31 October 2013

The Contrarian's Guide to the Orioles 2013 Gold Glovers

Taking a Black and Orange perspective, there is a bittersweet appreciation for Gold Gloves.  The Orioles organization is one of the most storied franchises in being awarded the honors, but there has often been great distress over players not being awarded them.  For instance, let's look at Cal Ripken Jr.'s career at shortstop and how often he was overlooked is we assumed that Baseball Reference's Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average metric is a suitable metric for defense (after all, it marks Mark Belanger as one of the greatest shortstops ever, so it has that going for it):

Year Ripken's Rtot Winner Winner Rtot
1983 11 Alan Trammell -1
1984 23 Alan Trammell 15
1985 0 Alfredo Griffin -4
1986 16 Tony Fernandez 4
1987 0 Tony Fernandez 6
1988 -6 Tony Fernandez 8
1989 20 Tony Fernandez 13
1990 22 Ozzie Guillen 12
1991 22 -- --
1992 12 -- --
1993 11 Omar Vizquel 14
1994 17 Omar Vizquel 8
1995 22 Omar Vizquel 1
1996 2 Omar Vizquel 1
From above you can likely surmise that Ripken was cheated out of many Gold Gloves that were won by traditional, athletic, highlight reel shortstops.  Among all AL shortstops, Ripken ranked first in Rtot for shortstops in 1984, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1994.  In Baltimore, it seemed fairly obvious how skillful Ripken was at playing the position, but it was not a strong enough industry perspective for such a transformational figure to eclipse that traditional view of wiry, springy shortstops.

Perhaps two of the biggest overreaches in recent history for the Gold Glove process has been awarding Rafael Palmeiro one back in 1999 when he had only put in 29 games at first base and then the 2008 one that went to rest on Nate McLouth's fireplace mantle.  For the former, it is somewhat understandable why Palmeiro won the award.  He was a great defensive first basemen and he won the honor the previous two years.  Managers and coaches who vote on these things often use their long memory of who excels out there.  They see more of the career of a player than a season, so they may have been completely surprised that injuries had limited Raffy to only 29 games.  It was not a poor selection in terms of assessing talent, just the manner in which these awards are handed out simply cannot see some major trends.

The selection of Nate McLouth is a bit more problematic.  McLouth has never held the title of being a good defensive center fielder.  He did not have it in the minors.  He did not have it in his first few seasons in the Majors.  This is a general scouting view and a view that is largely supported by whatever defensive metric system your heart desires.  He was an offensive centerfielder whose bat overcame his shortcomings in center.  McLouth also looked good out there because his fielding looked like 100% effort and he had great hands.  Whereas a Corey Patterson would run over underneath a ball and catch it, McLouth would run over and successfully dive.  Simply, McLouth had highlight reel plays while putting up one of the worst starting center field performances in baseball.  His final Baseball America scouting report summarizes his defensive play well: "A 'tweener, McLouth lacks the desired power for an outfield corner and the range for center field."

For the most part, I don't really care about these awards or any of the major individual achievement awards in baseball.  Most of them do not make much sense in their methodology.  However, I find myself drawn back into them year after year because they are not meaningless.  They impact the perception of a player and, in turn, impact his value.  To that end, I tend to face again and again comments about how Nate McLouth is a Gold Glove outfielder and is an adequate replacement for Jones or, even, that McLouth should be the center fielder and is superior to Jones.  I am not sure how people come to that conclusion.  Watching a handful of games a week, you can see the limitation in McLouth's range and how that would be a significant impact on a team if he patrolled center field.  In fact, the year he won, he brutalized Pirates' pitching by simply not being able to make plays on balls because he would come a few steps too short.

So, a Gold Glove is not all.  Rawlings knows this to be true.  Many of us who do some level of advanced scouting know it to be true.  However, the Gold Glove is a gold standard for right or wrong.  Rawlings, having had some of their thunder stolen by John Dewan's Fielding Bible efforts, decided this past year to revise their process.  They have incorporated defensive metrics to the extent that they now make up 25% of the voting.  Here is a blurb from a longer article:
The SABR Defensive Index draws on and aggregates two types of existing defensive metrics: those derived from batted ball, location-based data and those collected from play-by-play accounts. The three metrics representing batted ball data include Defensive Runs Saved from Baseball Info Solutions, Ultimate Zone Rating developed by noted sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman, and Runs Effectively Defended built by SABR Defensive Committee member Chris Dial. The two metrics included in the SDI originating from play-by-play data are Defensive Regression Analysis, created by committee member Michael Humphreys, and Total Zone Rating.
That is an improvement.  The human error from managers and coaches who cannot see every player and who lean heavily on past seasons as well as word of mouth should be overcome if Rawlings wishes to have a more meaningful award.  A similar approach should also be incorporated in other awards in order to improve their precision and accuracy in identifying the right player.  Basically, if we can improve the process in order to better achieve the objective, why not do it right?  Of course, with uncertainty in metrics and the errors with human evaluation in small sample size, we should expect some controversy to continue.

This leads us to the title of this post: the Contrarian's Guide to the Orioles 2013 Gold Glovers.  For the second portion of this article I will try to do my best to dispute the winners and object to the losers.  Some arguments will be easier than others.

Making an argument for those who lost

AL Catcher Finalists:
Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals  ** WINNER **
Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles

In 2012, the analytical community was a buzz with how well Salvador Perez played in only 76 games.  Over a full season, his glove projected to being worth between two and three wins alone.  Added to that, he could hit.  Wieters won that Gold Glove, just as he did the season before.  The third finalist was Joe Mauer who had a resurgent year behind the plate after several seasons where his play was slightly off due to wear, tear, and injuries.

However, Wieters may have been deserving of a third Gold Glove.  Detractors tend to use Defensive Runs Saved to show Wieters fell apart this season with a -13 runs value, by far the worst of his career.  Added to that, the general list of grievances include him calling a poor game or the contradictory perspective that he does not call his own pitches, that he frames poorly, and that he cannot hit the ball (which is usually a tangential point as people express their disappointment that Wieters never became the Switch Hitting Jesus).  Going back to the runs value point, I think DRS' incorporation of pitch handling is ahead of where we truly are with our understanding of the data.  The ability to turn balls into strikes and what not is probably a combination of catcher ability, pitcher ability, and team philosophy.  It also probably can be impacted by differences in umpire schedules, day/night games, and other variables.  As such, I think it is a good ballpark thing to consider, but maybe not an element to wrap into a larger number stating defensive worth because most casual fans have no clue how DRS is compiled.

**Note -- Talked to someone in the know, it appears that DRS uses CERA to describe pitch handling which is a similar approach in general.  I do not have complete understanding of the process, but it looks fuzzy outside of the statistical black box from my perspective.  It is a nice metric to have, but I simply do not put a great deal of trust in one season samples and wonder about how useful it is in general.

What gives me further pause is that pitch handling has not been consistent over Wieters' career.  Some years he has been excellent, others average, and this past year he was awful.  Perhaps the metric is accurately measuring what happened, but maybe it is misidentifying the value associated with the catcher or maybe the measuring technique simply is too noisy and not hone for different player sizes, normalized for umpires, etc.  I think it is a useful number, but I try to look at general trends for it instead of short term events.  On that point, I think when using it that it is hard to ignore historical performance.

In this case, we might find UZR to be a better tool if we assume the three catchers handle their pitchers in a similarly effecrive manner, which is something history would agree with.  Perez leads the group with 16.1 defensive runs saved with Matt Wieters a sliver behind him at 15.4 defensive runs saved.  Mauer is 10 runs behind them and only caught about half the season (658.2 innings).  It is easy to knock Mauer out of the discussion with his partial season.  Between Perez and Wieters, it is a toss up with 0.7 runs likely not being a significant difference.  Given Wieters historically elite defensive performance, the tie breaker lies in his favor.

AL First Base Finalists:
Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles
Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals  ** WINNER **
James Loney, Tampa Bay Rays

First base was a "close vote", but it was likely close between Loney, a player with a reputation and numbers saying he is a solid defensive 1B, and Hosmer, a player who looks good and has a good reputation to boot (even though his numbers are pretty average).  If sabermetrics were King then Loney would be the winner.  Well, if it truly was King then the final three probably would have been something like Mike Napoli, Mark Trumbo, and Loney.  But what about Chris Davis?

Well, we all remember the dead air needing to be filled in 2012 when Mark Reynolds did his Champion League dives at first base to make outs.  He had great hands and made a number of excellent plays with them.  However, his first step was awful and he let a lot of ground outs become doubles or scoring guys from second as the balls scooted into the outfield.  It was something that confused the viewer who trusted Jim Palmer to tell him what is what.  Sometimes mentioning that a play is gold glove worthy is simply confined to that play and not an indication of the greater collection of work.

When Davis entered in as the 2013 starting first baseman, the conventional wisdom was that he would show better reaction and range than Reynolds while not being as sure of hand.  Once out there he performed above expectations.  The part that really showed improvement was his hands.  It took him from being a below average to poor defensive 1B and rose him up to a average to below average first baseman.  It was a great thing to see and brought out of the typeset many glowing words.  Baseball, its origins in a very romantic style of writing, is wont to utilizing hyperbole and, in expected order, made claims of Davis being an elite defender.

So given that, how can we argue that Davis was robbed?  Well, first off, defensive metrics for first basemen have been held in somewhat dubious regard due to positional differences between teams.  Differences in approach can greatly impact how well a player makes certain plays.  For instance, Mark Reynolds was known for holding runners off the bag (which was likely due to his inability to get off the bag after the pitch) which probably made his awful range merely look bad.  Some teams have their first baseman hold the bag hard to prevent leads and stolen bases.  Others have them play loose.  When you look at other positions, positioning probably does not play such an incredible role as it does at first.

So, the couple runs between Hosmer and Davis are pretty insignificant given the uncertainty.  Second, the Orioles lean hard against letting teams run on them regardless who is catching (they were the only team that had fewer than 100 SB attempts against them last year, which is remarkable because teams were above average in getting on base against the Orioles).  With that in mind, perhaps Davis was at a fielding disadvantage that defensive metrics could not identify as currently constructed.

Loney?  I ... am at a loss with that argument.

AL Right Field Finalists:
Nick Markakis, Baltimore Orioles
Shane Victorino, Boston Red Sox  ** WINNER **
Josh Reddick, Oakland Athletics

I don't have an argument here.  Nick Markakis is not your slightly older brother's Nick Markakis anymore.  His arm, once his calling card, has lost some strength and some accuracy.  Probably tied to that has been the erosion of his speed.  Without the speed from his younger days, he is not positioning himself as well for his throws.  Additionally, the loss of speed lets more baseballs drop in.  He still is a strong gamer who goes all out, but he simply is not the guy he once was.  That was even true when he won his Gold Glove in the past.  He was being rewarded for the reputation gained from past performance.

Now, there seems to be some strangeness in the numbers at Camden Yards.  I discovered this back in the day and that initial pilot study was picked up by others and pushed forward.  What I found was that Adam Jones, Felix Pie, and Markakis performed much more poorly (and consistently poorly) at Camden Yards than on the road.  In a response, Dewan found that this was not the case with visiting fielders and may simply be unique to the Orioles outfielders.  I have yet to see the data, but it seems like an amazing coincidence to me.  That said, I do not see how such a potential misevaluation component could erase the distance in ability I see in Markakis and with the play we saw from Victorino and Reddick this season.

A case against those who won:

AL Center Field Finalists:
Lorenzo Cain, Kansas City Royals
Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox
Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles  ** WINNER **

There are many a detractor for Adam Jones.  Much of what they say is kind of silly, such as the perspective that him blowing bubbles adversely impacts his game.  That specific call to arms against Jones is one that is taken up because it is easy to see and can feel like showboating, but scientific studies suggest that such behavior might actually improve response and reaction.  In other words, that probably should never be brought up.  Yes, his hands are not the best (which is something we were aware of during his attempt to stick at shortstop), but they simply are a very visual cue of nothing really in particular.  In other words, he does not really commit an absurd number of errors.

The astute detractor instead points toward positioning.  John Dewan highlighted several outfielders and grouped them by whether they played deep or shallow.  What his little study showed was that Jones is tied for 5th in need to retreat on fly balls with 40% of his plays.  Denard Span and Ben Revere with first with 42%.  Aaron Hicks and Alejandro De Aza had the fewest with 31%.  Adding upon this, Dewan took a grouping of the shallow fielders, Jones included, and compared their ability to save runs with all other fielders.  What he found was that on shallow hit balls the shallow group saved about 0.8 runs per player while the regular group gave up 0.2 runs.  For balls hit deep, the shallow group gave up 3.8 runs while the regular depth group saved 2.4 runs.  It certainly suggests that perhaps Jones should play deeper and worry less about balls falling in in front of him.  With his strong arm, it might even put him in better position to throw out runners.  A note on the above mentioned article: it is difficult to fully appreciate what is being reported there because there are major portions of the study that are being withheld.  As I have shown in the past with Dewan, this can be a problem when he has found a nifty thing.

This concern seems to agree with most metrics in determining Adam Jones' defensive range.  He himself has mentioned in the past that these metrics are interesting, but that they do not consider positioning.  It may be that proprietary methods used inside the warehouse see something that the generic, freely available metrics do not.  Perhaps a place like Camden Yards is unique as I alluded to earlier.  There are a lot of perhaps there.  So, perhaps, it might be best to hand the honor to a player who is highly regarded and also has the metrics to back him up.

AL Shortstop Finalists:
Alcides Escobar, Kansas City Royals
Yunel Escobar, Tampa Bay Rays
J.J. Hardy, Baltimore Orioles  ** WINNER **

J.J. Hardy is an impressive defensive shortstop.  He has carried that reputation throughout his career even though 2013 represents only his second Gold Glove.  That is something both Yunel Escobar and Alcides Escobar lack.  Yunel was noted by sources in the Braves organization as someone who was not incredibly motivated to improve and rubbed a lot of folks in the wrong way.  Yunel was noted by sources in the Blue Jays organization of the same exact thing which blew up in the media when he wore eye black with hate speech on it.  With the Rays, he has been able to actually give a performance baseball men have long thought he was capable of.  Maybe it took time for him to develop or whether he simply started caring, he produced well for the Rays in the field this year by showing solid hands and good range.  Numerically speaking, he performed better at those tasks than J.J. Hardy did according to UZR.

Alcides Escobar is another player plague with inconsistencies.  In 2012, he put in a wretched show at shortstop.  He fumbled and threw away balls that he would have normally made easy plays on and he found himself a step or two off.  There was some rumbling about him losing some mobility in an effort to muscle up on the ball at the plate while other explanations were related to potential impact of minor injuries.  In 2013, the metrics indicate he had great range and above average hands.  Range is what separates Hardy and Escobar.

Metrics would indicate that either Escobar would be a good selection while leaving the impression that Hardy was rewarded for past play even though he did turn in another solid, but not spectacular, season.

AL Third Base Finalists:
Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers
Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles  ** WINNER **

It is hard to argue against Machado here.  He is well respected by scouts, managers, coaches, players, and put up one of the greatest UZRs ever for a third baseman.  Evan Longoria is also an excellent defender, but did not approach what Manny did this season.  It is amazing to look back at the beginning of this year, that the extrapolation of his 2012 season suggested a value of 15 runs saves was thought to be overly optimistic.  Instead, he more than doubles that value.  Quite impressive.  I have no argument against him.  The only peculiar entry here is Adrian Beltre who had an uncharacteristically tough season

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