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MLB: The Progressive?

Ned Yost may have lost the World Series, but a managerial trend toward run prevention may be started in his honour.

Jamie Squire

[Editor's Note: This is the site's first piece by new contributor Michael Bradburn! Welcome him aboard.]

In the end, Ned Yost and his Kansas City Royals were only 2 runs away from winning game 7 of the 2014 World Series by a score of 4-3. Or, perhaps more accurately, they were 2 prevented runs from winning 2-1.

To the Royals, this postseason was all about run prevention. Their commitment to run prevention was troubling at times. And yet through the wild card, ALDS and ALCS, they were undefeated, so who could argue? It took until game 4 of the World Series before a team legitimately beat Yost’s strategy with continuous hits in the 5th, 6th and 7th innings, all without leaving the yard.

But perhaps this World Series – if it teaches us anything other than waiting 29 years doesn’t entitle you to anything – means baseball is taking defensive metrics a lot more seriously now. And, with the announcement of the Gold Glove finalists, maybe Major League general managers will give more credit to Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating.

In a season in which we said farewell to Derek Jeter, a lot of people rightfully questioned how The Captain ever won a Gold Glove. In their eyes, Major League Baseball gets a lot of things wrong. And that’s a disappointing view to me. I always want to take the positive viewpoint, so long as the data supports it. So, when baseball announced the Gold Glove finalists, I wanted to see if defensive metrics have gained any traction over the past decade.

I decided to do this by looking at every player’s defensive runs saved (DRS), ultimate zone rating (UZR) and overall defense (Def). I wanted to use a good array of metrics for a couple of reasons: first, to see which one the Gold Glove voters seemed to favour; second, because each metric evaluates a player’s defense in a different way. UZR, for instance, is a measure of a player’s range against players of the same position. Therefore, a metric like this carries more influence over positions that are given larger zones to cover, such as center field or shortstop. Defensive runs saved, although problematic in its own way, is better for measuring the defensive worth of players whose range does not matter as much, such as catcher.

With this year’s finalists, how seriously are the voters taking these metrics? Let’s first look at the 2014 All-DRS Team, where an asterisk denotes that the player is not a Gold Glove finalist:

American League AL Player DRS NL Player DRS
P Dallas Keuchel 10 Clayton Kershaw 7
C Salvador Perez 8 Russell Martin 12
1B Chris Davis* 8 Adrian Gonzalez 12
2B Ian Kinsler 20 D.J. LeMahieu 16
3B Josh Donaldson 20 Nolan Arenado 16
SS J.J Hardy 10 Andrelton Simmons 28
LF Alex Gordon 27 Christian Yelich 13
CF Leonys Martin* 15 Juan Lagares 28
RF Kevin Kiermaier 15 Jason Heyward 32

16 for 18 isn’t bad. It is curious why Chris Davis or Leonys Martin didn’t even make it as finalists. This is where you get into narratives, though, as Davis may have been omitted for his transgression against the drug policy late in the season. Honestly, I was surprised to see him among the best defenders – albeit at first base – at all, which is also just narrative. Not only did Chris Davis account for more run prevention than the other three Gold Glove finalists though, so too did Mike Napoli. Albert Pujols, the best of the finalists, is actually third in run prevention at his position.

Moving on, to the All-UZR Team of 2014 (remembering, of course, that range data isn’t kept for pitchers or catchers):

Position AL Player UZR NL Player UZR
1B Albert Pujols 6.3 Anthony Rizzo* 7.0
2B Dustin Pedroia 18.3 D.J. LeMahieu 10.7
3B Josh Donaldson 15.5 Todd Frazier* 6.5
SS J.J. Hardy 13.9 Andrelton Simmons 15.5
LF Alex Gordon 25.0 Christian Yelich 12.8
CF Jackie Bradley Jr. 15.9 Billy Hamilton 20.1
RF Kevin Kiermaier 17.7 Jason Heyward 24.1

Chase Headley technically had the best UZR in all of baseball last season (20.9), but he is omitted because he changed leagues from the San Diego Padres to the New York Yankees. Also, Kevin Kiermaier is up against a small sample size here and is still far and away the best right fielder, beating second-place Nick Markakis at 6.2. Major League Baseball finished 12/14 – another respectable ratio. It is again curious, though, why Todd Frazier’s 6.5 UZR and 7 DRS would be overlooked for Pablo Sandoval’s 3.5 UZR and 4 DRS. Also, why would the -5.0 UZR and 0 DRS of Adam Laroche surpass Anthony Rizzo’s 7.0 UZR and 6 DRS? In fact, Laroche was the worst defensive first baseman in the National League according to his -15.3 in Def.

And, while we’re on the topic, the All-Def Team of 2014, with pitchers omitted:

Position AL Player Def NL Player Def
C Salvador Perez 17 Jonathan Lucroy 16.6
1B Albert Pujols -2.4 Justin Morneau -3.2
2B Dustin Pedroia 20.3 D.J. LeMahieu 12.7
3B Josh Donaldson 17.7 Juan Uribe 14.1
SS J.J. Hardy 20.4 Andrelton Simmons 22.1
LF Alex Gordon 17.9 Christian Yelich 6.7
CF Jackie Bradley Jr. 17.5 Billy Hamilton 22.1
RF Nori Aoki* 0.6 Jason Heyward 17.3

Nori Aoki (0.6 Def through 937.1 innings) was overlooked for Kevin Kiermaier (13.3 Def through 526.1 innings), Kole Calhoun (0.3 Def through 1036.1 innings), and Nick Markakis (-0.6 Def through 1314.1 innings). Whether this is a transgression is genuinely a matter of opinion. How much do you value Def? How much do you value actual innings logged in the outfield? In my opinion, he probably should have been included. With that said, you should know that even though Aoki had good range, he actually had -8 DRS. Sometimes ability to cover field doesn’t actually equate defensive prowess. We’ll mark it as a loss, even though right field in the American League was just underwhelming this year, for a grade of 15/16.

Overall, these aren’t bad ratios for Major League Baseball. Whether or not the actual winners reflect this progressive thinking, we’ll have to wait and see. Over the past three years, the American League Gold Glove winner for each position has agreed with one of these metrics 17/27 times, while the National League has only agreed 13/27. That is to say, the winner of the Gold Glove in each position has led one category of UZR, DRS or Def only 30 out of a possible 54 times. One would hope that the above tables show at least a step in the right direction.

Back in 2003, the American League awarded the Gold Glove for shortstop, and the three outfielders – as they hadn’t been split into RF, CF and LF yet – to the players who led their categories in Def. Also, the American League incidentally chose the pitcher who led their league in DRS. The National League only went 3 for 9 that season, choosing two outfielders and a second baseman who led in Def as well as UZR.

Whether we look back at this season as a starting point for defensive metrics, or just an arbitrary year in which narrative actually happened to agree with metrics in some cases is up for discussion. However, the Gold Glove electorate does seem to be taking defensive metrics with a bit more gravitas.

. . .

All statistics courtest of FanGraphs.

Michael Bradburn is a Contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mwbii.