You're forgiven if this year’s Gold Glove awards slipped below your radar. Rawlings announced the finalists during the most-watched World Series since 2004, and the company made the curious choice to unveil the winners on Tuesday evening, when the rest of the country was preoccupied with the results of a much bigger election. Timing aside, this year’s results are notable because they represent the strongest match between the winners and the plethora of advanced metrics that estimate fielding value.
Designed to recognize the best defender at each position in each league, the Gold Gloves once stood as the last word on fielding, albeit in an appeal-to-authority fashion. They were voted on exclusively by managers and coaches (who couldn't vote for players on their own teams), and once a player won, he was often recognized year after year—sometimes for longer than a decade—on the basis of reputation rather than statistics, producing streaks that were both impressive and improbable. At times, it has seemed as though offensive numbers had seeped into the voters' minds, and as better measures of defensive value have developed, it's become easier to critique past choices. That said, some of the choices never passed the most rudimentary sniff test. In 1969, pitcher Jim Kaat, who won the award 16 times, made eight errors in 44 chances for a fielding percentage of .826 yet still won. In 1999, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro added a third straight AL award despite playing just 28 games in the field.
Article continues below ...
In 2013, Rawlings began quelling some of the criticism by partnering with the Society for American Baseball Research to incorporate advanced statistics into the process via the SABR Defensive Index, which accounts for 25% of the vote. The SDI aggregates two types of defensive metrics: those derived by batted ball type data (Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved, Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating and Chris Dial's Runs Effectively Defended, a forerunner to later metrics); and those derived via play-by-play data (Michael Humphreys's Defensive Regression Analysis and Sean Smith's Total Zone Rating). DRS is published at both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, Total Zone only at B-Ref, UZR only at FanGraphs, and DRA only at a site called The Baseball Gauge. RED is not publicly available, but Dial has provided me with his spreadsheet upon request. The metrics often don't agree with each other, because their methodologies and data inputs differ, and when considering just one year of data, it’s worth remembering that we're working with estimates, not exact science.
Of this year's field, nine players are first-time winners, up from seven last year. Eight of this year's winners are repeats from last year, the second-highest total since 2011, the year that the outfield awards were split back into individual positions instead of going to the top three vote-getters regardless of whether they played leftfield, centerfield or right. In 2014, 10 players repeated, still well off the all-time high of 16, set in 1984.
Digging into the position-by-position results, one of the most notable wins was at NL catcher, where Posey unseated Yadier Molina, who had won the previous eight times, more than anyone at the position save for Ivan Rodriguez (13) and Johnny Bench (10). In terms of basic stats, the San Francisco backstop had a substantial edge on his St. Louis counterpart in terms of both caught-stealing percentage (37% to 21%) and passed balls (eight to two). The advanced stats back Posey's case: Among NL catchers, he was a runaway winner in SDI, with +15.2 runs; Yasmani Grandal was second at +5.9. While there's no UZR for catchers, Posey led the majors in DRS (+12) and the NL in both TZ (+15) and RED (+7; note that I'm lopping off all decimals from the individual metrics that use them to avoid a false sense of precision). For what it's worth, Posey also led the majors in Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average, which incorporates pitch-framing (where his +28 runs was also tops).
Meanwhile, Perez tied James McCann for the AL SDI lead (+8.7); he led MLB in TZ (+16) and RED (+10) and the AL in DRS (+11). DRA makes the case for Russell Martin (+16), but he didn’t fare as well in the other metrics. McCann was the runner-up to Perez in both DRS and TZ, and third in DRA behind the late-arriving Jonathan Lucroy, who was traded from the Brewers to the Rangers at the deadline.
Rizzo led NL first basemen in SDI (+8.6), edging Wil Myers (6.6) despite the latter's nine-run edge in DRA. Rizzo led the majors in DRS (+11) and was tied with Myers for the lead in TZ (+9); he was 0.2—essentially in a virtual tie—with Myers for the lead in DRA (+7). Moreland, whose mediocrity at the plate has made #OffensiveThreatMitchMoreland a popular hashtag on Twitter, can more earnestly add #DefensiveThreatMitchMoreland to the lexicon now. He topped the AL in SDI (+6.2), UZR (+6), and DRA (+29—a mark that screams “outlier,” as it's 11 runs better than any other major league first baseman) and ran a close second in DRS (+8 to Marwin Gonzalez's +9). Chris Davis was strong in DRS and UZR, but fell short in other areas, and RED leader Yonder Alonso was actually in the red in DRS, DRA and UZR.
At second base, there was anything but a consensus in either league in terms of individual metrics. Panik led the NL pack in SDI (+8.6), but the only individual metric in which he led the Senior Circuit was TZ (+14), where he tied with the Cardinals' Kolten Wong. Meanwhile, Wong led the league in RED (+15) and DRA (+21); the Cubs' Javier Baez finished first in DRS (+11, in just 59 games); and the Phillies' Cesar Hernandez was tops in UZR (+14). Kinsler, who last year beat out award winner Jose Altuve in SDI and led three individual metrics as well, received some deferred justice. This year, he finished in a dead heat with Jason Kipnis and Robinson Cano in SDI (+8.5 for the first two, +8.6 for Cano), led in RED (+12) and tied with Dustin Pedroia for the lead in DRS (+12). Pedroia led in UZR (+13), Cano in TZ (+15) and Rougned Odor in DRA (+26).
At the hot corner, perennial highlight reel hero Arenado won his fourth straight award, withstanding a strong statistical challenge from Justin Turner. Arenado edged Turner in SDI (+12.2 to +11.1) and led all third basemen in DRS (+20) and all NL ones in DRA (+19). Turner led the league three categories, beating Arenado substantially in both UZR (+14 to +6) and TZ (+19 to 0), with others in the middle, and edging Arenado in RED by 0.4 runs. Beltre, who ranks second to 16-time Gold Glove winner Brooks Robinson in the B-Ref version of Fielding Runs (DRS since 2003, TZ prior), won his fifth award overall and his first since 2012, unseating Manny Machado, who took home two of the last three at the position. It was a convincing win, as Beltre led in RED, DRS, UZR and TZ as well as SDI (+14.6), with 2014 winner Kyle Seager running second there (+11.9) and Machado third (+9.3) despite spending 45 games at shortstop.
At 22 years old, Francisco Lindor is this year's youngest first-time winner, and he's a player we should get used to seeing garner such honors. His +18.5 SDI led all infielders, and he led AL shortstops in both TZ (+24) and UZR (+21) while running second in the other three metrics, each led by a different player. Statistically, Addison Russell made the case for another 22-year-old winner in the NL, as he beat out Brandon Crawford in SDI (+17.2 to +15.6), and led the majors in both DRA and RED, with nearly eight runs between him and Crawford. But it wasn't enough to unseat the Giants' shortstop, who won last year; he led the majors in the more familiar UZR (+21, with Russell six runs back) and tied Russell in both TZ and DRS. This was one of just four non-pitcher positions where the SDI winner didn't prevail, though only the AL second base gap between SDI winner and award winner was smaller.
Leftfield in the NL had the widest gap between SDI winner (the Reds' Adam Duvall, +9.1) and award winner (Marte, +6.4); the latter won the hardware last year as well. Marte led the league in DRS and RED, but Duvall led in UZR and DRA and had the edge in the pair's unexceptional showings in TZ (+2 to -3). Gardner, who became the first Yankees outfielder to win the award since Bernie Williams in 2000, edged Colby Rasmus in SDI (+8.0 to +6.7). Gardner had the position's top DRA and RED—metrics where Rasmus was more or less average—and Rasmus led in DRS, UZR and TZ, the last two by substantial margins.
Despite leading all NL outfielders in DRS last year (+29), Ender Inciarte was frozen out of the Gold Gloves because he saw time at all three positions, dipping below the innings threshold necessary to qualify in leftfield. Traded from the Diamondbacks to the Braves, he made 117 of his 126 starts in center in 2016 and wound up leading in SDI (+16.4) as well as TZ and DRA, beating out SDI runner-up Billy Hamilton with a narrow second-place finish behind Odubel Herrera in RED; Hamilton edged Inciarte in both DRS and UZR, but it wasn't enough. Kiermaier, a repeat winner from last year, beat out Kevin Pillar in SDI (+14.6 to +11.7); he led the majors in DRS and the league in RED and TZ, offsetting Pillar's lead in UZR and edge in DRA.
Speaking of repeat winners, Heyward suffered through a miserable season at the plate but won his fourth Gold Glove—and his third in a row, with three different teams—on merit. He had the largest SDI edge outside of NL catcher, beating Nick Markakis by over eight runs (+14.9 to +6.7). Heyward led the league in all of the advanced metrics besides TZ, where Markakis beat him by a run. In the AL, however, Chicago's Adam Eaton got the rawest deal of any defender. Not only did he lead the AL in every metric, but his +21.4 SDI also led the majors, though to be fair, Betts's +19.3—aided by an off-the-charts +32 DRS (to Eaton's +22)—was second.
As for pitchers, given just 30 or so games on the mound, defensive metrics don't tell us much, and neither UZR nor DRA even exist for the position. Sadly, cult hero and NL SDI leader Bartolo Colon (+4.6) was deprived of a first-time win at age 43; Greinke (+3.6) ranked third. Keuchel, who took home his third straight award, ranked second in SDI behind R.A. Dickey (+3.7 to +4.1).
In all, SDI leaders claimed 12 of the 16 position-player Gold Gloves, up from eight in 2014 and ’15 and 10 in '13. What’s more, none of the other four winners ranked lower than third in the aggregate metric. To the extent that defensive metrics can tell us who should win, they match up very well with the final results this year. Whether that’s simply a coincidence or an illustration of increased confidence in such metrics is a question for another day, but what’s clear is that the awards, which I used to dismiss as The Fielding Grammys (referencing an old Simpsons joke) have come a long way in a short time.