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The Gold Gloves are different, but still not perfect

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The winners of the Gold Gloves continue to highlight a flawed process and a flawed electorate, even with the changes introduced for 2014.

Harry How

I have, only half-jokingly, written in support of the notion that democracy, so long celebrated as the alleged enabler of such heady and glorious concepts as "freedom" and "fairness," actually kind of sucks. Oh sure, it's great that the electorate's voice is heard and respected, but the quality of their choices is severely limited by the quality of that voter pool and of its demands for strong candidates. Far too often, voters are left with a choice of imperfect options, refuse to demand better, and instead muddle through as best they know how: punching chads, filling in boxes, completing arrows, and pushing buttons on a touch screen. It should come as no surprise, then, that the election results last night were substandard.

I'm speaking, of course, not of the midterm congressional and statewide elections in which I hope you voted, but of the Gold Glove voting, for which I'm pretty sure none of you were eligible to cast a ballot. Last night, the Rawlings company announced that the 30 major league  managers with a vote, armed with some nebulous "sabermetric" recommendation from the Society of American Baseball Researchers (and I have been to those conferences; most of those guys aren't statheads), awarded those gloves to some extremely questionable candidates. Let's review two of the most controversial results, and what we can learn from them.

National League Catcher: Yadier Molina

There's no denying Molina's excellence as a defender. There's also no denying that he started only 106 games behind the plate this year. Jonathan Lucroy, on the other hand, started 133 and was widely acknowledged as the best pitch framer in the game. According to Baseball Prospectus, Lucroy contributed around another two wins with just his ability to get called strikes. Molina earned the Cardinals just around a half win. There's certainly some questions about the exact reliability of this data, but there's little doubt that Lucroy was vastly better than Molina at the little things that allow a catcher and a pitching staff to succeed -- and he was around more often.

It's understandable that the nuance here might have slid past the electorate, many of whom were not hired to crunch data like this. That's part of the problem, though, isn't it? This electorate isn't prepared to take up questions about pitch framing. They simply see Molina's six previous Gold Gloves, and his gaudy 48 percent caught stealing rate and hand him another award. Incidentally, Russell Martin, a free agent teams are going to clamor over in large part due to his defense, should also probably rate higher than Molina.

Molina's win also raises another important question: What is this award celebrating? Is it the best defender? Because then I could see handing it to a guy who only caught 106 games, if he really was the best defender in the league. Heck, I could even see giving it to a guy who played first base just 28 times, like Rafael Palmeiro did in 1999, if he was the best. I suspect, however, that if you asked them, the voters at least intend for the results to reflect the value they think is added by the winner over the course of the season.

American League Center Field: Adam Jones

The stats we have available on Adam Jones's defense are all over the place. Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him as one of the three best center fielders in the American League, while Defensive Runs Saved and Total Zone both agree that he's below average. It's a pretty big discrepancy, somewhere close to a win and a half of overall value. Still, Jones passes the eye test, as he looks every part a quality center fielder out there, chasing down and diving for balls. He is also incredibly fortunate to play for a team that has been constantly in the public eye. Indeed, the Orioles are exceptionally well-represented on the Gold Glove list, as are the Royals with three wins each. It's impossible to deny that both clubs were strong defensively, and that that strength played a significant role in their regular season and postseason successes. At the same time, it's likely that at least some of the support their players received stemmed from the increased visibility on both clubs. It's also likely that, as it has in the past for other players, Jones's offensive performance helped him significantly by raising his profile in the minds of the electorate.

Meanwhile, Leonys Martin toiled away in obscurity for a Rangers team that lost 95 games and for whom he hit a respectable, but uninspiring, .274/.325/.364. Every single defensive metric we have available loved him and pegged him as being significantly more valuable than Jones and better than anyone else in the American League, perhaps with the exception of Jackie Bradley Jr. (who managed to hit even worse than Martin, but whose glove kept him in the majors for most of 2014). And yet, Martin wasn't even a finalist for the award. The overwhelming indication is that offense and team performance still matter as far as reminding voters who actually exists.


In addition, we should probably have to contend with the fact that Lorenzo Cain wasn't nominated because he split time between center and right fields, Chase Headley was one of the top third basemen in the game but didn't garner consideration because he switched leagues mid-year, and none of us have any idea what kind of criteria is used to judge pitchers. There simply are huge structural flaws with the elections as well as the questionable judgment being demonstrated.

Ultimately, though, we are responsible for the results we get. We don't work for change. We accept what we're given. We laugh about the awful choices and how pointless the process is, but none of us does anything about it. Neither does Rawlings or the voters. And why should they? Almost no one is engaging baseball's managers in serious discussions about catcher framing and its value. Nobody's stumping publicly for the right guys. Until we actively work to improve either the method or the voter pool, we will continue to get just what we deserve. Flawed winners for a flawed time.