Defensive metrics supported Ian Happ’s Gold Glove case — but he doesn’t have to like them

Happ was the Cubs’ lone Gold Glove recipient this year.

SHARE Defensive metrics supported Ian Happ’s Gold Glove case — but he doesn’t have to like them
Cubs left fielder Ian Happ dives to cut Louis Cardinals’ Juan Yepez’s fly ball to a single during the second inning of a baseball game Friday, June 24, 2022, in St. Louis. Happ threw out Yepez at second on the play.

Cubs left fielder Ian Happ dives to cut Louis Cardinals’ Juan Yepez’s fly ball to a single during the second inning of a baseball game Friday, June 24, 2022, in St. Louis. Happ threw out Yepez at second on the play.

Jeff Roberson/AP

Cubs left fielder Ian Happ took note when he and the Padres’ Jurickson Profar were “neck-in-neck” in defensive runs saved. Then, with Happ’s highlight-filled play late in the season, he ran away with the lead among National League left fielders.

“We were really locked into it, starting in a couple weeks into the season,” Happ said in his Gold Glove press conference over Zoom on Tuesday, “just with our outfield model, and then our outfield positioning and how those things matched up.”

Don’t, however, mistake his attention to positioning-related metrics for an endorsement of defensive statistics overall. Happ’s crusade is far from over. If anything, his Gold Glove, and the support defensive metrics gave his campaign this year, lend more authority to his criticism.

“It’s always been a tough thing to value and to evaluate,” Happ said in a conversation with the Sun-Times during the regular season. “And I think they’re trying to put a number behind it because that’s where everything has gone. But there’s little things that go into a game or playing defense that are hard to evaluate.”

Defensive metrics are improving all the time. Just this past spring, FanGraphs adjusted its calculation for the defensive component of wins above replacement, retroactive to 2016. Most players didn’t see a dramatic change, but former Cubs shortstop Javy Báez had the second-largest positive swing over the six years: his WAR across that span jumped from 17.8 to 22 with the new formula.

As much as the change reflects baseball’s efforts to refine its measurement of defensive prowess, it also points to how much room there still is for improvement. So does the lack of agreement on one WAR figure. There are three main versions of WAR (from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus) publicly available, not to mention individual teams’ models. They vary in multiple components, including their measurement of fielding value, none of which are perfect.

“It’s hard to evaluate when you’re playing a ball off a wall and keeping a guy from advancing to second,” Happ said. “Or being in the right spot, you don’t have to move that much. If you’re better at being in the right spots, you don’t get as many points because you don’t have to run so far, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re less athletic. Or you can be in the wrong spot, and you have to run down a ball, and you get like a bunch of points, but it’s really not the right thing to do.”

WAR isn’t just a number on a computer screen, either. When WAR enters arbitration conversations — either directly or by way of end-of-season awards — it has real-life ramifications.

During last winter’s collective bargaining negotiations, MLB proposed replacing the current arbitration system with a WAR-based algorithm, using FanGraphs’ figure (fWAR). The players association rejected the proposal.

“The arbitration system allows us as players to fight for a fraction of what we think we’re worth and to use each other to keep raising the bar,” said Happ, who is the Cubs’ MLBPA representative and entering his third year of arbitration. “And so, a system that puts us in a place where you’ll only be evaluated by a number, there’s probably a lot of reasons for that.

“Arbitration is expensive, it takes time, it’s not the cleanest process ever. But there’s a lot of reasons why arbitration is a system the players have fought for over the years and something that we want to maintain.”

Happ has been consistent in his stance on defensive metrics’ shortcomings, expressing similar frustrations on his podcast, ‘The Compound.’ His feelings didn’t change when his 13 defensive runs saved led all National League left fielders this season, or his eight outfield assists put him behind only Profar (10).

Rawlings’ Gold Glove selection process relies heavily on managers’ and coaches’ votes, but 25 percent of it goes to the SABR Defensive Index, which pulls data from a range of sources to rank fielders. Happ came in first in SDI (7.2) among NL left fielders as well.

The best metrics reflect reality, and Happ’s comfort in left field this season was plain to see. He said he noticed it in late April at Atlanta, when he got a good jump and chased down a fly ball in the left-center gap.

He also named a sliding catch at Busch Stadium to rob Paul Goldschmidt of a base hit down the line, and a grab at Wrigley field while sliding into the wall, as his favorite plays this season.

At the same time, he was tracking where he ranked in the league in various defensive metrics and observed the kinds of plays that gave him a boost or hurt his numbers. And he stocked his arsenal with gripes and suggestions to improve the measurement of defense.

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