Indians fans everywhere were frustrated Tuesday night (if they stayed up late enough to wait for the announcement) by the news that neither of the Tribe’s two finalists for Gold Gloves ended up bringing home the hardware. That Fausto Carmona lost to Mark Buehrle was no surprise—it seemed like a given that Buehrle would win his third in a row in 2011—but the announcement that Erick Aybar had been named the league’s best defensive shortstop was disheartening as his victory came at the expense of Asdrubal Cabrera.
Clevelanders weren’t the only ones who were pulling for Cabrera. His offensive outburst in 2011 brought him to the attention of fans across the country, but his web gems were what made him a star. I suspect the biggest reason that most Tribe fans have enthusiastically accepted Cabrera as Omar Vizquel‘s heir at shortstop in a way that they never did for Jhonny Peralta (whose 2005 numbers were far better than Cabrera’s this year) is because of plays like this.
But was Cabrera really an elite fielder? There’s no denying his athleticism and there are few plays in baseball as exciting as watching him lay out for a ball that would otherwise be out of his reach. But there’s a difference between an exciting fielder and an effective one. In the words of Bill James (as excerpted in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball):
If [the hitter] hits a smash down the third base line and the third baseman makes a diving stop and throws the runner out, then we notice and applaud the third baseman. But until the smash is hit, who is watching the third baseman? If he anticipates, if he adjusts for the hitter and moves over just two steps, then the same smash is a routine backhand stop—and nobody applauds.
In other words, those kinds of diving plays are possible only if the ball is out of reach to begin with. A player with better range might be able to make the same play without having to leave his feet. Cabrera’s way is more fun to watch, but a fielder who can actually get to those balls without diving would end up preventing more of them.
A more objective look at his range shows that Cabrera really doesn’t cover much ground. Ultimate Zone Rating, the most popular sabermetric fielding statistic, has him at -11.8 runs for the 2011 season—i.e., Indians pitchers gave up about 12 more runs with Cabrera in the field than they would have with an average defensive shortstop. That’s not just a little bit below-average: it’s the single worst mark by any MLB shortstop this year. A player with a -11.8 UZR is more deserving of having his glove requisitioned than gilded. I’m not actually saying he should be moved to DH, but when considering his worthiness for the Gold Glove, think about the fact that UZR had him as the third-worst fielder in the league (after Mark Reynolds and Felix Pie) in 2011.
UZR can be unreliable, and often (as with Kosuke Fukudome) it directly contradicts other, similar defensive statistics. But in this case, they’re all agree that Cabrera is a below-average shortstop. Defensive Runs Saved has him at -5 runs, while Total Zone puts him at -6. Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA, meanwhile, has him at -19.1. In a vacuum, any one of them could be dismissed as a fluky collection of data—you could, I suppose, but you’d have a lot less ground to stand on—but all the statistics corroborate each other’s stories.
These numbers are slow to stabilize and one season isn’t enough to draw any firm conclusions, but this isn’t a one-year aberration. This was his worst season by each measure, but they’ve all had him as below average for years. The last time any of them rated him as an above-average shortstop was 2008, and the only time UZR has liked his defense there was his seven-game stint in 2007. Surely that’s enough time for us to make some judgments.
Aybar wasn’t the right choice for the hardware at shortstop—I’d have chosen Alexei Ramirez, or maybe Brendan Ryan—and I’d love to have seen Asdrubal win. He’s an exciting player and he truly is fun to watch, but while his snub was disappointing, it wasn’t unjust. Say what you want about his athleticism or his hustle, but he didn’t deserve the Gold Glove.