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How defense helps or hurts players on the Hall of Fame ballot

Is Andruw Jones' peerless statistical case in center field enough to get him to Cooperstown? AP Photo/Charles Bennett

It would be inaccurate to say that a shelf full of Gold Gloves used to be easily converted into a golden ticket to Cooperstown, not when players such as 11-time winner Keith Hernandez, nine-timer Don Mattingly and a handful of eight-timers (Mark Belanger, Paul Blair, Jim Edmonds, George Scott and Frank White) are on the outside looking in. Indeed, most of those players never came close to being elected to the Hall of Fame. Nonetheless, as voters from the Baseball Writers' Association of America increasingly turn to all-encompassing advanced statistics such as Wins Above Replacement to aid in the completion of their annual ballots, the true worthiness of current candidates such as 11-time Gold Glover Omar Vizquel, 10-time winner Andruw Jones, eight-time winner Scott Rolen and seven-time winner Larry Walker is the subject of many spirited debates.

Those debates come at a time when ballots are overcrowded with statistically qualified candidates, in part due to a split within the electorate over how to handle those connected to performance-enhancing drugs. Leaving that thorny topic aside (as best we can), the advanced fielding stats incorporated into various flavors of WAR can differ significantly from metric to metric while providing stark contrast to perceptions of a player's defensive prowess.

For example, consider 10-time Gold Glove winner Ken Griffey Jr., who in 2016 was elected to the Hall with a record 99.3 percent of the vote. Via the combination of defensive runs saved (DRS) and total zone (TZ, a methodology used for the pre-2003 period before batted-ball classifications were introduced) used within Baseball-Reference.com's version of WAR, Junior was just 3 runs above average in the field. He even rated as below average in a couple seasons when he won Gold Gloves thanks to his reputation amid an imperfect and all-too-subjective process. None of that hampered Hall voters, but when it comes to candidates who weren't transcendent superstars with 600-plus home runs (and clean reputations with regard to PEDs), defensive metrics must be reckoned with.