Making Gold Glove Award Finalists Count

photo: Billy Hurst/USA TODAY Sports

Brian Walton shares his proposal to evolve the Gold Glove Award process to announce finalists ahead of the actual voting and why it would benefit all involved – players, voters and fans.


“This time, it counts!”

Long time baseball fans will never forget former MLB commissioner Bud Selig administration’s well-intended, but fatally flawed plan to award home field advantage for the World Series to the league that won that July’s All-Star Game. The gimmick was summarized by their marketing slogan noted above.

Putting far too much importance on an exhibition game was exposed when extra innings led to a depletion of available players and an unsatisfying outcome. Ultimately, winning the All-Star Game was returned to bragging rights only, which is the way it should be – but it took over a decade and a change in regimes to get it undone. Now, the World Series advantage goes to the best regular-season team, as common sense should have dictated decades ago.

I have a proposal for a “reverse Selig”, making something that does not count today, matter in the future.

I am talking about annual Gold Glove Award finalists.

Those who follow my work know that I have a healthy dislike for all things contrived. Right near the top of my contrived list is the announcement of the top three award finishers at each position in each league as supposed “finalists”.

In reality, there are no finalists – just the top three finishers in no particular order.

Voting has been complete for weeks and the results have already been tabulated. But instead of just announcing the specifics, some marketing whiz came up with the idea of spoon-feeding the public with these supposed finalists, apparently to build suspense.

That would be understandable, perhaps, if the end result could still be influenced following the disclosure of the finalists. However, that is not the case. It is just forced.


A staged award example that works

An example of how this kind of two-stage process works well is the motion picture industry. Annual Academy Award nominees are disclosed weeks in advance of the announcement ceremony, which is a really big deal, by the way.

One reason for its effectiveness is that once nominees in the various categories are disclosed, the general public is made aware of good movies and strong performances that we may have missed the first time around.

There is not only a buzz, but also an implied call to action.

We can then head to the local theatre and catch these notable films. The result is that everyone wins. We get to see more examples of fine cinema and the filmmakers make more money.

Contrast that with the Gold Glove process. There is no tangible benefit to be gained during the time between when the finalists are identified and the actual announcements.

Fans cannot go to games and see the best fielders do their thing, since the regular season concluded weeks earlier. Any discussion and debate about the relative merits of the “finalists” is wasted breath and keystrokes, because the voting deadline has passed.


The Gold Glove Award process has evolved before

Before I get into my proposal, another brief history lesson is needed to help set the stage.

Baseball created a major credibility crisis for its Gold Glove Award selection process when designated hitter Rafael Palmeiro took home the award in 1999, ahead of deserving candidates who actually played at first base on a daily basis. The winner appeared in the field in just 28 games that season.

Rafael Palmeiro (Getty Images)

While this was perhaps the worst example, it was far from an exception.

Here is a summary of data which illustrates that over 60 percent of the Gold Glove Award winners from 1988 through 2012 were not among the top two defenders at their position, according to the metrics.

With no substantive fielding data to guide them other than errors and fielding percentage, the voting managers and coaches frequently selected players who had good offensive years. MLB already has a parallel process to reward top hitters, the Silver Slugger Award, but the Gold Gloves were too often being given to the wrong players for the wrong reasons.

As advanced defensive metrics were developed and refined, more information on player defensive performance became available to all.

That evolved to the point that the SABR Defensive Index (SDI) was created – with the blending of five metrics which were given the importance of a 25 percent weighting in the Gold Glove Award selection process. Elevating the SDI essentially diluted the voters’ impact in naming the winners correspondingly.

Interim SDI results are published and shared with the public periodically throughout each season. Of course, the SDIs are also available to the voters. Whether or not they are really used when ballots are cast, however, is unknown.


The current system still has limitations

Even with the SDI helping to reduce the mistakes detailed above, more can and should be done.

Javier Baez (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports Images)

Voter prejudices still creep into the process. For example, at second base in the National League in 2018, Chicago’s Javier Baez was announced as a finalist – despite his SDI being a negative 0.5, placing him 10th of 14 qualifiers at the position.

In comparison, the top two NL second basemen in SDI, Colorado’s D.J. LeMahieu and St. Louis’ Kolten Wong, were first and second respectively in SDI at 19.5 and 13.8, respectively. Appropriately, they were also finalists. (Coming in third in SDI was Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies at 8.5, but he was a non-finalist.)

In reality, Baez was more of a utilityman that season, with a whopping 218 fewer chances at second base than the ultimate winner, LeMahieu. However, Baez’ reputation as a flashy defender, making regular highlight reel plays, clearly influenced voters.

Unfortunately, so must have the Cubs star’s prolific offense, as he drove in a league-leading 111 runs and finished second in the Most Valuable Player voting. That strong MVP showing and his Silver Slugger Award were the right ways to honor Baez’ standout 2018.

Making Baez a Gold Glove Award finalist was not appropriate, however. Yet, the voters’ bias overruled his poor showing in the 25 percent-weighted SDI.

Ultimately, LeMahieu edged runners-up Wong and Baez for the honor, his third. Detailed voting results are not announced, just SDIs, so we don’t know how close Baez came to winning ahead of the two more deserving finalists.


An improvement proposal

My idea is to make the finalist process actually count and do a better job selecting the winners – using the SDI to identify the finalists in advance of the voting.

The finalists would be disclosed to the public on or about September 1, using SDI data from the first five months of the season.

Fans who want to see these finalists in action would still have a month to head to the ballpark or tune in to do so. More importantly, media and fan dialogue about the merits of the various defenders might actually matter – potentially influencing the voters, who would still cast their ballots at season’s end.

In this process, the winners would return to being entirely selected by the voters’ results, like it used to be. The key difference is that the SDI would do its screening work up front, narrowing the voters’ choices to those fielders most deserving per the metrics. A Palmeiro would never make it as far as voter consideration.

A footnote is that there is not a wide variation in the ranking of the top SDI defenders during the season, especially in the latter stages. So, choosing the finalists a month early should not leave a deserving potential winner behind. However, if this became a concern, one response could be to expand the finalists to the top five in SDI, for example, rather than three.


Conclusion

I believe this proposal would utilize the SDI more effectively, strengthen the Gold Glove Award voting process, increase fan engagement, and yes, make the finalist process count!


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