One of the many truths that Kansas City Royals fans hold self-evident is the polished excellence of Lorenzo Cain’s defense. Cain combines a blazing top speed with perfect routes and great fundamentals like diving, positioning, and throwing decisions. Everyone in Kansas City is deeply aware of this part of Cain.
Cain really had his national coming-out party in the 2014 postseason, where he had a bunch of opportunities to make fantastical plays and converted all of them.
Here’s perhaps the most amazing one: Game Two of the 2014 American League Championship Series, the score tied 4-4 in the bottom of the sixth inning, first batter of the frame:
“It’s the same reaction you have on Christmas morning when you get a present,” says the announcer, referring to the reaction of Royals pitchers after a play like that. And for good reason: Cain takes a razor-sharp route to the ball in the gap at top speed, laying out for a full dive, and converting what would have likely been leadoff extra bases into a simple out.
Cain, however, has yet to win a Gold Glove for his stellar defensive play.
Now, Gold Gloves aren’t magic. They don’t signify some special ability or give additional powers to a player. But they are an important recognition, as defensive contributions can sometimes go unnoticed or less noticed than they should, and a shiny reward for defense helps give weight to a player whose true value lies in the glove.
Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, and Eric Hosmer have won a Gold Glove (in the case of the last three, multiple Gold Gloves). Cain hasn’t. That seems unfair. So could this be the year?
Rawlings lists the following rules for voting on its website:
The Rawlings Gold Glove Award® represents overall fielding excellence, and it is not an award based solely on fielding metrics and statistics, nor does it factor offensive production.
• Only the manager and his coaching staff on each Major League Baseball team vote, and each person must sign the completed Ballot in order to be considered valid.
• Managers and coaches cannot vote for their own players and can only vote for players in their own League.
• Cast votes for players at particular positions, not in general terms; i.e. qualified LF instead of three general OF.
• Eligibility for a Rawlings Gold Glove Award closely follows qualification standards set forth in MLB Rule 10.22 (Minimum Standards for Individual Championships).
• Only players listed in the resource guide are eligible for a Rawlings Gold Glove Award at the specific position listed. For rules on player qualification for a particular position, please see the “Notes & Glossary” section of the resource guide. Qualified players are sorted in alphabetical order.
• The votes are confidential between Major League Baseball and Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, Inc.
The SABR Defensive Index is a measure of the number of runs saved by a player's defensive performance over the course of a season, compared to the average defensive player at that position. The SDI combines measures from five (5) different defensive data sources and includes factors that rate the defenders arm strength and accuracy, range and his sure-handedness, along with the number of “excellent” and “poor” fielding plays he makes. The SDI also incorporates a rating for a player's ability to turn double plays (2B and SS), fielding bunts (primarily P, C, 3B, and 1B) and scoops of throws in the dirt (1B). For catchers, blocking balls in the dirt and stolen bases/ caught stealing are also included. For pitchers, the SDI includes his ability to hold runners on base and control the running game.
A positive SDI number indicates that a player was above average compared to other players at his position this season. Conversely, a negative SDI number means the player performed below the league average at this position this season.
Rawlings Gold Glove Awards are calculated based on a combination of managers/coaches and SABR.
If you didn’t feel like reading all of that, just focus on the bold and italicized sentence at the end. Essentially, each Gold Glove is awarded based on both voting and statistics, both of which are confidential.
Since we can’t peer into the minds of coaches and managers across the league, we won’t be able to glean any information on that front. But we can look up statistics, which are now an official component of the selection process.
So I’ve grabbed a list of the top defensive players by the stats Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), two statsitics which signify runs above or below the league average, which is set to zero. Then, I averaged the two, giving a more complete view of defense and more accurately simulating Rawling’s SDI calculation.
Rawlings now gives an individual outfield Gold Glove to each of left field, center field, and right field, as opposed to giving three Gold Gloves to the three best outfielders regardless of specific position. I’ve broken out the data accordingly.
You’ll see that Cain ranks third in raw defensive data for center field, behind Byron Buxton and former Royal Jarrod Dyson. Kevin Kiermaier is in the midst of a down year by UZR, but DRS still loves him, and he’s a superbly talented player who is the two-time defending Gold Glove awardee.
Unfortunately for Cain, he’s just one of many legitimately great defensive center fielders in the American league. His best bet for grabbing the award is with the support of the managers: Cain has the highest national profile of any of the competing center fielders, and though offense is not supposed to be a factor in voting, extremely poor offense can subconsciously lower opinions about a player. That may negatively impact Byron Buxton just enough. And as for Jarrod Dyson...the Seattle Mariners are floundering, and if he does get traded to a team that wants to play him in a combination of outfield spots in parttime duty (like the Royals), that could nuke his candidacy real quick.
Defensively, Alex Gordon has been his usual fantastic self. The four-time Gold Glove winner is probably the front runner for the left field award, but only probably due to his offensive struggles. Brett Gardner has been the significantly more valuable player overall and has a Gold Glove of his own, but you never know.
Look: even if Cain doesn’t get a Gold Glove and never does, oh well. He’s a World Series Champion, an ALCS MVP, and an All-Star. He doesn’t need every trophy in existence to validate his worth. We already know it.