Baseball Articles — Defensive Analysis
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.
Tom Tippett's Thoughts on Defense
Some people argue that it's impossible to measure the defensive performance of baseball players because the statistics available for that purpose are woefully inadequate. If you're talking about traditional fielding stats -- games, putouts, assists, errors, double plays -- I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's impossible, but I would agree that it's not easy.
In this article, we'll look at those traditional fielding stats and talk about what you can and cannot learn from them. We'll look at more modern fielding statistics such as Pete Palmer's Fielding Runs, the zone ratings from STATS Inc., and Bill James Win Shares. As the providers of a computer baseball game, one of our ongoing tasks is rating players in all phases of the game, including defense, and we'll talk about how we use detailed play-by-play data from STATS to improve our understanding.
Even with these advances, evaluating defense is not an exact science. If you're a the-glass-is-half-empty sort of person, you could take that to mean it's not worth the effort. But I believe the availability of play-by-play data has raised the level of the water so the glass is now about 90% full, and if you're interested in joining me for a little stroll through the evolution of fielding analysis, I think you'll end up with a better idea of what we can and cannot learn about defense.
Baseball analysis in general
The idea of using statistical measures to assess the ability to succeed in a certain phase of the game is not a radical one. Baseball people have been doing this for over a century to measure batting and pitching performances. They don't, after all, give the batting title to the guy with the prettiest swing, they give it to the player who hit for the highest average. They don't give the Cy Young to the pitcher with the best mechanics or the guy who throws the hardest, they give it to the one who was deemed to be most effective. They look at results, not form or effort or attitude or any of the other things that a player brings to the game.
But for the most part this tradition has extended only to hitting and pitching. Today's announcers and analysts make increasing use of modern measures like on-base percentage and inherited runners to shed more light on those areas of the game, but you never hear a television or radio analyst talk about meaningful measures of baserunning, throwing or defense. Instead, they talk about their impressions of the player -- how fast he looks, his quickness, strength and athleticism -- and say simplistic things like "they're the best fielding team in a league because they lead in fielding percentage."
Because we do our own analysis, we sometimes find players whose performance is better or worse than you would guess by watching them a few times a year. And while most of our ratings are consistent with the opinions expressed by baseball's leading writers and TV personalities, sometimes we conclude that a player is actually performing at a higher or lower level than his reputation would suggest.
Because we try very hard to provide the most accurate and realistic baseball simulation available, we can't afford to give in to public opinion and rate someone higher than his performance justifies. If we did that for defensive ratings, we'd have these options:
- reduce the rating of one of his teammates so the team's defense isn't overrated
- reduce the effectiveness of the team's pitchers to compensate for the extra plays this player will now make in the simulated season
- disregard these side effects and allow the player, the team, and its pitchers to produce better results than they should
We don't think it's fair to downgrade teammates so we can give a popular player a better rating than he deserves. And we don't think our customers would want us to disregard the side effects and publish a season disk with players and teams who will overperform. So we do our best to rate players based on their actual performance.
Judging by Watching
For a few years now, I've wanted to write a little piece about how difficult it is to judge defensive ability, or any baseball skill for that matter, just by watching a lot of games. Then I found an essay by Bill James in his 1977 Baseball Abstract (a self-published book that predated his debut in bookstores by about five years) that says it far, far better than I ever could.
Here are a few excerpts from this wonderful essay, starting with a comment on how differently most people tend to approach the assessment of hitters and fielders:
"While we might not all be able to agree who the greatest-hitting first baseman ever was, the record books will provide us with a reasonably brief list to choose from: Gehrig, Anson, Foxx, Sisler. That's about it. Nobody's going to argue that it was Joe Judge or Moose Skowron, because the record books simply will not permit it . . .
Fielding statistics provide no such limited clarity. Talk about the greatest fielding shortstops ever . . . and the basic argument for everybody is 'One time he made a play where...'
Suppose we turn that same argument back to hitting. Now Moose Skowron hit some baseballs a long way, but nobody is going to say that he was the greatest hitting first baseman ever because 'One time I saw him hit a baseball so far that..." It is understood, about hitters, that the important question is not how spectacularly but how often. Brooks Robinson is known as a great fielding third baseman not because of the number of plays that he makes, but because he looks so good making them. Nobody talks anymore about what a great hitter Jim Northrup was, although to tell you the truth I never saw anybody who looked better at the plate. It is understood that, notwithstanding appearances, he wasn't an especially good hitter. Hitters are judged on results; fielders, on form."
And he talks about the difficulty of trying to judge effectiveness simply by watching:
"One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference is one hit every two weeks. It might be that a reporter, seeing every game the team plays, could sense the difference over the course of the year if no records were kept, but I doubt it . . . the difference between a good hitter and an average hitter is simply not visible."
"a fielder's visible fielding range, which is his ability to move to the ball after it is hit, is vastly less important than his invisible fielding range, which is a matter of adjusting his position a step or two before the ball is hit."
In that essay, Bill went on to propose a scoring system that accomplishes essentially what STATS Inc. is doing now -- recording the location of every batted ball so that we could build a record of fielding performances similar to the statistical records that we use to judge batting and pitching performances.
I'm not saying that it doesn't matter whether you watch games or not. I'm just saying that I agree with Bill that it's very difficulty to rate players solely by watching games. We also need useful measures of what they accomplished.
Measuring Defensive Range
Defensive range is the ability to cover ground and get to more balls than the average fielder, and it's one of the hardest elements of fielding performance to measure.
Official fielding stats provide information such as games played, putouts, assists, errors, double plays, and fielding percentage. But using these numbers to assess player skills is extremely difficult, if not impossible. The list of reasons is very long, but they all boil down to the fact that they don't tell you how many chances to make plays were presented to each fielder.
In 2002, for example, Jose Vidro led the majors in assists by a second baseman. Does this mean he was the best seconde baseman in baseball, or was this just because:
- he played more innings than everyone else?
- he played behind a pitching staff that didn't strike out a lot of batters, so more balls were put in play?
- his pitching staff induced a high percentage of ground balls?
- his pitching staff was heavily right-handed, so they faced more than the normal number of left-handed batters (who hit more ground balls to the right side)?
- his park somehow makes it easier for him to make plays?
- it just happened that more balls were hit to second when he was playing?
Baseball analysts, ourselves included, have made many attempts to devise methods that deal with some of these other factors so that we can isolate the contribution the player is making. Let's review them, and then talk about some newer methods that we've been using.
Range Factors and Defensive Innings
In the 1970s, Bill James introduced the idea of range factors to compensate for playing time. A player's range factor is generally computed as successful chances (putouts plus assists) per game. This was a good first step, even though Bill acknowledged at the time that it wasn't meaningful for pitchers, catchers and first basemen.
One thing that frustrated Bill was the fact that not all games played are equal. Some players play almost every inning of their games. Others split the playing time with a platoon partner. Late-inning defensive specialists often pick up a lot of games played without actually playing a lot. For a while, Bill devised methods to estimate how many innings each fielder was actually in the game at his position, but this is very hard to do. Fortunately, companies like STATS have been publishing accurate counts of defensive innings for the last ten years. So we can now compute range factors on a per-nine-innings basis, just like we do for earned run averages.
Using a range factor based on defensive innings, Pokey Reese moves to the top of the list of 2002 second basemen with 5.86 successful chances per nine innings. Vidro drops to seventh.
The fixed sum problem
Whether you use games or innings as the basis of a range factor calculation, there's another critical problem with range factors. By measuring plays made per game or per nine innings, the method takes no account of the length of those innings. Consider the following two innings that start out the same way and feature the same mix of batted balls, only with different results:
- strikeout ... ground ball double down the third base line ... line drive single to shallow center ... popup to third ... triple into the right field corner ... ground ball single between first and second ... groundout to third
- strikeout ... great diving stop by third baseman on hard-hit grounder down the line, with the batter out at first on a strong throw by the third baseman ... line drive single to shallow center ... popup to third
In the first version of this inning, the official fielding stats record a putout for the catcher (on the strikeout), one assist (on the inning-ending ground out) and one putout (on the popup) for the third baseman, and one putout (on the grounder) for the first baseman. In the second version of this inning, the official fielding stats are exactly the same. The fact that the defense allowed three more hits in the first one is completely lost.
In this example, there's no way to tell which team defense and which individual fielders were more effective just by looking at the official fielding stats. In the more general case, the best fielders will generally end up making more plays than the poorest defenders. But the number of putouts in a nine-inning game adds up to 27 no matter how many hits are allowed, and the number of assists is mostly a product of the number of ground balls, not the skill of the infielders. So we can't use range factors to evaluate team defense at all, and they don't tell us nearly enough about individual fielders either.
Adjusted Range Factors
Even if we use defensive innings to measure playing time, we still haven't taken into account (a) the number of opportunities presented to each fielder and (b) the fact that some putouts and assists are harder to come by than others. Back in the 1980s, I developed a new type of range factor that adjusts for many of these variables in the following ways:
- it counts the number balls put in play (excluding homeruns) while each fielder was at his position, removing the strikeout rate of the pitching staff as a potential source of bias
- it counts only those putouts and assists that required the fielder to do some important work (e.g. taking a groundball and getting an out by making a throw or stepping on the bag for a force, spearing a line drive, or tracking down a fly ball) and ignores the ones that don't say much of anything about defensive range (e.g. taking a throw at first base, making the pivot on a double play, or tagging a runner on a steal attempt)
- it tracks balls put in play by left- and right-handed batters separately, since players pull the ball on the ground much more often than they go the other way
- it adjusts for the ground ball percentage of each team's pitching staff
Traditional range factors compute plays made per game or per nine innings. This method computes plays made per 100 batted balls, meaning that we can use it to get a better handle on both team and individual defense. If one team gives up a lot more hits than another, it will need more balls in play to get through a game, and the adjusted range factors for the poor fielding team will be lower.
Here's how these factors affected Vidro:
- his pitching staff was a little above average in strikeouts
- only 12% of Montreal's innings were thrown by lefties. That's a low figure, but the percentage of balls put in play by lefty hitters was about average despite the right-handed nature of his pitching staff. (By the way, if we made an assumption based on the left/right mix of the staff instead of actually counting balls put in play, we would have assumed Vidro got more chances to make plays than he really did.)
- Montreal's pitchers were second in the majors in ground ball percentage, a strong indication that Vidro's numbers were boosted significantly simply because he had more balls hit his way
Based on adjusted range factors, Vidro was a little below average among all major-league 2Bs this year, and while we can't finish our assessment of his play without using more advanced methods, we've already seen enough to conclude that his MLB-leading assist total is highly misleading.
This approach produces much better information than does an ordinary range factor, but we're still left with the fact that we're using these adjustments to make an educated guess at how many opportunities each fielder had to make plays. It goes without saying that it's possible to do better when we have access to play-by-play accounts that note the location of every batted ball.
Total Baseball's Fielding Runs
Before moving on, let me take a moment to say that the Fielding Runs numbers in the Total Baseball encyclopedia can be extremely misleading. I don't enjoy saying this, because they were developed by Pete Palmer, and Pete's a friend and one of the nicest guys I've ever met.
The first problem I have with fielding runs is that they're just a glorified range factor, with different weights for different events. Like range factors, you cannot interpret them accurately unless you know the strikeout rate and groundball/flyball ratio of the pitching staff and what percentage of left-handed batters the fielder faced. For a good example of the distortions that often creep into the fielding runs numbers, see the comments on Frank White and Ryne Sandberg in an article I wrote for ESPN.com in September, 1998.
In addition, I don't agree with some of the formulas, mainly because they put too much weight on certain events. For example, the formula for outfielders is .20(PO + 4A - E + 2DP), meaning that catching a fly ball with the bases empty earns you .20 fielding runs, while catching the same fly ball and throwing out a runner for a double play earns you 1.4 fielding runs. In both cases, the fielder made the best play available, but one counts seven times as much as the other. And suppose one center fielder reaches a ball but muffs it for a one-base error, while another lets it go up the gap for a double -- the guy who reached the ball has .20 fielding runs deducted and the second guy isn't penalized at all.
Finally, the fielding runs formula mixes range, errors and throwing into one number, which is appropriate for what Total Baseball is trying to accomplish (an overall player rating), but useless for what we do, which is to assign separate ratings for these skills.
STATS Zone Ratings
The next logical step beyond range factors is a system that counts actual opportunities to make plays. We weren't able to do that until 1989, because nobody tracked the location of every batted ball until then. The folks at STATS were the first to do it, and they developed the zone rating to take advantage of this new information.
STATS says the "zone rating measures all the balls hit in the area where a fielder can reasonably be expected to record an out, then counts the percentage of outs actually made." Instead of having to estimate the number of opportunities to make plays from defensive innings, percentages of balls in play, the left-right composition of the pitching staff, and the staff groundball/flyball ratio, we can actually count the balls hit to each fielder while they are in the game.
The zone rating could have been a tremendous breakthrough, but we disagree with some of the details of their implementation.
First, they don't count all the balls. For example, no infielder is charged with an opportunity when a grounder is hit down the lines, in the holes, or up the middle. The only plays that go into the zone ratings are the ones where the ball is hit more or less at a fielder. The net result is a system that places more emphasis on good hands than range.
Even if you didn't know this, you could infer from their numbers. The league average zone ratings range from .763 to .885 depending on the position, suggesting that fielders are turning well over 80% of all batted balls into outs. But the truth is that only about 70% of all batted balls become outs. It's clear that the most challenging opportunities, the ones that separate the best fielders from the ordinary ones, are left out of their system.
The second issue is that errors are mixed in with the ability to get to the ball in the first place. Let's suppose a player is credited with 500 opportunties in a season, and let's suppose he was very reliable, making 8 fewer errors than the average player with that many plays to make. Those 8 errors become 8 outs and produce a zone rating that is .016 above the league average. Without taking the errors into account, you might conclude that he has above-average range, when in fact he has average range and very good hands.
The third issue no longer applies but needs to be mentioned. Through the 1999 season, when an infielder started a ground ball double play, STATS credited him with two outs and one opportunity. Starting double plays is an important skill for an infielder, but this approach gives a significant boost to infielders who play behind pitchers who put lots of runners on base and/or with a pivot partner who turns the DP well, and it clouds the effort to measure defensive range. STATS doesn't do this any more, but if you have copies of the STATS Player Profiles books from the 1990s, you'll be looking at zone ratings that double-count these DPs.
Once again, let me say that the idea behind the STATS zone rating is sound and has value even with these issues. If you're looking for an overall measure of fielding performance that includes both range and errors, it won't matter to you that they're lumped together. And folks like us who are interested in separating these skills can make an adjustment for error rates to isolate the range portion.
The zones are smaller than we'd like, but my guess is that STATS did this on purpose to avoid running into two other issues that we'll talk about in a bit. First, some batted balls are playable by more than one fielder, and keeping the zones on the small side reduces the number of opportunities for one fielder to affect his neighbors. Second, outfield zones that cover the entire field make the system more vulnerable to distortions arising from different ballpark dimensions and characteristics. Our zone-oriented analysis does cover the whole field, so we've developed some methods for handling the interaction among fielders and accounting for park effects.
For a few years in the early 1990s, we used a type of zone rating called Defensive Average (DA) . It was developed by Pete DeCoursey and Sherri Nichols and used play-by-play data from The Baseball Workshop. Like the STATS zone rating, defensive average used the same principle of counting batted balls hit into each fielder's zone and counting the number of plays he made. But it covered the whole field and didn't mix apples and oranges by double-counting GDPs. As a result, we felt we got better results from defensive average than from the STATS zone ratings.
When assigning responsibility for balls hit between fielders, the STATS and DA systems are similar if an out is made. Both systems credit the fielder with one opportunity and one play. But things get tricky when the ball falls in for a hit.
If the ball falls into one of the STATS zones, the fielder responsible for that zone is charged with an opportunity. If it falls outside the STATS zones, the play is ignored, and no fielder bears responsibility for the hit.
In the DA system, each player gets charged with half an opportunity when there's a hit that lands between two fielders. That means that someone playing next to a weak fielder tends to look worse than he is, because if the other guy makes the play, there is no opportunity charged, but if the ball falls in, he's charged with half an opportunity even if it's the sort of play the other fielder would be expected to make at least some of the time.
During the years in which we used the Defensive Average system, we were aware of this limitation and did our best to make intelligent adjustments to compensate for it when assigning player ratings. But we always wanted to see if we could do better.
The Diamond Mind Approach
In 1996, we began using a collection of old methods and new tools to expand our look at defensive performance, and we have been refining and improving these methods ever since. We believe that by using these tools to look at player performance from several angles, we can learn a lot more about who accomplished what in a given season.
To one degree or another, our best tools take advantage of the fact that STATS has been recording the type (grounder, fly ball, line drive, popup, bunt) and location (direction and distance) of every batted ball since the late 1980s. Using this information, our analysis programs aren't vulnerable to the potential biases in traditional fielding stats. We know exactly how often each player was in the field, how often the ball was hit near him, and how many plays he made on those balls.
The field is divided into approximately 80 zones. We count the number of balls hit into that zone, the number of times each fielder made an out, and the number of singles, doubles, triples, and errors that resulted. When we're done, we look at the zone data for all of the major leagues and see how often the players at each position were able to make plays on those balls.
For example, on the 6939 grounders up the middle to the shortstop side of the bag during the 2002 season, MLB shortstops turned 64.4% of those balls into outs and made errors 1.9% of the time. Second basemen ranged to the other side of the bag to make the play 0.8% of the time. Almost of the remaining grounders in this zone resulted in singles, with a handful of doubles and fielders choice plays to round things out.
This gives us a baseline that we can use to evaluate performance on balls hit into this zone. Repeating this process for all batted ball types and every zone gives us an overall measure of the playmaking ability of a team and its players.
With one exception, our zone-oriented approach includes the entire field and all types of batted balls. Early on, it became clear that we needed to screen out infield popups because they don't tell us anything. Over 99% of these plays result in an out, so they don't distinguish the good fielders from the not-so-good. And because these plays are easy to make, most popups can be handled by any of several players, making the successful completion of this play as much (or more) a matter of preference than one of skill.
As I mentioned previously, we need to use measures of team defense to help us deal with the interactions among fielders. If one player doesn't get credit for making a play, it may be because another fielder beat him to it, and the first guy shouldn't be punished for playing next to a superior defender. It's only by looking at measures of team defense that we can distinguish the cases where another guy made the play from those when the ball fell for a hit. So let's take a moment to discuss team defense metrics.
Defense efficiency record (DER)
We usually start by computing the percentage of batted balls, excluding homers, that were turned into outs by the team. This percentage was labelled the Defense Efficiency Record (DER) by Bill James when he wrote about it in the 1980s, and you can find DER information on the Baseball Prospectus web site during the season.
I'm not completely sold on DER as the ultimate measure of team defense, however. For one thing, I've always been troubled by the fact that it's just a variation on batting average, with strikeouts and homeruns removed, and with the focus on the out percentage instead of the hit percentage. But league batting averages have ranged from a low in the .230s to a high in the .300s in the past 80 years, so they don't just measure batting skill. They also embody the impact of the rules of the game (strike zone, mound height), the equipment (dead ball, lively ball, juiced ball), and the changing nature of ballparks. Similarly, the league DER figures have risen and fallen by large amounts, indicating that factors other than fielding skill are built into these numbers, too.
A second question about DER is the extent to which it measures pitching versus fielding. I've always believed that DER measures some of both. There is a strong (but not perfect) correlation between a team's rankings in ERA and DER, suggesting that (a) good pitchers make their fielders look better and/or (b) the team's rank in ERA is in large part due to the quality of its defense. It's hard to know which way to look at it, but I believe it works in both directions.
Recent work by Voros McCracken and Dick Cramer suggests that pitchers have little or nothing to do with the percentage of balls in play that are turned into outs. To put it another way, the defense is entirely responsible for a team's DER ranking. I'm not ready to accept that pitchers have nothing to with these outcomes. While I haven't had time to do any detailed studies in this area, some very preliminary work suggests that good pitchers do improve a team's DER, though only by a few points. But because pitchers allow a very large number of batted balls over the course of a season, these small improvements can have a large effect on the pitcher's ERA.
Another issue with DER is that park effects can play a large role. It's clear that the enormous impact that Coors Field has on scoring isn't entirely due to homeruns. A much higher percentage of balls that stay in the field of play are falling in for hits, too, and that makes Colorado's team defense look much worse than it really is. This is the most extreme example, of course, but there are other parks that make a difference.
In other words, we start our process by computing the DER for each team, but we don't take that figure as a precise measure of the team's ability to make plays in the field. We keep the potential distortions in mind as we go through our rating process.
Other measures of team defense
Our zone-oriented analysis provides us with another way of rating team defenses. We can go zone by zone and compute how many more (or fewer) plays were made by this team than the average team, then do a weighted average of all of the zones to get an overall score for the team. That overall score is expressed as the number of plays made above or below the average. In 2002, for example, Anaheim's defense led the majors by making 120 more plays than the average team (in 4228 opportunties). These figures are not park adjusted, so they're not definitive, but they definitely add value in the process.
To isolate portions of a team's defense, we rate the infields by computing the percentage of ground balls turned into outs and the outfields based on the percentage of fly balls and line drives that were caught.
Because we use a collection of overall measures (like DER), mid-level measures (such as out rates on grounders), and detailed zone-based analysis, we can examine team defense at several levels of detail. That helps us determine which fielders are getting the job done and which are letting the team down.
We can't leave the subject of team defense without looking more closely at the parks.
We mentioned Coors Field a moment ago, but Dodger Stadium is another good example. From 2000 to 2002, that park depressed batting averages by 21 points, making it one of the best pitchers' parks in the game. And it wasn't just because of strikeouts and homers, either. Focusing only on balls hit into the field of play, Dodger Stadium took away 97 hits a year in that period. If half of them came with the Dodgers on defense, measures that ignore park effects (like DER) make LA's team defense appear to be 48 plays better than it really is.
Using play-by-play data, we can also compare the hit rate on different types of batted balls. Dodger Stadium dramatically reduces the percentage of ground balls that go for hits. It also cuts the hit rate on fly balls, but not by a whole lot. Because virtually all of the park's effect is concentrated in the infield, it would be especially easy to overrate the LA infield if we ignored this information.
Evaluating individual players
Most of our work at the player level uses zone-based data. We compare the rate at which each fielder turned batted balls into outs in each zone with the overall averages. If a player made more than the normal number of plays, he gets a plus score for that zone. If he fell short of the overall average, he gets a minus score. By computing a weighted average of all of his zones, we get a figure that tells us how many more (or fewer) plays he made than the average defender. We call this figure "net plays".
In a typical season, the top fielders at each position make 25-30 more plays than the average. Exceptional fielders have posted marks as high as 40-60 net plays, but those are fairly uncommon. Recent examples include Darin Erstad in 2002, Scott Rolen just about every year, and Andruw Jones in his better seasons. The worst fielders tend to be in the minus 25-40 range.
As a reality check, we look at other measures like range factors, adjusted range factors, STATS zone ratings, and our own version of the STATS zone ratings (with larger zones). More often than not, these measures tell similar stories. When they disagree, we look for external factors that might be skewing those other measures. In the end, we put the most weight on our net plays analysis.
But the net plays figures are starting points, not the final answer, because we have several other things to consider before we assign a rating. We've already talked about park effects, so I won't dwell on that any more.
As with the STATS zone ratings, our net plays analysis can be influenced by error rates. So we always look to see whether a fielder is making more plays mainly because he has better hands. Mike Bordick and Alex Rodriguez are two good examples from the 2002 season. In some cases, a player will have a mediocre net plays figure because he made a lot of errors, and we may bump up his range rating to account for the fact that he's getting to more balls in the first place.
For infielders, we have another analysis program that measures their ability to start double plays and get force outs when such opportunities exist. Especially for corner infielders, the ability to make the tough plays can separate the men from the boys. If a first baseman always takes the ball to the bag and doesn't start his share of double plays and force plays, he's not helping the team, even if he does record a normal number of outs.
For middle infielders, we also look at how often they are able to make the pivot on the double play. This is an important part of the second baseman's job, and he can make up for ordinary range by turning two more often. It isn't talked about very often, but we also see differences in the ability of shortstops to complete these plays.
For shortstops, we look at the zone data to see if their net plays score has been artificially depressed by sharing the left side of the infield with an especially talented third baseman. For example, Scott Rolen is way above average on balls to his left, and that cuts down on the number of plays his shortstops can make. If the overall team defense in that zone is still very good, there's no reason to penalize the shortstop. Similarly, we look for first basemen who are taking plays away from the man at second. By looking at the zone data for individual fielders and for the team as a whole, we can tell whether plays not made by one fielder are getting made by someone else.
The same is true in the outfield. For balls hit in the gaps, we look at the zone data to see if an exceptional fielder might be taking plays away from his neighbors.
Another of our analysis programs counts the number of times a player is used as a defensive sub or is removed for a defensive sub. This information doesn't tell us anything about performance, of course, but it is very helpful to know that one fielder was regarded by his manager as being superior to another.
Like many of you, we read a lot, we watch games on local TV and satellite and the highlight shows on ESPN and Fox, because it helps to have an image of a player when we evaluate the performance data. And we compile an extensive database of player notes, so we know who's coming off a knee injury or a shoulder problem that might have affected their ability to make plays.
And when the evidence doesn't match the player's reputation, we double-check our work and look very, very hard for the reasons why. Whenever possible, we talk to people -- local writers, broadcasters and sophisticated fans -- who have seen the player quite a bit to see if we can gain some additional insight into each player's performance.
After rating all of the players, we go back and double-check these individual ratings to see if they add up to something resembling the team's park-adjusted defensive performance. If not, we go back over everything we know about those players and keep at it until it makes sense.
Bill James' Win Shares
In his recent book called Win Shares (published by STATS in 2002), Bill James developed a method for apportioning each team's wins to the players who were most responsible for creating them. A big part of that method involves evaluating defense at both the team and individual level. We're still in the process of evaluating this new approach, but we can point out a few things that you might want to keep in mind as you ponder the role that system should have in evaluating players:
- Bill begins by evaluating overall team defense and then tries to break that down and assign credit/blame to positions and then players. We've been doing that for many years.
- Bill's method is intended to work with players from all eras, including that vast portion of baseball history for which play-by-play data is not available. So he chose to develop new techniques for coping with the biases inherent in traditional fielding stats. We've been aware of those biases for a long time and have always kept them in mind while evaluating traditional fielding stats.
- Bill's system is an attempt to make better estimates of the number of opportunities to make plays and the number of plays made, and it appears that he has come up with at least a few useful ways to do that. On the other hand, using play-by-play data from the 1990s, we can now count those things directly, and we want to spend some time seeing whether Bill's estimates match up with the actual data for that period. If they do, he's made a giant contribution to the field, because we can confidently apply his techniques to seasons for which we don't have first-rate play-by-play data. If they don't, we'll have to figure out why and proceed from there.
- Bill's method is intended to aggregate all aspects of fielding performance into one number, while our goal is to isolate specific skills. We have separate ratings for range, errors and throwing, and we cannot assume that a high number of defensive win shares necessarily indicates a fielder who should get a top range rating. It's possible that his range is average and his value lies in a strong arm and good hands.
- We're not yet sure about the weights Bill put on different fielding skills when coming up with his fielding win shares. To some extent, that doesn't matter to us because we're more interested in rating the individual components of defense anyway. But as fans of baseball analysis, we're curious to see whether Win Shares really works, so we hope to find time to look at this part of his system, too.
The bottom line is that we will continue to rate fielders for modern seasons based on our analysis of play-by-play data. But we're always on the lookout for new and better ways to evaluate fielders, and if our review suggests that the fielding portion of the Win Shares model provides us with some new tools, we'll use them.
Other Approaches to Rating Players
We know that a lot of our customers like our products precisely because we do our own analysis instead of rating everyone based on prevailing opinions. At the same time, we know that there are other people who don't buy our products because Tim McCarver says that someone is a brilliant fielder, and because McCarver is a well-known TV analyst and ex-player, he must therefore know a lot more about this stuff than we do.
Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that we wanted to ditch all of our analysis and rate players based upon what we read and hear from the media. That's a lot harder to do than you might think, for a whole host of reasons.
When someone in the media says "he's the best second baseman in baseball," it's not always clear what it means. It could mean he's the best overall player at his position (including hitting, running, etc.). It could mean he has great hands. It could mean he turns the double play well or that he has great range. Even if it means all of these things to some degree, an overall evaluation doesn't help us. We have separate ratings for separate skills, and we need objective evaluations of each skill.
The media doesn't talk about all the players. We have 1200+ players to rate each year, and only a fraction of them are regularly discussed. Some players may be overrated because they play for teams in media-intensive cities or teams that got a lot of exposure in the playoffs, while good players on small-market teams may be overlooked.
It often seems as if it takes a year or two for someone's reputation to catch up with a change in his performance, for better or worse. In the 15+ years we've been rating players, we've often identified someone who has been making a lot of plays without getting noticed. It's not unusual to see that player start to win Gold Gloves two years later. And then keep winning Gold Gloves for a few years after their performance no longer merits them.
Managers and general managers make public comments about players all the time, but their remarks can be influenced by the needs of the team. Sometimes it's to their advantage to talk about players in certain ways, whether it's to hype someone for marketing purposes or to talk them down in a salary squabble. It's hard to tell when we can take a comment at face value and when we need to discount it because of a hidden agenda.
I'd love to incorporate the opinions of professional baseball scouts because they are trained to see things that other people don't see. But it's difficult to find a collection of scouts who have seen every player and can make their evaluations available to people outside the organizations they work for.
We could base our judgments on how often someone shows up on SportsCenter. But the photogenic play isn't always the best play. The exact same fly ball might produce a routine play for a great fielder, a diving catch for the average fielder, or a single for the poor fielder. The diving catch is the only one that makes the highlight films. The majority of highlight-film plays are made at the edge of the fielder's effective range, whatever that range happens to be.
(A few years ago, I saw a game in Baltimore in which the right fielder broke back on a line drive, realized it wasn't hit that hard, reversed course and recovered in time to make a nice shoestring catch. What should have been a very easy play wound up being shown dozens of times as CNN's Play of the Day.)
We could place a lot of weight on the Gold Glove voting. Putting aside the question of how well the voters do that job, there are still several obstacles. They don't announce the voting, so we have no idea who came second or how close the vote may have been. And even if we were to accept all Gold Glovers as top fielders, we can't award them all our top range rating because Gold Gloves are given for overall fielding performance, and we have to rate players separately for range, throwing, and avoiding errors. For some Gold Glovers, the most accurate way to rate them would be to assign an excellent throwing rating, a very low error rate, and an average range rating.
We do our very best to rate players based on performance, not reputation. To that end, we license play-by-play data and spend a lot of time developing new ways to analyze that information and interpreting that information in light of everything we know about that player's performance. The phrase "everything we know" includes our own analysis of team and player fielding skill, other measures like range factors and STATS zone ratings, injury reports, park effects, plus what we see and hear and read as we follow baseball on a daily basis. We hope you like the results as much as we enjoy doing this work.
2003 Gold Glove Review
Comments on 2003 Gold Glove Awards
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.
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.
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.
2002 Gold Glove Review
Comments on 2002 Gold Glove Awards
December 5, 2002
Each year, usually in November, Rawlings announces the winners of their annual Gold Gloves for the best fielder at each position in each league. The announcement is normally carried in your local paper or on your favorite web site as a brief Associated Press story that tells us who won, which players are repeat winners, and how many times each player has won the award.
The selections are made by a vote of managers and coaches that is taken before the end of the regular season. I'm not aware of any guidelines that are provided to the voters, so I don't know how much weight they put on great range versus soft hands or a strong and accurate 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 placed on each skill, when they arrive at an overall assessment of each player's performance in the current season.Each year, usually in November, Rawlings announces the winners of their annual Gold Gloves for the best fielder at each position in each league. The announcement is normally carried in your local paper or on your favorite web site as a brief Associated Press story that tells us who won, which players are repeat winners, and how many times each player has won the award.
But we don't know how they made their decisions because the announcement story doesn't provide any justification for any of the selections. We never see any relevant numbers (except the occasional error total) or comments from the voters. Nothing.
So for the past several years, we've been offering up our own brand of analysis as we review the Gold Glove selections. What sort of analysis are we talking about? We look at defensive performance from several angles in our attempt to form the clearest possible picture of what each player contributed to his team's defensive effort. In the remainder of this article, you'll see the phrase "according to our analysis" a few times, and by that we mean a combination of the following:
- we evaluate team defense using statistics such as the percentage of batted balls turned into outs (for overall team defense) and the percentage of grounders and fly balls turned into outs (for evaluating infield and outfield play)
- we look at range factors, keeping in mind that they can be severely biased by variations in the nature of a team's pitching staff such as 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 fielder skill)
- using play-by-play data, we divide the field up into zones and measure each fielder's ability to turn batted balls into outs in each zone, and by aggregating the data from each zone and comparing it with the league-average rates, we can 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 (because 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 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
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 our Evaluating Defense article, which was first published several years ago and has been substantially updated for 2002.)
I'd be absolutely amazed to discover that the Gold Glove voters have any of this information at their disposal when making their selections. My assumption is that their votes are based on traditional fielding statistics, reputations, and appearances. That's not necessarily a bad thing. In a good 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 what methods you use to evaluate them.
But there are some differences, and we'll go through each position and discuss the players we view as being the most worthy candidates. At the end, we'll compare 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 2002 Season Disk.
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 as position players.
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 none of the voters 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 an extreme ground-ball pitcher like Greg Maddux if you're a fly-ball pitcher and they're using traditional fielding stats to evaluate you.
This year, Kenny Rogers was chosen for the second time in three years, and he's a good pick. He handled 62 chances successfully while participating in 5 double plays. He won despite making three errors. In fact, only eight pitchers had more errors than that. But Rogers was quite agile, earning our top rating for range, and didn't allow a single stolen base. (I don't know whether the voters consider holding runners as a factor in their voting, but it certainly adds to his value as a pitcher.)
Other worthy candidates include Steve Sparks, Mike Mussina (last year's winner), Corey Lidle, Mark Buehrle, and Roy Halladay, but I believe Rogers was the right choice.
In the NL, Greg Maddux won his 13th straight, and there's no question that he's a very good fielder. This year, he handled 69 chances successfully, making only one error in the process. Maddux gets a lot of assists because he's an extreme ground ball pitcher, but he's not the best in the league, at least not any more.
Kirk Rueter handled 53 chances without an error and took part in five double plays. He hasn't made an error in three years, he consistently converts more batted balls into outs than does Maddux, and he is almost impossible to run on. But he may not be the best this year, either.
At the top of the list of pitchers who bested Maddux in converting opportunities into outs are Steve Trachsel, Livan Hernandez, Rueter, and Tom Glavine.
Trachsel has consistently looked good in our fielding analysis, but this is the best he's looked. He made two errors and was involved in three double plays. I'd like to see him perform at this high level for another year before I believe he's really as good as the others on this list.
Hernandez is a great athlete who always makes a lot of plays. This wasn't his best year, but he handled 71 chances successfully and led the majors with seven double plays while making three errors.
Glavine handled 71 chances without making an error, turned three double plays, and held runners well. Hernandez and Rueter usually rank higher than Glavine in converting batted balls into outs, and while I'd pick Rueter as the league's best fielder over the past five seasons, I think Glavine was slightly better this year, and he would have received my vote.
Ivan Rodriguez has owned this award for a long time. Even though he threw out only 36% of opposing runners this year, he was still intimidating enough to deter enemy runners from challenging him in the first place, so he was a strong candidate again. But he also made seven errors and missed time due to his knee problems, opening the door for someone else. In a year when many teams split the position among several players and nobody stood out, Bengie Molina emerged as the deserving winner. Molina gunned down 45% of the runners who tried to steal and made only one error on the season.
In the NL, I'd second the selection of Brad Ausmus, too. He threw out only 32% of opposing runners this year, but he has a history of throwing very well and now plays for a manager (Jimy Williams) with a track record of advising pitchers to focus more on the hitter than on the runners. The only serious challenger would be Jason LaRue, who's arm didn't get tested very often and who threw out 45% of the runners who dared. But LaRue allowed 20 passed balls to Ausmus's two, made one more error than Ausmus, and was involved in four fewer double plays. Charles Johnson had a good year throwing but didn't play nearly enough to be a serious candidate.
In a down year for AL first basemen, Doug Mientkiewicz should have been a slam dunk winner, and I don't understand the selection of John Olerud. For the second year in a row, Mientkiewicz turned a higher percentage of batted balls into outs than any other AL first sacker, and he matched Olerud in fielding percentage.
Olerud has been a very good fielder in the past, and before he went to the Mets and got noticed, we singled him out as someone who consistently looked very good in our ratings despite getting no credit for his defense. But he's getting up in years and we just don't see any evidence that he's making enough plays at this stage in his career. It's true that the other Seattle infielders made only 47 errors this year, the fifth lowest total in baseball, suggesting that Olerud may have bailed out his mates by scooping throws on more than a few occasions. But that's a very inexact measure. And Minnesota was one of the three teams that was even better on this score, so Mientkiewicz gets the nod here, too.
There was more competition in the NL, but Todd Helton stood out anyway, and I agree with this selection. Helton turned far more batted balls into outs than the other guys at this position, and that in my mind is enough to overcome a quite ordinary record in starting double plays and the seven errors he committed.
Tino Martinez, a contender in the AL a year ago, exhibited very good range and made only five errors, but didn't excel in starting double plays, either. Derrek Lee led the league in starting DPs and got to a lot of balls, too, but tarnished that record by making 12 errors. Travis Lee's defense must have been the main reason he was playing as much as he did, because he didn't have a great year at the plate. His range was good, his fielding percentage above average and his DPs nothing to write home about, but didn't do enough to match the year Helton had.
If Helton had a weakness this year, it might be found in the fact that the Rockies led the majors in errors (75) made by their other infielders, perhaps indicating that Helton wasn't taking care of as many bad throws as his counterparts. On the other hand, the Rockies have the 7th-lowest 2B/3B/SS error total over the five years that Helton has been the regular first baseman, so his track record doesn't indicate a problem in this area.
Unfortunately, we don't have good data on how well first basemen scoop throws. We can count the throwing errors made by other infielders, but the play-by-play files don't tell us how many errors were saved by a good scoop, a great stretch, or a clever sweep tag on a wide throw. And if there are runners on base, we can't tell from the data whether the throw went to first or some other base. Certain first basemen like J.T. Snow make their name on these plays, but it's difficult to measure just how valuable they are in that way.
With Roberto Alomar plying his trade in the other league this year, the battle for the AL Gold Glove was a fair fight for the first time in a long time. Last year, I committed several paragraphs to a detailed evaluation of Alomar's defense in 2001, concluding that his ability to cover ground had diminished with age to a degree that outweighed his excellent fielding percentage.
I believe Adam Kennedy deserved the honor last year, and Kennedy came through with another terrific defensive season in 2002. If it was my call, he'd have a Gold Glove for each hand right now. According to our analysis, Kennedy made 37 more plays than the average 2B this year, and when he got to a ball, he was above average in starting double plays and getting force outs. Other fielders were a little more inclined to settle for the out at first. And there were no weaknesses to offset these pluses; Kennedy was at or a little better than the league in making the pivot and avoiding errors.
Bret Boone was every bit as steady as he's been in the past, and that's likely what convinced the voters to give him his second Gold Glove overall and his first in the AL. Boone led the position in fielding percentage with only seven errors on the season, but he didn't get to nearly as many balls as did Kennedy and he was below average in turning double plays.
In my view, Texas's Mike Young was a slightly better candidate than Boone, nearly matching Boone's fielding percentage while getting to a few more balls and having a better pivot percentage on double plays. For the second year in a row, Jerry Hairston looked quite good in our analysis, and would have been a better selection than either Boone or Young.
But neither player came close to making as many plays as Kennedy. At age 26, he's young enough to get more chances, but there are some terrific young players who are ready to challenge him. I'm thinking of Cleveland's John McDonald and Oakland's Mark Ellis, both of whom looked terrific this year but didn't play enough to challenge Kennedy for the top spot in my mind. Both played shortstop almost exclusively in the minors, and it's not at all uncommon for converted shortstops to become outstanding second basemen very quickly.
Last year, I wrote that 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, so I opted for Fernando Vina instead. In 2002, Vina repeated as the Gold Glove winner at this position. But Reese did play the entire year at second this time, and he would have been a much better choice, in my opinion.
Vina had a disappointing year at the plate, losing 33 points off his batting average and much of his extra-base power. I'm not saying this because I think hitting stats should be considered when picking Gold Glovers. I mention it because we saw a noticeable decline in his range as well, and sometimes these things are connected. His 13 errors and .981 fielding percentage were merely average, and while he continues to be terrific at turning the double play, he didn't create enough extra outs that way to make up for the many extra balls that Reese gets to.
According to our analysis, Reese made 26 more plays than the average 2B, while Vina was near the average. Reese made only 8 errors and posted a .988 fielding percentage, besting Vina in both categories. And Reese was above average in making the pivot, too. Not quite at Vina's level but close enough to make it clear that Reese was the better overall player this year.
Mark Grudzielanek, like Reese a converted shortstop, was another player with a strong all-around season, getting to plenty of balls (even allowing for the help given him by Dodger Stadium), notching a very impressive .989 fielding percentage, and turning double plays at an above-average rate.
At third base, the voters selected Eric Chavez and Scott Rolen. Both are repeat winners, with Rolen riding a three-year streak and picking up his fourth overall.
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 four years. For the second year in a row, Rolen is my choice for NL Defensive Player of the Year. You might argue that someone at a more demanding position, a shortstop or center fielder, should be given preference over the top third baseman. But Rolen has dominated his position like nobody else. And it's not as if third base is an easy position to play; it requires great reflexes, a strong arm, and the versatility to handle a wide variety of plays.
But he wasn't the only NL third baseman to have a very good year in the field. In the wake of Robin Ventura's move to the other league, Rolen's main rivals were David Bell, Placido Polanco (the man Philly received in the Rolen trade), Craig Counsell, and Aaron Boone.
Bell was on my short list of candidates for the AL Gold Glove at this position in 2001, but I gave the nod to Chavez partly because Bell didn't play as much (26 fewer starts). Bell played more often this year, but some of that time was spent at other infield positions, so his time at third was about the same. And he was better this year in both range and sure-handedness.
Polanco has played second, third and short for Tony LaRussa's Cardinals since his debut in 1998, but third base appears to be his best position. He covered a lot of ground, posted a fielding percentage that was 24 points better than the average, and was fifth in the majors in double plays despite playing at least 200 fewer innings at third than the four guys ahead of him. With the recent free agent signing of David Bell, the Phillies now have two of the league's best defensive 3Bs on the same roster. One, most likely Polanco, is expected to play second next year.
Counsell had a terrific defensive season at second base in 2001, and when he was moved to third to fill in for Matt Williams in 2002, Counsell excelled there, too. He might have given Rolen a run for his money had he been able to stay healthy all year. With Williams having vetoed his proposed trade to Colorado, we may not get a chance to find out what Counsell can do at third over a full season. Like Polanco, Counsell is a three-position player who may be best suited for third base defensively while hitting more like a typical second baseman.
According to our analysis, Boone has been less consistent than the other players just mentioned. He was terrific in 1999 and very good again this year, but didn't make as many plays in the two intervening seasons. He tied Rolen for the major-league lead in DPs this year with 42, but he made 20 errors and didn't cover quite as much ground as the other guys on this list. All in all, he's not really a serious challenger for the Gold Glove, but he is one of the league's better defensive 3Bs.
The AL produced three strong candidates, Robin Ventura, Corey Koskie, and Eric Chavez (the winner). According to our analysis, Koskie outplayed Chavez by a small margin this year, making a few more plays, posting a higher fielding percentage, but trailing in double plays. Ventura's range was quite a bit better than either of the other two, but his 23 errors were quite a bit worse. Overall, even with the errors, Ventura made a few more plays. Chavez led the other two in assists by a big margin, but that's largely a function of playing behind a ground ball staff with one of baseball's highest percentages of innings thrown by left-handed pitchers.
So the choice comes down to how much weight you put on range versus fielding percentage. If you don't care too much about the errors as long as a guy is making loads of other plays, Ventura's your guy. If you put a premium on fielding percentage, then Koskie's the pick. If you're looking for a blend of the two, it could go either way. My vote would go to Koskie, but only by the slimmest of margins.
When the Gold Gloves were announced, Omar Vizquel expressed surprise that (a) he didn't win it again and (b) it wasn't Mike Bordick who got it. Here's what he said, as reported by ESPN.com: "I didn't think I was going to lose the Gold Glove this year. I don't think I gave it up. I know I had the numbers to compete."
Vizquel's comments fit neatly with two longstanding patterns in the Gold Glove voting. First, when the voters settle on a player, he tends to get the award year after year as long as he doesn't give them a reason to change their minds, even if he's not the most deserving candidate that year. Unlike batting and ERA titles, you don't see two or three great players duking it out for the top spot year after year, with the lead changing hands based on which of them had the better year. The process of measuring fielding performances is murky enough that the voters often can't figure out which of the best players actually had the better year, so the incumbent has a big advantage.
Second, a lot of weight is placed on errors. When Vizquel was talking about having the numbers to compete, he was talking about errors. When he mentioned Bordick as a viable candidate, he was referring to the fact that Bordick ended the season with only one error in 569 chances, for a remarkable .998 fielding percentage, and a record-setting streak of 110 consecutive errorless games.
Because I have long attributed these beliefs to the voters, I was surprised to see these comments come from a player, especially a player who in his prime had as much or more range at shortstop as anyone in the league. I would have expected someone like Vizquel to look at the "numbers" more broadly than he apparently did. And I'm a little surprised that he talked as if the award was his to lose. Everything else in baseball starts over at zero on Opening Day. Nobody is supposed to have a head start on anything; you're supposed to earn it all over again.
So I was pleasantly surprised when the voters chose Alex Rodriguez despite all of this. Even though Vizquel did have a good year in the field, making only seven errors, his range was only slightly above average. It's impressive that a 35-year-old like Vizquel can still cover as much ground as his younger counterparts, but that's not the same as saying that Vizquel is still as good as he was ten years ago or that he's a Gold Glover at this stage of his career.
Like Vizquel, Bordick is getting up in years (he turned 37 in July), his range was only a little above average, and his main asset was reliability. That his reliability was of historic proportions makes him a Gold Glove candidate even though injuries limited him to 117 games.
But Rodriguez also had a very good year in the field, and I think he deserved the award. Awards should go to the player who accomplished the most that season, so it matters that A-Rod was able to play in every game while Bordick's season was truncated. Rodriguez was very steady, compiling an impressive .987 fielding percentage at a position where the norm is .973. And Rodriguez got to a higher percentage of balls than either Vizquel or Bordick.
In recent years, there hasn't been a huge gap between the best and worst fielders at this position. Teams have always been unwilling to trade off too much defense for offense at short, so you don't see awful fielders with big bats like you sometimes do at less challenging positions. With the emergence of a young crop of great-hitting shortstops, it seems as if fewer teams are willing to go with great-glove no-hit Mark Belanger types. Some of the more defense-oriented shortstops (like Bordick and Vizquel) are past their primes, while others (like Rey Sanchez and Pokey Reese) have moved to second base.
So it wouldn't be accurate to say that Rodriguez was far and away the best at his position this year. David Eckstein, Nomar Garciaparra, Royce Clayton, Chris Woodward, Carlos Guillen, and Miguel Tejada also played quite well. Nomar and Guillen covered a lot of ground but made too many errors. The others were steadier, but nobody rose to A-Rod's level this year.
It was much harder to pick out the strongest NL candidates. Juan Uribe and Jack Wilson were at or near the top in the range factor rankings, but their putout and assist totals were inflated because both played behind ground ball staffs. Last year's winner, Orlando Cabrera, led the majors with 29 errors, so he took himself out of the running in a hurry. Uribe tied with Rafael Furcal for second with 27 errors each. Cesar Izturis made a lot of plays, and could be the best fielder at this position, but he started only 109 games at short. Rey Ordonez and Jose Hernandez showed very good range but hurt their cases with 19 errors each. The voters' choice, Edgar Renteria, also made 19 errors.
I think I would have picked Ordonez, but because nobody really separated themselves from the pack, I can't really argue with the selection of Renteria.
In the third base comments above, I named Scott Rolen as my choice for the fictional NL Defensive Player of the Year award. Darin Erstad is my nominee in the AL. He led all major league outfielders with 452 putouts despite starting only 142 games. Mike Cameron was a distant second with 415 even though he played 90 more innings than Erstad. Andruw Jones was third with 404 in 129 more innings than Erstad. If all three had played 1357 innings, as Jones did, the numbers would have been 499 for Erstad, 427 for Cameron, and 404 for Jones.
Erstad and Cameron got a boost from playing behind fly ball staffs, but Erstad was the top outfielder even after you take this and all other factors into account. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Erstad won a Gold Glove in 2000 and, in my opinion, should have received one last year, too.
The Seattle outfield turned a higher percentage of fly balls and line drives into outs than any other team this year, with Anaheim and San Francisco tied for second and Minnesota fourth. The difference among these four teams was quite small, only about 7 batting average points, so the order could change if we took park effects into account. What is clear, however, is that these four outfields were the clear leaders in this category.
For Seattle, Mike Cameron and Ichiro Suzuki were responsible for their place in this elite group. Eight players shared left field, with Mark McLemore and Ruben Sierra getting about 70% of the playing time between them. Ichiro was selected as a Gold Glover for the second year in a row. We thought highly enough of Ichiro's defense to assign him our top rating for both range and throwing this year, but if you can only justify picking one player from the Seattle outfield, Cameron's my choice. Cameron made 44 more plays than the average center fielder given the array of chances presented to him, the second-highest figure in baseball this year behind Erstad, and well ahead of Ichiro's mark in right field.
The debate about the relative value of a center fielder and corner outfielder also applies to Minnesota's Torii Hunter (CF) and Jacque Jones (LF). According to our analysis, Jones was the top left fielder in baseball this year. (Rondell White was second.) Jones is a legitimate center fielder, too; in 147 games at that position from 1999 to 2001, he was among our top-rated players at that position.
Casual fans may remember Torii Hunter's 2002 season based on two plays, his spectacular homerun-saving catch in the All Star game and the ball he misplayed into an inside-the-park homerun in game three of the AL division series. But we can't define a player's entire season based on two plays. Overall, our analysis indicates that Hunter was one of the better center fielders in the league but trailed Erstad and Cameron.
In my view, the three AL Gold Gloves must come from the group that includes Erstad, Cameron, Jones, Hunter, Ichiro, and Johnny Damon of the Red Sox. With three teams dominating the league in outfield defense, it makes sense to pick the best outfielder from each team. Erstad's the easy pick for Anaheim. Cameron gets the nod for Seattle. The Minnesota pick is a tossup, but I think Jones had a slightly better year, so I'll go with him over Hunter.
As I mentioned a few paragraphs back, San Francisco's outfield turned more fly balls and line drives into outs than any other NL team. The next three teams in this category were St. Louis, Arizona, and Cincinnati.
The spacious dimensions of Pacific Bell Park boosted the San Francisco percentage a little, but the players deserve most of the credit. Specifically, center fielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo and right fielder Reggie Sanders were among the top-rated fielders at their positions this year, and both are Gold Glove candidates in my mind.
The St. Louis outfield was led by Jim Edmonds in center and JD Drew in right. Over the years, Edmonds has shown above-average range in the years when he's been healthy and below-average range when he's been playing with one of his many ailments. One constant is an athletic ability that often allows him to make memorable plays on the balls he does get to. In the past, Drew has shown terrific range in right field and below-average range in center. He was still above average in right this year even though he was playing with a bad knee, but didn't turn in the kind of performance to justify a Gold Glove.
Arizona's top outfielders were Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez. Finley is quite similar to Edmonds in that his ability to get to balls is exceeded by his ability to make great catches when he gets there. That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but it's not meant that way, and Finley's range was above average this year. Gonzalez has always shown very-good-to-great range in left and still looks good even though he turned 35 in September.
Cincinnati's outfield defense was led by Austin Kearns, who topped our net plays rankings in right field and also played a little left and center. Kearns was fifth in the majors in putouts per nine defensive innings; all four of the guys ahead of him played behind staffs that generated a higher rate of fly balls, including three who played behind two of the more extreme fly ball staffs in the game.
We didn't find any NL left fielders who stood out this year. Geoff Jenkins has been very good for several years and was on pace to be the league's top LF again before he destroyed his ankle and missed 90 games. Luis Gonzalez played well, but left field is the easiest of the three positions, and he didn't do enough to be compared with top players at the other two spots.
The top center fielders were Shinjo, Jay Payton, Finley, Andruw Jones, and a bunch of part-timers who didn't play enough to be seriously considered for a Gold Glove. Shinjo lost his job because he didn't hit, but his defense was never a problem, and you could make a very good case that he was the league's top defensive CF in 2002.
Before taking ballparks into consideration, the top right fielders were Kearns and Sanders, with Drew a distant third. Colorado's Larry Walker is a difficult player to judge because he often plays hurt and his park makes outfielders look bad.
One way to judge the impact of a park on outfielders is to compare the percentage of batted balls that become hits in that team's home and road games, excluding homeruns. Coors Field yielded 897 more hits from 1999 to 2002, with 321 of them on ground balls and the remaining 576 on fly balls and line drives. That's 144 extra fly-ball and line-drive hits per year for both teams, or 72 per year for the Rockies alone, or 24 per year per position. In other words, in any fielding analysis that measures the percentage of batted balls turned into outs, Colorado's outfielders begin the season with a deficit of 24 plays compared to players in normal parks.
Without adjusting for his home park, Walker ranked in the bottom third in our net plays analysis. Take the park into account and Walker ranks in the top third of the game's right fielders, and we rated him accordingly.
The voters awarded the three outfield Gold Gloves to Andruw Jones, Larry Walker, and Jim Edmonds, and all three were worthy of consideration. The pool of candidates is limited by the fact that some of the top outfielders didn't play enough. Neither Shinjo nor Kearns started 100 games in the outfield this year. Jay Payton had a very good year but started only 83 games in center and 109 overall. It would be a reach to pick any of them despite their fine defensive play.
All things considered, including playing time, my choices are Andruw Jones, Reggie Sanders, and Steve Finley. I believe Finley was a little better than Edmonds in center field, while Sanders showed just enough extra range to make up for Walker's superior throwing arm.
Here's how my selections compare with those of the voters:
------- American ------- ------- National ------- Pos Voters Diamond Mind Voters Diamond Mind P Rogers same Maddux Glavine C Molina same Ausmus same 1B Olerud Mientkiewicz Helton same 2B Boone Kennedy Vina Reese 3B Chavez Koskie Rolen same SS Rodriguez same Renteria Ordonez OF Erstad same AJones same OF Ichiro Cameron Walker Sanders OF Hunter JJones Edmonds Finley
We agree on eight of the eighteen selections. Last year we agreed on twelve, and at the time, I wrote that it was the highest number of matches I could remember. So I'm not surprised to see that we differed on a few more choices this year.
Here are a few other players whose defensive performances seem worthy of mention:
Eric Chavez, 3B -- In 2001, Chavez won his first Gold Glove, largely (I would guess) because he led the league in fielding percentage while making an above-average number of plays. Prior to that season, our analysis indicated that his range was slightly below average, and we had given him mostly Average and Fair ratings. He got to a lot more balls in 2001, however, and he was right at the boundary between our Excellent and Very Good ratings. It was a tough call, but we decided to take a chance and give him an Excellent rating even though his history didn't really support it. It now appears that a Very Good rating would have been a better choice, as his range reverted to the league average in 2002.
Tony Clark, 1B -- Clark has generally received our Very Good rating but dropped to Fr in 2001 because back problems limited his mobility. We predicted that he'd bounce back to the Very Good level if he was healthy, and he did just that. Of course, he didn't hit a lick, so his playing time was severely reduced despite his skills in the field.
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. He missed the first few weeks of the season and after his return admitted that it was affecting his play in the outfield. His bat came around in the second half, suggesting that he may be on his way to better things for 2003, but his overall defensive numbers in 2002 were low enough to earn a Poor rating.
Brian Giles, LF -- Pittsburgh's outfield was by far the worst in the majors at converting fly balls into outs, so it's no surprise that Giles, the only Pirates outfielder to start more than 77 games, has to shoulder a major part of the blame. As a result, his range rating dropped to Poor.
Ken Griffey, CF -- For the second year in a row, Griffey tried to play through some leg injuries. He didn't play much, and when he did, he wasn't anywhere near his usual self. So he gets a Fair rating again. I'm hoping we get to see him back at 100% in 2003, and look forward to seeing how well he performs if he's healthy.
Derek Jeter, SS -- Once again, Jeter was at or near the bottom in just about every measure of range that we use. As was the case with Scott Brosius from 1998 to 2000, his raw numbers were hurt by playing next to a third baseman (Robin Ventura this time) who cuts off a lot of balls that might be playable by the shortstop. Without taking Ventura's impact into account, it would be tempting to rate Jeter's range as Poor. But he's better than the raw numbers indicate. Not enough to earn an Average rating, though, and we have again assigned him a Fair range rating and a better-than-average error rating.
Raul Mondesi, RF -- Once had a very good reputation for defense, mostly based on his great arm. In terms of range, our analysis shows that he's been slightly above average throughout his career. In 2001, 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. We thought he might rebound in 2002, but he continued his slide instead. As a result, we dropped him to a Poor rating.
Manny Ramirez, LF -- Ramirez has been an adequate corner outfielder in the past, but you wouldn't know it from his performance in 2002. Chronic hamstring problems have made him very cautious in the field and on the bases, and his Poor rating in left field reflects that. If Ramirez can find a way to overcome his hamstring problems and get back to playing at full speed, his rating might improve. But he's such a great hitter that he and the team may not feel it's not worth taking the chance to find out lest he pull another hammy and take his bat out of the lineup for a few weeks.
Rey Sanchez, 2B -- I fully expected Sanchez to emerge as a Gold Glove candidate this year. He's been one of our top-rated shortstops for several years. Most shortstops shine when they make the move to second, and Sanchez had the edge of having played second quite a bit in the past, so the transition should have been an easy one. For a couple of months, he did look like a Gold Glover, but then he pulled a hamstring and missed several weeks. The highlight film plays weren't nearly as abundant after that, and his overall numbers were quite ordinary in the end. As a result, he earned our Average rating for range.