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Lost In Translation

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The Korea Baseball Organization awards one of its Golden Gloves to a player at the designated hitter position. Wait a minute.

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It should come as no surprise to you that there is baseball in South Korea. There has long been baseball in South Korea - organized, professional baseball - and the quality of that baseball is pretty good. A number of Koreans have come to play in the major leagues, including Byung-Hyun Kim, Hee-Seop Choi and Shin-Soo Choo. And a number of players from the major leagues have gone to play in Korea, including Dustin Nippert, Radhames Liz and Fernando Nieve. South Korea is something of a baseball hotbed.

Naturally, South Korea has a top professional baseball league, featuring eight teams. They play by pretty much the same rules as everybody else, and there exist a number of awards. There's the league MVP, the All-Star Game MVP, the championship series MVP, the Rookie of the Year, and the Golden Gloves. So far, this all sounds pretty standard. Korea has a league much like ours, and the league has awards much like ours.

But a friend of mine recently told me something. The friend of mine said that a friend of his told him one of the Golden Gloves is awarded to a designated hitter.

Not in the way that Rafael Palmeiro won a Gold Glove in 1999 despite spending most of the season as a DH. He said that a Golden Glove is given to a DH every year. On purpose.

I had to find out for sure. This didn't take long. Here's a blog post, providing a list of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) Golden Glove winners from 2010:

CA – Cho In-sung, LG Twins
1B – Choi Joon-seok, Doosan Bears
2B – Cho Sung-hwan, Lotte Giants
SS – Kang Jeong-ho, Nexen Heroes
3B – Lee Dae-ho, Lotte Giants
LF – Kim Hyun-soo, Doosan Bears
CF – Lee Jong-wook, Doosan Bears
RF – Kim Kang-min, SK Wyverns
DH – Hong Sung-heon, Lotte Giants
SP – Ryu Hyun-jin, Hanwha Eagles

It goes position by position, catcher through starting pitcher, and, sure enough, there's Hong Sung-heon, winner of the 2010 Golden Glove award for a designated hitter.

It doesn't make any sense. At least, it doesn't make any sense, given our understanding of what the Gold(en) Glove awards mean. The Gold Gloves are intended to recognize defensive excellence, so it follows that the Golden Gloves are intended to recognize defensive excellence, but designated hitters don't play defense. Like ever. It's right there in the job title.

The only possible explanation is that the Golden Gloves in Korea recognize something different from the Gold Gloves in America. Something beyond just glovework. And The Korea Times confirms as much. From Monday:

The Korea Baseball Oraganization (KBO) announced the nominees for this year’s Golden Gloves on Monday.

The Golden Gloves are handed to those who excelled in their respective positions based on their comprehensive record each season.

"Comprehensive record." Read on, and the article cites a pitcher's pitching statistics, and a hitter's hitting statistics. It is not a particularly thorough article, but it doesn't matter - it gets the point across, and the point is that, in Korea, the Golden Gloves are less about defense, and more about identifying a position-by-position MVP. A sort of All-Star team, as it were.

Adds Baseball-Reference:

The Gold Glove is awarded annually to the best overall player at each position in the Korea Baseball Organization.

The temptation is to say that this is the Koreans being ridiculous, getting an award completely wrong based on, I don't know, a lousy translation. And, indeed, the award is wrong, at least based on the name - gloves connote defense, and not overall value. If the Koreans want to give an award to the best player at each position, they probably shouldn't call it the Golden Glove award.

But that deflects blame. That makes fun, and it might make fun of the wrong people. Because from whom do you think the Koreans learned?

Awards like the Rookie of the Year and the Gold Gloves - these are American awards, picked up elsewhere. And though voting has gotten better lately, the Gold Gloves here have a long, established history of putting too much weight on a player's offense, when a player's offense should be given no weight at all. Here's Tom Scocca, from 1999:

The result of this absurdity is that the Gold Glove has evolved into a sort of position-by-position MVP award, usually won by the best hitter at each spot who doesn't disgrace himself with his glove.

In theory, the Koreans had the wrong idea. In practice, they had the right idea, at least in that their Golden Glove voting process mirrored our own. The difference is that the Koreans have been more honest about it. They openly admitted that their Golden Gloves went to the best overall players. On this side of the Pacific, the voters were supposed to do one thing and instead very often did another.

It's weird that the Korean Golden Gloves function as positional MVPs. One shouldn't forget, though, that for a long time, MLB's Gold Gloves basically did the same thing. Things seem to be getting better now, but one can't laugh at where they are without also laughing at where we were. We set a pretty shitty example.