At the risk of giving further press to the farce that is the most widely accepted group of fielding awards, I’d like to take this opportunity to fisk the more legitimate Fielding Bible Awards, which use actual metrics demonstrating fielders’ abilities to turn batted balls into outs (in addition to some scouting tools and a market-normalized fan poll) to acknowledge the best fielders.
Most of this year’s winners were obvious-Yadier Molina at catcher, Mark Buehrle at pitcher, Brett Gardner in left, Ichiro in right, Chase Utley at second- and need to further explanation.
I would love to have seen Adrian Beltre ahead of Evan Longoria at third (Beltre’s fielding was worth 11.8 runs above average, according to fangraphs, .7 runs better than Longoria, but just behind four NL third baseman, including Ryan Zimmerman and leader Chase Headley), but Longoria is obviously a good choice.
After Gardner, Andres Torres saved more runs that anyone in either league this season, so he would have been a great choice in center field, but Bourne was nearly as good and has a proven track record as a great fielder, while Torres came out of nowhere.
Troy Tulowitzki is another guy who benefitted from a proven track record, winning at shortstop despite trailing Alexei Ramirez, Cliff Pennington, and Stephen Drew in FRAA and trailing all of the above and Brendan Ryan in Ultimate Zone Rating. I think Ramirez, who played at least as well as Tulo defensively for 300 more innings, would have been the best choice, it’s hard to argue with one of the game’s most stellar fielders and greatest all-around players winning a fielding award. Derek Jeter, in case you’re interested, finished 15th and 16th, respectively, in the two metrics mentioned above.
The most interesting case, to me, is at first base, where Daric Barton unseated long-time incumbent Albert Pujols to win his first Fielding Bible Award. While it can be harder to quantify a first baseman’s defensive prowess, since he earns his salt digging throws from other infielders out of the dirt and, to my knowledge, we haven’t figured out how to assign scores to the accuracy of infielders’ throws, the best metrics available do agree that Barton was the best in the business this year. He saved 12.1 runs, 2 better than Ike Davis and nearly double Aubrey Huff’s third-place total. His UZR was similarly dominant, nearly tripling third-place Adam LaRoche’s output, and his 13.1 range factor suggests he’d be comfortable playing in the middle of the infield.
What’s interesting about Barton’s selection is not that his numbers speak so loudly for him, but that it demonstrates the Fielding Bible voters’ trust in the numbers. Prevailing wisdom in the new age of defensive stats suggests that one can get a more accurate gauge of a fielder’s ability by looking at three years of stats than by looking at one. Why do we need three years, when we can confidently glean a hitter’s ability from one year’s numbers? Here’s my guess (and it’s just a guess):
A hitter who starts most of his team’s games has a sample size of roughly 600 plate appearances to prove his worth. At least one defensive player makes an effort at the end of every plate appearance, so in a full season, we should see just as much defensive data as offensive data, right? Sure, but the confrontation between fielder and batted ball is not exactly as contentious as that between a big league pitcher and a big league hitter. Let’s say a team gets 600 plate appearances times 9 spots in the batting order, or 5,400 defensive events in a season. More than one in four confrontations ends in a strikeout, which takes no defensive effort aside form the occasional catcher digging a ball out of the dirt and running the hitter down or throwing to first. Eliminate strikeouts and we’re down to 4,050 defensive events. It’s harder to prove this assumption, but I think we can all agree that at least half of the remaining balls in play result in easily catchable fly balls or easily fieldable ground balls. So, if we’re feeling generous, that’s 2,000 defensive events that take some level of measurable skill to turn into outs. Right there, we’re close to a three-to-one ratio between a hitter’s sample size and a fielder’s.
Furthermore, while baseball rules require that at-bats be distributed more or less evenly between batters in a lineup, the distribution of balls fielded is not equal at all. Up-the-middle players (centerfielders, second basemen, and shortstops) are likely to field more balls than their corner-position counterparts, and are likely involved in more than their share of the challenging plays (turning the double play, laying out for a liner in the gap, etc.). First basemen see a lot of action, since most ground ball outs end up in their gloves, but the catches they make are intended to be as easy to catch as possible, so the vast majority of a first baseman’s successes are really just avoidances of embarrassing failures.
If we use three years of defensive statistics, we’ll likely arrive at the conclusion that Albert Pujols, whose numbers were slightly above average this year after two typically dominant seasons, has been the best first baseman in baseball over the past three years, and is therefore quite possibly the game’s best first baseman right now. The problem with the use of long-term data is that it ignores the possibility of actual regression or improvement resulting from aging or health issues. It’s possible that Daric Barton’s numbers benefitted from a small sample size, and with a few more tough throws in the dirt and fewer opportunities to show his range on balls in the hole between first and second, his stats will regress toward the mean, rendering this award somewhat foolish. Of course, it’s equally possible that Daric Barton is beginning to peak as a defensive first baseman and that Albert Pujols’s skills have regressed to those of an average fielder.
I tend to agree with Barton’s selection. While the numbers aren’t perfect, 162 games (or, more accurately, the 159 in which Barton played) give us a pretty good idea of what a player is capable of. And Daric Barton seems more than capable of playing first base at the major league level. I wonder if those other awards’ voters will ever figure that out.