Yesterday, on his daily video for STL Today, columnist Benjamin Hochman asked whether St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado would win the Gold Glove this year. To which I will give you the simple answer: Yes.
Should Arenado win the Gold Glove? That’s arguably the more interesting question. By Defensive Runs Above Average, Arenado leads National League third basemen. By Ultimate Zone Rating, which serves a similar function to DRAA but is based on more sophisticated, modern batted ball data, Arenado entered Tuesday ranked third, very narrowly trailing Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and Arenado’s Colorado Rockies replacement/cousin Joshua Fuentes. The single most relevant metric for Arenado, however, is eight: the number of consecutive Gold Gloves Arenado won prior to this season. Nolan Arenado has never not won the Gold Glove at third base in the National League. This doesn’t mean it is absolutely impossible, under any circumstances, for someone else to win it, but if Arenado is going to be dethroned, it will be because he either took a considerable step back defensively, or somebody else materially surpassed him. Neither has happened.
Since 2013, when Arenado made his Major League Baseball debut, the now-Cardinals third baseman has been the most valuable defensive player at his position in the sport, but he has not been the top fielder in even just the National League in all, or even most. individual seasons. In his rookie campaign, Arenado was indeed the top fielding NL third baseman by Ultimate Zone Rating, but in his sophomore season, he ranked just seventh. In 2015, Arenado tied for fifth, tied for sixth in 2016, and second in 2017 and 2018, before rebounding in 2019 and 2020 to take his first UZR crowns since he was a rookie.
The obvious and not incorrect counterpoint to this defensive hair-splitting is that even more than with offensive metrics, defensive statistics over the course of just one season are not conclusive about a player’s true talent. As it applies specifically to Nolan Arenado, the thing that proves that he is the best defensive third baseman in the National League is not so much that he led the NL in Ultimate Zone Rating in 2019 or especially in the micro-sample that was 2020, but that he has spent the last eight years being a consistently strong defensive third baseman by the numbers. Since the inception of Ultimate Zone Rating, beginning with the 2002 season, only five third basemen measure as superior to Arenado by total runs saved–Adrián Beltré, Scott Rolen, Pedro Feliz, Evan Longoria, and Manny Machado (it should be noted that the first three names all also played in the pre-UZR era and their total runs saved were, in practice, probably actually higher).
But to counterpoint my own counterpoint, in my final bit of circular logic, I would contend that we should be looking at the small sample sizes of one season in determining who wins Gold Gloves. Is that going to lead to seemingly flukey winners? Well, sure, but it’s not as though 1. Nolan Arenado, or some other legacy Gold Glove winner, is being declared an inferior player; 2. The success that happened, even if for just a stretch, did actually happen. If a great hitter only bats .260 on balls in play for a full season, widely recognized as a sign he got very unlucky, do we give him a Silver Slugger Award? We sure don’t! And that’s fine!
I don’t believe in using a single metric to determine award winners, but if I were to do so for Gold Gloves, UZR would indeed be my choice. By that particular measure, Nolan Arenado should have three Gold Glove Awards, and instead he has eight. But now, unlike with Arenado’s prior Gold Gloves, he’s doing it as a St. Louis Cardinal, and therefore, because the national media hates us because they are cultural elitists who hate the Midwest!!!!!!!, he is going to be weighed down by that. Or is he?
In the Ultimate Zone Rating era, twenty-eight Gold Gloves have been won by St. Louis Cardinals position players. I wanted to look at whether the Cardinals should have won more or fewer Gold Gloves than the numbers say they should. Because defensive metrics for pitchers are, frankly, terrible, I have decided for the sake of objectivity to omit examination of Adam Wainwright’s two Gold Gloves, but because FanGraphs.com has done very good and constantly improving work with regard to catcher defense (which does not incorporated Ultimate Zone Rating because they do not, in a traditional sense, cover a zone), catchers are included. Here are the findings.
- No player has won more statistically undeserved Gold Gloves for the Cardinals than Yadier Molina. I feel obliged to clarify immediately, lest this be picked up out of context by Well Actually Jason Kendall Has More Career WAR Than The Very Overrated Loser Fake Hall Of Famer Yadier Molina Twitter. Yadier Molina is, somewhat conclusively, the best defensive catcher of the UZR Era, saving 382.4 runs above average over his career. He is great in every way we can measure–he tops such granular statistics as rCERA, rSB, and rGFP (which reflect ability to lower pitcher ERAs, prevent stolen bases, and block pitches), and he is among the era’s great pitch framers. But his apex came in his early, pre-competent offense years (he should have won the 2005 and 2006 Gold Gloves, statistically speaking), and he spent the next fifteen seasons being among the sport’s best defensive catchers but rarely the best. The metrics and the Gold Glove voters aligned to give Molina the prize in 2010, the only time the two parties agreed on him, but Molina won Gold Gloves in 2008-2009, 2011-2015, and 2018 which statistically should have been dispersed elsewhere.
- No player has been more hurt by Gold Glove voters than Harrison Bader. It’s far less extreme than Molina in the other direction, but UZR believes in Harrison Bader more than awards voters do. Despite not making the Opening Day roster and needing a couple months to immerse himself as a full-time starting center fielder, Bader led the NL in UZR in 2018 despite having fewer than half the total innings of eventual winner Ender Inciarte (note that UZR is not a rate stat but a compilation stat–on a rate basis, Bader was nearly three times Inciarte’s superior. In 2019, Bader once again led the NL in UZR among center fielders, saving more runs than #2 and #3 combined, but instead the award went to Lorenzo Cain, the Milwaukee Brewers center fielder who was long overdue for the award but who, statistically speaking, was the equivalent of Al Pacino finally getting his Oscar for Scent of a Woman.
- Jim Edmonds owes the voters some money. Jim Edmonds played his career during an era in which each league gave out three Gold Glove Awards to outfielders, rather than giving out a specific one each for left, center, and right field, and thus while Andruw Jones was widely regarded as the superior defensive center fielder, Edmonds had two potential consolation prizes for his work at the most strenuous outfield position. But in the first four years of the UZR era, when Jim Edmonds won a Gold Glove each year, he deserved none of them. In 2002, Edmonds finished just 16th in NL OF UZR, and in 2003, the highly deserving Mark Kotsay of the San Diego Padres and Richard Hidalgo of the Houston Astros were left out to dry. In 2004, Edmonds ranked 16th again, though in his defense, Steve Finley won a Gold Glove that year as the third-worst defensive outfielder in the NL.
- Voters were really into the 2002-2004 Cardinals and I’m not totally sure why. Scott Rolen, in 2002, split time between the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals, and he correctly won the NL Gold Glove at third base. The Cardinals won ten additional Gold Gloves from 2002 through 2004, and zero of them went to the deserving winners by UZR. In 2002, UZR would replace Fernando Viña, Edgar Renteria, and Jim Edmonds with Pokey Reese, Rey Ordóñez, and Austin Kearns. In 2003, sub out Mike Matheny, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria, and Jim Edmonds with Paul Lo Duca, Adrián Beltré, Adam Everett, and Mark Kotsay. In 2004, hardware went to Matheny, Rolen, and Edmonds again, but statistically, it should have gone to Brian Schneider, Adrián Beltré, and Corey Patterson.
- Far more players won Gold Gloves than deserved them for the Cardinals since 2002… Fifteen Cardinals players deserved a Gold Glove in this time, seven of whom won it. So eight players were left out to dry, compared to twenty-one players who left someone else out to dry.
- …but the gap is narrowing. Since 2010, the Cardinals have only won two more Gold Gloves than they deserve, and six of those belong to Yadier Molina. In addition to the aforementioned Harrison Bader, 2010 Brendan Ryan, 2017 Tommy Pham, and 2019 Paul DeJong deserved Gold Gloves by the metrics which they did not win, and 2015 Jason Heyward, 2019-2020 Kolten Wong, and 2020 Tyler O’Neill earned their trophies.
- Three players, entering Tuesday’s action, led the NL in UZR at their position. Nolan Arenado will almost certainly win a Gold Glove, but he also is still within striking distance of first place by third baseman UZR. Tyler O’Neill, the defending left field Gold Glove winner, once again leads his position by UZR, while Harrison Bader, twice a deserving winner, once again leads in center field. Paul Goldschmidt, who won Gold Gloves for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013, 2015, and 2017, was given a major boost in July when Anthony Rizzo, who has won the last three Gold Gloves and four of the last five, was traded to the American League, and while Rhys Hoskins has a reasonable chance, Goldschmidt should be considered the Gold Glove favorite for 2021 at first base.