It’s an argument that I’ve not only heard many times from fans of the Philadelphia Phillies, but also one that I have made myself. That Larry Bowa deserved to win more than the two Gold Glove Awards he was honored with during his playing career.
Bowa was the Phillies starting shortstop from his rookie year in 1970 at age 24 through his age 35 season in 1981. A dozen seasons during which we Phillies fans got to watch him excel at the position for 1,739 regular season and another 27 postseason games.
Awarded the National League Gold Glove Award for defensive excellence at the shortstop position in both 1972 and 1978, the argument generally goes that Bowa was penalized for not being as strong offensively as those who were ultimately awarded the honor during other seasons in the 1970’s.
But is it really true? Should Larry Bowa really have won more than those two Gold Glove Awards? Let’s take a closer look.
Voting for the award back then was done solely by managers and coaches. That was the case for decades, and the fact that a player’s offensive statistics and possibly a past reputation were factors is not in dispute.
One of the most egregious examples to highlight this would be when the American League Gold Glove Award at first base went to Rafael Palmeiro of the Texas Rangers in 1999. That year, Palmeiro played in only 28 games at the position. He was primarily the team’s Designated Hitter.
In 1970 and 1971 you could forgive the managers and coaches for overlooking Bowa. He hadn’t established himself in their minds as yet and was playing on poor Phillies teams. The award in 1970 went to 27-year-old, seventh-year Chicago Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger for a second straight season. In 1971, Bud Harrelson of the New York Mets won it at age 27 in his seventh season.
Neither Kessinger or Harrelson would win it again. After Bowa was recognized for the first time in 1972 in his third year at age 26, the honor in 1973 went to 25-year-old Roger Metzger of the Houston Astros, who was in his fourth big-league season.
Metzger appeared in 154 games in that 1973 campaign. He slashed just .250/.299/.322 with only one home run and 10 stolen bases. So, he wasn’t chosen for his offensive reputation, even though Metzger did lead all of baseball with 13 triples that year. Defensively he played 149 games at shortstop for Houston, making 22 errors in handling 706 chances, finishing with a .982 fielding percentage and turning 82 double plays.
In that 1973 season, Bowa may have seen his chances harmed by an injury that knocked him out for the entire month of August. He played only 122 games that year, all at shortstop. Bowa handled 564 chances and made a dozen errors to finish with a .979 fielding percentage while turning 87 double plays.
Bowa was a better fielder than Metzger. But you can see the argument that year based on the fielding percentages and that lost month of play for Bowa.
Now we begin to get to the period that is most in question with Phillies fans. From 1974-79, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Dave Concepcion was awarded the NL honors in five of the six years, interrupted only by Bowa’s second honors in 1978.
In 1974, Bowa played in all 162 games with the Phillies. He handled 730 chances and made just a dozen errors, turning 104 double plays and compiling a .984 fielding percentage. Concepcion played 155 games in what was his first year as the full-time shortstop in Cincy. He handled 805 chances, making 30 errors and ending with a .963 fielding percentage while turning 99 double plays.
In 1974 the Reds won 98 games as Concepcion hit .281 with 14 homers, 82 RBIs, and 41 stolen bases. Bowa hit .275 with one home run, 36 RBIs, and 39 steals for an 80-win Phillies team. To the naked eye and by the stats, Bowa was clearly the better defender. Concepcion’s power advantage made him the more impactful player at the plate. That, combined with the growing ‘Big Red Machine’ mystique pushed the voters his way. This was a Gold Glove that Bowa should have won.
The 1975 season saw Bowa miss time again, this time a month from late May through late June. He finished with 135 games played at shortstop, handling 655 chances and making 25 errors while turning 82 double plays and finishing with a .962 fielding percentage. It would be the lowest mark of his career.
Concepcion played in just 130 games at shortstop himself that year, starting another half-dozen at third base. He handled 699 chances as a shortstop while making 16 errors and turning 102 double plays at the position with a .977 fielding percentage.
It would be tough to argue for Bowa winning a 1975 NL Gold Glove. Other candidates included Tim Foli of Montreal and Chris Speier of San Francisco, but neither was spectacular. Concepcion had a down year with the bat, so that didn’t win it for him. What likely did it was the reputation of having won it the prior year, plus his handling the position with a 108-win Cincinnati team that won the National League pennant.
For a second straight season, Bowa and Concepcion were teammates on the 1976 National League All-Star team as the starting shortstops of the two NL division champions. Bowa played in 156 games at shortstop, making 17 errors while handling 689 chances and turning 90 double plays. He finished with a .975 fielding percentage. Concepcion played 150, handling 837 chances while making 27 errors and turning 93 double plays to end with a .968 fielding percentage.
You can certainly make an argument for Bowa over Concepcion in 1976. However, it’s not a convincing argument. Bowa had a higher fielding percentage. But Concepcion handled nearly 150 more chances while playing 50 fewer innings at the shortstop position. We just cannot say that this absolutely should have been a Bowa win.
After winning two straight NL pennants the ‘Big Red Machine’ fell back to 88 wins in 1977, finishing 10 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. Meanwhile, the Phillies won a franchise-record 101 games to capture a second straight NL East Division crown.
Bowa played in 154 games that year, handling 753 chances and making 13 errors with 94 double plays turned. He finished with a .983 fielding percentage. Concepcion played in 156 games and handled 837 chances, making just 11 errors and turning 101 double plays. He ended up with a .986 fielding percentage. While Bowa had a strong year with the glove, this was Concepcion’s defensive career year. The Reds shortstop earned this Gold Glove Award on merit.
With Bowa taking the honors in 1978, we turn to the 1979 season for the final Bowa-Concepcion comparison. In that final year of the 70’s, Bowa played in 146 games at age 33. He made just six errors while handling 683 chances and turning 80 double plays to end up with a career-best .991 fielding percentage.
Concepcion meanwhile played 148 games and handled 806 chances in 1979, making 27 errors and turning 102 double plays. He finished with a .967 fielding percentage. It’s impossible to make any argument for the Reds shortstop here. Perhaps the Reds winning 90 games to take the NL West crown while the Phillies faded to 84 wins and fourth place was a factor. This should have been Bowa’s fourth Gold Glove Award. Instead, it was Concepcion’s fifth and final career honor.
Bowa could at times get on Concepcion regarding their defensive play. In an article for Delaware Online back in May of this year, longtime Phillies historian Larry Shenk wrote that Bowa once approached his Cincinnati counterpart prior to a game between the two teams and said: “Is your name Elmo? I keep seeing box scores … E-Concepcion.”
And so now we get to 1980. This was, of course, the year that the Phillies would win the first World Series title in franchise history. Bowa started 147 games and had a nice .975 fielding percentage at age 34. Concepcion was now 32-years-old and had a .978 percentage while playing 155 games.
But there was a problem for the two men who had basically dueled for the National League Gold Glove Award at shortstop for the last eight years. A new kid had been emerging for the last couple of seasons. Now in his third year at age 25, the acrobatic Ozzie Smith of the San Diego Padres would earn his first of what would become 13 consecutive NL Gold Glove Awards.
For arguments sake, let’s do a final look at Bowa’s first two years. 1970 was his rookie year and Bowa handled 633 chances and ended with a .979 fielding percentage. Kessinger won the honors with a .972 mark while handling 780 chances. In 1971 he finished with a .987 fielding percentage handling 843 chances. Harrelson won handling 714 and ending at the .978 mark. For me, I understand 1970. But by 1971, Bowa was the best defensive shortstop in the NL and should have won the award over the New Yorker.
So, when we examine the 1970’s in the National League and compare Larry Bowa of the Phillies to the other top fielders at the shortstop position during the decade the answer seems obvious. Yes, Bowa should indeed have won more than two Gold Glove Awards. He easily could have won four and likely should have won five during the decade: 1971-72, 1974, and 1977-78.