Many baseball questions must wait to be answered. Who'll make the playoffs? Who'll win the Series? Who'll win the leagues' MVP awards? Yet two things are certain: 1) Cleveland Indian Omar Vizquel will win the Gold Glove for shortstops; 2) the Indians' Robbie Alomar will win it at second base. How do I know? Vizquel has won for eight straight years, since 1993. And Alomar, with the exception of '97, has won every year since 1992. Are these two really the best defenders at their positions, every single year without fail? No. Inertia has set in.
Major-league managers and coaches (who aren't allowed to vote for their own players) award Gold Gloves to one player at each position in each league. They see players from other teams in a few series each year when they play against each other and on ESPN highlight clips. These just aren't adequate metrics. The MVP, the Cy Young, and other major awards are handed out based on stats accrued over an entire season. And unlike the Gold Glove, these awards are not tenured positions. Win a Cy Young, and you still have to earn it again the next year. But win a Gold Glove, and chances are you'll win it again and again. Ken Griffey Jr. won for 10 straight years from 1990 to '99. Mike Schmidt won every year from 1976 to '84. The ultimate inertia beneficiary: Rafael Palmeiro, who won in '99 for the third straight year—despite playing only 28 games in the field. These guys were good fielders, but not that good.
Alomar and Vizquel win Gold Gloves based on their reputations (which are then sustained by the award itself) and flashy plays. Each is a graceful and showoffy defender who turns ground balls into ballet. Watch them start a double play with an effortless backhand flip and it's easy to think they're the best at what they do. But flashy plays don't necessarily win games. Says Gary Huckabay, co-founder of Baseball Prospectus, "If you get the ball to first base before the runner gets there, it doesn't matter how you did it." In fact, the most impressive-looking plays—diving catches, sliding stops—are usually made at the edge of a player's ability; a better defender might make the same play look routine. (Cardinals' center fielder Jim Edmonds is known for spectacular diving catches on balls that the Braves' Andruw Jones would be camped under for days. Thanks to baseball's tenure track policy, one could argue that a single, legendary over-the-shoulder catch won Edmonds three Gold Gloves.)
Bolstering Alomar's and Vizquel's reputations are their low error rates. If Gold Glove voters look at any stat at all, it's fielding percentage (errors per chances in the field)—it's the only defensive stat you'll ever find in a newspaper. Vizquel is currently third in FP for AL shortstops, while Alomar is first for second basemen. I asked Huckabay if FP was a good measure. His response: "If you get to fewer balls, or make no effort on the toughest plays, you have fewer chances to make an error. FP rewards players with sure hands but no range."
Which stats would give us a better idea about who really deserves a Gold Glove? Range factor measures the number of plays made per nine innings in the field. A player with better range gets to more balls and makes more plays. Vizquel's range factor ranks 13th out of 15 American League shortstops. Alomar is 10th out of 13 second basemen. Zone rating is an even more ambitious metric. The people at Stats Inc. watch footage of every single batted ball for every game of the season and mark which "zone" the ball went through. Zone rating measures how many outs a defender makes of the balls hit in his designated zone, as determined by the cataloger. Vizquel: seventh out of 15. Alomar: 11th out of 13.
These stats aren't flawless, either. Your range factor suffers if you just don't get balls hit your way—for instance, if your pitching staff strikes out a lot of hitters. Huckabay advocates using "adjusted range factors," which calibrate for pitching staffs, ballpark effects, and so on. Likewise, zone rating is still prone to human error, though it's getting more refined every year. Just as with offensive stats, we should weigh several defensive stats to reach a conclusion.
Who should really win this year? Among AL shortstops, Kansas City's Rey Sanchez ranks ahead of Vizquel in range factor (where he's first), zone rating (second), and even fielding percentage (first again). I guarantee he won't win a thing. He plays on a bad team, doesn't hit at all (another good way to boost your defensive rep is to hit well—odd, no?), and is stuck in a tiny media market. Diametrically opposed to Sanchez is the Yankees' Derek Jeter—a great hitter on a great team in New York City who is often praised by the media for his defense. Jeter ranks dead last among AL shortstops in zone rating and range factor and fielding percentage. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he wins a Gold Glove one day.