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Gold Gloves controversial again

11/2/2011

If you’re a stathead or even remotely sabermetrically inclined, the announcement of the Gold Gloves might be an annual exercise in controversy. Certainly, after the selections were announced there was plenty of outrage expressed on Twitter from the thoughtful, the snarky and the easily outraged.

The inference of peerless excellence attached to the awards might annoy analysts with low boiling points, not to mention those who assume a measure of certainty from available defensive metrics. A lot of the upset rests on who hands out the trophies. The electorate’s made up of major league coaches and managers, operating only with a prohibition against voting for their own current players. It’s a setup that has produced its share of unfortunate or flat-out indefensible selections; the low-water mark was set by Rafael Palmeiro at first base in 1999 for 28 games spent loitering there when he wasn’t DHing.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a publicly available defensive metric that deserves that degree of confidence, although that isn’t going to stop people from taking suggestions with numbers attached to them at face value and turning the Gold Gloves into an exercise in feigned superiority. For example, let’s say you went by Defensive Runs Saved, a solid choice for best metric available -- but even John Dewan’s team, the inventors of DRS, favors a democratic process in determining their Fielding Bible Gold Gloves -- the numbers serve to create informed voters, not replace them.

So it should not be cause for upset that just five DRS leaders at their positions won the Gold Gloves: in the AL, Mark Buehrle on the mound, Matt Wieters behind the plate and Adrian Beltre at the hot corner, while in the NL Brandon Phillips got the nod at second, and Gerardo Parra his due in left field, no doubt thanks to the overdue segregation of selections between left, right and center.

But even among those relying on the numbers, you shouldn’t begrudge too much some of the voters’ other selections. Take Troy Tulowitzki at short for the NL. He finished a narrow third in the circuit in DRS with 11; picking DRS leader Alex Gonzalez (15) would have been cool, but the difference wasn’t convincingly huge. On similar grounds, it’s easy to buy into Placido Polanco coming out ahead of Pablo Sandoval at third base in the NL despite finishing second to him in DRS -- both suffered injury-shortened seasons, and Sandoval’s reputation before this year was execrable, where Polanco’s was excellent. Seeing Joey Votto and Adrian Gonzalez wind up with their leagues’ awards at first base reflects the absence of anyone obviously great; they had decent years in the field, Keith Hernandez is still retired, and somebody’s going to be awarded the sponsored hardware.

The difficulty in relying too much on the numbers can be seen at second base in the AL. Dustin Pedroia’s 13 Defensive Runs Saved ranked behind three other AL second basemen, yet he won the nod at second from both Rawlings and the Fielding Bible. One obvious mark in his favor would be his durability and regularity at the keystone, which might put him ahead of the Angels’ oft-injured Howie Kendrick (who made just 105 starts to Pedroia’s 158) and the roving Ben Zobrist (with his 33 starts in right field). That doesn’t easily explain how Pedroia also beat Ian Kinsler (16 DRS), but even there it’s interesting to note that a big chunk of Kinsler’s defensive value came on double plays (an MLB-leading six of his 16 DRS came on twin killings) -- and how much of that was a benefit of playing with Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus to his right? Pedroia may not have been a slam-dunk selection, but it’s one you can buy into.

Yadier Molina might seem like an obvious reputation selection; the number of miscues he made in the postseason seems to back up a less charitable read on him via DRS (minus-6), but here again, I guess I’m not that bent out of shape about it. Molina’s rep, obvious durability and equally transparent ability to intimidate opposing running games out of existence make for a reasonable case. And while Clayton Kershaw represents a strange choice at pitcher for the NL, I’d suspect a widely split ballot and the absence of an obvious favorite.

Unfortunately, that still leaves us with six of 18 selections that aren’t so easy to explain, let alone defend. Segregating the outfield selections appears to have given us the misfortune of achieving the opposite of what might have been intended, Parra excepted. While I won’t get overly worked up over how a platoon player like Carlos Gomez didn’t win despite a spiffy DRS tally, instead of obvious, exceptional defenders such as Austin Jackson or Peter Bourjos in center, or Brett Gardner in left or Jason Heyward in right getting their due, we wound up with five winners who did not rate among the top five in their leagues at their positions via DRS. Separating out by position at a time when several former favorites got injured or old tested the electorate to make new choices, which they did -- just not very good ones. Here again, I wouldn’t be surprised to find the ballots widely split.

But perhaps the weirdest selection of all was the AL’s Erick Aybar winding up on top at shortstop. Brendan Ryan’s superiority via DRS, nice as it looks on paper at 18, wasn’t enough to swing even the Fielding Bible’s GG voters to pick him over Tulo in their league-less selection for shortstop. I’d have thought that two years on the postseason stage might have encouraged voters belatedly moving past the Age of Jeter to move on to Elvis Andrus already -- and he did rank second behind Ryan in DRS -- but apparently not.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.