Who Should Have Won the National League Gold Gloves?
Until the last few years, defensive performance was measured by the eye test alone. Writers and broadcasters would look at what a defensive player is doing and judge their defensive prowess based on what they saw.
Sure, there were a couple of stats that were used to analyze performance, namely errors and fielding percentage. But the game has changed.
Defensive sabermetrics have become far more a part of baseball's lexicon. Statistics like Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are the two most commonly-used numbers, both attempting to assign a number to a fielder's ability to save his team runs over a league-average player. And there are deeper stats from Inside Edge Fielding that attempt to see how many plays a fielder makes that are more difficult.
It is important to note, though, that defensive statistics are still not completely reliable, but taken together, should give a more accurate picture of how good a defensive player is. And they are certainly more valuable than just looking at errors and fielding percentage.
This week, the Gold Glove winners were announced, an award given to the best defensive player at each position. However, in recent years, this award has been as much a recognition of offensive excellence as defensive achievement.
Below, we'll look at the National League winners and let you know who should have won.
Catcher - Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
One of the problems with the Gold Glove Award is that it is sometimes based entirely on reputation. Certainly, Yadier Molina has been one of the best defensive catchers in the game. This is the eighth year in a row that Molina has won this honor, and he was very good this season behind the plate. His seven DRS was third among NL catchers, and his overall dWAR of 1.6 was also third.
Molina threw out 41.3% of base stealers last year, 26 out of 63. And in terms of pitch framing (a new metric that attempts to show how well a catcher does at getting pitches that are balls called as strikes), Molina's runs above average (RAA) of 5.7 was 13th in the National League. That means Molina's pitch framing skills saved his team 5.7 runs above average in 2015.
Molina is not a bad selection for this award, although there were a couple other contenders you could argue could have won it. Buster Posey had a better dWAR (1.8) and his pitch-framing RAA of 15.2 was third-best in the NL, saving the Giants 15.2 runs over an average player this season. However, his 36.1% caught stealing rate was far below Molina's.
And Washington's Wilson Ramos also had a dWAR of 1.8, and he was incredible at throwing out runners, nabbing a league-best 44.4% among qualified players at the position (24 out of 54). He was just 45th in the NL in RAA, however, at -2.1, which means he cost his team 2.1 runs this season as compared to a league-average catcher. That was 45th in the NL.
First Base - Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
This one, the voters got right. Paul Goldschmidt was undoubtedly the best first baseman in the National League last season. His 18 DRS was tops among all first basemen, as was his dWAR of 0.9 (the next closest was Adrian Gonzalez at just 0.1). Only one player had a better UZR than Goldschmidt's 5.1, Brandon Belt, at 8.6.
He also made just 5 errors and had a fielding percentage that was tied for tops in the NL at .997.
Second Base - Dee Gordon, Miami Marlins
Again, the writers were on the money. Dee Gordon led all NL second basemen in DRS in 2015 with 13. The next closest were Brandon Phillips, Chris Owings and Kolten Wong with five. His UZR of 6.4 was also tops in the National League. However, he was second in dWAR at 1.8. Only Chicago's Addison Russell's was better, at 2.6, in the 86 games he played at second base.
In addition, according to Insider Edge, Gordon made far more plays that were deemed "remote," plays that the typical second basemen would only be able to get to 1-10% of the time. In those situations, he made the play 14.3% of the time. Wong was next closest at 9.7%.
Oh, and his .992 fielding percentage was also tops among NL second basemen.
Shortstop - Brandon Crawford, San Francisco Giants
There is no doubt that Brandon Crawford had a terrific defensive season. He was worth 20 DRS, tied with Nick Ahmed for second in the NL, and his UZR of 10.9 was fourth-best. However, it has long been known that Andrelton Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in the National League, and he showed why once again in 2015.
Simmons' UZR of 17.3 was best in the league, as was his 25 DRS. He made 7.0% of the "remote" plays that shortstops should make, fourth-best in the NL and one spot better than Crawford. Simmons was also the most reliable shortstop in the NL, making 99.3% of all the "routine" plays that players at his position should make, the highest percentage in the National League. Crawford was tied for third, at 98.4%
Simmons also made just 8 errors in 2015, 5 fewer than Crawford, and Simmons' .988 fielding percentage was the best in the NL; Crawford's .979 was sixth. Simmons was also tops in dWAR at 3.5. Crawford was second at 2.9.
Crawford had the better all-around season and was very good defensively. But Simmons was the better defender and should have won his third straight Gold Glove.
Third Base - Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies
Not only was Nolan Arenado a beast at the plate, he truly was the best defensive third basemen in the NL. Kudos to the writers once again.
Arenado's 18 DRS was best in the NL, with Matt Duffy's 12 the next closest. And while Arenado's UZR was just fourth-best, behind Duffy, Martin Prado and Todd Frazier, he had the most dWAR among NL third basemen by far, 2.2. The next closest was Prado at 1.3.
Arenado led all third basemen in the "remote" plays, successfully converting 6.4% of all plays that are expected to be converted just 1-10% of the time. The one strike against him is the errors, second-most in the NL with 17, although it did come with a lot of chances. His fielding percentage was third-best in the National League, behind Prado and Yunel Escobar.
Left Field - Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates
You've really got to hand it to the voters. They got most of these right. Starling Marte led all left fielders with at least 200 plate appearances in DRS, with 24. Christian Yelich was the next closest, a distant second with 13. Only Chris Coghlan had a better UZR than Marte, and among left fielders, Marte's 2.0 dWAR was second only to Ender Inciarte, who accumulated 2.6 dWAR in just 47 games in left.
Marte also saw a ton of action out in left and was able to make a ton of tough plays, converting 14.3% of the plays he should only be able to make 1-10% of the time. He also made just one error all season long in 180 putouts.
Center Field - A.J. Pollock, Arizona Diamondbacks
Another slam dunk by the voters. Pollock's 14 DRS was most among all center fielders with at least 200 PAs. Philadelphia's Odubel Herrera finished second with 10. The ridiculously fast Billy Hamilton led all center fielders in UZR at 14.5, Pollock was third at 6.5 (behind Herrera).
Pollock led all everyday center fielders in dWAR at 1.8. Herrera was second at 1.3. And he made just 3 errors in 355 total chances, good for a .992 fielding percentage, tops among center fielders who qualified for the batting title.
Pollock truly deserved his first Gold Glove Award this year.
Right Field - Jason Heyward, St. Louis Cardinals
This was a no-brainer. It has long been known that free agent Jason Heyward has been the best defensive right fielder in the game, and the stats all back that up that belief. His 22 DRS were far more than the next closest right fielder with at least 200 plate appearances, Inciarte, with 13. And his UZR was a ridiculous 20.2. The next closest was Ichiro Suzuki and Giancarlo Stanton at 8.6.
Heyward was also well above average in making plays that others wouldn't make, ranking near the top of the list in every Insider Edge category. And Heyward's 2.0 dWAR was second among all NL right fielders, trailing Inciarte's 2.6, but Inciarte's number was accumulated through two different positions as a part-time player.
Starting Pitcher - Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers
There aren't really any other stats for pitcher defense, so we'll just have to go with that.
In the end, the writers really only made one mistake as far as I could tell, and that was giving Crawford the award over Simmons. You could also make an argument for someone other than Molina at catcher, but it was a pretty even race there.
Overall, the voters should be proud of the job they did selecting the best defensive player at each position in 2015.