Defense in baseball has always been hard to measure. It is impossible to simply use your eyes: over the course of a 162-game season, nobody will remember every mistake and great play made by every fielder. Using human-decided stats, like errors, are subjective and punishes players for having great range. So, baseball statisticians have created three modern metrics that are supposed to be trustworthy for defensive purposes: ultimate zone rating (UZR), defensive runs saved (DRS), and outs above average (OAA). All three of these stats use data and algorithms to determine how effective fielders are. It seems like a great solution until those three heralded defensive metrics disagree. For example, Dansby Swanson, who leads all fielders with 6 OAA this year, only has 0.2 UZR. Which stat is incorrect?
To best determine who is ahead in the gold glove list, we will look at all three of the aforementioned stats: UZR, DRS, and OAA to get a reliable estimate of defensive performance. Note that these are not predictions, but rather determining who would receive the award if the season ended today.
AL Winner: Carlos Santana, Kansas City Royals
Since 2015, Santana has always been regarded as an above-average fielder at first base, and thus far, this year is no exception. Among qualified fielders, Santana is second in defensive runs saved, first in ultimate zone rating, and tied for first in outs above average. By traditional metrics, Santana is also solid, having only one error and a fielding percentage of .993. While Santana has won the Wilson Defender of the Year Award, this year could be his first-ever gold glove.
NL Winner: Christian Walker, Arizona Diamondbacks
Walker has been a steady defender since moving to first base full time in 2019, becoming a gold-glove finalist in his first full year at the position. This year, he has already accumulated 4 DRS in only 189 innings. Along with positive UZR and OAA numbers, Walker is on track to earn his first gold glove.
AL Winner: Jonathan Schoop, Detroit Tigers
Schoop is known more for his positional versatility than his exceptional defense, but he is off to an excellent start to 2022 on defense. Schoop has already earned 5 outs above average, which is the second-most among all fielders. By Fangraphs defensive WAR metric, Schoop is tied for third with already 4 wins. Schoop was a finalist for a gold glove award in 2020, but he is on pace to run away with the award this year.
NL Winner: Tommy Edman, St. Louis Cardinals
The 2021 gold glove winner looks set to win back-to-back gold gloves. Edman has already surpassed his defensive runs saved total from last year, as he leads the league with 7 DRS. With above-average UZR and OAA totals as well, the only thing stopping Edman from another award is himself. In 2021, Edman logged 310.1 innings outside of second base, filling in either the outfield or shortstop. With top second-base prospect Nolan Gorman set to get called up any day now, Edman may end up having to move from second base.
AL Winner: Jeremy Peña, Houston Astros
After Carlos Correa left in the offseason, it appeared the Astros would have a huge defensive hole at the most important position on the diamond. But thus far, the rookie Peña has outshined the platinum-glove winner in every way, including on defense. Peña has 4 OAA and 4 DRS, topping the lists of both stats and showing impressive range for someone who just made their major league debut.
However, Peña does not appear set to run away with the award. He has already made 4 errors, and his -1.1 UZR is one of the worst among qualified shortstops. If Peña wants to come away with the hardware at the end of the year, he will have to keep his mistakes to a minimum.
NL Winner: Miguel Rojas, Miami Marlins
Dansby Swanson’s eye-popping 6 OAA has made headlines, but another NL East shortstop is flying under the radar. A 2020 gold-glove finalist, Rojas has 2 DRS, 2 UZR, 2 OAA, and no errors, a consistency that is hard to see this early in the season. Playing behind a Marlins pitching staff that generates a lot of ground balls, Rojas should have lots of chances to prove himself this year.
AL Winner: Bobby Witt Jr., Kansas City Royals
Although Witt has gotten off to a slow start at the plate early in his MLB career, the top shortstop prospect has impressed so far at third base. Witt has 3 DRS and 2 OAA to lead all American League third baseman and has made the transition to the hot corner seamlessly. With Adalberto Mondesí out for the season with a torn ACL, he may end up moving to shortstop. However, until then, Witt looks prepared to beat out historically great defenders Matt Chapman and José Ramirez for the gold glove.
NL Winner: Manny Machado, San Diego Padres
With Machado, Nolan Arenado, and now Ke’Bryan Hayes all playing the third base position in the NL, this gold glove race is always among the best in the league. This year, all three are off to great starts and deserving of the award, but Machado has been on another level. The two-time Gold Glove winner has 5 OAA and 4 DRS to go along with 0 errors. Machado’s exceptional arm along with range that can cover the entire outfield in the shift serves as a strong gold-glove combination.
AL Winner: Steven Kwan, Cleveland Guardians
Kwan’s remarkable start to the year offensively generated headlines, but the rookie has also been excellent defensively. Driven by a 78th percentile sprint speed, Kwan leads all left-fielders in DRS, OAA, and UZR, making him an easy choice early on.
NL Winner: Ian Happ, Chicago Cubs
Ian Happ is not traditionally known for his defense. He is not remarkably fast and has historically lost playing time for defensive replacements. But amazingly, Happ has been great defensively to start this year. Led by an outfield jump in the 78th percentile, Happ has 4 DRS/1 OAA/2.3 UZR, clearly earning him the National League spot. Will he be able to keep it up? That’s something to look at for the rest of this year.
AL Winner: Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
Center field is a position with so many great athletes and defenders that picking a gold glove winner can seem impossible. However, Byron Buxton is about as safe a bet as they come. The former gold-glove winner is one of the fastest players in the league, and consistently has the best defensive stats when he can stay on the field. Buxton has only played 98 innings at the position so far this season but has already produced 1 DRS, 2.4 UZR, and 2 OAA. Given his amazing defensive pedigree, it is hard to see anyone taking the award from Buxton if he stays healthy.
NL Winner: Daulton Varsho, Arizona Diamondbacks
Varsho, a converted catcher playing primarily outfield for the first time, is not who you would expect to win a gold glove at a position like center field. But this is clearly no fluke. After a 2021 season in which Varsho put up 4 DRS/5.1 UZR/4 OAA playing part-time in the outfield, Varsho already has 3 OAA and 1.6 UZR to start the year. With an outfielder jump in the 97th percentile, nobody should be surprised to see Varsho blossom into the next defensive superstar in center.
AL Winner: Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox
Usually placed in center field, JBJ was moved to right-field this year because Kiké Hernandez was so successful in center field last season. The change in position has not seemed to bother the former gold glove winner, as Bradley is covering the largest right field in the league with ease. Thus far, Bradley has 4 DRS and 3 OAA, with a jump in the 85th percentile. If his bat is good enough to keep him in the lineup, Bradley should end up with the hardware at the end of the season.
NL Winner: Avisail Garcia, Miami Marlins
6’4″, 250-pound outfielders are usually considered more defensive liabilities than great outfielders. Historically, Avisail Garcia has not been the exception to that rule. Before this year, Garcia only had one other season in his 11-year career where his defensive stats were above average in all three major metrics (OAA was not introduced until 2015, so it was really two for the first few years). However, with above-average speed and a solid jump in the outfield, Garcia already has 3 DRS, 2 OAA, and 3.3 UZR. It will be interesting to see if he can keep it up.
AL Winner: Jose Trevino, New York Yankees
Widely known as one of the best at stealing strikes in the game, Trevino has had another excellent framing season, with 1.3 framing runs thus far. Despite only catching 1,375 pitches so far this season (92.2 innings), Trevino is second among catchers in Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA).
NL Winner: Joey Bart, San Francisco Giants
The Giants have moved from one great catcher to the next, with Bart leading all catchers in FRAA at 1.9. Baseball Prospectus has him saving 1.6 runs with his framing alone, and it is no secret that he is one of the reasons the Giants pitching staff has been so effective this year.
AL Winner: Joe Ryan, Minnesota Twins
Ryan is off to an incredible start in multiple ways this season, posting a 1.63 ERA over 27.2 innings along with 2 DRS. He is becoming a breakout star and may take home more than one award this season.
NL Winner: Zach Eflin, Philadelphia Phillies
Eflin’s peripherals have been much better than his results this season, but he is not letting himself down with his own defense. Eflin already has 2 DRS in 24 innings and should provide himself plenty of opportunities with a 45% ground ball rate.
Small sample sizes are subject to outliers, and defense is no exception. As we get later into the season, you should expect more familiar names to take over gold glove lists.
Yet, April can also be the start of a breakout year. Many of these players have been finalists in the past, but are still looking for their first gold glove. Will rookies like Bobby Witt Jr. and Steven Kwan hang on, or will more established defenders take over in the coming months?
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