Sunday, January 4, 2015

How Bob Gibson Won 9 Gold Glove Awards

Over the years, Gold Glove Awards have been doled out to players with relatively poor defensive metrics.  Here is the first in a series of Gold Glove Award case histories:  

With nine NL Gold Glove Awards to his credit, Bob Gibson was considered to be one of the best fielding pitchers in major league history.  Every year, from 1965 through 1973, Gibson took home the Gold - no questions asked.

In reality, the greatest pitcher in St Louis Cardinals history was far from being the best fielding pitcher in the National League at any time during his career.  This shocking revelation came to me after reviewing his key defensive metric (Range Factor), which was below league average for every season he played - except 1967 and 1972; and even then, it was barely above league average.

For his career, Gibson's Range Factor was 1.80 - compared to a league average of 1.98.

Based on Range Factor (for legitimate starting pitchers), the likely Gold Glove replacements (with Range Factor in parenthesis):

1965 - Don Cardwell (2.77) - This would have been his only Gold Glove Award.

1966 - 1967 - Al Jackson (3.06 - 3.28) - These would have been his only Gold Glove Awards.  Ironically, he was a teammate of Gibson's for just these two seasons.

1968 - Don Drysdale (2.45) - This would have been his only Gold Glove Award in what would prove to be his last great season.

1969  - 1972 - Juan Marichal (2.55 - 2.52 - 2.58 - 2.24) - "Four-Time Gold Glove Award Winner" should have been on his Hall of Fame plaque.

1973 - Tommy John (3.26) - This would have been his only Gold Glove Award, despite the fact that his career Range Factor of 2.42 is well above average (1.88).

Meanwhile, the obvious question:  How did Gibson convince the managers and coaches throughout the National League (who cast the votes for this award) that he was indeed a Gold Glove-caliber player?

It must have had something to do with the events that took place on October 12, 1964 - Game 5 of the World Series vs the New York Yankees.  Staked to a 2-0 ninth-inning lead at Yankee Stadium, the first batter Gibson faced in the bottom of the ninth - Mickey Mantle - reached on an error by shortstop Dick Groat.  Gibson then struck out Elston Howard to set the stage for what was arguably, the greatest defensive play by a pitcher in World Series history.

The next batter - Joe Pepitone - hit a vicious line drive right back where it came from.  Of course, Gibson had a unique follow-though after delivering one of his pitches - falling off violently towards the first base line, with his back almost facing the batter; he was a prime target.  Sure enough, the ball smacked off his hip and careened towards the third base line; a certain base hit.

Gibson may not have been in a particularly good fielding position (he never was), but his superb reflexes made up for that.  Without hesitation, Gibson pounced on the ball - and in one motion, falling into foul territory past the third base line, he whirled around and threw a perfect strike to a flabbergasted Bill White at first base to retire an even more flabbergasted Pepitone by a half step.  Every time I see that replay, I ask myself "How did he do that?"

It was an impossible play which was performed on baseball's grandest stage - at Yankee Stadium, no less.  In that moment, a Gold Glove pitcher was born.  The fact that the next batter - Tom Tresh - tied the game with a home run, really added to the legend.  The Cardinals would regain the lead in the top of the tenth on a three-run Tim McCarver home run.  Gibson returned to the mound to nail down the 5-2 win, and unbeknownst to him, nail down the next nine Gold Glove Awards.

As history has proven, once a player has received that first one, there's a good chance they're in for the long haul - especially for a marquis player like Gibson who exuded confidence; whose athleticism allowed him to make sensational plays from time to time.  The fact that he was actually unable to make plays on balls others may have reached escaped the thought process of those starstruck managers and coaches for nine consecutive seasons.  But really, who could blame 'em?

I don't think Joe Pepitone would argue.

Coming next:  Examining the Jim Kaat Gold Glove Award Mystique 

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