Toronto Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak: A better fielder than most, but not quite golden


Toronto Blue Jays’ 1B, Justin Smoak may have been snubbed for a Gold Glove, but was he deserving of the award?


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On Thursday, Rawlings announced the finalists for the 2017 Gold Glove Awards honouring the best fielders across the majors. The annual announcements preceded the annual discussion over who was snubbed and who was undeserving of a nomination. Two Toronto Blue Jays received deserving nominations—Marcus Stroman and Kevin Pillar.


Justin Smoak (another solid fielder) did not, leading to questions about whether or not he was snubbed. Based on three advanced defensive metrics, it seems most accurate to say that he is an above-average first baseman, but not among the top three in his position in the AL. These same metrics also highlight the same thing they’ve highlighted since 2013—Eric Hosmer is not deserving of his annual Gold Glove nominations (unless all three metrics are somehow missing the incredible ability that he, and only he, is bringing to the field).


The award is based on two factors—voting by team managers (75%) and the SABR Defensive Index (25%). The SABR Defensive Index is itself an aggregation of five metrics, including Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). As per SABR’s description, “fielding metrics included in the SDI capture a fielder’s range, his throwing arm, his sure-handedness…his ability to convert bunts into outs (primarily P, C, 3B, and 1B), scoops of throws in the dirt (1B), as well as the number of “excellent” and “poor” fielding plays.” Simply put, it’s a fairly comprehensive metric.



The SDI (as well as DRS and UZR) rates Smoak as an above-average defensive first baseman. Jays fans are fortunate to have him on the team. His strong defence combined with his well above-average offensive quality led him to rank third among all AL first basemen in WAR this season (at a salary of $4.1 million, to boot). However, as he is not among the top three in any of these metrics, it’s inaccurate to say that he has been snubbed for a Gold Glove nomination, at least from a statistical perspective.


With respect to AL first basemen more generally, a few things stand out. First of all, Mitch Moreland and Carlos Santana are worthy nominees. As of the last public update (on August 27th), the two were ranked one-two in the SABR Defensive Index. In terms of full season data, they are tied for first in DRS and are both in the top three in UZR.


Second, as previously stated, Eric Hosmer has no (statistically supported) business being nominated for a Gold Glove. As of the last update, Hosmer ranked 11th among first basemen in the SABR Defensive Index. His relative weakness also shows up in his low DRS (12th highest) and low UZR (11th highest). Clearly, his nomination was the result of widespread support from managers, rather than objective reality.


This seems to have been true for every year after his first nomination in 2013. In 2013, he ranked third in the SDI among first basemen—a worthy nominee. But in the years since, he’s ranked fifth, sixth, twelfth and eleventh. It seems as though anchoring bias has come into play, with managers deciding a few years ago that Hosmer is an elite defender and never updating that belief with new, more relevant information.


Finally, Joe Mauer got snubbed. An argument can be made for Danny Valencia and Logan Morrison as well, as they had a better SDI than Mauer as of late August. However, the full season DRS and UZR data paint a different picture—Mauer is top three in both and comfortably ahead of the other two non-nominees. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mauer in third once the final SDI rankings are released in the coming weeks.


More broadly, the SDI data for Blue Jays across each position tells the tale of a difficult season. Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins qualified as the Jays’ second baseman and shortstop (troubling enough), ranking near the bottoms of each list (extremely troubling). Nobody played enough innings in left field to qualify, while Jose Bautista was last in SDI among right fielders. On more positive notes, Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin, two key players for 2018, rated as above-average defenders in their respective positions.




*Featured Image Credit: Rough Tough, Real Stuff – under CC BY-SA 2.0 – cropped from original



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Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.