Bleacher Report's AL, NL Defensive Player of the Year Awards
Quick, who won last season's Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award? No fair looking it up.
If your answer was, "I had no idea that award existed," you aren't alone. Despite increasing acceptance of advanced defensive metrics and a league-wide emphasis on glove work and run prevention, baseball still doesn't have a defensive prize on par with the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards.
Yes, Gold Gloves are handed out at each position. And while there have been some epically head-scratching past winners, they're still shorthand for exemplary leather.
But the Gold Gloves are akin to doling out nine MVPs. It dilutes the honor and fails to pinpoint the overall best defender in both leagues—the Goldest of Gloves, if you will.
Into that void, allow us to introduce Bleacher Report's 2015 American League and National League Defensive Players of the Year.
To determine the winners, plus a slate of runners-up and honorable mentions, we'll weigh three factors, presented here in descending order of importance:
- Defensive statistics: This is the big one, and it will account for the bulk of our decision-making. We'll focus on the aforementioned advanced metrics—including ultimate zone rating (UZR), defensive runs saved (DRS) and defensive wins above replacement (dwAR)—rather than more archaic measures like fielding percentage, using data from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. (See the next slide for a breakdown of the stats and what they mean.)
- Difficulty of position: Slick fielding is a plus anywhere on the diamond, but certain positions—catcher, shortstop and center field, to name the big three—are more difficult and, simply put, more important.
- Star wattage/eyeball test: This will be used sparingly, but it matters a little. As FanGraphs puts it in the explanation for UZR, "You might be able to judge a single play better than the metrics (although that’s debatable), but your ability to recall every play and compare them is limited." Therefore, no one will cruise on his reputation or a few highlight-worthy plays alone. But every award has to allow for a dash of gut feeling and subjectivity.
Proceed when ready, and feel free to vehemently disagree—and offer your own selections—in the comments.
A Note on the Stats
Before we get to the niftiest mitt masters MLB has to offer, let's run down and define the stats we'll be referencing, and where they come from.
No metric is perfect, and these are far from the only ones out there, but they're among the most prominent and widely accepted. Taken together, they paint a pretty comprehensive picture.
- Ultimate zone rating (UZR): UZR combines several metrics, including outfield arm runs (ARM), double-play runs (DPR), range runs (RngR) and error runs (ErrR). The idea is to quantify how many runs a player saved or coughed up with his glove. FanGraphs will provide the numbers, and you can read a more detailed description here.
- Defensive runs saved (DRS): Similar to UZR, DRS attempts to measure how many runs a player surrendered relative to the league average, with zero representing average. Again, we'll get our figures from FanGraphs, which offers further details.
- Defensive wins above replacement (dWAR): The concept here is to define a baseline, or "replacement level," and calculate how many wins above (or below) that a given player contributes. The difference between WAR and dWAR is that the latter takes only defense into account. For this, we're relying on Baseball-Reference, which details its methodology here.
Additionally, for catchers we considered the percentage of baserunners thrown out, the number of passed balls allowed and the pitch-framing figures outlined at StatCorner.com.
Oh, and all statistics are current as of Sept. 28, meaning things could shift slightly in the regular season's final days.
NL Honorable Mentions
Jason Heyward, RF (STL): Jason Heyward boasts baseball's No. 3 UZR (17.4) and the fourth-best DRS (21). He's almost certainly the best defensive right fielder in the game, which is worth plenty even if he doesn't provide the pop commonly associated with corner outfielders.
"I think his kind of player was valuable 15 years ago, it's valuable now, and it might even be more tangible statistically than ever," St. Louis Cardinals teammate Matt Holliday said of Heyward, per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Brandon Crawford, SS (SF): Even as the San Francisco Giants slide into odd-year oblivion, Brandon Crawford has taken the next step toward full-fledged stardom. Yes, he's doing it with the bat. But he's once again been a whiz with the glove, picking it to the tune of 23 DRS (third-best in baseball), 11.4 UZR (10th-best) and three dWAR (also third-best).
Nick Ahmed, SS (ARI): It's a cruel twist that Nick Ahmed injured himself on a stellar defensive play, tweaking his back on Sept. 22 while making a throw from deep in the hole. Overall, the Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop checks in tied for fifth in the game with 20 DRS and fourth in baseball with a 2.8 dWAR.
Adeiny Hechavarria, SS (MIA); Billy Hamilton, CF (CIN); Nolan Arenado, 3B (COL); Yadier Molina, C (STL); Wilson Ramos, C (WSH); Buster Posey, C (SF); Yoenis Cespedes, OF (NYM); Matt Duffy, 3B (SF)
AL Honorable Mentions
Lorenzo Cain, CF (KC): On a Kansas City Royals team stocked with defensive talent, Lorenzo Cain still stands out. His 17 DRS is second best among Junior Circuit outfielders and his 2.3 dWAR ranks No. 9 in baseball regardless of position. And talk about the eyeball test: Cain is the consummate athlete, offering a dictionary definition of "fleet-footed" every time he steps onto the outfield grass.
Kevin Pillar, CF (TOR): With a 14 DRS, 11.9 UZR and 2.7 dWAR, Kevin Pillar has been the defensive mustard in the Toronto Blue Jays' offensive sandwich. To hear him tell it, though, that wasn't his calling card coming up.
"No one really talked about my ability to play defense," he said, per Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star. "I think, to some degree now, what I've been able to do defensively has overshadowed what I've been able to accomplish offensively my first full season."
Adrian Beltre, 3B (TEX): Veteran Adrian Beltre has manned the hot corner more than capably for the resurgent Texas Rangers, posting a 16 DRS, 11.7 UZR and 2.1 dWAR, with each mark placing him among the top 10 in baseball.
J.J. Hardy, SS (BAL); Manny Machado, 3B (BAL); Alcides Escobar, SS (KC); Russell Martin, C (TOR); Salvador Perez, C (KC); Josh Donaldson, 3B (TOR); Ian Kinsler, 2B (DET); Didi Gregorius, SS (NYY)
NL Defensive Player of the Year: Andrelton Simmons, SS, Atlanta Braves
We'll start by citing the eye-popping stats, including 24 DRS, 15.7 UZR and 3.4 dWAR. Cast that aside, though, and simply watch the Atlanta Braves' Andrelton Simmons play shortstop.
He's conducting a symphony out there, diving and twirling like a man for whom the laws of physics only occasionally apply. Add a howitzer arm, and you've got a generational talent ESPN's David Schoenfield plausibly compared to all-time greats Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel.
Simmons' defense has been so good in his three-plus seasons with Atlanta that he's already moving into take-him-for-granted territory, especially since the Braves are in the midst of a rebuild.
But if you're looking for pure poetry in motion at one of the sport's most difficult positions, you'll find it in a No. 19 jersey, quite possibly smeared with dirt from another logic-defying dive.
"I'm getting better jumps," Simmons said in May, per Sports Journal's Alex Wise. "I'm getting better reads off of swings. I'm trying to make better decisions. I feel like I've gotten smarter, and in time, I think I'm going to get better."
That's a scary thought for anyone who hits the ball in his vicinity.
AL Defensive Player of the Year: Kevin Kiermaier, CF, Tampa Bay Rays
Kevin Kiermaier paces all of baseball in DRS (39), UZR (28.5) and dWAR (4.7). Unquestionably, empirically, he's the best defender in the game right now.
Again, though, those are merely numbers. And as much as they can tell us, they can't approach the unbridled joy of watching this kid in action.
At age 25, toiling for a team that's slipped out of the playoff picture, Kiermaier is less than a household name. But what he lacks in star power, he makes up for in confidence—and why not? He's got the absurd ability to back it up.
"I truly feel like I am the best defensive outfielder in all of baseball," he said, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.
Then he added, "I just feel like there's not a whole lot of people who can do what I do out there."
Watch him streak across the green, climb walls like Spider-Man and reel in baseballs like his glove has its own gravitational pull, and you'll agree—unless you're rendered speechless.