Monday, September 30, 2013

O's Defense Historically Golden?

The Baltimore Orioles season ended in fitting fashion Sunday, a 5-4-3 double play sealing closer Jim Johnson's 50th save and ending with an 85-77 record. The team's late fade kept them out of the postseason, but the season was far from a disappointment - especially from a defensive standpoint. The Orioles set a new record for the fewest errors in a season with 54, out pacing the Tampa Bay Rays 59 and easily breaking the record of 65 set by the 2003 Seattle Mariners. They finished with .991 fielding percentage, besting the 1997 Colorado Rockies .989, a team considered one of the best all time. From their season opening series where Evan Longoria and Manny Machado delivered enough web gems to last a season until the very end, watching these two teams play defense on a daily basis has been an exercise in amazement. With award season coming up the question now becomes whether or not the Orioles defenses will be historically golden.

The Rawlings Gold Glove has been handed out since 1957 to recognize the best defensive players at each position as voted by managers and coaches. Since 1958 separate awards have been given for the American and National leagues. During that time,the best a team has done is 4 gold gloves in a season doing so 13 times. As a team the Baltimore Orioles have done it a record 5 times, all in the early 70's with Paul Blair, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Davey Johnson/Bobby Grich. Baltimore is also currently one behind the Yankees for most Gold Gloves by an American League team with 64 and should pass them after this season.  

While managers and coaches vote on this award as opposed to writers who vote for the mvp that does not mean this award is without controversy. Players who have won it previously tend to have the advantage to repeat regardless of performance. This is the only explanation for Rafael Palmerio winning the gold glove at first base in 1999 while only playing first in 29 games, he was the designated hitter in 129 games. This also explains how Derek Jeter has won multiple gold gloves despite not having great range or a good defensive reputation. The Orioles had three players win in 2012 -Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters. It also means players are going to be reward for more subjective reasons and what voters saw more than advanced metrics like defensive runs saved, fielding percentage, or Ultimate Zone Rating (which really likes the Kansas City Royals). I can see the Orioles winning 5 to 7 gold gloves, with 5 much more likely. The results should come out October 30th. Feel free to check this now, challenge my picks in the comments and come back and chide me later.

Here is my rundown of the AL Gold Glove Winners:
*Now that we have the results I am editing this to put those players in

Pitcher: Expected winner - Mark Buehrle
             Actual Winner - R.A. Dickey

I have no idea how they go about evaluating a pitcher's defense and am going with the guy who has won a gold glove 4 years in a row.

Catcher: Expected winner - Matt Wieters
              Actual winner - Salvador Perez

He has proven himself to be a great defensive catcher and has won the past 2 gold gloves at catcher. Wieters caught more games (140) and innings (1201) than any other catcher and still committed the third fewest errors among starters (3). He also caught 24/68 base stealers leaving him just behind Salvador Perez (25/69). Perez is the only other catcher who might win this award, but I think he is a year or two away yet.

First Baseman: Expected winner - Chris Davis
                         Actual winner - Eric Hosmer

Traditional winners at this position Mark Texiera and Albert Pujols spent a large portion of the season on the disabled list leaving this years winner wide open. This is the perfect place for a lazy voters to write in the first name that comes to mind. While offensive production is not supposed to factor into gold gloves it undoubtedly does and when you combine Chris Davis offensive production along with the teams record setting defense I see gold to match his Silver Slugger Award. Not that he needs the help as he led all first basemen in games started at first (155), putouts (1339 to 1205 for second place Eric Hosmer), while playing a league leading 1377.2 innings and having a .996 fielding percentage, good for second in the league (.997 for Justin Morneau over 111 games) and a scant 6 errors. Hosmer and James Loney are also likely candidates, with Mike Napoli a dark horse.

Second Basemen: Expected winner - Dustin Pedroia
                             Actual winner - Dustin Pedroia

This was a rotating position for the Orioles all season as Brian Roberts spent his now expected extended stay on the disabled list. As a result I don't know how any individual Orioles second baseman could win it. Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia have alternated winning this award recently and I expect the trend to continue. Pedroia had tied for the top fielding percentage among starters at .993 and his 5 errors over 160 games and 1398 innings (both tops at the position) were one more than only Ben Zobrist who played in 116 games at second. Jose Altuve has more put outs and double plays but is likely going to finish behind Pedroia and Cano when the voting occurs.

Third Basemen: Expected winner - Manny Machado
                           Actual winnner - Manny Machado

This is a no-brainer pick in my book despite the fact that he leads the Orioles in total errors with 13. Former Oriole's Ace and current broadcaster Jim Palmer sees shades of Brooks Robinson in Machado's play. High praise for a pitcher who benefited from many seasons of Brooks record 16 gold gloves at third base. If you have not seen it already here is one of his many highlights from a July 17th game against the New York Yankees.

Adrian Beltre has won the award 4 of the last 6 seasons, but he has fallen off defensively this year. Evan Longoria is a threat to win this award as well but fails to measure up to Machado in innings (1280 - 1390), total chances (382 - 484), or double plays (27 -42), making his lead in errors (11-13) a mere footnote. Machado also leads all starting third basemen in range factor (ground he can cover to get to ground balls) with 3.02, Miguel Cabrera for comparison is at 1.87. Kyle Seager and Josh Donaldson are great third basemen as well, but this year no one was better than Machado, even if his season did end prematurely.

Shortstop: Expected Winner - J.J. Hardy
                 Actual winner - J.J. Hardy

With Derek Jeter not playing enough to be grandfathered into this award, probably --see Palmerio above, J.J. has a great chance to win this award for the second time in a row. Once again the Oriole leads the league in games (159), innings (1417), and double plays (108). His 12 errors are second most on the Orioles (that Machado and Hardy combined for 25 of the teams 54 errors and still make this list is impressive), but is good enough for 4th fewest among shortstops. Yunel Escobar is another viable candidate with a league leading .988 fielding percentage (vs .981 for Hardy) and his team had the second fewest errors of all time. A dark horse candidate here is Minnesota's Pedro Florimon who will lose out for playing in Minnesota as much as anything.

Outfield has alternated between each position getting its own award and lumping all outfielders together. In 2011, the award went back to each position receiving the award. That said there could be some variance here as voters move players to accommodate those who they want to win.

Left Fielder: Expected Winner - Alex Gordon
                     Actual winner - Alex Gordon

With 17 outfield assists, 2 double plays and a .997 fielding percentage, Alex Gordon was clearly the superior left fielder this season. He also played the most games (159) and innings (1364.1) of any player in left fielder. He has also won the golden glove the previous two years. Nate McLouth won the award in 2008 while in Pittsburgh and if he wins the award it will be due to the teams accomplishments more than his own as he has a mere 4 outfield assists. He might have lead the league in dives into the stands with 2, including this number, and he certainly led the league in beers thrown at in game. At a position where the expected winner is so much better than the field it does not really matter who takes second.

Center Field: Expected Winner - Adam Jones
                      Actual winner - Adam Jones 

Not only did Jones play 22 more games than anyone else at center (154) but he also logged more than 200 innings over second place Jacoby Elsbury (1394 - 1188) but he also tied for the lead in assists (11). His .995 fielding percentage was good for third in the league, but given his superior time logged that should not factor into it. Go ahead and ask Jose Reyes if he has a good arm:

Jones will also likely benefit from having a career year at the plate, he has 2 gold gloves (2009 and 2012) and a third should join his mantle shortly. Mike Trout and Jacoby Elsbury are likely challengers, but only Elsbury has any assists (3). For what it is worth, noted speedster Michael Bourn actually has a lower range factor (2.17 - 2.33) so there is more to range than pure speed. Lorenzo Cain is a potential dark horse here, but might not have the playing time to garner serious attention.

Right Field: Expected Winner - Nick Markakis
                    Actual winner - Shane Victorino 

Once again an Oriole leads the league in games started (154) and innings played (1381). There is something to be said about having a healthy, young team like the Orioles who boast Nate McLouth, at 31, being the oldest regular fielder. His 312 putouts were second to only Alex Rios (326) and nearly 50 ahead of third place Shane Victorino (264). His 7 assists were just 2 off the league lead and he was the only right field regular to play error free. Josh Reddick and Ichiro Suzuki, both past winners, have had down years defensively and Markakis did win in 2011.

In a year where the Orioles were historically good and historically good fielders were out, the conditions are right for the Orioles to set the Golden standard for defensive excellence at 5, 6, or 7. At the very least I expect them to collect enough hardware to overtake the Yankees for the all-time American League lead.

The Orioles had 3 Gold Glove winners out of 6, tied with Kansas City for the most in baseball. Not a bad haul, but short of what I was expecting. I correctly called 5 of 9 Gold Glove winners and only really missed right field.

What did you think of the results and my predictions? Any winners leave you scratching your head?