During the off day before Game 5 of the World Series, Derek Jeter was asked what it was that people who haven't faced major league pitching wouldn't understand about Johnny Damon's magnificent nine-pitch at-bat the night before that helped put the Yankees on the verge of a championship. Jeter grinned and said, "Probably everything."
He quickly said, "I'm just kidding," before going on to answer the question. But kidding or not, there was a lot of truth to his initial reaction.
Baseball people love knowing that because they have spent a lifetime immersed in this sport and risen to the very heights of the profession that they have some greater understanding and appreciation of what success is, and how it's achieved. And they do. But there is no doubt that baseball has undergone, and is still in the midst of, a type of populist revolution that has made the national pastime more thought about, scrutinized and easily understood, and with more completeness, today than at any point in the game's history. The only moments left that can't be quantified are moments like the ones that Jeter was asked about: how it really feels to be 60 feet, 6 inches away from a man throwing over 90 mph and possessing a darting slider, having less than a second of reaction time and dealing with more than 40,000 screaming fans and millions watching around the world in a tie game in the ninth inning in the World Series, and still being asked to perform.
For almost everything else, there are numbers, and the more numbers there are to explain the game, the less we need -- or trust -- those in uniform when they attempt to explain their actions by using that famous maxim used by parents in every home every minute of every day: Because I said so.
Which is essentially the rationale given for the honorees of the increasing charade that is the Gold Glove awards. These remain the only major award to be voted on exclusively by managers and coaches. It makes sense, after all. Who else could be expected to properly understand the nuances of great defense -- how to correctly make the pivot on a double play, or block balls in the dirt, or take the proper angle on a long fly in the gap? That sort of reasoning held up for decades, but now as defensive statistics have arrived to shed light on what had been the last dark corner of the game, it's becoming less clear that managers and coaches are voting for Gold Gloves because they simply know better than anyone else what makes a defender great and more clear that they know less than we thought they do, and probably than they think they do. Given the mountain of data now available, this much is certainly clear: they are choosing to know less.
There is no longer any excuse for not awarding the Gold Gloves to the players who can be statistically proven as superior to their fellow players. To be sure, there are subtle nuances as to what makes a defender great, some of which may only be seen by a well-trained eye, and they should be considered, but not to the exclusion of incontrovertible data that can make a far more compelling case. The result is an alarming lack of consistency, and worse, explanation, that has rendered these awards virtually meaningless. This is a particular tragedy not only for the players who didn't win but should have, but also for many of the players who did win. Their awards can not be seen as entirely deserved when the entire process and rationale used for arriving at them is so flawed.
Below is an examination of all 18 of this year's Gold Glove winners. In some cases, the awards went to exactly the right person (take a bow, Yadier Molina). In others, they were given to one player when they could have just as easily gone to another (Jeter). And yet there remain some instances where a player is given the award with virtually no discernible reason (file your complaint here, Albert Pujols). All Plus/Minus and Runs Saved stats are courtesy of The Bill James Handbook, by Bill James and Baseball Info Solutions, while UZR statistics comes from FanGraphs.
AL winner:Joe Mauer, TwinsShould have been:Gerald Laird, Tigers
Granted, Mauer played fewer games because of an injury that kept him out until May 1, but he still finished with fewer assists (31) than every other AL backstop who was eligible. Laird, for instance, had 47 more assists in only 26 more games, while committing the same number of errors and having a better fielding percentage. Laird also caught 42 percent of would-be base stealers, the best mark in the league, while Mauer caught less than 24 percent. Laird ranked fourth in catcher's ERA, Mauer eighth, and Laird had two pickoffs (one off the league lead) and Mauer none.
NL winner:Yadier Molina, CardinalsShould have been: Molina
This was as easily a call as any position in the game. Molina had eight pickoffs, four times the next-highest catcher in the NL. He ranked second in caught stealing percentage, and tied for first in fielding percentage and fewest errors.
AL winner:Mark Teixeira, YankeesShould have been:Kendry Morales, Angels
Anyone who watched the postseason saw just how valuable Teixeira's defense was to the Yankees success this season. But it's possible that just as he was not the hitter he was all year in the playoffs, he wasn't the same fielder, either. He may have been better. During the season, he had the third-worst Ultimate Zone Rating of all AL first basemen, and fewer than half the number of assists as league leader Miguel Cabrera. A far better choice would have been the man who replaced him in Anaheim, Morales, who led the league's first basemen in UZR (4.9), double plays (141, 17 more than runner-up Cabrera), and putouts (1,274) while ranking second in range factor per game and posting an impressive .994 fielding percentage.
NL winner: Adrian Gonzalez, PadresShould have been: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
Gonzalez is a fine first baseman, but it's hard not to think that he won this award simply because Pujols finished with 13 errors, almost double Gonzalez's total in San Diego. By almost any other standard, Pujols was a superior defender. Pujols had the best Plus/Minus (good plays to bad plays) of any first baseman in the majors (his three-year total is an astounding 23 plays better than the next-highest player). He also had 49 more assists than the Gonzalez, who finished second. Pujols was a part of 140 double plays, also the best in the league. He had 1,473 putouts, nearly 100 more than runner-up Prince Fielder. According to the Web site FanGraphs, he also led by wide margins in a pair of trickier statistics called Defensive Games (defined as "The number of outs made by an average fielder at his position given the exact distribution of balls in play for that player divided by the number of outs an average player at that position makes per game.") and Expected Outs ("The number of outs plus reached base errors that would be made by an average fielder given the distribution of balls in play while that fielder was on the field."). Pujosls has rightfully earned his status as the game's best hitter, but the repeated snubs of his defense are denying him his due credit as the best all-around player in the game.
AL winner: Placido Polanco, TigersShould have been: Polanco
Polanco led the league in UZR and fielding percentage, both by healthy margins, as well as putouts/9. He was in the top three in double plays, assists, putouts, and total chances as well.
NL winner: Orlando Hudson, DodgersShould have been: Chase Utley, Phillies
You might not have known it from his shaky postseason play, but Utley was the best defensive second baseman in the league in 2009. He had easily the best UZR (10.8, 3 full points higher than Felipe Lopez), the best Range Runs Above Average, the most putouts, and the highest Plus/Minus rating. To be fair, Hudson is still a good defensive player. He's just not as good as Utley.
AL winner: Derek JeterShould have been: Jeter
Jeter's defense improved dramatically from where it has been in recent years, with his first positive Plus/Minus and UZR ratings of his career. He also led the league in fielding percentage, so he is not undeserving of his fourth Gold Glove as he may have been of his other three. But still, there were players out there who played have strong arguments, especially Elvis Andrus, the 21-year-old Rangers shortstop. Andrus finished second in the league in UZR and Plus/Minus and first in range factor per game (Jeter was last among the 10 qualifying players). Despite the subjective nature of errors, it is tough to overlook the fact that Andrus had more than twice as many errors (22) as Jeter (eight) and only one AL shortstop (Orlando Cabrera) had more.
NL winner: Jimmy Rollins, PhilliesShould have been: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
As in the AL, Rollins wasn't necessarily underwhelming this year, but he wasn't particularly overwhelming either. Like Jeter, he had the best fielding percentage in the league (.990) but that seems only to underscore the simplistic nature of the awards. Tulowitzki ranked second in the league in fielding percentage, putouts, total chances and assists, and third in double plays while finishing with a better zone rating than Rollins. What's more, Tulo finished fourth in the NL and eighth in the majors in Plus/Minus at +11.
AL winner: Evan Longoria, RaysShould have been: Chone Figgins, Angels
These two were awfully close. Their error totals (14 for Figgins, 13 for Longoria) were nearly identical, as were their fielding percentages, .970 for Longo, .968 for Figgins. Figgins led the league in assists, Longoria was second. Longoria was third, Figgins fourth, in putouts and range factor per nine. Figgins was second, Longoria third, in total chances. And according to Stats Inc., Figgins was slightly better in zone rating, leading the AL 3B at .840 compared to .831 for Longoria. The separation comes from this stat: Figgins absolutely blew away Longoria, and every other third basemen in the majors, on Plus/Minus, finishing +40. NL winner Ryan Zimmerman was second at +27, while Longoria had barely more than half, +21.
NL winner: Ryan Zimmerman, NationalsShould have been: Zimmerman
Zimmerman not only led the league in Plus/Minus, his 18.1 UZR was an astonishing 10.1 higher than runner-up Casey Blake. For good measure, he also led the league in assists and ranked second in putouts.
AL winners:Adam Jones, Torii Hunter, Ichiro SuzukiShould have been:Franklin Gutierrez, Carl Crawford, David DeJesus
There may be no worse example of the Gold Glove charade than this, where awards are often given out based on past reputation or name recognition. Hunter, while still possessing a gift for highlight reel catches, finished with a negative UZR this year. Ichiro is known for his fearsome arm, but he had nearly as many errors (four) as assists (five). Jones did lead the AL in range factor and putouts per nine, but he also had a UZR of -4.7. Meanwhile, Gutierrez led all MLB outfielders in UZR (29.8), led all AL center fielders in plus/minus (331, more than double Curtis Granderson's total of 15), and finished first in total chances, putouts and expected outs. Crawford led all left fielders in Plus/Minus while finishing third in UZR, and DeJesus was fourth in UZR, second in assists (13) and didn't commit a single error all season.
NL winners:Shane Victorino, Michael Bourn, Matt KempShould have been:Nyjer Morgan, Mike Cameron, Randy Winn
Nothing makes the Gold Gloves seem more arbitrary and ridiculous than the fact that year after year, they are awarded en masse to center fielders as though right and left fielders simply don't exist. It may have been put in place to benefit those players who frequently play multiple spots in the outfield, but if that's so, then who does Morgan complain to? Not only did Morgan produce the best UZR among all NL outfielders at 27.8, he managed to rank third in assists and range factor while committing just four assists. Even more amazingly, he ranked second in Plus/Minus in the league at both left field and center field. Not one or the other, both. He also saved more runs in left field (8) than any other player in the NL and more in center (15) than any player in the NL. It is simply stunning that he did not win a Gold Glove. The other snubs were less egregious but nonetheless notable. Cameron had the best UZR among all NL center fielders and the second-best range factor and handled the most chances, and Randy Winn didn't make a single error all season while posting a 16.5 UZR. Victorino, meanwhile, had a negative Runs Saved score, costing the Phillies six runs this year, and a negative Plus/Minus (-24, third worst in baseball), making him the only Gold Glover this season to rank in the bottom six in both of those categories in all of baseball.
AL winner: Mark Buehrle, White SoxShould have been: Buehrle
Hard to complain with a guy who led the league in total chances and assists and tied for first in double plays while making only one error winning the award. For good measure, he had the best Runs Saved score in baseball (saving 11 runs) and the best Plus/Minus (+9) as well.
NL winner:Adam Wainwright, CardinalsShould have been:Joel Pineiro, Cardinals
Among his other miraculous feats, does Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan also teach his pitchers defense? Three of the top four NL pitchers in putouts were Cardinals, with Wainwright finishing tied for first with Pineiro. Wainwright also had a 1.000 fielding percentage and finished 16th in assists with 29, but Pineiro was probably the better choice. He finished fifth in total chances per nine, led all NL pitchers in Runs Saved and tied for sixth in the majors in Plus/Minus, all while committing just a single error.