It’s Gold Glove Season: Who Were the Top 2021 MLB Fielders (and How Does That Get Decided)?

by Deb Seymour

Back in 1999, a controversial gold glove for best defensive first baseman in the American League was awarded to All-Star Texas Ranger Rafael Palmeiro, who had played a grand total of 28 games at first base that year. He’d also been the designated hitter in 128 games for the Rangers that season — and was no doubt one of the most prolific hitters of the MLB steroid era — but as we all know, hitting ability does not a gold glover make. And yet Palmeiro had also won the gold glove in 1997 and 1998; and it almost seemed as if he won again in 1999 out of either sheer laziness on the parts of the voters or misplaced hero worship of a great player who really just shouldn’t have qualified that season.

Here was Palmeiro’s reaction in November 1999 upon finding out that he’d won the gold glove again that year:

“‘When I heard about it, I laughed,'” said Palmeiro, who nevertheless is expected to cash the $50,000 check he will receive because of a bonus clause in his contract with the Texas Rangers. “‘I guess people are respecting me for what I’ve done in the past'” (As quoted by Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1999).

More from Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune, same article: “…the real loser is probably Minnesota rookie Doug Mientkiewicz, who was statistically the best fielder. He committed only three errors in 110 games and compiled a .997 fielding percentage while ranking above average in range.”

Gold gloves are currently awarded by the following two sets of voters: (a) managers and coaches in the league (both AL and NL) (75% of the vote); and (b) the baseball sabermetrics community (25% of the vote). Back in 1999, however, the vote was all by the managers and coaches in the league. Palmeiro, therefore, was awarded his 1999 gold glove by the managers and coaches of Major League Baseball. The only caveat at the time was that managers and coaches could not vote for their own players, which holds true to this day.

Whatever you think of the voting process for gold glovers, sometimes the decision does come down to splitting hairs between the various stats that favor one candidate over another. To what degree voting managers and coaches use stats to determine their individual votes is not known; they are under absolutely no obligation to share their decision-making process. The portion of the vote that now rests with the sabermetrics community is probably in place to institute some more objectivity into the selection process; or, in other words, to try to prevent another 1999 AL first base gold glove type result. Other measures that Rawlings and MLB have now put in place to prevent the 1999 AL first base result include the following criteria:

Player Qualifications (See https://www.rawlings.com/gold-glove-criteria.html):

To qualify for consideration for a particular position, a player must have played a minimum number of games or innings (based on position) at that position.

  • All pitchers must have pitched in at least 141 innings by his team’s 141st game;
  • A catcher must have played in at least half of his team’s games by his team’s 141st game (a minimum of 71 games);
  • All infielders and outfielders must have played in the field for at least 713 total innings through his team’s 141st game: this equates to playing in the field for approximately 7.5 innings per game in approximately 67% of his team’s games by his team’s 141st game; this ensures that only full-time players are considered;
  • All infielders and outfielders with at least 713 total innings played qualify at the specific position where he played the most innings (i.e. where his manager utilized him the most)

Taking all this into account, this year’s gold glove finalist nominees in each of the American and National Leagues include the following players:

American League (Players’ names link to their stats and updates at CBS Sports)

National League (Players’ names link to their stats and updates at CBS Sports)

We’re not going to dissect the stats for each gold glove player-candidate in the space of this blog piece, especially since each player named here has already met the criteria for nomination as described above. One thing that is noteworthy about most of the position players, however, is that they are, for the most part, significant offensive contributors to their teams’ success, as well as being in the top categories in the league defensively. This is obviously no coincidence. Why is that, you ask? Because in order to meet the minimum number of innings played in the field by this year’s gold glove criteria, a gold glove nominee is not going to be an off-the-bench player, a minor leaguer briefly covering for an injured starter, or a September call-up. Thus, although some fill-in players have undoubtedly been excellent in the field, they simply do not qualify for a gold glove this year.

Which, in turn, brings us full circle — back to the 1999 American League first base gold glove, and its winner. There is no question that Rafael Palmeiro was an outstanding first baseman, as his two gold gloves from 1997 and 1998 attest. But, the lingering question about how much bias played into his 1999 gold glove remains, and will remain forever. Palmeiro was known as an incredible hitter, and won two silver slugger awards during his career. He was also a very popular player at the time. As stated by The Associated Press, November 9, 2010: “For years, some fans have viewed the Gold Gloves as mostly a popularity contest, even suggesting that a player’s performance at the plate helped draw extra attention to his glove.” This year’s player-candidate criteria are a strong attempt at diminishing the bias that goes into gold glove voting. And in about a week or two, we’ll see how much controversy was averted due to the innovations in Rawlings’ and MLB’s approach.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: