By Alex Mangels
Reading Time: 6 minutes
As baseball continues to develop and grow as a sport, so do the statistical and analytic measures that are used to evaluate the game’s teams and players. Beginning with the new-era “Money Ball” approach famously introduced by Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and continued by the likes of the Cubs’ GM Theo Epstein, players are now evaluated by the most modern and advanced statistics to gauge their tangible value to a team. Perhaps no statistic has received more spotlight or credibility in recent years than Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which translates a player’s stats into an estimate of how many wins (or losses) they contribute to their team over a full 162 game season.
WAR is an all-encompassing statistic, meaning that it takes all facets of the game into consideration, namely batting, running, fielding and position. It estimates how many runs a player adds to his team in each of these categories, and then converts these runs added into wins added. This is useful because it helps separate a player’s offensive and defensive contributions from each other, allowing us to gauge who the best players are on a holistic level. No longer equipped with only fielding percentage, put outs, and assists as meaningful defensive statistics for position players, it is easier to compare defensive capabilities, and determine which fielders are the best of the best.
Starting in 1957, the best defensive player at each infield position in both the American League and National League has received the “Gold Glove Award” at the end of every season, as well as the three best outfielders, regardless of position. Since 2011, the Gold Glove format has changed to award the best Left, Center, and Right Fielders in each league. This designation, which is voted on by coaches and managers throughout each league, essentially cements a player as a bonafide defensive star. Because the Gold Glove is a subjective award, it raises the question as to whether it accurately assesses the best defensive players year in and year out, or whether it succumbs to popular players in big markets in favor of lesser known defensive-minded players. This question pertains particularly to outfielders because standard fielding statistics do little to separate the Gold Glovers from replacement level fielders, since both will often have very few errors and assists due to the nature of the position.
Since the 2002 season, there have been 45 Gold Gloves awarded to outfielders in the American League, and 46 gold gloves awarded to outfielders in the National League (due to a tie in the 2007 voting). Of those 91 total Gold Gloves, 16 have gone to a player that had a negative Defensive WAR in the season that he won the award. This might not sound too alarming, given that those 16 Gold Gloves only account for 17.5% of the total during that time frame, but let’s break down what this means. More than one out of every six Gold Gloves awarded (or, one per year) to outfielders in the past 15 years has gone to someone who was below average defensively meaning they were deemed the very best at their position by voters even though they hurt their team defensively during that season.
Perhaps the most unsettling thing about these 16 Gold Glove occurrences, however, is that each scenario fits almost the exact same mold. It is no secret that, as is the case in almost every pro sport, a player gains popularity in the MLB from his offensive, rather than defensive, production. The 16 Gold Glovers in question hit for a 0.302 batting average with an OPS (On Base Plus Slugging Percentage) of 0.848 and had an offensive WAR of 4.37, on average in the season they won the award. As shown in the graph below, those are mind boggling offensive numbers, easily worthy of an All-Star selection, if not MVP consideration. Matt Kemp, for example, who has won the award two times, but has never had a positive defensive WAR in a season, had an offensive WAR of 5.1 and 8.7 in his Gold Glove seasons, and came in tenth and second in the MVP voting. These Gold Glovers also averaged a mere 2.5 errors per season, resulting in very high fielding percentages across the board. Clearly, having an eye-raising offensive season, coupled with few errors, gives an outfielder a big advantage when Gold Glove voting comes around. Unfortunately, neither of these necessarily correlates to an outfielder’s defensive value to his team.
Defensive WAR (dWAR) has not been embraced within the major league baseball community to the extent that other advanced analytics have been due to a few different factors. First, there is not one uniform calculation for defensive WAR. The two most popular models are based off Ultimate Zone Rating, and Defensive Runs Saved, and are utilized by FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, respectively. Defensive Runs Saved is more modern, and is calculated based off the outcome of every single defensive play throughout a game, depending on the situation. Because of this, the defensive WAR stats used in this article are from Baseball Reference. Another reason that people are skeptical of dWAR is that it does not necessarily lend itself to intuition. Take Nick Markakis for example, who did not make a single error in either year that he won the Gold Glove, but posted dWARs of -0.5 and -0.4 in those two seasons. How can someone who statistically had a “perfect” defensive season be a liability defensively? Strictly looking at fielding percentage for an outfielder can be misleading, because it doesn’t consider their defensive range, arm strength, accuracy, or route efficiency. These factors that go unnoticed are typically what separate average defensive outfielders from great ones.
Although there have been 91 Gold Gloves given to outfielders in the past 15 seasons, there have only been 41 different players who have won the award during that time. Once a player has won a Gold Glove and gained the reputation of an elite fielder, he is likely to win another later in his career. Since 2002, there have been ten outfielders who have won at least three consecutive Gold Gloves. On average, these players won the award for just under five straight seasons. Throughout their streaks, they posted an average defensive WAR of 1.09 per season. Having a dWAR slightly above 1 is by no means bad for an outfielder, but it rarely represents a legitimate bid to win a Gold Glove. Additionally, Torii Hunter, who won eight straight, and Ichiro Suzuki, who won nine straight, both had multiple seasons with negative dWARs during their streaks. This is a clear indication that reputation plays a large role in Gold Glove consideration, and often overshadows season by season defensive statistics.
On the flip side, there are multiple under-the-radar outfielders who have not won a Gold Glove award, even though they have had fantastic defensive seasons. Since 2010, there are six outfielders who have ranked first or second in defensive WAR at their position in their respective leagues and don’t have the hardware to show for it. Brett Gardner, Chris Young, Austin Jackson, Denard Span and Lorenzo Cain have all finished a season with the highest defensive WAR among outfielders in their league, and have all posted dWARs of at least 2.4 in those seasons, without winning Gold Gloves. None of those players are known for their offensive prowess, and many played for small market teams during those seasons. Fortunately, players like these are beginning to receive more attention for their defensive efforts.
Due to a significant change in the Gold Glove voting system that took place in 2013, the award is increasingly going to the most deserving players. Under the new format, 25% of the Gold Glove vote is determined by the SABR defensive index, leaving the remaining 75% up to coaches and managers. In the four seasons since the change, the outfield Gold Glove winners have had a defensive WAR of 1.86 on average. This might not seem like a gaudy number, but compared to the 0.72 dWAR average of the Gold Glovers in the span of 2002-2012, it shows significant improvement. Players such as Gerardo Parra, Juan Lagares, Kevin Kiermaier, A.J. Pollock, Kole Calhoun and Ender Inciarte have won Gold Gloves since 2013, none of whom are true household names.
In the coming years, the best defensive outfielders will likely receive more and more attention when Gold Glove voting comes around, regardless of their league-wide popularity. If the MLB were to place a greater emphasis on the SABR Defensive Index, and split the vote evenly between coaches/managers and analytics, a perfect balance could be achieved. Many believe that analytics fail to capture the totality of a player, because there are things that we can see as human beings that an algorithm can’t. And in a sense, this is true. Defensive WAR doesn’t take leadership ability, grit, or poise into consideration. But sometimes what we see can also deceive us. What if the outfielders who frequently make web gems only do so because they often get bad jumps, and need to make diving plays to make up for it? Managers and coaches sometimes only see players for six games a year, and must base their Gold Glove votes off those tiny sample sizes, inherently creating an element of bias. Luckily, there’s something that watches and analyzes every defensive play that every player is involved in throughout the season. And it’s time for us to embrace it, before another defensive superstar gets snubbed.