Three Cubs had their names called when the finalists for the National League Gold Glove awards were announced on Thursday. Anthony Rizzo (1B), who won last year, and Jason Heyward (RF), who has won several, were not surprising in the least. However, Ben Zobrist being one of three men listed at second base was more than mildly shocking.
Let me be clear, Zo is not a bad defender at all; he is solid at a number of different defensive positions. Just in 2017 alone, he played right, left, second, and even shortstop with steady competence. That being said, few would argue Zobrist is a significantly above-average defender, certainly not enough to merit Gold Glove status.
Another issue is the fact the seasoned vet started only 65 games at second base in 2017, with appearances in 16 more. He started 40 games in the outfield and appeared in 61 total there. Not only that, he was often replaced late in games at second by Javy Baez for more solid defense. Joe Maddon would sometimes use Zobrist as a defensive replacement for Kyle Schwarber in left, but that was often situational and may have involved the handedness of the opposing pitcher.
In addition to the eye test alone, a look at defensive metrics indicates why the Cubs utility man should not be one of the top three being considered for the award. According to Fangraphs, Zobrist was tied for fifth in Defensive Runs Saved (5) and sixth in UZR (3.4) players with a minimum of 500 innings played at second base in 2017. Again, that’s certainly not awful, but even a casual observer could tell you Zobrist isn’t even the best second baseman on his own team.
While stats can give the general framework of who is a good defender and who isn’t, they’re highly imperfect. The top 15 in each category above are roughly the best defenders, and the bottom 15 — in which Daniel Murphy is prominently featured — I know cheap shot). Where they struggle is in truly identifying elite defenders, who is the best at each position.
It is very hard to quantify a spectacular play because they go down on the scorecard like any other put-out. Addison Russell making a headlong dive or Javy Baez magically springing to his feet and firing a rocket from the hole don’t register on a stat sheet. But it’s that factor, the ability for the “wow” play, that separates really good defenders from elite defenders.
Zobrist makes pretty much every play that’s in front of him, but he rarely makes the spectacular ones. Again, that is not a knock on him. Most players can’t make those plays. Still, it feels like Gold Glove voters lean too heavily on the numbers or on reputation in some cases and not enough on what their eyes tell them. The numbers can narrow who should be considered, but they shouldn’t be relied on as the sole deciding factor.
I want to suggest two tweaks to the selection process for the Gold Glove awards. First, I think a 10th position should be created for utility players like Zobrist or Baez, who shouldn’t be prevented from winning because they play too many positions. Second, voters should be instructed to take special notice of players who make spectacular plays or convert low probability outs often. Or maybe just exercise a little common sense.
That won’t make for a perfect selection process by any means, as many flaws remain — putting too much weight on a player’s past reputation and big market biases, for example. Hopefully it would limit at least some of the truly head-scratching decisions.
Or as Ron Swanson would say: “I still think awards are stupid. But they’d be less stupid if they went to the right people.” (H/T to @missykaybm)