SweetSpot: Golden Glove Award

Can we replace Gold Gloves?

November, 12, 2009
In the wake of the latest round of atrocities, Friend of the Blog Rany Jazayerli shows up with a welcome and constructive idea:
    This annual trashing of the Gold Glove Award has me thinking ... The Gold Gloves are ridiculous, and I'm not even referring to the voting. I'm referring to the fact that, at heart, the award is a PR gambit from a leather goods company. The only reason Rawlings has any credibility is that no one has bothered to challenge them.

    Secondly, the nature of the voting is absurd, in that it's neither transparent nor sensible. By sensible, I mean that the voting appears to be done on a plurality basis; whoever gets the most first-place votes at a position wins. I say "first-place" because it appears that each voter only gets to vote for one player. This is how Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Abreu won -- if 10 percent of the voters are morons, but the other 90 percent of voters split their votes among 12 or 15 other players, that 10 percent of voters can decide the election. That's insanity.

    The BBWAA is far from perfect, but if you had a voting system whereby 28 or 32 voters picked the five best fielders at each position, scored 6-4-3-2-1, the odds of a Palmeiro-like selection is infinitesimal (particularly since the voters would be held accountable for their votes; we have no idea who the morons are that voted for a guy who played 28 games at the position).

    This may be pie-in-the-sky thinking, but I really do think that with a persistent drumbeat of support from its members, the BBWAA could be eventually convinced to conduct its own voting. The organization has already undergone massive change the last few years, and a new wave of young members ought to be much more receptive this idea than the old

    Anyway, something to think about. It sure beats complaining once again about the offensively bad selections of the Rawlings award.

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.

NL Gold Gloves: 2 out of 9 ain't bad

November, 11, 2009
Well, there's nothing truly offensive about the list of National League Gold Glove winners. Rather, it's just the usual laziness that you would expect from voters who don't take the process seriously. If you're a voter and you really don't care who wins the Gold Gloves, your job is easy: You simply vote for who you voted for last year, or you vote for the player with the highest fielding percentage. Jimmy Rollins scored on both points, and one wonders if the voters have any idea that Troy Tulowitzki was again the best shortstop in the National League, just as he was in 2007 (when Rollins won his first Gold Glove).

Oh, I forgot the other Lazy Voter's Rule: Vote for the player with the most impressive non-fielding stats. That might seem like a strange tack, but remember that we're talking about voters who don't really give a tinker's damn. Adam Wainwright? Maybe he really is the best-fielding pitcher, even though he's a right-hander and there's absolutely zero statistical evidence that he did anything special after the ball was struck. In the Fielding Bible balloting, 20 National League pitchers showed up, and Wainwright was one of them ... in 17th place, and well behind teammates Joel Pineiro and Chris Carpenter.

We're not perfect. I don't want to ignore the possibility that Wainwright did things with the glove that were truly and meaningfully impressive this year.

A long time ago, I read that the most effective way to criticize someone is to offer a compliment, then your bit of criticism before finishing with another compliment and (if possible) a friendly squeeze of the shoulder. Unfortunately, the voters haven't done enough good things for that to work. So, instead I'll have to employ the less effective criticize-compliment-criticize paradigm.

At catcher, the voters defaulted to incumbent Yadier Molina, who is so obviously the best defensive catcher in the National League that if anyone else had won the Gold Glove, the award should have been blown up. More impressively, the voters also hit on first-time winner Ryan Zimmerman, who not only led the majors in Web Gems (an unofficial statistic) but also dominated most of the sophisticated fielding metrics that don't usually show up on TV. The voters could have gone for Kevin Kouzmanoff, who made only three errors in 139 games. They could have gone for David Wright, who won last year. But instead they chose the best defensive third baseman in the National League, and they score big points for that one.

So, bravo, sirs! You are to be commended for two of your choices!

Or rather, three of them. Everyone doesn't love Michael Bourn, but I rated him as the best center fielder in the National League. He's never won a Gold Glove and it would have been easy for the voters to ignore a weak-hitting kid playing for the Astros. But they didn't. Bravo, again.

And then we've got the rest of them. As usual, Albert Pujols was the best first baseman in the National League. But he made (gasp!) 13 errors, and I suppose some voters simply can't countenance a first baseman who makes 13 errors. So instead of Pujols with his 13 errors, we've got Adrian Gonzalez with his seven errors. That's right, folks: six errors probably cost Pujols the Gold Glove. Or perhaps it was simply a matter of incumbency, as Gonzalez won last year, too. This is far from criminal, as Gonzalez is a fine first baseman. It does strike me as odd that the voters remain reluctant to give Pujols -- who has just one Gold Glove on his mantel -- his due as not only the best hitter, but perhaps the best all-around player in the game today.

Rollins is a legacy pick, and so is Orlando Hudson, who won in 2006 and '07 and probably would have won last year if he hadn't spent a couple of months on the DL. Instead, the voters went with Brandon Phillips last season, and while he wasn't my first choice -- Chase Utley was -- Phillips was certainly defensible. This year, the voters returned to Hudson, once again spurning Utley, who still doesn't have a Gold Glove despite being arguably the league's top defensive second baseman for five seasons running. And not over the last five seasons; I mean in each of the last five seasons.

Who cares, right? Well, someday Utley's going to be on a Hall of Fame ballot, and at least a few voters will say, "Gosh, I love the guy's hitting stats, but why didn't he win any Gold Gloves?"

The answer isn't that Utley wasn't a great fielder; the answer is that the Gold Glove voters just weren't paying attention.

Speaking of which, I'm not sure what to say about Matt Kemp and Shane Victorino. Kemp gets bonus points because he's a good hitter and he's fast and he's got a good arm, with the only problem being that Kemp doesn't make a particularly large number of plays, which is sort of the point of the thing.

Victorino didn't make a great number of plays this season, either. But one can almost forgive the voters, because Victorino was solid last season (when he won his first Gold Glove) and even better in 2007 as a right fielder. Players typically peak early as fielders, but Victorino's (apparent) decline has been precipitous, and I have a hard time holding the voters responsible for tracking Victorino.

On the other hand, if we can't expect the voters to see that a player has declined in the field, what can we expect these voters to do? Watch "Baseball Tonight" every night and keep a careful log of Web Gems? If the voters -- and remember, we're talking about managers and coaches -- have any credibility, it's because they see the candidates regularly throughout the season, and because they presumably keep their ears to the ground. But when you look at the players who win Gold Gloves year after year in the face of all the available statistical evidence, it's easy to conclude that even that shred of credibility really hasn't been earned.

More Gold Gloves, more head-scratching

November, 10, 2009
Straight from the source, we've got your 2009 American League Gold Glovers.

Shockingly, the voters selected MVP candidates Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira, and Derek Jeter, all of whom were probably solid defensively but might not have been the best fielders in the league (my choices at those positions were Gerald Laird, Kevin Youkilis, and Elvis Andrus). At second base, the voters chose Placido Polanco because he made only two errors all season. Polanco is a pretty good second baseman, but nowhere near as good as Dustin Pedroia, who won the award last year (and, coincidentally enough, was also the American League's MVP).

In the outfield, the voters had to choose both Torii Hunter and Ichiro Suzuki, because both had won eight straight Gold Gloves and everybody knows that if you've won eight you automatically deserve to win nine. Fortunately, the voters were wise enough to make room for an exciting young outfielder who burst upon the scene in 2009 with some of the most brilliant defense we've seen in center field since the heyday of Andruw Jones.

I am referring, of course, to the stupendously amazing Franklin Gutierrez, who ... Wait, what? They didn't vote for Franklin Gutierrez, who spent the entire season catching everything in sight and racking up phenomenal numbers?

Nope. They didn't. The voters instead went with Adam Jones, who played well in center field in 2008 but was (at best) average in 2009.

The voters made two excellent choices: Evan Longoria and Mark Buehrle. They made some defensible (pun intended) choices. And with Jeter and Hunter and Polanco and especially Jones, they just flat blew it, overlooking true excellence in favor of gaudy hitting stats or superficially impressive defensive performances. Well played, sirs. Again.