Don Mattingly's reflexes and range were so superior, his arm so accurate, that manager Lou Pinella stationed him at third base for three games in 1986.[i]
Hernandez and Mattingly. The two best defensive first baseman in the game, two of the very best to ever man the position. Playing at the same time, in the same city, The City. It inspired one of the great arguments of 1980s baseball: "Who was better with the glove?" Hernandez, the Mets' cosmopolitan man-about-town? Or Mattingly, the blue-collar superstar for the Yankees?
The answer was usually Hernandez, acknowledged in his time as perhaps the best glove man of all time – but it wasn't without a caveat or two: Mattingly, it was accepted, might very well be the second-best defensive first baseman to ever scoop one out of the dirt. The proof was in the glove, or in this case, the Gold Gloves.[ii] Nine of them – an American League record and second-most for the position behind Hernandez, who claimed 11. There's no shame in running a close second to Keith Hernandez in the mythical "Greatest of All-Time" rankings.[iii]
So it might come as something of a surprise to learn that, according to Defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR), Hernandez (0.6) ranks fourth all-time among first baseman, tied with George Stovall and behind Frank Chance and Fred Tenney.
Mattingly? Mattingly's defensive stock plummets, with dWAR (-6.8) ranking him a good, but far from elite, defensive first baseman.
How then to reconcile the delta between defensive reputation and dWAR? In the case of Hernandez, it's not too difficult: While his 0.6 career dWAR seems insultingly low, it should be noted the career record for the position, held by Chance, is 2.5. Because of dWAR's positional adjustments (it considers first base the easiest position on the field), it's extraordinarily difficult for a first baseman – even the best of the best – to provide net positive defensive value over the course of his career.[iv] The two names ahead of Hernandez on the career list plied their trade in the Dead Ball era, and as we've written previously, defensive statistics from 100 years ago are, at best, highly suspect (and likely useless). In other words, Hernandez still has a strong case as the greatest defensive first baseman of all time.
Mattingly, on the other hand, ranks 59th all-time in dWAR for the position.[v] He fares a bit better when ranked by how many runs he saved his team as compared to an average first baseman: dWAR credits Mattingly with +33 runs from fielding (rfield), which ranks 37th all-time among first baseman (the career leader in this category is Albert Pujols, at +140, followed by Hernandez, at +117).
This, of course, is absurd. To suggest that there are/were 36 first baseman who could preempt bunts and pick throws and stab liners and turn double plays as well or better than Don Mattingly is absurd. To suggest that players like James Loney and Sid Bream were better with the glove is absurd.[vi]
Reputation is a funny thing. You can spend a lifetime building it, bolstering it, and burnishing it – but it can be irreparably harmed with a single lapse in judgment, a single honest mistake. The converse also holds true: A reputation might be forged in an instant and gleam for decades due to nothing more than selective memory or inertia ("Player X was clutch, Player Y was a choke artist, Player Z was great with the glove").
None of this is to suggest that Don Mattingly was anything but a wonderful first baseman. Millions of people saw him play for more than a decade, and it's a safe bet the vast majority of them will tell you Mattingly was an outstanding defensive player. No less the authority than Keith Hernandez himself wrote in 1994 that Mattingly was "the best-fielding first baseman in baseball today, in my opinion, and as good a fielder as any who ever played the position."
WAR doesn't care about any of this. WAR doesn't care if you were beloved as a player, admired as a man. WAR doesn't care if you were the smartest player on the field, or the dumbest. According to WAR, you are what the numbers say you are. And in Mattingly's case, WAR says he was... just a pretty good glove man.
And he isn't the only (perceived) all-time defensive great to wither under the unforgiving glare of dWAR.[vii]
Kirby Puckett (-1.0 dWAR; Six Gold Gloves)
Puckett's reputation as a superior defensive centerfielder wasn't made with his spectacular catch in Game Six of the 1991 World Series. By then, Puckett had already captured four Gold Gloves (he'd finish with six) and provided plenty of highlight-worthy thrills. Despite the highlights and heroics, dWAR suggests Puckett's defensive reputation far exceeded his accomplishments. With the exception of a splendid rookie year (and a terrible 1993), dWAR suggests Puckett essentially played the position to a draw. Puckett may have gotten extra credit for doing the routine because he just didn't look like a centerfielder. Center fielders patrol their domains with grace and élan; center fielders are big cats. Puckett was a Welsh Corgi (a Corgi who could hit).
Tris Speaker (2.5 dWAR)
"I know no player in the game today who can touch Speaker as an outfielder." – White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, March 1914
"There is not a better fielder in the game than Speaker." – Baseball Magazine, Sept. 1913
"There can be no doubt that in Speaker [the Red Sox] possessed the greatest fielding outfielder in the game, a man whose sensational excursions into short centerfield spoiled many a batting rally and robbed the opposition of many a safe hit." – Baseball Magazine, July 1916
"Nobody else was even in the same league with him." – Smokey Joe Wood, The Glory of Their Times
"Tris Speaker – probably the greatest ball-hawk in history… His judgement was unerring; his instinct, uncanny. Not the least of his equipment was a magnificent left arm." – Big Time Baseball, 1950
It's hard to overstate just how respected Speaker's defense was in his time. Cherry-picking quotes seems a disservice; he basically invented a style of play that's beyond the ambition of all but the most elite center fielders (stationed so brazenly shallow, writers joked he played center field and second base at the same time). Nearly 100 years after his career ended, Speaker still holds career marks for assists and double plays by an outfielder, and ranks second to Mays in total putouts. Had the gold glove existed in his time, Speaker claims a dozen – yet dWAR rates him as essentially replaceable on defense.
By reputation, Speaker is the equal of Willie Mays and Andruw Jones. By dWAR, he's the equal of Mark Kotsay and Nook Logan.[vii]
Hal Chase (-15.3 dWAR)
A vile and crooked man, Chase was a serial game-fixer who was eventually banished from the game for his transgressions. He was also "the most wonderful fielding first baseman the game ever saw," "the greatest of first baseman," "the one man in the game today a little better than any other who plays his position or who ever played it."
Chase in his playing days was considered the greatest defensive first baseman of all time – and it wasn't close. In terms of defensive reputation at any position, only Speaker and perhaps Honus Wagner were his equal. Yet dWAR rates him as a defensive albatross. Some of the gulf between the perception of Chase in his time and our statistical interpretation of Chase today probably lies in the fact that he doubtlessly took plays off, or committed intentional errors in service to his betting interests. According to dWAR, Chase cost his teams about 65 runs as compared to an average first baseman.
There's no telling how much those lost runs earned Chase with his criminal associates.
Dave Winfield (-23.7 dWAR; Seven Gold Gloves). That's not a misprint: According to WAR, Winfield defers only to Adam Dunn, Gary Sheffield, and Frank Howard as the worst defensive player – at any position – to ever take the field.
Think about that. Despite his extraordinary athletic gifts, Dave Winfield was worse in the field than Dave Kingman (according to WAR).
This seems impossible, given his powerful throwing arm and seemingly effortless ability to cover huge swaths of turf with enormous strides. But a peek at the numbers, such as they are, reveals some deeper truths about Winfield's defense: Despite those hurdler's strides, Winfield's range factor as an outfielder was significantly lower than league average. He made fewer plays than the average outfielder, and over the course of his career those missing plays cost his teams 91 runs on defense (positional adjustments for playing corner outfield positions and, in the final years of his career, DHing full-time, account for another -135 runs).[viii]
Still, his defensive rankings seem harsh.[ix] Was Winfield deserving of the seven Gold Gloves bestowed upon him? No. Was Winfield ever a great outfielder? Probably not. Is he among the handful of worst full-time outfielders to ever play in the Major Leagues?
WAR seems to think so.
Roberto Alomar (2.4 dWAR; 10 Gold Gloves). With 10 gold gloves, no second baseman in history can claim more defensive hardware than Alomar. He seemed to have the range of a Tesla. Blue Jays' teammate Paul Molitor called him "the best second baseman I've ever seen," and many fans who saw Alomar in his prime agreed.
WAR says otherwise. While Alomar may have been capable of the spectacular, his defense netted his teams a paltry two wins over the course of his career. According to dWAR, his vaunted range was actually below league average, and despite playing alongside Omar Vizquel for three years, Alomar never led the league in double plays turned by a second baseman (Alomar, in fact, usually finished in the top half of league second baseman in most defensive metrics, but rarely led his league in any of the major fielding categories). It strains credulity to think of Roberto Alomar as an average second baseman, but dWAR says just that.
Joe DiMaggio: Quite good with the glove (3.2 dWAR), but by reputation he was Willie Mays and Andruw Jones combined; Greg Maddux: Take pitcher defensive ratings with a grain of salt; take Mad Dog's 18 GG with a teaspoon. Was Maddux as good as anyone? Sure. Could NL voters have spread the gold around a little bit? Most certainly. J.T. Snow: Not nearly as famous as the others on this list, but nearly as overrated, at least according to dWAR. Six consecutive GG suggest he was a great first baseman; a career dWAR of -11 suggests he was below average.
[i] Putting this in perspective: Mattingly was the first left-handed throwing third baseman the game had seen in more than 70 years. According to It's About the Money, Mattingly' took twelve chances at third, with one putout, ten assists accounting for twelve outs (two double-plays) and one error. Both Baseball-reference.com and Fangraphs.com gave him a score of one run above average for this three games total
[ii] For purposes of this article, we use Gold Gloves as a measure or proxy for defensive reputation, not defensive skill.
[iii] As Mattingly himself would write of Hernandez years later: "His greatness as a fielder was based on balance, quickness, reflex response and intelligence. He was able to field bunts on the third-base side of the diamond and throw runners out at third." Yep. Teams stopped bunting toward Hernandez after his first few years in the league, preferring to take their chances with the third-base side of the infield. So he took that away from them, too, by playing as close as humanly possible to the hitter. Hernandez did this regularly. When's the last time you say a first baseman make this play?
[iv] Two components make up dWAR: runs saved with the glove (rfield), and a positional adjustment that gives extra credit or docks a player "runs" based on where he plays. Per baseball-reference.com, "In our view, even a poor defensive catcher is likely equally valuable to a good defensive first baseman in terms of team defense." To wit, a catcher who plays close to a full season behind the plate will receive 8-10 runs of defensive credit before a single putout is factored into his dWAR ratings. It's just the opposite for a first baseman, who starts with an 8-10 run deficit. For a first baseman to earn any dWAR credit, he has to save his team at least eight or nine runs as compared to a average first baseman. Given the light demands of the position (according to WAR), only the most extraordinary defensive first baseman are able to meet this standard.
[v] Min 1000 games played, at least 67% at first base.
[vi] And before you ask: No, Derek Jeter isn't on this list. Because despite those five gold gloves, it's our assertion that Jeter's reputation aligns quite nicely with his defensive metrics. In other words, he was lousy, and all but the most myopic observers agree he was lousy.
[vii] Mays: 18.1 dWAR; Jones: 24.1 dWAR (the most ever for a center fielder)
[viii] Per baseball-reference.com, Range Factor (RF/9) = 9 * (Putouts + Assists) / Innings Played. Winfield's career range factor was 2.16, while the league range factor over that time was 2.38. Winfield made 10% fewer plays than an average outfielder.
[ix] If we feel that WAR's positional adjustments (see note iv) are unnecessarily cruel to Winfield, we can rank him based solely on the number of runs he saved or cost his teams as compared to an average outfielder. Winfield cost his teams 91 runs, or about 9 wins, over his career. The good news? He's no longer the fourth worst defensive player in history; the bad news? He's still the 12th worst outfielder to ever shag flys.