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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

October 30, 2012 at 10:52 PM

Best indicator of 2012 Gold Gloves: Home runs

(UPDATE 10:30 A.M.: Andrew W. Nutting, associate professor of economics at the University of Idaho’s College of Business and Economics, read this blog post and sent me a link to an unpublished paper he wrote in 2004 while a Ph.D candidate in labor economics at Cornell, in which he analyzed what factors determine the Gold Gloves. There’s a lot of arcane methodology in here (arcane to me, anyway), but his bottom-line conclusion, after conducting a lot of research and analyzing the data, is that offense does indeed matter when it comes to awarding Gold Gloves.)

Geoff has the gory details of the Gold Glove results announced tonight, and how both Mariners finalists — Brendan Ryan and Dustin Ackley — got aced out.

I don’t think many people thought Ackley was going to win this year, but my sense is that Ryan losing the shortstop bid to J.J. Hardy will be regarded by many, particularly the sabermetric community, as the biggest snub of the proceedings (or the second-biggest, after Mike Trout). No knock on Hardy — he’s an outstanding shortstop. But I believe Ryan was demonstrably the best fielding shortstop in the league this year, based on statistics (the advance fielding metrics, anyway; Hardy had a better fielding percentage and fewer errors than Ryan) and based on the eye test. The Fielding Bible people just two days earlier had him ranked as the No. 1 defensive player in baseball, regardless of position, with this comment:

“Brendan Ryan is the best defender in baseball. Period. Make that double period. His has saved 67 runs for his teams defensively over the last three years, the highest total among all players. The next highest runs saved total is not even close (Michael Bourn, 51).

“Ryan led all shortstops in 2012 with 27 runs saved, led in 2011 with 18, and finished second in both 2010 and 2009 with 22 runs saved each year. Seattle recognizes the value of Ryan’s defense, and that’s why they keep putting him out there day after day despite his .194 batting average during the 2012 season. It will be interesting to see if the American League coaches and managers, who vote for the GoldGlove Awards, can look past Ryan’s offense and base their ballot on his defense alone. This has been one of the problems with the Gold Glove voting–a certain amount of offense has always been required for what should be a defense-only award. Gold Glove voting has never allowed for a position player hitting below the Mendoza line to win a Gold Glove. Hopefully Ryan will be the first.”

Remember, the Gold Gloves are voted on by coaches and managers in each league, who can’t vote for their own players. It’s long been thought, as mentioned in that comment, that the voters, perhaps unintentionally or sub-consciously, tend to favor the better offensive players. That would certainly work to the detriment of Ryan, who hit just .194 with three homers. Here’s what I wrote about Gold Glove voting in a 2009 blog post:

Just as an aside, I was a Sporting News correspondent for several years in the 1990s when that publication sponsored the Gold Glove awards. It was the job of each correspondent to gather the votes of the coaches and manager of the team he covered — in my case, the San Francisco Giants.

Let’s just say I wasn’t impressed with the depth of knowledge of the coaches when it came to evaluating the candidates and coming to a conclusion. They’d pretty much blurt out the name of a guy that they remembered as making some good plays against them (often asking a fellow coach what he thought, and coming to a consensus opinion that way), or pick the player that had the reputation as being the best at his position, even if that reputation was no longer deserved. I’m pretty sure my team wasn’t the only one that operated this way, which explains how Rafael Palmeiro was voted Gold Glove first baseman in 1999 despite playing just 28 games at first base. Reputation and name recognition played a huge role in the voting, as I saw it first-hand. Maybe things have gotten better since then.

I’m not so sure. I just did a research project where I looked at the home-run totals for the finalists at each position in both leagues figuring that would be a basic eye-catching statistic, maybe even subliminally, for a voter. In 11 out of the 16 positions (not counting pitchers), the finalist with the most home runs won the Gold Glove. Perhaps even more tellingly, only one time out of 16 did the finalist with the fewest homers take home a Gold Glove. That was Cubs’ second baseman Darwin Barney, who had seven homers, compared to 26 for Aaron Hill and 18 for Brandon Phillips. But Barney got a lot of publicity for tying the major-league record for second basemen with 141 consecutive errorless games, which apparently trumped his lack of power.

Then I looked at OPS, a good all-around barometer of hitting prowess. The OPS leader among the finalists at each position took home four Gold Gloves out of 16 — not an overwhelming total. But again, the weakest hitter among the finalists was largely out of luck. The only winners to fit that bill were Barney again, AL center fielder Adam Jones (hardly a slouch with his .839 OPS), and NL third baseman Chase Headley (again, hardly a light hitter with his 31 homers and league-leading 115 RBIs; Headley just happened to be at a position that featured Aramis Ramirez and his .901 OPS, and David Wright at .883. Headley came in just behind at .875.

The one puzzle for me was the omission of Trout, who had a huge offensive season and also received a lot of positive attention for his defense (including frequent “Web Gem” appearances). It’s either a testament to the prowess and reputation of Jones (who beat out Austin Jackson in addition to Trout), or perhaps a backlash against the Trout hype machine. Or both.

Let me stress again that Hardy — who hit 22 homers to go with a .238 average — is not an embarrassing choice or anything like that. In fact, his supporters can make a case for him based on his six errors (to nine for Ryan), 779 chances (to 601 for Ryan), 529 assists (to 396 for Ryan), and .992 fielding percentage (to .985 for Ryan). Hardy also played in 158 games for a playoff team, while Ryan appeared in 138 for a last-place team (which explains the difference in chances and assists; Ryan played 269 fewer innings than Hardy). I just think Ryan was better, and the advanced metrics agree.

I’m not saying that the best hitter can’t also be the best fielder, either. To a certain extent, it stands to reason that the athleticism and hand-eye coordination it takes to be a great fielder would also serve you well at the plate. But I’d say the circumstantial evidence borne out over the years, is that there is a certain prejudice against weaker hitters when it comes to this fielding award.

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