Last week, Christina Kahrl -- you see her byline here on a regular basis -- was in town and while at dinner one night she mentioned the worst play she ever saw, when Ryne Sandberg threw the ball to first base ... as the winning run scored from third.
That led to a little discussion about Sandberg's defense. Christina thought Sandberg's defense was overrated; yes, he won nine straight Gold Gloves from 1983 to 1991, a key reason he got into the Hall of Fame without much difficulty. His defensive metrics on Baseball-Reference are certainly solid, with +60 fielding runs above average, which ranks 23rd among second basemen. Christina's argument was that Sandberg wasn't good at turning the double play, that, in fact, Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston was often irritated because Sandberg often took the force play and stepped towards left field rather than trying to complete the double play.
I'd never heard that before, but this was pre-Internet, so unless you lived in Chicago it was a little detail you wouldn't have necessarily heard about. Certainly, Sandberg's defensive reputation remained strong throughout his career to my memory.
So, having just heard about this, I was reading one of the latest installments on defense that Bill James is posting at Bill James Online. (It's pay content but go spend the $3 monthly fee just to read this ongoing series of articles.) Bill is doing a historical overview of defense, having developing a new rating system; he started with catcher and is now up to second base. Under this system, he credits Sandberg with zero Gold Gloves. He doesn't rate him as a bad second baseman, just not the best in any single year.
And the reason why? Double plays. Bill writes,
My system figures "expected double plays" on the team level, and then credits the second basemen on the team if the team turns more double plays than expected. The number of expected double plays for a team is
The estimated number of Runners on First Base Against the Team,
Times the league percentage of Double Plays as a Percentage of Runners on First Base,
Modified by the team’s Assists per Innings Pitched (the assists being a near-perfect stand-in for the ground ball rate.)
Under this methodology, Sandberg rates as the second-worst double play guy over a career at -122 DPs below expectations, behind somebody named Ralph Young who played from 1915 to 1922. "That's the reason my system doesn't see Sandberg as deserving of the Gold Glove(s)," James writes. (H)is DP numbers are poor. Otherwise he looks great, but his teams underachieved in Double Play performance every year from 1981 to 1992."
From 1983 to 1992, Sandberg's years as a regular -- he played 150-plus games every year except one in that span -- here are the Cubs rankings in the NL in double plays by second basemen:
Remember, the raw number of double plays is influenced by the numbers of baserunners and Cubs pitchers were usually allowing a lot of baserunning in these years, so the Cubs may rank even lower if you examined total opportunities. It appears Sandberg was pretty good in 1983 -- the Cubs tied for the league lead in 6-4-3 double plays -- but at some point it does appear he made the decision to not risk injury by trying to turn two and getting upended by the runner. Instead, he simply got out of the way.
With a quick search, I couldn't find a Dunston quote talking about his double play partner, but the evidence certainly backs up Christina's memory. Of course, you can debate the merits of Sandberg's decision; according to James' method, he cost the Cubs about 10 double plays a year but he was also amazingly durable, averaging 154 games played over a 10-year span while playing second base. Maybe Sandberg made the right decision by minimizing his injury risk. Overall, Baseball-Reference docks Sandberg only 14 runs over his career for his double play ability.
Now, about Roberto Alomar ...