It’s awards season for baseball. As usual, it starts with the release of the Gold Glove Award winners from each league. Which always begs some questions. How exactly do you decide who the best defensive player at each position is? What makes the best defender better than the second best defender? Do you use stats? Are there any good defensive stats? Is it something that you can see if you watch games? Do you need to see a lot of games? Is it just guesswork? Is it just something that Rawlings uses as a publicity stunt, and we shouldn’t put too much stock into it? In order, I’ll go something like this: I don’t know, I don’t know, maybe, no, maybe, yes, yes, absolutely.
Greg Maddux won his record 18th Gold Glove this season. What exactly makes a good fielding pitcher? They only get into 30ish games a year. They might make 20 or 30 total fielding plays in a season. Is there something that you can see in those kind of numbers that makes one better than another? Maddux doesn’t strike a lot of guys out. Wouldn’t that give him more opportunities to make plays, since more of his outs would be made in the field? Does Maddux get more easy come backers than other pitchers? Does that make him a better fielder?
What about the other positions? How about catcher? Jason Varitek keeps getting the reputation as an amazing defensive catcher, just not at the kind of things that show up in stats. But, which stats do we look at for a catcher? Putouts? Isn’t that mostly the number of strikeouts a pitcher has while the catcher catches? So, because Tek catches Beckett and Dice-K, he’s a better defender? How about assists? Aren’t those just dribblers in front of the mound and caught stealings? Is that the catcher’s defense that causes those?
How about the outfield? Think about how many plays an outfielder makes during a game. Last year, Coco Crisp, a great outfielder, played 144 games, made 1 error, 408 putouts, and 7 assists. Last year JD Drew, an average outfielder, played 135 games, made 6 errors, 224 putouts, and 3 assists Last year, Manny Ramirez, a poor outfielder, played 120 games, made 2 errors, 182 putouts, and 8 assists. So, Coco got to about 2.9 balls per game, JD 1.7, while Manny got to 1.6. Obviously, Coco’s speed lets him get to more balls. That certainly implies he’s a better defender. But, even though it’s twice as many…it’s about 1 per game that he’s better. So, in a given game the best outfielder on the Sox might get to one or two more balls than the worst outfielder? Is that significant? How often does the CF call off the LF and RF just because that’s the way it works. What if balls hit to left and right center were divided equally? How many plays that are made by a Gold Glove outfielder plays that at least half of the outfielders in the league would make?
Where am I going with all this? I’m not sure. I’m not saying that there aren’t good defenders and bad defenders. It’s just not the type of thing you can easily determine. You could look at stats, but you’d need mountains of stats. Does a shortstop get more assists because he plays behind groundball pitchers? How long is the infield grass? How good are the defenders next to him? What does the ballpark look like? You could be there forever. You’d need to be Bill James to really figure it out. You could try to do it by watching too. But, you’d have to watch them a lot. You’d need to be able to see if they make running catches because they cover a lot of ground, or because they run the wrong way for the first few steps. You’d need to develop an expectation of the fielder. Braves pitchers used to say they wouldn’t turn around to watch balls hit to centerfield because they assumed Andruw Jones had it. I’d say that makes him a good defender. But, where does that show up in a stat? In reality, the top ten defenders at each position are probably indistinguishable. So, they can give out awards if they want. Just don’t think a guy with two Gold Gloves is better than somebody with one. It’s just not that clear cut.
It’s a good marketing ploy by Rawlings though.
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