The Gold Glove at the Hot Corner

Ryan Zimmerman is having one of the best offensive seasons of his young career and is tops among NL third basemen. He continues to get clutch hits. It seems like his list of walk-off home runs grows each month. The offensive numbers are nice but Zimmerman wants a Gold Glove.

“I think that’s one of the most important things that I want to do in my career,” Zimmerman said. “I wasn’t always a great hitter or a great presence in the lineup or anything like that. When I was younger, I was always the smallest kid and defense was the way that I stayed in the game. I take a lot of pride in that still and it’s what built the basic foundation for me playing baseball, learning how to play good defense and being good at it. So, winning one of those would take it full circle for me–from where I started to completing a goal.”


 
zimmerman is amazing c.jpgIt is tough to consider Zimmerman the favorite to win the award but he ranks among MLB leaders in total chances (MLB-best 427), total chances per 9.0 innings (NL-best 3.13), assists (MLB-best 302) and putouts (2nd in NL, 110). For what it’s worth, he is the leading contributor to ESPN’s nightly Web Gems segment too–typically the top-five best, most acrobatic, spectacular defensive plays are picked.

The problem is the Gold Glove Award is a lot like the Homecoming Queen and class president elections–it’s a popularity contest. Like the MVP, there isn’t a clear-cut definition of what Gold Glove means either. Fewest errors? Best fielding percentage? Most jaw-dropping, acrobatic catches? It isn’t always the best fielder that wins but the one that has the best reputation for being an elite fielder. Granted, it is rare that the recipient of any award is unanimous but once a fielder wins a couple Gold Gloves their reputation precedes their performance. Torii Hunter just needs to be an average outfielder to win it now. Same with Ichiro Suzuki.

The Gold Glove Award was first presented by Rawlings in 1957 and the voting is currently done by the managers and coaches from each Major League team. (They aren’t able to select their own players). What’s the main criteria for the selection? There really isn’t any. That is why reputation is crucial. Was Greg Maddux really the NL’s best fielding pitcher 18 times?

The Gold Glove at the Hot Corner

The coaches will likely debate between Zimmerman, Kevin Kouzmanoff and David Wright (as you will see, he isn’t the statistical favorite at all but he was the winner the last two seasons and reputation goes a long way with this award). We will start with slightly more candidates: Zimmerman, Pedro Feliz (Phillies), Kouzmanoff (Padres), Wright (Mets), Casey Blake (Dodgers) and Andy LaRoche (Pirates).

The best superficial defensive stats are errors and fielding percentage. They are the easiest stats to look at and determine the number of “mistakes” in the field relative to their total number of chances.

 

Player (Games Started)         Errors                         Fielding Percentage

Ryan Zimmerman (142)           15                                .965

Pedro Feliz (139)                    14                                .966

Casey Blake (127)                  10                                .972

Kevin Kouzmanoff (130)        3                                .990

Andy LaRoche(130)               14                                .964

David Wright (132)                 15                                .956

Kouzmanoff clearly has the edge in fewest errors and fielding percentage but they don’t tell the whole story. Kouzmanoff has three errors, all with the glove. Zimmerman has 15 errors, three with the glove and 12 on throwing miscues. Defensive statistics are a slippery slope.

First, the error isn’t a black and white stat like the home run. There are many shades of gray–it isn’t the simple question of whether it went over the wall of not. Second, a more mobile, faster third basemen will have more chances to make an error than a slower, less nimble player.

For example, a bunt down the third baseline that Kouzmanoff fields cleanly but doesn’t have the time to throw is a bunt hit. He doesn’t get an error and his fielding percentage stays put. Zimmerman may turn that same play into an out 90 percent of the time but on one opportunity throws it over the first baseman’s head. He is penalized and is given the error. Kouzmanoff will look better in the box score for never making the throw. Zimmerman will take the hit away nine time out of ten but when he air mails it, his fielding percentage will take a hit.

Fangraphs.com tries to quantify it with the stat “range runs.” The range runs stat calculates the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity. Bill James introduced range factor per game which is the average number of putouts and assists per game–the premise being that the total number of outs a player participates in per game is more relevant than the conventional fielding percentage.

Player                                     RngR              RF/G

Ryan Zimmerman                 18.2                 2.90

Pedro Feliz                              4.2                   2.74

Casey Blake                            2.5                   2.69

Kevin Kouzmanoff                   1.3                   2.21

Andy LaRoche                        1.2                   2.84

David Wright                          -7.2                  2.45

 

Zimmerman clearly has the edge. He saves the Nats 18.2 runs with his range. There isn’t anyone even close.

Mitchel Lichtman created the Ultimate Zone Rating which is another measure of how many runs a player saves or costs his team relative to the positional average–the all encompassing defensive stat.

Player                                     UZR

Ryan Zimmerman                 17.9

Pedro Feliz                              7.3

Casey Blake                            7.1

Kevin Kouzmanoff                  6.8

Andy LaRoche                       1.7

David Wright                          -7.8

 

We will go with one more stat to seal the deal. Since history is replete with examples of an average glove + a sensational season at the plate = Gold Glove. The Runs above replacement stat secures the Gold Glove for Zimmerman. It factors in everything: batting + fielding + replacement player + position.

Player                                     RAR

Ryan Zimmerman                 64.6

Pedro Feliz                              14.1

Casey Blake                            39.4

Kevin Kouzmanoff                  26.1

Andy LaRoche                       16.0

David Wright                          35.7

Ryan Zimmerman has 15 errors and a .965 fielding percentage. It would be easy for voters–the managers and coaches outside of the NL EAST who haven’t watched Zimmerman more than a handful of times–to vote for the Kouzmanoff and his three errors and .990 fielding percentage. It would be even easier to give it to Wright who has a great defensive reputation.

But in a convoluted way, it seems crystal clear that the Gold Glove deserves a spot on Zimmerman’s mantle.

 

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