GO FOR THE SILVER, NOT THE GOLD

By Murray Chass

November 3, 2013

Operating on the old cautionary adage that says ungrammatically if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I can only conclude that Rawlings thought its Gold Glove awards were broken. Hillerich & Bradsby, on the other hand, finds nothing wrong with its Silver Slugger awards and sees no reason to fix them. Good for Messrs Hillerich and Bradsby.

Since 1957 the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company has awarded Gold Gloves to the players voted by major league managers and coaches as the best at their positions. Two years ago Rawlings added a Platinum Glove award in each league.Gold Glove 225

Now Rawlings has gone over to the dark side. Not only that, but the company has also gone off the deep end, embracing the kind of statistics that are at the center of baseball’s fiercest debate.

Rawlings has jumped into bed headfirst with SABR, those wild-eyed statistical analysts whom I will refrain from calling geeks or nerds because I suspect they’re proud of being viewed as geeks and nerds.

Kurt Hunzeker, Rawlings’ senior director of brand marketing, said he was “100 percent satisfied” with the results of the initial experience with the collaboration. Why did Rawlings pursue the collaboration?

“It was getting to the point where not only were advanced statistics more available,” Hunzeker said, “but also more widely used. We wanted to marry the art of fielding, what managers and coaches see every day, to the science of baseball, what you see above and beyond the eye.”

For those who follow such things, you will be pleased – and relieved – to know that Hillerich & Bradsby, manufacturer of the Louisville Slugger and sponsor of the Silver Slugger awards, does not plan to mess with the awards for the best hitters.

Rick Redman, vice president of corporate communications said in an e-mail:

“Silver Slugger Awards are still determined by a vote of managers and coaches from opposing teams. Each team is provided with four ballots. Managers and coaches are not permitted to vote for players on their own team. We have not considered adding sabermetrics and it has not been suggested by anyone that we do.

“We, and most in baseball, to our knowledge, are perfectly happy with the way Silver Slugger Award winners are determined. Managers and coaches know the performance numbers of opposing players as well as the intangibles each player brings to the plate and the base paths. We like keeping subjectivity in the awards. Things like how hitters work the count. How they battle at the plate to foul off and stay alive to work a pitcher into a 10 or 12 pitch at bat. How a hitter works to disrupt a pitcher’s rhythm.

“With the Silver Slugger Awards, there’s an element of, ‘who would you want at the plate battling for you, or who is that guy you hate to face, the guy who just drives you nuts because he can hurt you?’ Sabermetrics can’t measure that. Could the way we determine the winners change in the future? Sure, anything is possible. But there’s no outcry for us to change and I think that’s because the managers and coaches typically get the Silver Slugger Award winners right.”

Silver SluggerI applaud the Silver Slugger people for holding the line on their traditional method. In this day and age, analytics are making an inroad. I acknowledge that in forming a relationship with Rawlings to help determine Gold and Platinum Glove winners, SABR has taken its biggest step to date in gaining popular attention.

It had become apparent in recent years of voting for post-season awards and the Hall of Fame that so-called analytics were gaining influence. Pitchers, such as Felix Hernandez, have won the Cy Young award despite questionable won-lost records. Bert Blyleven, whom I and many others did not vote for in his 14 years on the writers’ Hall of Fame ballot, was elected finally as a result of the new-age statistics.

Now players are winning Gold Gloves at least partly on the basis of what has been named the SABR Defensive Index (SDI). The index is determined by three metrics (that word itself makes me think of a fingernail scraping a blackboard) as outlined in a Rawlings news release:

“The three metrics representing batted ball data include DRS (from Baseball Info Solutions), UZR (developed by sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman), and runs effectively defended (created by SABR’s Chris Dial). The two metrics included in the SDI from play-by-play data are defensive regression analysis, created by committee member Michael Humphreys, and total zone rating.”

Or how about this from another news release:

“The SABR Defensive Index draws on and aggregates two types of existing defensive metrics: those derived from batted ball, location-based data and those collected from play-by-play accounts. The three metrics representing batted ball data include Defensive Runs Saved from Baseball Info Solutions, Ultimate Zone Rating developed by noted sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman, and Runs Effectively Defended built by SABR Defensive Committee member Chris Dial. The two metrics included in the SDI originating from play-by-play data are Defensive Regression Analysis, created by committee member Michael Humphreys, and Total Zone Rating.”

The idea is to have the SDI complement the vote of the managers and coaches, accounting for 30 total votes, or, Hunzeker said, about 25 percent of the total vote. Hunzeker declined to say how or if the SDI affected the outcome of the vote at any position.

In addition to the advent of the SDI, managers and coaches received guides, which you can be sure were filled with SABR statistics. The SABR treasury, you can also be sure, is now filled with Rawlings money.

A colleague, who alerted me to the SABR development, characterized the Rawlings explanation of the new format an e-mail this way: “GOLD GLOVE GOBBLEDY GOOP. HELP!”

I’d like to provide a translation of SDI in English, but it is beyond me, which doesn’t surprise me since I learned that not even the Rawlings executive in charge of the Gold Gloves can help.

After listening to Hunzeker give details of the format, I asked him if he could explain how the various metrics are computed. I mean I can figure out a batting average and an earned run average, but how do I do DRS and UZR?

“I couldn’t tell you what goes into wins above replacement,” Hunzeker said, citing what is probably the best known acronym (WAR) in the world of alien alphabetics.

Probably the best known mistake ever made in the Gold Gloves voting occurred in 1999 when Rafael Palmeiro won for first base in the American League even though he started only 28 games at first that season while serving as designated hitter in 128 games.

The managers and the coaches clearly erred, but Rawlings could have fixed it recognizing the mistake and asking the managers and coaches to vote again for that one position.

Perhaps we can call this development the Palmeiro punishment.

ROSE MAKES SENSE

I can’t imagine there could be too many things I would agree with Pete Rose about, but he said in a television interview last week baseball shouldn’t ban collisions at home plate, and I agree.

“You can’t eliminate that. If the catcher blocks the plate, that’s what is going to happen,” Rose told Keith Olbermann. “In the case with myself and Ray Fosse, he had the plate blocked. I started to slide head-first. And if I slide, I’m going to break both collar bones.”Pete Rose Ray Fosse

Rose referred to his memorable collision with Fosse that ended the 12-inning All-Star game in 1970 and wrecked Fosse’s career.

Rose might have been the only player who would have barreled into Fosse in that meaningless situation – in an All-Star game – but no matter what game it is, what’s a runner to do, give himself up? Why the runner? Why not tell the catcher to step aside and let the runner score unchallenged? Why should the fielder throw the ball at all?

Put in a rule that says if the ball beats the runner to the plate, he’s out? If the runner beats the ball to the plate, the catcher steps aside and doesn’t make a play?

How about putting a runner’s plate in and telling the runners they have to use that while the catcher uses the regular plate and the umpire judges whether the runner is safe or out? Then they can use replay to determine if the umpire made the right call.

I remember years ago in one of my softball leagues our third baseman was spiked by a sliding runner. The league decided after that to ban metal spikes. Another time I slid at home, didn’t try to collide with the catcher but apparently hit him just right and he wound up with a broken rib.

My feeling is when a person, professional or amateur, competes in a sporting event, he takes and accepts risks.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, a former catcher himself, and Oakland general manager Billy Beane are among those who have told their catchers to stay out of harm’s way. I don’t know if there has been a play in a major league game where a catcher has avoided a collision by stepping out of the way of the runner, but if a catcher were to do that, his reputation wouldn’t be worth much.

NEOPHYTE NEEDS GOOD LUCK

Since his team lost the only game he has managed, I can think of only one thing to say to Brad Ausmus upon his appointment as manager of the Detroit Tigers: Mazel tov.

Brad Ausmus IsraelAusmus, former long-time major league catcher, was reported over the weekend to be succeeding the retiring Jim Leyland as manager of the Detroit Tigers.

Ausmus, 44 years old, has never managed in the majors or the minors, but he managed Israel’s baseball team last Sept. 23 in its qualifying game for the World Baseball Classic. The Israelis lost to Spain, 9-7, in 10 innings.

Ausmus, in his managerial debut, might have been a victim of bad timing. Had Israel played in the November qualifying round, Ausmus could possibly have used Jewish major leaguers, such as Ike Davis, Ian Kinsler, Craig Breslow, Scott Feldman and Sam Fuld.

But for his next managerial assignment, Ausmus will have Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. He thus will need less mazel – luck – than he needed with Team Israel.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.