To read the reactions to Derek Jeter's selection as the Gold Glove shortstop in the American League on Tuesday, you'd have thought that voters had only two choices. Something like, check box A for Jeter, and box B for Not Jeter.
It's perfectly fine, and reasonable, to argue that Jeter was not the best choice. By nearly any objective measure, he was quite clearly not the best defensive shortstop in the Junior Circuit in 2010. But there were 14 choices (at least), not two. If not Jeter, then who?
And that's sort of the problem. It's not entirely obvious.
By the eyeball test, it's likely Texas' Elvis Andrus. No shortstop in the league is more spectacular to watch or has more prodigious tools for playing the position. But there's a reason that defensive statistics are kept -- the eyeball test tells you a lot, but not everything. By the numbers, Andrus suffers. Not as badly as Jeter, but he suffers.
According to the numbers, the answer is Chicago's Alexei Ramirez, though it's not cut and dried. Ramirez, 29, turned defensive tools into consistent performance this year, topping the charts in three sets of rankings and coming up near the top in one other.
Ramirez still made plenty of errors in 2010, but hopefully we're finally at a point where we're learning that errors don't even begin to tell the story. To make errors, you have to get to the ball. And Ramirez assuredly did that.
"He had a lot more errors than most people who won Gold Gloves, but some of the balls he got to, other people wouldn't have got to," said teammate Mark Buehrle, who won the Gold Glove as the top defensive pitcher in the AL. "A lot of errors he made were balls other guys wouldn't have even got to."
The numbers lay it out pretty starkly. By Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs, Ramirez was a staggering 47.64 runs above average at shortstop in 2010. By comparison, Jeter was 22.32 runs below average. That's almost exactly 70 runs difference, an absolutely mind-boggling gap. It's essentially seven wins over the course of the season.
AL GOLD GLOVE WINNERS
The American League winners of the Rawlings Gold Glove Awards, with the number of Gold Gloves each has won in his career.
Joe Mauer, Twins
Mark Teixeira, Yankees
Robinson Cano, Yankees
Evan Longoria, Rays
Derek Jeter, Yankees
Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
Carl Crawford, Rays
Franklin Gutierrez, Mariners
Mark Buehrle, White Sox
The A's Cliff Pennington and Seattle's Josh Wilson ranked second and third, respectively, among full-season AL shortstops, both coming in just a tick under 36 runs. Andrus was seventh at a little over 16.
The caveat, of course, is that any one defensive metric is undeniably fallible. The way to get a good picture is to look at a lot of them. Prospectus' numbers are the most extreme. According to the widely respected plus-minus system used by the Fielding Bible, Ramirez is still the choice, and it's again not very close. Plus-minus rated Ramirez tops among AL shortstops at a plus-20, or 20 plays made above the average shortstop.
Plus-minus is a video-based system, one in which a human looks at every ball hit to a player, and thus is easier to swallow for many folks than some other numbers. According to plus-minus, Jeter was a minus-17 in 2010. Ramirez rated 10 plays ahead of the next-best full-season AL shortstop, Ramon Santiago of the Tigers. Andrus rated right about average, at plus-1.
The always controversial UZR, kept by Fangraphs, once again rated Ramirez at the top, but in a close race. Per UZR, Ramirez was 10.8 runs above average, with Pennington the slightest of margins behind at 9.9. Andrus was almost exactly average, while Jeter's score was -4.7.
Starting to see a trend here? The exception is Total Fielding Runs, kept at BaseballReference.com, where Ramirez ranked third. He was worth nine runs above average, with Wilson at 12 and Pennington 11. Andrus scored a two, again showing just above average, while Jeter was dead last at -10.
And that's really the thing. That's why the defensive stats, in this case, have some merit. It's popular to rail against UZR because it doesn't rank Mark Teixeira highly. But when every system says virtually the same thing, they're probably on to something. One system can have a blind spot, but all of them? Reaching the same conclusion by varying means? It almost assuredly tells you something.
To the eye, Ramirez was maybe the second-best shortstop in the league, depending. By the numbers, he was overwhelmingly the best. Either would have been a defensible choice, as would Wilson or Pennington.
It's not a matter of not-Jeter, who is a great player and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. It's simply this: All four were better than Jeter, and any would have been a defensible choice to win the Gold Glove.