Granderson, Cano finish fourth and sixth in AL MVP race

The AL Cy Young Award wasn’t enough. Justin Verlander was named the MVP of the American League today, receiving 13 of 28 first place votes. He’s the first pitcher to win the award since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, and the first starting pitcher to win the award since Roger Clemens in 1986. He’s also the first Tiger to be named MVP since Willie Hernandez in 1984.

Curtis Granderson was the Yankees’ best player all season, and was rewarded for his efforts with a fourth place finish in the voting. He received three first place votes and finished with 215 points, trailing only Verlander (280), Jacoby Ellsbury (242), and Jose Bautista (231). The top five finish triggers an escalator clause in his contract, raising the value of his 2013 option from $14M to $15M. Robinson Cano finished sixth in the voting with 112 points, though he did not receive any first or second place votes.

CC Sabathia (two sixth place votes), Mark Teixeira (one seventh and one tenth place vote), and David Robertson (one tenth place vote) also appeared on ballots. The full results are available on the BBWAA’s site. The NL MVP will be announced tomorrow at 2pm, the final award of the season.

Why we can expect a better OBP from Alex Rodriguez, the sequel

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Last offseason, on the heels of Alex Rodriguez posting a career-low .341 OBP over 595 PAs (an OBP only .016 points above league average), I posited that Alex was a strong bet for an improvement on that mark for the 2011 season, and indeed, Alex turned in a .362 OBP over significantly fewer PAs (428). While that mark still falls well short of his career .386 OBP, it wound up being the third-best OBP on the 2011 Yankees, and was well above the league average of .321.

For the second straight winter, I think Yankee fans can realistically expect an improved on-base percentage from Alex next season. Now the obvious reason for optimism is the fact that Alex basically only played half a season in 2011. During his healthy first half, he was hitting .299/.377/.507 through the end of June. The seven games he played in in July before hitting the shelf for knee surgery didn’t do anything to help his cause, and his OBP fell to .366 as he went on the DL (with 33 walks and four HBPs to his name through 80 team games). Alex didn’t really do much of anything in the 19 games he played over the remainder of the season — though he still managed to get on base — putting up a  .191/.345/.353 line (15 walks, 1 HBP) over his final 84 PAs.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that a healthy Alex would have managed to come close to doubling his first half walk total, finishing the year at around 65 walks, which is what he did in 2008, a season he OBP’d .392 in 594 PAs. Now, this hypothetical healthy 2011 Alex still might not have finished with an OBP quite that high, but he was also hitting .295 at the time of his injury with 90 hits. For comparison’s sake, he hit .302 in 2008 and had 154 hits. Without going too crazy with extrapolations, it doesn’t seem terribly unrealistic to expect a .290-ish-hitting A-Rod to post an OBP somewhere in the high .370s.

Of course, that’s all a bit too intangible, so I’ll expand on the idea some by looking at Alex’s plate discipline data. I gathered PD data for Alex going back to 2009 from both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, as it seems the general consensus has been that BP’s newly introduced data is superior to that of FanGraphs’ BIS-provided percentages and I was curious to see just how much the two data sets differentiated. For the most part, in the small sample that I culled, it appeared that the differences in the data sets were mostly on the order of 100 to 500 basis points — which sounds like a lot, except 100 basis points = 1% — with BP’s numbers generally coming in slightly lower. The major difference between the two sets is in the Swinging Strike%, as it appears that BP’s percentage also includes foul balls.

Anyway, I point all this out to show that yes, there are tangible differences, and eventually BP’s will probably be the more reliable go-to, but I’m going to go with FanGraphs for this analysis because the BP data isn’t backfilled/built-out enough yet, as it doesn’t yet allow you to slice and dice by month or compare against career numbers.

Anyway, here are A-Rod’s plate discipline numbers (per FanGraphs) from the last three seasons:

O-Sw% Z-Sw% Sw% O-Con% Z-Con% Con% Zone% Sw-Strk%
2009 21.1% 67.4% 42.6% 58.8% 84.9% 78.0% 46.6% 9.1%
2010 25.3% 68.5% 45.0% 65.6% 86.1% 79.8% 45.6% 8.9%
2011 27.0% 66.1% 44.0% 61.7% 83.7% 76.0% 43.4% 10.3%
Car. 21.4% 67.9% 44.0% 53.0% 83.2% 75.7% 48.7% 10.5%

It won’t surprise anyone to see that Alex’s lowest O-Swing% and O-Contact% of the last three years was in 2009, his last .400-plus wOBA campaign. Somewhat foreboding is Alex’s 27% O-Swing% in 2011 — up from 2010’s 25.3% and considerably higher than his 21.4% career mark — though his O-Contact% was down from 2010’s 65.6%, which was his highest percentage since the data started being collected in 2002. Still, the 61.7% O-Contact% was also a good deal higher than his career mark, and Alex swinging at more bad pitches and making more contact with them is probably not a recipe for OBP success.

However, the 2011 data set is a bit skewed by the fact that Alex only had 31 PAs in July, 19 in August and 65 in September.

Here’s his 2011 monthly breakdown:

O-Sw% Z-Sw% Sw% O-Con% Z-Con% Con% Zone% Sw-Strk%
April 20.1% 64.0% 38.7% 60.0% 86.2% 78.4% 42.5% 8.4%
May 32.9% 63.9% 47.2% 66.3% 87.7% 79.6% 46.2% 9.3%
June 26.0% 65.0% 43.7% 58.8% 83.0% 75.2% 45.4% 10.5%
July 40.4% 72.2% 56.6% 61.9% 74.4% 70.0% 50.9% 16.8%
August 23.9% 80.7% 46.8% 54.6% 92.0% 80.6% 40.3% 9.1%
Sept. 24.4% 67.7% 39.6% 59.5% 74.6% 68.6% 35.1% 12.2%
Car. 21.4% 67.9% 44.0% 53.0% 83.2% 75.7% 48.7% 10.5%

Alex’s two best months of the season were April (.422 wOBA; 16.3% BB%) and June (.423 wOBA; 11.9% BB%). May was his only fully healthy month of really poor (.328 wOBA; 4.8% BB%) play, although his May line was dragged down by one of the worst four-week stretches of his career, which I spent quite a bit of time documenting earlier this season. April was Alex’s most selective month of the season (a mere 20.1% O-Swing%), which makes it no surprise it was also his best month. His May O-Swing% of 32.9% along with a 66.3% O-Contact% underscore just how out-of-whack he was that month.

In June, his PD numbers were pretty much where you’d expect them to be given his outstanding month, as he basically matched his career averages in every category except — somewhat unexpectedly — O-Swing% and O-Contact%, though the latter was his lowest percentage of the full months he played in 2011.

I would expect a healthy Alex to be swinging more in line with his April and June 2011 rates, and in turn, better the .362 OBP he turned in on the season. The ever-optimistic Bill James agrees, and has Alex hitting .277/.373/.497 next season. That’s probably a bit aggressive, as much of that OBP is fueled by a projected 70 walks and 12.1% BB% — numbers he’s only eclipsed once in the last four seasons (in 2009) — although I’m also not sure I’d bet against a highly motivated Alex Rodriguez. He may be turning 37 next year, but a healthy year should go a long way in silencing some of the critics that wanted to blame the team’s playoff downfall on a far-from-100% A-Rod.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 21st, 2011

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

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From Cashman, a thought on the new Wild Card

Over the next few days, perhaps even before Thanksgiving, Major League Baseball and the MLBPA will announce a new labor agreement that will change the shape of the game. We know the new deal will have HGH testing and new compensation rules, and the extra Wild Card team has been an open secret for the better part of a year. In this space, Joe wrote about the balanced leagues a few days ago.

This weekend, Brian Cashman spoke with The Wall Street Journal about the new playoff format, and he made it exceedingly clear that the Yankees recognize the inherent randomness of the playoffs. A one-game, winner-makes-the-ALDS format just drives home the point. “You do not want to be a wild card,” Cashman said to Dan Barbarisi. “The only way you want to be a wild card is if you’re not going to make the playoffs. You definitely want to win the division now.”

It is, of course, an obvious point, and we can highlight the 2001 season in which the 102-win A’s would have played the 85-win Twins in a one-game set for the right to make the Division Series as the perfect example. The Twins could have unseated a team 17 games better than they were. So the Yankees, the team with the most division titles since the advent of the three-division league, will maintain that singular focus on the AL East crown. With a new playoff format, it becomes ever more important to reach that still-infuriating best-of-five set. No one wants to lose Game 163 against an inferior team.

Sunday Night Open Thread

Random photo is random. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for a number of reasons, but I’m definitely looking more forward to having a few days off at the end of the week than I am the actual feast. This week is always great for those working in a traditional office, because the place will be empty for the next few days. I used to use my vacation time during the summer and work these days around the holidays, both Thanksgiving and Christmas, because someone had to been there and there was never anything to do. That’s kinda how I started blogging. It was awesome.

Anyway, here’s the open thread for the night. The late football game is the Eagles at the Giants (8:20pm ET on NBC), so that’s pretty awesome. Talk about anything you want here, it’s all fair game. Go nuts.

A Little Bit of Luck

AP/Bill Koustron

I’m not ready to give up on A.J. Burnett.

I know, it’s stupid. I know the numbers. I know the depressing reality. I am quite sure he is going to be in the rotation next season (at least for the majority of the year), and while in the rotation he will give up a lot of dingers and a lot of walks and make Russell Martin earn whatever he’s paid. He will also make the collective fanbase want to strangle him on multiple occasions. I’m ready for it.

I know the blogosphere is going to roll their collective eyes at this, but I think Burnett could be looking at year where he brings his numbers down again. He’ll probably never live up to that $16.5M that being paid, but the continued starter crunch means that if the guy you’re paying like a starting pitcher can at least put up mediocre innings (and not outright bad ones like Burnett has a tendency to do), that would be pretty nice.

Aside from a misplaced surplus of hope, the real reason I think Burnett can improve is that many of his peripherals did increase last year. He trended upwards in ground balls for the third year in a row, dragged himself back to his normal k/9 rate of around 8, and just managed to keep his walk rate under 4/9ip. In hindsight, he was better than he was in 2010, but that wasn’t exactly a difficult thing to do. There is one number that sticks out to me, though. Maybe, like many players, Burnett was a victim of random, year-long fluctuations that make him seem worse than he actually was. I’m not saying that a little luck is going to turn him a Cy Young winner, just that there’s a possibility of a slightly less depressing year.

That is this: in 2011, 17% of all fly balls A.J. Burnett gave up turned into home runs, which lead major league baseball. That’s absurd, and obviously much higher than the MLB average of 10%. It lead to his 1.47 HR/9 ratio (third-highest in baseball behind Colby Lewis and Bronson Arroyo), and combined with his usual walk rate, had a pretty horrible effect on his numbers. Burnett gave up 109 ER this year, and 49 of them – almost half! – came from the longball. Even with his vastly improved ground ball rate, he gave up the exact same amount of earned runs as he did in 2010, and actually fewer runs if you count the unearned ones. In this trend, his infield fly ball percentage also dropped below his career average this year, which could also be part of the problem.

In 2010, Burnett gave up 215 fly balls and 25 home runs, which is a fairly average 11.6% HR/FB. In 2011, Burnett gave up 185 fly balls and 31 home runs, causing this massive spike. Curiously enough, Burnett has been trending downwards in fly balls for all three years of his Yankees contract, while his homer rate is going up for the past four years, starting back in Toronto in 2008. Some of that massive 17% is coming from depressing A.J. Burnett statistics: dropping fastball velocity, missed location, age-related decline, that sort of depressing junk. Perhaps ballplayers are simply sizing him better. Some of it might come from the fact he spends plenty of time in the homer-happy AL East. But the enormous uptick makes me want to believe that some of it is simply part of year-to-year randomness, and that while A.J. is far from an ace, a few less dingers would go a long way to helping him and the team. Even if we keep his HR/FB rate above average at 14%, that means he gives up five fewer homers, which could do a lot for the man – especially if people were on-base at those particular times.

Like I said, I don’t think that a few less dingers is going to turn A.J. Burnett into an immensely valuable asset. But considering that the Yankees are probably not going to be able to find someone to take Burnett and Brian Cashman insists that the man is going to spend most of the year – if not all of it – in the rotation, it’s these small quirks that we have to try and rely on to improve his performance. In this case, the Yankees could use a little luck when it comes to Burnett, or even just the scales tipping even again.

Locking Up Russell Martin

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Over the last few months, the sabermetric community has made a number of advances in the area of catcher defense. Studies by Max Marchi and Mike Fast on pitch framing and a study from Bojan Koprivica on pitch blocking have begun the process of quantifying the more difficult to measure elements of a backstop’s defense. While these studies are still in their infancy and are likely to be tweaked and altered in the coming months and years, they do provide us with one reasonable concrete lesson: Good defense from a catcher is likely more important than we had previously thought when trying to measure catcher value.

In the past, catchers tended to be put into one of two groups: good defender or weak defender. Sure, you had one or two Gold Glovers at the top and a handful of guys who were execrable enough to be known as terrible at the bottom, but the vast majority of catchers were placed into those two groups. Without any way to truly quantify defense, these broad categories had to suffice, and this resulted in most people evaluating catchers based on their offense. Catcher defense was thrown in at the end of conversations as an aside, possibly with caught stealing numbers and some passed ball data, but little tangible data that would shift an evaluation in either direction. Only those known as excellent catchers would get any sort of boost from their perceived defensive value.

Now, with these new studies, we can begin to quantify catcher defense, and use that to reevaluate the worth of a catcher who performs well behind the dish. As I noted above, one lesson that can be taken from these studies is that defense behind the dish is quite important. Let’s use Russell Martin as an illustration.

While I am far from the biggest proponent of WAR, these new metrics are expressed in terms of runs saved, making WAR a convenient way to weigh the impact of Martin’s defense. Before considering defense, Russell Martin was worth 3.1 wins last season (FanGraphs). However, once you add 1.5 runs saved by controlling the running game, 0.1 runs saved blocking pitches, and 15 runs saved by being among the best at framing pitches (Fast’s research consistently places Martin near the top of the league in this area), you suddenly have an incredibly valuable 4.6 win player. While the first instinct of many is to flinch at the idea that the “unmeasurable” aspects of catcher defense can add that much value, it is important to note that the very best defenders gained at most two wins due to their gloves. That is not much different than the value added defensively by the best at other positions, and catchers are involved on almost every pitch.

The suggestion here is not that Russell Martin is a 4-5 win player, but that he is a very good defender and that has definite value exceeding what some of the value metrics would suggest. Accepting that hypothesis leads me to my point: If the Yankees do not believe that Jesus Montero is their catcher of the future, it would make sense for them to offer Russell Martin a 2-3 year contract extension, either now or at the end of the 2012 season.

While he certainly showed improvement relative to 2009-2010, Martin had a decent but unspectacular season offensively, such that his value is probably not incredibly high at this point. Although he has a reputation as a solid defender, he is not known as one of the best in the sport, which makes it unlikely that he would get a major salary bump on the open market due to his glove. Essentially, if he was a free agent at this moment, he could market himself as a adequate offensive catcher with a solid glove, which is relatively unsexy and would not bring him a major financial windfall.

Being that the market almost certainly will not value his defense quite as much as it should, the Yankees could have the opportunity to lock Russell up at a reasonable rate relative to his value. They could wait until after the 2012 season to sign him, although they might want to avoid the possibility that his price goes up either because 1) he bounces back to 2006-2008 levels offensively, or 2) teams begin to see him as a great defensive catcher. While the latter seems like a long shot, another season of the Yankees getting good performances out of retread pitchers could shine a light on the work that Martin does behind the plate.

Of course, there are downsides to signing Martin to an extension a year early, such as a major injury or a significant decline with the bat that would turn the contract into an albatross. Couple those risks with the fact that the team rarely hands out extensions, and I would bet on the Yankees waiting until after this season to address Martin’s contract. That said, once he does sign on for a few more years, he should provide enough defensive value to help any contract avoid disaster status. Russell’s glove is undervalued, and unless the Yankees believe they already have their catcher of the future knocking on the door, he would serve as an good option to fill the position for the next few seasons.

(Thanks to @jaydestro for inspiring this post)