The winners of the annual Gold Glove awards, the benchmark for defensive excellence for nearly 60 years, have typically been decided by the discerning eye of those who are closest to the game. Most recently, the award has been selected by a vote of major league managers and coaches.
For the first time, a defensive analytic will play a role in deciding the award this year.
Rawlings Sporting Goods, which awards the Gold Gloves, collaborated with the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) to create an independent committee that devised the SABR Defensive Index (SDI), the new analytic that will account for 30 total "votes" — approximately 25 to 30 percent, depending on the number of ballots received from managers and coaches.
The Orioles had the best team fielding percentage in major league history (.991) this season, and six of the team's players are contenders for 2013 Gold Gloves at their respective positions. Three finalists at each position will be announced Friday, and the winners will be unveiled 7 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN2.
The debate between a growing number of sabermetricians and traditional baseball brethren continues. Should new-age statistics decide who wins awards or should those closest to the game pick the winners? With the Gold Glove awards, Rawlings and SABR hope to have found a middle ground.
Since its inception in 1957, the Gold Glove awards have been selected by various means — a vote of national media, secret player ballot, and currently, by every major league manager and up to six coaches on his staff. They aren't allowed to vote for their own players. But never has a defensive metric come into play before now.
"The feeling on our part and Rawlings' part was that defensive measurement, while it has a long way to go, it's come a long way in the last decade, and we were now to the point where it might enhance the award if we could combine the managers' and coaches' voting with some statistical component," said SABR president Vince Gennaro, who chaired the seven-person committee.
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and shortstop J.J. Hardy won Gold Glove awards last season. Jones and Wieters both won for the second time, while Hardy was a first-time selection.
Jones' win created some controversy because he beat Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout, who bettered Jones in certain defensive metrics.
The Orioles' three winners from 2012 — along with third baseman Manny Machado — are strong candidates to win again this season, while first baseman Chris Davis and right fielder Nick Markakis also will receive consideration.
Five different defensive measures make up the SDI. Three of the measures — defensive runs saved (DRS), ultimate zone rating (UZR) and runs effectively defended (RED) — rate a player's strength based on plays he makes in specific zones of the field and count for 70 percent of the SDI. The two other metrics — defensive regression analysis (DRA) and total zone rating (TZ) — give "a more generalized approach that estimates the number of batted balls hit into a fielder's area" based on play-by-play records and provide the remaining 30 percent of the SDI.
"We think we have the best of all worlds," Gennaro said. "Some of the measures will weigh the arm of the fielder substantially. Some other measures really don't incorporate the arm of the fielder, and they really focus more on range. So we integrated these in such a way that we feel we have more of a whole measure, which is more fair and more representative of a fielder's overall performance at his position."
When ballots were issued to managers and coaches in mid-September, each player's SDI through that part of the season was listed, as well as traditional defensive statistics like fielding percentage, errors, assists and putouts.
"I think people take a lot more pride in it," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of the voting process. "I think people used to just look at the error total and vote accordingly. I think coaching staffs and people who are voting are taking it much more seriously."
Showalter said he used the SDI as a tiebreaker. He said he went into voting with three candidates in mind and used the SDI data to confirm his candidates' worthiness, but he admitted that he took a second look if the SDI ratings were far off from his votes.
"You also realize it's very fallible," Showalter said. "There are so many things that go on with a guy like Hardy that don't show up on a stat sheet. … I don't think that anyone had a better season with the shift than [Orioles third base coach and infield coach] Bobby Dickerson with all the work he put in, but should a guy be awarded or penalized for that as a defensive player? That's tough."
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Currently, the SDI doesn't factor the starting point of defenders, so where coaches position players on the field can help or hurt. It also excludes of plays that occur when a team is playing a shift, Gennaro said. The statisticians still haven't found a way to account for a catcher framing pitches. Gennaro said the SDI will continue to evolve.
From the metrics that make up the SDI that are publicly available — the RED and DRA are not made public and the complete SDI data isn't expected to be released until after the awards are announced next week — it appears that the statistical element will greatly help Machado win a Gold Glove.
The Texas Rangers' Adrian Beltre (four) and the Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria (two) have combined to win the past six Gold Gloves at third base, but Machado's defensive runs saved (35) and total zone rating (32) this season are the best of any defender in the American League. His ultimate zone rating (31.2) ranks first in the major leagues.
Meanwhile, Hardy will face tough competition at shortstop from Texas' Elvis Andrus and the Minnesota Twins' Pedro Florimon, a former Orioles minor leaguer. Jones' negative DRS and UZR will likely hurt him against the Boston Red Sox's Jacoby Ellsbury and the Kansas City Royals' Lorenzo Cain. Wieters' DRS was minus-13, a negative rating for the first time in his career and below Kansas City's Salvador Perez (11) and Minnesota's Joe Mauer (5).
Davis, whose defensive strides went overshadowed by his offensive numbers this season, and Markakis, who didn't commit an error this season and won a Gold Glove in 2011, are considered long shots to win.