When Derek Jeter was announced as the AL Gold Glove winner at shortstop Tuesday afternoon, I hit the roof. Many people had similar reactions to the article I wrote in response about why the Yankees' captain was nowhere close to the best defensive shortstop in the American League.
Most of the criticism centered around the fact that I was a Red Sox fan writing an article about a Yankees player (and therefore anything negative I said was rooted in bias, not fact), or my use of Total Zone and Ultimate Zone Rating, statistics that assign a runs-saved value to a player’s defense, instead of traditional fielding percentage or the ol’ eyeball test. But to me, the fundamental gap was rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the way good defense is measured.
So forget the players, forget the teams, forget the statistics. Just imagine a hypothetical game in which one team’s shortstop is “Player A” and the other is “Player B.”
Over the course of the nine-inning game, each team’s hits go to roughly the same places on the diamond—five grounders are hit at or near the shortstop while three hard-hit balls are sent bouncing up the middle.
Player A cleanly fields all five of the balls hit to him—pick, throw, yerrrrrr out! But he doesn’t get to any of the hits that are out of the shortstop’s basic range. Maybe he’ll get close enough to dive for one of them, but he doesn’t have the ability to get to it in time.
Meanwhile, Player B makes four of the five routine plays but boots the last one and is charged with an error. However, due to his superior athleticism or speed or instincts or what have you, he saves three hits by getting to the balls that Player A couldn’t reach.
Who is the better fielder? Player A has a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage, while Player B’s error sinks his FLD percent to an amateurish .875. So Player A is clearly better, right?
A fan or a coach watching the game would probably come away with the same impression. The image of Player B bobbling the ball would be far more powerful and enduring than the memory of Player A not getting to the out-of-range plays. In fact, if Player B managed to stay on his feet while chasing down the ball at second base, observers remembering Player A’s dive would praise him for his fruitless athleticism.
But common sense tells us that the guy who made more plays was the more valuable defender. It’s a safe bet that Player B helped his team more in the field because he made two more plays than Player A.
Therefore, the Gold Glove award shouldn’t go to the guy who’s the best at routine plays or makes the fewest errors. It’s not about fulfilling the literal duties of one’s position, it’s about stopping the batter from reaching base safely to the best of one’s ability.
That established, let us turn now to some real-life players: Derek Jeter, who won the AL Gold Glove (supposedly) because of his .989 fielding percentage and six errors—best among AL shortstops—and Alexei Ramirez, who led that same group in Ultimate Zone Rating despite his 20 errors thanks to his phenomenal range.
In our hypothetical example, Player B made two extra plays for each ball he flubbed. In the real world, Ramirez made 14 more errors than Jeter, but he also accumulated 67 more putouts and 134 more assists—201 in total. That’s an extra play-to-extra error ratio of over 14:1.
For every extra ball Ramirez booted, he successfully scooped up 14 additional grounders. For every throw he missed, he reached 14 balls that Jeter couldn’t have gotten to. Does anyone want to argue that the good Ramirez did in stopping those 201 balls from falling for hits was outweighed by the 14 times he failed to do his duty?
Don’t try to rationalize that by saying Jeter had fewer opportunities to make plays—regardless of the pitching staffs, these things tend to even out over 162 games. Yes, Ramirez played 73 more innings in the field than Jeter, but if we prorate The Captain’s performance over A-Ram’s innings, he still falls short by a whopping 180 plays.
When a ball is hit right at him, there are few better fielders in the game than Derek Jeter, but using that to rationalize his Gold Glove selection would be like saying Jose Lopez should be MVP because he’s great at hitting fastballs. To focus primarily on fielding percentage and errors when evaluating defense is to exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding of the game of baseball.