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2021 Gold Glove finalists: Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Sean Murphy in the running for defensive awards

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A’s third baseman, first baseman, catcher up for possible Gold Gloves!

Los Angeles Angels v Oakland Athletics Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Awards season is heating up, and the Oakland A’s have a few more players in the running for hardware.

On Thursday, finalists were announced for the 2021 Gold Glove awards. Each league has an award at each position, and there are three finalists for each spot. Three A’s are in the conversation for the defensive honor at their respective positions.

  • C Sean Murphy
  • 1B Matt Olson
  • 3B Matt Chapman

Winners will be announced Nov. 7, which is a week from next Sunday.

This is familiar territory for the Matts, who have both won a pair of Gold Gloves in their careers and have firmly established their reputations as amazing defenders. They each won the award in 2018 and then repeated in 2019, but in 2020 they were bumped — Chapman had his season cut short by an injury, and Olson was snubbed when that year’s awards were based entirely on small-sample advanced metrics with no human voting element during the weird pandemic season. Chapman has also won the even more prestigious Platinum Glove twice, in 2018-19, as the best AL defender at any position.

As for Murphy, this is his first time being a Gold Glove finalist, but it’s not a surprise to see him here. He was billed as an elite defensive prospect all the way up the minors and has looked great so far in the majors. He only played a handful of games in his debut 2019 season, and then 2020 was shortened for everybody, so 2021 was his first proper full season in the bigs. The advanced metrics loved his work, including pitch-framing where he was one of the best in the sport.

Here’s a look at the competition for each of these three American League positions.

Catcher

Along with Murphy, the other finalists are Martin Maldonado of the Astros, and Salvador Perez of the Royals. Those are two big names in the world of catcher defense, as Perez has won the Gold Glove five times and Maldonado once. That pair combined to lock down the award from 2013-18.

Neither of those veterans is the direct incumbent, as Roberto Perez of Cleveland won the last two years, but their reputations should still carry weight. (Roberto Perez is out of the running this time because he missed most of the summer to injuries.)

On the other hand, the advanced metrics vastly preferred Murphy’s work behind the plate this summer. He led all MLB catchers in FanGraphs’ Def rating, he tied for third in Defensive Runs Saved, and Statcast had him tied for second in pitch-framing value. He did lag behind in throwing out basestealers, where he was around average while Perez and Maldonado were excellent.

  • Murphy: +19.6 Def, +10 DRS, +8 framing, 24% caught stealing
  • Maldonado: +12.0 Def, -2 DRS, +1 framing, 40% caught stealing
  • Perez: -5.9 Def, -5 DRS, -2 framing, 44% caught stealing

Maldonado led the way with around 1,010 innings of work, with Perez just over 1,000 and Murphy at 923.

Gold Gloves are often largely based on reputation, though they’ve begun adding an element of statistical evaluation to the traditional managers’ vote. Murphy has the numbers to compete here and make a strong case (and he’ll get the stats vote from SABR), but really any of these three could reasonably win. Perez would be a stretch if you value the metrics, but even he has that league-leading arm going in his favor, and an extra dose of name power after blasting 48 homers (offensive stats shouldn’t matter but sometimes they’ve been known to have an effect).

Verdict: Murphy has a chance, and personally I’d pick him, but he probably isn’t the favorite just because of the magnitude of the names he’s up against. He will win this award one day, but if he misses out this year it won’t feel like a huge snub yet. Just seeing him be a finalist already tells us his highly touted defense is panning out.

First base

Up against Olson is Yuli Gurriel of the Astros, and Jared Walsh of the Angels. Neither of them has ever won the award before, though this is Gurriel’s third straight year as a finalist. Olson is the big name of the group in terms of defensive reputation.

The incumbent is Evan White of the Mariners, but like at the catcher position, he missed most of the summer to injury. Olson won the two years before that.

On top of all that, Olson has the best stats of the trio as well. He leads the group in DRS and UZR and also played the most innings.

  • Olson: +6 DRS, +1.4 UZR
  • Gurriel: +5 DRS, -0.1 UZR
  • Walsh: -2 DRS, +0.7 UZR

However, the portion of the vote that’s determined by stats is based on SABR’s SDI metric, where Gurriel had a solid lead at the end of August.

Verdict: Olson is probably the front-runner. I’m not sure he’s a lock, because as I understand it Gurriel might be getting the stats nod, but humans are voting too so they can still pick Olson. His defense is known around the league and he still looked great this year.

Third base

Does anybody have a chance against Chapman? Jose Ramirez of Cleveland, and Joey Wendle of Tampa Bay, will give it a try. Neither has ever won before, but Ramirez was a finalist twice in 2017-18.

The incumbent is Isiah Kiner-Falefa of the Rangers, but he moved to shortstop this year so he’s out of the running for this position. Chapman won the two years before that, but was injured in 2020.

In the past Chapman has posted comically off-the-chart numbers, but this year he’s closer to the pack. He still leads AL third basemen in DRS and UZR, but Ramirez is tied with him in DRS.

  • Chapman: +10 DRS, +8.7 UZR
  • Ramirez: +10 DRS, +5.9 UZR
  • Wendle: +2 DRS, -0.2 UZR

Over at SABR, as of late August, Chapman had a slight lead over Ramirez in their SDI metric, which is factored into the voting. Wendle was considerably behind them, and also played far fewer innings as he split time at a couple other infield positions.

Verdict: Chapman should win this. Ramirez has an excellent case, but at best he’s tied, and tie goes to the two-time Platinum winner. Chapman didn’t have his best defensive season, making a few more mistakes than usual, but he was still the gold standard and he has a uniquely massive impact on that side of the ball.

***

My guess is that Chapman and Olson will win. I’ll be pleasantly surprised but not shocked if Murphy wins too. If Gurriel snags first base away from Olson, I’ll disagree and be bummed but I’ll more or less understand. If Chapman doesn’t win, that would be a snub.