Defining Defense: Who REALLY Deserved a Gold Glove in 2007?

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Defining Defense: Who REALLY Deserved a Gold Glove in 2007?

Statistical analysis is a beautiful thing.

It is blind, powerful, and—with very few exceptions—entirely objective. 

The human mind, on the other hand, is remarkably inefficient when it comes to translating observations into unbiased truths. 

To illustrate this point, consider a mid-season game between the Marlins and Astros at Dolphin Stadium. 

In the top of the fourth inning, Lance Berkman turns on a pitch and tears a hard ground ball into the hole between third and short.  At the crack of the bat Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez takes one step to his right and dives, full extension, to snare the ball.  Springing to his feet, he fires to first and guns down Berkman by half a step, drawing about as loud an ovation as 3,000 fans can make. 

In the bottom half of the inning, Ramirez comes to bat at hits the identical grounder towards the hole.  As the ball is hit Astros shortstop Adam Everett glides one step to his right, backhands the ball easily, and throws to first for the out.  The crowd maintains a quiet murmur as they chew their hot dogs and peanuts, save for one sabermetric-minded Astros fan whose claps echo across the Stadium, startling those nearby and causing an infant 30 rows down to erupt into tears. 

For this fan understands that Everett has just demonstrated his defensive superiority, positioning himself perfectly in order to make a difficult play look effortless.  While the 1,500 other fans in the park (half have gone home since the top of the inning) are still replaying Hanley’s “web-gem” and drawing comparisons to Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel, this Astros fan refuses to let emotions distort his observation.  He knows, deep down, that Everett is the superior shortstop.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect someone to react the way our Astros fan did, but is it unreasonable?  If we want to know the true defensive value of a player, this is essentially the approach that we must take.  We must strip away the biases and view every defensive event through an objective lens—ball is hit with trajectory “x” at speed “y” to vector “z”, player either makes an out or does not. 

In the above example, the balls hit to Ramirez and Everett show up as identical and independent events with the same result—an out.  As a result, both shortstops receive equal credit for making the play.  This is the basis for the Plus/Minus system of defensive analysis, as developed by John Dewan and featured in his book The Fielding Bible

Basically the system records the exact direction, distance, speed and type of each batted ball and calculates how many of each variety were converted into outs over the course of the season. 

If the type of ball hit in our example was converted into an out 30 percent of the time, for example, both shortstops would receive +.7 for making the play.  On the other hand, if both had failed to make the out they would have received -.3. 

While there are additional factors involved for specific positions (i.e. bunt handling, double plays, hit-and-runs, etc.), the Plus/Minus system essentially tells us how many plays a fielder made above or below what an average player at the same position would make.  Since this system is arguably the most accurate and objective method of evaluation available, I believe that it should be a critical tool in determining the best defensive players each season.         

Every year the managers and coaches vote on the Gold Glove Awards, which are given to the players judged to have the most “superior individual fielding performance” at his position.  Due to the severe shortage of useful fielding statistics, votes are typically cast based on metrics such as fielding percentage, errors, putouts and assists. 

Anyone who has even heard of Bill James or Pete Palmer should be aware that these statistics paint a pathetically incomplete picture of defensive abilities.  As a result, the Gold Glove Awards often fail to identify the game’s premium defensive players. 

So who, you ask, truly deserves to win the award?  To answer this question I will analyze defensive performance with an emphasis on both the Plus/Minus system and a similar system known as Zone Rating.  Simply put, Zone Rating reports how successful a player is on balls hit within his “zone”—as defined by the area where fielders, on average, convert at least 50 percent of the balls hit—as well as outside of his zone. 

Using data from the 2007 season, these systems should reveal last year’s most deserving AL Gold Glove candidates.  Below are my votes for the 2007 American League awards (not including pitchers or catchers), with Plus/Minus (+/-) and Zone Ratings (ZONE) for each of the top three contenders (ordered by +/-), as well as balls in zone (BIZ) and plays made outside of the zone (OZONE).  Traditional statistics such as innings played (INN) and fielding percentage (FP%) are also considered. 

My votes are recorded in bold below, with the actual recipient in parentheses.  And the winners are:    

FIRST BASE: Casey Kotchman (Kevin Youkilis)

Player

+/-

BIZ

ZONE

OZONE

INN

FP%

Casey Kotchman

+24

152

.809

32

1033

.997

Lyle Overbay

+13

173

.809

26

972

.996

Kevin Youkilis

+10

176

.835

22

1094

1.000

This was perhaps the trickiest award to determine, as the trio of Kotchman, Overbay and Youkilis ranked top 3 in both Plus/Minus and Zone Ratings, albeit in reverse order.  Kotchman leads by a significant margin at +24, as well as plays made outside the zone (32).  On the other hand, Youkilis played more innings than Overbay or Kotchman, sported a respectable +10 and surpassed both with a Zone Rating of .835 – all the while doing so without making a single error.  However, Kotchman’s +24 rating exceeds the others by such a wide margin that it easily makes up for his lower Zone Rating and FP%.

 

SECOND BASE: Mark Ellis (Placido Polanco)          

Player

+/-

BIZ

ZONE

OZONE

INN

FP%

Aaron Hill

+22

490

.865

57

1410

.983

Mark Ellis

+19

431

.884

45

1322

.994

Robinson Cano

+17

420

.833

53

1408

.984

 

While the actual Gold Glove winner was Placido Polanco, his +10 falls short of the top 3 for AL second basemen.  Here we see that Aaron Hill topped the AL in 2007 with a +22 rating, and surpassed both Ellis and Cano in innings played and balls in the zone.  Ellis featured the best zone rating at .884 as well as the highest FP%, committing only 5 errors compared to Hill’s 14 and Cano’s 13 (partly due to the fact that he played in 88 fewer innings).  This is another tough pick, as both Ellis and Hill put up tremendous defensive numbers.  In this case I believe that Hill’s slight edge in +/- is overcome by Ellis’ substantial lead in Zone Rating and FP%. 

 

THIRD BASE: Brandon Inge (Adrian Beltre) 

 

Player

+/-

BIZ

ZONE

OZONE

INN

FP%

Brandon Inge

+22

368

.712

63

1309

.959

Nick Punto

+10

192

.708

29

828

.973

Eric Chavez

+10

190

.647

37

774

.975

 

Of the top six third basemen in the Majors, Inge was the only American Leaguer included, ranking second with a +22.  This one is a little easier to determine, as Inge dominates Punto and Chavez in every category except fielding percentage.  An interesting side-note: Adrian Beltre - the actual Gold Glover – had only a +7 and .668 zone rating, both far below Inge.  So you would guess the voters are more concerned with errors and fielding percentage then, right?  Not in this case, as Beltre committed 18 errors (tied for the most among qualified AL third-basemen) to give him a .958 FP%, just below Inge.  Beltre is certainly a great infielder, but in this case Inge is clearly a cut above the rest. 

 

SHORTSTOP: John McDonald (Orlando Cabrera)

 

Player

+/-

BIZ

ZONE

OZONE

INN

FP%

John McDonald

+26

232

.845

51

799

.982

Tony F. Pena

+18

368

.848

70

1273

.966

Jason Bartlett

+18

373

.804

67

1194

.960

 

Once again we fail to see the actual recipient of the award crack the top three in terms of +/- ratings.  In this case, Toronto’s John McDonald blows away Pena and Bartlett at +26 despite playing in significantly fewer innings.  His zone rating was extraordinary (as was Tony Pena’s), and he compiled a top-notch fielding percentage of .982 (compared to Cabrera’s .983).  The only question is whether or not he played enough innings to qualify as a legitimate full-time fielder.

 

OUTFIELD: Ichiro Suzuki, Coco Crisp, Curtis Granderson (Grady Sizemore, Ichiro Suzuki, Torii Hunter)

Since plus/minus data for 2007 outfielders are unavailable at the moment, my Gold Glove choices will be based largely on Zone Ratings and the more traditional statistics.  Instead of differentiating outfield positions, I chose my top three candidates from a pool of all American League outfielders.  Based on a combination of factors, I narrowed the list down to the following three players:

Player

BIZ

ZONE

OZONE

INN

FP%

Ichiro Suzuki

366

.893

97

1339

.998

Coco Crisp

385

.909

58

1216

.998

Curtis Granderson

368

.921

85

1285

.9

 

The fact that all three players are center fielders is no coincidence, since the best defensive outfielders typically play there.  Suzuki and Crisp feature the best fielding percentages among qualified Major League outfielders, as well as above-average Zone Ratings.  What separates Suzuki, however, is his ability to reach balls that the average center fielder is unable to get to.  In 2007 Ichiro made 97 plays in areas in which the average player fails to make the play, which suggests outstanding instincts, reactions, and foot speed.  Granderson was the only other player to come close in this regard, making an impressive 85 plays outside of the zone.  Granderson also sports one of the best Zone Ratings in the Majors, second only to Arizona’s Eric Byrnes.

While both Torii Hunter and Grady Sizemore had excellent fielding percentages (.995), neither demonstrated a range or Zone Rating comparable to those of Crisp or Granderson.  Hunter’s Zone Rating of .891 with 47 plays made outside the zone is impressive, yet he clearly comes up short of Crisp.  Similarly, Sizemore’s Zone Rating of .881 with 45 plays made outside the zone is well above average, but also well below the top tier. 

Overall, it is clear that there is a great deal of inconsistency in the world of defensive performance evaluation.  While analytical tools such as the Plus/Minus or Zone Rating systems may help to objectively evaluate players, they certainly aren’t perfect by any means.  However, they do take us far beyond the traditional box-score statistics such as fielding percentage and putouts, and begin to quantify abilities and talents that have historically been ignored.  Looking at the actual winners of the 2007 AL Gold Glove Awards, we find that the single most important statistic in determining the winner has been fielding percentage:

 

Gold Glove Winner

FP%

FP% Rank*

Kevin Youkilis

1.000

#1

Placido Polanco

1.000

#1

Adrian Beltre

.958

#9 (Last)

Orlando Cabrera

.983

#1

Ichiro Suzuki

.998

T-#1

Torii Hunter

.995

T-#2

Grady Sizemore

.995

T-#2

*among qualified American League players (2 games per 3 team games) at the same position

With the exception of Adrian Beltre, all of the Gold Glove recipients ranked in the top two at their position.  But while fielding percentage is an important statistic, it is inherently flawed.  Not only is it derived from errors – one of the only subjective statistics in baseball – but it fails to account for defensive range and positioning, which are critical aspects of a fielder’s value.  The Plus/Minus and Zone Rating systems avoid the subjectivity of fielding percentage, and both account for the subtle defensive skills that are overlooked in the box-score.  Furthermore, enhanced versions of these systems are able to translate these values into runs and wins – the fundamental units of baseball currency.  As a result, these systems should be used in conjunction with traditional statistics in order to more accurately define a player’s defensive value.

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