Last night, several members of the Yankeeist faithful were discussing (and subsequently torn on) the legitimacy of Derek Jeter’s defensive evaluation. Evidently, Jeter’s peers (comprised of managers and players) felt his defensive performance on the field warranted a fifth Gold Glove award. As to be expected, a significant portion of baseball fans and analysts wholeheartedly disagreed. Unfortunately, this dichotomy is clearly exasperated by intrinsic differences in defensive philosophy.
Those who concur with the decision are quick to note El Capitán’s .989 fielding percentage (a career high) along with his minuscule error total (6, a career low) which ranked lowest among all Major League shortstops with a minimum of 110 games. The ever-popular “eye test” led Mick Kelleher (Yankees infield coach) to comment, “It has all come up to a very high level. Whether he's fielding ground balls right at him, a slow roller going to his right on the backhand, popups into the outfield, balls to his left, the double-play pivot. Break it all down -- whatever you want on defense -- and try to find somebody better. I haven't seen any."
Then of course, there are the cynics. The statisticians who fall into this category are likely recovering from their respective brain aneurysms as Jeter’s defensive metrics perennially rank among the worst. I’m sure other more anecdotal folk within this grouping are, at very least, raising an eyebrow as to whether Derek’s reputation within the league went a long way in earning him another title. Ben Kabak of RAB elaborates. “His winning simply highlights how the Gold Glove process is broken. Few, if any, Yankee fans would put forward a compelling argument that Jeter deserves the award, but baseball seems content to allow the process to move forward without any attempt at achieving an objective standard. It simply means we won’t put much stock in the award.”
Before I continue any further, let me expand on a few related points that may provide some additional perspective. These points relate to some of the more frequent gripes being expressed on topic.
First, fielding percentages and errors don’t tell us much beyond one’s relative sure-handedness. These stats do not account for a player’s range nor do they gauge the degree of difficulty required to execute a play. For example, every time Jeter successfully manages one of those awesome jump-and-twirl-while-throwing-a-laser moments, I’m left wondering whether the play was actually outstanding or deceptively complicated (in a bad way). More specifically, was the end result an incredible recovery applied to a routine situation that was made significantly harder (due in large part to a general lack of horizontal movement)?
Second, a player's errors are often heavily influenced by other individuals. Every time Mark Teixeira grabs a poor throw out of the dirt, someone’s numbers were preserved. It’s interesting to consider how Jeter’s supposedly revitalized defensive stats also seemed to directly correlate with Jason Giambi’s departure from first base. Again, it’s hard to grade Jeter objectively in this situation as not every other shortstop has players as capable as Robinson Cano or Mark Teixeira sharing the infield. Or, when considering errors on a more pragmatic note, the player’s end result is dictated by the whims of whoever is recording the boxscore at the time. While sabermetrics have their faults, it's clear those two popular measures are equally flawed.
However, those attacking the Gold Glove choices with stats such as UZR or UZR/150 may want to reevaluate their argument. While I would absolutely love to buy into defensive metrics such as these with unequivocal certainty, the truth of the matter is I can’t because they still face legitimate points of contention. A perfect example of discrepancy involves one of our very own pinstriped favorites. In 2009, Fangraphs listed Mark Teixeira at a 0.6 UZR (0.5 UZR/150). Yet in 2008, he was listed at a 15.3 UZR (13.7 UZR/150). Then in 2010, his UZR was -2.9 (-2.4 UZR/150). These values, in and of themselves, simply don’t legitimately express Teixeira’s contributions. We know this reality to be true although many of us don’t entirely know why we know this to be true. Instead, we say “all you have to do is watch him to know he’s a damn good defender.” On a side note, Tex won another Gold Glove this past season. Does anyone mind?
So if some of the popular defensive standards are questionable at best, what are we to do? Well for starters, many of us often fall into a trap with sabermetrics such as UZR. This stat is not designed to measure fielding talent. Rather it provides a quality approximation of a player’s defensive contribution to his team in terms of runs prevented relative to the league. Try to keep in mind that small UZR sample sizes create major fluctuation; so, usually a few years worth of data is necessary for a legitimate analysis. Looking back to the Teixeira example described above, it’d be more appropriate to say, “Compared to the rest of the league, Tex managed to prevent about 4.3 more runs over the past few seasons than the average first basemen thus making him defensively desirable. Although a guy like Daric Barton had the highest 2010 UZR rating, Tex clearly fits the same mold of 'outstanding defender' when one includes the appropriate scope.”
Now, let’s get back to my boy Jeter. I’m not ready to concede to Bill James. His sentiments that Jeter has always been the worst shortstop defensively seems difficult to prove. Subjectively speaking, guys like Miguel Tejada (back in his SS days) always seemed way worse than Jeter. Not only was his range limited, but he bobbled the ball frequently. I think it's more likely that Jeter falls somewhere between "below average" and "slightly below average" depending on what your standards are. Presently, I’m not entirely sure how the ranking should be but there’s no doubt in mind that guys like Cliff Pennington or Alexei Ramirez consistently demonstrate better defense. I suppose though that until objectivity in voting and fool-proof formulas are available the results will always be skewed one way or another.
If you had the deciding vote, who’d be the Gold Glove winner?