Worth Its Weight In Gold
Back in 1999, a controversial gold glove for best defensive first baseman in the American League was awarded to All-Star Texas Ranger Rafael Palmeiro, who had played a grand total of 28 games at first base that year.
He’d also been the designated hitter in 128 games for the Rangers that season — and was no doubt one of the most prolific hitters of the MLB steroid era. But as we all know, hitting ability does not a gold glover make.
And yet Palmeiro had also won the gold glove in 1997 and 1998; and it almost seemed as if he won again in 1999 out of either sheer laziness on the parts of the voters or misplaced hero worship of a great player who really just shouldn’t have qualified that season.
Here was Palmeiro’s reaction in November 1999 upon finding out that he’d won the gold glove again that year:
“‘When I heard about it, I laughed,’” said Palmeiro (who nevertheless was expected to cash the $50,000 check he would receive because of a bonus clause in his contract with the Texas Rangers). “‘I guess people are respecting me for what I’ve done in the past’” (As quoted by Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1999).
More from Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune, same article: “…the real loser is probably Minnesota rookie Doug Mientkiewicz, who was statistically the best fielder. He committed only three errors in 110 games and compiled a .997 fielding percentage while ranking above average in range.”
Eleven years later, in 2010, Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees won his fifth gold glove. Here’s what Lewie Pollis at Bleacher Report had to say on the matter:
Derek Jeter's 2004 Gold Glove. (Photo: via Heritage Auctions)
“But by far the most undeserving winner (among the 2010 Yankee gold glove winners, who included Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano) was the Captain himself. For the fifth time in his career, Derek Jeter was named the AL’s best defensive shortstop. And for the fifth time, he didn’t deserve it.
Jeter’s -4.7 UZR wasn’t anywhere near the top—in fact, it was third-worst among AL shortstops. That’s a full 15.5 runs—the equivalent of nearly two wins—behind the rightful Gold Glove winner, the White Sox’ Alexei Ramirez.
Yes, Jeter’s .989 fielding percentage was the best of all Major League shortstops. But that number is misleading, as it reflects only the balls he got to, and the biggest flaw in Jeter’s game was his abysmal range. A brick wall will stop any ball that’s hit right to it, but it wouldn’t be an effective fielder because it couldn’t get to anything else (also because brick walls can’t throw).”
Pollis goes on to describe in more excruciating detail what Jeter did right and what he did wrong, and how Alexei Ramirez would have been the more qualified AL gold glover at shortstop that year (from “Damn Yankees: The Pure Insanity of Derek Jeter’s Gold Glove,” Bleacher Report, November 10, 2010).
The controversy surrounding Jeter’s multiple gold gloves has continued on past his retirement as a player, during his ownership and chief of baseball operations role with the Florida Marlins, and even through his 2020-2021 induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Lewie Pollis isn’t the only one who found Jeter’s repeated recognition for his defense during his playing days to be irritating; scores of others in the media and on Twitter have asserted bias in the gold glove voting process during Jeter’s tenure with the Yankees. In fact, current shortstop Carlos Correa just stated recently that he felt Derek Jeter wasn’t deserving of any of the gold gloves he won. Now, that assertion may have knocked Correa out of the running for a new contract with either the Yankees or the Marlins; but he certainly wasn’t expressing a unique opinion not shared by any others in the baseball world.
The current player-candidate criteria are a strong attempt at diminishing the bias that goes into gold glove voting.
Gold gloves are currently awarded by the following two sets of voters: (a) managers and coaches in the league (both AL and NL) (75% of the vote); and (b) the baseball sabermetrics community (25% of the vote). Back in 1999, however, the vote was solely by the managers and coaches in the league. Palmeiro, therefore, was awarded his 1999 gold glove by the managers and coaches of Major League Baseball. The only caveat at the time was that managers and coaches could not vote for their own players, which holds true to this day.
Whatever you think of the voting process for gold glovers, sometimes the decision does come down to splitting hairs between the various stats that favor one candidate over another. To what degree voting managers and coaches use stats to determine their individual votes is not known, as they are under absolutely no obligation to share their decision-making process. The portion of the vote that now rests with the sabermetrics community, however, is probably in place to institute some more objectivity into the selection process; or, in other words, to try to prevent another 1999 AL first base type result. Other measures that Rawlings and MLB have now put in place to prevent the 1999 AL first base result include the following criteria:
Carlos Correa had some things to say lately.
Player Qualifications (See https://www.rawlings.com/gold-glove-criteria.html):
To qualify for consideration for a particular position, a player must have played a minimum number of games or innings (based on position) at that position.
- All pitchers must have pitched in at least 141 innings by his team’s 141st game;
- A catcher must have played in at least half of his team’s games by his team’s 141st game (a minimum of 71 games);
- All infielders and outfielders must have played in the field for at least 713 total innings through his team’s 141st game: this equates to playing in the field for approximately 7.5 innings per game in approximately 67% of his team’s games by his team’s 141st game; this ensures that only full-time players are considered;
- All infielders and outfielders with at least 713 total innings played qualify at the specific position where he played the most innings (i.e. where his manager utilized him the most)
Rafael Palmiero lets one launch.
SABR Defensive Index
The SABR Defensive IndexTM (SDI) is a measure of the number of runs saved by a player’s defensive performance over the course of a season, compared to the average defensive player at that position. The SDI combines measures from six (6) different defensive data sources and includes factors that rate the defenders arm strength and accuracy, range and his sure-handedness, along with the number of “excellent” and “poor” fielding plays he makes. The SDI also incorporates a rating for a player’s ability to turn double plays (2B and SS), fielding bunts (primarily P, C, 3B, and 1B) and scoops of throws in the dirt (1B). For catchers, blocking balls in the dirt and stolen bases/caught stealing are also included. For pitchers, the SDI includes his ability to hold runners on base and control the running game.
A positive SDI number indicates that a player was above average compared to other players at his position in the given season. Conversely, a negative SDI number means the player performed below the league average at this position that season. As previously mentioned, Rawlings Gold Glove Awards are calculated based on a combination of managers/coaches and SABR.
One thing that’s noteworthy about many of the position players who qualify, however, is that they are, for the most part, significant offensive contributors to their teams’ success, as well as being in the top categories in the league defensively. This is obviously no coincidence. Why is that, you ask? Because in order to meet the minimum number of innings played in the field by the current gold glove criteria, a gold glove nominee is not going to be an off-the-bench player, a minor leaguer briefly covering for an injured starter, or a September call-up. Thus, although some fill-in players have undoubtedly been excellent in the field, they simply do not qualify for a gold glove.
Which, in turn, brings us full circle — back to the 1999 American League first base gold glove, and its winner. There is no question that Rafael Palmeiro was an outstanding first baseman, as his two gold gloves from 1997 and 1998 attest. But, the lingering question about how much bias played into his 1999 gold glove remains, and will remain forever. Palmeiro was known as an incredible hitter, and won two silver slugger awards during his career. He was also a very popular player at the time. As stated by The Associated Press, November 9, 2010: “For years, some fans have viewed the Gold Gloves as mostly a popularity contest, even suggesting that a player’s performance at the plate helped draw extra attention to his glove.”
The current player-candidate criteria are a strong attempt at diminishing the bias that goes into gold glove voting. Would those criteria have eliminated any of Derek Jeter’s gold gloves? No, they wouldn’t have. Jeter played the minimum number of innings by the current criteria in each of his gold glove years. But would the sabermetric component have diminished Jeter’s ability to win all his gold gloves? Potentially.
Yet, when all is said and done, once a player makes it to Cooperstown — and just one vote shy of a unanimous decision — does it really even matter anymore?