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Right time could determine AL Gold Glove

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Adam Eaton deserving of award for play in right field, but starts in center field could hamper case

Chicago White Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

To nobody’s surprise, Adam Eaton was named a Gold Glove finalist in right field.

To nobody’s surprise, Adam Eaton was the only White Sox among the 27 finalists at the nine positions in the American League.

His chief competition? Boston’s Mookie Betts. Even though Houston’s George Springer is also involved, it’s been considered a two-horse race during the second half. The metrics bear that out:

G INN PO A E TZ DRS UZR +/-
Adam Eaton 121 980.1 296 15 3 25 22 23.1 +14
Mookie Betts 157 1381.2 346 14 1 20 32 17.8 +45
George Springer 147 1308.0 318 12 2 4 5 5.7 -10

And when it comes to counting stats, the arguments for both players are clear to see. Looking only at time in right field, Betts saw a lot more action and accumulated more outs (and the points to go along with them) ...

... unless ...

... you look at only right field — as in, you don’t punish the player for having to shift to center to fill a need — then it tilts toward Eaton.

Thanks to injuries to Austin Jackson and Charlie Tilson, Eaton had to make 43 starts in center. By metrics and eye test, his play in center field improved over his disappointing 2015, but to only average at best. Meanwhile, Avisail Garcia absorbed most of Eaton’s innings in right field to provide an easy contrast between “great” and “subpar.”

Lorenzo Cain dealt with similar circumstances in 2014. He looked like a Gold Glover in center when he played there, but Ned Yost liked him in right field over Jarrod Dyson when Nori Aoki landed on the disabled list. Cain played the corner spot just as well, but he ended up splitting the time significantly enough that he wasn’t even a finalist at either position.

Eaton has about 20 games on Cain at his primary position, so he’s at least in the hunt. If you’re inclined to extrapolate Eaton’s time in right field because he was versatile enough to help elsewhere, then he stands out in a pound-for-pound comparison. For instance, Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs offer their own easy metric for scaling:

  • Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games: Eaton 25.5, Betts 17.2
  • Defense Runs Saved per 1,200 innings: Betts 28, Eaton 27
  • Total Zone per 1,200 innings: Eaton 31, Betts 18

And while Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average doesn’t distinguish between positions — best I can tell — Eaton holds the edge there, 29.1 to 18.7, despite time at his weaker position. (It doesn’t hurt that the Eaton Rifle racked up a league-high 18 outfield assists when combining his work at both positions.)

The metric-based analyses can go either way. Baseball Info Solutions — the company behind DRS — presents the Fielding Bible Awards as a metrics-heavy contrast to the popularity-based Gold Glove, and its system considers Betts the favorite:

Spending the entire 2016 season in right field was definitely a great move for Mookie Betts, who led all of Major League Baseball with 32 DRS. Not only did Betts excel in DRS this season, but he also committed only one error in 361 chances, with a fielding percentage of .997. The majority of the runs he saved defensively came from his range and positioning, leading all right fielders with 23. We expect that Betts will replace the champion for the last two seasons, Jason Heyward, as the new Fielding Bible Award winner. Heyward, however, is still in contention for the NL Gold Glove which would be his fourth in five seasons if it comes to pass.

As a response to the advancement of defensive metrics, the Gold Glove Awards incorporate the SABR Defensive Index to account for 25 percent of the selection process. SABR isn’t releasing its final info until after the awards are announced, but Eaton held a healthy lead over the rest of the league — not just right fielders -- in the last update, which means he could’ve had a leg up in the final selection process. The awards have already been decided, so the concept of “finalists” is just window-dressing.

This all goes without acknowledging the gap in offensive production. Eaton had a good season, but Betts is an MVP candidate, and the history of Gold Glove voting says hitting makes a guy’s defense look better. That could very well be the case here, but should Betts win it, he won’t be an undeserving candidate. It’ll be more a matter of philosophy.

And if Eaton should win it, he’d become the franchise’s first non-pitcher Gold Glove winner since former White Sox manager Robin Ventura won one at third base in 1998.