05 March 2020

Ken Griffey Jr. and NL Gold Glove Voting Trends

One of the more fun aspects of Joe Posnanski's run-down of the 100 greatest players of all time over at The Athletic is his tendency to go down into "rabbit holes".  He'll chase something that takes his fancy and the next thing you know you've learned about all the notable players named after US Presidents, or about the Negro Leagues, or about whether Warren Spahn really threw a screwball.  Or whatever.

Also, I like that these articles often send me off into some rabbit hole of my own, usually due to some throwaway line in the article. Thrown away only because (I imagine) - with 100 of these articles to write in 100 days - Joe simply does not have time to chase down every one of these esoteric little tidbits, not because he doesn't want to.

A few weeks ago it was about how/why Robin Roberts somehow did not win the 1952 NL MVP Award.  The answer to that, the three or four of you who may have read my blog post will recall, was that the sportswriters were dumb and inexplicably voted for relief pitchers with unusually high Win totals on the merits of they'd never seen that before.

Today's rabbit hole comes from the article on player #48, Ken Griffey Jr.


Griffey was traded to Cincinnati by request just 10 or so weeks after he turned 30. He was good in his first year with the Reds — he hit 40 homers and slugged .556 — but for the first time since he was a rookie, he did not win a Gold Glove.*

*The voters, oddly, gave a Gold Glove to Steve Finley instead. Look, over his career, Griffey won several Gold Gloves that, in retrospect, look questionable, but it’s entirely unclear how he could have lost the 2000 Gold Glove to Finley, who was playing with a bulging disc in his back and had well-below-average range that year.

So this got me to looking into the history of NL outfield Gold Glove Awards.

The first ones were given in 1957, but these were for all the major leagues.  Willie Mays won one, of course, but so did Al Kaline of the Tigers and Minnie Minoso of the White Sox.  The next year they split them up by leagues, and the NL winners were Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson.

In those days they actually assigned ones to Left, Center and Right field, though that would change in 1961 when they just started giving them to any three outfielders, which meant (usually) Roberto Clemente and two center fielders.  If you were assigned to Left, it was usually because you were not a good defender in the first place.

From 1961-68, the NL Awards went to Mays, Clemente and someone else, usually Curt Flood.  Those three won them six years in a row, the longest such stretch in history.  Fifteen years earlier, White America would have never even see those three play.  Think about that for a while. 

By 1969, Mays was 38, and played in only 117 games, so Pete Rose won "his" award.  Then Curt Flood got himself embroiled in a legal controversy you may have heard of, so he was no longer playing in 1970, and Tommie Agee won that award instead, along with Rose and Clemente.

In 1971, Rose and Agee were replaced by Bobby Bonds and Willie Davis.  And that is the last time until 1995 that two new players will the NL Gold Glove in the same year, almost a quarter of a century later.

You see, I think Griffey's failure to win the 2000 NL Gold Glove comes down to what you might call "institutional inertia".  The NL GG voters - managers and coaches - evidently rarely deviated much from whomever they had voted for last year. In the AL, though the number of different players winning Gold Glove awards in the outfield is nearly identical overall, there was a lot more year-to-year change than in the NL, for some reason. 

But for the NL, between 1962 and 2005, a span of 44 seasons, only three(!) times did two of the three outfield Gold Glove awards go to people who had not won it the previous year.  The first was the one I just mentioned.  The other two:

1995: Finley, Grissom, Mondesi (Grissom, Barry Bonds and Darren Lewis had won in 1994)
1997: Bonds, Mondesi and Larry Walker (following Bonds, Finley and Grissom in 1996)

And that's the end of the list.  In the other 41 seasons, no more than one change was made from the previous year, and seven times, no changes happened at all.

I don't know if this means that those players really were that dominant or if it means the managers and coaches were just lazy and generally voted for whomever they listed last year, unless that player changed leagues, or positions or died or something.  It's just an observation of a trend.

Anyway, as for the NL Gold Glove situation in Y2K...

In 1999, Finley, Andruw Jones and Larry Walker had won the NL Gold Gloves.

Jones, was, of course, AMAZING in CF with 3.8 dWAR, not that anyone knew this at the time, since that statistic did not exist yet, but they knew he was awesome.  That easily led all NL outfielders, which is to say that he deserved the award.  Finley was 3rd in dWAR (1.9), a good distance behind Mike Cameron (2.6), but deserving, nonetheless.  Larry Walker actually had the worst defensive season of his career in 1999, -1.2 dWAR, but he also threw out 13 runners in just 114 games, and those are the kinds of things voters remember, I suppose.

In 2000, well, Finley and Jones were both still healthy and productive but Larry Walker was injured (because of course he was...) so who should the third OF award go to?

If you look at dWAR among NL outfielders in 2000 (min 130 games), the top 3 were Jones (2.7), Tom Goodwin (1.4) and Griffey (1.3), with Richard Hidalgo (1.2) hot on their heels.   Edmonds was 11th, at 0.4 dWAR.  Finley was 18th (!), at exactly zero.  But voters can be fooled by recency bias and by SportsCenter, so here we are. 

The trouble, I think, was that Griffey joined the NL in the same year as Jim Edmonds - who simply *looked* a lot more exciting out there in CF, made more SportsCenter highlights, etc.  So, even though Griffey covered more ground, made more plays, etc., Edmonds had one more Assist, made one less Error, and that's as far as anyone probably looked at the numbers at that time.  They likely never even thought much about Goodwin or Hidalgo of the fact that The Kid made 24 more Put Outs in CF than Edmonds.

In 2006, the voting started to change in character.  With the advent of better measuring sticks for defense, voters started paying more attention, doing more homework as it were, and the voting became less of a popularity contest.  In 2011 they went back to awarding Left, Right and Center-fielders separately.  In 2013 they incorporated a sabermetric element to account for 25% of the vote weight.  And it's all helped.

In the 14 most recent seasons, i.e. since 2006, only three times have the NL Gold Gloves been awarded to two or more of the previous year's winners.  Just as many times, all three winners have been someone who did not win the previous year.  And every year since 2006 has seen at least one brand new name appear on the list of awards, including eight seasons with two new names.  Not just two who didn't win last year, but two who had never won before. 

But 20 years ago, none of that was happening.  Steve Finley was winning the award despite being exactly average on defense.  Rafael Palmeiro was winning the AL GG award for first base despite playing only 28 games there.  Jermaine Dye won an AL Gold Glove that year, and he was straight up terrible! (In fact he only had a positive dWAR in a full season once in his 14-year career!)  It was chaos!

So yes, Griffey probably deserved that award in 2000.  But since the same system had allowed him to win the award with a negative dWAR of his own twice (1992 and 1999) as well as in a season in which he played only 72 games (1995) perhaps the system does not owe him anything?


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