Awards Watch: Alex Gordon, Yadier Molina among Gold Glove winners
The winners of the Rawlings Gold Glove awards were announced Tuesday night, with six first-time winners and four players who won their first Gold Glove last year among the 18 recipients. Overall, this year's winners are a deserving group led by some of the game's top fielders, including Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons and rightfielder Jason Heyward (both second-time winners, with Simmons winning for the second consecutive year); Mets centerfielder Juan Lagares, a first-time winner; Royals leftfielder Alex Gordon, who won his fourth in a row; and, of course, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who won his seventh in a row, tying him with Bob Boone for third-most ever by a catcher.
However, there was one selection that struck me as particularly egregious, made all the more so by the fact that this marks the third straight year and fourth overall that this player has won a Gold Glove, none of which I believe he deserved. That player is the Orioles' Adam Jones, who was judged the best centerfielder in the American League.
The AL's centerfield award was already controversial because of the exclusion of Lorenzo Cain. His fielding prowess was given a spotlight in the postseason, and the advanced metrics agree that he was among the best defenders in the game during the regular season. But Cain was not eligible because he played too small a portion of his total innings at a single position, a recent rule change that cost him an award shot.
From 1957 through 2010, Gold Gloves were given to three outfielders in each league regardless of specific position. However, in 2011, concerned that centerfielders were dominating the outfield awards, Rawlings instituted new rules requiring one winner at each outfield position. Eligibility at a given position is a rather complex matter that, among other things*, requires an outfielder to have played 75 percent or more of his total innings in the field at a single position.
Cain played just 65 percent of his innings in center this year because the Royals had an inferior rightfielder in Nori Aoki and a fourth outfielder in Jarrod Dyson who, remarkably, was as good if not better than Cain. Dyson was eligible for the Gold Glove in centerfield this year, but was also passed over, likely due to his low overall innings total. Cain and Dyson both played roughly 700 innings in center (723 1/3 for Cain, 678 1/3 for Dyson) this past season; Jones played nearly twice as many innings (1,368 1/3) at the position. On that basis, one can understand how Cain got passed over, even if it remains absurd for one of the game's top fielders to go without a Gold Glove.
Even with Cain out of the picture on a technicality and Dyson having played fewer than half as many innings in center as Jones, Jones was still not the most deserving centerfielder in the American League. Boston's Jackie Bradley Jr., who was a finalist, and the Rangers' Leonys Martin, who was not, were both far superior. Bradley played just 949 innings in center because he couldn't hit well enough to hold the Red Sox's starting job, but Martin played 1,247 1/3 innings in center, 91 percent of Jones' total. Here's how Martin compared to Jones in the three major advanced metrics: Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating and Fielding Runs Above Average, all of which, it should be noted, are cumulative statistics:
I'm the first to admit that our current slate of defensive statistics amount to little more than educated guesses as to the quality of an individual player's fielding, but I have more confidence in those metrics, formulated by extremely intelligent baseball fans and based in objective fact, than I do in the subjective observations of even the game's best managers and coaches (whose opinions comprise 75 percent of the Gold Glove voting). Even if observation were a reliable method of judgment, which proper understanding of human brain function will tell you it is not, it is simply impossible for a manager or coach to observe a player on any of the other 29 teams enough over the course of a 162-game season to offer such a judgment. With that in mind, only UZR has Jones within striking distance of Martin, while FRAA suggests Jones actually cost the Orioles nearly a run on defense relative to an average centerfielder.
Here are Jones' four Gold Glove seasons according to those three statistics along with his average runs saved according to the three measures for each season:
Fortunately, erroneous picks such as Jones have become the exception more than the rule for the Gold Gloves over the last two years. Long derided by those, myself included, who believed this award for the best fielder at each position in each league was as often based as much on reputation and offensive production as fielding performance (my colleague Jay Jaffe said it best, dubbing them the "Fielding Grammys" in 2006), the Gold Gloves took a positive step forward last year, incorporating defensive statistics in the selection process (they comprise the other 25 percent of the voting).
The result was a collection of winners that, while not perfect, certainly improved upon the award's success rate in identifying the game's best fielders, a rate of success that remains high this year. As unreliable as defensive metrics may be, demonstrated by the inconsistency among the three used above, casting a wider net and drawing on larger samples can filter out some of the noise to at least give us an idea of which players are above, below or merely average in the field. In his four Gold Glove seasons combined, Jones has graded out as just 3.3 runs above average by FRAA, 12 runs below average by UZR and 14 runs below average by DRS, the mean of those three totals being eight runs below average across three metrics and four seasons.
Among the six first-time winners, Lagares, Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu, Marlins leftfielder Christian Yelich and Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel are all deserving winners. Clayton Kershaw may have been more deserving of the NL's pitching award than his teammate and first-time winner Zack Greinke, but Greinke was hardly a poor choice at a position at which the award is based upon a perilously small sample of fielding plays. Similarly, while the Athletics' Josh Donaldson was more deserving of the AL's third base award than the Mariners' Kyle Seager (Donaldson appeared to express his surprise over the loss on Twitter), Seager is at least an outstanding defender, something that can't be objectively said about Jones.
Repeat winners Simmons, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer and catcher Salvador Perez, each of whom won for the first time last year, were deserving. Emerging institutions J.J. Hardy, who won the AL shortstop award for the third year in a row, and Gordon, who won for the fourth year in a row, were also deserving, as were Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez, both of whom joined Gordon and Jones in winning their fourth Gold Gloves.
For Pedroia, that fourth award was his second in a row. For Gonzalez, it was his first since 2011, giving him the largest gap between wins among this year's recipients, one matched by Orioles rightfielder Nick Markakis, a questionable, but not objectionable selection,given that the best defensive rightfielder in the AL this year, the Rays' Kevin Kiermaier, played just 526 1/3 innings at the position, just 40 percent of Markakis' total.
Gonzalez, Pedroia, Simmons, Gordon, Lagares, Heyward and Keuchel were also winners of this year's Fielding Bible Awards, which name the top player at each position across both leagues, while LeMahieu, Hardy, Arenado, Yelich and Perez all finished tops among those at their position in their league in the Fielding Bible voting. Molina was a close third among all catchers (behind Jonathan Lucroy and Russell Martin), likely due to the time he missed to a torn thumb ligament. The Fielding Bible awards, incidentally, added a multi-position award this year in which Cain just edged out Ben Zobrist, a player whose versatility has likely cost him multiple Gold Gloves over the years.
Here is the full list of Gold Glove winners, with career totals in parentheses and first-timers in italics:
AL – Eric Hosmer (2)
NL – Adrian Gonzalez (4)
AL – Dustin Pedroia (4)
NL – D.J. LeMahieu
AL – J.J. Hardy (3)
NL – Andrelton Simmons (2)
AL – Kyle Seager
NL – Nolan Arenado (2)
AL – Salvador Perez (2)
NL – Yadier Molina (7)
AL – Alex Gordon (4)
NL – Christian Yelich
AL – Adam Jones (4)
NL – Juan Lagares
AL – Nick Markakis (2)
NL – Jason Heyward (2)
AL – Dallas Keuchel
NL – Zack Grienke
*It's actually more complex than that. Here are the relevant portions of the rule: "All infielders and outfielders must have played in at least 55 percent of his team's games by his team's 128th game ... Outfielders with more than 55 percent of total games played but without 55 percent at one specific outfield position qualify at the specific outfield position where he played the most innings if he played a minimum of 75 percent of his total innings." Dyson appeared in centerfield in 53 percent of the Royals' first 128 games and played fewer than 68 percent of his total innings in center to that point in the season.