Today is the day without baseball, and without the ability to watch baseball to pass the time, we turn to something even more frivolous: discussing baseball awards to pass the time. MVP and Cy Young thinkpieces have been flying across my Twitter timeline all afternoon, while our own Eno Sarris ponders evaluating managers statistically for his award vote. And, while Gold Glove finalists won’t be announced for another few weeks, the data is all there, so I might as well continue my annual tradition of objectively crowning the year’s best defenders, according to the publicly available metrics on hand.
Regarding eligibility, I used the same qualification rules used by Rawlings for the official award. If you’d like, you can find those here. Only players who qualify for the actual award qualify here. Once having my player pool, I pulled three advanced defensive metrics for consideration: Defensive Runs Saved, calculated by Baseball Info Solutions, Ultimate Zone Rating, calculated by Mitchel Lichtman and used as the in-house FanGraphs metric, and Fielding Runs Above Average, calculated by Baseball Prospectus and used as their in-house defensive metric. I summed the three, then averaged them together to figure a “total” defensive runs saved number.
You already know this, but the numbers don’t always agree. Sometimes, people don’t like that, but it is what it is. That’s why I prefer to look at them all. I’ll always be confident in the defender who’s rated as positive by all three, moreso than the guy rated positive by two and average or below average by another. By the same token, I’ll always be confident in the defender with one excellent grade and two average grades, moreso than the guy with three average grades, because the numbers see something excellent in the first guy that isn’t apparent in the other. That excellent grade isn’t coming from nowhere. The numbers are subject to noise, but they’re not liars, and I think we can all agree that, generally speaking, they pass the eye test.
For catchers, things are a bit trickier, and the model used by Baseball Prospectus is the only one that adjusts for things like the pitcher (on throwing and blocking) and the umpire and batter (on framing), so I’ve just pulled straight from BP’s leaderboards there. UZR doesn’t exist for pitchers, so only DRS and FRAA are used.
Enough of the methodology mumbo-jumbo. Awards time.
While Masahiro Tanaka wasn’t recognized as a finalist in the official voting last year, he did place third in this study, and this year, he ought to take home the hardware. Since entering the league in 2014, only Dallas Keuchel and Zack Greinke have more Defensive Runs Saved than Tanaka, who is both efficient at controlling the run game, and also fields his position well, due in part to good fielding stance, quick hands, and athleticism, all of which are on display above. Apparently it’s also beneficial to pitch in Canada with a two-letter first name that ends in “A.”
Jason Castro spent the first few years of his major league career as just a mediocre defensive player, because he was a mediocre receiver. In 2014, though, he overhauled that aspect of his game, and has since turned himself into the American League’s most beneficial strike-stealer and, therefore, the same league’s most valuable defensive catcher. Getting called strikes not only earns Castro’s pitchers extra strikeouts, sometimes, it even gets Brock Holt thrown out of one-run games in the seventh inning.
Interestingly, below, we find Chris Iannetta, the catcher who suddenly stopped catching upon switching teams, as our “Iron Glove” recipient, just one year after placing second in the Gold Glove aspect of this very study.
While Chris Davis may not be the ideal candidate to occupy a corner outfield spot, the fact that a major league club trusts him to occasionally roam the outfield at all likely says something about the 30-year-old’s glovework and overall athletic ability. And so perhaps it’s no surprise to find Davis, alongside former corner outfielder Mitch Moreland, atop this list of proficient defenders at baseball’s least-challenging defensive position.
The collection of names below is perhaps the most compelling trio found in this exercise. For starters, there’s Hanley Ramirez, who did not fare well by the numbers in his inaugural season as a full-time first baseman, and appears likely to assume the brunt of the playing time vacated at designated hitter by David Ortiz’s retirement. Also appearing are last year’s actual Gold Glove award winner, Eric Hosmer, whose defensive performance I explored at length in June, and Mark Teixeira, a five-time winner and finalist both officially and by the numbers last year, whose numbers cratered across the board in his final season, perhaps as his body gives way to the inevitable erosion necessitated by Father Time.
Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia are staples of this exercise — Kinsler has now appeared in the top-three all four years I’ve done this post, with Pedroia just narrowly missing the cut for the first time last year. Somehow, though, Kinsler has never actually won the official award, and it would be a shame if his near-decade-long run of defensive excellence failed to result in a trophy before he begins to decline with age. Of particular note is the emergence of Jason Kipnis, who has improved, statistically, as a defender in each of the past two seasons, and, outside of an injury-riddled 2014 which now looks like an outlier both offensively and defensively, grades as an above-average defender for his career by both defensive metrics hosted here at FanGraphs.
The three players whose names comprise the above table are also the same three players who have won the real-life Gold Glove award in each of the last five American League seasons. Seager most recently won in 2014, and, according to math, deserves to double down on his achievement this year. Let that not diminish the incredible endurance of future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre, who at 37 somehow continues to be one of baseball’s very best players both offensivey and defensively, and the incredible ability of Manny Machado, who filled in admirably at shortstop for nearly 400 innings this season.
In his 2015 rookie season, Francisco Lindor easily led all American League shortstops in the runs saved number which anchors this exercise, while also meeting the 690-inning minimum set forth by Rawlings to determine qualifying players, yet was not eligible for the award due to a strange specification which states that 690-inning minimum must be met by a team’s 137th game. Lindor had no such issue with meeting all of the necessary requirements for eligibility this season, and ran away by the numbers, despite Andrelton Simmons’ move to the American League. As long as each continues to play in the AL, it’s a shame that one will, annually, have to play runner-up to the other in the year-end recognition of being named their league’s top defensive shortstop, as each are potentially generational defensive talents. This year, though, the Lindor effect has been ridiculous, and he deserves to receive the award he likely deserved last year, too. I’d be remiss not to mention Jose Iglesias, whose reputation has preceded him, and whose numbers have finally matched that reputation this year.
Of particular note below is Xander Bogaerts, who looked like baseball’s most improved defender and was recognized as a finalist by Rawlings last season, only to grade negatively across the board this season.
This is probably the most surprising name on this list — and also the one I’m most confident won’t be recognized in the official Rawlings process — but there’s some real sense behind the numbers. For one, the defensive pool in left field in the American League is weak, particularly because Alex Gordon hasn’t looked the same since straining his groin last season and breaking his wrist this season, and Yoenis Cespedes has moved to the National League (and occasionally center field). But then also, Rasmus has eight outfield kills (base-runners thrown out without a relay throw), which is tied for first among all American League left fielders, and has also prevented base-runners from taking the extra base better than any left fielder this year, according to data provided by Baseball Info Solutions. Rasmus’ arm has been a weapon, and in his career has more than 6,000 innings of what rates as plus range in center field, and so maybe this grading doesn’t look so out of place after all. That being said, I find it much more likely that either Brett Gardner wins his first-ever Gold Glove, or Alex Gordon wins again on reputation.
When Kevin Kiermaier broke his glove hand, an injury which required surgery and kept him sidelined for nearly two months, on a diving catch attempt in May, the chances of him repeating as a Gold Glove Award winner after last year’s historic defensive season seemed slim. Consider this a testament to the 26-year-old’s otherworldy abilities. Despite a 400-inning deficit behind Kevin Pillar — a truly incredible defender in his own right — Kiermaier was able to maintain the upper-hand by a run. It remains to be seen how much the missed time will impact Kiermaier’s case in the eyes of the voters, but for now, all we can say for sure is that as long as the award ends up going to Kiermaier or Pillar, it’ll be going to a deserving candidate.
Speaking of having more than one deserving candidate, it’s truly a shame that one of Adam Eaton or Mookie Betts will have to settle for runner-up in this year’s Gold Glove voting in right field. By raw runs saved (without a positional adjustment), Eaton and Betts had the two most valuable defensive seasons at any non-catcher position in all of baseball. Eaton comes as a bit of a surprise; while this year’s switch from center to right field could only be beneficial, he’d long graded as a liability in center, so such a drastic boost in his positional switch was unlikely. The arm is what really stuck out, but he was also great in his work near the foul line, as seen above, and has been a Statcast favorite all year. With Betts, on the other hand, this is more understandable. He’d graded out as a 5-10 run center fielder in more than 1,000 innings to begin his career, and, according to positional adjustments, should’ve been expected to see about a 10-run boost in moving from center to right. Voila! There it is. The luxury of having a player as capable defensively as Jackie Bradley to handle center means that Boston could have something like a true-talent +15-20 run defender in right field in Betts.
Stay tuned for the National League edition of this post, coming tomorrow afternoon.
Thanks to Jonathon Judge and the Baseball Prospectus staff for research assistance.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at email@example.com.