Did Kevin Kouzmanoff deserve the Gold Glove award for best NL fielding third basemen of 2009? That’s the only question I really care about. As a Padres fan, I certainly root for the Padres and their players, but when it comes to things like player analysis, I try to be as objective as possible, setting aside my Padre fandom in a search (usually, a futile one) for the truth.
Anyway, let’s compare Kouzmanoff with Ryan Zimmerman, the Washington Nationals third basemen who won the Gold Glove award. First, some basic numbers courtesy of Baseball Reference:
Two things stand out. Kouzmanoff made a lot less errors than Zimmerman, but Zimmerman made a lot more plays. The difference in errors is important for one thing that is often overlooked: Kouzmanoff gave up very few extra bases on wild throws, while Zimmerman presumably did. However, as far as turning batted balls into outs, despite the error difference, it appears that Zimmerman is far superior, as evidenced by his 2.97 Range Factor (assists + put outs/innings *9) against Kouz’s 2.34.
The difficult part of fielding analysis, however, is context. That is, determining truly how many opportunities each player had to make outs, because they were playing at different parks, behind different pitchers, and against different hitters. They certainly did not face the same exact set of batted balls, in such a different environment, so looking at their fielding stats, without adjustments, may serve us no good.
So, what do we want to do? We want to determine how many opportunities each player had. The Hardball Times’ RZR can help us here. Baseball Info Solutions watches video of all batted balls and determines whether or not they were in the third base zone. All other grounders are classified as out-of-zone. Here are the RZR numbers:
BIZ—Balls in zone
Plays – Plays made on BIZ
RZR – plays/BIZ
OOZ – plays made out of zone
What we see here is that, yes, Zimmerman did have more in-zone opportunities, in part because he played more innings, and probably in part because of some differences in context (such as the Nationals and Padres respective pitching staff tendencies). We also see that Kouzmanoff made a higher percentage of plays on in-zone chances, in large part because he was so good at not making errors.
However, Zimmerman has a huge lead in out-of-zone plays, 101 to 34. Now, he also had more BIZ, so we’d assume he had more OOZ opportunities, but that doesn’t come close to making up the difference.
The more precise, the better
One of the problems with an RZR-type system is that it throws all in-zone balls into one bucket, and all out-of-zone balls into another. What if, by chance, Zimmerman had a lot of balls hit right at him, and a lot hit just outside of his zone? That would probably skew our analysis. So, we can look at something like UZR, which is more precise, cutting the third basemen’s area of responsibility into many small slices, rather than one big one (it also has adjustments for park and pitching staff and so on).
Simply put, it’s better. Last year, Zimmerman’s UZR per 150 games was 20 runs above average, a very high number. Kouzmanoff was at +10.7 RAA per 150. Obviously, a good rating, but Zimmerman clearly has the edge.
More data, please (redux)
One thing about advanced fielding stats is that we really shouldn’t look at just one year. There’s too much variability, year-to-year, to put too much reliance into a season of data. Looking at more than one year gives us a better idea about a player’s true fielding ability. Kouzmanoff, in his 418 career games at third, is about +3 RAA (per 150). Zimmerman’s RAA/150, in his 590 game career, sits at +12. Again, a relatively clear advantage to Zimm.
Scouting and the wisdom of the crowds
In fielding analysis, scouting is undoubtedly pretty valuable. I don’t have scouting reports available on either player, but just about everything I’ve ever read about Zimmerman’s fielding, from non-stathead types, has said that he’s great with the glove. Kouzmanoff, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag, rarely ever receiving too much praise for his glove-work.
Tom Tango runs his Fans’ Scouting Report every year, in which fans rate the fielding prowess of the players they watch everyday. This year Ryan Zimmerman ranked 6th among third basemen in average rating, while Kouzmanoff came in at 13. In 2008, Zimmerman was 4th, Kouzmanoff 29th.
The Fielding Bible asks a panel of ten experts, including the likes of Bill James, James Dewan, and the BIS video scouts, to rate fielders at each position every year. Zimmerman came in first place here, while Kouz came in 11th overall. Last year: Zimmerman 9th, Kouzmanoff 12th.
A little common sense
After going through all of this, I don’t see any reason to suspect that Kouzmanoff was truly a better fielder than Zimmerman in 2009. Zimmerman’s advanced numbers were clearly superior, he has a better track record defensively, and he’s better from a scout’s perspective. Kouzmanoff had a fine year with the glove, and he’s come a long way in the fielding department in the last few years, but that doesn’t make him better than Zimmerman. A low error total doesn’t either, because we’re not looking for fielders who don’t make errors. We’re looking for fielders who make outs.
There is always that chance that he was better, though. We can never really tell for sure. The numbers could have been off five or ten runs for each player, in either direction. But, considering what we do know about both of these guys, I think it is pretty clear that Zimmerman deserved the award over Kouzmanoff. If anything, it is far from an outrageous decision.