The Rawlings Gold Glove Awards, the fielding awards voted on by managers and coaches and have been given out annually since 1957, and the Fielding Bible Awards, newer fielding awards voted on by a group of a select few analysts and have only existed since 2006, were both announced this week. The Cubs aren’t going to make any impacts in the AP awards announced later this month, but this week’s awards could have given a few Cubs some deserved recognition.
One of the few things to celebrate about the 2013 Cubs was the good defense played all around the diamond. The team had twelve players outside of the pitcher and catcher positions who played at least 200 innings in the field. Of those, only Starlin Castro and Donnie Murphy had negative ultimate zone ratings (UZR) (Junior Lake graded out off the charts in left field but pretty bad in center field. You can either view this as a limitation of defensive stats in small sample sizes or an indication that Junior Lake probably shouldn’t play center field. I view it as a little bit of both. Also, I wouldn’t be a true optimistic Cubs fan if I didn’t mention that Castro did noticeably improve as the season wore on, both by traditional metrics (he committed fewer errors) and by new ones (his UZR was as low as -7 at one point in the season but ended up as a not-terrible-but-still-not-good -3.3)). The two catchers, Welington Castillo and Dioner Navarro, both also contributed positively according to most metrics. Add it all up and the Cubs had the fifth-best UZR in the majors. This was due mainly to the strong performance at the 2-3-4 positions, as it was Castillo, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and second basemen Darwin Barney who really got Cubs fans hopes up this last week.
That excitement ended in the most anti-climactic way possible. The Cubs went 0-6, no NL Gold Glove Award and no Fielding Bible Award. It’s a bummer, but not a surprise. I predicted that none of them would win a Gold Glove and only Rizzo would win a Fielding Bible. We didn’t even get that. Below I look at what the voters for these awards might have been thinking about the Cubs’ defensive standouts. For fun, I also give my pick for each player’s best play of the year.
Castillo winning the Gold Glove was the longest of all these long shots. His performance showed in the newer metrics much more than it did in the traditional ones favored by Gold Glove voters. His 28 caught steals were tied for second-best in the majors, but his 67 stolen bases allowed were the fifth-most. Added together, his 29.4% rate of caught steals was just above the major league average of 27.2%. His 8 passed balls and 34 wild pitches were right around the middle of the pack. He also committed 10 errors, tied for second-most.
One of the unfortunate truths of the Gold Glove Awards is they’re often influenced by a player’s ability on offense. A guy who plays good defense but doesn’t do much at the plate isn’t going to create much buzz unless he’s making lots of highlight plays. If a player’s greatest strength is quietly good defense, he’s not going to stick out. Castillo was a slightly above average hitter, .274/.349/.397 with a 106 wRC+. Those are some un-sexy numbers, especially when paired with his 8 home runs and 32 RBIs.
But even if Castillo had played in a way more attractive to managers and coaches, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. This award was Yadier Molina’s to lose. Once a player gets the reputation of a good fielder, it sticks with him for a long time. This is how someone like Derek Jeter ends up with five Gold Gloves. In Molina’s case, his reputation is well-deserved. He’s building up a resume that would make him one of the greatest defensive catchers ever no matter how you look at it. It’s going to take either another transcendent player or a noticeable decline in Molina’s defense for a player to break Molina’s vice grip on the NL Gold Glove for catchers.
Castillo’s season had all the qualities to be overlooked by Gold Glove voters. He wasn’t a standout in the statistics these voters usually look at and he didn’t hit well enough to draw attention to himself. He also played in the shadow of a guy known by everyone as an elite fielder. In the end, Castillo wasn’t even a Gold Glove finalist, losing out to Russell Martin, A.J. Ellis and the eventual winner Yadier Molina.
While there was little chance of the Gold Glove voters recognizing Castillo, there was a better chance of the Fielding Bible panel would select him as one of the best at his position. That ended up being partly true. Castillo finished fourth in the Fielding Bible voting, but it was a distant fourth. His 61 points were well below third-place Salvador Perez’s 101. He received no first place votes and only one second-place vote (from Doug Glanville). The Tom Tango fan poll didn’t even have him in the top 10. This one is a little harder to figure out.
Unlike the Gold Glove voters, who tend to look at traditional stats (although newer stats have been made available to them starting this year), the Fielding Bible voters take heed of newer ones like UZR and defensive runs saved. Castillo led all catchers with 19 runs saved. Baseball Reference ranks Castillo as the best catcher in the majors, with 2.8 defensive wins above replacement, and Fangraphs has him as fifth-best, valuing his defense at 15.3 runs or about 1.5 wins. What’s more is that these are counting stats, and Castillo was one of the few top catchers to play fewer than 1,000 innings. Because he played less time, he had to play even better when he was on the field in order to be at or near the lead in these stats.
So what gives? Why was Castillo so far behind the top contenders? When Fielding Bible voter Peter Gammons revealed his personal winners, he said his voting was based on “all things, metrics and sights.” Gammons didn’t just view leaderboards, but also trusted his eyes. Even Brian Kenny, maybe the loudest advocate for advanced statistics, had Castillo seventh on his ballot. If these very smart people don’t make their selections from leaderboards, maybe we shouldn’t either. This is perhaps even more true with catchers. Maybe Castillo wasn’t quite as good as the statistics say.
Play of the year
It’s somewhat rare to find a real highlight play from a catcher. A great throw or tag or a well-blocked pitch just isn’t as exciting to watch as a diving grab or a robbed home run. Here’s one exception.
The Cubs were visiting the Rockies on July 19. Jeff Samardzija was on the mound with runners on the corners and two outs when Samardzija threw a wild pitch between the legs of Castillo. It would take a miracle throw to prevent the runner at third from scoring. A miracle throw is what happened, along with a great play from Samardzija.
Some might say that making a great play doesn’t make up for a bad play. Castillo did allow the wild pitch on a block-able ball in the dirt. To my eye it looks like a cross-up, and there’s no way of knowing if that’s on Castillo or Samardzija. Besides, the throw is so good that it deserves to be recognized even if it the pitch should have been blocked.
Here’s the play in video form.
Rizzo was neck and neck with Paul Goldschmidt in most categories important to Gold Glove voters. They had the exact same number of errors and the same fielding percentage, 5 and .997 respectively. Rizzo had a big advantage in assists; his 149 were second only to Joey Votto among first basemen and were a full 50 ahead of Goldschmidt. On the receiving the ball side of things, Goldschmidt had by far the most scoops. His 74 were 19 more than anyone else and led Rizzo by 30. On fielding alone, I could have seen the Gold Glove going to either one of them.
As I’ve already said, though, it’s tough to break through to becoming a first time Gold Glover if your offense doesn’t get you noticed. Rizzo and Goldschmidt had similar expectations coming into the season. Goldschmidt exceeded his and was maybe the best first baseman in the majors. Rizzo didn’t come close to his expectations, and ended up as one of the worst full-time first basemen.
Unlike Castillo, Rizzo was a finalist for the Gold Glove, along with Adrian Gonzalez. They both lost out to Paul Goldschmidt.
Here’s where I thought a Cub really had a chance to win. While the old school metrics were a toss-up between Rizzo and Goldschmidt, the new school ones were near-unanimous in their support for Rizzo. Fangraphs and Baseball Reference had Rizzo as the best defensive first baseman in the NL. Throwing in AL players, as the Fielding Bible doesn’t issue separate awards for each league, Fangraphs has Mike Napoli and Mark Trumbo above Rizzo. However, the Fielding Bible cites the stat defensive runs saved more than any other, and Rizzo’s 16 ranked first above Goldschmidt’s 13.
However, they cited a different stat in their write-up this year. Goldschmidt became the first player to record 100 Good Fielding Plays in a season in the ten years they’ve been tracking those. He finished with 113. His dominance in scooping balls out of the dirt probably had at least something to do with that. Rizzo finished second behind Goldschmidt in Fielding Bible voting, receiving one first place vote (from Peter Gammons).
Play of the year
This is from early in the season, May 2nd. The Cubs were hosting the Padres. Rumors of Wrigley Field renovations plans were beginning to surface, and Wrigley Field decided to show its protest by attempting to eat Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo would have none of it.
Barney won the Gold Glove last year in a mild surprise. It really shouldn’t have been a surprise considering he set the single-season record for most consecutive games without an error for second basemen. I suspect he wouldn’t have won if he hadn’t have had that streak. Brandon Phillips is the kind of player who old school guys like. I don’t have an explanation for why, but they do. Barney’s streak made it hard for those guys to not vote for him over Phillips.
Without an error-free streak this year, the award went back to Phillips. This was despite Barney making fewer errors (4 to Phillips’s 9) and having a higher fielding percentage (.993 to .987). I don’t know what the voters saw to warrant picking Phillips over Barney. Barney was downright awful at the plate, but it’s hard to use that excuse when he had just won the award last year. He was already on people’s radar. I guess managers and coaches just like Phillips. Barney was a Gold Glove finalist along with Phillips and Mark Ellis.
Barney was also the defending Fielding Bible winner at second base. This year, Fangraphs rated him as the top fielding second baseman, while he was third in defensive runs saved. Dustin Pedroia led the way in runs saved with 15 while setting the record for most Good Fielding Plays from a second baseman with 89. As such, the Fielding Bible awarded him with his second Fielding Bible in the last three years.
Barney finished second behind Pedroia with no first-place votes but six second-place votes. This was less of Barney getting overlooked and more of Pedroia being maybe the best fielding second baseman of his generation. I can live with that.
Play of the year
There were a few that would have made good choices, but I’m going with this one from June 29 when the Cubs were visiting the Mariners.
This is nearly identical to the one above. He makes a longer throw in that one, but here he has to rush his throw to get the faster runner. It also looks like he benefits less from shifting here and instead has to depend on his range. You can’t go wrong with either.
I hope you’re not reading any sour grapes in this post. I’m not saying the Cubs should have won all six of these awards. The only one where I really feel like a Cub got snubbed was Barney losing the Gold Glove. The others were just cases of other players probably being better. The goal of this post was to highlight the Cubs’ great fielders and speculate as to why voters didn’t pick them. It wasn’t to gripe about them losing. It was also to share some gifs, which I hope nobody will begrudge me for doing.