The finalists for the 2023 Rawlings Gold Glove Awards were released on Wednesday, and the lone representative from the Detroit Tigers is perhaps not the name you would have guessed. Zach McKinstry got the nod, along with Mauricio Dubon of the Houston Astros and Taylor Walls of the Tampa Bay Rays, as the three finalists in the utilityman category for the American League.
The 28-year-old McKinstry was right there with Spencer Torkelson as the team’s two healthy, everyday stalwarts, playing by far the most games this season. McKinstry appeared in 148 games and earned that playing time by functioning as AJ Hinch’s Swiss Army knife on the defensive side.
McKinstry played third base the most out of a total of six positions he handled in 2023. He played 289 innings at the hot corner, versus 272 innings at second base and 232.2 innings in right field. He also saw small amounts of playing time in left field and shortstop, even playing center field for 14 innings.
According to Sports Info Solutions’ statistic, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), McKinstry was most valuable in right field, where he was worth 2 DRS, but he was neutral or above average at every position but shortstop from the DRS perspective. In total, McKinstry was worth 2 DRS.
Dubon mainly played second base, but he saw a far amount of time, 210.2 innings to be exact, in center field. Like McKinstry, he played every position but catcher and first base, as Astros manager Dusty Baker deployed him to fill any defense hole on the roster. Dubon was worth 5 DRS at second base, and 3 DRS in center field. He was a negative 3 DRS combined at the other four positions for a total of 5 DRS.
Meanwhile, Statcast credits McKinstry with four outs above average (OAA) on the year. By comparison, Dubon was worth three OAA. Walls actually checks in at minus six OAA, but was a plus 10 in DRS, playing a balanced mix of second base, shortstop, and third base. That’s quite a disparity, though seems more common in the infield where grading defense is more complicated and more subjective than in the outfield.
Of course, it’s a long standing joke that unless you’re an obviously bad defender, the key defensive statistic is your OPS. Perhaps that’s less the case these days, and one would think in particular in the utilityman category. After all, if they could rake, they’d be more likely to have an everyday gig at the same position. The ability to provide good defense all over the field is the key feature of the role.
Overall I’d guess Dubon has the inside track. He has slightly better numbers overall than McKinstry, and was comfortably the most productive hitter of the three. Playing on a perennial powerhouse doesn’t hurt either. Still a nice honor for a journeyman like McKinstry who made himself very useful this season and who knows, maybe he gets the award.
Voting is 75 percent based on the selections of the 30 managers and their coaching staffs, and 25 percent based on the SABR Defensive Index, which isn’t publicly available yet that I can find.
The other possible Tiger who wasn’t nominated was shortstop Javier Báez, who was 25th among all defenders and sixth best at the shortstop position and third in the American League with 9 OAA. Bobby Witt Jr. and the Rays’ Wander Franco, who isn’t going to be getting any awards right now, were the two American League shortstops with better numbers than Báez per Statcast.
Interestingly, none of those three was nominated. Instead Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and the Yankees’ Anthony Volpe were the shortstop nominees in the American League. Báez doesn’t look as good in terms of DRS, ranking 12th in the league and sixth in the American League. And of course, with one of the worst hitters in baseball even the Gold Glove awards have their limits. Witt Jr. actually had the wildest disparity between Statcast’s OAA and DRS. he registered 14 OAA and was fourth among all shortstops, but DRS has him at a -6. Such is the state of defensive statistics, particularly in the infield. My money is on Seager here.
Overall, the Tigers defense was judged weak at first base and to a degree at third base as well, but average or better everywhere else on the field. Báez, Jake Rogers, McKinstry, Andy Ibáñez, Akil Baddoo, and Riley Greene were all above average. Matt Vierling checked in with 0 OAA.
Spencer Torkelson registered as one of the least valuable defensive players in the game with a -7 DRS, while Nick Maton managed to put up -11 OAA despite playing only 93 games. Kerry Carpenter and Zack Short were two others in the negative, though more respectably so at -3 and -4, respectively. Parker Meadows proved a force defensively during his 37 games with the Tigers, putting up 3 DRS and 4 OAA in that short span.
With the club unlikely to find the big bat it desperately needs this offseason, shoring up the margins and improving the pitching staff and defense is going to be crucial to putting a significantly better team on the field in 2024.
Internal hope for the 2024 Tigers offense is found in top prospect second baseman Colt Keith, and third baseman/outfielder Justyn-Henry Malloy. However, both are pretty limited defensively. Getting their bats into the lineup without setting the defense back too much will be a balancing act, but if Meadows can continue to produce at the plate and Torkelson can improve his work on ground balls, they should be able to keep the defense in good shape while providing a deeper and more flexibile lineup for Hinch to deploy.