Seventh in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.
You could probably find at least one undeserved Gold Glove awarded every season. The vast majority of Gold Glove recipients are repeat winners, sort of making the award like a concussion—once a player gets one, it becomes progressively easier to get more.
To be sure, most repeat winners are among the very best defenders in the league and deserve the honor, but as we saw with Jim Kaat, precedent eventually plays a big role.
As well, a Gold Glove sometimes becomes a “throw-in” for players who have had strong seasons with the bat (or on the mound). Perhaps it’s unfair to spotlight Thurman Munson for this, but I do so more for who didn’t receive the Gold Glove than who did.
Munson had already won a Gold Glove the previous year and had come into his own as one of the best backstops in the American League. In truth, no AL catcher enjoyed a truly standout season behind the plate in 1973 (unless you count Detroit’s Bill Freehan, who played only 98 games), but Munson, with a league-high 80 assists and a 48 percent caught-stealing rate, was a good choice.
Smashing a career-best 20 home runs and batting .301 didn’t hurt his cause, either, and though it shouldn’t have had any bearing on the Gold Glove vote, Thurman's lively bat likely helped him beat out Oakland’s light-hitting Ray Fosse, who enjoyed an equally strong season with the mitt.
However, the defending AL Gold Glove winner did not follow up his 1973 campaign so well. In fact, despite making the All-Star team, Munson suffered a setback in 1974. His offense dropped across the board, finishing with a lackluster .697 OPS. Yet thanks to the virtual absence of an injury-plagued Carlton Fisk, Munson had no real competition at the plate, making his off-season with the bat look good enough at season’s end.
Even so, Munson’s “default” slugging and defending Gold Glove earned him an encore in 1974—an honor that should have gone to Ellie Rodriguez, the unsung journeyman backstopping his first season for the California Angels. (Ironically, Rodriguez had begun his Major League career with the Yankees in 1968 after toiling in their farm system for four years. But New York’s selection of Munson in the first round of the 1968 amateur draft made Rodriguez expendable; left unprotected in the 1969 expansion draft, he was snatched up by the Kansas City Royals.)
Of course, when evaluating catchers’ performances, chances and putouts—being almost exclusively the result of receiving strikeouts—are poor statistics to utilize, especially when one's battery mates include strikeout machines Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana (ergo, Rodriguez led the league in both categories in 1974). More tellingly, Rodriguez tied Munson for the AL lead in assists with 75.
However, Munson committed, by far, a league-worst 22 errors, including a horrendous 11-game stretch in early August during which he booted seven plays (ignominiously crowned by a three-error meltdown on August 13). Yet in essentially the same amount of innings, Rodriguez miscued only seven times, giving him a glittering .992 fielding average to Munson’s subpar .974 (league average: .983).
Eighteen of Munson’s errors came on throws—that’s a lot of extra bases gifted to existing baserunners. In fact, 11 of those throwing errors led directly to unearned runs, either on the throws themselves or allowing baserunners to get into scoring position, after which they were driven home. More amazingly, five of those runs scored on errant pickoff attempts to third base—this does not scream Gold Glove.
Advanced sabermetrics were unknown in 1974, of course—and I don’t believe in getting too far into them both because many of the highly specialized sabermetrics border on the arcane and because it’s unfair to criticize in hindsight using evaluations that were unavailable at the time. However, for the sake of argument, Rodriguez’s total zone runs dwarfs Munson’s in every category, according to Baseball-Reference. Furthermore, Rodriguez’s range factor per nine innings not only far surpassed Munson’s but also outdid every other full-time catcher in the AL.
Apart from the huge disparity in errors, though, what should have tipped the scale heavily in favor of Rodriguez was his effectiveness at stopping baserunners. Ellie’s powerful arm nailed would-be thieves at a 48 percent clip—resulting in an AL-topping 56 caught-stealings, far and away the best performance in the American League. Munson’s 35 percent caught-stealing rate was next-to-last among regulars in the Junior Circuit. (Of course, the pitcher shares fault in a stolen base, but that's still a big deficit.)
True, Rodriguez allowed 20 passed balls to Munson’s eight, which partially washes out the difference in errors—passed balls being the only key statistic that favored Thurman—but Rodriguez should be cut a little slack for backstopping the most inaccurate staff in the AL. California issued the most walks in the league—and more than 100 more than Munson’s Yankees.
With Angels hurlers missing the strike zone so often, some pitches that could have been scored wild might well have instead been rung up as passed balls. (Incidentally, Rodriguez’s 20 passed balls were a fluke; he never before or again yielded more than eight in a season.)
Despite Rodriguez’s defensive superiority in 1974, being a light-hitting catcher on a last-place team surely camouflaged him come awards time. Again, not that hitting is supposed to play a role in Gold Glove voting—even though it clearly does—but Rodriguez’s home run and RBI totals pale even to Munson’s off-year. There was no way that seven home runs, 36 RBI and a .253 batting average on only 100 hits were going to accrue votes for Rodriguez.
As an aside, Rodriguez—who claimed to be a better stickball player in his youth than Willie Mays—actually clubbed more doubles than Munson in 122 fewer at-bats. More significantly, his 69 walks yielded a very respectable .373 on-base percentage—far better than Munson’s awful .316.
Similarly, being a light-hitting rookie catcher likely buried Jim Sundberg, even on a Texas Rangers team that had risen from last place in 1973 to second in 1974. Stepping right into a starting role, Sundberg fielded .990 on just eight errors, rang up the third-most assists, led all catchers in double plays and surrendered only nine passed balls. He, too, was more deserving of the Gold Glove than Munson, but even the most precocious freshmen hardly ever receive recognition for their defense.
Thurman Munson claimed a third Gold Glove in 1975. That award, too, is highly debatable considering an AL-topping 23 errors—the most ever by a Gold Glove–winning catcher, breaking his own dubious record of the previous year. Sundberg caught a slightly superior season with the mitt, but I’m certain voters were deterred by his horrid .199 batting average and meager run production. Sundberg’s day would come, though, as he owned the Gold Glove for the following six seasons.
Whereas Munson was ascending to stardom in 1975, Ellie Rodriguez, one of the better defensive catchers of his time, saw his wandering career wind down. He played only 90 games for the Halos that season, albeit well. Traded to the nearby Los Angeles Dodgers just before Opening Day of 1976, Ellie put in 36 games in Dodger Blue before his Major League sojourn ended.
Across a nine-year career that took him to five cities, Ellie Rodriguez always fielded well—even making two All-Star squads—yet never was officially recognized for his defensive prowess. In 737 games, he committed the same amount of errors as did Thurman Munson just in 1974 and 1975 combined.