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Clemente tracking down a fly ball.

When you think of the greatest fielding left fielders of all time, who comes to mind? Carl Yastrzemski? Barry Bonds? Yep, me too. And for good reason; those guys were the best. But there is an interesting thing about them that most people wouldn’t guess. Their lifetime Fielding Percentages are not the best. Have you ever heard of any of these guys? Roy White, Joe Rudi, Charlie Maxwell, Ryan Langerhans? Not quite as famous as those first two guys I mentioned, right? But they are all career left fielders with a higher Fielding % than the Hall of Famers Bonds and Yaz. Over in right field, Roberto Clemente has the all time record for Putouts and Assists, yet his Fielding % is rather low; I could name 50 guys with a better percentage. So my point is that Fielding % is not the best way to discern who the best fielders are.

What gives, then? How do such great players have less than stellar error percentages? Think about this: an error is given to a player when it is deemed that they should have caught the ball. If it bounces off of their glove, rolls between their legs or drops to the ground nearby, then they are given an error. But what if a player is slow to react to a hit ball? What if they are a slow runner, or as graceful as a brick? Then they never get close enough to the ball to be given an error. Bonds, Clemente, Wille Mays and Ozzie Smith were so good at reacting to and moving to the ball that they then, by default, had more opportunity to misplay the ball and be given an error.

The key, of course, is to make the great range pay off by doing more good than harm. Obviously making it to the ball is worthless if you cannot catch it, or if you then throw it to the wrong base. So players like Yaz and Clemente would get to the ball quickly, catch it far more often than not, and then make accurate (and in Clemente’s case, extraordinarily strong) throws to the infield.

All of this brings me to my point, and that is that Alex Gordon, Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis should not have received Gold Glove awards this year.  In the American League, the award for best right fielder was given to Nick Markakis of the Orioles. Markakis has a good arm, but he was given the award, it seems, because he did not make an error all season long. While this is certainly admirable, just reread the first two paragraphs above to see why that should not be as big a deal as it seems at first.

According to Fangraphs, which measures every aspect of a player’s fielding based on where the ball is hit, how hard it is hit, how much each stadium effects play in the outfield, etc., David DeJesus of the Athletics displayed by far the greatest Range of any American League right fielder this year. Nick Swisher, Matt Joyce and Carlos Quentin also had higher Range scores than Markakis. Swisher also earned a higher “Arm” rating and, in addition to his far greater range, only made one single error all year.

Yaz snags a hard fly to left.

As for National League center fielders, Matt Kemp lead all of them in assists. Yet his Range rating was the lowest in the league and his Error rate 4th lowest. Chris Young of the Diamondbacks covered a vastly greater Range in center this year, had a lower Error rate and even caught two would-be home runs balls. I am thinking that those who voted for Kemp were influenced by his astounding hitting this year (it seems to happen every year with at least one player), and associated that greatness with his overall play. As much as I like Matt Kemp, it just doesn’t add up.

The Fangraphs website has an overall fielding rating, which they call “Ultimate Zone Rating” (UZR). It measures a player’s Range, Error Rate and Arm Strength.  This year’s highest UZR, in either league and at any position, was Brett Gardner, left fielder for the Yankees. Now, before you get rankled by a dependence on statistics, Gardner is an acknowledged star in the field. Just watch a few Yankees games and you will see Gardner gliding around the field in places few in the league could reach. And UZR is a measure of what actually happened on the field; where Gardner caught the ball, and how good it was in relation to all the other players. And yet, the Gold Glove in the AL was given to Alex Gordon of the Royals, not Gardner. Why?

Well, Gordon may have the best left field arm in baseball. He lead both leagues in assists, and his Arm Rating is by far the highest. In fact, he may very well be the second best overall left fielder in the game. Yet, his Range is average, while Gardner’s is nearly three times greater than the second highest in baseball. Stats don’t tell the whole story, but a gap of that size doesn’t lie. And really, what is more important in an outfielder: the ability to track down the ball over a greater area and catch it, or the ability to make a strong throw afterward? Seeing as how opportunities to throw someone out are far less frequent than flyballs to the outfield, I would say that Range is more important. Just take a look at Gordon’s strongsuit, which is his arm. He lead all of baseball with 20 assists. Even if as many baserunners decided not to run out of fear of his arm, that is still only one valuable play every three or four games. But there are a couple of hard to catch fly balls into the gaps in left field every single game.

Anyhow, the rest of the awards were actually pretty good, though Eric Aybar probably should not be on the list. Here are all of the awards, with my preferences in parenthesis.

AL

1b  – Adrian Gonzalez (You bet!)

2b  – Dustin Pedroia (Yep.)

3b  – Adrian Beltre (Easily the best in the game.)

ss  – Eric Aybar (Oy. Should have been Alexei Ramirez. Aybar was part of a lot of  double plays this year, and that’s my only clue!)

LF – Alex Gordon (Should have been Gardner.)

CF – Jacoby Ellsbury (No doubt.)

RF – Nick Markakis (Error free year, but Swisher was the one!)

P – Mark Buehrle (I guess. Why not?)

C – Matt Wieters (By a MILE. The man doesn’t let a ball get past him and has the highest Caught Stealing rate.)

NL

1b – Joey Votto (The best!)

2b – Brandon Phillips (Also the best… the Reds have a crazy infield!)

3b – Placido Polanco (Solid and not a bad pick.)

ss – Troy Tulowitzki (It could have gone to Clint Barmes of the Astros, but Tulo is darn good.)

RF – Andre Eithier (Makes sense, especially since the position isn’t very strong in the NL.)

CF – Matt Kemp (Pretty far off.  Chris Young should have gotten it.)

LF – Gerrardo Parra (Yep. Probably the best.)

P – Clayton Kershaw (He is quick to the ball.)

C – Yadier Molina (Anybody who saw the World Series won’t argue with this one!)

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