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Another Gold Glove Gaffe

by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com

November 6, 2008

The 2008 Gold Glove Awards have been announced for both leagues.  There were few travesties this year.  Derek Jeter did not win a trophy, although that is due to his poor offensive season rather than a sudden realization of his lackluster defense, as evidenced by Derek Jeter Jr. winning the AL shortstop hardware instead.  No designated hitters won awards this year.  Albert Pujols did get snubbed again, but there's no point in going on and on about that.

But there was one glaring, smack-a-sausage-with-a-baseball-bat graphic blunder.  Nate McLouth was a lousy McPick for a National League Gold Glove Award.

I have to admit, I was a bad Pirates fan this year.  I did see a couple of games in person, which is pretty devoted since it is a 500-mile commute to lovely PNC Park from Chicago.  But as someone with access to every baseball game on MLB.com, I rarely chose to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates rather than the Cubs or White Sox, who both contended for playoff spots all year long.  Of course, these Pirates did face the Cubs 18 times, the White Sox three times, and the Brewers three times in a pretty crucial September series.  All in all, I witnessed a decent amount of Pirates baseball, but not enough to call myself an authority on each individual player's defensive prowess.

If you had asked me yesterday to describe Nate McLouth's defense, I'd have told you, "below average range, slightly above average arm."  Actually, I thought I might have been underestimating his range, only because my primary comparisons for him were Chris Duffy and Nyjer Morgan, both of whom cover a lot of ground as Pirate centerfielders.  I had seen McLouth make a couple of head-scratchingly obtuse plays in the field, but I figured that I had just been catching him at his worst.  The Pirates, after all, went 4-17 against Chicago teams and 63-78 against everybody else. 

Still, when I learned yesterday that Nate McLouth would receive a Rawlings Gold Glove Award, I was shocked.  McLouth is a small market player who had a good, but not great, offensive season, and has never won a Gold Glove previously.  For players like that to come away with the hardware, they need to play some especially flashy defense.  I figured I would have seen more of that in the couple of dozen or so games that I watched McLouth if he were going to win an award like this.

So I naturally turned to the statistics to see whether there was something I was missing in my casual analysis of his defense.  It turns out that I was indeed missing something:  Nate McLouth is actually the worst regular defensive centerfielder in baseball, and possibly the worst regular outfielder altogether.

Pos
NL Winners
P Greg Maddux, Dodgers
C Yadier Molina, Cardinals
1B Adrian Gonzalez, Padres
2B Brandon Phillips, Reds
3B David Wright, Mets
SS Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
OF Nate McLouth, Pirates; Carlos Beltran, Mets; Shane Victorino, Phillies
Pos
AL Winners
P Mike Mussina, Yankees
C Joe Mauer, Twins
1B Carlos Pena, Rays
2B Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox
3B Adrian Beltre, Mariners
SS Michael Young, Rangers
OF Torii Hunter, Angels; Grady Sizemore, Indians; Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners

When I look for defensive statistics during the season, the first place I turn to is The Hardball Times.  Their Revised Zone Rating simply calculates the percentage of plays a fielder makes within his assigned zone.  They also track outs made out of that zone as a counting stat.  Among 20 qualifying centerfielders, 15 made at least 90% of the plays in their assigned zone.  McLouth finished 20th among these fielders with an 86.7% conversion rate.  He performed a little better in Outs Out of Zone: 12th among the 20 with .067 OOZ per inning, though that was well off the pace of .082 set by the incomparable Carlos Gomez.  

Fortunately, The Bill James Handbook 2009 was just published last week.  Among the many indispensable nuggets inside are the +/- leaders and trailers for each position, both from this season and the past three seasons.  This metric considers every ball hit at different vectors and different velocities, and compares how often a fielder turns a ball hit in that area into an out to what the average fielder does.  The result is expressed in the number of plays above or below average that a fielder has made at a given position.  McLouth finished the 2008 season with a -40 mark, worse than any other defensive player in 2008.  Furthermore, no other centerfielder has even combined for a total that low when adding up their past three seasons.

Basically, voters saw McLouth's .997 fielding percentage and gave him a trophy.  Of course, Hunter Pence had the same total, plus 10 more outfield assists than McLouth, plus he plays a position other than centerfield, which would have balanced out the NL winners a tad.  I don't expect Gold Glove voters to consider advanced statistical metrics such as +/- ranking, but I do expect them to at least consider traditional fielding metrics beyond mere fielding percentage and some observational data.  It's great that they did not simply pick Jeff Francoeur or Aaron Rowand simply because they won last year; on the other hand, either one would have been a monumentally better choice than McLouth for one of the NL's three outfield Gold Glove Awards.

PS - No, it wasn't completely fair to dub Michael Young as Derek Jeter Jr.  His +/- total of -32 over the past three seasons pales in comparison to Derek Jeter's -68 mark, and some of those statistics are likely skewed by the extremely fast infield of the Ballpark in Arlington.  Here's hoping that home/road +/- splits are listed in the Fielding Bible Volume II, available in February.




Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at keith@baseballevolution.com or found at the Baseball Evolution Forum

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