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Monday, June 13, 2011
Handing out some early Gold Gloves

By David Schoenfield

I watch a lot of baseball games. Hey, it’s part of my job, so I’m not complaining. One thing I do is jot down notes on defensive players; while I believe in the value of the various defensive metrics, I also believe in observation. Plus, it’s important to note that all the great plays don’t necessarily show up as Web Gems on “Baseball Tonight.” Sometimes, a spectacular catch is made because a fielder made a bad jump on a ball. And, of course, the occasional slick play doesn’t mean a guy is consistent day after day.

So I thought it would be fun to look at the players I’ve most been impressed with on defense this season. This, of course, is influenced by the games I’ve seen. I know Gerardo Parra’s defensive numbers are terrific, but I won’t profess to having watched the Diamondbacks much. Anyway, the guy who jumps out at me most has been Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos. He is FAST, capital letters. He gets unbelievable reads and jumps on balls. To me, the true test of a center fielder (or any outfielder) is the low liner that you have to run in on, whether it’s right in front of you or off on an angle. It takes a great read off the bat, the right angle, and sometimes the courage to attempt a diving catch. In his prime, Andruw Jones made those plays look routine. The balls over the head usually make the highlight films, but a lot of mediocre fielders can look good ranging back on a long flies.

Bourjos makes all the plays. I was watching the other night in a game against Tampa Bay when somebody lined a ball into left-center. Bourjos raced after it and made a great diving catch. Watching it live, it didn’t necessarily look that amazing. But what made it more impressive was seeing the replay from the long-range overhead shot from the upper deck behind the plate: You could see how Bourjos was moving almost instantaneously with contact and how quickly he covered the 60 feet or whatever to make the play. He’s a great athlete, one of the fastest runners in the game, and the next in a line of great Angels center fielders: Gary Pettis, Devon White, Jim Edmonds, Darin Erstad, Torii Hunter and now Bourjos. I don’t know if any team has had a run of defensive players like that at one position. Bourjos will go down alongside them. He’s still developing as a hitter; right now, he chases too many pitches and strikeout too much, but he’s just 24. He’s going to be covering a lot of ground for a lot of years.

So here are my Gold Glovers so far, based on personal observation. I then looked up the consensus defensive leaders of three defensive metrics: UZR (found on FanGraphs), Total Zone Rating (from Baseball-Reference.com) and John Dewan’s +/- system (found on Bill James online).

First base: Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox

Metric consensus: 1. Gonzalez; 2. Todd Helton; 3. Adam LaRoche.
While Gonzalez’s hitting has been getting all the attention, the Red Sox knew they traded for an excellent two-way player. Gonzalez is slow on the bases, but he’s an underrated athlete who has the quick feet and soft hands required for a first baseman.

Overrated: Mark Teixeira. TV analysts tend to rave about his defense, but it seems more average than great these days, as he’s lost some of his range.

Second base: Brandon Phillips, Reds

Metric consensus: 1. Dustin Pedroia; 2. Ian Kinsler; 3. Mark Ellis.

Phillips undoubtedly leads in spectacular plays, and he and Paul Janish form a slick double-play duo. The metrics don’t agree on Phillips: UZR rates him fourth overall and has rated him as an excellent defender in the past; Baseball-Reference’s Total Zone rates Phillips below average for 2011 and throughout his career. I like what I see, but he could be a classic example of a guy who excels in Web Gems.

Overrated: Orlando Cabrera. Guess what? Most 36-year-olds have lost a step or two, and while the former shortstop got a lot praise early in the year, the metrics seem to agree that his range is lacking.

Third base: Adrian Beltre, Rangers

Metric consensus: 1. Evan Longoria; 2. Beltre; 3. Pablo Sandoval.

How has Beltre won only two Gold Gloves in his career? Longoria will probably win this and I can’t argue too much with that. Beltre hasn’t any quickness and can still make the long throw from the baseline. Yes, the metrics all love Kung Fu Panda’s range, believe it or not.
Overrated: David Wright. The metrics all agree that he’s not the fielder he once was -- and hasn’t been for several years.

Shortstop: Alcides Escobar, Royals

Metric consensus: 1. Troy Tulowitzki; 2. Alex Gonzalez; 3. Escobar.

Escobar has great range to his right, with an amazing cannon from deep in the hole. And he needs to be spectacular, because his hitting is bordering on unacceptable -- .227/.260/.270. OK, that is unacceptable. Tulo is like Cal Ripken: He might not look flashy and his powerful arm allows him to play a step or two deeper than other guys. The metrics back up his outstanding reputation. Elvis Andrus also ranks high, although his 13 errors indicate lapses in concentration.

Overrated: Asdrubal Cabrera. A consensus rating here: They all agree he has below-average range.

Left field: Brett Gardner, Yankees

Metric consensus: 1. Gerardo Parra; 2. Gardner; 3. Delmon Young.

It’s funny, I get a question every week in my chat asking if the Yankees should try to upgrade Gardner. Really, you don’t like a left fielder with the range of a center fielder, a guy puts up a good on-base percentage as well? Anyway, Gardner is terrific, great jumps and reads, and big a reason guys like Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have put up surprising numbers. Parra’s numbers are off the charts, but everything I’ve read and heard indicate he’s been spectacular. Delmon Young? Hmm.

Overrated: Carlos Gonzalez. He won a Gold Glove last year, but none of the metrics rate him as a great defender.

Center field: Peter Bourjos, Angels

Metric consensus: 1. Denard Span; 2. Carlos Gomez; 3. Bourjos.

There are a lot of good center fielders out there right now, with Andrew McCutchen, Cameron Maybin and Drew Stubbs also rating well on all three defensive systems.

Overrated: Matt Kemp. A Gold Glover in 2009, but that seemed unwarranted at the time and definitely now. But his bat has made him an MVP candidate this year.

Right field: Shin-Soo Choo

Metric consensus: 1. Torii Hunter; 2. Choo; 3. Carlos Beltran.
I had no idea where Choo would rate, since I mostly love his powerful throwing arm (he was a pitcher as an amateur). But he also has good range out there. The metrics don’t have a lot of consensus among right fielders. In fact, Kosuke Fukudome rates No. 1 on Baseball-Reference.com … and last in FanGraphs’ UZR.

Overrated: Ichiro Suzuki. All three metrics have Ichiro rated as below average this year. In fact, not just below average, but terrible. He doesn’t seem terrible to me, but it does appear that more balls are falling around him this year. I wonder if he’s sensed that he’s lost a step and is playing a little deeper this year. Still, it seems odd that he would lose his speed and range so suddenly; something to keep an eye on.

Catcher: Matt Wieters, Orioles.

Metric consensus: 1. Wieters; 2. Wilson Ramos; 3. Buster Posey.

OK, I cheated on this one. With the usually excellent Yadier Molina not having a great year throwing out runners, that honor goes to Matt Wieters, who has thrown out 17 of 39 attempted basestealers.

Overrated: Brian McCann. Hey, he’s not in there for his glove anyway.

SERIES OF THE WEEK

Cleveland at Detroit, Tuesday through Thursday

Tuesday: Justin Masterson (5-4, 3.17) vs. Justin Verlander (7-3, 2.89)
Wednesday: Fausto Carmona (3-8, 5.71) vs. Brad Penny (5-5, 4.69)
Thursday: Mitch Talbot(2-3, 4.01) vs. Max Scherzer (8-2, 4.39)

After beating Boston on May 23, the Indians were 30-15 and led the AL Central by seven games. Since then they’ve gone 4-15 and the Tigers have caught them, setting up this week’s big showdown. They’ve been shut out five times in those 19 games and scored one or two runs in seven games. The pitching and defense haven’t been much better. The Indians had a 3.38 ERA on May 23, but have a 5.90 ERA since, allowing 202 hits and 23 home runs in 157 innings. Carmona, in particular, has been terrible, allowing 31 runs in 27 innings over his past five starts.

PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK

Tuesday: Alexi Ogando (7-0, 2.10) vs. CC Sabathia (7-4, 3.15), Rangers at Yankees

With Bartolo Colon heading to the DL for at least a couple weeks after tweaking his hammy, Sabathia will face even more pressure to go deep into games to help preserve the Yankees' thin bullpen. Many keep waiting for Ogando to regress or show fatigue, but he keeps dominating and has held opponents to a .188 average. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) may be an unsustainable .210 -- since 2000, no pitcher with at least 100 innings has allowed a BABIP that low -- but he has one of the arms in the majors, throwing a hard, sinking fastball that has baffled hitters all season. He’s allowed more than two runs just twice in 12 starts, although one of those against the Yankees on April 17, also in Yankee Stadium, when he allowed five runs in 6 1/3 innings.

THREE STRIKES

1. The Brewers completed a big sweep of the Cardinals with a 4-3 win on Sunday, with Prince Fielder hitting a two-run homer in a four-run sixth as the Brewers rallied from a 3-0 deficit. Fielder has eight home runs and a .412 average in June and is suddenly looking like an MVP candidate with a season line of .305/.415/.627 with 19 home runs and 58 RBIs. Still think Pujols will get the bigger deal this offseason? And speaking of awards, Shaun Marcum will be a sleeper Cy Young contender as he’s now 7-2 with a 2.68 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .208 average allowed and 83 strikeouts in 90.2 innings.

2. Kudos to Cleveland manager Manny Acta for putting the “slumping” Carlos Santana back in the cleanup spot and offering a perfectly sound reason for doing so: "He leads our team in on-base percentage," he said. "That means he's making the least amount of outs on our team. I'm not a big stat guy, but outs are an important thing in this game, and he makes fewer outs than anyone we have."

Well, Acta understates things a bit … outs aren’t just an “important thing” in baseball, they’re the most important. It’s why I stress on-base percentage so often. If you’re looking at one stat for a hitter, look at his OBP. It’s also interesting that he described himself as “not a big stats guy” when he’s actually known as a manager who is versed in sabermetric studies and numbers.

3. Francisco Liriano was really good on Sunday, taking a no-hitter into the eight against Texas. He was much more impressive than in his sloppy no-hitter earlier this against the White Sox, throwing strikes and getting ahead of hitter. After a long bottom of the seventh when the Twins scored five runs and ran through three Texas pitchers, Liriano fell behind 3-0 to Adrian Beltre and then grooved a 3-1 fastball that Beltre lined into left-center. Can the Twins really climb back into the AL Central race? They’ve won nine of 11, allowing four runs or less in 10 of those games, and are 9.5 games back. However, they’re still 13 games under .500. So even if the Tigers and Indians play .500 ball, the Twins would need to reel off 18 wins a row just to catch them.

Rant of the Week

I read a column in a New York newspaper that said Joba Chamberlain got hurt because of the way he was handled. Now, it was a pretty absurd accusation to make: It’s impossible to pinpoint a reason for his injury and nobody knows the answer. Pitchers get hurt all the time; unfortunately, it’s part of the game. Now, even more ridiculously, the writer suggested that Chamberlain’s injury means the Yankees need to throw their young stud pitchers in Double-A -- Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances -- more innings, like Nolan Ryan is doing in Texas. Banuelos and Betances are averaging barely more than five innings per start. Banuelos is also just 20 years old. And this we do know: Pitchers that young should be protected; one reason we have so many young, dominant pitchers now compared to 15 years ago is that they were handled much more carefully in the minors. As for Joba, maybe the Yankees did mishandle him. Or maybe he just never was going to be good as the New York media and Yankees fan wanted him to be. As for Ryan, I guess it’s worth pointing out that he didn’t develop any of the pitchers on the Texas staff. And as for his Double-A staff, prized prospect Martin Perez has pitched 65.2 innings in 12 starts … barely five innings a start.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Scoreboard
Let the scoreboard do the talking. We'll stand over here quiet for a second or two.