Starting tomorrow, Grantland will feature four straight weeks of playoff baseball coverage. We’ll have series previews, game reviews, analysis, and readings from The Tao of Nate McLouth. Just one more item before launching into full-on Rocktober mode: awards!
We’ve got Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year honors to hand out. We’ll leave Manager of the Year alone, since much of a manager’s value comes from difficult-to-quantify measures, and I question the validity of writers voting on that award with little more than year-to-year team records to guide their decisions. Remember that, as always, we’re using hard data and objective analysis when picking winners, not narratives or entertaining stories. Also, if your guy doesn’t win, know that it’s because we’re spectacularly biased. Against your team, your player, and especially you personally. That means you, Steve.
AL MVP: Mike Trout
One of the byproducts of the heated debate that’s unfolded over this year’s AL MVP is the validity of Wins Above Replacement. If you want a detailed discussion of what WAR is and what its strengths and flaws are, read this or this. We will not be using WAR to explain why Mike Trout is the American League’s most valuable player.
Let’s start with Trout’s hitting. Miguel Cabrera has been lauded for his terrific offensive season, and rightfully so. Heading into Tuesday’s games, Cabrera led the league with a .331 batting average, ranked fourth with a .394 on-base percentage, and led the league by slugging .608. Thing is, Trout’s raw hitting numbers aren’t far off Cabrera’s. His .324 batting average trails only Cabrera. His .397 OBP places him third in the league, just ahead of Cabrera. And his .561 slugging average trails only Cabrera and Josh Hamilton.
Baseball isn’t basketball, though; the dimensions of every field differ, and weather conditions can also play a significant role in either helping or suppressing offense. Using ESPN’s park factors, whether for 2012 alone or factoring in 2010 and 2011 results to produce a three-year comparison, we can see that Comerica Park gives hitters a moderate boost. Angel Stadium, on the other hand, has ranked as the fourth-worst park for hitters in each of the past three years. If we want to even out those differences in park effects, there are stats that do that. One such stat is called OPS+. OPS, as you probably know, is the sum of on-base percentage and slugging average. It’s an imperfect metric in that it assumes equal value for OBP and slugging, when in fact getting on base (and not making outs) has been shown to be a more useful skill for creating runs. Thus using OPS, or OPS+, which takes that stat and adjusts for park and league effects, should favor Cabrera, the better slugger, over Trout, the slightly better on-base guy.
Trout leads the AL with a 169 OPS+. Cabrera ranks second at 167. If you’d prefer to use a stat that places more appropriate value on OBP vs. slugging (but does not adjust for park differences, which should favor Cabrera), we can use Weighted On Base Average (wOBA). Through Monday, Trout led the AL with a .421 wOBA; Cabrera was second at .417. (Trout also leads Cabrera in Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), a stat that more accurately weights OBP vs. slugging and adjusts for park and league effects. But it also includes stolen bases and caught-stealing totals, and we want to focus on hitting only for now.) In other words, on a per-at-bat basis, you could argue that Trout has been a better hitter this season than Cabrera.
This isn’t meant to diminish Cabrera’s own excellent season. The Angels waited nearly a month to call up Trout from the minors, allowing Cabrera to play 22 more games than the Angels center fielder. Which means that Cabrera’s bat has been worth more to the Tigers, overall, than Trout’s has to the Halos. The idea here is merely to remind you that Trout has been a terrific hitter this year in his own right, at the very least in the same ballpark as Cabrera.
And Trout absolutely annihilates Cabrera with his legs and his glove.
Trout leads the league with 49 stolen bases, to Cabrera’s four. Stolen bases have fallen out of favor over the past 20 years, understandably so given the simultaneous rise in power numbers. But a player who steals a lot of bases and rarely gets caught can still be a valuable asset to his team. While swiping 49 bags, Trout has been caught only four times, for a success rate of 92 percent. To put that in perspective, the breakeven rate for a player to steal bases without hurting his team by making too many outs is a little over 70 percent. Using FanGraphs’ Base Running Runs stat, we see that Trout leads all of baseball by a wide margin, having produced nearly seven runs of value for the Angels just by virtue of his taking extra bases in non-steal situations. If we combine Trout’s base-stealing prowess with those extra bases in non-steal spots, he’s been worth nearly 10 runs to his team. (By comparison, Cabrera has cost his team at least two runs with his legs, depending on the metric you use.) Put another way, Trout wins one game for the Angels this year on aggregate just with his legs — before we get to his bat or his glove.
That glove has been phenomenal by any measure. If you want to use UZR, Trout’s saved more than 13 runs this season, placing him sixth among all AL players, despite Trout spending most of April in the minors. If you prefer Baseball-Reference.com metrics, Trout’s 22 Defensive Runs Saved also rank among baseball’s super-elite. Read this post from ESPN Stats & Info if you want a more detailed look at how Trout saves so many runs in the outfield. (If you want to turn off your analysis switch for a second, feel free to view any of Trout’s four home-run robberies this season, including this all-timer off J.J. Hardy.) You can call Cabrera selfless or noble or anything else for moving to third base when Prince Fielder signed. But the bottom line is that he’s cost his team more than nine runs (nearly one full win) by UZR, and four by DRS.
Add it all up and, without the benefit of WAR or any other catchall stat, Trout comes out well ahead.
Before we move on to the other awards, a few “But What About?!” questions:
But what about the first Triple Crown in 45 years?
Great accomplishment. But the award recognizes the most valuable player, not the most valuable hitter, and Trout’s vastly superior baserunning and defense trumps Cabrera’s moderate offensive advantage. Moreover, the Triple Crown only looks at three measures of offense, one of them highly team-dependent (runs batted in). It tells us nothing about Cabrera’s walks, singles, doubles, triples, steals, times grounding into double plays, or any number of other stats. Yelling “Triple Crown!” and dropping a metaphorical mic is not a cogent argument.
But what about Cabrera going off in September, while Trout cooled down?
One win counts for one win in April, May, June, July, August, or September. But if you want to try to ascribe higher leverage to September at-bats the way you would ninth-inning at-bats in tie games, sure, go ahead.
But what about Cabrera leading his team to the playoffs, while Trout led his team to the golf course?
Leaving aside the Angels’ superior record in a much tougher division, the teammates your general manager picks for you should have no bearing on a player’s value. Trout did more this year to help his team win than did Cabrera (or anyone else, including Robinson Cano, who’s had a hell of a year and could be argued to have produced about as much value as Cabrera, maybe even a little more) and Adrian Beltre (another candidate with value comparable to Cabrera’s who’s not coming up in the main Trout vs. Cabrera debate). He is therefore the league’s most valuable player.
NL MVP: Buster Posey
Now here’s a much tougher race to call. If we do want to introduce WAR into the equation this time, Ryan Braun is tied with Posey and they hold a slight edge over the pack. Just so we’re clear, this isn’t a vote against whatever Braun did or didn’t do when he failed a drug test (that was later overturned) last year. If a player delivered 0.00001 percent more value to his team than the second-most-valuable player in the league while injecting ground-up unicorn horns into his eyeballs before every game, he’d still be my MVP.
I’m backing Posey because I don’t think stats — be they traditional or advanced — fully convey the difficulty of producing a big year while catching nearly every day. Before I get my nerd card ripped up and get exiled from Stathead Island forever, keep in mind we’re not talking about imagined pixie dust qualities here. Just that squatting for nine innings, 110 to 140 times a year, takes something out of even the best-conditioned catchers, in a way that running down fly balls in the gap or ranging after grounders in the hole do not. And also that we still haven’t quite completely cracked the code of catcher defense. We’ve got Mike Fast’s excellent research on pitch framing to advance the discussion and help us understand why a team could possibly want to employ Jose Molina. But we still don’t know, say, how many runs a catcher saves by presenting a better target for the pitcher than his counterparts do. And there are probably 20 other factors we haven’t even pondered yet.
This isn’t to say I’d vote for a generically good offensive catcher over an offensive superstar. But in Posey’s case, we’re talking about an everyday catcher hitting .337/.410/.551, making him the fourth-best hitter in the league — right there with beasts like Giancarlo Stanton and Andrew McCutchen — before we even touch his position. Posey hasn’t quite been an everyday catcher, going behind the plate 113 of the 147 times he’s played this season. But that’s still enough for me to apply catcher tiebreaker rules when considering players of similar value like Braun and Posey.
Several other candidates don’t miss by much, incidentally. McCutchen probably wins this award if the season ended at the All-Star break. Yadier Molina doesn’t quite have Posey’s offensive numbers, but he’s still had an excellent offensive season, and probably ranks top three in terms of total defensive contributions for any player at any position. Joey Votto might be the most deserving candidate if he hadn’t hit the disabled list for as long as he did. Chase Headley has had a ludicrously good offensive season for someone playing in Petco Park, to say nothing of his other skills. David Wright’s all-around excellence this year leaves him close. And Braun’s hitting .320/.392/.598, with 80 extra-base hits and 30 steals.
Still, give it to Posey, by a nosey. (Please address all hate mail c/o Grantland HQ, Los Angeles.)
AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander
Time for the favorite exercise of pointy-headed types like me:
Pitcher A: 251 IP, 9.0 K/2.0 BB/0.9 HR per 9 innings, 2.40 ERA, 2.99 FIP
Pitcher B: 238⅓ IP, 9.0 K/2.3 BB/0.7 HR per 9 innings, 2.64 ERA, 2.95 FIP
Pretty damn close, right? You give the very slight edge to Pitcher A for making the equivalent of two extra starts. By a per-inning basis, these are ostensibly identical seasons.
So why did Pitcher A, Justin Verlander 2011, win the AL Cy Young by a landslide and bag MVP honors, while Pitcher B, Justin Verlander 2012, has no chance in hell of repeating as league MVP and could have his hands full trying to repeat for Cy Young? Well, competition certainly matters, with Trout having the best season for a center fielder in half a century and Cabrera on his way to a feat that hasn’t been accomplished in nearly that long, plus several starting pitchers putting up impressive numbers. But the bigger reason, I would submit, is that Verlander went 24-5 last year and 17-8 this year. Go back and look at Verlander’s other numbers again. Pretty clear that circumstances either somewhat or entirely beyond his control — run support, bullpen support, defense, distribution of runs allowed vs. runs scored in particular games, batting average on balls in play — played a crucial role in tamping down his won-lost record this year, and with it the Verlander mystique that formed last season.
He was great then, and he’s great now. Verlander leads the AL in innings pitched, ranks second in ERA and FIP (trailing only David Price and Felix Hernandez, respectively, and neither ERA nor FIP adjusts for the fact that Verlander pitches in a considerably tougher park for run prevention than Price or Felix do), and is fourth in strikeout rate. We don’t concern ourselves with won-lost record for the reasons mentioned earlier, which leaves 20-game winners Price and Jered Weaver to compete with Verlander in generating as many outs as possible, while also considering each pitcher’s home environment. By that standard, it’s Verlander over those two, Felix, Chris Sale, and anyone else you want to introduce into the debate.
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
Before we delve into this agonizingly close race, a tip of the cap to Cliff Lee, who, thanks to a virtually unhittable second half, made himself into someone worthy of Cy Young consideration, despite winning six games all season. Wish Lee had been just a little better in the first half so I could have gone to bat for a pitcher with six (six!!!) wins.
So why Kershaw over the rest of the field?
• He’s struck out the highest percentage of hitters faced among qualified NL starters, at 25.3 percent.
• He leads the league in ERA (2.58) and ranks second in FIP (2.92).
• He ranks second in innings pitched at 219⅔.
Even after some demerit points for pitching in Dodger Stadium, Kershaw’s accomplishments are still Cy-worthy. With the Dodgers now eliminated, Kershaw will nonetheless start the final game of the season, giving him a chance to pad his résumé (though we’re not counting that hypothetical performance here).
Honestly, though? R.A. Dickey is a fine pick for NL Cy Young. So’s Gio Gonzalez or Johnny Cueto. These starting pitchers’ numbers are bunched so close together that it’s tough to come up with a wrong answer.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. There is a wrong answer — voting for any relief pitcher. Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman have put up borderline historic numbers as the closers for their respective teams (as has Fernando Rodney in the AL). But today’s closers throw about one-third as many innings as the league’s top starters, sometimes even less. Even after accounting for leverage, the innings argument would be enough to swing the Cy Young vote toward starters, barring an absolutely horrific year for the guys who take the ball every fifth day. Here’s something that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough, though: Pitching in relief is just so damn easy compared to starting. Oh sure, if you want to argue that the mental rigors of pitching in save situations — or even more so tie games in the eighth and ninth innings — creates more stress than your typical Sunday start against the Astros, that’s fine. I’m talking about the physical demands of one job vs. another. Starters need to muster nasty enough stuff to dominate hitters, while also saving enough to get through six or seven innings (or in the case of the best starters, eight or nine innings). Meanwhile, most of today’s highly specialized relievers, be they closers, setup men, or one-out guys brought in for platoon matchups, can use maximum effort on every pitch, knowing they’ll rarely pitch more than one inning.
You know why Kimbrel, Chapman, and Rodney (or just about any other relief pitcher in any other year) shouldn’t win the Cy Young award? Because Tommy Hunter couldn’t cut it as a starter, got demoted to the bullpen … and suddenly started throwing 100-mph fastballs.
AL Rookie of the Year: Mike Trout
Obviously, though Yoenis Cespedes would be a great candidate in just about any other year, mashing at a .291/.353/.506 clip despite playing his home games in one of baseball’s worst hitters’ parks. As would a number of excellent young pitchers, including Yu Darvish, Jarrod Parker, and Matt Moore.
NL Rookie of the Year: Wade Miley
Trout did enough to deserve AL MVP even after missing most of April while toiling in the minors. But Bryce Harper’s identically long stay on the farm erased just enough playing time to prevent him from matching or surpassing Miley in total value this year, tipping the scales toward the Diamondbacks lefty. Hell, you could throw Miley’s name in on a top-10 Cy Young list, too, given he ranked fifth in the league in FIP, making up for his pedestrian strikeout rate with the fifth-lowest walk rate in the league while overcoming one of baseball’s toughest parks for pitchers. Harper’s late-season explosion did vault him back past Todd Frazier for second place on the hypothetical ballot.