Retroactively Awarding the Utility Gold Glove

A look at past players who deserve the new utility Gold Glove Award.

Major League Baseball announced the Rawlings Gold Glove Award winners on Tuesday. For the first time, an award was bestowed upon a utility player from each league. St. Louis Cardinals rookie Brendan Donovan won in the National League, and New York Yankees veteran DJ LeMahieu won in the American League.

For 65 years, Rawlings had awarded a Gold Glove to one defender at each position in both leagues. To be eligible for the award, players had to meet a minimum innings requirement that Rawlings says “ensures that only full-time players are considered.” Once that minimum is met, the player is eligible for the Gold Glove Award at the position he spent the most time playing.

While the criterion serves its purpose, it also omits an integral type of player: the utility man. These are players who make starts all around the field, filling in for starters on their off days or stepping into regular roles in the event of injuries. These players, of course, aren’t usually known for their offense. Their value lies in their defensive versatility. Because they don’t play every day, most utility players won’t meet the minimum inning criteria. This shouldn’t, however, diminish their importance. New York Mets‘ manager Buck Showalter highlighted the importance of utility players during the 2022 All-Star Game, saying “There should be a category in the All-Star Game for a utility player. You can’t win without one. They should get recognized.”

Well, Rawlings has finally righted this wrong. The Athletic reported in September that Rawlings would begin awarding a Gold Glove to utility players. With this article, I’m covering players over the last decade who could have won the utility player Gold Glove. I also want to dig into three other players whose defensive versatility should be recognized with a retroactive Gold Glove Award: Craig Counsell, Ben Zobrist, and David Fletcher.

 

Awarding Utility Gold Gloves For the Last Decade

 

2021: Ryan McMahon, Colorado Rockies

  • Best Defensive WAR in the National League
  • 2B: 52 games and 9 DRS
  • 3B: 113 games and 13 DRS

 

2020: Chris Taylor, Los Angeles Dodgers

  • 2B: 13 games and 2 DRS
  • SS: 20 games and 1 DRS
  • LF: 19 games and 3 DRS

 

2019: Tommy Edman, St. Louis Cardinals

  • 2B: 29 games and 6 DRS
  • 3B: 55 games and 1 DRS
  • RF: 12 games and 3 DRS

 

2018: Joey Wendle, Tampa Bay Rays

  • 2B: 100 games and 10 DRS
  • 3B: 20 games and 1 DRS
  • SS: 10 games and -1 DRS
  • LF: 16 games and 0 DRS

 

2017: Yolmer Sánchez, Chicago White Sox

  • 2B: 78 games and 6 DRS
  • 3B: 52 games and 6 DRS

 

2016: Javier Báez, Chicago Cubs

  • 2B: 59 games and 9 DRS
  • 3B: 62 games and 0 DRS
  • SS: 25 games and 3 DRS

 

2015: Marwin Gonzalez, Houston Astros

  • 1B: 43 games and 3 DRS
  • 2B: 15 games and -1 DRS
  • 3B: 21 games and 1 DRS
  • SS: 32 games and 5 DRS
  • LF: 15 games and 2 DRS

 

2014: Miguel Rojas, Los Angeles Dodgers

  • 2B: 3 games and 0 DRS
  • 3B: 19 games and 3 DRS
  • SS: 66 games and 10 DRS

 

2013: Chris Denorfia, San Diego Padres

  • LF: 58 games and 5 DRS
  • CF: 41 games and 3 DRS
  • RF: 97 games and 10 DRS

 

2012: Cliff Pennington, Oakland Athletics

  • 2B: 32 games and 7 DRS
  • SS: 93 games and 5 DRS

 

 

Craig Counsell: 2000-2003, 2007-2011

 

Craig Counsell’s big league career spanned 16 years. As a Marlins fan, perhaps the most memorable moment in Counsell’s career came with the Florida Marlins in 1997. Although the 1997 World Series occurred just a few months before I was born, I’ve seen the video of his game-tying sacrifice fly in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, followed by Counsell scoring the walk-off winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning to give the Florida Marlins their first World Series title.

But when it comes to Counsell’s status as a utility player, that journey began because he was trying to find a way to stay in the big leagues. The second baseman had already been released by the Dodgers in 2000, and the Diamondbacks reached out with a minor league deal and a request: learn how to play shortstop and third base. The decision would end up paying off, resurrecting a career that would carry on for 12 more seasons.

The Diamondbacks called him up and had initially used Counsell at second base. Before long, shortstop Tony Womack went down with an injury, as did third baseman Matt Williams. Counsell slid across the diamond to fill whatever then-manager Bob Brenly needed. As detailed in a 2001 Sports Illustrated article, Counsell’s adaptability impressed his manager: “He’s the smartest player I’ve been around. I put him out there and don’t give a second thought to whether he’ll be where he’s supposed to be.”

By the next season, the Diamondbacks were pushing through the playoffs and their utility player was right in the middle of it. In the 2001 NLCS, Counsell was firing on all cylinders. At the plate, he went 8-for-21 with five runs scored. In the field, he smothered Atlanta’s offense at both second base and shortstop. In the series, he turned three double plays, recorded eight putouts, and had 11 assists. His performance on both sides of the ball earned him the 2001 NLCS MVP.

Counsell would continue to fill the utility role for the Diamondbacks through the 2003 season. He was struggling offensively, but his defensive versatility earned him a solid amount of starts at each position throughout the year. Here’s how his playing time breaks down.

Despite having limited playing time as a utility player, Counsell was regularly atop defensive leaderboards. He was at his best when at the hot corner. In three of his first four seasons with the Diamondbacks, Counsell made the Top-5 leaderboards of players with the most Total Zone Runs at third base. He also had the ninth-best defensive WAR in 2001 and 2002.

The next few years get a little wonky. The Diamondbacks traded Counsell to the Milwaukee Brewers for the 2004 season. In Milwaukee, he played a full season at shortstop and had 4 defensive runs saved (DRS). When he became a free agent at the end of the season, Counsell signed a two-year deal to come back to Arizona for the 2005 and 2006 seasons. He played as the Diamondbacks’ full-time second baseman in 2005, then moved over to shortstop for most of his playing time in 2006. During this time, Counsell’s offensive production was lagging way behind the league average.

As the 36-year-old wrapped up his career in Milwaukee, he returned to his glove-first roots and settled back into the utility role. Although his offense was waning, he still held his own on defense.

Numbers are one thing, but does Counsell pass the eye test? I’ll let you be the judge.

 

 

 

Ben Zobrist: 2008-2019

 

Ben Zobrist is arguably the player that redefined the modern-day utility role. He made his debut for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006 under then-manager Joe Maddon. He only played in a handful of games during his first two seasons, and all of his starts came at the shortstop position. In 2008, he moved around the diamond a bit more but only played in 62 games. Zobrist’s breakout season, one that cemented his role as a super-utility player whose bat was good enough to be in the lineup every day, came in 2009.

During the 152 games he appeared in 2009, Zobrist saw time everywhere except the pitching and catching positions. He spent 10 or more games at second base, shortstop, and right field in 2009, providing above-average defense at each position. You’ll see “SSS” for a few positions in the chart. SSS = Small Sample Size, so those few positions won’t give reliable numbers to include.

Although this isn’t an offensive-focused article, I want to mention the fantastic year Zobrist put up in 2009. He slashed .297/.405/.543 with 17 stolen bases, 27 home runs, and 91 runs batted in. His 152 wRC+ was good for sixth-best, and he led all of baseball with an 8.7 fWAR.

Up until this point, a majority of baseball’s utility players were below-average hitters. Zobrist’s 2009 season broke the mold, proving that a lack of a defensive home doesn’t always negatively impact a player’s offensive production.

Before Zobrist, a lot of utility players fit the mold of a glove-first (or glove-only) player comes at the expense of offense. Think: César Tovar, Bip Roberts, or Mark Loretta.

Since then, we’ve seen defensive wizards thrive on both sides of the ball. Jeff McNeil, Chris Taylor, and Enrique Hernández are a few.

Here’s a breakdown of Zobrist’s appearances on defense throughout his career, along with his career defensive runs saved at each position.

The more time a player spends at a position, the more opportunities they have to add to these totals. The average is 0, so Zobrist didn’t do anything notable at third base. We can also extend that small sample size to toss out first base and centerfield. The notable numbers are at second base and right field.

Zobrist’s 29 DRS at second base is the 14th-most among all second basemen who played from 2006 to 2019.

The 27 DRS he amassed in his career ranks 13th-best among all right-fielders who played from 2006 to 2019.

I wish there was a compilation of defensive highlights for Ben Zobrist, but all I can find are a few clips. Here’s my favorite!

 

 

 

David Fletcher: 2018-2022

 

Unlike the previous two players, David Fletcher’s career hasn’t ended. The 28-year-old just wrapped up his fifth season at the Major League level, all with the Los Angeles Angels.

In 2019, Fletcher made the team as an infielder but plans changed after an early injury to Kole Calhoun. After some outfield shuffling, Fletcher assumed the starting left fielder’s role. Once Calhoun returned, Fletcher went back to his normal role as a utility player. Much of his time was spent at third base, a spot in which he recorded 3 DRS in 2019.

In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he started at third base for the injured Anthony Rendon. Once Rendon was healthy, Fletcher slid over to shortstop to relieve an injured Andrelton Simmons. Meanwhile, Fletcher was putting up the best offensive numbers of his career. Angels’ manager Joe Maddon wanted Fletcher to continue to get regular at-bats once Rendon and Simmons were healthy. After trading Tommy La Stella, Fletcher had a clear path to finish the season at second base.

This has been the position that Fletcher plays the most. Defensive metrics are pretty favorable all around the diamond for Fletcher, so the utility role is working well for 28-year-old Angel.

 

But second base sticks out because he’s putting up big numbers in a short amount of time. From when Fletcher’s career began in 2018 until now, he’s tallied 28 defensive runs saved at second base. The only player with more is Kolten Wong’s 40 DRS. Wong, however, is a full-time second baseman. He’s played more than double Fletcher has at second base, making his total even more impressive.

 

Photos by Icon Sportswire, Zobrist photo by Keith Allison | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

Nicole Cahill

Nicole Cahill is a freelance writer who focuses on mental health and sports. She recently founded a nonprofit that helps youth athletes living with mental health challenges. When she's not fighting stigma or exploring Baseball Savant visuals, you can find Nicole enjoying a cup of coffee and a good book. Portfolio: NicoleCahill.com.

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