Derek Jeter is not the best defensive shortstop in the American League. That is not really a controversial statement, and you don’t have to be a believer in UZR to agree with the sentiment. So, why does he keep winning the Gold Glove award?
There is one easy answer and it does contain truth to some degree: he’s been one of the best offensive shortstops in the game for a long time. By and large, voters have tended to use the award to reward good hitters, likely because their abilities with the bat make them the most prominent. The average wRC+ for all Gold Glove winners is 123 (100 is average), showing a strong preference for good offensive performers. Even just looking at shortstops, the average wRC+ is 103, and it isn’t like middle infielders who are better than average hitters are easy to find.
But Jeter didn’t hit all that well this year, and as the Carl Crawford and Franklin Gutierrez votes show, the voters are taking these things a bit more seriously now, giving trophies to guys who have never won before but certainly should have.
So, while there is probably just some “this is what I do every year” phenomenon in Jeter voting, I would suggest that his wins each of the last two years have less to do with him and more to do with the guy who probably is the best defensive SS in the American League: Elvis Andrus. He’s just too young to win.
Since the Gold Gloves came into being in 1957, they have given out 956 trophies. Of those, just 13 have gone to players in their second year in the big leagues. Only one player has ever won in their first Major League season – Ichiro Suzuki – and he wasn’t a traditional rookie, having come over from Japan as an established player in the prime of his career. The managers who vote for these awards simply don’t cast their ballots for young players, and since the guy who probably should be taking home the trophy is just 22 years old, the voters have a built in excuse for just defaulting to the guy that everyone knows.
The list of young players to win the award is actually pretty interesting. Evan Longoria won his first gold glove last year, and was actually the first third baseman to win in just his second year. Russell Martin was given the NL Catcher award in 2006 in just his second trip through the big leagues, but before that (excluding Ichiro), you have to go back to 1996 to find a second year guy who took home the trophy. That guy was Rey Ordonez, who was perhaps the most hyped defensive prospect of his generation, and is the only shortstop to ever win the award in his second year.
Before Ordonez, no infielder had won in his second year since George Scott in 1967. A few outfielders and catchers had been noted for their glove work in between, but traditionally, infielders have had to spend years putting on a show before they got any recognition for their work.
Andrus will probably start winning the award next year, and there’s a good chance that he wins a bunch of them in a row. He won’t be any better defensively, of course, but he’ll have had more time to make an impression on those who cast their ballots. And, based on history, it takes at least three years of work to make enough of an impact to actually take home the hardware.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.