Advanced statistics confirm some contradict many Gold Glove picks
In the 2010 season the left side of the Yankees' infield -- future Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez -- seemed to have as much defensive range as a pair of statues, forming a new rendition of Monument Park.
Yet on Tuesday Jeter received the American League's shortstop Gold Glove, awarded annually to the best defender at each position, as voted on by league managers and coaches. While his six errors were the fewest among AL shortstops who started at least 50 games or played 400 innings at the position -- Jeter started 150 games and played 1,303 2/3 innings there -- being sure-handed should not be the only statistic taken into consideration.
Jeter's range has diminished from his prime -- and compared to his peers. That means he reached fewer groundballs in 2010, and thus had fewer chances to make errors. But it also meant he saved fewer hits and runs. As a result of his and Rodriguez's reduced range, Yankees' pitchers allowed the second-highest batting average on groundballs of any AL staff.
The National League equivalent seems to be the Gold Glove given to Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. That award, announced Wednesday, went to an up-and-coming offensive superstar who was given the difficult task of playing all three outfield positions and excelled at only one of them.
Today, new statistics beyond the simplistic count of errors and measure of fielding percentage tell a more complete story of a player's defensive abilities. The two most commonly cited advanced defensive metrics are the Ultimate Zone Rating, devised by statistician Michtel Licthman and publicly available on FanGraphs.com, and The Fielding Bible's Plus/Minus, invented by John Dewan and available behind a pay wall on BillJamesOnline.net.
Jeter's advanced defensive ratings were both decidedly subpar: a -4.7 UZR and -17 Plus/Minus score and well behind the AL leader in both, Chicago's Alexei Ramirez, who had a 10.8 UZR and a +20 Plus/Minus. Colorado's Gonzalez was more than capable in left field, where he had a 3.6 UZR in only 51 starts, but he had a negative score at the other two positions, ratings that mirror his Plus/Minus results.
So it seems that Jeter's Gold Glove, the fifth of his career, was awarded more on reputation than empirical evidence. Like an elected politician, being the incumbent has the advantage of inertia. While some Gold Glove mainstays -- such as the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki, who won for a 10th straight season -- remain deserving year after year, the award voters made some mistakes. Let's take a look at those who won and those who should have.
The advanced defensive metrics -- of which a key component is range, a mostly irrelevant stat for catchers except when fielding bunts -- don't pertain to the backstops. Two other stats, caught-stealing percentage and pitchers' ERA, are imperfect because of their reliance on the other half of the battery. That said, it's the best we can go on, and Mauer had the second-best ERA behind the plate, had a middle-of-the-pack CS% and had among the fewest passed balls among regulars with four. He was also behind the plate for the fewest wild pitches among catchers with 750 innings played, suggesting he probably saved his pitchers a few times with some tough stops.
Molina ranked second in pitchers' ERA (3.23) and first in CS%, catching 49 percent of all runners on the basepaths. He also logged the most innings of any NL backstop with 1,138. A case could be also be made for San Diego's Yorvit Torrealba, who ranked first in pitchers' ERA (3.14) but whose CS% was a little below league average.
Barton completely annihilates the competition in both UZR and Plus/Minus. In UZR his 12.1 rating is 12 runs better than Toronto's Lyle Overbay, who finished in second with a 0.1. In Plus/Minus Barton's +27 was 15 points higher than the second-place tie between Overbay and Minnesota's Justin Morneau, who managed his +12 in half of a season.
Incidentally, there does seem to be more inconsistency with the advanced metrics at first base than other positions, as Teixeira has been outstanding (a UZR of 10 or higher) in three of his eight seasons (2003, '04 and '08) and either average or subpar in his other five (UZRs between -2.9 and 3.3).
Again, the numbers are convincing at first base. Davis' 10.1 UZR and +14 Plus/Minus are both double the second-place finishers, the Diamondbacks' Adam LaRoche in UZR (5.2) and Pujols and the Giants' Aubrey Huff in Plus/Minus (+6). Davis certainly established himself in his rookie season, proving more than capable on scooping throws and making more than a few highlight reels with his dangling-over-the-dugout-rail foul catches. But he lacked Pujols' name recognition.
Both metrics agree that Hudson was an elite fielder: his +22 was tops among AL second baseman and his 9.8 UZR was just 0.1 behind Ellis, whose +8 Plus/Minus was tied for fifth. Cano was eighth in Plus/Minus with a +7 and actually rated below average in UZR with a -0.6. Hudson already has four Gold Gloves to his name, winning in both leagues and with three teams: 2005 with the Blue Jays, '06 and '07 with the Diamondbacks and '09 with the Dodgers.
It's Utley in a landslide, which is impressive given that he only played 114 games at second base because of a thumb injury. But his UZR of 10.3 was a hair better than the Reds' Brandon Phillips at 9.7, and Utley's Plus/Minus of +16 blew out the NL competition, as second place went to teammate Placido Polanco, who accrued a +6 after playing only 12 games at second. Phillips had a +3.
The voters may have chosen Phillips for reputation -- he had outstanding defensive seasons in '0 and '08, including a Gold Glove in '08 -- and for his overall body of work. He started 151 games at second base this year, 37 more than Utley.
Ramirez, as noted above, had the best scores among all AL shortstops. Toronto's Yunel Escobar actually had the best overall Plus/Minus (+22), but he started the year with the NL's Braves before getting traded. Oakland's Cliff Pennington was second in UZR (9.9) and tied for third in Plus/Minus (+10).
Tulowitzki is, of course, the All-Star who had a monstrous September offensively, but Ryan was the statistically better shortstop who played 139 games (and started 124) entirely because of his glove. Ryan, after all, had an OBP and a slugging percentage below .300. Ryan led the NL (and, incidentally, the majors) in both UZR with a score of 11.5 and Plus/Minus with a +31.
Tulowitzki, who played (and started) only 122 games because of a broken wrist, had a great defensive season as well -- ranking third in UZR (7.1, trailing second-place Stephen Drew of Arizona at 8.7) and second in Plus/Minus with a +16 -- but didn't quite match Ryan. While Utley may have been penalized for missing time at second base, Tulowitzki was not similarly hampered.
It'd be hard to go wrong with Kouzmanoff, Lopez or Longoria, as all three ranked in the top four of both advanced metrics. Kouzmanoff was first in UZR (16.1) and second in Plus/Minus (+20); Lopez, the converted second baseman, was first in Plus/Minus (+25) and fourth in UZR (8.1); Longoria was third in both, with an 11.1 UZR and +17 Plus/Minus.
The metrics pick Headley -- but only by a hair over the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman. Headley finished first in both (16.5 and +25) by slim margins over Zimmerman (13.9, +24). Rolen was third in the NL in UZR (10.6) but far down the Plus/Minus list at +3. But he had won seven previous Gold Gloves and in his prime was one of the all-time great fielding third basemen.
The Gold Glove voters got this one right. Crawford was in the top three of both metrics (18.5 UZR and +22); Ichiro ranked in the top three of UZR (15.6) and was the top-rated rightfielder in Plus/Minus (+15); and Gutierrez was third in Plus/Minus (+20) and seventh in UZR (7.3), but it was also a miscarriage of justice that Gutierrez did not win one in 2009,when he lapped the field by both metrics -- his +45 was 29 points higher than any other AL center fielder and his 31.0 UZR was nearly 11 points higher than the AL runner-up. Thus, he gets my subjective tiebreaker.
For the record, Jackson, who led in Plus/Minus (+33), ranked ninth in UZR (5.4). Gardner, who led in UZR (21.9), had a mere +9 Plus/Minus rating.
While the Reds may have received two Gold Gloves they shouldn't have at second base and third base, they were snubbed in the outfield. Bruce was a superior defender all year along -- except for one memorable gaffe in the postseason, but votes are due before the playoffs begin,so his costly NLDS Game 2 error against the Phillies didn't hurt. He had a 20.2 UZR and a +25. The Phillies' Victorino had a 2.6 and a +3 but won his third straight Gold Glove.
The other outfielder with a gripe was Torres, who, like Gonzalez, rotated through three spots. But while Torres excelled at all three with a UZR of at least 6.3 and a Plus/Minus of +6 at each -- for combined scores of 21.2 and +20 -- Gonzalez was only good in leftfield. He had combined scores of -2.7 and -5 for his play in all three outfield spots.
Bourn's second Gold Glove was well deserved, as he led all NL center fielders with a 17.6 UZR and +23 Plus/Minus.
The advanced metrics again fail to shed light on a pitchers' defensive performance, meaning Buehrle won because of his reputation (he already had one Gold Glove) and his
Dickey fielded the third-most chances of NL pitchers (61) and fielded the most without committing an error. He started four double plays, which ranked tied for third; he picked one runner off; and he had the added degree of difficulty associated with throwing knuckleballs to home plate and fastballs to the bases.
Arroyo was also a very good choice. He didn't make an error in 49 chances and started five double plays.