The Gold Gloves were handed out this week, and without Derek Jeter as a finalist, we were prepared for a controversy-free awards. We were wrong. Mike Trout, the statistical darling who’s totally going to lose the MVP to Miguel Cabrera, couldn’t even get named his league’s best center fielder, losing out to Baltimore’s Adam Jones. Cue the uproar.
The tag on Trout is that he’ll get to any ball that’s hit remotely his way—good instincts, good positioning, good first jump, blinding speed. If it’s physically possible to track down, Trout hauled it in. This is an indisputable point, for both the sabermetrics crowd and the old school: Your eyes tell you he’s great, and the stats back it up. In 110 games in center, Trout racked up a Range Factor (RF) of 2.70, and saved 12.9 Range Runs (RngR) above the average. We’ll get into what those actually mean shortly, but both are knockout numbers.
Adam Jones is fast too, and sure-handed, but he’s something of a statistical anomaly. His range factor, at 2.75, was actually slightly better than Trout’s. But his RngR is atrocious. Playing all 162 games in center, Jones actually cost his team 7.7 runs.
Here’s where we need to get into what those specific metrics actually mean. Range factor is a Bill James creation, it’s relatively simple. It’s putouts plus assists, divided by innings, multiplied by nine. It’s a measure of pure volume: catch more balls, and your RF goes up. You’re penalized for not being able to run down a drive to the gap, but you’re also penalized for a ground ball that you have no shot at. It’s flawed, but since opportunities tend to normalize over a large enough sample size, it’s usually an effective thumbnail of a fielder’s range. (And arm, but that’s fairly negligible.)
Range Runs, meanwhile, is the range component of UZR, a fairly complicated formula that’s supposed to take into account every aspect of a fielder’s worth. In basic terms, RngR divides the field up into zones, and determines how many balls hit into a player’s zone he’s able to track down. So if Range Factor measures how many balls a player gets to, RngR tells you how many balls he gets to that he could have. Unsurprisingly, these two metrics often disagree. A few years back, Beyond the Box Score took a look at the discrepancy, and used as its poster boy…Adam Jones.
We’re forced to consider the possibility that Trout’s been punished by factors completely out of his control: the ranges of the outfielders playing next to him. The Angels essentially had three center fielders in their outfield this year, with the excellent Vernon Wells playing the lion’s share of innings in left, and the still-capable Torii Hunter in right. Wells’s RngR this year was 4.5; Hunter’s 1.8.
Compare this to Baltimore, which because of trades and injuries had an assortment of corner outfielders flanking Jones. Xavier Avery, and later Nate McClouth patrolled left, each with a RngR of 0.2. In right for 102 games was Nick Markakis, with a RngR of -8.7. (His replacement, Chris Davis, put up a 0.2.)
In Baltimore, a ball hit to no-man’s-land tended to drop in, damaging Jones’s RngR but not affecting his Range Factor. In Anaheim, someone usually tracked it down—more often than not it was Trout, but he had plenty of help in the gaps.
It’s unlikely that the Gold Glove voters, the managers and coaches of the league, took these numbers into account when making their selections. But it’s quite possible that their eyes were leading them astray. They saw Jones haul in ball after ball, and if one got past him, they chalked it up as uncatchable. Meanwhile Trout, who got to just about everything that was humanly possible, suffered in perception because Wells and Hunter took away many of his chances.
Or maybe I’m overthinking this; Gold Gloves voters are stupid. They probably gave Jones the award because Trout spent April in the minors and started 29 games in left.