Earlier this week, Louisville Slugger kicked off Major League Baseball’s annual awards season by announcing the finalists for the 2021 Silver Slugger Awards. First awarded in 1980, the Silver Slugger Awards honor the best offensive players in each league at all nine positions, with the American League awarding one for the designated hitter and the National League one for the pitcher.
At least, they’re designed to honor the best offensive players in each league, but because they’re voted on by the players and coaches, strange results sometimes occur. Take, for example, the 2021 AL nominees, which somehow contain five Yankees despite the team posting a middling 101 wRC+:
Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are deserving candidates, for obvious reasons. While it wouldn’t be a total upset if neither brought home the hardware — Ohtani has the DH spot in the bag, and outfield is arguably the deepest position — both more than deserved their nominations. The same cannot be said for the other three Yankees candidates.
DJ LeMahieu, the winner of the previous two Silver Sluggers for AL second basemen, was named a finalist despite a near-consensus disappointing season in which he fell to a .268/.349/.362 triple slash. That was good for only a league-average 100 wRC+, tied with Jed Lowrie for sixth among American Leaguers at the keystone. Meanwhile, Gary Sánchez, who won the award in 2017, posted a wRC+ that was actually slightly below-average at 99, although the scarcity of offensive production at the position (that wRC+ is actually fifth at the position among those with at least 350 plate appearances) and home run power (his 23 home runs are tied for third among AL backstops) make it at least somewhat understandable.
Joey Gallo’s nomination, however, is truly mystifying. Sure, his numbers are pretty good, although not necessarily on the Silver Slugger tier. His 38 home runs are tied for ninth in the AL, but his 123 wRC+ tied for 29th — there’s a case to be made, especially since he’s third in homers among outfielders. The problem is that Gallo wasn’t nominated as an outfielder; he was nominated as a designated hitter, a position he played just 14 times this season.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time some weirdness happened with positions in the award nominations. In 2018, J.D. Martinez won the award twice, as both an outfielder and a designated hitter, despite playing just 57 games in the field that year. Three years earlier, Nelson Cruz similarly won as an outfielder despite playing the field barely a sliver more than half the time (80 games in the field, 72 as the DH). And although it’s the part-time designated hitters that have given the nominations the most trouble, in truth it’s really all multi-position players: LeMahieu played only 75 games at second base when he won the award in 2019, after all, as he manned third 52 times and first 40 times.
That leaves us with two problems to solve. The second one, regarding multi-position players, is actually a fairly easy solution: simply create more awards.
Members of the starting lineup who play multiple positions for their team are becoming more and more common: LeMahieu started more than 39 games at three positions, Leury García of the White Sox started 122 games despite not manning a single spot more than 36 times, Kiké Hernández played the most games in center and second-most at second for the Red Sox, and Joey Wendle, Yandy Díaz, and Mike Brosseau frequently moved around the infield for the Rays. Introduce a minimum games played at a position for the Silver Slugger Award (thus removing the “Why was he nominated there?” and “How was he nominated twice?” issues), create a new category or two (perhaps Utilityman and Part-Time DH?), and you’re good to go.
The first problem is a bit more complicated, however. In many ways, the fact that the players and coaches vote for the award is part of what makes it endearing — the honor is bestowed not by sportswriters or fans, but by the very people who they’re competing against on a daily basis. Nonetheless, it introduces a problem, and that is the human element. When you consider just their stats on the 2021 season, there’s no reason for LeMahieu to have received a nomination at all this year, regardless of his position, and it’s only positional scarcity that makes Sánchez even a hypothetical option. Rather, it’s their reputations as fearsome hitters, the type that you are always wary of because they can change a game in an instant, that almost certainly gave them their nominations.
Fortunately, the Gold Glove Award helps give us a path to fix this, as they went through a similar problem a decade ago. After years of controversy, Rawlings partnered with SABR to incorporate SDI (SABR Defensive Index) into the process, giving advanced defensive metrics a full 25 percent of the vote — enough to make a difference, but not enough to completely outweigh the vote. Louisville Sluggers can simply use this blueprint, incorporating “traditional” advanced stats such as wRC+ and WAR, Statcast-based data like xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA, or some combination thereof. Doing this would provide an objective foundation while still allowing for personal discretion on the count of the voters to have the final say.
Even before the winners have been revealed, the list of finalists has shown that the process behind the Silver Sluggers is flawed, and needs to be brought into the realities of 21st-century baseball. Fortunately, the solution is simple — if only the award’s sponsors and Major League Baseball are willing to make the leap.