Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Oct. 25, 2018 – Source: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images North America)
The Boston Red Sox took home more hardware last night, as Mookie Betts, Ian Kinsler and Jackie Bradley Jr. received American League Gold Gloves for their respective positions. For Betts, it marked the third consecutive year he was awarded the Golden Glove while Kinsler got the second of his career. Meanwhile, JBJ, who is anecdotally the best fielder on the planet, became a Gold Glover for the first time in his life.
All three are terrific defenders with track records to boot. Even though Kinsler was only in a Boston uniform for two months, it is obvious he is a pristine fielder. Let Game Three go.
Anyway, while the eye test boasts a resounding “yes” to these players winning the awards, the defensive metrics may tell us a different story. While imperfect, especially infield defensive metrics, these numbers serve as a quantifiable proxy for extracting fielding value.
It is illuminating to combine both eye and reputable metrics when assessing a player’s defensive aptitude. What do the numbers say about these fielders? Were they really the best at their position? Let’s dig into each of these Red Sox representatives.
Among qualified American League second basemen, Kinsler rated atop the leaderboards in both DRS (defensive runs saved) and UZR (ultimate zone rating). Those two metrics are the most universally-heralded barometers for defensive play and Kinsler excelled at both. Odor was a close second, tying Kinsler with a 10 DRS. With that said, the former Los Angeles Angels second baseman trounced Odor and the rest of the world in UZR. His 9.7 score was well ahead of the second-place Texas Ranger (6.9).
He particularly did well in the range department, bringing home a league-leading 4.9 RngR (a component of UZR) score. In fact, it was virtually a toss up between him and D.J. LeMahieu for best defensive second baseman in baseball. In the spirit of honesty, though, Lemahieu edged him in dfWAR. Regardless, relative to his AL peers, the defensive metrics are gleefully in accordance with him taking the award.
Back in September, I detailed the twofold view the defensive metrics have about JBJ’s defense. Basically, UZR supported the indisputable notion that Bradley Jr. was the best center fielder in the American League. That held true for the rest of the season, as number 19 yielded a 7.4 UZR for the ’18 season. This was well ahead of the second-place Mike Trout (4.0), who represented just one of six qualifiers at the position.
Oddly, DRS does not take as kind of a perspective on the ALCS MVP. They strapped him with a -2 score, which is close to average. My retinas tell me otherwise and so does UZR. By DRS, the award goes to Trout, even though he participated in 50 less innings at the position.
Luckily, for outfielders, there is another defensive metrics called Outs Above Average. This metrics is relatively new yet is on of the most telling metrics of them all. It measures the difficulty of each catch relative to the number of plays made. You can read more about OAA here.
Bradley Jr. placed 10th in all of baseball in OAA with an impressive 11 score, which is tied with outfield comrade Mookie Betts. This is better than Trout’s score (8) but also considerably inferior to Engel’s 17 OAA. This is odd because Engel ranked comparatively poorly in UZR and DRS. OAA is the only stat Engel stands out in but, boy, does he emerge flamboyant.
Regardless, this close race deservingly went to JBJ, per the metrics. He was consistent across the board, even if DRS had a bit of a disagreement. The important qualifier is that it would not have been a total travesty if Engel or Trout took home the hardware instead.
Even before I looked at fellow American League right fielders defensive metrics, I knew Betts beat everyone by a landslide. Behold! He did just that with a ridiculously outstanding 15.3 UZR and 20 DRS. For reference, the next closest qualifying score in those respective categories were a 2.7 UZR and 9 DRS.
As mentioned, he also delivered with a top-ten OAA at 11, besting Calhoun (3) and Judge (2) by quite a bit. There really is so much to say about his exquisite defensive play that is better summed up in short: Betts is perhaps the best defensive player in baseball. You can raise me Andrelton Simmons or Matt Chapman but the point is there are few with the fielding abilities of the 2018 American League MVP.
He just makes everything look so effortless. In a way, this detracts away from the novelty of his skill. JBJ is more flashy but, make no mistake about it, Betts is a better defender. That’s not an insult in any way, shape or form. He’s better than most everybody and he does it quietly. Without digging deep into the other races, I’m fairly confident championing this as the most hands-down Gold Glove race in baseball. Mookie Betts is a defensive wizard. To many more to come!