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Sep
10

Give the man what he wants

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In recent comments which I’ve been unable to locate, CC Sabathia mentioned a desire to win the division, which means home field advantage. Contrasting the 2009 campaign with the 2010 campaign, Sabathia mentioned a certain fondness for starting the postseason at home, noting that he felt more comfortable. There’s been plenty of research done demonstrating that home field advantage doesn’t yield a sizeable benefit for the team. There’s not a whole lot that can be said to dispute these facts, and you’re likely to have the opinion thrown at you in earnest over the coming weeks. It will likely get old.

At Baseball Prospectus recently, R.J. Anderson took a different approach. He noted that winning the Wild Card likely results in more games played at home for the Wild Card team in the League Championship Series and World Series. Anderson’s argument is particularly compelling, in that he doesn’t dispense with the logic of wanting home field advantage, he simply notes that you may have more of it by winning the Wild Card. And yet, there’s still a part of me that would like to set this aside and root for Sabathia to get what he wants.

There has to be something to be gained by listening to players. Sure, a lot of times they get things wrong. You wouldn’t to make personnel moves strictly on the basis of clubhouse opinion. But leaving aside the issue that home field advantage typically yields no sizeable benefit for the team, I wonder if there’s really anything all that bad about rooting for the players to get what they want anyway. If CC Sabathia likes to play with his kids, eat dinner in front of his surely gigantic TV, sleep in his own bed and drive in his own car to the Stadium for Game 1 of the ALDS, then I’d like for him to have that luxury. If he thinks it yields a psychological benefit, I can’t see telling him it doesn’t.

Most people operate under similar rigueurs of habit, even if they don’t admit it. Most people have very circumscribed patterns of behavior, rituals and routines that they hold to tightly every day. If something gets thrown off-kilter, they can get flustered and feel disorganized. My early morning routine and walk to my train is nearly identical every day of the week, and it’s likely that way for most people. It’s why experts recommend you lay out your clothes and have your pencils and water and snack ready the night before a big standardized test: you don’t want any unexpected variable messing with your head. You’ll need all the focus you can get and you don’t want to burn energy, mental or physical, on dumb stuff. Maybe it’s the same for the $161 million dollar ace.

This is dangerous territory, because the argument about home field advantage and hoping the team gets what it wants isn’t really that much different from believing a player who tells you he needs to change his gum every half inning to play better. At the end of the day, this is really about endorsing something that yields at best a psychological benefit to the players. You can even call it an endorsement of superstition. It can’t be quantified.

I’m comfortable with that. As long as it doesn’t come at the expense of known, quantifiable factors like resting key players sufficiently, then I’ll be rooting for the Yankees to get that home field advantage, and for CC to be able to eat Captain Crunch on his couch before Game 1 of the ALDS this year. Come on, you don’t think he really quit the Captain, do you?

Categories : Musings
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Sep
03

The Miguel Cabrera Comp

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When the news arrived that Jesus Montero would be called up to the big-league squad, Joel Sherman was on hand with a typically well-sourced article providing insight into the organization’s thinking about Montero’s role this season. Sherman noted that Montero would become the regular designated hitter against left-handed pitching, meaning that the team would like platoon Gardner and Jones in left field or simply give Jones fewer at-bats. He also suggested that Montero could eventually hit his way into the regular designated hitter slot, against righties and lefties alike. The money quote came from one of Sherman’s usual “sources within the Yankee organization”: “One Yankees official acknowledged Montero is coming with a chance to win a significant job and another member of the organization said definitively, “By the playoffs, he will be our best DH option.”"

Another interesting part of the column came when Sherman brought up Miguel Cabrera as a comparison for Montero. This comparison has been bandied about elsewhere before, and in fact Brian Cashman himself mentioned Cabrera when talking about Montero’s future upside to ESPN’s Ian O’Connor: ”In terms of hitting ability, Montero can be a Manny Ramirez or a Miguel Cabrera…He has a chance to bat third or fourth. He has the potential to be a beast in the middle of our lineup.”

The Cabrera comparison is an intriguing one, to be sure, and there are a few interesting parallels between the start of each player’s respective career. Despite the fact that Miguel Cabrera was well-regarded as a very talented prospect, he had a far less impressive minor league track record than Montero. As a teenager, Cabrera never put together an OPS higher than .754 at any level of minor league competition. The Marlins stayed confident in his skill though, and moved him to Double-A to start the 2003 season. It was there that the light went on, that his talent took over, that he finally got it, however you’d like to frame it, and Cabrera started raking. In a half season of baseball he hit .365/.429/.609 in 303 plate appearances. That June, the Marlins called Cabrera up directly from Double-A.

He began his career in an interleague matchup with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, in a game managed by Jack McKeon (FLA) and Lou Piniella (TBR), one in which a 21 year-old Carl Crawford tripled. Still wet behind the ears, Cabrera nevertheless homered in his first game, a walkoff shot in the bottom of the 11th. It wasn’t too shabby of a start for the kid. It wasn’t all walkoffs and heroics from there on out, of course. Cabrera struggled for the rest of June and ended the month with an OPS of only .542. Over the next few months, Cabrera would go alternatingly hot and cold, flashing a load of power but not a ton of on-base skill. A quick breakdown of his OPS by month shows a streaky hitter finding his way around major league pitching:

June: .542

July: .991

August: .640

September: .875

By October the Marlins were in the playoffs, and they brought the youngster along for the ride. While he still wasn’t walking a ton, he managed to club four home runs, one off Roger Clemens in the World Series. Along with Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano and Dontrelle Willis, Miggy hoisted his first and only World Series trophy that fall as the Marlins defeated the Yankees. The team became history fast, broken up by an owner not willing to pay the players commensurate with their market values. Cabrera was the last rat off the sinking ship, sent to Detroit in the winter of 2007-2008, where he’s flourished as a perennial MVP candidate ever since.

There’s always a danger in making a comparison to a big leaguer, successful or otherwise. No two players are alike. Yet as long as the comparisons are couched in a healthy dose of realism, I don’t necessarily see the problem in throwing up this comp as an example of what once happened when a much-hyped prospect with talent oozing out of his ears got called up for a pennant race. At the end of the day, a comp is just an analogy, or a metaphor. I’m not a neuroscientist and I’m not an expert on how the brain develops, but in my experience telling a 10 year-old “These Doritos are dynamite” would cause him to ask for one, not run in fear. Hopefully fans can be similarly discerning. Kevin Long’s message about the Cabrera comparison is probably the perfect mix of recognizing Jesus’ insane talent level and hedging it with all the necessary qualifications:

“It is fair [because of his talent] to say he can do it [be like Cabrera],” Long said. “But there are so many intangibles that go along with success here. So do I expect that kind of impact? No. Can it happen? Yes. But it is unfair to put expectations on someone who has not done it. But this is someone with as much hitting upside as anyone in the minors.”

Jesus Montero isn’t Miguel Cabrera. Sure, they’re both right-handed Venezuelan bonus babies with similar body type, batting swings, and prodigious power, but of course they’re two different people. They will have different career paths. Yet, the start of their careers looks just similar enough to merit mentioning, and perhaps provides a guideline for expectations as the team chugs towards the playoffs. Perhaps Montero will exceed expectations and be Miggy in July and September of 2003; perhaps he’ll flounder and be the Miggy of June and August; perhaps he’ll be a little of both. Perhaps he’ll homer off Doc Halladay and help the Yankees take home another World Series crown, or maybe he’ll miss the postseason roster. Isn’t that tension really what it’s all about, though? Is there anything more exciting than hoping that the best-case scenario will actually play out and get realized in dramatic, awesome fashion? And isn’t that why we keep coming back for more, even when those hopes are dashed and expectations aren’t met, and the game breaks our heart?

Categories : Offense
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Aug
27

Swag

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Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

It’s the yin and the yang.

Categories : Musings
Comments (26)

At the Wall Street Journal this morning, writer Daniel Barbarisi takes a look at Brett Gardner‘s range in left field. It’s subscriber-only content, but there are apparently ways to find it free it you search hard enough. Here’s something that caught my interest from the article:

He is effectively a second center fielder, ranging wide over the left side of the field in ways no other left fielder is doing. He frequently takes balls away from center fielder Curtis Granderson, when traditionally, it’s vice-versa…

Gardner teams with Granderson and Nick Swisher to create one of the best defensive outfields in baseball. Granderson is an established, rangy center fielder who has great in-line speed once he gets moving, and Swisher is an underrated and improving right fielder—his UZR is 10.7, fifth-best in baseball. And they move around significantly, adjusting for where they expect the hitter will place the ball…

The way Gardner covers ground allows the Yankees to use different defensive alignments, shifting Granderson more toward right field in some situations because they assume Gardner can cover all of left-center.

Jay Jaffe has speculated before that Gardner takes balls away from Granderson, and so it’s interesting to see Barbarisi essentially confirm this hypothesis. Like Jaffe, I wondered about Granderson’s poor UZR score since it doesn’t seem to pass the eye test and I’ve yet to find a single person who believes that Granderson is actually a poor fielder. It may simply be that Gardner’s speedy wheels and great instincts, and Granderson’s positioning, are the cause of Granderson’s subpar UZR score this year.

This is a relevant issue as it relates to Granderson’s MVP chances. In traditional categories, Granderson cleans up. He’s second in HR, first in R and RBI, and he’s stolen 24 bases. But in the advanced statistic realm of Wins Above Replacement, Granderson is held back by his poor defensive score. His -9.2 UZR rating means that he’s not as high up the Fangraphs’ WAR leaderboard as guys like Bautista, Pedroia and Ellsbury. Yet if we subbed in a value of 0 for Granderson’s UZR, still a conservative number in my estimation, his fWAR would go from 6.1 to 6.9. If we gave him last year’s value of 6.4 runs, his fWAR would go to 7.6, ahead of Pedroia, Ellsbury and Gonzalez and just a tenth of a point behind Jose Bautista. In other words, it’s possible that the case for Granderson winning the MVP should look even stronger than it currently does.

Anyway, the article is an interesting read and I recommend you take a look. There’s some cool stuff in there about how much Andruw Jones (himself a formerly-elite defender) respects Gardner’s defensive prowess, and also a fun quote about how much Gardner would love to win the Gold Glove. Parenthetically, Barbarisi has been a fantastic addition to the Wall Street Journal‘s coverage of sports. He’s been unafraid to integrate new statistics into his work without getting bogged down in explaining the stats and still maintaining the traditional feel of the newspaper sports column. If he isn’t on your radar by now, he should be.

Categories : Defense
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Last week at Over The Monster, former Baseball Prospectus writer Marc Normandin noted that the Red Sox staking a serious claim to being to being the best offense of the expansion era. The case is compelling. At the time, the Red Sox were second only to the 1976 Reds in TAv and were tied for second with the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers in wRC+. Normandin also noted that the Sox were going to be cutting some dead weight from their lineup, which made sense at the time but didn’t happen once Youkilis and Ortiz got hurt. Since that point, the Yankees themselves have moved up the charts and may in fact beat out the Sox for best offense in 2011 and one of the best offenses of the expansion era.

As of Friday, the Red sox had played 123 games and scored 653 runs, an average of 5.31 runs per game. The Yankees had played one fewer game than the Sox, but had scored seven more runs, giving them a league-leading total of 660 runs and an average of 5.41 a game. If they both continue on their current pace, the Sox should score 860 runs while the Yankees will score 876. The below chart contains this data, as well as their respective TAv and wRC+ scores.

Offense since expansion era as of 8/19/11.

As you can see, the Red Sox lead the Yankees by 2 hundreths of a point in TAv. The Yankees mark of .286 leaves them within striking distance of the 1982 Brewers, while the 1976 Reds are likely out of reach for both teams. In wRC+ the Yankees lead Boston by one point, and their mark of 119 is good enough for third since the start of the expansion era, an impressive feat. Their wOBA is .351, a mark higher than any other team in baseball.

There’s upside in the Yankee offense down the stretch. The team is supposed to get Rodriguez back today, and he’s obviously a huge boost. Personally, I expect Rodriguez to be fresh from all the time off and able to hit for more power than he did earlier in the season now that he’s had his troublesome knee repaired. His defense may suffer a bit in the first few weeks as he works to regain quickness and begins to trust his knee more and more, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him go on an offensive tear over the next five weeks. Yet, as the team rolls into September and gets closer to clinching a playoff spot, it’s possible that some of the lesser talented offensive players, whether they’re bench players or September callups, will get more and more playing time. As a result, I wouldn’t expect the team to finish markedly below or above their current marks. The 2011 Yankees likely won’t be the greatest offensive force since the dawn of the expansion era, but they may rank in the top 5, and they may be just as good or better than the 2009 Yankees. Last I recall that team did OK for itself come October.

Categories : Offense
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Aug
20

The Rookie of the Year race

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In the last two weeks we’ve looked at the two big races for the American League hardware. In the Cy Young race, I noted that the contending three pitchers were Weaver, Verlander and Sabathia. At the time, I marked Sabathia as the favorite. This is likely no longer the case given Sabathia’s recent struggles and how well Verlander has pitched, but the three contenders remain the same. In the MVP race, I argued for the inclusion of Curtis Granderson into the top tier of contenders. Granderson’s hitting the ball as well as anyone in the American League not named Jose Bautista right now, but one thing holding him back is the low mark he has received this year from UZR. At the time I argued that I didn’t Granderson’s defense to be nearly this bad, and recently Keith Law has chimed in to the same effect. Granderson’s candidacy is still alive. Spread the word.

The logical next step is the Rookie of the Year award. Like the Cy Young and the MVP, the Yankees have a candidate for the award in Ivan Nova. In this race, though, there’s a clear lack of a frontrunner. Each contender has a unique shortcoming, whether self-inflicted, team-inflicted or voter-inflicted. The race promises to be a free-for-all down the stretch. How does Nova stack up against the other candidates, and does he have a chance to win?

The only reliever in contention for the AL Rookie of the Year is Angels’ closer Jordan Walden. Walden has appeared in 49 games this year and has 26 saves. Over 47 innings pitched he’s boasted a 9.57 K/9, a 3.64 BB/9, and a 3.31 xFIP to match his 2.87 ERA. By Fangraphs’ reckoning this performance has been worth 1.6 fWAR; Baseball Reference values this at 1.5 bWAR. Walden should see some support from voters who place a high importance on the save statistic. After all, Neftali Feliz did take home the award last year as a closer. Walden could be a strong candidate to win.

Another candidate is Walden’s teammate, first basemen Mark Trumbo. Trumbo’s game is his power. He hasn’t hit for average (.259) and he hasn’t taken very many walks (4.6 BB%, .297 OBP), but like Jim Thome he has mashed some taters. In 438 plate appearances, Trumbo has 23 home runs and a .488 slugging percentage, so despite his anemic on-base skills, Trumbo has still put together a .333 wOBA. UZR is a fan of his fielding so far and grades him out at six runs above average, giving him an overall total fWAR of 2.1. Baseball Reference is a little more bearish, grading him at 1.6 bWAR. Trumbo has been more valuable to the Angels according to these metrics than Walden has, but whether voters view it the same way remains to be seen. Trumbo is a one-dimensional player offensively, and this may scare away some voters. Perhaps if he manages to slug his way to 30 he’ll become even more desirable.

While it’s hard to believe he’s eligible, Jeremy Hellickson has pitched his way into the conversation for the award so far this year. This year Hellickson has thrown 134.1 innings of 3.30 ERA ball with a 10-8 record. He hasn’t really been as good as his ERA would suggest, though, and in a lot of ways Hellickson has taken a step back from the superb numbers he put up in a small sample last September. His strikeout rate of 6.03/9 and walk rate of 3.35/9 are both worse than league average and support an ERA in the 4.50 range, as his 4.30 FIP and 4.56 xFIP indicate. Given that Hellickson hasn’t racked up a ton of wins, doesn’t play in a huge market and won’t be on playoff team, it’s hard to imagine him taking home the Rookie of the Year award. I imagine he’ll bounce back next year with a vengeance.

One very strong candidate for Rookie of the Year is in Seattle, second baseman Dustin Ackley. A midseason callup, Ackley has accumulated only 211 plate appearances. He’s adjusted well though, hitting .286/.370/.481 with 5 home runs, good for a .372 wOBA and a 140 wRC+, best amongst rookies. He’s done all this while playing good defense, and so while he’s only played in 50 games(!), he’s already accumulated 2.3 fWAR and 2.4 bWAR. It’s an impressive start for Ackley, but it’s likely that his lack of playing time will hamper his campaign for AL Rookie of the Year. Had the Mariners called him up earlier instead of waiting until June 17, he’d likely be the clear favorite. Ackley’s candidacy then remains a perfect illustration of the question posed to Fangraphs’ readers on Friday. How do you value someone who puts up tremendous production in a shorter context against someone who puts up less production rate-wise but more overall production in a longer context? It should be an interesting question for voters to grapple with, because rate-stat wise Ackley is the best position player candidate in the class.

Michael Pineda may have the strongest statistical case for the American League Rookie of the Year, certainly as a pitcher. He’s thrown 141 innings of 3.77 ERA ball, striking out 9.1/9 and walking 3.13/9. His FIP and his xFIP are right at that level, 3.60 and 3.57, respectively. Pineda is hurt by a subpar win-loss record, currently 9-7, but at least he’ll have a shoulder to cry on in Felix Hernandez. Fangraphs values his performance at 2.3 fWAR, and Baseball Reference has him at 2.2 bWAR, higher than any other candidate aside from Ackley. Simply put, Pineda’s been fantastic. He’s seen his ERA regress to the mid-3 level supported by his peripherals in recent weeks, but it shouldn’t detract from his excellent overall season. Whether voters are able to look past this, him tiring down the stretch, and a mediocre win-loss record is another question.

It doesn’t really feel right to put Ivan Nova in the same class as Pineda and Ackley, but it’s possible it will happen this November when the ballots are revealed. This is largely because Nova is currently the owner of a 12-4 win-loss record, one that might lead you to believe he’s been better than Pineda. He hasn’t been. Still, Nova has been impressive, particularly compared to preseason expectations. He’s thrown 117.2 innings of 4.21 ERA ball, a number which aligns neatly with his 4.11 FIP and 4.31 xFIP. His calling card has been ground balls so far, and he’s gotten them nearly 55% of the time. His strikeout rate (5.28 K/9) and walk rate (3.21 BB/9) are both below league average, but it’s possible he’ll flash better strikeout ability down the stretch thanks to the addition of his slider.

At the end of the day, Nova’s statistical profile isn’t all that impressive when put next to players like Ackley or Pineda. In fact, it’s nearly identical to Orioles’ rookie pitcher Zach Britton. Yet the fact that Britton sports a 6-9 W-L record and plays for a non-contending basement-dweller means his chances are virtually nill, while Nova stands a good chance of contending. If Nova manages to win fifteen games, he may sneak his way up the ballot. Can’t you hear a writer defending his vote by saying, “I voted for 15-game winner Ivan Nova. The pitcher’s job is to win games. Period.” Ivan Nova certainly can.

I mentioned to Joe on Friday that I would be pushing hard for Granderson to get the AL MVP, even if Jose Bautista deserved it more. It’s a total homer move. My brain knows that Bautista should likely be the winners, as it does that Pineda or Ackley should be the winner here over Nova, but I still can’t help but root for the hometown fellas to take home the hardware. How cool would a Sabathia-Granderson-Nova sweep be? Forget your sabermetrics, win-loss is where it’s at.

Categories : Musings
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Aug
13

The AL MVP race

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As it stands, there are likely five strong candidates for the American League MVP award. Three of them play on the Boston Red Sox: Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia. The fourth is Jose Bautista. The last one is New York’s own Curtis Granderson. With a little more than forty games to go it’s looking increasingly like it will be a close race. Indeed, despite the fact that Bautista has hit the cover off the ball this season, a confluence of factors may open the door open for other candidates and create a real voting free-for-all.

Bautista’s offensive production really stands head and shoulders above the rest of the class. He’s batting .307/.444/.627 with 33 home runs, 76 RBIs and 83 runs scored. The batting average is nice, sure, but it’s really his on-base percentage (bolstered by a nearly 20% walk rate) and slugging percentage that stand out. Bautista currently has a wOBA of .447, tops in the American League by over 35 points, and a wRC+ of 188. By UZR‘s reckoning he’s 1 run below average on defense, but despite that his overall fWAR is 6.8, only one tenth below his 2010 mark. This is a reflection of a better BABIP (.233 in 2010), more walks and better defense this year as opposed to last year.

Despite the fact that he’s the preeminent offensive producer in the American League, Bautista’s case for the MVP award may be handicapped by several factors. For one, his RBI total is low. This isn’t his fault, but it’s still a statistic many voters will consider. The second is that there’s been a bit of controversy surrounding him last year with steroids and this year with sign-stealing. A lot of that is tremendously unfair, particularly the steroids accusations (and the sign-stealing accusations, if you ask Drunk Jays Fans), so it’s hard to know the extent to which voters will penalize him. Thirdly, Bautista is going through a bit of a slump right now. Since the All-Star Break he’s hitting .205/.355/.342, meaning that his early season heroics may fade in the minds of some voters by the time voting comes around, provided he doesn’t go on another hot streak. Lastly, he plays on a non-contending team and some voters will bizarrely refuse to vote for players on non-contending teams. For this reason there may be a some daylight for some of the other candidates to make their way to the top of the ballot.

One of those players is Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury is hitting .313/.367/.504 with 19 home runs, 72 RBI and 84 runs scored. Ellsbury has swiped 31 bases, most amongst American League MVP candidates. He’s sporting a .386 wOBA and a wRC+ of 143. His BABIP is .339, which explains his high on base marks despite a relatively meager 7.2% walk rate. Ellsbury also looks great in the field, scoring 7.5 runs above average by UZR’s reckoning. Overall, Ellsbury has accrued 5.7 total fWAR, bolstered no doubt by a high defensive score and his skill on the base paths. Since he’s not likely to lead the league or his fellow MVP candidates in any other category but stolen bases, Ellsbury doesn’t seem like a likely candidate to knock off Bautista, especially considering the possibility that other Boston candidates will syphon off votes from his candidacy.

Another member of the Red Sox in contention is Adrian Gonzalez, currently batting .350/.411/.553 with 18 home runs, 92 RBI and 79 runs scored. Gonzalez has a wOBA of .411, second only to Jose Bautista amongst the five potential candidates, and his wRC+ is 160. Gonzalez is currently rocking a .390 BABIP, which explains the inflation throughout his batting line. In fact, he’s actually posting the lowest walk rate and ISO since 2006. This isn’t meant to diminish his production. Like the Cy Young, awards should be given out based on what’s actually happened, not what one would expect to happen if given another 162 games. However, there is plenty of time for Gonzalez to see some regression on balls in play, which would make his batting line look a little less impressive. UZR grades Gonzalez well, 7.1 runs above average,which is the highest mark of his career, and his total fWAR is 5.3. Gonzalez’s case for MVP likely rests on his prodigious offensive production, whereas players like Ellsbury, Pedroia and Granderson bring a very well-rounded profile to the table. This isn’t to say that Gonzalez doesn’t play good defense, just that he would seem to need to go toe to toe with Bautista on offense to have a chance at knocking him off. Gonzalez is in the midst of a power outage by his standards (.427 SLG since the All-Star Break), so he’ll have to get going quickly if he’s going to make a move on Bautista.

The strongest MVP candidate on the Red Sox has won the award before. Dustin Pedroia is currently in the midst of a career year, batting .311/.403/.478 with 15 home runs, 60 RBI and 76 runs scored. His wOBA (.390), wRC+ (145), stolen bases (23), on-base percentage and walk rate (13.6%) all represent career highs for the second baseman. He’s also grading out very well by UZR’s standards, 14.6 runs above average. Pedroia has always been regarded as a good fielder, so this isn’t a surprise. All told, Pedroia has accrued 6.8 fWAR. Last night he passed Jose Bautista and currently holds the lead in the American League. As such, he probably has the best chance of anyone in the American League to beat out Bautista for the award. He has a lot going for him: his offensive game is superb and well-rounded, he runs the bases well and he plays great defense. He’s also won the award before and is currently getting loads of media attention from national publications like Sports Illustrated. If voters are willing to buy into the all-around aspect of Pedroia’s game, and they’ve done so before, and are looking for someone other than Bautista to support, he may take home the award for the second time.

The final candidate for MVP is Curtis Granderson. After last night’s game, Granderson was hitting .273/.364/.577 with 32 home runs, 93 RBI and 105 runs scored. His wOBA is .405, his wRC+ is 157, and he’s swiped 22 bases. Not that it really matters, but his BABIP stands at .306 and his walk rate is 11.7%, the latter a touch above his career average of 9.8%. One of the weaknesses in Granderson’s candidacy is the way the fielding metrics grade his fielding. This year he has a poor -8.0 UZR, which explains why his fWAR is only 5.2. His career total UZR is 17.0, and for most seasons of his career he’s graded out average or above. In 2008 his marks were bad, and in 2009 he was essentially even. Not to be that guy, but a poor fielding score for Granderson doesn’t really pass the smell test. Granderson is fast, athletic, seems to get great reads on the ball and throws the ball well. Jay Jaffe at Pinstriped Bible had some choice analysis on this very subject:

Given the nature of defensive statistics, it’s tough to take any one of these too seriously, particularly given that they can be 10-15 runs apart in a given year; last year Granderson was at -1, +6.4, -12 according to the aforementioned trio, and +1.8 according to FRAA. The consensus of the numbers is more compelling, as it does raise some eyebrows about Granderson’s defense, particularly given that the Yankees have a choice of center fielders between him and Brett Gardner, whose numbers over the past two seasons have been off the charts: +16 FRAA, +42 TZ, +41 UZR, +32 DRS. There’s always an issue with defensive stats when it comes to adjacent fielders; if both of them can get to the ball but one routinely lets the other handle it, that will skew the stats, but so long as one of them does the job, everything is copacetic from a team defense standpoint. That may be what’s happening here, but in any event, it could be worth revisiting the choice of which of the two outfielders plays left field and which plays center field, if not now, then next spring. Until then, it’s worth keeping an eye on who gets those balls in the left-center gap.

The race for the top appears to be shaping up to be quite the dogfight. Jose Bautista has been the front-runner for the American League MVP all season is probably the premier offensive threat in all of baseball. Yet there are a lot of reasons voters could turn elsewhere. Some of those reasons are unfair, or they could just prefer the excellence of Pedroia’s all-around game. Pedroia does seem to be the primary threat to Bautista. Every part of his game is excellent, and he’s a well-known player on a contending team. Curtis Granderson could be the darkhorse in this race. It’s conceivable that he could finish with some very nice round numbers – 40 home runs, 30 stolen bases, 125 RBI and a wOBA north of .400 – and like Pedroia he is a well-liked player on a contending team. The MVP ballot is going to be very tricky for voters, and will be fascinating to watch. There are a lot of different scenarios that could play out. Bautista could finish strong and win the award easily. He could continue to sputter and Pedroia could continue to shoot his way up the fWAR leaderboard and gain more and more momentum. In another scenario, the superb seasons of Ellsbury and Gonzalez could actually syphon off votes from Pedroia, helping the candidacy of someone like Curtis Granderson. With six weeks or so to go on the season, it promises to be a very interesting race.

Categories : Players
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Aug
07

Be cool, fight cancer

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As you sip your coffee and read the Sunday paper this morning, thousands of runners, joggers and walkers will be making their way through a 5k course that will take them throughout Yankee Stadium. Participants will queue up on the 100 level and start their race by making two laps around. They’ll then run through the sub-zero level of the stadium, and exit between the bullpen and Monument Park onto the actual warning track on the field. After making two laps around the field, no doubt imagining the roars of the crowd from their diving catches in center field, participants will go through a complex route that will take them up the stadium stairs and around various concourses, back down ramps, back up the stairs, and back down ramps again. They’ll finish in the Great Hall, having run 3.1 miles and climbing over 260 stairs.

The whole point of this 5K, aside from running inside Yankee Stadium, aside from the lovely torture of stadium stair-running on an August morning, is to raise money for cancer research. The beneficiary is the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. This Foundation identifies young, promising scientists in the field of cancer research and provides financial support to allow them to pursue new and creative attempts to cure the disease. Since 1946, the Foundation has invested over $240 million in cancer research. As their website says, “Our alumni include 11 Nobel Laureates and leaders of major cancer centers across the United States.  Many of our 3,300 scientists have gone on to make breakthroughs in the way we prevent, diagnose and treat many forms of cancer.” You can read more about their most notable accomplishments here. As of late this week over $590,000 had been raised for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

It’s too late for readers to join in on the Yankee Stadium 5K, of course. As you read this, I’ll likely have completed my assault on the course and will be receiving oxygen and an IV in the back of an ambulance. It’s not too late to lend your support to the cause of cancer research. Everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer. It’s a nasty, terrible disease. Thanks to the way this Foundation has been set up, 100% of any donation made to the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation goes directly to cancer research. The overhead and operating expenses are paid out of the endowment and their Broadway Tickets program. Pretty cool, huh? It’s good to know that every dollar you give goes directly to stopping cancer.

I’ve paid some of my own money to the Foundation to enter this 5K, and I’ll be out there this morning doing my best in the race. If you’re interested in supporting the Foundation, you can donate via my personal page here. Thanks for considering it, and please wish me luck. I’ll update the post with my results when I’m done.

**UPDATE** By unofficial results I finished 14th overall with a time of 21:40. The winning time was a few seconds over 19 minutes. Thanks to everyone who supported the cause!

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One of the selling points of CC Sabathia‘s Cy Young case is the incredible volume of innings he’s amassed this season. Fans have long grown accustomed to the bulky lefty throwing up outsized innings pitched totals, and for this reason it’s easy to gloss over his prolificity. This year, he’s thrown 176.2 innings, a number eclipsed by only Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers. In the last two years, he’s thrown the third most innings in baseball, behind Halladay and Felix Hernandez. In the last five years no one in baseball has thrown more innings than Sabathia. He’s thrown 1,138.1, leading Roy Halladay by 8 innings. The next closest is Dan Haren with 1072.2. If you add in the seventy some-odd innings he’s thrown in the postseason since 2007, his lead over Halladay only widens further.

This is a cause for pride and for concern. Sabathia has earned his reputation as a durable ace, and there’s no current reason to think he’ll suddenly get injured or break down. Still one could be forgiven for wondering if he’ll be able to do this in perpetuity. If he won’t, then when exactly will the decline begin? This is a particular relevant question this season, as CC is currently on pace to threaten to eclipse his past innings pitched and total pitches thrown totals. Below is a chart detailing the past five years of work, and projecting what he might achieve if current trends hold.

As it currently stands, Sabathia is throwing around 108 pitches per start. This is a mark reminiscent of his last contract year with the Milwaukee Brewers. If he keeps up his current pace, Sabathia will pitch close to 250 innings again and throw around 3700 pitches, 100 pitches or so higher than what he did in 2007, 2009 and 2010 and, again, closer to his 2008 campaign. Of course, the postseason counts too. It doesn’t show up in Sabathia’s initial Baseball-Reference page, but the pitches he’s hurled with that left arm count just as much (if not a little more, given the stress of the event) than the ones in April.

Obviously, the 2011 totals could vary a great deal depending on how far the Yankees go into the postseason. In the scenario that minimizes the number of postseason pitches thrown for Sabathia (the worst-case scenario for the Yankees, they go home in the ALDS), Sabathia makes one start. In the scenario that maximizes the number of postseason pitches thrown, Sabathia makes 8 starts (2 in the ALDS, 3 in the ALCS and 3 in the WS – heart-attack city). Spitballing it, his 2009 numbers seem like a fair enough estimate for what he might do in this year’s postseason, but even so he averaged 7 innings and close to 110 pitches per outing that year. Scaling it back to 5 starts, 500 pitches and 30 innings is a bit more conservative. This isn’t any sort of serious projection, to be clear; no one knows how far the Yankees will go into October and how many starts Sabathia will make. There’s nothing wrong with spitballing though as long as you admit you’re spitballing it! Here’s the cumulative data on Sabathia, including the regular season and postseason.

To recap, Sabathia is likely looking at around 250 innings and 3,650-3,700 pitches in the regular season. This would be his highest mark since 2008. If he throws 5 postseason starts of six innings and 100 pitches apiece (a conservative estimate that could vary wildly), his innings pitched and pitches thrown totals will creep up to an all-time high, well past the 265.4 IP and 4,134 pitches thrown mark he set in back in 2009. It’s not inconceivable that he could crack 280 innings and 4,200 pitches. If he were to make 2 starts in the ALDS, 3 in the ALCS and 3 in the World Series, he’d easily surpass the 300 innings pitched mark.

This is all a moot point if the Yankees get bounced before the World Series, but it’s at least worth monitoring for several reasons. For one, the last time he cracked 250 innings in the regular season (after pitching on short rest for what seemed like weeks) he was ineffective in his only NLDS start with the Brewers. He looked run-down, and the Brewers went home early. It doesn’t even need to be said, but the Yankees need a sharp CC to do well this October. Secondly, Sabathia will likely opt-out of his current contract and re-up with the Yankees on another long-term deal this winter. If he’s going to be around for awhile and making big bucks, it might be a good idea to look after his long-term interests.

One easy way to do this would be to continue to roll with the six-man rotation in August. As Moshe Mandel of The Yankee Analysts noted in great detail, the six-man rotation this month would result in one less start for CC Sabathia. Hughes and Nova both pitched well in their last outings, so there doesn’t seem to be huge harm in allowing them to continue to battle it out this month, and hopefully it would result in slightly lower innings pitched and pitches thrown totals for Sabathia. He’ll still have ridiculously high numbers by the standard of mostly any other pitcher, but there’s only so much that can be done. The Yankees should do what they can to keep him fresh for October and beyond, but at some point they’ll simply have to roll the dice and hope for the best.

Categories : Pitching
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As the season moves into the dog days of August, some of the discussion in baseball circles naturally turns towards end of season awards ballots. This is usually a lot of fun, particularly when the old school, traditional camp goes head to head with the sabermetric camp and acrimony and recriminations ensue. There’s nothing quite like watching a reporter argue for a pitcher based on the win-loss record against someone who hasn’t looked at a W-L record all season. In anticipation of this, I’ve set out to handicap the American League Cy Young race, and have done so by trying to consider all relevant factors. Plenty of voters really do prefer looking at win-loss record, earned run average and overall team success. Other voters are comfortable looking past that and examining stats like FIP, strikeout and walk rates, and other more advanced measures of pitcher success. I’m not arguing for a particular voter rationale as much as trying to predict which one of the American League’s best pitchers will garner enough support from voters to take home the bacon. It’s a very good crop of pitchers this year, so the debate should be lively.

Honorable Mentions: C.J. Wilson, Felix Hernandez and Justin Masterson. All three have had fantastic seasons in their own right, but it’s hard to imagine any of them cracking the top 3 of the ballot as things stand right now. Of the three, King Felix seems the strongest candidate to move up the ballot if he finishes strong and other candidates slip. He’s won before, and he’s having another superb year in Seattle.

The Fringe

Dan Haren, photo courtesy of AP.

Dan Haren

My preseason pick for Cy Young is having another typically superb season. Haren is a bit of a fly ball pitcher, so pitching in Angels Stadium with good outfield defenders has really helped him so far. This year, Haren’s strikeout rate has dipped into the 7.5 K/9 range, down a little from his usual ~8 K/9 mark. However, he’s been more stingy than ever with the free passes, walking only 1.36 batters per nine innings. As a result, Haren leads the American League in K/BB ratio with a 5.65 mark, ahead of Justin Verlander’s 4.97.

Haren’s win-loss record is currently a modest 10-6. With a dozen or so starts left on the season, he seems unlikely to win twenty games this year, so he’s not likely to pick up any support from the traditional crowd in that area. His ERA is 3.01, certainly a respectable mark but nothing as shiny some of the other candidates. His ERA doesn’t diverge too wildly from his FIP (2.65) or xFIP (3.12), so there’s no reason to expect him to tail off as the season moves on, except for the fact that he usually pitches better in the first half of the season than the second.

As a result, I expect Haren to wind up in the top 3 of a few ballots, but he likely won’t be a serious contender for the award. Aside from K/BB ratio, he doesn’t lead the league in any of the “important” metrics, whether they be traditional or sabermetric, and there just isn’t a whole lot of buzz about his season. It’s been an excellent year for Haren, but probably not one good enough to win him the award. This is a friendly reminder that the Angels obtained him using Joe Saunders as the primary trade chip. Moving on.

Josh Beckett

Sadly, this was the only photo of Beckett available on the Internet. C'est la vie. Photo courtesy of AP.

Josh Beckett would likely be a serious contender for the Cy Young if not for the fact that he’s thrown roughly 30 to 40 innings less than the some of the other heavy hitters on this list. Like other seasons, Beckett has had a few struggles with his health this year, but he’s still managed to put together a good campaign and has several factors working in his favor for his Cy Young bid. For one, he’s a very well known pitcher with a reputation as being an ace, and he pitches in Boston and gets plenty of exposure. Further, he has a very low ERA, currently at 2.17. Those two factors alone mean that he’ll show up on plenty of Cy Young ballots around the nation.

Beckett is having a good year, no way around it. Yet, interestingly, his very low ERA is slightly misleading. It’s not as if this is a breakout year for Beckett. His strikeout rate has dipped a bit from career norms, and his xFIP is right in line with his career average. In fact, he posted a lower xFIP in each one of his 2007-2009 seasons. This shouldn’t obscure the fact that Beckett has had great success in the run prevention category, and if he cracks the 200 inning mark and the Red Sox win over 100 games he might find himself creeping up the ballot for plenty of voters. It won’t be undeserved. But it will be an interesting testament to the importance that a sub-3 ERA has on the psyche of the Cy Young voting community.

The Contenders

Jered Weaver at the 2011 All-Star Game. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Jered Weaver

Aside from the pitcher deemed the Favorite, Jered Weaver has perhaps the strongest case for the AL Cy Young this year. Not only is his win-loss record a solid 14-4, but he also boasts a rather anemic 1.79 ERA. Weaver has a good strikeout rate thus far, punching out around seven and a half batters per nine innings, and he walks around two batters per nine. The key to explaining his tremendous success at run prevention this year is his astronomically low home run rate, 0.34 HR per nine innings. Weaver has given up only 6 home runs the entire year, well below what one would consider normal. Only 3% of his fly balls have turned into home runs this year; league average is around 10%, and Weaver himself is a career 7.5% HR/FB pitcher. It’s really an odd situation, particularly because Weaver is such an extreme fly ball pitcher. As a result, several run estimators expect Weaver to start yielding home runs at a much higher rate. His xFIP is 3.61, nearly two runs higher than his ERA.

I’m not advocating that Weaver be penalized in any way for maintaining such a low home run to fly ball ratio. If he ends the year with a 3% HR/FB ratio and a sub-2 ERA, he’ll likely win the Cy Young and it’ll be hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve it. The historical record is what it is, even if it’s not likely sustainable or repeatable. The season isn’t over just yet though. Weaver has a decent amount of time left and it’s reasonable to expect his HR/FB ratio going forward to be somewhere around his career rate of 8%, which means more home runs and a higher ERA. Weaver may be a front-runner for the award at the moment, but it’s possible that he loses some steam as some of those fly balls turn into home runs and his ERA regresses in the last two months of the season. If not, and he finishes with 20 wins, a sub-2 ERA and a 90 win Los Angeles Angels team, he very well may take home his first ever Cy Young.

Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander in the state of Karl Welzein. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Another pitcher sure to get some love from Cy Young voters is Justin Verlander. Verlander is currently posting his third straight sub-3 FIP season, but this year he finally has the ERA to match it (2.34). Verlander currently boasts an elite strikeout rate with an 8.79 K/9, but is walking a career low 1.77 batters per nine. For a career 2.81 BB/9 guy, this is a substantial reduction, and it leaves him with the second-best K/BB ratio in the American League. Like Weaver, Verlander is also well on his way to twenty wins, currently sporting a 14-5 win-loss record.

The thing that may stand in the way the most of Verlander clinching his first ever Cy Young is the risk of batted ball regression. His BABIP is currently .239, below his career mark of .288. Yet even if that inches up a couple dozen points, Verlander is still likely to have a very compelling case for Cy Young. He’s going to have the wins, the ERA and the peripheral stats to support him. He’s also thrown a ton of innings, more than CC Sabathia, and he’s thrown a no-hitter this season. If Detroit wins the Central, he may get an even bigger boost from voters. Verlander’s 2011 is absolutely superb. Whether he’s able to beat out Weaver and others is another question.

The Favorite 

"Throw ya hands in the air if youse a true playa". Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

CC Sabathia 

All the stars are lining up for Sabathia to win the second Cy Young award of his rather illustrious career. On the traditional side, the big fellow currently leads the American League in wins with 15. It’s absolutely true that he gets loads of run support, which is why wins aren’t the best barometer of pitcher skill, but plenty of voters still consider the factor. CC has 10 or 11 starts left this season, which means he’s a really good bet to end the year with more than twenty wins, a feat he accomplished for the first time last season. Like Weaver and Verlander, Sabathia also sports a very low ERA, currently 2.56. If Weaver’s ERA ticks up north of 2, it’s likely to make CC’s case look stronger.

Sabathia also has the benefit of pitching for a team contending for a playoff spot, perhaps directly against his competitors. Personally, I don’t think a better pitcher should be penalized for pitching on a worse team, but it seems clear that plenty of voters put a sort of premium on whether the Cy Young contender’s team makes the playoffs. If Sabathia’s Yankees win the Wild Card and Jered Weaver’s Angels or Justin Verlander’s Tigers do not, it can only help Sabathia’s case.

Sabathia should receive a good amount of support from the stat community. His case rests on more than just win totals, ERA and the Yankees making the playoffs. He currently sports the lowest FIP in the American League (2.49) and the highest fWAR total (5.6). He has an elite strikeout rate, a good walk rate and he’s getting loads of groundballs. His BABIP is fairly normal, and the only thing that could hurt him going forward is his relatively low HR/FB ratio, currently about half of his career rate. As a result his xFIP is 3.03, a touch higher than Verlander but still lower than Jered Weaver’s 3.61 mark. In other words, there’s nothing too fluky about Sabathia’s performance. Anyone who has watched him lately knows that already. He’s been virtually untouchable lately, in a stream reminiscent of his now-famous performance with Milwaukee in 2008. Sabathia is an ace in his prime, pitching in a tough division and racking up all sorts of indicators of dominance. In the midst of a very good year of pitching in the American League, Sabathia may end of with the best case for American League Cy Young. If the big fella wants a new contract, he’s doing a really good job of showing the world just how good he can be.

Categories : Pitching
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