Congratulations to Kolten Wong for winning the first Gold Glove of his career. He deserved to win it this year, and arguably, last year as well. With that said, there were some winners this year that did not deserve to take home their awards. Anthony Rizzo was probably one of the least deserving winners in the National League. This does not make him a bad fielder; in fact, he is very good. However, the other finalists - Paul Goldschmidt and Christian Walker - were simply more deserving.
Anthony Rizzo had a fine season at first base for the Cubs. He had a .996 fielding percentage, 3 DRS, and a 2.9 UZR/150. However, these are not the best numbers at the position. While he finished first in UZR/150 in the NL among qualified first basemen, he was sixth in the NL in DRS. Also, the 14 out of zone plays that he made this season put him in eighth place in the league. These are the numbers of a solid defensive first baseman, but not a gold-glove caliber first baseman. He is no longer the first baseman that posted a combined 43 DRS in the four-year span of 2013 through 2016.
Paul Goldschmidt was a better defensive first baseman this season. He finished tied for fourth in the NL with 4 DRS and third with 2.5 UZR/150. He also made 23 out of zone plays, good for sixth in the league. While Goldy and Rizzo were quite similar in terms of DRS and UZR/150, Goldschmidt showed much better range at first base, making an extra nine out of zone plays. Both players posted a .996 fielding percentage, showing an ability to make nearly all of the plays that they needed to make. However, the better range of Goldschmidt and his added ability to help his pitchers by making plays in the hole that Rizzo was unable to reach presents a strong case for the Cardinals first baseman.
While Goldschmidt had a very strong season at first base, it was Christian Walker who had the most compelling case to win the Gold Glove. Walker finished second only to Rizzo in UZR/150 with 2.6. However, he was far and away the better fielder in terms of DRS. He led the league’s first basemen with nine, two more than Joey Votto, who finished in second place. He also made 33 out of zone plays, more than twice as many than Rizzo.
Walker showed exceptional range at the corner of the infield and was capable of making more plays than most first basemen. However, while he was largely a huge asset at first base, he posted the worst fielding percentage of the three (.991). While this definitely does not support the idea that he was better than Rizzo, he made just six more errors and 19 more out of zone plays. Walker clearly needs to make a higher percentage of the more routine plays, but his ability to make the extraordinary play is unmatched among the other finalists.
It should not have been a surprise to see Rizzo win the Gold Glove. The voting process has long been biased towards players that are good hitters or saw the field a bit more, unless a player is so dominant on the defensive side that their bat truly does not matter. One example of this is Kolten Wong missing out on the award last year to DJ LeMahieu, who has been one of the better hitters for average in last couple years. Before winning the award, LeMahieu had batted above .300 for three straight seasons.
LeMahieu’s 2018 was a bit of a down year for him as he batted just .276, but he had already established himself as a solid contact hitter which certainly helped his case for the Gold Glove (even though it should not). This year, it appears that Christian Walker (and Goldschmidt to a lesser extent) was a victim of this bias. Rizzo had a much better season at the plate than either of these players. Rizzo finished the season with a 141 wRC+ while Goldy ended the year at 116 and Walker at 112.
Some people prefer Fielding Bible awards as opposed to the Gold Glove award because it seems to take away this bias towards better hitters. In fact, Kolten Wong won the Fielding Bible award at second base last season, not LeMahieu. However, Fielding Bible only chooses one winner per position; they do not separate it by league. Matt Olson won the award at first base this season as he was far and away the best defensive first baseman in the MLB. So, unfortunately, we do not know which of the three NL Gold Glove finalists were preferred by Fielding Bible. It would have been interesting to see if they would have preferred Walker, who appeared to have the stronger statistical case to win the award, despite his status as somewhat of a dark horse.
Nevertheless, it was Rizzo who won the Gold Glove award, even though he was likely not the most deserving player. This does not detract from his strong defensive abilities, but it seemed like Walker, or even Goldschmidt (maybe) would have been a better selection.