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Baseball's rubber stamp

In picking Gold Glovers, it's safe to go with last year's winners

Posted: Wednesday September 17, 2003 11:57AM; Updated: Wednesday September 17, 2003 12:05PM
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By Jacob Luft, SI.com

Rafael Palmeiro is the poster boy for shoddy Gold Glove voting. AP
606
Extra-base hits by the Red Sox this season, one shy of the record set by the 1996 Mariners.
Anti-Gold Glove players.
1 Mike "Lollipop arm" Piazza
2 Alfonso "Manos de piedras" Soriano
3 Fred "Please make me a DH" McGriff
4 Todd "Cement Shoes" Walker
5 Kevin "I field like a Buick" Millar
6 Roger "I need radar to find a flyball" Cedeno

Baseball is, at its core, unpredictable. When you watch a game, you have a chance of seeing something you've never seen before.

If you were watching the Royals-Tigers on Monday, for example, you'd have seen perhaps one of the dumbest plays in baseball history: Detroit's Alex Sanchez trying a delayed steal of home ... and having pitcher Brian Anderson throw him out by 20 feet.

There is at least one area where the game becomes completely predictable, where the wheels of spontaneity come to a screeching halt: Gold Glove voting.

The names of Gold Glove winners often are etched in stone. Managers and coaches are given the solemn duty of picking the league's best craftsmen in the field, but you get the feeling they just cut and paste their votes from one year to the next.

Since the awards' inception in 1957, 829 Gold Gloves have been handed out to 263 players. On average, each winner has ended up with at least three Gold Gloves on his mantle. Brooks Robinson has the most with 16, followed by Jim Kaat (14), Ozzie Smith and Greg Maddux (13 each). From 1990-2001, there were 216 Gold Gloves given out to 83 players. Only 25 of those players failed to win more than one Gold Glove in their careers.

Once a player reaches Gold Glove status, he usually stays atop that mountain, barring injury or a bad slump at the plate, whether he deserves the award or not. (Even though it's a defensive award, being a good hitter keeps your name in the spotlight and in the voters' minds.) Rafael Palmeiro was the AL's Gold Glove first baseman in 1997 and '98. But in 1999, when he played all of 28 games in the field, Palmeiro became the first player to bring home a Gold Glove and the Outstanding Designated Hitter Award in the same season.

It's only human nature for people to dislike change. If South Carolina could keep sending Strom Thurmond to Washington, then by golly we can keep giving Gold Gloves to Maddux until he's a century old.

To be fair, it is hard to blame the voters for sticking with their favorites when casting the ballots. Even though there are dozens upon dozens of ways to measure the value of a hitter, there has yet to emerge a satisfying device to accurately measure a player's defensive value.

The old standby, fielding percentage, is inadequate. It hurts players with good range, who often make errors on balls that slower fielders would not reach. Range factor (putouts plus assists) and Zone Rating (a nebulous STATS, Inc. concoction) can be compromised by luck, the type of pitching staff a team has (flyball vs. groundball) and the ballpark it plays in. Sabermetricians have come up with something you need an aerospace engineering degree to understand, Ultimate Zone Rating, which sounded like a good idea until it told us Darin Erstad was the best player in the history of the world.

Since there is no tried and true method to figure out who the best defensive players are, we here at the Beat will use a combination of the aforementioned statistics, anecdotal evidence and the naked eye to come up with an admittedly subjective 2003 Gold Glove team for each league.

National League

Catcher: Houston's Brad Ausmus is making a solid bid for this third consecutive award, throwing out nearly 35 percent of basestealers while allowing only three passed balls. But L.A.'s Paul Lo Duca has thrown out the most runners (56), has allowed only five passed balls and has contributed more than a few Baseball Tonight Webgems. Florida's Pudge Rodriguez's overall numbers are strong enough to win, and runners are much less likely to run on him (36 steals allowed) than Ausmus (66) or Lo Duca (76). Don't be surprised if Lo Duca claims his first Gold Glove or Pudge gets his 11th.

First Base: Colorado's Todd Helton has won the past two and, since he has played every day and put up his usual offensive numbers, should take it home again this year. However, a strong case can be made for Florida's Derrek Lee, who leads Helton in Zone Rating (.875 to .833) and has made six fewer errors. But, again, those statistics aren't all that meaningful. A first baseman worth his salt will save his infielders from making throwing errors by the boatloads, so let's look at how the Rockies' and Marlins' infields compare this season. Florida's infield: 62 errors; the Rockies: 85. Advantage: Lee.

Second Base: This is wide open since two-time winner Fernando Vina has had such a dreadful year. The most deserving player is Los Angeles' Alex Cora, who has turned an NL-leading 99 double plays in only 1,001 1/3 innings. But his horrendous numbers at the plate (.242-.283-.328) will all but eliminate him as a contender, even though they show how valuable his glove is if Jim Tracy is willing to allow an automatic out in his lineup. Realistically, it's between Montreal's Jose Vidro (only nine errors), Atlanta's Marcus Giles (first in range factor) and Florida's Luis Castillo (95 double plays), with our nod going to Vidro.

Third Base: Much like Helton, St. Louis' Scott Rolen has done nothing to lose his Gold Glove status. He has won four of the past five and should make it five out of six easily. Outside of Vinny Castilla of the Braves and the aging Edgardo Alfonzo of the Giants, there isn't much competition to speak of here.

Shortstop: St. Louis' Edgar Renteria won last year, making Montreal's Orlando Cabrera a rare one-time winner. Both are having superb seasons once again, but Renteria's early hype and All-Star Game start should tip the scales in his favor.

Outfield: As long as they can put on a jockstrap, Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds will win Gold Gloves for their past and present brilliance in center field. Jones has lost a half-step or so in the last couple of years, but not enough for many people to notice. Larry Walker has slipped enough for it to cost him, though, so look for Richard Hidalgo (21 assists) or maybe even Preston Wilson or Mark Kotsay to make a run at it.

Pitcher: This is between two Braves: Greg Maddux and Mike Hampton. They are 1-2 in Range Factor, with Hampton leading Maddux 3.39 to 2.95, but Maddux leads overall in assists (55) and total chances (68) because he has made six more starts. Hampton's superior athleticism may very well make him the better fielder, but has he done enough to unseat the winner of 13 consecutive Gold Gloves? Nope.

American League

Catcher: Reigning winner Bengie Molina has had another outstanding year for the Angels, leading the AL in caught stealing percentage at 44.4. Boston's Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada will get notice because of their huge offensive numbers, but neither can throw anybody out. Tampa Bay's Toby Hall, who has thrown out nearly 44 percent of basestealers, will win at least one before his career is over.

First Base: Seattle has made only 60 errors all season, 20 fewer than runner-up Minnesota. Only 50 of Seattle's errors have come from the infield, which is anchored by last year's Gold Glove winner, John Olerud. It's too bad there is only one of these to give out because Minnesota's Doug Mientkiewicz (the 2001 winner) and Tampa Bay's Travis Lee are just as deserving.

Second Base: Now that Mets castoff Roberto Alomar is officially old, this spot belongs to Seattle's Bret Boone for the foreseeable future. His five errors are the fewest in the AL. Anaheim's Adam Kennedy is probably just as good, though.

Third Base: Oakland's Eric Chavez will cruise for a third straight time here. He leads AL third basemen in putouts, assists, range factor and has made only 14 errors while playing the most innings at the position (1,251). Honorable mention: Boston's Bill Mueller, whose ability with the bat finally has caught up to his slick glove work.

Shortstop: Wow, no shortage of outstanding candidates here. Alex Rodriguez paid more than his share of dues all those years while Omar Vizquel won nine in a row, so look for the Rangers' superstar to claim his second in as many seasons. A-Rod is the only AL shortstop with fewer than 10 errors (seven, to be exact) and more than 1,000 innings at the position this year. Also deserving: Miguel Tejada, Nomar Garciaparra and Royals rookie Angel Berroa (22 errors but tremendous range). Definitely not worth mentioning: Derek "slow roller into center field" Jeter.

Outfield: At this point, anybody who tries to take an extra base on Ichiro Suzuki should be shot on sight. Ichiro and Mr. Web Gem himself, Torii Hunter, have a stranglehold on two of the three outfield spots. Darin Erstad does, too, but his injury-plagued season has opened the door and Seattle's Mike Cameron has kicked it in. Honorable mention: Kansas City's Carlos Beltran (10 assists), Anaheim's Garret Anderson (12 assists) and Tampa Bay rookie Rocco Baldelli (15 assists).

Pitcher: Kenny Rogers or Mike Mussina have alternated the past three years. One of them will win it again, and there is nothing wrong with that. Other candidates include Boston's Derek Lowe (first in range factor, zero errors), Oakland's Tim Hudson and Toronto's Roy Halladay.

DH: You don't want Rafael Palmeiro to feel left out, do you?

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In case you missed it, ESPN's Outside the Lines special on the state of the game -- considering the 1 a.m. EDT time slot Monday and Tuesday, you probably did -- provided some of the best unintentional humor this side of a Ben Affleck movie. The hour-long show boiled down to this: Bob Costas hyperventilating over the evils of the wild card -- again; Joe Buck mocking Costas; George Will using really big words to push his buddy Bud Selig's agenda. You half-expected Tommy Lasorda and Mike Schmidt to interrupt Will's esoteric ramblings by asking him to, "Throw the ball, George! Throw the ball!" ... Expos right-hander Livan Hernandez has always pitched better when there is something extra on the line, so it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that he is having such a terrific season when he needed to reach 217 innings to trigger a $6.5 million salary for next season. ... Could it be that Wily Mo Pena is a player after all? Stashed away on the Reds' bench most of the year because of his major league contract, Pena has piled up at-bats since the club's fire sale at the trading deadline and done well. He's hitting .277 with a .574 slugging percentage in 47 September at-bats.

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