Gold Gloves need a better voting process
Evaluating defense should include more modern-day metrics
ST. LOUIS -- Two years ago this week, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina picked up the first Gold Glove Award of his already accomplished young career. When Molina got to hold the trophy two months later, he unleashed a smile with the wattage of a Times Square video board.
In short, those two nuggets tell you nearly everything you need to know about Gold Gloves -- what's right and what's wrong with the venerable awards.
Within the game, they still matter -- and they matter a lot. Molina treasures his status as a Gold Glover, as does just about anyone else who has won one. This year's honorees, who will be announced on Tuesday and Wednesday, will know they're part of a special club. But the process for handing out the awards is a mess.
By the time Molina won his first, he'd been widely acclaimed as the National League's best defensive catcher, if not the best in all of baseball, for at least two seasons. He'd been waiting to be recognized, even though his standing was not a secret or really even a question. But for whatever reason -- because he hadn't hit enough, because more experienced players were easier to remember, who knows -- he didn't win until his fourth full season.
Maybe it was sweeter for the waiting, and it's not as though Molina has been deprived since. When this year's National League winners are announced on Wednesday, he'll be a heavy favorite to bring home the hardware for a third time. But while other awards can be controversial, few, if any, of the others are derided for inappropriate choices as often as Gold Gloves are.
One joke goes that Gold Gloves are like Supreme Court appointments: They're hard to get, but once you have them, they're for life. Another often-heard wisecrack is that a given player didn't hit well enough to win a Gold Glove. Lines like that wouldn't have caught on if they didn't have an element of truth.
As one of baseball's most cherished honors, the Gold Glove deserves a better selection process. It deserves voters who see the candidates more often and watch them more closely, and it deserves voters who are more open to newer ways of looking at defense.
This is not to suggest that coaches and managers, the current voting body, don't take their responsibilities seriously. Without a doubt, they do. But you can be dedicated and still not be the best equipped. That's the case when it comes to coaches and managers. They're not in the best position to make the evaluation.
Besides, alternatives exist. The Baseball Writers' Association of America could participate. An independent panel, such as the one that determines the Fielding Bible awards, could weigh in. Even a combination of players and coaches would likely yield better results than keeping the voting strictly to coaching staffs.
Coaches and managers watch their own teams closely, but they watch opponents strategically -- and in many cases, only occasionally. With the unbalanced schedule, a coach only sees some opponents five or six times a year. At some positions, there's no guarantee that he'll see a given player get more than a few defensive chances. The schedule can even set up so that two teams are finished playing before July arrives.
That's without getting into the fact that you'd be hard-pressed to find a more traditional group of baseball observers than coaches and managers. The BBWAA sometimes takes heat for its reluctance to adopt newer ways of thinking about the game, but BBWAA voters are miles ahead of most uniformed personnel when it comes to such matters.
And defense is the area where you need the most information to make an informed decision. At this point, it's pretty easy to get the right call when you're talking about who pitched or hit best in a given season. The fine distinctions can be argued, but we pretty much know what constitutes a good hitter or pitcher.
Who played defense the best? That's much tougher. There's no one answer.
You do have to trust your eyes. All but the most hardcore statheads will acknowledge that. Scouts' views have a place, too. Some traditional numbers -- such as a catcher's caught-stealing numbers, to name one example -- have value. And advanced metrics must be part of any serious conversation.
But good luck getting anywhere by trying to ask a manager or coach to consider plus-minus or ultimate zone rating. It's not what they've been taught. It's not how they're wired. So they're not going to consider those potentially very valuable evaluation techniques in casting a vote.
Again, that's not to suggest that the eyeball evaluation of a veteran baseball man or woman doesn't have value. Undoubtedly it does -- but it must be augmented. Coaches' voting has given us such results as Rafael Palmeiro winning a Gold Glove while barely playing any first base, and Nate McLouth winning largely because of an impressive play in the All-Star Game.
We don't know everything about evaluating defense, but we know a lot more than we did even a decade ago. It's time to restore the honor of the Gold Gloves by having a voting body that considers that knowledge when it casts its ballots.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.