Can Brendan Ryan win the Gold Glove?
By Gary Hill
Can Brendan Ryan win the Gold Glove? This is a very different question than whether the Mariners shortstop should win the Gold Glove.
Ryan has been a wizard at shortstop this year. He gobbles up baseballs like he is playing a human version of “Hungry Hungry Hippos.” He patrols his position like a Cheetah, bolting from side to side and pouncing on any baseball that enters into his vast domain. He fires balls to first with such accuracy they appear to be equipped with some sort of advanced guidance system. He makes all the plays from routine to spectacular. He has been the best defensive shortstop in baseball this year.
Defensive statistics have been gaining in popularity over the past few years and the numbers back Ryan’s claim to the Gold Glove. Go to ESPN.com and find Defensive Wins Above Replacement (DWAR) and you will see Brendan Ryan at the very top (2.7) for shortstops. A metric developed by John Dewan called Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) also finds Ryan at the top (20). Visit FanGraphs.com and Ryan maintains the best Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150) in the American League (15.1).
If Ryan passes the eye test as the best shortstop in the American League and the numbers suggest the same, then why wouldn’t he win the Gold Glove? Keep in mind that Rafael Palmeiro won the 1999 Gold Glove at first base while playing a grand total of 28 times there. He appeared as the designated hitter 128 times and put together a monster offensive year, hitting .324 with 47 home runs and 148 RBIs.
Offense has traditionally been a strong factor in an award that is supposed to consider only defense.
Let us look at the history of AL Gold Gloves at shortstop through the eyes of UZR. UZR is the attempt to measure the number of runs a player is worth above or below average. In this case an average shortstop is zero. UZR/150 measures the rate per 150 games to help make the date more comparable. The problem is that the number is derived from where balls are hit so the data does not go back very far.
Since 2002 only one player who finished first in UZR actually won the Gold Glove at shortstop. For the past decade the award has essentially been a reward for offensive achievement, which is why Derek Jeter has claimed so many. Five of the past 10 winners have actually performed at a level below average according to UZR. In the table below you will find the Gold Glove winner by year along with their offensive numbers and UZR. You will see where they ranked in the AL along with who actually finished first in UZR.
UZR is not an invincible stat, but it firmly expresses the narrative of offense impacting Gold Glove voting the last 10 years.
However, offense has not always been a factor when looking at the Gold Glove winners at shortstop. Omar Vizquel captured the AL Gold Glove from 1993-2001. Vizquel had some nice offensive seasons during that stretch, but he also had years like 1993 (playing for Seattle) when he hit .255 with two homers and 31 RBIs. In 2001, he again batted .255 with two home runs and drove in 50. Longtime Baltimore Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger won the award in each season from 1973 to 1978. He hit .226, .225, .226, .270, .206 and .213, respectively. He tallied 11 homers total in those six seasons and drove in an average of 29.3 runs.
Perhaps the most striking example of an offensive season being completely ignored occurred in 1972. Ed Brinkman was a 30-year-old shortstop for the Detroit Tigers. He hit .203 with six homers and 49 RBIs. He only walked 38 times and did not steal a base. He was so special defensively that not only did he win the Gold Glove, but he finished ninth in AL MVP voting. Catfish Hunter won 21 games in 1972 and finished two spots behind Brinkman in voting. Hunter, as a pitcher, had a higher batting average than Brinkman (.219). Brinkman established the record for consecutive errorless games by a shortstop with 72 until Cal Ripken, Jr. broke it in 1990.
Brendan Ryan is hitting .195 with two homers and 28 RBIs this year. He is having a season defensively that deserves to be stamped in gold. Will he win the award? Voters will need to shake off the trend of considering offensive production and recall the days of Vizquel, Belanger and Brinkman.
Ironically, if Brendan Ryan is to win the Gold Glove then only one aspect must be considered … defense.