Rawlings handed out its 2019 Gold Glove Awards back in November, but, with Statcast’s new infield defense metric released to the public, the temptation is too great not to take a fresh look at the best defender at each position.
With that in mind, we decided to identify the best defender at every position based on their 2019 Outs Above Average (OAA). Unlike with Gold Gloves, we are awarding only one "winner" per position as opposed to a winner for each league. (Note: The exceptions are pitchers and catcher, where we don't have OAA. For catcher, we used a blend of Statcast’s catcher framing metrics to pick that spot. We did not select a pitcher.)
Infield OAA works in similar style to the outfield OAA you’re likely familiar with, considering the fielder’s time and distance while also accounting for the intricacies of the diamond dirt. Our winners for 2019 were certainly contenders for Rawlings’ Gold Gloves, but only two (Matt Olson and Nolan Arenado) took home the actual award. So our list below has some fresh variety.
Here are the best of the best:
1B: Matt Olson, Athletics (+12 OAA)
Olson’s two-way capability as baseball’s best first-base defender and one of its most potent sluggers probably doesn’t get talked about enough. He’s paced first basemen in OAA on plays to his right in each of his first two full seasons, and last year he closed a potential hole against the foul line (-4 OAA in 2018, +2 in ’19).
The OAA gap from Olson to third-place Paul Goldschmidt (+5) -- a longtime stalwart of the position -- is as wide as the difference between Goldy and Howie Kendrick and Neil Walker in a tie for 31st, neither of whom are natural first basemen. Olson is starting to dominate this position, much like his teammate Matt Chapman across the diamond.
Runner-up: Christian Walker, D-backs (+9)
2B: Adam Frazier, Pirates (+11 OAA)
Frazier came up through the Pirates’ ranks as sort of a Swiss Army Knife player who manned multiple positions, and his defense was actually seen as the weaker part of his game until last season. Once Josh Harrison departed via free agency, Pittsburgh gave Frazier the keys to second base exclusively.
"That was nice going into the offseason, having that thought in the back of my head that I could prepare that way," Frazier told MLB.com back in Spring Training. Focusing on one position seemed to go a long way for Frazier; he handled 95% of his chances successfully when stationed at the second-base spot.
Runner-up: Kolten Wong, Cardinals (+10)
SS: Javier Báez, Cubs (+19 OAA)
Báez’s “El Mago” nickname is extremely well-earned, since he finds a way to do everything with both style and perfectly controlled athleticism. Last year was Báez’s first campaign as the Cubs’ full-time shortstop, and he made it look like he belonged at the premium position all along. Pick a direction: Going to his left (+7 OAA), right (+4), coming in (+7) and going back (+1), Báez ranked among the best shortstops everywhere. Oh, and he possesses an absolute cannon of an arm.
If we had our version of a “platinum glove” for baseball’s best overall defender, MLB.com’s David Adler lays out a compelling case for Báez.
Runners-up: Nick Ahmed, D-backs; Andrelton Simmons, Angels (+16)
3B: Nolan Arenado, Rockies (+17 OAA)
Arenado vs. Matt Chapman for baseball’s best hot-corner defender is one of the game’s great debates right now (each of them claimed their league’s Gold Glove last season), and we look forward to seeing them jostle for this honor for years to come.
The pair fittingly tied atop the 2018 leaderboard, but Arenado got the edge for ’19 -- thanks in large part to his otherworldly ability going to his left. Arenado’s +12 OAA that way was the most extreme total by any infielder in any direction, and it’s not like he had to cover for an inferior defender at shortstop: His teammate, Trevor Story, finished fourth in that position’s rankings. The two seemed to work best together when Story gave Arenado plenty of room to do his thing.
One more note on Arenado’s range: He was above average (+3 OAA) when standing in the typical shortstop hole on shift plays, outpacing his estimated success rate by 9% in those situations. Stick him anywhere; he remains a beast.
Runner-up: Matt Chapman, A’s (+14)
C: Austin Hedges, Padres
Hedges’ career batting average is perched precariously on the Mendoza Line, but his defense has been too good for the Padres to take him out of the lineup. He was baseball’s best framer by Statcast’s Runs From Extra Strikes metric (runs saved on non-swing pitches around the edges of the strike zone), and it wasn’t particularly close, with Tyler Flowers and Yasmani Grandal a full seven runs behind. Hedges was also one of baseball’s quickest draws, tying for third in average pop time to second base.
Runners-up: Tyler Flowers, Braves; Yasmani Grandal, White Sox; J.T. Realmuto, Phillies
LF: Mike Tauchman, Yankees (+9 OAA overall)
Tauchman was one of baseball’s best surprises, both with his bat (.865 OPS after hitting .094 in limited time with Colorado) and his glove. Remember, OAA is a counting stat, and Tauchman still accumulated enough value to rank among the league leaders across only 694 1/3 innings (86 games). His speed is merely above average, and his jump was simply good and not “elite.” But Tauchman was solid going in every direction, and he outpaced his estimated success rate by 5% to rank among the league leaders. We’ll have to see how much playing time Tauchman gets in 2020, but the Yankees should feel good about their outfield defense every time he trots out there. He actually had the same +6 OAA in left field that the runner-up, Juan Soto, had, but Tauchman also added a total of +3 OAA during his time in center and right as well, giving him the edge.
Runner-up: Juan Soto, Nationals (+6)
CF: Victor Robles, Nationals (+23 OAA)
Robles’ OAA total topped all Major League players, regardless of position, and no other outfielder came within 6 OAA. The rookie showed all the tools: elite sprint speed (29.3 feet per second, 95th percentile), excellent anticipation (83rd percentile in outfield jump) and a nose for the highlight reel, tying for second among outfielders with 10 successful four-star plays (those for which the fielder is given a 26-50% catch probability).
Robles was also money on the “easier plays,” gloving 97% of balls with a catch probability of 50% or higher. He caught 93% of the total balls hit his way, and also outstripped his estimated catch rate by 6%. Both of those totals tied for the league lead. And don’t forget about Robles’ 99.5 mph throw to nab Joey Votto at home plate in August, too. The Nats have a star in center field for years to come.
Runner-up: Kevin Kiermaier, Rays (+17)
RF: Aaron Judge, Yankees (+8 OAA)
Judge tied with Jason Heyward and George Springer in total OAA, but Judge gets the nod by playing a higher majority of his games in right last year. He overcomes the limitations of his hulking 6-foot-7, 282-pound frame with speed (a career-best 28.2 feet per second, 79th percentile), good instincts (38% success rate on four- and five-star plays) and a powerful arm. He showed off his all-around skill with a dazzling double play in Game 1 of last fall’s American League Championship Series.
Judge gets a lot of publicity for his monstrous moonshots, but let's not forget that he is a formidable two-way player.
Runners-up: Jason Heyward, Cubs (+7 in right field, + 1 in center)
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.