Monday, November 16, 2009

The Value of the Gold Glove

The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is clearly the touchstone (minus of course, about 241 references to The Karate Kid) for Bill Simmons' Book of Basketball (the BOB)(*). But Simmons also clearly looks to another James book -- Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame -- as a way to try and re-define what it means (in the respective sports) to be a HOFer.

(*) About which more later.

One tool for both analysis is the contemporary voting on awards: MVPs, All-Pro teams, Gold Gloves. James' view on contemporary evaluation of players is summed up as follows:

I advocate that we pay close attention, in evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, to the player's performance in award voting while active -- MVP voting, Gold Glove voting, in-season and post-season All-Star teams. If a player hits .267 with 63 RBI, but wins the MVP award, what does that mean at the time? It means that there was a widespread perception, at the time, that the player's collateral skills (defense, baserunning and leadership) were of exceptional value. Similarly, if a player drives in 162 runs and is hardly mentioned in the MVP voting, what does that mean? It means that there is a widespread perception, at the time, that the player's skills were not good.
The baseball Gold Gloves were awarded last week, and two surprises occurred in the American League: for the fourth time in the last six year, Yankees SS Derek Jeter was awarded a GG, and in the outfield, Torii Hunter and Ichiro each won their ninth consecutive GG, together first-timer Adam Jones (BAL).

Hunter, Ichiro, and Jones are not necessarily bad picks individually by themselves(*), but as highlighted by AP fav Joe Posnanski, the three necessarily cause the omission of Franklin Gutierrez; as explained by JoePos, Gutierrez saved perhaps 31 runs over an "average" centerfield in 2009, although alternative statistics show more in the range of 10-11 runs saved. In any event, there seems to be growing consensus that Guiterrez should won a GG.

Jeter has become a favorite whipping boy for GG critics; his win this year (after two years 'off') restarted the debate around his 'value', although JoePos argues that whether or not he was deserving this year, he had a better defensive year than in the 2004-2006 period, when he won 3 straight. (Or more to the point, over his career, Jeter gets to about 91% of the balls that the average AL shortstop gets to, which means that Yankees pitchers give up an extra hit (a ball not handled) every other game.)

But the larger question is what do we learn from GG awards?

JoePos posits that "We all know that the Gold Glove has become something to reward good offensive players who seem to be pretty decent in the field too." And perhaps that's good enough.(*)

(*)- Of course, such a definition makes the Silver Slugger award -- meant to reward the best offensive player at each position -- superfluous. Such analysis also does not explain the multiple awards to Omar Vizquel (only one GG season with OPS+ above 100) and Eric Chavez (won two GG with OPS+ in the 104-108 range.)

But in a world where the statistical analysis of baseball has broken through, and OPS+ and VORP are cited by mainstream publications, what does it say about the democratic process (as exemplified by Gold Glove voting, which is currently done by managers and coaches (not voting for their own players)?

Or perhaps, like Joe Morgan, the managers and coaches in voting for the Gold Gloves are trying to maintain the power of the "insider."

After all, how good a fielder can Franklin Gutierrez be if he's never won a Gold Glove?

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