Archive for August, 2012

NL MVP? How About Yadier Molina.

For most of the summer, columnists — myself included — have been writing about the likely fade of the Pittsburgh Pirates. And, for most of the summer, Andrew McCutchen made us all look silly, carrying the Pirates to unexpected victory after unexpected victory. As July came to a close, the Pirates were in line for a wild card, just three games behind the Reds in the NL Central, and Andrew McCutchen was the obvious choice for National League MVP.

However, August hasn’t been kind to either McCuthen or the Pirates. With their star center fielder slumping for the first time all season — he’s hit just .252/.350/.346 in the season’s first 30 days — Pittsburgh has gone just 11-16 and have fallen to third place in the NL Central, and are now on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. And, for the first time in a couple of months, it seems possible that someone other than the Pirates star center fielder might end up with the National League Most Valuable Player Award at the end of the season.

That opening has led to rising campaigns for other deserving candidates. Buster Posey’s tremendous performance with the Giants deserves recognition, David Wright’s rebound has made him one of the game’s best players again, and Ryan Braun might actually be having a better season this year than he did a year ago when he actually won the award. However, there’s one legitimate candidate who hasn’t garnered much attention as of yet, despite the fact that he may have the best case of all – Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

Molina is generally known for his defensive abilities, but while he might not be the star of the Cardinals offense like Posey is in San Francisco, don’t overlook the tremendous season he’s had at the plate this season. Here is a list of the seven best hitters in the National League this season, rated by wRC+, an index scale where 100 is average and which adjusts for ballpark factors, creating a more level playing field.

1. Ryan Braun, 168 wRC+
2. Andrew McCutchen, 159 wRC+
3. Buster Posey, 152 wRC+
4. Matt Holliday, 146 wRC+
5. Melky Cabrera, 146 wRC+
6. David Wright, 146 wRC+
7. Yadier Molina, 144 wRC+

Molina has essentially been the offensive equal of Wright, Cabrera, and Holliday this season, and Posey has only been slightly better at the plate. The only hitters in the National League who you can say have been drastically better than Molina are Braun and McCutchen and, of course, neither Braun nor McCutchen are catchers.

And, with all respect to Posey as a defender, he’s no Yadier Molina behind the plate. Evaluating the defensive contributions of a catcher is more difficult than any other position because of their interactions with the pitcher, but there are things that we can isolate about a catcher’s defense, specifically their ability to control the running game.

There are 14 NL catchers who have spent at least 500 innings behind the plate this year, Molina included. The 13 other catchers have caught 9,916 innings and have seen opposing base stealers attempt 990 steals, or essentially one every 10 innings. They have thrown 28% of those would-be base stealers, or stated another way, an average defensive NL catcher (not named Molina) has allowed a runner to take an extra base once every 14 innings, and created an out with his throwing arm once every 35 innings.

Molina blows them all away in both categories. To begin with, hardly anyone runs on Molina, as opposing baserunners have only attempted 52 steals against the Cardinals when he’s been behind the plate, and that’s still probably too often, as 24 of those 52 runners (46%) have been gunned down trying to take the base. Putting it on the same scale as the rest of the NL catchers, Molina only allows a success steal of second once every 33 innings, while he creates an out with his throwing arm once every 38 innings. In other words, Molina is gunning down runners almost as often as the league average while allowing successful steals less than half as often.

As for Posey, runners have tested his arm more than twice as often, attempting an additional 53 stolen bases against him despite the fact that he’s caught 118 fewer innings. Of those extra 53 stolen base attempts, Posey has only thrown out an additional four runners. The difference between the two in controlling the running game is 49 additional bases allowed by Posey with a gain of only four outs.

A successful stolen base allowed costs a team approximately 0.25 runs on average, while throwing out an advancing runner saves a team about 0.50 runs. Applying those average run values to the difference between Molina and Posey yields a 10 run difference, which more than cancels out the seven run lead Posey has with the bat this season.

Molina is the best defensive player at one of the most important positions on the field, and this year, he’s hitting at the same level as slugging clean-up hitters. While McCutchen has been the shining star of the first four months, the Cardinals August surge was due in large part to Molina — he’s hit .417/.463/.556 this month — and he is the primary reason the team is still a strong contender in the National League.

While the MVP award usually goes to the guy with the best offensive stats, the true MVPs are often the ones who hit well while providing excellent defense at premium positions. This year, no National League player has combined elite offense and defense like Molina. After years of simply being a defensive specialist, Molina is now playing like a true MVP talent.

The Underappreciated Role Players of 2012

It’s easy to see what Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, or Andrew McCutchen are doing to keep their team in the race this year. All three are having fantastic seasons, and are doing their part (and then some) to help keep their team in the playoff race.

However, baseball is the major sport where an individual player has the least impact on his team’s results, and no player can single-handedly carry his team to a playoff berth. To make it to October, a team needs production from up and down the roster, but not every contributor gets their fair share of recognition. Today, we shine a light on four key role players whose performances have been instrumental in keeping their team’s playoff hopes alive.

Coco Crisp, OF, Oakland

Crisp was one of the worst players in baseball for the first two months of the season. After going 0-4 on June 6th, his batting line stood at .158/.213/.175, as he had hit into twice as many double plays as he had extra base hits. However, over the last 10 weeks, Crisp has turned his season around in a big way, hitting .307/.370/.513 over his last 258 trips to the plate. To put that in perspective, that .883 OPS matches what Mark Trumbo has put up this season. Crisp isn’t thought of as a major power hitter, but he has 26 extra base hits in the last two and a half months, all while playing in a park that significantly depresses offense. Even with his terrible start and a DL stint in May, Crisp has already racked up +2.1 WAR, and is one of the underrated cogs that is keeping the A’s in contention. While there scoffs when a rebuilding Oakland team gave a 32-year-old a two year contract as a free agent, Crisp has proven to be worth far more than he signed for, and his off-season signing was one of the best moves any team made all winter.

Wade Miley, SP, Arizona

The Diamondbacks entered the season with one of the best trios of pitching prospects in baseball, as Archie Bradley (#19), Trevor Bauer (#21), and Tyler Skaggs (#25) all rated highly on Keith Law’s pre-season top 100 prospect list. However, while Bauer struggled with his control upon being called up, Skaggs just made his MLB debut this week, and Bradley has spent the year in A-ball, rookie southpaw Wade Miley has been the main reason Arizona is still hanging around in the NL West race. The 25-year-old is doing his best Ian Kennedy impersonation, pounding the strike zone with average velocity fastballs and succeeding in a way that shouldn’t logically work in Arizona’s ballpark. However, his command has been so precise that he’s been able to limit walks and keep the ball in the yard, the combination of which has led to an ERA that is 33 percent better than the league average. In fact, the only two NL pitchers with a better park adjusted ERA are Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann. Miley didn’t have much hype coming into the season, but he’s been the one with substance so far in 2012.

Angel Pagan, OF, San Francisco

While Melky Cabrera has gotten the headlines (for reasons both good and bad), the off-season pickup of Angel Pagan hasn’t received as much attention, but he’s been an extremely valuable piece for the Giants this year. After a down year with the Mets, the Giants gave him new life on the west coast, and Pagan has responded by putting up numbers right in line with his prior career norms. His jack-of-all-trades skillset is the one that is most often undervalued, as he doesn’t excel in any one area, but instead is a solid player across the board. Pagan draws walks, makes good contact, hits for some power, steals bases, and plays a good enough center field. This year, that package of skills has added up to +2.9 WAR, and Pagan’s presence has as a switch-hitter has given the Giants offense some life at the top of the order.

Chad Billingsley, SP, Los Angeles

Last year, it appeared that Billingsley might be pitching his way out of LA. At age 26, he had the worst year of his career right after signing a three year contract, and questions about whether he’d ever mature into a reliable rotation stalwart only seemed to get louder. Over the last few months, Billingsley has seemingly put those questions to rest, and is quietly having a pretty terrific season for the Dodgers. Command was his main issue a year ago, but Billingsley managed to get through 102 batters in July while only issuing one walk the whole month, a Halladay-esque performance from a guy who has never really resembled a strike-thrower. In fact, he’s issued 10 or fewer walks in every month but May, and the result has been a career low BB% of 6.8%, turning Billingsley into a guy who can work deep into ballgames. Clayton Kershaw is the undisputed ace of the Dodgers staff, but the mid-rotation guys behind him are one of the main reasons that the Dodgers are surprise contenders this year, and the rejuvenation of Chad Billingsley is one of the keys to the success of the boys in blue.

Red Sox Issues Extend Far Beyond Valentine

The Red Sox season hasn’t gone according to plan, and much of the blame has been placed on the shoulders of 62-year-old manager Bobby Valentine. Several members of the Red Sox are fed up with Valentine, and the situation reportedly came to a head in late July, when this group was highly critical of its manager and expressed those sentiments to ownership.

Regardless of whether or not these players informed ownership that they no longer wanted to play for Valentine, the new manager has undergone intense scrutiny this season. That tends to happen when a team with such high expectations is 59-62 through 121 games, 12.5 games out of first place in its division and five games out of the second wild card berth.

But much of this criticism is undeserved, as the Red Sox have experienced a litany of issues this year that have had far more of a material impact than the manager himself. While studies have shown the impact of a manager to be marginal at most over a 162-game season, it’s still a non-zero effect. However, injuries to key members of both the starting lineup and bullpen, strange and almost out-of-nowhere struggles from the starting rotation, and below average contributions from counted-on position players are why the Red Sox are on pace to miss the playoffs for the third straight season… not Valentine.

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The MVP Case for Miguel Cabrera

In his early look at the postseason awards yesterday, Keith Law two Tigers among the top four on his AL MVP ballot, but neither of them were named Miguel Cabrera. While I agree with Keith that Jackson and Verlander are both having excellent seasons and are deserving of consideration, I do think there is a case to be made for Cabrera as a legitimate contender for American League MVP.

Let’s start with the obvious – no, he can’t match Mike Trout’s overall numbers right now. Trout has posted a higher batting average, higher on base percentage, and higher slugging percentage, he leads the league in stolen bases and stolen base efficiency, and he’s a fantastic defensive center fielder who adds a lot of value in the field. There isn’t a player in baseball who stack up next to Trout’s overall line, Cabrera included.

However, there are reasons to think that perhaps Cabrera has been somewhat more valuable this year than his overall batting line would suggest, and the opposite may very well be true of Trout. That reason? Performance in the clutch.

No, I’m not talking about RBIs, which I find just as useless as Keith does. Comparing the runs batted in totals between a leadoff hitter and a guy who bats third is silly, as we’d simply be rewarding Cabrera for where he hits in the line-up while punishing Trout for batting once a game with the bases empty, and hitting behind the weakest part of the Angels line-up the rest of the game. Whether Cabrera leads the league in RBIs or not should be irrelevant in the MVP discussion, or really in any discussion not involving a trivia contest.

But just because RBIs are a bad metric doesn’t mean that the idea that Cabrera has performed well in clutch situations is wrong. Using better metrics, we actually can confirm that he has, in fact, been a fantastic clutch hitter this year.

Using Leverage Index, we can quantify the relative impact any given plate appearance has on the outcome of a game, based on the score, inning, number of base runners, and how many outs there are at the time. At FanGraphs, we break every player’s plate appearances into three tiers, ranging from low leverage (game already decided) to high leverage (high chance of determining who wins and loses), and can evaluate how players have done in the “clutch” opportunities they’ve been given.

As it turns out, Cabrera has been a shining star in such situations this year.

Cabrera’s performance, by leverage:

Low Leverage: .332/.389/.613, .424 wOBA
Medium Leverage: .305/.365/.508, .369 wOBA
High Leverage: .417/.500/.833, .524 wOBA

In those 44 high leverage plate appearances, Cabrera has 15 hits, 11 of which have gone for extra bases. He’s also drawn seven walks, creating an even higher pressure situation for the pitcher, who now has to face Prince Fielder without first base being open. Cabrera’s .526 wOBA in high leverage situations easily paces the American League. The fact that Alejandro de Aza and Alex Rios — neither exactly known as fearsome clutch hitters — are also in the top five should tell you something about the year-to-year variability of clutch performance, but we’re not trying to predict whether Cabrera can keep hitting like this in high pressure situations, we’re just noting that he has so far this year.

On the other end of the spectrum, the best hitter in low leverage situations in the American League? None other than Mike Trout. In fact, Trout’s leverage splits are basically a mirror opposite of Cabrera’s.

Trout’s performance, by leverage:

Low Leverage: .376/.459/.700, .499 wOBA
Medium Leverage: .317/.369/.511, .394 wOBA
High Leverage: .276/.289/.517, .345 wOBA

Trout has been an absolute monster when the game is already determined one way or another, and just a little bit better than league average when the game is on the line. Now, you should not take these numbers to mean that Trout folds under pressure or that he lacks some personality trait that allows him to answer the call when necessary, as we’re just dealing with 38 plate appearances, and these splits will even out over a larger sample of data. I am not arguing that Cabrera has a clutch gene that Trout does not.

However, that’s not the question the MVP Award is asking. It is a retrospective question, asking who did more to help their team win in the past. And, while it is not a predictive measure that tells us anything about what will happen in the future, the reality is that Cabrera has been the best high leverage hitter in the American League this year, while Trout has produced a great majority of his offense in situations where the outcome was already fairly clear.

Clutch performance shouldn’t be the only factor in MVP voting, and we shouldn’t pretend that Trout’s performance in low and medium leverage situations hold no value. That Trout has trounced Cabrera in larger samples needs to be reflected in the voting, as does Trout’s elite base running and defense.

However, just looking at their raw batting lines overlooks the fact that Cabrera has an additional 83 plate appearances overall, and that Cabrera has done more with the important opportunities he’s been given. That difference in quantity of playing time and extreme greatness in the clutch should be enough to put Cabrera in the MVP conversation. When you adjust for the timing of when they’ve performed at their best, the gap shrinks enough that a vote for Cabrera isn’t as crazy as it might sound otherwise. Trout’s still the best candidate, but Cabrera’s as worthy as any other player on the ballot for second, and if he continues to scorch the ball for the last six weeks of the season, he might even end up as a legitimate selection for the top spot.

Is There Hope For the Busts of 2012?

Last year, Eric Hosmer, Dustin Ackely, and Matt Moore put themselves on the map in their Major League debuts. Hosmer was an above average hitter at age 21, showing the special offensive skills that created expectations that he would anchor the Royals line-up for years to come. Ackley proved he could handle second base and showed more power than expected, giving the Mariners a legitimate Major League hitter that they badly needed. Moore didn’t show up until September, but in five appearances between the regular season and the playoffs, he looked like a flame-throwing ace who might just be the guy to put Tampa Bay over the top. Instead of building off their remarkable debuts, however, all three have taken significant steps backwards.

What can we learn from their struggles in 2012? To answer this question, I used the filters available on the FanGraphs Leaderboards to identify players since 1992 who had similar seasons at a similar point in their career, allowing us to see whether other players were able to bounce back, or whether this kind of failure was the sign of a long term problem. Rather than simply looking at the results, I focused the filters on the metrics that most align with a player’s development – walk rate, strikeout rate, power, and age.

Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City

Comprable Seasons: Jimmy Rollins (2002), Scott Spiezio (1997), Stephen Drew (2007), Pablo Sandoval (2010), Lastings Milledge (2008)

Hosmer’s shown very good contact skills with a decent approach at the plate but minimal power, which is not usually the kind of skills you find in a young first baseman. In fact, the filter returns more middle infielders than anything else, which says something about how poorly Hosmer has hit this year. Sandoval is the name on the list the Royals have to be clinging to, as he put a poor second season behind him and has developed into one of the better hitting third baseman in the game, but unfortunately for Kansas City, he looks more like the exception than the rule.

Rollins and Drew eventually developed into good hitters compared to other shortstops, but they never hit like you’d want from a franchise first baseman. Spiezio had the most similar season from a statistical perspective, and while he improved to a degree, he spent his career as more of a role player than any kind of impact bat. Milledge was a highly touted prospect who never developed into what he was projected to be, and in turn was out of baseball by age 26. Besides Sandoval, the list of comparable players is mostly made up of guys who were never more than league average hitters. Given Hosmer’s position and expectations, he’ll have to turn into more than that to live up to the hype.

Dustin Ackley, 2B, Seattle

Comparable Seasons: Royce Clayton (1994), Chad Allen (1999), Daric Barton (2008), Ben Davis (2001)

If you thought things were grim based on Hosmer’s comps, the list of guys who had similar years to Ackley are even scarier. Clayton stuck around the league for a long time because he was a good defensive shortstop, but he never turned into much of a hitter. Allen played in parts of seven seasons and was either replacement level or worse in six of them. Barton had one monster season two years later, but then saw his offense take a nosedive and is now toiling in Triple-A. Davis, like Ackley, had been selected #2 overall his in his draft, but failed to ever turn into more than a part-time reserve catcher.

There are no Sandoval’s on this list, mostly because the combination of high strikeouts and low power is simply not an effective way to produce offense. To survive as a low power hitter in the big leagues, you have to get on base a lot, and that requires good contact skills. Ackley doesn’t have the physique to become a slugger, so he’s simply going to have to fix his strikeout problems if he’s ever going to turn into a quality big league hitter.

Matt Moore, SP, Tampa Bay:

Comparable Seasons: Tony Armas Jr (2001), Chad Billingsley (2009), Shawn Estes (1998), Gio Gonzalez (2010), Matt Cain (2006)

Finally, we get some good news. Moore’s list is essentially a who’s who of young pitchers with good stuff who just needed some refinement, with several examples of pitchers who took the necessary steps forward to become quality hurlers. Cain is probably the best possible outcome, as he’s developed into a durable workhorse who now knows how to pound the strike zone, but I’m sure the Rays would be fine if Moore followed in Gio Gonzalez’s steps as well. Billingsley is more of a middle of the road career path, as he’s been inconsistent in Los Angeles, and Estes and Armas are examples of what can go wrong, but there’s plenty of success stories on the list of pitchers who had a similar down year after being loaded with expectations.

Pitchers tend to be ever-evolving, and one minor change can set off a major directional change in their careers. For Moore, even a small improvement in his command could have a large chain reaction on his results, allowing him to pitch ahead in the count more often and forcing hitters to chase a greater amount of pitches out of the strike zone. While Hosmer’s going to have to figure out how to add some power to his game and Ackley needs to figure out how to stop striking out, Moore simply needs to figure out how to attack the zone more regularly. Given what history shows us about these three necessary improvements, Moore looks like the one to bet on for the big rebound.

Which Soft Tossers Might Sustain 2012 Success?

As part of the new era of pitching, baseball has ushered in a wave of young fireballers who dominate through velocity. Aroldis Chapman, Stephen Strasburg, and even unheralded arms like Kansas City’s Kelvin Herrera routinely hit 100 MPH with their fastballs, and baseball has never been so populated with as many hard throwers as there are in the game today.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, there is simultaneously a group of pitchers making a splash in the big leagues with stuff that would fit in better at your local high school. Tommy Milone (Oakland), Michael Fiers (Milwaukee), Carlos Villanueva (Toronto), and Scott Diamond (Minnesota) are all establishing themselves as big league starters, and rewarding their organizations for taking a shot on a guy without a big fastball. Milone’s success after being just the extra guy added into the Gio Gonzalez trade is one of the main reasons why the A’s are surprise contenders, while Diamond, Fiers, and Villanueva have all been pleasant surprises on pitching staffs that found themselves desperate for reliable pitching mid-season.

As a group, their fastballs have averaged just 88.5 mph this year, with Diamond being the hardest thrower with an average velocity of 89.5 mph on his fastball. However, they’re all very different pitchers, and succeeding in very different ways. Diamond is a sinkerball specialist who generates a ton of ground balls, while Fiers is one of the most extreme fly ball pitchers in baseball. Milone is a control specialist who never walks anyone, while Villanueva has the 11th highest walk rate of any pitcher in baseball with at least 60 innings pitched this year. Despite the stereotype of every low velocity starter being cut from the same mold, these four are all pretty different.

Of these four low velocity hurlers, is there one whose skillset portends success more than the others? Let’s take a look at some historical comparisons for both.

Scott Diamond – 3.4% BB%, 13.5% K%, 56.5% GB%

Diamond’s the hardest of the group to find comps for, as this is a pretty rare combination of skills for a big league starter. Since 2002, only four other pitchers have thrown 100 innings in a season with a walk rate below 5%, a strikeout rate between 10-15%, and a ground ball rate over 50% – Greg Maddux, Carl Pavano, Joel Pineiro, and Chris Sampson. While any comparison to Maddux seems flattering, remember that the four years he fit into this category were all at the end of his career, so we aren’t talking about the Cy Young version of Maddux here. While he was still useful at this stage of his career, Pavano, Sampson, and Pineiro were more of a mixed bag, mixing in some above average years with some mediocre ones. Overall, this group combined to produce about league average results, which is still a nice thing to have, but well below the level that Diamond is achieving at the moment.

Michael Fiers – 5.5% BB%, 25.0% K%, 31.1% GB%

For Fiers, the comparisons are a bit easier and a bit more friendly, as there are a decent number of good pitchers who have succeeded by living up in the strike zone and trading extra fly balls for increased strikeout rates. Jered Weaver is the best version of this skillset (and also doesn’t throw particularly hard), but Colby Lewis, Scott Baker, and Ted Lilly have also posted similar seasons to what Fiers is doing right now. Those three have all fallen short of what Weaver has accomplished due to one common problem, though – the home run ball. As extreme fly ball guys, they’re more prone to giving up the long ball, and their issues with the home run caused them to settle in as more good pitchers than great ones. Weaver shows the potential this type of arm can have if he figures out how to keep the ball in the park, though the fact that he’s the only example also shows how tall of a task that really is. Still, Fiers is controlling the strike zone well enough to have success even if he does start giving up home runs. The stuff might not project as a quality starter, but like Baker and Lewis before him, Fiers may very well defy expectations.

Tommy Milone – 4.9% BB%, 17.7% K%, 39.1% GB%

Milone’s skillset is the most common of the four, as 30 different pitchers in the last 10 years have put up similar statistical seasons based on their walk rates, strikeout rates, and ground ball rates. As with any group this size, results are going to run the gambit, so you see the likes of Ben Sheets or Cliff Lee on the same list as Andy Sonnanstine and Brett Tomko. However, the significant majority belonged to pitchers who had good seasons, as only nine of the 30 pitchers on the list posted an above average ERA in the year that their profile matched up with Milone’s. Overall, the group posted an ERA that was 10 percent better than the league average, and the most representative sample was Chris Capuano, who is also a soft-tossing left-hander who gets some strikeouts despite pedestrian stuff. If Milone can have Capuano’s career minus the two Tommy John surgeries, I think the A’s will be quite happy they stole him away in the Gio Gonzalez trade.

Carlos Villanueva – 10.9% BB%, 25.0% K%, 43.5% GB%

Villanueva’s the one member of the group who isn’t arriving in the big leagues for the first time, as he made his big league debut with the Brewers in 2006. He’s also the guy whose statistical profile don’t align with his stuff at all. The list of pitchers with comparable numbers in a single season include A.J. Burnett, Yovani Gallardo, Scott Kazmir, and Jorge de la Rosa, each of whom was a live arm with serious command problems. In fact, all of the ten comparable pitchers in terms of results had an average fastball velocity of 90 mph or higher in that season, so Villanueva is essentially breaking new ground here. Villanueva’s not going to be able to harness his raw stuff in the same way that Clayton Kershaw did, and he’s got a history of walking guys in the big leagues, so we probably shouldn’t expect a big leap forward. Still, even with his current skillset, Villanueva can be a useful starting pitcher, as he mixes in his off-speed pitches frequently and racks up enough strikeouts to offset the walks.