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November 6, 2008 at 1:03 PM

Rust Gloves

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It’s that time of year again, folks. Time when tradition forces me to devote precious newspaper space to some of the worst-conceived awards baseball has to offer. They call them the Gold Gloves. Might as well change the name to Rust Gloves, because once you win one, you can’t get rid of them. They stay on a player’s hand through rain, snow, sleet, hail and just plain lousy fielding. By the time you pry one off an undeserving fielder, the glove should be rusted through and through.
That’s not to say there aren’t deserving winners of the awards each year. Adrian Beltre of the Mariners was by far the best third baseman in the American League this year. And many of Ichiro’s eight consecutive Gold Gloves — a streak extended this year — were deserved. Only not the one just handed him in 2008. Sorry. My first reaction when I’d heard Ichiro won a Gold Glove this year was “Which Ichiro?” Ichiro Jones? Ichiro Smith? Ichiro Wolchowoszky? Surely not Ichiro Suzuki, the player shifted back to right field midway through the season because he looked uncomfortable, unsteady and just plain out-of-place in center.
Anyhow, this is not an anti-Ichiro rant. He’s still an above-average outfielder. He’s the second best defensive player from this year’s Mariners team. And hardly the worst transgressor when it comes to the Gold Gloves. The Gold Gloves lost me back in 1999, when Rafael Palmeiro was handed one at first base — a position he manned for all of 28 games while otherwise serving as a DH. I laughed out loud yesterday when Nate McLouth, one of the worst fielding outfielders in all of baseball, earned an NL Gold Glove. Could not believe it when Albert Pujols failed to win a Gold Glove at first base. Well, actually, I could believe it. And that’s the problem.
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For all the grief that writers and the BBWAA take for some of their year-end awards, like the Cy Young, or MVP, I still think they do the best job. Better than the fans who vote in players for the All-Star Game. And certainly better than the managers and coaches who vote on Gold Gloves … er, sorry, Rust Gloves.
You can’t blame the writers for this mess. The fact that managers and coaches get the vote here is a big indication of where the problem lies. How many of them actually have time to look at what players around the league are doing? If you let the advance scouts vote, you might be on to something. But coaches and managers? It’s got nothing to do with what happens on the field. At least, not in games where the players involved are playing somebody other than that particular voter’s team. Yes, coaches and managers can’t vote for their own guys, eliminating potential bias there. But at least they see their own guys play. Unless they happen to catch an ESPN highlight reel (which usually shows only the great plays made, not whether average ones are routinely executed) they have no idea how good a particular player is at fielding on a day-to-day basis. They don’t have the time to watch every game. Few of them even know about advanced defensive metrics being improved upon each year.
So, they vote on reputation. What that means is, when a guy is actually deserving of a Rust Glove for the first time, he has to wait until the next year. That’s when word gets around the grapevine that, “Hey, that dude is pretty good, watch him the next time he plays your team.”
In Toronto, I watched Orlando Hudson and Vernon Wells both get robbed of Rust Gloves when they had dominated their positions defensively. The good news for them was, the robbery only occurs on the front end. When all is said and done, those who finally do collect the honor will keep on getting it for years to come — sometimes several years after they’ve stopped being deserving.
At least with Hudson, NL voters got it right this year by not continuing his streak in a down season, defensively, for him before his season-ending injury.
Also, a guy doesn’t even have to have the best glove out there to win a Rust Glove year after year. Sometimes, a great bat and adequate glove will do. Worked for Derek Jeter three straight years as he swung his way to the honor earlier this decade. It appears to have worked for Michael Young of the Texas Rangers this season. Didn’t hurt Palmeiro back in 1999.
So, do I have a better idea than to keep handing these things out? First off, this is baseball tradition, so make no mistake, they will keep handing out Rust Gloves no matter what I have to write or say about it. But I did offer up an alternative to you just last week.
For me, The Fielding Bible Awards, now in their third year, are a lot more legitimate in process and result. They employ a 10-person panel, which includes sabermetric guru Bill James and The Fielding Bible author John Dewan. It was Dewan who invented the plus-minus system of measuring defense. When a fielder makes a play that at least one other player at his position missed during the year, he gets a plus. When he misses a play that at least one other player made, he gets a minus. At the end of the year, a zero score is an average fielder. Anything on the plus side is above average. On the minus side, it’s below average. Raul Ibanez scored a minus-18 as a left fielder. But if you think that’s bad, consider the minus-40 earned by “Rust Glover” McLouth. Plus-minus is not a perfect system, granted. No defensive metrics system is. But it’s a heck of a lot better than what goes into Rust Gloves voting.
And in this case, it’s not all about the numbers. The reason for the 10-member panel — on which Mariners statistical consultant Mat Olkin also had a vote — was to get some human subjectivity involved, to look for the intangibles. I like it. I also like the results. Unlike the Rust Gloves, The Fielding Bible Awards go to only one player at each position. Not one for each league. In Beltre’s case, he was the runaway winner at third base among voters.
Ichiro finished fourth in Fielding Bible voting for MLB right fielders. He also trailed two AL right fielders, Nick Markakis of the Orioles and Denard Span of the Twins. That’s merely right fielders. Today’s Rust Glove says that Ichiro is one of the top three outfielders in the AL. Sorry, not buying it. He may have come close. As I said, he’s still an above average outfielder. He isn’t making a mockery of the awards the way the Palmeiro selection did. Or the selections of McLouth, or Young, this year.
The players themselves actually do take these things seriously. And why not? At worst, they’re sort of like a Lifetime Achievement Award. You usually do have to have a pretty good body of work in some aspect of the game, usually hitting or fielding, to qualify for one. It’s just not packaged right. If you packaged it as a Pretty Good Hitting, Decent Fielding Player, For Many Years Award, it might be more accurate. But instead, it’s been packaged as an award for the best fielding players each year. And that’s not happening here, in a lot of cases.
If I’m to believe the Rust Glove results, the Mariners, with two selections at nine positions, were one of the best defensive teams out there. After all, they were the only AL team with two winners.
Well, I just can’t agree.
As long as I have to keep reporting on these results each year, I’m going to keep questioning them until someone comes up with a better way.



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