For quite some time, the Gold Glove awards have recognized a defensive player with a good reputation who also happens to be an excellent hitter. They aren’t uniformly off target, but there have been many, many instances of in which the award was given to a much worse defensive player than the best eligible candidate. This year, the Gold Gloves welcomed in some advanced defensive data into the awards process and things looked quite a bit better.
For example, in the AL, eight of the nine awards in 2013 went to players who were either the best defender at their position or close to it according to most of the different ways of evaluating defense. That’s excellent progress and something worth celebrating. But there is a holdover that’s difficult to explain. Adam Jones, who rates as a below average defender by most of the major metrics, won his third career Gold Glove.
This isn’t an article about the Gold Glove awards because that would be dated and boring, but rather an evaluation of Jones as a defender. The numbers point strongly in one direction and my own evaluation does the same; are we missing something that the managers who vote on the award are seeing or is this just a case of a reputation getting a life of its own?
Let’s start with some data. If we look to Jones’ Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in center field over the last five seasons, he’s been 9 to 14 runs worse than the average defender at the position. By Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) he’s been 3 to 9 runs worse than the average defender at the position. By Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), he’s ranged from 18 below average to 15 above average. In other words, most of the information we have suggests that he isn’t a good defender relative to other center fielders.
If we break it down further, DRS and UZR knock him heavily for his range and give him credit for his arm. The data is telling us that Jones doesn’t turn batted balls into outs particularly well, but when it’s time to use his arm to cut down a baserunner, he does so very effectively.
If we turn to Revised Zone Rating (RZR), which tells us the percentage of batted balls in a player’s defensive zone he turned into outs, the trend holds. The average center fielder turned 92.5% of batted balls in their zone into outs in 2013; Jones got to only 89.9%. He’s also been on the way down from 92.1% over the last five seasons.
Of the 21 center fielders who played at least 800 innings in 2013, Jones ranks dead last in RZR. None of these metrics are perfect, but when you see this much agreement among them, it’s a strong signal they’re picking up on something meaningful. Especially when we’re looking at five years of data.
So the question we need to ask is if there is something about Jones’ defense that the numbers are getting wrong and the managers who vote are getting right? I’m not going to argue that Jones is a terrible defensive player – I’m not confident enough about my evaluation to be so bold, but I feel plenty confident that he isn’t one of the best. But during each of the last two seasons, managers voted him as the best center fielder in the game (prior to 2011, managers just voted for three outfielders). Let’s try to visualize it.
These spray charts from FanGraphs are in their infancy, but my impression here is that the Jones makes his share of mistakes on balls reasonably close to the center of his zone. His geographic range seems to be pretty good in terms of how much ground he can cover, but within that range he occasionally takes bad routes and ends up missing a pretty easy ball.
This is also one of those times in which Fielding Percentage betrays you. He only made two errors (.995 FP) in 2013, but he fell victim to the “play not made” much more often. Taken together, we can start to see why Jones does well with the manager vote. He has a good arm, he can go a long way to get to a ball, and if you check his basic stat sheet, he doesn’t make a ton of errors. Jones’ major flaw is that he doesn’t convert all of the plays that he should. If you’re a manager who only sees him 10 to 15 times per season, it’s easy to miss that nuance.
Guys like Colby Rasmus, Leonys Martin, and Jacoby Ellsbury all rated very well in 2013 but came up short in the voting. Even Trout, Gardner, Bourn, and Jackson have good reputations and had better seasons that Jones in 2013. Part of this is probably some offensive bias as Jones hits for average and power (although he seems afraid to take a walk), but Trout is easily his superior at the dish.
Jones is a good player, but it’s hard to make the case that he’s the best defensive center fielder in the AL two years running. That said, he’s good at things that managers remember and hides his flaws pretty well. It might be worth moving him to a corner spot in the near future, but that also seems almost impossible considering the seemingly meaningful fact that he’s won back to back Gold Gloves in center.