2001 Gold Glove Review
By Tom Tippett
December 10, 2001
If you haven't already done so, please read the introduction to the 2002 Gold Glove Review article for a summary of the techniques we use for evaluating defensive performance.
Pitchers. There's a very strong tendency for Gold Glove voters to fixate on one guy and keep giving him the award year after year after year, as long as he doesn't get hurt or do anything to make it clear that something has changed. This tendency is especially strong for pitchers, perhaps because the voters don't get to see them as often.
At other positions, we can judge performance over a span of 1,000 to 1,400 defensive innings, but even the most durable starting pitchers are in the field only for 200-250 innings. And relievers get only a fraction of the innings of a starting pitcher.
With 14 or 16 teams in the league, a voter might get to see a certain shortstop play 80 innings in the field. That's not much in the context of a whole season, but it sure beats the 10-20 innings they might see of a starting pitcher or the 4-5 innings a reliever might pitch in those games.
So it's hard for anyone to evaluate pitcher defense just by watching, because nobody is in position to watch enough pitchers in enough situations to get a complete picture. And it's hard to evaluate pitchers just by looking at their putouts and assists because a pitcher's tendency to induce ground balls can have a major impact on those numbers. Even if you're a brilliant fielder, you're not going to look good next to Greg Maddux if you're a fly-ball pitcher and they're using traditional fielding stats to evaluate you.
This year, Mike Mussina was chosen for the fifth time, and he's a pretty good pick. He had a good year, handling 43 chances successfully while participating in 5 double plays, making only one error, and doing a very good job holding opposing runners. But there are other deserving candidates.
(By the way, I'll leave it up to you to decide whether holding runners is a pitching skill or a defensive skill. But I'll mention it for those of you who think it's relevant to a Gold Glove debate.)
Freddy Garcia also participated in five double plays and made only one error while handling 68 chances successfully, more than half again as many as Mussina. On the other hand, Garcia creates more chances for himself because he's a ground ball pitcher, and he doesn't hold runners well.
Steve Sparks had 62 successful chances, only one error, and held runners well despite throwing a pitch, the knuckleball, that is easy to run on. He was involved in one double play.
Brad Radke had 57 successful chances, four double plays, and only one error, but wasn't quite as good as Sparks and Mussina at holding runners.
Andy Pettitte was error-free in 49 successful chances with one double play and has a terrific pickoff move, though he is less successful holding runners close when he goes home with the pitch.
Jeff Weaver also handled 49 chances without an error. He was in on four double plays and was in the middle of the pack in holding runners. All things considered, my vote would have gone to Garcia this year.
In the other league, Greg Maddux won his 12th straight, and there's no question that he's a very good fielder. But it must also be said that he has a head start on his competition because he's an extreme ground-ball pitcher who creates for himself a ton of opportunities to make plays. This year, he led the majors by handling 72 chances successfully, making only one error in the process.
But there are two arguments against Maddux's iron grip on this award. First, quite a few others have ranked above Maddux each year in plays made per batted ball in his zone. And Maddux has made 14 errors in the past five years; that's a lot for a pitcher, and only three other pitchers have made more in that span.
Consider Kirk Rueter. I'll bet if the voters had picked him a few years ago, they'd keep picking him every year just like they do with Maddux, because if Rueter had once been deemed the best, he's definitely doing enough to reinforce the view that he still is.
This year, Rueter handled 61 chances without an error and took part in eleven (!) double plays. Among players with at least 50 balls hit into his zone, he ranked #1 in converting those chances into outs. And he was almost impossible to run on.
Last year, Rueter handled 52 chances without an error and took part in four double plays. He converted an extremely high number of batted balls into outs and was almost impossible to run on. In 1999, Rueter handled 45 successful chances but made one error.
Over the past five years, Maddux has made 14 errors in 424 chances for a fielding percentage of .967. In the same span, Rueter has made 3 errors in 265 chances for a fielding percentage of .989. Rueter has been involved in seven more double plays (26 to 19) despite pitching about 240 fewer innings. Rueter has converted a noticeably higher percentage of batted balls into outs. The only area where Maddux has the edge is raw totals, and that's only because he generates so many more come- backers than the average pitcher.
Getting back to the 2001 season, the pitchers who bested Maddux in converting opportunities into outs are Adam Eaton, Rueter, Chris Reitsma, Livan Hernandez, Russ Ortiz, Tom Glavine, Javier Vazquez, and Mike Hampton, in that order.
Eaton only pitched for half the season and made two errors, so I don't consider him to be in the same league as the others, though he's someone to watch for the future. Rueter, Reitsma, Hernandez, Glavine, Vazquez, and Hampton each handled more than fifty chances without making an error.
Maddux was a good choice. Any of these guys I just mentioned would have been a slightly better choice. Rueter was the best of the bunch and deserved the Gold Glove this year. Just as he did last year.
Catchers. Ivan Rodriguez is the owner of one of the best throwing arms in history, and has been a lock for this award for many years. He had another great throwing year, and even though he missed a third of the season due to injury, and he's the hands-down choice again this year. For some reason, the best arms have found their way into the other league in the past few years, and there's nobody left in the AL to challenge him.
A year ago, I argued that Brad Ausmus should have been the choice in the AL, partly because he had a great year defensively and partly because Rodriguez missed half the season. Ausmus is now in the NL and had another good year throwing, though others bested him in that department, and backed it up by allowing only one passed ball (best in the majors) and making only three errors (tied for second best in the majors).
There were other candidates, of course. Jason LaRue, Mike Matheny, and Henry Blanco threw out a higher percentage of enemy base stealers. But LaRue allowed 15 passed balls, second most in baseball, despite starting only 95 games behind the plate. Blanco started only 94 games himself, and didn't quite match up to Ausmus at any rate.
In my eyes, it's almost impossible to choose between Ausmus and Matheny. Playing time was similar. Ausmus made one fewer error and was charged with five fewer passed balls. On the other hand, Matheny had a better year throwing, though he got more help from his pitchers than Ausmus did. All in all, I think Ausmus was a worthy victor.
First basemen. Based on our analysis, there are four men who could reasonably be thought of as viable candidates at this position, two in each league: Doug Mientkiewicz and Tino Martinez in the AL, Kevin Young and Todd Helton in the NL.
The voters got it right when they chose Mientkiewicz over Martinez. Doug had a better fielding percentage, turned a higher percentage of batted balls into outs, and led the majors in highlight-reel plays. It's actually an easy choice, but I wanted to mentioned Martinez because he's a very good fielder who had another very good year, and he deserves some recognition.
It's not quite so clear in the NL. The voters picked Helton, who I thought should have won the award over J. T. Snow in 2000, but Young had a terrific year, too. Both the Diamond Mind and STATS methods for assessing range give Young a slight edge over Helton. And after making a boatload of errors in 1999 and 2000, Young got his act together and finished around the league average in fielding percentage. Helton led the league in this category.
Over the past four years, Helton has shown more range than any other first baseman in baseball. Young is second. You rarely hear good things about Young's range because he made far too many errors in two of those four seasons. But the man can cover ground at first base.
Helton and Young were almost on par with each other this year, but I'd agree with the voters and choose Helton. He's been the best in the league since 1998 and this year sustained his high level of play over 157 starts (compared to only 125 for Young).
Second basemen. Here's some of what I wrote a year ago:
"Here we go again. Roberto Alomar won his ninth Gold Glove, and there isn't a baseball writer or television commentator who doesn't gush incessantly about Alomar's brilliance in the field. And I've seen him make some very spectacular plays myself. Problem is, year after year, our analysis (and other measures such as range factors and the STATS zone rating) shows that he doesn't make many more plays than the average second baseman.
Alomar was one of three Cleveland infielders to be rewarded with Gold Gloves this season. But that infield was below the league average in turning ground balls into outs. And according to the STATS Major League Handbook, they were fourth worst in the league in converting double plays when grounders were hit in double-play situations.
And even though they used a lot of different pitchers this year, I don't think you can argue that this defense was made to look worse by a lousy pitching staff. They did, after all, get almost 600 innings from three good starting pitchers (Burba, Colon, Finley) and a bunch more from a group of veteran relievers who have fared quite well playing in front of other defenses in the recent past.
The bottom line is that somebody isn't making nearly as many plays as people think ..."
I'm repeating so much of last year's comment because it's still relevant. This season, Cleveland's infield was 13th in the league in the percentage of ground balls turned into outs. And they were only a hair above the league average in double-play percentage.
You could argue that the infield looks bad because the corner guys -- Jim Thome at first, Travis Fryman and Russ Branyan at third -- don't cover much ground, and you'd be correct. Problem is, there's absolutely no evidence that their middle infielders are doing more than their share, either.
The best case for Alomar's Gold Glove is that he won the fielding percentage title by making only five errors all season. His nearest rivals, Ray Durham and Bret Boone, made ten errors each. But Alomar's range factor was .12 below the league average despite playing behind a ground-ball staff. His STATS zone rating was thirty-five points below the norm for his position. According to our method, Alomar made 20 fewer plays than the average 2B, and he was consistently below average on all types of plays -- line drives, ground balls and popups. And he was 33 years old this year, an age when many middle infielders struggle to keep up with their younger rivals.
Those numbers are indicative of a player who deserves our Fair rating. But we gave him an Average rating anyway. Why? Because he has a great reputation and because it's possible that his pitching staff did indeed make him look worse that he really is.
This is the fifth time in the past nine years that we've given Alomar a rating that's better than our analysis shows is justified. Not once in those nine years has his play-making score been far enough above the league average to merit a Very Good rating.
But every year we say to ourselves that there must be some aspect of his ability that doesn't show up in fielding studies. But don't you think that if Alomar was truly the best at his position in the history of baseball, he'd score well at least once in nine years? Is it really possible that external factors or quirks in the data would make him look worse every single year?
I know that some people will look at this rating and conclude that (a) we're vastly underestimating his ability, (b) we have something against Alomar, and/or (c) we know nothing about baseball. Looking at all of the evidence, however, I have to say that, if anything, we've been generous in how we've rated him over the years.
I'll end this commentary with a quote from The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:
"[Alomar is] an overrated fielder, in my opinion; a good fielder, even a very good one, but no better than some guys who don't win Gold Gloves, like Fernando Vina."
That was written before the 2001 data was available, and I agree with Bill's assessment of Alomar's career. We're now in the late stages of that career, however, and we're seeing evidence of a decline in Alomar's play-making ability.
Other worthy candidates for the AL Gold Glove were Adam Kennedy, Ray Durham, Bret Boone, and Jerry Hairston. Kennedy was the best of this group, but started only 123 games. Nevertheless, I'd go with Kennedy.
The other league's Gold Glove went to Fernando Vina. If Pokey Reese had played the entire year at second, instead of splitting his time between second and short, he would have gotten my vote. But he didn't, and that left things open for Vina, who I nominated as my choice a year ago.
Vina had another good year, with above-average range and a low error rate, and the Cardinals were second in the NL in double play percentage. Those are solid credentials. And he played a lot more than some of the other guys (Ron Belliard, Damian Jackson, Mark Grudzielanek) who could be considered viable candidates.
Third basemen. The voters got it right at this position. Scott Rolen was so amazing that he managed to stand out in a league featuring several other very good players who had very good years. His closest rivals were Robin Ventura and Jeff Cirillo. But Rolen was so good that if there was an award for defense -- an MVP or Cy Young for defense, single award that crosses all positions -- Rolen would be my choice for NL Defensive Player of the Year.
The AL produced three strong candidates, Eric Chavez (the winner), Corey Koskie, and David Bell. Of the three, Chavez was best in range and sure-handedness, and he played a lot more than Bell. So I agree with this selection, too.
Shortstops. As I mentioned above, the voters tend to settle on one guy and give him the award year after year as long as he doesn't blow it. By posting the second-best fielding percentage in the majors (.989, trailing only Rey Sanchez's .991), and by continuing to ply his trade with grace and style, Omar Vizquel did enough this year to keep the voters' trust, and he was rewarded with his ninth straight Gold Glove.
I'm not going to spend a lot more time writing about the Cleveland defense because I did that in the second base comment above. Suffice it to say that Vizquel's range wasn't all that good this year. If Rey Sanchez hadn't been traded out of the league, I'd nominate him, as he bested Vizquel in both range and steadiness. But Sanchez WAS traded out of the league, and in his stead, my vote goes to Toronto's Alex Gonzalez.
Interestingly, I don't recall hearing any gripes about Orlando Cabrera getting the nod in the NL. I figured that with Rey Ordonez healthy and playing a full season, some in New York would have pushed for him to get it back. But Ordonez' range was nothing special according to the measures we use, and it may be that the lingering effects of his arm and shoulder injuries affected his ability to make certain plays for at least part of the season.
On the other hand, Cabrera showed above-average range and was among the steadiest fielders in either league. Rich Aurilia also looked quite good, but in my opinion, Cabrera was a deserving winner.
Outfielders. There are a lot of good outfield candidates this year, and with one major exception, all of the winners were drawn from that pool. In other words, five of the six choices were at least in the right ballpark.
According to our analysis, five center fielders stood out this year, and all of them are in the AL. They are, from top to bottom, Chris Singleton, Kenny Lofton, Mike Cameron, Darin Erstad, and Torii Hunter. Bobby Higginson and Jacque Jones were the two left fielders who separated themselves from the pack. In right, the top performers were in the NL, with Jermaine Dye and Ichiro Suzuki being the best of the AL contenders.
The voters and I agree on Mike Cameron, so I'll focus on the voters' selection of Torii Hunter and Ichiro.
Given that center field is the most demanding outfield position and that we have a large number of deserving candidates there, I see no reason to choose a corner outfielder. Furthermore, according to our analysis, Ichiro had above-average range and an above-average arm, but he wasn't as far above average as the media would have you believe.
Ichiro's range factor was .26 above the norm, but he played behind a pitching staff that produced almost 200 more fly balls than the average AL team (according to the STATS Player Profiles book). His STATS zone rating was seven points below the major-league average for right fielders.
Nevertheless, based on his reputation and the fact that our fielding analysis shows that Ichiro would almost certainly have made more plays if he wasn't playing next to Cameron, we believe he's worthy of a Very Good rating. But we don't see evidence of Gold Glove range here.
In addition, he had only 8 assists, a below-average number for a RF who played as much as he did. And it's not as if nobody was willing to test him. Runners tried to advance on him a little less often than against the average RF, but not that much less. It does appear as if runners got a little more wary of his arm as the season progressed, but not a lot more wary. So we've rated him Very Good in throwing as well.
The media seems to be saying that Ichiro is unquestionably excellent in all phases of the game. According to our methods, he's excellent at a lot of things (hitting for average, hitting in the clutch, sacrifice bunting, running the bases, stealing bases, avoiding errors, staying healthy), very good at some things (getting to balls in right and keeping runners from taking extra bases), and below average in some ways (drawing walks, hitting for power). That's quite a package, and I'd definitely want this guy on my team. But I just don't see the evidence that he's among the top defensive outfielders in the game.
So, if Ichiro doesn't get my vote, then who does deserve the other two outfield Gold Gloves for the AL? Singleton topped the charts in plays-made-per-opportunity, but he only started 102 games. Lofton only started 123 games. Singleton and Hunter have subpar throwing arms. (Hunter tied for the league lead in assists by a CF with 14, but several of those came on plays where the lead runner scored, and he allowed lots of runners to take extra bases.) Hunter plays in a tough park -- it's easy to lose balls in the Metrodome roof -- so he's better than his numbers suggest, and his numbers are very good to begin with. Erstad made only one error all season, leading all major-league CFs in fielding percentage.
It's a very close call, but there are some big differences in playing time to consider. Performance rates are very important, but when it comes to seasonal awards, the volume of performance is more important. So when someone performs at a high level for 145 games, that trumps someone else who performed at a slightly higher level for 120 games. On that basis, my other two votes would go to Erstad and Hunter.
Over in the NL, the top candidates (in my mind) were Geoff Jenkins in left, Andruw Jones in center, plus Larry Walker, Vladimir Guerrero, and Brian Jordan in right. J. D. Drew would have been on this list were it not for the injury that cost him about 50 games. The voters chose Walker, Jones, and Jim Edmonds.
I agree with the selections of Walker and Jones, but in my opinion, either Jenkins or Guerrero would have been a much better choice than Edmonds. Jenkins is a terrific left fielder, but I have to give it to Guerrero because (a) Jenkins started only 104 games, (b) Guerrero showed great range too, and (c) Guerrero has a cannon for an arm. Guerrero does make too many errors, but his range and arm more than compensate for them.
Jim Edmonds has made some of the most amazing plays I have ever seen, but he simply doesn't cover as much ground as some of the younger players at this position. This year, he was below average in range factor and the STATS zone rating, and according to our method, made 16 fewer plays than the average CF given the opportunities presented to him. He battled groin, toe and knee problems, and he's starting to get up in years. I just don't see any reason to believe that he's a more valuable outfielder than the other guys I mentioned.
Recap. Here's how my selections would agree or disagree with those of the voters:
Pos Voters Diamond Mind P Mussina, Maddux Garcia, Rueter C Rodriguez, Ausmus same 1B Mientkiewicz, Helton same 2B Alomar, Vina Kennedy, Vina 3B Chavez, Rolen same SS Vizquel, Cabrera Gonzalez, Cabrera OF Cameron, Walker same OF Hunter, Jones same OF Ichiro, Edmonds Erstad, Guerrero
We agree on twelve of the eighteen selections. I haven't been keeping track, but I'm guessing this represents the highest rate of agreement
since we began doing this.
Now that we've offered our two-cents worth on the Gold Glove winners, there are some other players worth mentioning:
Bobby Abreu, RF -- According to our system, Abreu's play-making scores have been very erratic lately -- quite good through 1998, subpar in 1999, very good in 2000, and average this year. Looked at in the context of the past three seasons, it now seems as if the Excellent rating we assigned for his performance last year was generous, even though he was clearly in the top tier statistically that season. I'm at a loss to explain these ups and downs.
Craig Biggio, 2B -- This former Gold Glover missed the last two months of the 2000 season with a knee injury that required surgery. In January, his general manager warned that Biggio's range and baserunning ability would most likely be limited, especially early in the year. Those comments proved to be accurate, as Biggio's range was far below its previous level and he stole only seven bases, down from 50 only three years ago. His baserunning instincts are still good, so he was a little above average in that regard, but nowhere near the Excellent level he sustained before he hurt his knee.
Tony Clark, 1B -- A great athlete who has earned our Very Good rating for defense the past two years, Clark has been battling back problems that have kept him out of the lineup and hurt his power and defense. We downgraded his range rating to Fair as a result, but if he regains his health, you can expect it to rebound next year.
Ken Griffey, CF -- Spent much of the season trying to play despite a torn hamstring and its after-effects, and it clearly showed. In a little more than half a season of playing time, Griffey made ten fewer plays than the average CF, thereby earning a Fair rating. Expect that to rise next year if he's back at 100%.
Derek Jeter, SS -- I know we're going to take some heat from New York fans on this one, but I assure you that there is no bias in our decision to assign Jeter a Fair range rating this year.
According to our analysis, Jeter made 32 fewer plays than the average shortstop given the opportunties presented to him. He was below average going to his right, below average going to his left, and below average on balls hit more or less at his position. His STATS zone rating was fifty points below average. His range factor was lowest in the majors among those who played at least 100 games at the position. At one time, Scott Brosius's superior range affected Jeter's numbers, but Brosius has declined from Excellent to Average in recent years and is no longer a factor in evaluating Jeter.
The New York infield ranked 10th in the league in the percentage of ground balls that were turned into outs. And it was 13th in double play percentage. Alfonso Soriano probably deserves most of the blame for the low DP rate, but if Jeter was an outstanding fielder, he would have compensated for Soriano's limitations to some extent, and the team would have been closer to the league average.
In his defense, he played behind a staff that produced 5% fewer ground balls than the average team, so his range factor was artificially depressed. Take that into account, and Jeter's range factor would have been only the second- or third-worst in the majors. And, of course, in the playoffs, he made a couple of very heady and gutsy plays that had everyone talking about his courage, his will to win, and his intelligence.
But a couple of attention-getting plays aren't enough, in my opinion, to offset the mountain of evidence indicating that Jeter simply didn't get to as many balls as most of the other shortstops in the game.
Ryan Klesko, 1B -- Earlier in his career, before he was traded to San Diego, Klesko didn't show much range at first base in the limited amount of time he played that position for Atlanta. In 2000, he showed average range in his first full season as a 1B. We gave him an average rating for that performance, even though we weren't certain that he had improved that much. But there was a major drop this year, and his Pr rating reflects that. Klesko has surprised a lot of people by stealing 23 bases in each of the past two seasons, but his career record is quite poor in both left field and at first base, so it seems as if his 2000 season was the anomaly.
Carlos Lee, LF -- Different fielding metrics suggest that Lee's range in left was anywhere from a little above average to a little below average. Yet his defense was sharply criticized in Sports Illustrated's pre-season baseball issue and again late in the season in a Baseball Weekly note. He was replaced defensively 39 times, and that normally happens only to players who are major liabilities in the field. In this case, however, the guys replacing him were superior defenders like Chris Singleton, so it doesn't necessarily mean that Lee was terrible, only that the other guys were better. We asked several people who follow the Sox, and their opinions ranged from "he's under-rated" to "he looks awkward but gets the job done" to "he's as bad as they say." We've chosen to assign him an Average rating this year. That may be a little generous, and I wouldn't be surprised if he slips back to a Fair rating next year.
Raul Mondesi, RF -- Has a very good reputation for defense, but that's mostly based on his great arm. In terms of range, our analysis shows that he's been slightly above average throughout his career. In the spring, it was reported that Mondesi came to camp carrying some extra weight, and his defensive numbers took a big dive. Coincidence? Maybe, but we felt a Fair rating was an accurate reflection of his 2001 performance. He could easily rebound next year.
Todd Zeile, 1B -- A year ago, we wrote that his Excellent range came as a complete surprise even though third basemen often move across the diamond and look very good relative to the men who play first. But we were skeptical. He's never had a reputation as a good fielder, and we wondered whether he'd be able to keep it up. He didn't, so it may be that last year was a fluke or a case where the various fielding measures over-stated his value for some reason. We rated him Average this year.