2003 Gold Glove Review

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Comments on 2003 Gold Glove Awards

Tom Tippett
December 5, 2003

Each year, usually in November, Rawlings announces the winners of their annual Gold Glove awards, given to the top fielders in each league. The winners are chosen by a vote of the managers and coaches that is taken before the end of the regular season.

How much weight is put on great range versus soft hands or a good arm or the ability to turn the double play?

One hopes that the voters take all of those things into consideration, with the proper weight given to each skill. But we don't know. The announcement story rarely provides more than the basic info -- who won and how often each player has taken home the award. We're never given any proof that the best man won.

In contrast, when we're debating the MVP or Cy Young winner, nobody's at a loss for words ... my guy deserves the MVP because he nearly won the Triple Crown ... no, that's not right, you've got to give it to the man with the 11 game-winning hits in the second half ... a 2.20 ERA is worth more than 20 wins because, after all, the pitcher doesn't control how much run support he gets ... no, those 55 saves are far more valuable, because the game is always over as soon as he takes the hill, and everybody on both teams knows it.

Not so for the Gold Gloves. No statistics, no debate, no analysis. Nothing.

A few years ago, we began trying to fill this void with our own analysis of the Gold Glove selections, and we've been at it ever since. Writing this article is a natural extension of the work we do each winter (and have done since 1986) to develop fielding ratings for the annual Diamond Mind Baseball season disk.

That work involves looking at defensive performance from many angles in our attempt to form the clearest possible picture of the contribution made by each player to his team's defensive effort:

  • we evaluate team defense using statistics such as the percentage of grounders and fly balls turned into outs
  • we look at range factors, which are assists and/or putouts per nine defensive innings, keeping in mind that range factors can be severely biased by the nature of a team's pitching staff: the left/right mix, strikeout rates, and tendency to generate ground balls versus fly balls
  • using play-by-play data licensed from STATS, Inc., we compute adjusted range factors that take these potential biases into account and focus only on those putouts and assists that provide the best indication of fielding skill (catching a popup on the infield or taking a throw on a force play are examples of plays that generate assists and putouts without telling us much about fielding skill)
  • using play-by-play data, we divide the field into zones, measure each fielder's ability to turn batted balls into outs in each zone, and compute the number of plays each player made above or below the norm for his position given the mix of balls hit his way; we call this our "net plays" analysis
  • we look at the STATS zone rating and our own zone rating to get another look at individual fielding performance, being careful not to be fooled by zone ratings that are significantly affected by error rates (our job is to come up with separate measures for range and error rates)
  • to assess the interaction between neighboring fielders, such as a third baseman cutting off grounders that might otherwise be handled by the shortstop, we examine the number of plays made by each fielder and by the team in the zones where the responsibility overlaps
  • we measure the percentage of batted balls turned into outs in home and road games to assess how each park might be influencing our measures of team and individual defense
  • we use play-by-play data to measure other skills that are specific to certain positions, such as the ability of middle infielders to turn double plays, the ability of pitchers and catchers to shut down the running game, and the ability of outfielders to prevent runners from taking extra bases on hits and fly balls
  • after all of the individual players have been rated using these methods, we cross-check them against our team defense measures to make sure they are consistent
  • in cases where our findings are at odds with a player's reputation, we use the video clips on MLB.com to watch a large number of plays involving that fielder

We believe very strongly that it is only through a combination of these methods that one can accurately evaluate defensive performance. (For a more detailed description of this approach, see the Evaluating Defense article on our web site.)

Do the Gold Glove voters have this information at their disposal when making their selections? It's doubtful. More likely, their votes are based on traditional fielding statistics, reputations, and appearances. That's not necessarily a bad thing. In a meaningful number of cases each year, our analysis concurs with the Gold Glove selections, in part because the best fielders are going to look good no matter how you evaluate them.

But there are some differences, so let's get right to it. We'll go position by position, commenting on the Gold Glove winners (who are listed in the title for all positions other than outfield) and other candidates that we believe were deserving of serious consideration. When we're done, we'll recap by comparing our Gold Glove choices to the official winners and offer a few comments on other players who caught our eye as we did the fielding ratings for our 2003 Season Disk.

Pitchers (Mike Mussina, Mike Hampton)

If you're looking for pitchers who fielded their position without making an error, the list begins with Derek Lowe (65 error-free chances), Mark Buehrle (53), Mike Mussina (49), Brett Tomko (48), Danny Graves (47), Jon Garland (46), Cory Lidle (46), and Mark Mulder (45).

If you can forgive an error or two in favor of a guy who makes a lot of plays, then your leading candidates are Tim Hudson (2 errors in 76 chances), Roy Halladay (1 in 75), Greg Maddux (2 in 73), Carlos Zambrano (4 in 70), Mike Hampton (1 in 68), Derek Lowe (0 in 65), Livan Hernandez (1 in 63).

But this approach is a bit simplistic, mainly because a pitcher's own tendency to induce ground balls is a huge factor in the number of assists and putouts he gets. Fielding skill helps, of course, but you can really pad your numbers if you can get batters to hit it back to you in the first place. Five of the pitchers we've mentioned -- Lowe, Halladay, Hudson, Mulder, and Maddux -- are among the top twenty starters in ground-ball percentage.

A different group of pitchers emerges when you consider the relationship of plays made to opportunities. Among the standouts in 2003 were Kenny Rogers (a Gold Glover in 2002), Jae Weong Seo, Jon Garland, and Javier Vazquez. But it's hard to judge pitchers on only one season because they typically get dozens of chances to make plays, while other fielders get hundreds of opportunities.

If we extend our review of pitchers who convert a high percentage of chances into outs to include the last three years, the list is topped by Rogers, Steve Sparks, Graves, Tom Glavine, Kirk Rueter, Livan Hernandez, Vazquez, Randy Wolf, Garland, Steve Trachsel, and Mussina. Buehrle, Hampton, Maddux, and Halladay are a little further down this list.

Mussina was a good pick, in my view, because he was in the league's top tier in turning batted balls into outs, was third in the league in error-free chances, controlled the running game (only 9 steals in 19 attempts), and has done these things well enough in the past to show that this was not a fluke.

But he wasn't the BEST pick. Kenny Rogers made more plays, both in absolute terms and relative to the number of balls hit his way, REALLY shut down the running game (only 4 stolen bases allowed all year, 3 pickoffs), and tied for second in the league (behind Sparks) with 4 double plays. Yes, he made two errors, but that doesn't cancel everything else, and Rogers gets my vote.

Mike Hampton is similar to Mussina in that he's done enough to be considered a serious candidate. Second in the league in total chances, only one error, very good in the running game (only 3 steals allowed in 9 attempts), and a good track record. But Hampton's a ground-ball pitcher who creates lots of chances to make plays, and he was only a little better than average in converting those chances into outs.

Javier Vazquez, on the other hand, is a fly-ball pitcher who still manages to accumulate a good number of successful chances each year. That's because he's always at or near the top of our rankings in converting opportunities into outs. And he allowed only three steals in five attempts all year.

Danny Graves is another impressive candidate. Second in the league in error- free chances handled, among the leaders in converting chances into outs, both this year and in recent years.

But my vote goes to Kirk Rueter. He handled 43 chances without an error in 2003. In fact, he hasn't made an error since 1999, successfully completing 209 plays in the last four years. Rueter had a hand in 5 double plays, one shy of the league lead. And he continues to be nearly impossible to run on. He may not have the greatest stuff in the league, but he does a lot of other things to keep himself in the game.

Catchers (Bengie Molina, Mike Matheny)

Ivan Rodriguez owned this award for a long time, but knee problems have taken their toll and it's no longer a slam dunk in his favor. Still, he continues to be a top contender. Opposing base stealers were successful 68% of the time, an ordinary figure, but only one other regular catcher was challenged less often, so it's clear that I-Rod's gun still has some bullets in it. But with 8 errors and 10 passed balls, I can't make him my choice.

Mike Matheny was the least-challenged catcher in the majors this year, with a runner taking off only once every 19.9 innings. But those runners arrived safely 77% of the time, an unusually high percentage with Matheny behind the plate. Still, St. Louis allowed the second-fewest number of steals of any NL team, and Matheny caught in 138 of those games without making a single error. He was also second (to Brad Ausmus) in the league in fewest passed balls allowed among catchers with at least 1000 innings.

Speaking of Ausmus, he's difficult to evaluate because his manager (Jimy Williams) has a history of telling his pitchers to forget about the running game and concentrate on the hitters. It wasn't long ago that Ausmus was throwing out half the runners who dared challenge him. This year, it was only 31%, but that's quite good on a Williams team. Plus, Ausmus made only 3 errors, allowed only 3 passed balls, and took part in a major-league leading 10 double plays.

Another candidate was Montreal's Brian Schneider, who led the circuit by throwing out 47% of enemy base runners and contributed to 9 double plays while making only 3 errors and allowing 3 passed balls. But Schneider started only 95 games, compared to 129 for Ausmus and 121 for Matheny, and that hurts his case.

All things considered, my pick is Matheny by a nose over Ausmus and Schneider.

In the AL, Bengie Molina tied for the league lead by nailing 41% of the runners who challenged his arm. His fielding percentage was only a hair above average, but he was among the league's best at preventing passed balls. His biggest weakness is fielding bunts and other balls around the plate, a category in which he's been well below average for three years.

Tampa Bay's Toby Hall is an interesting candidate this year. He's more agile around the plate than Molina, and like Molina, Hall wiped out 41% of enemy base- stealers. Further, 81 runners challenged Molina in 950 innings behind the plate, while only 78 tested Hall in his 1107 innings. Only Seattle and Chicago allowed fewer stolen bases than the D'Rays in 2003. On the other hand, Hall's 9 errors and 7 passed balls are unimpressive.

Chicago's Miguel Olivo is much like Hall. Olivo may have the league's best arm, but his 9 errors and 8 passed balls hurt his case, and he started 28 fewer games than Hall did.

If Dan Wilson (92 starts) didn't share the position with Ben Davis, he'd get my vote. He was part of the duo that led the league in fewest steals allowed, he led the league in fielding percentage (only one error), and shared the lead in fewest passed balls allowed among catchers with at least 800 innings. But it's hard to pick a guy who caught only 57% of his team's innings, so I'll concur with the voters and give the nod to Molina.

First basemen (John Olerud, Derrek Lee)

In the AL, the voters chose John Olerud for the second year in a row. In my view, it should have been a two-horse race between Doug Mientkiewicz and Travis Lee, with Mientkiewicz winning by a few lengths and the rest of the field a long way back.

But let's see how Olerud and Mientkiewicz compare:

  • Olerud started more games at the position, 143 to 133 ... playing time matters, but this is not a big difference
  • Olerud led the league in assists with 125 ... but we all know that a first baseman can pump up his assist totals simply by making the toss to the pitcher while others are taking more balls to the bag themselves
  • Olerud participated in 126 double plays, second in the league to Carlos Delgado (134) ... this is a legitimate plus for Olerud ... it's hard to judge 1Bs on overall DP totals because they have little to do with most of them, but Olerud was also among the league's best at starting double plays, while Mientkiewicz was below average this year and in 2002
  • Seattle had the league's lowest error total in 2003, and the lowest number of throwing errors, so it's tempting to conclude that Olerud saved his fellow infielders a lot of errors ... on the other hand, Seattle was only second best in the AL, behind Minnesota, in fewest errors by 2B/3B/SS ... unfortunately, it's very hard to measure 1Bs in this manner because our play-by-play data tells us how many throwing errors were made, but it doesn't tell us how many throwing errors would have been made if not for a good play by the first baseman
  • Olerud has a very slight edge in fielding percentage, .998 to .997
  • Mientkiewicz has a huge edge in range ... he topped our net-plays rankings and was first in the majors in STATS zone ratings, despite playing his home games on the fast turf in Minnesota ... Olerud, who is now in his mid-30s and doesn't move as well as he did in his prime, has been near the league average in range the past four years

All things considered, Mientkiewicz's advantage in range is much greater than Olerud's in the other areas, and he gets my vote for the third year in a row.

In the NL, Derrek Lee got the nod for the first time. In my view, Todd Helton and Tino Martinez are the only other serious candidates, but I'll focus on Lee versus Helton because both started at least 27 more games than Martinez and surpassed him in most key measures. Here's how I see these two:

  • Lee has an edge in fielding percentage with a .996 figure that was third in the NL among 1Bs with over 1000 innings. Helton had an off year in this regard, finishing with 11 errors to Lee's 5.
  • Lee was second in the league in double plays, and while Helton was first, that had a lot more to do with all the DP opportunities that arise when playing in a high-offense environment like Coors Field ... Lee was quite a bit better than Helton at starting DPs on balls hit to the first baseman
  • Helton was in a virtual dead heat with Mientkiewicz for the major-league lead in range according to our net plays method, and while Lee also showed very good to excellent range, Helton had a sizeable lead in this measure ... Lee had the edge in the STATS zone rating, but most of that is due to his lower error rate, and we've already taken that into account
  • Colorado's other infielders made many more errors than did Florida's, both in 2003 and over the past three years, perhaps indicating that Lee is better at handling bad throws

So we have a big edge in range for Helton and advantages for Lee in errors by himself and his fellow infielders and in starting double plays. Add it all up and it's too close to call, so I'll take a page from the NFL's instant replay system. If there's no conclusive evidence, you go with the call that was made on the field, and that makes Lee my choice.

Second basemen (Bret Boone, Luis Castillo)

The AL race should have been between Oakland's Mark Ellis and Anaheim's Adam Kennedy.

This was Bret Boone's second Gold Glove, and as was the case the first time, his trump card was reliability. His .990 mark was good enough to share the league lead with Kennedy. Boone was also very good at starting double plays, though it's interesting to note that he was below average before he joined Seattle in 2001, so his teammates may deserve much of the credit for the improvement in Boone's numbers. He was around the league average in making the pivot on potential double play balls that were hit to others.

But Boone's range has never been anything to write home about. This year, his range factor was second-worst in the majors. It's true that his range factor suffered greatly because he played behind a fly-ball staff, but even after adjusting for that and other factors (such as strikeout rate and left/right mix), Boone is only a little above average. In fact, he was in the middle of the pack in just about every measure of range that we look at.

Kennedy, on the other hand, has been near the top of our range rankings three years running. Like Boone, he was very reliable. Kennedy was also above average in starting double plays, though not as much as Boone. Kennedy's pivot numbers aren't especially good, but it's hard to tell whether that's him or the guy feeding him the ball. Finally, the fact that Kennedy started only 125 games at the position is a negative.

Mark Ellis is a very interesting candidate. Ellis blew away the competition in our net plays analysis and the STATS zone rating, and was near the top (but behind Kennedy) in adjusted range factor. It's not unusual for a converted shortstop to shine at second, and Ellis put up very good numbers in a half- season at the position in 2002. Perhaps because he is a converted shortstop, Ellis lags behind his peers in both starting and making the pivot on potential double play balls. His error rate was average.

In my opinion, Ellis's huge advantage in range makes him more worthy than the more polished Boone. So my ballot, if I had one, would have read Ellis first and Kennedy second.

One more thing before I move on to the other league. ESPN.com's story about the Gold Glove selections included this comment by an unnamed AL coach: "I voted for Adam Kennedy because he made some great plays against us and I happened to catch Bret when he made a couple of errors." We have no way of knowing whether this is typical of the amount of thought that goes into the voting, but it wouldn't surprise me if it is.

In the NL, my choice is Atlanta's Marcus Giles. Castillo's fielding percentage was a little better, but we're only talking about a difference of one error every six weeks. Castillo has always excelled in making the pivot on the double play, but Giles isn't too far behind. Giles topped Castillo in net plays, the STATS zone rating, and range factor (though with the help of a ground-ball staff). It's extremely close, but I'll go with Giles.

By the way, I think Placido Polanco was the best defensive second baseman in the league, but he only made 99 starts at the position before moving to third when Philly had to get David Bell's bat out of the lineup. Pokey Reese's injury took him out of the running.

Third basemen (Eric Chavez, Scott Rolen)

Eric Chavez took home his third Gold Glove, and I have no quarrel with this decision. Chavez led the AL in many categories, including range factor, putouts, assists, double plays, and our net plays analysis.

His standing in the first four of those categories is a bit artificial -- he played more innings than anyone but Tony Batista, his staff induces a lot of ground balls, and Oakland had by far the highest percentage of innings by lefty pitchers in the majors, so Chavez saw a steady stream of right-handed batters who tend to pull the ball in his direction.

Chavez is no Brooks Robinson, but he's solidly above average in range, and he's reliable (third in the league in fielding percentage, only a hair behind the leader), and he did those things almost every day.

My choice last year was Cory Koskie of Minnesota, who had another very good year in the field. He led the league in fielding percentage and was above average in range again, but he's my runner-up this time. Damian Rolls is someone to watch. He didn't play enough (68 starts), and may never hit well enough to be a full- time player, but he looked good in every measure that we use.

Scott Rolen is a perennial standout who has made far more plays relative to the norm for his position than any other NL fielder over the past five years. But his performance showed a marked decline in 2003. His range factor and STATS zone rating were slightly below average. His double-play numbers, normally a strength, were down. In our net plays analysis, we're accustomed to seeing him come in at 40 plays above the league, but he was in the middle of the pack in 2003.

It's possible that injuries are at the root of this decline. In the 2002 playoffs, Rolen collided with a baserunner and sprained his shoulder badly enough to keep him out of action for the rest of the postseason. He has a history of back problems and missed games in 2003 with stiffness in his neck and back and soreness in both shoulders.

Still, we're puzzled by the sudden drop in his defensive numbers. Rolen had a very good year at the plate, so his ailments couldn't have bothered him too much, at least not while he was batting.

All in all, it appears that Rolen may have gotten this Gold Glove on reputation, not performance. Having said that, who do you give it to? Nobody else stands out.

David Bell showed terrific range again this year, but his anemic bat cost him his job, and he started only 81 games at third. (Some years, it seems as if you can win a Gold Glove with your bat. Bell may have just lost one that way.)

Adrian Beltre showed good range and posted a league-average fielding percentage, so he's a possibility, though his home park helps him look good. Morgan Ensberg was pretty good but only played a half a season. Craig Counsell and Jamey Carroll also look good, but they didn't play nearly enough, either. Aaron Boone was traded out of the league. Vinny Castilla showed good range and was a plus on the double play, but made 19 errors.

It comes down to Rolen versus Beltre, and it appears to me that Beltre had a slightly better year in 2003, so he's my choice. I love watching Rolen play third, however, so I hope he bounces back in a big way next year.

Shortstops (Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Renteria)

It's a classic question. Would you rather have a guy with great range but is somewhat error-prone or someone who's steadier but doesn't cover as much ground?

Alex Rodriguez was very steady again this year, posting a major-league best .989 fielding percentage and making only 8 errors in 158 starts. And while A-Rod will never make people forget Mark Belanger or Ozzie Smith, his range is no worse than average most years, and sometimes better. In other words, he's a good all-around pick.

His chief rivals in 2003 were Anaheim's David Eckstein, who was very reliable and showed more range than Rodriguez but played only 116 games, and Chicago's Jose Valentin, who got to an awful lot of balls but made 20 errors. Eckstein didn't play enough to be a serious candidate, so I'll focus on Valentin.

Valentin is somewhat error-prone, there's no question about that. His fielding percentage has lagged the league average every year he's been in the majors, sometimes by quite a bit. Since 2001, however, he's gotten better, making only 2-3 more errors per season than the average shortstop.

But Valentin has also been consistently better than the league in range during his career. In 2003, he led all major-league shortstops in net plays made and adjusted range factor, and he was second (behind Eckstein) in the STATS zone rating. Depending on which of these measures you prefer to go with, Valentin made somewhere between 20 and 56 more plays than the average shortstop. Taking the strengths and weaknesses of each of these measures into account, I'd put his contribution somewhere in the range of 30-35 plays.

This would make it his best defensive year, but it's not too far above the level he's set in previous years. Problem is, his tendency to make errors has occasionally cost him a full-time job, so we don't have a lot of recent history to go on. But if you extrapolate his part-time 2001 and 2002 seasons into full years, and if you adjust for all the errors he made in 2000, Valentin has consistently shown the ability to reach about 20 more balls per season than the average shortstop.

So my vote goes to Valentin, though not by a big margin. Rodriguez is a very solid choice, and I'm not knocking his game in any way, but Valentin has improved his error rate enough to convert his superior range into real value.

The NL winner, Edgar Renteria, is mister average. At no time during the past five years has he been more than four plays better or worse than the major- league norm in our net plays analysis. In 2003, compared with the average shortstop, Renteria made two fewer errors and converted two more batted balls into outs. He was a plus in making the pivot on double plays.

If that doesn't sound to you like a Gold Glover, I'd have to agree, so let's see who else shows up on the radar screen.

Chicago's Alex Gonzalez is a lot like Alex Rodriguez in that he's very reliable and, in a good year, shows above-average range, too. This was one of his good years, and Gonzalez converted 22 more batted balls into outs than the average shortstop. That's partly a reflection of range, and partly due to a very low error rate. Gonzalez tied for second in the majors in fielding percentage. He was also well above average making the pivot on double play balls.

Houston's Adam Everett led the majors in range factor, was fourth in net plays, and finished among the league leaders in the STATS zone rating. In both range and error rates, he was just a hair behind Gonzalez, but his double play performance was in the middle of the pack.

Cesar Izturis and Orlando Cabrera also deserve mention, but they didn't quite rise to the level of the other players I mentioned.

My vote goes to Gonzalez. And while we're talking about him, have you ever seen a postseason when so many highly-regarded fielders made critical errors? San Francisco's Jose Cruz misplayed a fly ball with Florida was on the ropes, an error by Gonzalez helped open the floodgates for Florida when they were on the brink of elimination in the championship series, and some bobbles by New York's Aaron Boone nearly helped Boston break through.

Outfielders

You won't get an argument from me about the AL choices, which were Mike Cameron and Ichiro Suzuki of Seattle and Minnesota's Torii Hunter.

Seattle's outfield was far and away the best in the majors at turning fly balls and line drives into outs. They can put three legitimate center fielders out there -- Mike Cameron, the best in the business right now, Ichiro, who was a Gold Glove center fielder in Japan, and Randy Winn, who played center in Tampa Bay before he was traded to Seattle last winter.

Cameron led all major league outfielders with 484 putouts, 47 more than runner- up Rocco Baldelli and 60 more than Hunter. It helps, of course, that he plays behind a fly-ball staff in a park that's very friendly to pitchers. But even when you account for those things, Cameron turned about 40 more batted balls into outs than did the average center fielder.

Ichiro's raw net-plays figure isn't all that impressive until you allow for the fact that he shares the right-field gap with Cameron, who was about 10 plays above average in those zones. Ichiro would have made some of those plays had Cameron not reached those balls first. In addition, Ichiro's speed and arm turned a bunch of doubles and triples into singles.

With the Seattle outfield performing at such a high level, I have no problem giving two of the league's three Gold Gloves to one team. Winn was among the leaders in left field, too, but there are other very good outfields in the league, and it would be a stretch to give all three to Seattle.

One of those very good outfields is in Minnesota, where Torii Hunter patrols center field and Jacque Jones is in left. Jones is once again our top-rated left fielder, but he started only 87 games in left after a midseason groin injury relegated him to a DH/PH role for much of the second half.

Hunter continues to be one of the leaders in highlight film plays, and he looked very good in all of our range metrics, too. We don't think Hunter makes quite as many plays as his reputation would suggest, but there's no question that he's one of the best center fielders in the game, and he's my pick as the third AL Gold Glove recipient.

There are several other AL outfielders who might be worthy of consideration if not for the presence of these three guys. Johnny Damon and Vernon Wells represent the next tier of AL center fielders and aren't all that far behind Hunter. Milton Bradley posted very good defensive numbers before he got hurt. Among the corner outfielders we noticed are Winn, Garrett Anderson, and (believe it or not) Carlos Lee.

I'm sure that last name will come as a surprise to many of you. It came as a big surprise to us, too, because Lee has a reputation as a defensive liability and has been removed for defensive purposes more often than any other fielder in recent years. As a result, we spent a lot of time studying his performance, and here's what we found:

  • Lee stole 18 bases in 22 tries this year, and his career totals are 53 steals and a 72% success rate, so he does have some speed
  • according to our analysis, Lee had no weak spots ... he was at or above the league average in all zones and depths ... and while he hasn't been this good before, he was slightly above average in 2001 and 2002, so this type of performance isn't as much of a reach as you might think
  • other systems place him in the top half ... he was 24 points above average in the STATS zone rating system, and his range factor and adjusted range factor were both a little better than average
  • the defensive replacements are easy to explain ... he was being replaced by two exceptional fielders, Aaron Rowand and Willie Harris, so even though Lee was getting the job done, these guys were better
  • overall, Chicago's outfield converted almost as many fly balls and line drives into outs as did the Minnesota trio, so somebody was doing something right ... Rowand and Harris were major contributors, but they didn't play enough to explain this, and Lee appears to have done more than Magglio Ordonez and Carl Everett to help this outfield rank so high

Even after reviewing all of this information, I wasn't convinced. So I decided to spend some time with the MLB.com video clips service. I picked a six-week period and requested every play Lee was involved in.

(MLB.com's service isn't perfect, so I was able to get my hands on only about 80% of those plays. But think about that for a minute. I was able to call up dozens of video clips for a specific fielder in a matter of seconds, and it only cost me a few dollars. Yeah, it would have been nice if I found everything I was looking for, but how can I complain about some missing clips when such a thing wasn't even conceivable a few years ago?)

It took about three hours to view the clips that were available, and I came away very impressed. There must have been ten or eleven really good plays in that stretch. Among them were two long runs to flag down deep fly balls in the gap. On two other occasions, Lee reacted very quickly to line drives and made sliding catches to his left. Twice he went over the left field wall to save homeruns. And in what may have been his best play of that sequence, he covered a lot of ground to make a catch in foul territory while going up and over the bullpen mound at full speed.

Over in the NL, where the voters selected Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, and Jose Cruz, things weren't so clear.

None of the league's left fielders stood out. Rondell White is a very good fielder who doesn't get much credit, but he was traded to the other league. Geoff Jenkins has always been at or near the top of the class, but he battled injuries again in 2003. Neither was anywhere near Gold Glove caliber this year.

Three players stood out in right field. San Francisco's Jose Cruz topped our net plays analysis and led the majors in range factor and adjusted range factor. Florida's Juan Encarnacion wasn't far behind on all counts. And neither was Houston's Richard Hidalgo, who also led the majors with 22 outfield assists.

Cruz is a converted center fielder, and while he wasn't a standout at that position, it's not unusual for CFs to shine in the corner spots. In 2002, Cruz looked very good in a limited trial in left field, so I wasn't surprised when he showed well in right this year.

Park factors must be considered here. Pacific Bell Park is good for pitchers, especially on balls hit to right center, and that can artificially boost the numbers for the hometown right fielder. Cruz benefited from that in 2003, as did Reggie Sanders in 2002. But even with a significant park adjustment, Cruz remains among the leaders in right field. And he was second only to Hidalgo with 18 outfield assists.

Encarnacion also had a terrific season in right. In our net plays analysis, he and Cruz are very close after you make the park adjustments, and Encarnacion was number one in the STATS zone rating rankings. In addition, Encarnacion was the only major league outfielder to play at least 120 games without making an error.

Having said all that, the best defensive outfielders usually play center field, so we can't start nominating corner outfielders until we've considered the guys who play up the middle.

We might as well start this conversation with Andruw Jones. It hard to make it through a game, even if Atlanta's not playing, without hearing that he's the gold standard. But we've been seeing signs of a decline in his once-stellar defensive play for the past several years. We still think he's a good center fielder, but we believe he's been passed by Cameron, Erstad, Hunter, and a new wave of youngsters who haven't yet played enough to become household names.

Consider these facts about Jones:

  • Atlanta's outfield was fourth-worst in the majors in converting fly balls and line drives into outs ... I'm not saying that Jones is the reason they're near the bottom, just that if Jones is every bit as good as they say, he'd carry them to a higher ranking even if he wasn't getting a lot of help
  • his putout totals are declining ... he peaked at 493 in 1999, dropped to 439 in 2000, rebounded to 461 in 2001, then slipped 404 and 390 the past two years ... that's partly because he's missed a few games the last two years, but his putouts per nine innings are also down from 3.07 to 2.64 over that span
  • Andruw's share of Atlanta's outfield putouts is also dropping ... in 1999, he was responsible for 44.5% of those putouts, but it's down to 38% and 40% the last two years, and that decline is only partly due to decreased playing time ... maybe he's just deferring to Chipper and Sheffield on some of the easier plays, but if he's really the best outfielder in baseball, why would he do that?
  • Jones was troubled at times by nagging injuries this year -- a strained muscle in his side, a sore shoulder, a hyperextended knee, tightness in a hamstring -- nothing serious, but perhaps enough to slow him down
  • older editions of Total Baseball list him at 6'1" and 170 pounds ... Atlanta's official web site now puts his weight at 210 pounds ... I'm not sure how much to trust these figures, but he looks bigger, and if he really has added that much weight, a decline in range wouldn't come as a surprise

All things considered, I don't think Jones is the same defensive player he was four years ago. But who in the NL is better? Most of the game's top center fielders are in the other league.

Among the NL regulars, San Diego's Mark Kotsay is on top of our rankings for net plays made, and Jim Edmonds is number one in the STATS zone ratings, though both lag the AL leaders on both counts. Kotsay also leads in baserunner kills, with Edmonds right behind him.

Juan Pierre led in putouts, but that was a combination of playing time (161 starts), a fly ball staff, and a pitcher-friendly park. His range factor was quite ordinary, he was below average on the STATS zone rating and in our net plays analysis. LA's Dave Roberts put up impressive numbers this year, but he started only 98 games in center. Age has caught up with Steve Finley.

Oh, before I forget, I promised to mention some of the guys who haven't played much. Jeff Duncan only played a quarter of a season but compiled defensive numbers that resembled Mike Cameron's. Tsoyoshi Shinjo once again posted outstanding range numbers in limited time; he's headed back to Japan, though, because he didn't hit well enough over here to become a starter. In the Carlos Lee discussion, I mentioned Willie Harris and Aaron Rowand, both of whom could become Gold Glove contenders if they hit well enough to play full time.

Well, I guess I've danced around the subject long enough, and it's time for me to go on the record with my NL picks. It's tough because none of the center fielders stood out. Center field is a more difficult position, though, so I don't think it's right to pick a bunch of corner outfielders just because they outperformed the other corner guys by a bigger margin than the CFs outperformed their peers.

So I'll choose two center fielders, Andruw Jones and Mark Kotsay, and the leading right fielder, Jose Cruz, as my 2003 picks. It's getting tougher every year to rubber-stamp the Jones selection, but I haven't seen quite enough evidence yet to conclude that he's no longer worthy. Kotsay, in my view, was a little better than Edmonds. Cruz wasn't too far ahead of Encarnacion and Hidalgo.

Recap

Here's how my selections compare with those of the voters:

        ------- American -------      ------- National -------

  Pos   Voters      Diamond Mind      Voters      Diamond Mind

  P     Mussina     Rogers            Hampton     Rueter 

  C     Molina      same              Matheny     same 

  1B    Olerud      Mientkiewicz      Lee         same

  2B    Boone       Ellis             Castilla    Giles 

  3B    Chavez      same              Rolen       Beltre

  SS    Rodriguez   Valentin          Renteria    Gonzalez (Chi) 

  OF    Cameron     same              AJones      same

  OF    Ichiro      same              Edmonds     Kotsay 

  OF    Hunter      same              Cruz        same

We agree on nine of the eighteen selections. Last year we agreed on eight, and it was twelve in 2001.

Even though I would have gone in a different direction on half of these selections, I must say that the voters did a pretty good job. In most of the cases where we disagreed, the winner was on my short list, and even when he wasn't, the winner had some important things going for him.

Other players of note

Here are a few other players whose defensive performances we noticed, for better or worse, in 2003:

Jermaine Dye, RF -- Dye has been one of our top-rated right fielders for years but struggled to come back from a severely broken leg in 2002. He appeared to recover a little of his range this year, so we bumped him up from Poor to Fair.

Troy Glaus, 3B -- Glaus has bounced between our Average and Fair ratings over the years, but 2003 brought injuries to his right hand, left hamstring, left foot, back, and right shoulder. His performance suffered enough to drop his range rating to Poor, but could rebound a little next year if he's 100%.

Ken Griffey, CF -- For the third year in a row, Griffey tried to play through leg injuries, and once again he wasn't anywhere near his usual self. We rated him Poor because he just didn't make enough plays, but we expect his rating to improve with his health, assuming his health does improve at some point.

Vladimir Guerrero, RF -- He normally earns an Excellent or Very Good rating for range, but he played with a bad back for much of the season and his performance suffered enough that he was only Average this year. In fact, he was closer to Fair than Very Good.

Derek Jeter, SS -- Last in the majors in range factor. Last in the majors in adjusted range factor. Second last in the majors in zone rating. Last in the majors in our net plays analysis. And this year there were no mitigating factors. No brilliant third baseman who cut off a lot of balls that Jeter might have been able to handle, and his team was last in the league in converting ground balls into outs. So we gave him a Poor rating for range and an error rating that's around the league average.

Reggie Sanders, RF -- Earned our Excellent rating last year but slipped to Average in 2003. A year ago, we wondered whether his impressive defensive numbers had more to do with Pacific Bell Park than his own performance. After adjusting for the park, he was a borderline Ex/Vg, but we concluded that he had earned the Ex rating, in part because he had performed just as well in Arizona the year before. Now in his mid-thirties, a decline in his range is to be expected, but a drop of two rating points isn't something we see every day, so it's possible that we made the wrong call last year.

Larry Walker, RF -- It's always a challenge to rate Colorado outfielders because a much higher percentage of batted balls go for hits in Coors Field than any other place. We do our best to measure and adjust for those effects, but it's not an exact science. In most years, Walker's raw defensive numbers are below average, but he comes out looking pretty good after we adjust for the park. In 2003, his raw numbers were downright terrible and the park adjustment brought him up only to a Fair rating. All signs indicate that the decline was real but injury-related. During the season, Walker missed games due to a bad shoulder, a groin injury, and a knee problem, and is expected to undergo surgery on both the shoulder and the knee this winter.

Todd Walker, 2B -- Fans of range factors, take note. Walker was well above average in range factor in 2002, and that got some Red Sox fans talking about what an asset he was going to be in 2003. But that ranking had more to do with the Cincinnati pitching staff than Walker's own play that season, and our analysis put him near the Average/Fair boundary. He played well enough in 2002 to eke out an Average rating, but in 2003, he slipped back under that line. According to the local papers, the Red Sox didn't like his defense, and that's why they're not rushing to re-sign him despite his postseason batting heroics.

Rickie Weeks, 2B -- The number two overall pick in the draft in 2003, Weeks torched minor-league pitching in a brief stint before being called up in September. Normally, I wouldn't bother writing about a guy with a career total of 21 defensive innings, but Weeks made 8 errors in 23 professional games and his major-league range numbers were horrendous (albeit in a very small number of chances). This may be a statistical anomaly, but it's also possible that he's just not ready to play defense in the majors.

 

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