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Beltran wins gold glove, does that really mean he's any good?

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Carlos Beltran won his first gold glove, but with Derek Jeter and Brad Ausmus each winning their third it's not quite clear to me that this is such a huge compliment to Beltran. I think we all accept that the major caveat of this award is its subjectivity. Buster Olney, formerly a Yankee beat reporter for the New York Times, describes an all-too-common approach to GG voting (subscription required).

this is kind of how the Gold Glove voting played out, in a roomful of coaches (I'm keeping names out of it, to protect the innocent and guilty):

Coach 1: "First base ... hmmm ... who are the best guys at first base?"
Coach 2: "That guy for the team we just played is pretty good."

Coach 1: "Yeah, you're right. Can't throw worth a damn, but he can pick it."
Coach 2: "What about [Candidate X]?"

Multiple coaches, all at once: "Yeah, he's a great choice."

And then, many times, the coaches on the same team would all vote for the same guy, in a block vote, without considering other players. I thought it was kind of bizarre. (But probably in keeping with our political process, under which a good slogan is everything and the fates of candidates can rest largely on how voters are affected by a 30-second television advertisement.) This is how a Rafael Palmeiro can win a Gold Glove at first base while playing a few dozen games at the position.

This is basically how I thought the voting went. Yay, Beltran got a gold glove. You know what? He deserved it, and right now I don't think there's any question he's a vastly superior defender to Andruw Jones, who also won as a centerfielder, highlighting another of the award's shortcomings. The outfield awards are position-insensitive, in that the three "best" (quotes used for emphasis) outfielders win the award regardless of their position in the outfield. This year the winners were all centerfielders (Mike Cameron was the other), but one award each should be given to the best at each outfield position.

Still, that's but a minor detail compared to the egregious miscasting of certain ballplayers as excellent fielders on the basis of simply winning gold gloves. Statheads have long picked on Jeter's defense at short, and his embarrassing play at the position has been well-documented. He gets countless bonus points from players and coaches alike because:

  1. He hustles
  2. He has a strong arm
  3. He has that patented jump-throw thingy
  4. He fields the ball very well when he gets to it
All of these things are important to varying degrees, but they all pale in comparison to a player's ability to get to batted balls in the first place, an area in which Jeter is among the worst fielders of all time ever to play baseball ever of all time. Baseball statisticians often have trouble agreeing on the best method for evaluating a player's range, and almost everyone agrees that we have a long way to go before we can accurately and objectively quantify a player's contributions defensively. Still, virtually every defensive metric agrees that Derek Jeter costs his team multiple wins every year compared to an average shortstop. Derek Jeter, three-time gold glove winner.

Like oh-so-many groundballs every season, let's move past Jeter for a moment and talk about Brad Ausmus. If our ability to evaluate the defense of normal position players is considered rudimentary, our knowledge of catchers' defensive contributions is downright preschool. Catchers don't really have any range to speak of, as they are only asked to field a paltry number of nubbed groundballs and the occasional pop foul. We always hear how good this or that catcher is at calling a game, but that doesn't really mean anything to an average fan (or even a super fan), and for all we know it could just be whosifudge (analyses of CERA, or catcher ERA, tends to support the whosifudge theory). What we're usually left with to judge a catcher's glove is his ability to throw out baserunners, and in that area Ausmus fails miserably.

There was a time when Ausmus had one of the strongest, most accurate arms in the league. In 2001 and 2002 Ausmus threw out 48% of would-be basestealers, which is outstanding. This past season, a year in which Ausmus won a gold glove award for his so-called defensive prowess, Ausmus threw out just 22% of basestealers, dead last in the National League. Paul Lo Duca, aka Noodle Arm, threw out 24%. Yadier "Just Die in a Car Fire Already" Molina led the league with 44% gunned down, with the Marlins' Miguel Olivo a somewhat distant second at 39%.

Ausmus's and Jeter's selections aren't quite as bad as when Rafael Palmeiro won in 1999 despite playing just 28 games at first base, but the sad fact is that these awards just don't mean anything to me anymore. Maybe Beltran is one of the three best outfielders in the league. I think he is, and the fans agree.