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Thursday, November 12, 2009
Can we replace Gold Gloves?

In the wake of the latest round of atrocities, Friend of the Blog Rany Jazayerli shows up with a welcome and constructive idea:

It sure does. The names change every year -- well, some of them, anyway -- but the story's the same, and while I feel compelled to write about it every year, I'm certainly not adding much to the discussion.

Before I discuss an alternative, though, let me play the Devil's Advocate (because that's what I do).

One, it's not clear that we really need any more awards. When new awards have been introduced in recent years, they've been roundly ignored. And the old awards carry less weight every year, because fans have access to so much grist for analysis, and more and more fans are smart enough to take advantage of that information.

And two, it's not clear the BBWAA is the proper sponsor of any new award. Historically BBWAA's award voters have been composed entirely of newspaper writers. That's no longer entirely the case -- our own Keith Law had a National League Cy Young ballot this year -- but the award voting is still dominated by employees of a rapidly dying industry. Is this really where we want to begin something meant to have a long and happy life?

That said, I would love to see the BBWAA's take on the fielders, if only because people do talk about the best fielders and today that discussion still begins (and too often ends) with the Gold Gloves.

Rany's suggested voting system seems perfectly fine to me, so far as it goes. I think five names per ballot is just about right; I don't have any problems coming up with five when I'm filling out my Fielding Bible ballot, but 10 can be rough.

I can think of two questions that must be addressed.

First, what do you call the thing? Rawlings has already locked up the obvious (and perhaps the best) name. I've got an idea, though ... Name the award for each position after a different player, and preferably someone who's still alive (more on that in a moment). It's really not hard to come up with some fantastic candidates. Going around the diamond, maybe something like this ...

Jim Kaat (or Greg Maddux) Award
Ivan Rodriguez Award
Keith Hernandez Award
Bill Mazeroski Award
Ozzie Smith Award
Brooks Robinson Award
Willie Mays Award

Now, there's one obvious issue here ... only one award for all the outfielders? I'm not sure how to handle this -- hey, I never claimed to have all the answers -- but we could hand out three Willie Mays Awards, to the top three vote-getters, or we could create awards for the other outfield positions ... say, a Carl Crawford Award (left field) and an Al Kaline Award (right field; unfortunately, Roberto Clemente's already taken).

I would not advocate giving separate awards for each league. Today's baseball writers are generally well-versed in both leagues, and there's really no difference between playing shortstop in one league and the other. True, we wind up with fewer award winners ... but we're actually recognizing more players with this system. Almost incomprehensibly, all we know today about Chase Utley is that he's never won a Gold Glove. But with a transparent system that includes down-ballot results, we would have a considerable historical record of how many, many fielders were judged by dozens of observers over the course of their careers.

Second, how do you legitimize and publicize these new awards? This is the tricky part, as the legitimacy of most (all?) awards derives from their history. And I'm afraid that by the time the Bill Mazeroski Award has any real history behind it, many (most?) fans will have stopped caring about awards. But I believe that having Keith Hernandez and Ozzie Smith and Willie Mays associated with the awards might help.

What's most important, though, would be to actually make the awards part of a celebration. Haven't you always wondered why every organization has these lavish awards shows on television ... and yet the BBWAA announces their awards in piecemeal fashion, via press release over the course of a few weeks in November? I know there are logistical issues involved, and it might be impossible to get most of the serious award candidates together in a big hall for a ceremony. But has anyone ever tried? One almost gets the sense that the BBWAA doesn't want anyone to know who (according to them) was the National League's Most Valuable Player, etc.

There's something sort of quaint and touching about that. But the public simply isn't going to accept any new award that isn't heavily publicized. And I think that having Willie Mays on a stage, handing a bronze statue of The Catch to Franklin Gutierrez might be a great first step. I mean, seriously ... Can you see in your mind's eye just how beautiful, physically, these awards might be?

I've avoided the biggest practical problem here, which is that the BBWAA continues to be an intensely conservative organization that has a long history of resisting internal changes (and many external changes as well, with the notable exception of integration in the majors, about which the BBWAA's record was often admirable). Yes, I'm now a BBWAA member. But no, I have absolutely no influence within the organization and it's not likely that I ever will. For better or worse, I just don't have the personality for it. The best case would be for someone like Jayson Stark or Buster Olney or Jim Caple to take this idea and run with it -- and by "run" I mean talk to his colleagues when he can, and hope something happens while we're all still alive -- and leave my name out of the conversation completely.

Rany's right, though. I love the Fielding Bible Awards, but the truth is that the only well-known awards for fielders are run by an equipment manufacturer that cares a great deal about the publicity but practically nothing about the legitimacy of the awards themselves. Meanwhile, we've all just stood around and let it happen. That goes double for the BBWAA, the only organization that stands even a small chance of making things right.

Update: I did reach Rawlings, and they have essentially confirmed Rany's take on the Gold Glove voting rules. For more on that, see this post.