable stat only behind another player in the same league at the same position.
To give an example in a different context, Sammy Sosa led the majors in home runs twice (2000 and 2002). However, these totals represented the fourth and fifth-most he hit in a single season. Sosa was the technical answer to “who is this season’s best power hitter” twice, but his best power seasons coincided with other ridiculous power surges from other players.
For Gold Gloves, the approach is directed at one season. The stats can be tracked over time to see who is consistently good (or bad), but the accumulation of Gold Gloves might not tell the full story for a player’s career. Sometimes, Gold Gloves are a perfectly adequate measure of a player’s defensive brilliance. For example, Brooks Robinson and Ozzie Smith have the records for most Gold Gloves at third base and shortstop respectively. By total zone (TZ), they rank first at their respective positions.
In other circumstances, the comparison is not so easy. Rey Sanchez retired with zero Gold Gloves. Does this mean he was a poor defender? No, he was one of the best defensive middle infielders ever. While the tragedy of his empty Gold Glove mantle will be rectified in later articles in this series, the real-life reasoning is that his career overlapped with the likes of Smith and Cal Ripken Jr. Smith ranks first in TZ with Ripken sliding in third. Sanchez is eighth, the highest among shortstops to never win a Gold Glove.
For a more contemporary example, look at the loaded National League for shortstops. Of the five active shortstops to accumulate 50 TZ, four of them play in the National League. Even if being a finalist was considered an award (similar to receiving Most Valuable Player votes), one of Trevor Story, Brandon Crawford, Francisco Lindor, or Nick Ahmed would miss out. On the other hand, Andrelton Simmons (theoretically) has reduced competition.
Stick to One Spot
There are two keys to remember with position. First, player contributions will only be counted at one position. There will be no adding of statistics from multiple positions. A player could technically win the Gold Glove at multiple positions in the same season, but the likely outcome is that they would fall just short.
Look no further than Adam Duvall in 2021. According to TZ, Duvall was second in the National League in defense. He led all outfielders with +19. However, he split time in three different positions. His +6 in left field was fifth among National Leaguers. His +10 in right field was a fraction of a point short of the leader (Ronald Acuna Jr.).
Ryan McMahon fits the same criteria. He finished fourth in TZ at second base, fifth in TZ at third base, and third overall in the NL.
Ironically, neither Duvall (NL) nor Adolis Garcia (AL) would be in line for a Gold Glove despite leading all outfielders in TZ. This is a necessary evil for the time being. In the future, there could be a correction for the top three outfielders rather than the best at each position, but that is on the backburner for the time being.
Unfortunate Series of Events
Harrison Bader finished fifth in TZ in 2021. His +13 mark was impressive, but it was second among centerfielders. Trent Grisham would win the full Gold Glove (based on TZ). In contrast, Max Muncy only needed +9 TZ to lead first basemen. Bader would have won the American League Gold Glove, but he, unfortunately, played in the same league as Grisham.
In a future article series, Gold Glove shares could be theorized. For the Bader and Grisham example, Grisham would still lead the National League in centerfield shares, but Bader would win a fraction of the prize rather than nothing.
Fielding Percentage and Errors
Counterintuitively, good fielders can generate lower fielding percentage marks because they have superior positioning and reflexes to their average counterparts. For example, a centerfielder could take a poor angle to the ball and allow it to land harmlessly. Poor routes are not countable as errors. On the other hand, an elite defensive center fielder might take a perfect route to a ball and make a Herculean effort to just get to the ball. If he does not make a play, it would be recorded as an error, penalizing the player for getting to the ball.
To use a football example, a receiver cannot get a drop if they do not lift their hands to catch a pass. On the other hand, they could dive for the pass and “drop” it.
Elite defensive players will have the opportunity to make more spectacular plays, turning them into almost routine efforts. They are too good for the logic behind errors.
For most positions, putouts are a perfectly fine way to judge defensive productivity. They might not paint the clearest picture in a small sample size, but elite defensive players will generally make more plays. Andruw Jones led the NL in outfield putouts six times, for reference. It is not perfect, but it functions as a solid baseline.
On the other hand, it is a disaster for catchers and first basemen. Catchers get credit for putouts on every strikeout. In 2021, the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers had the most strikeouts. Their primary catchers, Omar Narvaez and Will Smith, finished fifth and third in total putouts despite missing more than 40 games each.
First base is similarly based on other factors. The St. Louis Cardinals finished last in the NL in strikeouts. Naturally, their first baseman, Paul Goldschmidt, finished second in the NL in overall putouts. While he was top-10 in innings played, he accumulated putouts at a higher rate than most NL first basemen.
Goldschmidt is a good defensive first baseman, but he had extra chances because his pitching staff coaxed more in-play outs than other teams. He also likely benefited from playing in an infield with two fellow Gold Glove winners.
Of the top 45 in the NL in putouts, all 45 spent time as a catcher or first base (or both).
Playing next to a particularly rangy fielder can deflate defensive stats. This makes corner outfield Gold Gloves difficult to determine. For example, Tyler O’Neill’s 2021 range factor per nine innings of 1.86 was lower than the average left fielder (despite the aforementioned extra in-play outs for the Cardinals). He was sharing the outfield with Bader who dominated according to range factor.
Both players were deserving Gold Glove winners, but O’Neill’s underlying stats were compromised because he happened to share an outfield with a baseball vacuum.
Assists fall under the same general in-play qualifiers as the putouts section, but one of the biggest factors in the accumulation of assists is fear.
Some outfielders are too good at playing defense. If an outfielder throws out too many runners, opposing teams will become less aggressive on the base paths. In turn, that outfielder will have fewer opportunities to throw out base runners. Outfield assists tend to be quite volatile because they are opportunity-based more than skill-based at times.
In response, some statisticians have introduced kills as a stat. It is not as valuable as throwing out a runner, but it is valuable to prevent it in the first place.
The same rules apply to pitchers with particularly good pickoff moves or catchers that are great at throwing out runners. Assists, pickoffs, and caught stealing numbers are incomplete because of the fear factor.
Advanced Stats: (TZ, DRS, UZR)
For as useful as defensive stats are, there is an uncertainty to them. Modern players have the benefit of expert-level positioning. Take the shift as an example. It is a coach’s decision to put his players in better positions to defend the expected outcome. How much positioning is on the player versus the coaching staff?
For zone-based metrics, positioning plays a major role in the productivity of a fielder. The classic discussion between Adam Everett and Derek Jeter turns into a detailed positional argument. Everett played deeper than Jeter, allowing him to get to some ground balls that Jeter had no shot at fielding. The inverse is also true. It might not be immediately obvious which strategy is superior.
Perhaps the defensive metrics of the best fielders are inflated because a random coach told them to play two feet in a different direction. In another argument, maybe the likes of Andruw Jones and Willie Mays were such dominant defensive players because they could play in a compromising position (shallow in centerfield) while having the make-up speed to catch enough balls over their heads.
Judging defense is similar to bringing a ruler to a plant measuring contest without knowing the plant that is being measured. It might be the correct tool. On the other hand, it could be the wrong tool. However, defensive metrics will (likely) improve over time.
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