During most of the more than 130 years that major league baseball has been played, the measurement of defensive excellence was done using one simple stat: errors. To this day, many who vote for gold glove winners make errors the major consideration (or, in some situation, they make the absurd choice to factor in the player’s offensive contributions).

Errors are a funny thing. First of all, an error is the judgment of the home team’s official scorer. All official scorers are not created equal – some are more kind to fielders than others. If you happen to play for a scorer who doesn’t call many errors, you’ll rack up fewer errors. The field itself can also contribute to the number of errors. Some fields produce a more consistent movement from the ball, while others are more prone to odd hops. A team can also choose to allow the grass to grow higher – with the result being that the ball is moving more slowly, thus giving the fielder more time to react (this does have the related effect of allowing batters to more easily beat out an infield hit).

So, what, then, should we use? Putouts and assists? These are just as bad. First of all, strikeouts can affects these numbers. A team whose pitchers rack up a lot of strikeouts will result in relatively few chances for fielders to make a play on the ball. Additionally, the quality of the other players also has an effect. Put a great defensive shortstop alongside a second baseman and third baseman who have limited range, and the shortstop is going to rack up some very impressive assist numbers, as he’ll suck up everything between second and third. On the other hand, put great defensive players and second base, shortstop, and third base, and it is likely that all of them will have strong statistics, but none of them will produce eye popping numbers. Why? Because regardless of how good this trio is, there are a finite number of balls that will be hit into this area – and they are competing with each other for the chances.

There are advanced defensive metrics to measure the quality of the defense, but these aren’t something the casual fan is going to be able to measure easily. I would suggest a rather simple system for scoring at home. The system is based on the fact that the defensive player’s goal should not merely be to reduce the number of errors they make, but to minimize the number of base runners the teams allows.

  • Error on a routine play: -1 points
  • Error on what would have been a great play: 0 points
  • Didn’t get to a ball he should have gotten to: -1 points
  • Great defensive play: +1 points

What does this system do? First, it rewards a player for making an effort on a player that would typically go for a hit. Even if the player fails to make a play on the ball, he isn’t penalized. Indeed, why should he be penalized? If a player makes a great defensive play to get to a ball, and then pulls the first baseman off the bag with his throw, why treat him worse (by charging him with an error) than a player who never got to the ball in the first place?

The second thing the system does is penalize players who have deficient range. If I don’t get to a ball that 90% of players in the league would get to, this is just as bad as if I get to the ball and make an error – in either case, the runner reaches.

Use this system for a while and see what it tells you about player on your team. Maybe that error-prone defensive player is actually saving your team a ton of runs because he’s getting to balls that nobody else would lay a glove on (and occasionally making errors on those balls). Maybe that gold glove second baseball rarely makes an error because he has the range of a mannequin.