Fields of gold

2019-11-04 GoldGloveLet the award debates begin. The Gold Gloves have been awarded. And, the good news is that there wasn’t as much fool’s gold mined this year as in seasons past.

That won’t stop the debates, of course. Almost nothing in baseball ever really does, which keeps the fun going when the games are over.

I’m as much a lover of the highlight reel plays as anyone, just the way we love the acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil, but the real name of the game behind the plate or in the field is saving runs against your team.

The better news this year: there was only one Gold Glove winner who could really be called a legacy pick alone. If only we could get that kind of success when the All-Star Game teams are chosen.

Catchers—The National League winner: J.T. Realmuto (Phillies). The should-have-been National League winner: Austin Hedges (Padres). Why? Realmuto’s throwing arm looked only too obvious (as it should have), but Hedges saved more runs defensively—the margin is 22 for Hedges and 11 for Realmuto.

Hedges also has another advantage: neither he nor Realmuto had particularly great pitching staffs to handle, but Padres pitchers throwing to Hedges had a collective 4.10 ERA and Phillies pitchers throwing to Realmuto had a 4.61. I get Realmuto’s throwing arm making him look more obvious, but Hedges was better.

Yadier Molina, you say? He was one of the NL’s three Glove finalists, but he simply wasn’t as good as Hedges and Realmuto behind the plate this year. His career-long work behind the plate will probably make him a Hall of Famer in due course.

And he still handles pitching staffs well enough, even allowing that the Cardinals had a better staff than the Padres and the Phillies this year: the Cardinals had a 3.82 team ERA with Molina behind the plate but also with Jack Flaherty coming into his own in the second half.

But in 2019 Molina was worth only two defensive runs saved and he threw out only 27 percent of those trying to steal on him—13 below his career average and one below the league average for his career. Age begins getting all of us sooner or later.

The American League winner: Roberto Perez (Indians). The should-have-been American League winner: Perez. No contest. Perez was worth the second-most defensive runs saved (29) ever since the statistic became accepted in 2003. (Molina had 30 in 2013.) He also saved his pitchers 11 runs with his pitch-framing skill and saved them a nice volume of wild pitches, leading the league with seven pitch-blocking runs saved.

First base—The National League winner: Anthony Rizzo (Cubs). The should-have-been winner: Christian Walker (Diamondbacks). Why? Forget that Walker had a tough job of replacing Paul Goldschmidt. Nobody in the National League was better this season when it came to getting balls most first basemen don’t reach, especially ranging to his right.

Walker was also worth nine runs saved in the field to Rizzo’s three. He also had 99 assists to Rizzo’s 87. Rizzo had a solid season but Walker was far enough better at the pad. With only two Gold Gloves coming into 2019 it’s not really fair to call Rizzo a legacy choice this time. (See Alex Gordon in due course.)

The American League winner: Matt Olson (Athletics). The should-have-been winner: Olson. He’s very much on his own plane, especially the manner in which he handled offline throws knowing the Oakland Coliseum has foul territory comparable to Central Park. Nobody in the league was better at saving throwing errors and runs at first base.

Second base—The National League winner: Kolten Wong (Cardinals). The should-have-been winner: Wong. No contest. He didn’t just lead the league in defensive runs saved at his position, there was no second baseman in the league less likely to crumple or misstep playing in the shifts than Wong. If Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski had a contemporary equal for virtuosity at second base, it was Wong this season.

The American League winner: Yolmer Sanchez (White Sox). The should-have-been winner: Tossup. Sanchez played more games at second base than D.J. LeMahieu (Yankees) but saved only one more run in the field. Sanchez probably nailed the Glove because he played 149 games at second base to LeMahieu’s 75 at the position. Either would have been a respectable Glove winner.

The third finalist for the Glove, Jose Altuve, was probably hurt in the field as well as at the plate by his early-season health issues: he was worth -2 defensive runs saved in 2019.

Shortstop—The National League winner: Nick Ahmed (Diamondbacks). The should-have-been winner: Tossup. There was barely a hair’s difference between Ahmed and Trevor Story (Rockies) in 2019, but Ahmed was just a little better at ranging to his right to get balls and make assists on difficult-to-impossible throws going that way.

They’ll both have tough competition in 2020, though, now that Javier Baez (Cubs) looks to be entrenched as a full-time shortstop.

The American League winner: Francisco Lindor (Indians). The should-have-been winner: Andrelton Simmons (Angels). He may only have played 102 games in the field in 2019 but he was far enough ahead of the league pack when it came to saving runs that it should have been no contest.

My guess: the Gold Glove voters noted Simmons reaching the minimum innings required at just about the last minute, and they also saw that while Lindor is an excellent fielding shortstop he also out-hit Simmons on the season. Right or wrong, there probably remain those voters who presume a solid bat equals a Gold Glove.

Third base—The National League winner: Nolen Arenado (Rockies). The should-have-been winner: Arenado. Taken cumulatively, it could have been a tossup between Arenado and Josh Donaldson (Braves); taken from there to difficult plays, Arenado takes it by a finger. He was simply that much better at the toughest plays.

Note: Arenado now has the fourth-most Gold Gloves of any third baseman ever, behind Scott Rolen; and, his seven straight are behind only Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt (ten) and Brooks Robinson (sixteen) for consecutive Gloves among third basemen.

The American League winner: Matt Chapman (Athletics). The should-have-been winner: Chapman. If Schmidt and Robinson have a contemporary equal for highlight-reel plays it’s Chapman. If you’re looking for the third baseman who’s going to save you the most runs at the hot corner, it’s Chapman. Still.

Left field—The National League winner: David Peralta (Diamondbacks). The should-have-been winner: Peralta. He tied for the Show lead among left fielders with ten defensive runs saved, and only Robbie Grossman of the Twins was his equal for running balls to the deepest regions on his side of the outfield and catching them.

The American League winner: Alex Gordon (Royals). The should-have-been winner: Tossup between Grossman and Michael Brantley (Astros). Peralta, Brantley, and the Yankees’ pleasant surprise Mike Tauchman each had ten defensive runs saved—the best in Show in left field. The voters didn’t look deep enough to make Brantley a finalist, alas; and Tauchman didn’t play enough innings to rate for the Glove.

Gordon had one defensive run saved in 2019. He may still be a solid man in left field, but this looks like a legacy pick: Gordon had six Gold Gloves on his mantel coming into 2019.

Center field—The National League winner: Lorenzo Cain (Brewers). The should-have-been winner: Victor Robles (Nationals). Both were consistent throughout the season but Robles finished first in the league with 22 defensive runs saved and twelve assists while Cain robbed five home runs (tying the record he shares with Carlos Gomez and Josh Reddick).

I’m guessing the Gold Glove voters also had in mind that Cain should have won a Glove or three in the past and thought it was time to give him what was overdue in some ways. But Robles was better. Cain isn’t exactly a legacy pick, but you can call him a makeup pick. It could have been worse.

The American League winner: Kevin Kiermaier (Rays). The should-have-been winner: Kiermaier. He’s been thinned a little by the injury bug but he still saved the most defensive runs of any American League center field Glove finalist in 2019. (Thirteen.) But Byron Buxton (Twins) was shaved worse by the injury bug; if he’d played just 21 more innings, he might have beaten Kiermaier.

Right field—The National League winner: Cody Bellinger (Dodgers). The should-have-been winner: Bellinger. He edged out the league’s two other Glove finalists, Bryce Harper (Phillies) and Jason Heyward (Cubs) in defensive runs saved; his throwing arm improved enough that runners advanced on base hits to right less against Bellinger than the other two.

The American League winner: Mookie Betts (Red Sox). The should-have-been winner: A healthier Aaron Judge (Yankees). Judge was one of the Yankees who made the team’s yearbook the New England Journal of Medicine and that kept him out of the 2019 Glove running, but he still had more defensive runs saved than Betts.

But Betts without Judge was still ahead of the American League right field pack. And in case you were wondering, the right fielder who had the single biggest improvement in the majors in defensive runs saved in 2019 was . . . Harper. (2018: -29. 2019: +9.) It wasn’t even close.

Pitchers—The National League winner: Zack Greinke (then with the Diamondbacks). The American League winner: Mike Leake (Mariners). The should-have-been winner: Greinke in both leagues.

He was that good fielding his position, both before and after his trade to the Astros. He was as good as having an extra second baseman or shortstop on the field. He led pitchers in the entire Show for starting double plays coming off the mound. Pitchers not named Greinke started five tops; Greinke started twelve.

Greinke got only half his due winning the National League award. Leake was a solid defender off the mound this year and has a career-long reputation as one of his league’s best-fielding pitchers. Leake’s other AL competition came up short of qualifying by seventeen innings: Marcus Stroman, traded to the Mets before the new single-season trade deadline.

But since Leake has never won a Gold Glove before, I can’t exactly call his winning it this year a legacy pick. Greinke had five Gold Gloves entering this year, and he certainly earned his Glove this year.

The defensive index of the Society for American Baseball Research (fair disclosure: I’m a member and have had work published by them in the recent past) was used in Gold Glove voting for the first time this year, applied to 25 percent of the vote with Show managers and coaches doing the rest.

According to that SABR index, the absolute best Gold Glove qualifiers in the leagues with the leather and arms were:

NL—C: Realmuto. 1B: Christian Walker. 2B: Wong. 3B: Arenado: SS: Ahmed. LF: Peralta. CF: Robles. RF: Bellinger. P: Max Fried. Note that three SDI champions (Walker, Robles, Fried) didn’t win Gold Gloves.

AL—C: Perez. 1B: Olson. 2B: Sanchez. 3B: Chapman. SS: Simmons. LF: Grossman. CF: Kiermaier. RF: Betts. P: Tie between Leake and Lucas Giolito. Note that three SDI champions here (Simmons, Grossman, Giolito) didn’t win Gold Gloves, either.

Let the debates begin. Or continue, depending. And you can take a little more active part in it: fans get to vote for the Platinum Glove winner, which Rawlings began in 2011. The bad news: you can only vote for someone in each league who actually won one of this year’s Gold Gloves. You can’t vote for the guy who should have won the Gold Glove but didn’t.

That said, my own Platinum Glove picks would be Roberto Perez and Nick Ahmed. Perez led all American League Gold Glove eligibles with a 17.0 SDI rating and Ahmed led the National League Gold Glove eligibles with a 15.7. That looks like platinum work to me.

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