Last season Ian Kinsler earned the first Gold Glove award of his career for his play at second base. This year he deserves another.
Boston’s Dustin Pedroia is again a finalist for the award, after having a good argument for winning last year as well. Minnesota’s Brian Dozier is the other finalist. This time, however, it’s harder to make an argument against Kinsler winning when the results are announced Nov. 7.
So, why shouldn’t Kinsler win?
That one is simple. Fielding percentage. If your measurement of a fielder is how often he made outs without making errors, choosing Pedroia (.995) or Dozier (.993) is the way to go, depending how much you want to penalize Pedroia for lagging behind in innings. Meanwhile Kinsler sits all the way back at a paltry .983 in comparison.
For a lot of people, that’s pretty much where the conversation ends. The best fielders don’t make mistakes. That should be obvious, right?
But for a number that so confidently puts forth how successful a player is on defense – 99.5 percent of the time he does his job! – that is so often touted by people paid to talk about the game of baseball, it doesn’t take long to punch holes through their ideas.
For one, an error is subject to the official scorer’s judgement. We all know when a fielder lets the ball go under his glove or makes an errant throw that it’s an error. That’s the easy part.
Then you look at MLB’s official rules. Rule 9.12, which governs errors, goes on for five pages, including a 463-word comment about rule 9.12(a)(1) alone, and that reminds you that mental mistakes are perfectly acceptable and not errors at all.
And remember the debate any time you think a player should have been able to get to a ball and make an out and the scorekeeper rules a hit anyway. It’s clearly about more than making mistakes.
A good fielder will be positioned well and have instincts and physical abilities that a lesser fielder will not.
A statue is probably not going to make a lot of errors, because unless the ball bounces directly off of it the scorekeeper will probably rule a hit. Why? The statue couldn’t get to the ball fast enough to make a mistake in the first place.
A player with better instincts or physical ability will get to balls more often, and make more plays, but might make an error from time to time along the way that the statue wouldn’t.
So the next time someone tells you fielding percentage is all they need to look at, tell them that’s all you need to hear, and find someone else to talk to. Anyone who has watched a game of baseball should know that judging defense is so much more than that.
That’s why people analyzing the game have been looking for better ways to judge fielders.
Results have been mixed.
Some have been easier to understand but have problems of their own, like out of zone plays made (OOZ). Others, such as Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) or Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), come from the same idea of judging a fielder based on making plays others cannot, but end up being secretive and opaque, while still being subjective.
Thanks to high-speed video cameras, both MLB’s StatCast and versions proprietary to teams, there are even more ways to judge a fielder, from how fast he runs to the route he takes to how many other players made similar plays based on the angle or speed a ball left the bat.
None of these methods are perfect, but they all seem to be a lot more useful than using errors and fielding percentage.
Getting back to Kinsler’s qualifications: his DRS (6) leads the finalists, as does his UZR (6.1), per Fangraphs. He made more impossible, remote, or unlikely plays (per Fangraphs’ Inside Fielding Edge) than Pedroia. Dozier made fewer remote plays, but at a higher percentage (39-25). Kinsler had the best percentage in the AL in “about even” plays – 71 percent.
So what does this tell us? Evaluating defense is hard, and fans of the two players who don’t win are going to be unhappy with the results. At least we’ve moved past the years of the award being a total joke based on legacy, or managers and coaches filling out the ballot with little thought. Maybe that’s the impact of the sabermetrics community accounting for 25 percent of the selection process since 2013.
But it also tells us that Kinsler seems to be as good a choice as any and would be deserving of another Gold Glove.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.