10 October 2012

Brooks vs. Adrian: Who's the Better Glove?

The other night during the Orioles' one game Wild Card Showdown against the Rangers, Cal Ripken, Jr., who was doing color commentary, mentioned that he thought Texas slugger Adrian Beltre was the best fielding third baseman he had even seen. When Ernie Johnson, the play-by-play man, questioned whether Beltre was even better than Brooks Robinson, Cal hesitated a bit, then responded in the affirmative. Yes, Cal Ripken, Jr. believes that Adrian Beltre is a better defensive third baseman than Brooks Robinson.

But is it actually true? In my opinion, it's impossible to reliably compare defense across eras but we can try. Using Baseball-Reference.com's Defensive WAR calculations (based on Sean Smith's Total Zone rating), we can at least see how dominant each player's defense was compared to their peers and see how it shakes out.

Brooks Robinson was a major league regular three years before Cal Ripken was born and was well on his way to his first Gold Glove when Cal was born in 1960, the first of 16 consecutive Gold Gloves that Robinson would win. While I'm certain that young Calvin Edwin was watching Orioles baseball all his life, he probably couldn't be a good judge or even recall much of those early years watching Brooks man the hot corner. Most of Cal's recollections are likely from the time his age hit double digits. Cal would have been 10 at the beginning of the 1971 season so we can start from there. Brooks played full time and at a high level from 1971-1975. In 1976 and 1977, he played sporadically and poorly. So for the sake of this post, I will assume Cal's memories of Brooks as a great player come mostly from the 5 season span from 1971-1975.

We will compare those 5 seasons to Adrian Beltre's most recent five seasons and see how they stack up.

Here are the top 10 third basemen in terms of Fielding Runs over the last 5 seasons as reported by Baseball-Reference.com:
Rk            Player Rfield From   To   Age
1      Adrian Beltre     91 2008 2012 29-33
2      Evan Longoria     71 2008 2012 22-26
3        Scott Rolen     46 2008 2012 33-37
4    Placido Polanco     39 2008 2012 32-36
5      Jack Hannahan     36 2008 2012 28-32
6       Brett Lawrie     34 2011 2012 21-22
7     Ryan Zimmerman     34 2008 2012 23-27
8       Brandon Inge     28 2008 2012 31-35
9     Kevin Youkilis     27 2008 2012 29-33
10         Joe Crede     26 2008 2009 30-31

By this measure, Beltre is the best and it's not even close. Even if you assume what Evan Longoria could've done if he'd been healthy this season, Beltre likely would beat him by 10 fielding runs. (By the way, how good is Brett Lawrie's glove? He's right in the middle of this list despite only 168 major league games under his belt.)

Here are the top 10 third basemen in term of Fielding Runs from the 5 season spanning 1971-1975:
Rk              Player Rfield From   To   Age
1      Brooks Robinson     90 1971 1975 34-38
2        Graig Nettles     83 1971 1975 26-30
3         Mike Schmidt     38 1972 1975 22-25
4              Ron Cey     36 1971 1975 23-27
5           Buddy Bell     35 1972 1975 20-23
6        Darrell Evans     31 1971 1975 24-28
7    Aurelio Rodriguez     29 1971 1975 23-27
8       Eric Soderholm     26 1971 1975 22-26
9         Ken McMullen     16 1971 1975 29-33
10        Jerry Kenney     16 1971 1973 26-28

It's Hall of Famer Robinson and Graig Nettles (who probably should be in the HoF) and nobody else. For the 5 season spans for each player:

                    Rfield   rTZ
Adrian Beltre         91      42
Brooks Robinson       90      83

So it could be argued that Beltre was a wee bit better than Brooks over the two 5-year spans in question. Although, in terms of Total Zone, a Gold Glove caliber defender will score a TZ of 15 or more in a season. Brooks had 4 out of 5 of those seasons with a TZ of 15 or more. Beltre had none.

And as you my have noticed, these were Beltre's age 29-33 seasons; Robinson's were from his age 34-38 seasons. If we look at Robinson's 5 seasons from the same age span, he has an Rfield of 97 and three seasons over 15 rTZ, all over 20 and two over 30. Beltre's never had quite that kind of run.

Athletes get better as the years go by. It is very possible that if you took Beltre back to the 1960's he would have been Brooks' superior with the glove. But since we have to judge these things in the context of the eras they played, you have to compare their relative dominance to their peers. And given all that, I'd have to respectfully disagree with Cal. Adrian Beltre may be the best defensive third baseman of his generation but I don't think he's any match for Brooks Robinson.


Scott said...

Machado had an Rfield of 7 runs in 51 games - at 150 games/yr over 5 years he'd be at 103 runs saved. So, Cal is wrong about Beltre on another account!

Small sample size? Sure. But its fun to think about what we'll be saying if Manny can keep this us!

Daniel Moroz said...

I thought Cal was taking about it in more of a scouting way (stronger arm, etc.), so using the relative to peers measure wouldn't necessarily be most appropriate. As you say, fielders have probably gotten better over time - which would lead me to likely agree with Cal that in an absolute sense, Beltre is better at third-base than Brooks was.

It depends on how you look at things.

(Also, Lawrie's numbers might be skewed by the shifting that Toronto does with him.)

DempseysArmy said...

Scott -

Yeah, he's been pretty impressive at third. I wonder if anybody has looked at the impact of Manny's value going forward as a third baseman vs. a shortstop. I would assume he would be a very good defensive shortstop as well.

Dan -

This is true and it is why it's hard to validate defense across eras. Based on the number of chances and plays he made, you'd have to think Brooks had more range and based on the number of plays he turned into outs, he had a strong and accurate arm. He beats Beltre handily by these measures.

But did guys just get more grounders to third in the 1960s and 70s? Are runners appreciably faster these days? Brooks was a superior defender for his day and, I would, argue, across eras but the game changes so much you just don't know what Beltre would have looked like back then and vice versa. Both are great but since Brooks stood out against his peers, I'd give the nod to him.

Daniel Moroz said...

Given that this year less than 70% of batters put a ball in play (not a HR, K, BB, or HBP) while in 1970 over 73% of batters did (and almost 74% against that Orioles team), it wouldn't surprise me at all if more grounders were hit to third back then. Not sure that completely makes up the difference in plays, but it's something. (Also the difficulty of plays has probably increased if batters hit the ball harder on average than they used to.)

I've never seen Brooks play, so I really have no idea. Not sure it's even worth discussing in these terms (that Cal initiated, I think), frankly. Comparing to their peers makes more sense to me when talking about how valuable a fielder is.

Jeremy Strain said...


I just did a post on Manny's value at 3rd versus SS a couple weeks ago. He's much more suited for 3B than SS.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Birdtown watching Brooks at Memorial Stadium. I have not had much chance to watch Beltre but will try to do so more. To put him in the same discussion as Brooks is incredible and I would have said he reminds one of Brooks, but I cannot say better -- and we still have to see what Adrian is like for another six or so years. OK?

Soccer Dad said...

A few years ago I saw one one of Brooks's gloves in a traveling HOF display. I don't recall what years it was from, but it was clearly a lot smaller than gloves nowadays. Anything he did with that piece of leather was a miracle.

Anonymous said...

I was an O fan from 1968 through most of the 70's Brooks was magical and was at his best in big games. He is still my all-time favorite player. These days, I live in Fort Worth and watch the Rangers. I am convinced that Adrian is the best all-around 3rd baseman ever (bat +glove)