In a quiet offseason, any topic is good to write about. This post is about the Gold Glove (GG). The GG lacks the luster of the MVP and CY, but it still is relevant enough to encourage some healthy discussion (check this and this out). I will attempt to answer three questions:
As we see above, GG winners in 2006 were, on average, the 11th best in FP% and 10th best on Def. While FP%'s rank went continuously down until 2010-2011, it has then gone back up to the 10th - 12th rank range. Conversely, the average Def rank remained steady (at 10th) until 2013. However, for the last 3 years, Gold Gloves winners were the 6th best on Def on average, a 40% improvement. So it looks we are moving away from the Fielding percentage but, most importantly, from the "scout's eye test" (e.g. Torii Hunter, 2007) or just who's the best/popular hitter at the position (e.g. Derek J2ter in 2010). Now, some of this shift can be attribute to a 2013 agreement between MLB, Rawlings and the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) to develop a mixed criteria to determine GG winners. The new selection process continued to have managers and coaches' votes on the driver's seat accounting for 75% of the votes, but it added the SABR Defensive Index (SDI) to improve the results. While the results might have been tilted by SDI, votes have had a shift that goes above and beyond SDI, probably into the voters' deeper understanding of the game and widely available data on fielding performance.
Now, let validate whether voters evaluate each position differently.
First basemen: 1B seems to be a position where FP% still holds large relevance. In the last 11 years only twice Def rank was lower than FP%, in 2014 and 2016. In 2014, though, both FP and Def valued Eric Hosmer's and Adrian Gonzalez's defense poorly. In 2016, Mitch Moreland and Anthony Rizzo took the GG home. Moreland was ranked 1st in both Def and FP% making harder to evaluate whether voter's change their mindset, Rizzo, however, ranked 7th on FP% and 3rd in Def.
Third basemen: 3B portraits a different picture from 1B. Voters appear to rely on Def as an input for defense performance. 2012 was the last year when FP% rank was lower than Def rank. And it was by a small margin. That year Chase Headley won the Gold Glove with San Diego, edging David Wright who had better FP% and his run value was twice as good as Headley's. Events such as 2007, when Beltre and Wright won despite posting average Def and FP% numbers, are outliers in this position.
Second basemen: 2B is one position where a shift can be easily spotted. First, voters are giving it to the best fielder. The height of the bars is trending down and that's a good thing. Secondly, Def has been lower than FP% in 5 of the last 6 years, with 2015 being the exception.
Shortstop: Even more so than 2B, SS has shifted towards Def than any other position. Interestingly, since 2013, voters seem to pay little attention to FP (or perhaps FP has little relation to Def?) as GG winners have ranked approximately as 2nd on Def but 8th on FP%, which is the opposite of what happened pre-2013. 2012's winners were an obvious choice for voters - Robinson Cano and Darwin Barney performed exceptionally well in FP% and Def and left no room for disagreements.
Outfielders: Just like with SS, there is a clear turning point - in this case was 2012. Since then Def has always been lower than FP%, by some considerable margin. Long gone are the days where poor defenders with high FP% are recognized ('08 Nate McLouth or '11 Nick Markakis, I'm looking at you)
I can't pinpoint exactly when it happened but the Gold Glove award's voters are embracing analytical defensive metrics more than in the part, in particular Def as highlighted in this exercise. Even though the sabermetric community has had defense analysis at the heart of their research, it has admittedly not progressed as quickly as in other areas. New developments made through Statcast make the future bright though. The incorporation of SDI in 2013 was definitely a boost, but more needs to happen for us to get to a system where the Gold Glove awards is not a popularity contest nor an award for players that do what scouts love but doesn't necessarily work.
Lastly, I will leave you with a table of Gold Glove recipients that did not deserve to win and some player that should have won based on what the raw numbers say.
All Def and FP% stats are from Fangraphs. Gold Glove data is from baseball-reference.
By Oswaldo Gonzalez