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To heck with the awards, Rays' Kevin Kiermaier is good as gold

John Romano | Somehow, the centerfielder was not among the three American League finalists for the Gold Glove awards announced Thursday.
The Superman look is not unusual for Kevin Kiermaier when it comes to making plays in centerfield for the Rays. And yet somehow, Kiermaier was not among the finalists for the American League's Gold Glove award.
The Superman look is not unusual for Kevin Kiermaier when it comes to making plays in centerfield for the Rays. And yet somehow, Kiermaier was not among the finalists for the American League's Gold Glove award. [ DENIS POROY | Special to the Times ]
Published Oct. 23, 2020
Updated Oct. 24, 2020

ARLINGTON, Texas — Some baseball numbers are unimpeachable. You can argue context, you can argue era, but you cannot argue the significance of a .406 batting average. Or a 56-game hitting streak. Or 4,256 hits.

More than any sport, baseball is built upon numbers. In recent years, the numbers have grown more sophisticated and the stories they tell are less romantic, but the validity of numbers should almost always be trusted.

Almost always.

Finalists for baseball’s Gold Glove awards were announced on Thursday and, stunningly, Kevin Kiermaier was not among them. The only explanation is that when they were crunching numbers for centerfield, the results somehow were literally crunched.

Related: Once again, Rays are changing baseball’s norms

This was not the fault of voters, nor the work of baseball insiders. Because the season was shortened so dramatically by the pandemic, the Rawlings corporation decided to do away with its normal methods of selecting Gold Glove winners.

In a normal season, Rawlings would use the Society for American Baseball Research’s (SABR) defensive index stat as 25 percent of the selection total while polling managers and coaches for the other 75 percent. In 2020, instead, the selection was based 100 percent on SABR’s numbers.

Trust me, this is not a rant against fancy statistics. I can spend hours staring at baseballreference.com on a computer screen as if I were watching Citizen Kane. And SABR is not just a respected outfit, it is one of the originators of baseball’s analytic age.

But I have to believe there is some kind of flaw in SABR’s defensive calculations because I cannot believe there were three centerfielders — Minnesota’s Byron Buxton, Chicago’s Luis Robert and Oakland’s Roman Laureano — better than Kiermaier in 2020.

“Defense is my bread and butter and I take a ton of pride in it,” Kiermaier said. “I like looking into info and seeing what metrics or analytics they’re coming up with. It helps guys like me a ton so I try to be educated on the matter. As far as their decision making and all the nominees this year, I don’t know what gave certain guys top positions over other guys. There were some interesting names throughout both leagues at different positions that caught me a little off guard. There were some exclusions that got my attention as well.”

There are other, widely available, defensive stats that back up the idea of Kiermaier as one of the best, if not the best, centerfielder in Major League Baseball.

Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) are widely considered among the most reliable fielding barometers in MLB. When it came to UZR, Kiermaier was ranked, far and away, the best centerfielder in the American League in 2020. As for DRS, he was second behind Buxton. And that’s not all.

MLB’s own analytics department has a classification called Outs Above Average (OAA) that tracks the path of batted balls and determines the likely possibility of being caught. Players are ranked based on the number of balls they catch — either above or below — the expected number determined by the ball’s path. Kiermaier finished third in the AL behind Robert and Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr.

And the Fielding Bible Awards, which are given out by Baseball Info Solutions, listed Buxton and Kiermaier Thursday as the two favorites to be named the best centerfielder in MLB.

So that’s four highly sophisticated rating systems and/or analytics departments that all had Kiermaier ranked either first, second or third in the AL or MLB. And yet he was not among the three finalists in the American League.

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If you want to go old-school, Kiermaier also did not have an error and led all MLB centerfielders in assists with six. No other centerfielder had more than three.

And, yes, I understand that SABR’s system uses other calculations. Total Zone rating, for instance, did not have Kiermaier in the top five in the AL. So perhaps there is an argument that other ratings are more effective in determining fielding value.

But consider this:

Going by UZR, the highest rated outfielders at each position were Kiermaier (AL centerfield), Kyle Tucker (AL leftfield), Joey Gallo (AL rightfield), Mookie Betts (NL rightfield), Trent Grisham (NL centerfield) and Tyler O’Neill (NL leftfield). The other five were all Gold Glove finalists.

Kiermaier was not.

I’m not saying there was anything underhanded or deceitful about SABR’s selections, but I do suggest there was something goofy about their defensive metrics. And anyone who watches Kiermaier play regularly would probably agree.

Kiermaier, 30, routinely robs hitters with his defensive prowess in centerfield.

This time, I’m afraid it was Kiermaier who got robbed.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.