Golden Gloves For The Arizona Outfield?

Efforts to combine Parra's arm, Young's reliability and Upton's range had mixed results. Maybe using a super-collider was a mistake...

In lieu, for obvious reasons, of examining playoff scenarios, figured I could look at one of the post-season awards. For there has been a significant change to the Gold Glove rules this year. In previous seasons, Gold Gloves were given to three outfielders, but there was no requirement to be left-, center-and right-fielders. The result was usually a parade of those up the middle. Since 2000, of the 34 outfielders in the NL to receive an award [a 2007 ties resulted in four outfielders being honored], 28 were primarily center-fielders. Since 2005, the only corner outfielders to break the stranglehold have been Jeff Francoeur in 2007 and Carlos Gonzalez last year.

But this year, voters are required to select one man at each position - and eligibility will be enforced by a minimum number of games at the position. Given Arizona perhaps possess the best all-around outfield in the majors, might his mean a better chance of a Gold Glove for Gerardo Parra, Chris Young and Justin Upton? Or maybe even all three?

UZR stands for 'Ultimate Zone Rating', and is an attempt to measure how many runs a given fielder saves over the average player, for his position and year. If you want to know more specific details, Fangraphs has a detailed primer, and they also track the stat on their site throughout the season. If you want to skip to the meat, here's the list of the best outfielders in the National League this year. Coming in at number three is is Justin Upton, with a 10.1 UZR. Second, is Chris Young, at 10.4. And leading all NL outfielders this season? That would be Gerardo Parra, far ahead of the pack with a 15.0 UZR.

Yes, you read that correctly. By UZR, Arizona has the three best outfielders in the league. If Gold Gloves were given out purely on the basis of UZR, it would be a clean sweep for the Diamondbacks. That would be utterly unprecedented in the history of the award, in either league - it's fairly rare for even two outfielders to come from the same team, in part because of the bias towards multiple center fielders noted previously. The last time it happened in the National League was 2007, when Andruw Jones joined Francoeur from the Atlanta Braves. Before that, you're looking at the 1994 Giants, back when Barry Bonds didn't have the range of a rockery.

Now, I know some readers are probably rolling their eyes at the thought of Justin Upton being a Gold Glove winner. Parra, certainly, and Young has been as reliable as ever next to up. But Upton? After all, his 13 errors are easily the most in the majors by an outfielder - the Mets' Angel Pagan is the only other player to have more than eight. However, UZR does take this, and the occasional misfiring of the JUpzooka,  into account. His UZR includes -3.1 for his arm and -3.9 for his errors. But in the third component - range - Upton is just so crazy good, at +17.0, that it more than outweighs his faults.

One of the things the Diamondbacks are particularly good at, is making what are called 'Out of Zone' (OOZ) plays. A fielder's zone is defined as the area where an average fielder would turn a ball hit there into an out, 50% of more of the time. Good fielders will be considerably above this number: Chris Young turns 93.8% of balls hit into his zone into outs, and the best in the league is Shane Victorino, who is at 95.8%. But the Diamondbacks do extraordinarily well at making plays on balls not in their zone. In fact, the top three by OOZ plays are...  Parra (103), Young (112) and Upton (119). That would be, in part, why Upton's range is ranked so highly: he gets to more balls than anyone. 

UZR is just one measure. A couple of weeks ago, Amit wrote a good piece, pointing out the discrepancies in some cases, particularly CY, between the various metrics, and also suggesting that part of the reason for the team's great overall UZR numbers, is that we have a pitching staff that generates a lot of fly balls [at 0.72 our GB/FB rate is the lowest in the majors]. However, UZR does seem to analyze things deeper than some of the other scales e.g. FRAA, and the breakdown for the individuals concerned does pass the smell test, largely matching the evidence of my eyes, such as Parra having one of the best arms in the league.

Obviously, Gold Gloves are not just handed out purely on the basis of UZR either. They are voted on by managers and coaches, and you can't vote for those on your own team. But how does a manager fairly judge a player he might have seen, outside of MLB Network highlights, only half a dozen times? Prior reputation - justified or not - definitely has as much to do with it as objective evaluation. It's probably the case that, while most of us could make a decent stab at naming the best pitchers or hitters in the league, I'm not sure there would be anywhere near as great a consensus as to the best fielders.

Other factors cloud things even further, such as offensive production, which tends to be taken into account too. For example, Carlos Gonzalez's Gold Glove last year was probably due as much to him hitting .336 with 34 HR, not his UZR of -0.9, and Bill James' Plus/Minus scale also rating him sub-average. This time, he may be hurt by the new rules, having played barely 60 games at any position. In fact, he may not even qualify - I've read the new rules several times, and am still uncertain. But even if he does make the ballot, will voters overlook those who played full-time in left-field, in favor of a nomadic part-timer? 

In terms of offense, Upton has no reason to fear at all, but Moneyball has yet to influence Gold Glove ballots much, and voters will likely see Young's .235 average, rather than his above-average on-base percentage. Parra's chances would certainly be boosted if he could reach .300 or double-digits in home-runs. However, Upton's errors may work against him. Overall, it's hard to say which of the three has the best chance of picking up our first outfield Gold Glove since Steve Finley patrolled the grass at BOB.

There's also possibly a problem of geography, with an apparently increasing bias against the West. Perhaps East coast managers are in bed by the time the West coast highlights are shown, so names of the players responsible are less likely to stick in the mind. Over the past two years, across both leagues, only seven of the 36 Gold Gloves on offer went to teams playing in the Western divisions - and Ichiro was responsible for a pair of those. If you go back to, say, 1998 and 1999, you don't see this: in each season there, the West won six of 18, which is basically what you'd expect from an even distribution.

Parra seems the most likely to merit consideration. As well as the advanced metrics, he leads his position in assists and is ranked top five there in fielding percentage, having committed only two errors the entire season. He also has perhaps the best highlight-reel of the trio, and that'll be helpful, given it's probably what the majority of managers and coaches will rely on to make their judgment. Young is more steady, but his average will work against him and he has a lot tougher competition at his position, while Upton's errors might overshadow his counterweight of talent. Still, its nice to see us having three outfielders who are worthy of serious consideration

[All stats up to the end of Wednesday]

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