It’s not only postseason chase time, it’s awards time. Lots of folks are proclaiming their choices for MVP (my picks: Derek Jeter and Carlos Beltran; yeah, yeah, I have an East Coast bias) and Cy Young (my picks: Johan Santana and Brandon Webb) awards. Okay, I admit that I don’t get to vote for MVP or the Cy Young, but one of the pleasures of my little gig at the Hardball Times is that I get to work with John Dewan, the author of last year’s Fielding Bible, and he’s giving me an opportunity to fill out a ballot for him.
I edited many of the player comments in the Fielding Bible, and John was nice enough to ask me to participate in a new voting system he’s started this year, the Fielding Bible Defensive Awards. The Fielding Bible stats for 2006 will be covered in this year’s Hardball Times Annual and Bill James Handbook, and John is adding a wrinkle: He’s asked ten renowned baseball observers to select the best fielders in the majors this year (No, I’m not one of the ten and I’m certainly not renowned. We’ll get to my role in a minute).
This is essentially an acknowledgement that fielding stats can only take you so far, and the naked eye is an important supplement to even the most sophisticated fielding analysis. The results of the voting will be available in the Handbook, supplementing the player fielding statistics. The voting panel includes Bill James, Rob Neyer, Mat Olkin and Hal Richman, and I’ll be a backup “tiebreaker” (along with a few other folks) in case of a tie. By the way, Tangotiger’s Fan’s Scouting Report will also be included as “one” of the ten voters, so go on over and fill in a form for your favorite team if you haven’t already. Then, you’ll be able to call yourself a Fielding Bible expert.
One of the benefits of participating in the voting is that I’ve gotten an early look at this year’s “Fielding Bible stats,” plus a few other goodies. I can’t share those with you (something about my first-born son), but I can let you know who I’m going to be voting for, based on my own naked eye and, yes, stats. Here we go …
Many of the best first basemen are in the American League, but the best of all is Albert Pujols. People tend to forget that Pujols was a third baseman at one time, and his range and instincts at first are top-notch. If Pujols were to beat Beltran for the MVP, I wouldn’t be very upset. Honorable mention goes to Lance Berkman and Nomar Garciaparra, a first-time first baseman. And don’t forget that Derrek Lee and his fine glove spent most of the year on the sidelines.
The American League’s fine first basemen include “old timers” Mark Teixeira, Doug Mientkiewicz and Travis Lee, as well as the Red Sox’s Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis, another former third baseman like Pujols, had an excellent year in the field exhibiting fine range, handling bunts well and just generally making heads-up plays.
At this point, I’m leaning toward voting for Mientkiewicz due to his consistency over his entire career. But you could talk me into voting for Teixeira or Youkilis.
There were a number of surprises at second base this year. First of all, neither Castillo (Jose or Luis) made my top ten list. Secondly, the Mets’ Jose Valentin had the best statistical year of any major league second baseman, including a Zone Rating of .875 (major league average was .819). Valentin is a former shortstop (and he was always underrated there) so his fine year at second isn’t a total surprise.
But my vote for the best NL second sacker goes to Chase Utley, who was only a bit behind Valentin in range, turns the double play better, and was third overall in 2005. Historical consistency counts. Honorable mention goes to the Rockies’ Jamey Carroll. Statistically, Orlando Hudson had a bit of an off year, though I expect him to pick it back up in 2007.
In the American League, Toronto’s Aaron Hill gets my vote. Hill has great range in both directions and had a superb year turning double plays. Honorable mention goes to Mark Grudzielanek (the Royals had a pretty decent right side of the infield) and Mark Ellis.
If you read the Hardball Times Team page, you probably know that the National League has better infielders than the American. In fact, the NL has fielded 169 groundballs above average (which means that the AL is 169 under average, since we’re talking about averages). Most of the difference between the two leagues is at shortstop.
Houston’s Adam Everett, for instance, gets my vote as best defensive shortstop anywhere. Everett was the star of the Fielding Bible, and he’s continued to show phenomenal range this year. But the Rockies’ Clint Barmes has also had a fine year in the field (the longer Coors grass has probably helped him a bit), and so has Craig Counsell. Counsell was a fine shortstop two years ago, and the number-one second baseman last year in Dewan’s plus/minus system. Stephen Drew‘s 2006 was about average overall, so the Diamondbacks will be giving up something in the field with their transition to Drew.
In fact, the top 10 fielding shortstops in the majors may all be National League players. I’d rank guys like Jimmy Rollins, Bill Hall, Rafael Furcal, Jose Reyes and Khalil Greene ahead of any of the AL shortstops. Even 39-year-old Omar Vizquel might have had a better year in the field than any of his AL counterparts. If I have to pick an AL shortstop, I’ll go with Juan Uribe. Grudgingly.
One of the Detroit Tigers’ strengths this year was their infield defense. Although Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco don’t rate particularly highly on the Studes Scale, Brandon Inge certainly does. He built on his fine 2005 with the best plus/minus stats of any third baseman this year. He also handled bunts well and seemed to really steady that Tiger infield. Honorable mention to Joe Crede, Adrian Beltre and Mike Lowell, who had a comeback year both at bat and in the field for the Red Sox.
In the National League, Pedro Feliz showed his stuff with another outstanding year at third. Great range, handles bunts exceptionally well, wins my vote. Scott Rolen also had another fine year in the field and Freddy Sanchez coupled his breakout year at the plate with a very fine year fielding the hot corner. For a former utility man, he seemed right at home at third.
Left field is sort of the position of the mediocre. It’s hard to stand out in left, and the statistical difference between the best left fielders and average is less than most other positions. I’m actually tempted to give my vote to Alfonso Soriano. Despite his initial reluctance to move to left and his rough start, he actually turned into a fielding asset in left. He had a number of mishaps in the field, but he also showed fine range and improved tremendously. Overall, his plus/minus stats are right up there. So, what the heck, Soriano it is.
Some of the NL left fielders who have a right to complain about my selection include Dave Roberts and Jason Bay (who is, to me, an enigma of a fielder. I can’t really tell if he’s good or not. Ever feel that way watching someone in the field?).
In the AL, the obvious choice is Carl Crawford, who has many of Soriano’s gifts and has been playing left field very well for several years. He gets my vote, followed by more enigmas like Jason Michaels, and Scott Podsednik. Special kudos, by the way, go to the Toronto tandem of Frank Catalanotto and Reed Johnson. If you combined their left field plus/minus stats, you’d have the best left fielder in the majors.
Andruw Jones, one of the best-fielding center fielders of all time, has supposedly been slipping lately. In fact, his Zone Rating has been next-to-last this year. But Dewan’s plus/minus system indicates that he had a very good year, and his instincts remain second to none. Other top National League center fielders have been Juan Pierre, who’s played a terrific center field for the Cubs this year, and Carlos Beltran. Although I may be accused of sticking with a proven winner for too long, I’m going with Andruw.
The American League choice is easier. Corey Patterson has had a terrific year in the Camden Yards outfield. He seemed to have adapted to the American League very quickly and displayed superior range all year long. Honorable mention goes to Curtis Granderson and Gary Matthews.
With all of his injuries, I had forgotten just how good J.D. Drew can be in right field. His knee seems to affect his play at times, but he was reasonably healthy this year and his fielding reflected it. Statistically, one of the guys who surprised me is Randy Winn, who played a lot of right field for the Giants and played it well. However, we’re only talking about 86 games there, even less than Drew. I’ll stick with Drew, and also give an honorable mention to Brian Giles.
The American League right field race features one of the best fielders anywhere, Ichiro Suzuki, and a young up-and-comer, Toronto’s Alex Rios. Rios has great range and a superb arm. He may get my vote someday, but I’ll stick with Ichiro for now.
Thirty-four-year-old Ivan Rodriguez is still going strong. He threw out 46% of basestealers this year; in fact, opponents only attempted .36 stolen bases per game against him—the lowest figure of any major league catcher. Plus, he allowed only .3 wild pitches/passed balls per game and did a fine job managing that young Tiger pitching staff. He gets my vote, with honorable mentions to Jason Varitek, the Texas tandem of Gerald Laird and Rod Barajas, and anyone with a last name of Molina.
In the National League, I’m going with the third Molina, Yadier of St. Louis. He threw out 42% of base stealers and allowed only .25 wild pitches/passed balls per game, both near the top of the heap among NL catchers. A special mention goes to Colorado’s Yorvit Torrealba, who allowed only .19 wild pitches/passed balls per game (the lowest figure in the majors) but played only 530 innings. A couple of old standbys, Brian Schneider and Brad Ausmus, also deserve honorable mention.
Okay, start sending the angry e-mails!