Finalists for the 2018 Gold Glove awards were announced on Thursday, and the Oakland A’s have several names in the running for baseball’s top defensive distinction. The A’s entire infield was nominated at their respective positions, including first baseman Matt Olson, second baseman Jed Lowrie, shortstop Marcus Semien, and third baseman Matt Chapman. Winners will be announced Nov. 4.
Three players are nominated for each of the nine positions, with a separate award for each league. That means there are 54 total finalists, and four of them are from the A’s. The Indians and Brewers also scored four finalists apiece, and technically the Red Sox and Braves led the way with five. However, Boston’s total includes midseason acquisition Ian Kinsler, who played all of 37 games for them after coming over from the Angels at the deadline, and Atlanta’s includes 33 games of Adam Duvall after a July trade from the Reds, so count them as you wish.
Here’s the competition for the AL infield spots (click here to see all 54 finalists):
The upstart A’s shocked the baseball world by nabbing a Wild Card postseason berth this season, and along the way their powerful offense and historically great bullpen got most of the attention. However, the vastly improved defense also played a significant role in their success. During most of their cellar-dwelling phase from 2015-17 they were arguably the worst fielding team in the sport, but the emergence of a few new stars has helped change everything.
Leading the way is Chapman, who has an argument as the best defender in the world at any position. He led all MLB players in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and also SABR’s Defensive Index (SDI), both by enormous margins, and he also ranked in the top 10 of both FanGraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA). There is no intelligent measure by which Chapman isn’t by far the best 3B, and the eyeball test agrees with that statement wholeheartedly.
On the other corner of the diamond, Olson was a force in his own right at first base. He can pick just about any throw out of the dirt, saving countless errors for his teammates. He has top-notch range and reflexes and hands, helping him reach balls that many of his sluggish contemporaries couldn’t touch. And his throwing arm is strong enough for the outfield, allowing him to routinely make extra plays like the 3-6-3 GIDP.
What’s more, Chapman and Olson are so elite that they seem to have raised the tide for all other ships. Semien and Lowrie are fine players, but a year ago no one would have ever guessed they’d be in a Gold Glove conversation.
Semien was a borderline laughingstock when he took over shortstop full-time in 2015, and through sheer hard work he willed himself up toward average over the next couple years. However, playing with the Matts has taken him to the next level. Chapman has enough range to almost cover two positions at once (and he’s often asked to during extreme shifts), letting Semien focus on a smaller zone and more routine plays. Olson’s pickin’ ability cuts down on his throwing errors as well. Meanwhile, the contact-heavy pitching staff gave him more total chances than any other shortstop in the majors. All of those factors helped Semien post eye-popping metrics this summer.
As for Lowrie, he has been quietly competent at second base for a couple years now. In his previous life as a shortstop he was awful due to a lack of range, but that’s not as big of a problem at the keystone. With his primary weakness masked, and his entire game elevated by his sleep-related “best shape of his life” story, he’s no longer a liability in the field. Add in Chapman’s ability to shrink everyone else’s infield responsibilities, and Olson’s tendency to seal every potential chance into a putout, and some of the numbers say Lowrie was an honest-to-goodness plus in 2018.
Add it all up, and the A’s have a clear case as the best defensive infield in the majors. According to Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle, the last team to have all four infielders named finalists was the 2013 Rays (Loney, Zobrist, Escobar, Longoria). Expanding our look to the entire roster, Oakland ranked second in the bigs in team UZR (behind the Angels) and top 10 in DRS.
The last A’s player to win a Gold Glove was Josh Reddick in 2012, in right field. Before that was Eric Chavez, who earned six straight at third base from 2001-06, and then Mark McGwire, who got the 1990 award at first base. Oakland has never had a winner at second base, and only Alfredo Griffin ever won at shortstop (1985); Griffin, Chavez, and McGwire are the only A’s ever to win in the infield throughout 51 seasons in Oakland. The last time they won more than one in a single year was ‘85 (Griffin and outfielder Dwayne Murphy).
Let’s start with my preferences: I think Chapman and Olson should win, and it shouldn’t be close in either case. Chapman should also win the Platinum Glove, which Rawlings introduced in 2011 for the single best defender in each league, but that’s a pure fan vote so let’s be real it’ll be someone from Boston.
However, with all love and respect for our guys, I would pick Ian Kinsler and Andrelton Simmons for the middle infield spots. Both of them are truly elite defenders who have proven themselves over many years, and they’re both still performing at high levels rather than coasting by on reputation or name power. Furthermore, somehow Kinsler only has one GG in his career, and Simmons only has three, so frankly they each deserve another well-earned, long overdue nod, on top of the fact that they both outright earned it just based on 2018 alone.
Semien and Lowrie both did good jobs in the field this year, probably as quality as we’ve ever seen either of them, but I still wouldn’t classify them as more than average defenders. They were solid players enjoying best-case scenarios with a ton of help from their elite teammates, whereas Simmons and Kinsler are both all-time greats who haven’t yet lost a step.
As for what I think will happen? Chapman will win, but Moreland worries me. He’s already got one on his resume, and he’s got the Boston bonus that already gifted him a ridiculous All-Star berth that should have gone to Olson. I doubt Semien has any hope next to Simmons, but it’s not impossible that the voters could fall into old habits and reward Lowrie for his strong offensive stats. So, I’ll guess Chapman as a shoo-in, with a strong chance for Olson and an outside possibility of Lowrie stealing one.
Of course, this conversation could grow even more next year. Ramon Laureano dropped jaws on the daily once he took over center field in August, and perhaps with a full season of play he could vie for a 2019 award. Reaching a bit further, if Dustin Fowler moves to left field then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see him become a plus there. Maybe in 2020 we’ll be talking about current prospect Sean Murphy as a finalist behind the plate. Those possibilities are all in their infancy still, but the point is that seeing plenty of A’s among these nominations might become a regular thing over the next several years.
One way or other, though, we have something to celebrate during awards season this fall. It looks like a virtual guarantee that Oakland will nab at least one of these Gold Gloves, giving them only their third unique winner of the 21st century and fourth in the last 30 years, and it’s entirely possible they could end up with two or more. The team spent a few years looking awfully green in the field, but in 2018 they finally added some gold.