Nate McLouth had a breakout season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, batting .276/.356/.497, with 26 homers and 94 RBIs. McLouth, who earned the Pirates’ starting center field job in spring training, made his first All-Star team while emerging as a legitimate offensive force. In 152 games, he collected 46 doubles and four triples, scored 113 runs and posted a solid .853 OPS to lead his team in every major offensive statistical category.
McLouth played all three outfield positions throughout the year, serving as the only regular outfielder on the Pirates to remain with the club through the full season. Jason Bay and Xaxier Nady, of course, were dealt to contenders in exchange for prospect packages before the trade deadline. He spent the majority of his time in center, though, and finished second among major qualifying major league outfielders with a .997 fielding percentage. In 1300.1 innings, he collected 380 putouts, sixth among center fielders in all of baseball, while making only one error and compiling five assists.
For these numbers, it seems, the coaches and managers rewarded McLouth, 27, with his first career Rawlings Gold Glove Award on Wednesday afternoon. He joined Carlos Beltran of the New York Mets and Shane Victorino of the Philadelphia Phillies as Gold Glove recipients for outfielders in the National League. Unlike Beltran, though, he did not deserve the award, and, in all honesty, should not have been seriously considered.
In John Dewan’s plus/minus defensive rankings—perhaps the most valuable metric used to evaluate defensive value—McLouth ranked as the least effective defender at center field in the majors. He finished with a -40 rating, which was the worst total among all outfielders overall as well.
Beltran, on the other hand, finished with a +24 rating. The New York star, who was recognized by Bill James in the 2008 Fielding Bible Awards, had a fine year roaming the gaps in the final year at Shea Stadium.
It gets worse for McLouth, though. According to Baseball Prospectus’ defensive data, he was 17 runs worse than the average major league center fielder. He also finished 11th in range factor and 17th in zone rating.
Essentially, McLouth has terrible range, and did not convert as many balls hit into a certain area as nearly every other player at the center field position. Which is what matters most. While he was sure handed in the plays that were hit near where he was positioned, he had a difficult time getting to balls out of his zone.
Clearly, the coaches and managers relied on three things to make their decision here: subjective opinions (what they saw with their eyes, in the brief encounters that they had against the Pirates), his offensive output (which should not play a factor in the decision process for a fielding award) and traditional (and meaningless, on their own sometimes) statistics like fielding percentage, which does not account for balls that certain players cannot get to due to poor range.
The Gold Glove award system has lost a lot of its prestige in recent years. First, there was the voters' egregious error during the Rafael Palmeiro fiasco in 1999, when the Texas Rangers slugger played in only 28 games at first base yet somehow managed to take home the prize at his position.
Then, in several instances in the past decade, many outstanding offensive players, and mediocre fielders, earned the hardware based on their offensive output and reputation. Russell Martin, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ backstop, provides a recent example, in 2007, when Yadier Molina was so far superior behind the plate that it was almost comical.
Yet again, even though there is still not perfect metric out there to evaluate defense yet, objective data has proven to be more useful than relying on subjective images and overrated traditional stats.
And, with every McClouth gaffe, winning a Gold Glove Awards become less of an honor on a player’s resume.
Full List of Gold Glove Winners:
P: Greg Maddux, Los Angeles Dodgers—Although Maddux is terrible at holding runners on, he fields his position like a seasoned infielder. Expected to retire, this marks his 18th, and likely final, Gold Glove award, which is by far a major league record. The 42-year-old future Hall of Famer finished second in all of baseball, behind only Kenny Rogers of the Detroit Tigers, in John Dewan’s plus/minus system (+14).
C: Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals—Molina deserved to win the award in 2007 as well, but the voters do deserve some credit for finally getting it right this year. The 26-year-old backstop, who recently won the Bill James Fielding Bible Award and was named the best defensive catcher in the majors, was one of five first-time winners.
1B: Adrian Gonzalez, San Diego Padres—Gonzalez had an incredible season offensively for the Padres, posting an excellent .871 OPS in spacious Petco Park. For this reason, he tends to get overlooked overall while playing in a small market. As far as this award goes, however, he is not the most deserving candidate for the first base position in the National League. Again, it seems, his fielding percentage (.996, which tied for first in the Senior Circuit, with the most chances) played a huge factor here, allowing Gonzalez to win his first Gold Glove.
But some under-the-radar guy named Albert Pujols actually should have won the award. Pujols, a three-time Fielding Bible Award winner, ranked among leaders at the position in nearly every defensive category, advanced to traditional. A sensational athlete, he posted a +20 ranking in the Dewan system, second in the game at first base behind Mark Teixeira, and the highest range factor and zone rating at the position in his league. Throw in Pujols’ 1.013 OPS and a likely M.V.P award and it truly is difficult to make a case for anyone else as the best player in baseball at this point.
2B: Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati Reds—No complaints here, as Phillips is arguably the majors’ best defensive second baseman. One could make the case for Mark Ellis or Chase Utley, but the former shortstop was the lone bright spot in the Reds’ atrocious infield defense. Like Gonzalez, McLouth and Molina, he is a first-time winner. Unless he moves back to shortstop, his original position while rising up the ladder as a prospect in the Cleveland Indians’ farm system, adding Gold to his trophy case may become an annual occurrence for him.
3B: David Wright, New York Mets—Wright gets a lot of flack in New York for his errant throws, but that unfair criticism is seriously misguided. While there were not any sensational wizards at the hot corner in the N.L. this year as most of the third base leaders in the Dewan system played in the other league, the Mets star infielder is a decent choice.
However, Pedro Feliz, Troy Glaus, Chipper Jones and Ryan Zimmerman would all be solid options here as well.
SS: Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia Phillies—Rollins is the best defensive shortstop in the game, with soft hands, excellent range and a plus throwing arm. With his presence at short, Pedro Feliz at third base and Utley at second, the Phillies have a solid defensive infield, even with Ryan Howard at first base. Bill James and co. recently rewarded the switch-hitting SS the Fielding Bible Award as well. He ranked first among N.L. shortstops in fielding percentage (.988), third in range factor (4.52) and second in zone rating (.855).
Rollins also finished first among all major league shortstops with a +23 rating in the Dewan system. Case closed.
OF: Carlos Beltran, New York Mets—Best defensive center fielder in the game.
OF: Nate McLouth, Pittsburgh Pirates—For those who have a poor short-term memory, reread the main story above.
OF: Shane Victorino, Philadelphia Phillies—Victorino is solid, with above-average range (.899 zone rating, second among CF behind Corey Patterson), but this decision is a bit questionable as well. Cody Ross, of the Florida Marlins, and Chris Young, the center fielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks, each ranked higher in Dewan’s system. Young, in particular, seems more deserving.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.