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Remember what it feels like to have a player snubbed in end-of-year awards, Diamondbacks fans? Memories of Paul Goldschmidt’s second-place finish in 2013 NL MVP voting may have rushed back for some on Tuesday, as outfielder Daulton Varsho fell short of winning his first career Gold Glove award.
While unfortunate for fans, Varsho’s exclusion was somewhat unsurprising. Despite being a finalist for a Gold Glove in both right field and in the new utility category, he was not viewed as the favorite in either.
When all was said and done, Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers won the award in right field and St. Louis Cardinals super utility man Brendan Donovan took the newly added utility category. However, defense metrics suggest that Varsho probably should have beaten both of them — and that he was arguably the best outfielder in baseball in 2022.
To be fair, Betts did have an excellent season in right field, and he is by no means a poor Gold Glove candidate. Betts had 15 defensive runs saved (DRS), four outs above average (OAA) and a 12.5 ultimate zone rating (UZR) in 2022. At the very least, he is certainly no Juan Soto, who had no business being a finalist in the first place.
However, when comparing Varsho and Betts head-to-head, Varsho appears to have the upper hand. (In order to ensure an apples-to-apples comparison, these numbers only reflect performance in right field.)
Varsho wins two out of the three categories, but it is pretty close. Based on these numbers alone, maybe Varsho should have won, but defense metrics are not precise enough to make a big deal over such small differences.
What those numbers leave out, however, is that Betts played more than twice as many innings as Varsho in right field. DRS, OAA and UZR are all counting stats, meaning that they are more analogous to home runs than batting average. Good defenders get more as the season progresses. Essentially, we are looking at two 20-home run hitters, one with 500 plate appearances and the other with around 250. Who is the better hitter?
It would be irresponsible to ignore the fact that Varsho arguably had more defensive value in less than half as much opportunity. The following table scales the above stats to a per-150-game basis. The gap between Betts and Varsho grows from microscopic to enormous.
Granted, this comparison gives Varsho a lot of credit for what he was on pace to do, not what he actually did. That is a fair criticism. Betts played 136 games in right field this year and was very good. Varsho was even better in 71 games, but it was only 71 games. Who knows if he actually would have maintained that performance for another 65 games?
Pretty much anyone who watched Varsho play defense this year, that’s who. On top of his contributions in right field, Varsho played 54 games in center field in 2022. His metrics there were elite, too.
Nonetheless, Varsho’s lack of innings in right field — alongside Betts’ name credibility and impeccable defensive reputation — was likely a big factor in his coming away empty on Tuesday. Those innings were not missed due to injury, though. He missed them because he opened the year in center, paving the way for Alek Thomas. Then, he filled in at catcher — the original position he was drafted to play — when Carson Kelly got hurt in June.
Somehow, Varsho’s greatest flaw as a Gold Glove candidate was his versatility. Had he played a whole year in center field, his defense metrics suggest he would have run away with the Gold Glove award over the San Diego Padres’ Trent Grisham. Had he spent the whole year in right field, the metrics suggest with near certainty he would far surpass Betts’ numbers in right field.
Not even the new utility category of Gold Glove — which, on paper, was tailor-made to award players like Varsho — could save him. That award went to the aforementioned Donovan, who beat out Varsho and Cardinals teammate Tommy Edman.
Varsho’s case for the Gold Glove utility player award was not as compelling as his case for right field, but his defensive metrics were actually better than Donovan’s. If anything, the award probably should have gone to Edman, who was excellent at both shortstop and second base for the Cardinals. Nonetheless, had Varsho not taken a break from the outfield to catch 31 games, it is entirely possible that he could have had the best case for the utility award, too.
In 2022, Varsho led all MLB outfielders in OAA and UZR/150, and his 19 DRS were tied for second in baseball. Since DRS was first tracked in 2003, only two Diamondbacks outfielders have ever had more in a single season: Gerardo Parra (33 DRS) in 2013 and Ender Inciarte (27 DRS) in 2015.
Parra won the award as a right fielder in 2013. Inciarte split time at all three outfield positions in 2015. Like Varsho, he did not win anything as a result.
Notably, Inciarte went on to win three straight Gold Glove awards from 2016-18 for the Atlanta Braves, who played him consistently in center field. Perhaps the same could happen for Varsho, should the Diamondbacks define a specific position for him moving forward.
Despite Varsho being left out, Christian Walker became the second Diamondback in franchise history to win a Gold Glove award at first base on Tuesday. The other, of course, is Paul Goldschmidt, who won it three times during his time in Arizona.
Walker far outpaced the competition at first base in 2022. Despite playing what is often viewed as the least valuable position on the diamond, Walker was the fifth-most valuable defender in the National League, according to his SABR Defensive Index (SDI). SDI rankings account for 25 percent of the Gold Glove selection process, with the other 75 percent coming from managers and coaches.
One final note on Varsho: Ronald Blum of the Associated Press reported that the Super Two cutoff for 2022 was set at two years and 128 days of service time. That means Varsho — who has exactly two years and 128 days of major league service — will enter arbitration a year early, increasing his salary from around $700,000 to an estimated $2.8 million for 2022. To be clear, Varsho’s Super Two designation does not change the fact that he is under team control through 2026.
Top photo: Antranik Tavitian/The Republic