7/25/2014 3:03 P.M. ET
In analytics' defense: Some glove data passes eye test
Ozzie ranked top defender of all time, but list includes a few head-scratchers
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
The biggest problem with WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in the view of managers, coaches and players is that advanced analytics can't do justice to defense. There are simply too many variables that fall beyond the scope of truly accurate statistical evaluations.
Nonetheless, a look at the data we have from the studies of Baseball-Reference.com and Baseball Info Solutions reveals a list of gloved wonders that in many cases is remarkably compatible with the eye tests and assessments of those inside the game.
Keep in mind these are cumulative career figures favoring those who played a long time over those who did not. Shortstops overwhelming draw higher grades than any other defenders. Fourteen of the top 20 dWAR players in history are shortstops, and four are catchers. Third baseman Brooks Robinson and outfielder Andruw Jones are the only other position players in the top 20.
The greatest defensive player of all-time, according to dWAR, is Ozzie Smith, the Wizard. This is the answer you'd get from a fairly large segment of old-school lifers, although many would hold out for Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente.
The best defender among all active players is the stylishly brilliant Adrian Beltre. This is close to a slam dunk among the current generation of players, managers and coaches.
There are, however, some notable head-scratchers that play into the polarizing nature of these defensive numbers. Anyone who watched the incomparable Clemente play right field will be appalled to learn he is ranked No. 157 all-time, behind, among so many others, Angels manager Mike Scioscia and his coach, Gary DiSarcina. Tied with Clemente at 12.1 wins above replacement is Nick Punto. He'll probably be amazed to learn this.
As for Mays, those who watched him will assure you he was among the five greatest defensive players in history -- and that might be conservative. Willie ranks tied for 62nd all-time in dWAR. Say Hey what?
Tied with Mays is Cardinals cathcer Yadier Molina, who surely has saved many more wins above a replacement than the 18.1 he is credited with -- just as Johnny Bench's 19.3 (52nd all-time) seems strikingly low.
Apply your own question and exclamation marks. Here's your all-time dWAR defensive team courtesy of the computers.
Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez (28.7 dWAR)
Rodriguez, a great athlete with a phenomenal arm, is the all-time leader at the position with 13 Gold Gloves, three more than Bench. Contemporaries Gary Carter (25.5), Bob Boone (25.3) and Jim Sundberg (25.0) rank Nos. 14, 15 and tied for 16th all-time among defensive players. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus (18.3) is sixth all-time among receivers, right behind Bench. The vastly undervalued youngest Molina (16.1) is the active leader, followed by Russell Martin (12.4), Carlos Ruiz (8.7), Jeff Mathis (8.3) and A.J. Pierzynski (8.2).
First base: Keith Hernandez (0.6)
OK, here is where dWAR breaks down completely. It simply ignores the contributions of first basemen in saving runs, as if they don't exist. Don Mattingly won nine Gold Gloves, two fewer than all-time leader Hernandez, and Donnie Baseball's career dWAR is -6.8. This should rankle New York fans of the 1980s who knew they were watching two of the best ever at the position. Mark Teixeira (five Gold Gloves) is 0.1 in dWAR, and Adrian Gonzalez (three Gold Gloves) is -3.9 in dWAR. Ridiculous.
Second base: Bill Mazeroski (23.9(
Pittsburgh's master, with eight Gold Gloves, gets the nod. Maz didn't have the range of Roberto Alomar (the leader in Gold Gloves with 10), but he was fundamentally flawless and the textbook example in turning a double play. Joe Gordon (22.4), Frankie Frisch (21.6), Frank White (21.4), Nellie Fox (21.0), Willie Randolph (19.4), Craig Counsell (18.5) and Placido Polanco (18.1) follow Maz. Active leaders are Mark Ellis (17.5) and Chase Utley (17.4), followed by Dustin Pedroia (12.4). Nine-time Gold Glove Award winner Ryne Sandberg is at 12.8. Alomar strangely has a 2.4 career dWAR. Joe Morgan, with five Gold Gloves, has a 3.3 dWAR. Go figure.
Shortstop: Ozzie Smith (43.4)
The Wizard, with his record 13 Gold Gloves, will flip over this. He narrowly edges contemporary Mark Belanger (39.4), with Cal Ripken Jr. (34.6) the fourth-best defender ever as judged by dWAR. Omar Vizquel (28.4), whose 11 Gold Gloves trail only Smith, makes the top 10. Pee Wee Reese (25.6) is the 13th-best defender overall in history by dWAR computations. Best active shortstop: Clint Barmes (16.4), followed by Rafael Furcal and Brendon Ryan (14.4), J.J. Hardy (13.9) and Jimmy Rollins and Troy Tulowitzki (13.2) and John McDonald (11.1).
Third base: Brooks Robinson (38.8)
Robinson, Baltimore's magician and 16-time Gold Glover, blows away the field. Buddy Bell is next at 23.0, followed by active leader Beltre (22.4), Clete Boyer (21.5), Graig Nettles (20.9), Scott Rolen (20.6) and Mike Schmidt (17.6). This will give Philly fans something to boo. Right behind Beltre are underrated Juan Uribe (13.4) and Evan Longoria (10.1).
Outfield: Andruw Jones (24.1), Paul Blair (18.6), Devon White (16.2)
Obviously, dWAR favors center fielders, and these are three great ones by any measure or calculation. But how does that account for Mays' absurdly low number? And Clemente's dWAR is impossible to fathom. What this tells us is these numbers, as they relate to outfielders, are highly suspect. Active leaders: Carlos Gomez (10.9), Michael Bourn and Brett Gardner (8.8 each). Ten-time Gold Glove Award winner Ichiro Suzuki (4.2) and nine-time Gold Glover Torii Hunter (5.4) are on the utterly baffling list along with Mays and Clemente. Any of those three would form an outfield for the ages, whether dWAR likes it or not.
Pitchers: Greg Maddux and Jim Kaat
Since dWAR numbers are incomplete for pitchers, we'll go with the Gold Glove kings to complete our dream defense. Maddux earned 18, Kaat 16, as the best of their generations. Bob Gibson (nine Gold Gloves), Bobby Shantz (eight), Mark Langston and Mike Mussina (seven each) also were leather wonders of the highest order, and Mark Buehrle (four) is the best of the current crop.
Bringing it up to moment, here are the 2014 leaders in dWAR: Jason Heyward (2.8), Zack Cozart (2.4), Josh Donaldson (2.2), Jhonny Peralta (2.1), Jackie Bradley (2.0), Alex Gordon and Juan Lagares (1.9 each), DJ LeMahieu, Pedroia and Jarrod Dyson (1.7). Andrelton Simmons, last year's leader at a record 5.4, is at 1.5.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.