The AL MVP race

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.

2011 AL East Sleepers

As Spring Training warms up and baseball season approaches, it is easy to find plenty of “busts and sleepers” columns around the baseball community, particularly for fantasy baseball. I’ve done the same thing here for the American League East using Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system. First I used PECOTA and calculated the projected wOBAs for every offensive starter in the American League East. Then I subtracted each player’s 2010 wOBA from the projection. The players with the largest differences are projected to do better than they did in 2010, and the players with negative values are projected to perform worse than they did in 2010. Today we’ll look at the “sleepers”, the players that PECOTA sees doing better this year than last year. I’ve selected one player from each team because Orioles and Blue Jays fans need love too.

Boston Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury

2010 wOBA: .237. 2011 projected wOBA: .333.

Watch out for Adr--Ooh...(Getty Images)

Given how poorly Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2010 campaign went, it’s a bit odd to include him on this list: repeated injuries to his ribs kept him from staying on the field and producing at anything resembling a normal level of production. While it might be more interesting to examine another Red Sox player,  the next highest wOBA-gainer on the list is JD Drew (.346 2010 wOBA; .355 2011 projected wOBA) and, frankly, JD Drew is boring.

As mentioned, Ellsbury had a rough go of it in 2010, injuring his ribs in April, and then reinjuring them when he attempted to return. 2010 was a lost year for those attempting to ascertain what Ellsbury’s true talent level is. In 2009 he had taken a step forward, increasing his on-base and slugging  percentages by about twenty points apiece and bumping his OPS to .770. Ellsbury isn’t the type to hit for power, but his relatively decent ability to get on-base in 2009 and his blindingly fast speed led many to expect him to take another step forward in 2010. Many were the fantasy players who took Ellsbury in the first round of a standard 5×5 league, and great was their disappointment.

All fantasy owners and the Boston Red Sox got from Ellsbury was a measly set of 83 plate appearances, and all Ellsbury got was older and more expensive to the Sox. In 2011 he looks to get back on the horse with fellow speedster Carl Crawford behind him, yet PECOTA isn’t very bullish on Ellsbury’s ability to advance past his 2009 statistical line. The projection of .281/.337/.381 is nearly identical to his relatively inferior 2008 season.

Even with an OPS of barely over .700 Ellsbury has good value to the Red Sox. He’s relatively inexpensive, he plays good defense and he runs the bases well. However, unless he can outperform PECOTA’s meager expectations for his ability to get on base and hit for power he will fall well short of his solid 2009 season. Whether this makes him a true “sleeper”, then, is an open question.

Toronto Blue Jays: JP Arencibia

Indeed. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

2010 wOBA: .232; 2011 projected wOBA: .331.

Like Ellsbury, JP Arencibia’s presence in this list is largely the product of an unnaturally low 2009 line in limited playing time: Arencibia hit .143/.189/.343 in a mere 37 plate appearances. Yet Arencibia has an impressive minor league pedigree, and should get a decent shot at holding down the Toronto catching job now that John Buck has departed for greener pastures. Arencibia doesn’t profile to take a lot of walks; his career minor league OBP is .319. However, he has exhibited some serious power potential, albeit in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. Howard Bender of Fangraphs recently wrote up Arencibia as a “catcher on the rise” over at Fangraphs:

If the growth that we’ve seen in the minors is any indication, the power potential here is massive. He progressed nicely from Single-A to Double-A and the little hiccup he experienced his first year in Triple-A (increased K% with a major decrease in BA) was thoroughly wiped away with his follow-up season in 2010. His ISO numbers are fantastic and you can tell that his hitting prowess is more than just luck as evidenced by his relatively normal BABIP numbers. One caveat that I should point out is the .228 average vs lefties with a .284 OBP in his two seasons in Triple-A. Those numbers could translate even worse in the majors. There will also be questions as to whether or not he can handle the rigors of catching full time in the bigs as well as how he can handle the pitching staff, but those will certainly be answered this season as the Jays will afford him every opportunity to succeed this year. Consider him a middle round pick who should, if he keeps his head on straight, put up early round pick numbers.

In a refreshing exhibition of clear expectations, PECOTA is strikingly bearish on Arencibia’s ability to get on base (.290 OBP) and strikingly bullish on his ability to hit for power (.483 SLG). It’s probably not the well-rounded game the Jays are looking for long-term out of the catcher position, but it’s not far off from the level of production they got out of John Buck last year (.281/.314/.489 with a .345 wOBA). If Arencibia can stick behind the plate for the season and hit to his projected .331 wOBA the Jays would be happy campers.

Tampa Bay Rays: Dan Johnson

You know who broke his bat? Cliff Lee. Game 5 ALDS: 9 IP, 6H, 0R, 0BB, 11K. I hate you, Cliff. (Getty Images)

2010 wOBA: .339; 2011 projected wOBA: .367

Dan Johnson is exactly the kind of player that Rays’ management loves to sign, and he’s exactly the kind of player to take AJ Burnett deep at an inopportune time, leaving most Yankees fans saying “wait, who?”. It’s just so typical.

Johnson has bounced around in his career between the Athletics, the Rays, and the Japanese club Yokohoma Bay Stars. He hasn’t exhibited the typical power one would expect from the first baseman, but boy can he take a base on balls: he had the highest walk rate of any 1B with at least 100 plate appearances in 2010.

In 2010 Johnson, the victim of an absurdly low BABIP of .188, hit .198/.343/.414 (.339 wOBA) in 140 plate appearances. PECOTA sees his walk-heavy ways continuing in 2011, but also projects him to add some power, predicting a line of .244/.368/.465. Ultimately this isn’t going to measure up to the standard set by Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira, but Johnson will only cost the Rays $1M in 2011. They would certainly be thrilled (and smug) if they got a 0.367 wOBA from a $1M first baseman.

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters

'09 PECOTA aside, dude has to be thrilled that he never had to catch Daniel Cabrera. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

No one will soon forget the occasion when PECOTA, in a seeming fit of spasmodic optimism, spit out the following line for Matt Wieters, the rookie, prior to the 2009 season: 649 PAs, 31 HR, 102 RBI, .311/.395/.544. Despite a minor league track record befitting the finest thoroughbred in all the land Wieters missed this projection and missed badly, hitting .280/.340/.412. This is an impressive line for a rookie 23 year-old catcher debuting at the major league level, but it certainly fell well short of the incredibly lofty expectations PECOTA had laid out for Wieters. In 2010 expectations were tempered but Wieters still fell short, undergoing the dreaded sophomore slump with a line of .249/.319/.377. The difference can largely be traced to a seventy point drop in Wieters’ BABIP. In his debut he averaged .356; in 2010 the mark was .287.

Aside from the fluctuation in BABIP, there are reasons for optimism for Wieters in 2011. Last year he increased his walk rate from around 7% to 9%, and managed to reduce his strikeout rate by a solid 3%. In other words, despite a worse batting line he actually made some small positive steps forward at the plate. His ISO increased ever so slightly, again indicating that the decrease in his batting line was largely related to a difference in fortune on balls in play. PECOTA sees Wieters’ BABIP normalizing at .311 this year. It’s a safe bet, but it’s hard to know whether he’ll settle in 20 points lower or higher than that on his career. As a result, the system projects a line of .268/.341/.419, very similar to what he produced in his rookie debut.

When PECOTA made the Wieters projection, there was a lot of confusion. Sure, there were the typical troglodytes who take every opportunity possible to mock the concept of a “computer” predicting baseball, but it’s always easy to ignore them. The more serious questions came from people who didn’t understand how in the world PECOTA came up with that: if PECOTA is in essence conservative, how could it produce a statistical line that looks like it was ripped straight off a fanboy’s message board posting? At the time Baseball Prospectus’ Steven Goldman sought to answer this question, contextualizing it within a discussion of the structural design of PECOTA and what it seeks to accomplish. His words are just as relevant now as they were then:

PECOTA is an essentially conservative program. Its player-performance projections are neither wildly optimistic nor pessimistic, but built purely from the data, and from its own understanding of the way that player careers progress based on literally thousands of antecedents. Thus, when it proposes that Orioles catching prospect Matt Wieters, a rookie-to-be who has never played above Double-A, could hit .311/.395/.544 in the majors this year, we took notice: this was the first time that PECOTA had looked at a prospect and predicted an MVP-caliber, Hall of Fame-level season right off the bat…

Of course, as we’ve often said in our annual book, PECOTA is not destiny. Much stands between a young player and the achievement of his projection, whether that projection is as boldly put as Wieters’ is, or merely average. Injury is a particular risk for a young catcher, as an errant foul tip can mangle a finger, or a contact play at the plate can mangle an entire body. What makes Wieters’ projection all the more impressive is that PECOTA is aware of the toll that catching can take on a backstop’s offensive skills, and yet it still sees such impressive short-term results for the Orioles tyro

Perhaps, then, it is wrong to say that PECOTA lacks optimism, that it doesn’t rave. In its own way, Wieters’ projection is its way of saying, “Hey, I think I spot a very rare talent here; you might want to pay attention.”

Given his words, and Wieters’ super minor league track record, and the fact that he’s settling into his third season in the American League East, many would be forgiven for taking the “over” on Wieters’ modest batting line this season. Yet this serves as a reminder, both for Wieters and for the Yankee sleeper who follows Wieters below, that no matter how much evidence, statistical research and historical comparisons you have you simply never know what’s going to happen next.

Yankees:  Jesus Montero

He dropped the ball, and then his glove fell off. Then he picked the ball up and threw it into CF. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

2010 wOBA: N/A; 2011 projected wOBA: 0.346.

Everyone’s favorite prospect has been every projection system’s favorite golden boy this February, and PECOTA is no exception. PECOTA sees a line of .285/.331/.471 in 2011 for Montero with 18 HRs in 480 PAs. This would quite obviously be a tremendous level of performance for a 21 year-old in his first season in the bigs.

Jesus Montero has been the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for so long now that it’s hard to imagine him actually putting up an OPS of over .800 in Yankee pinstripes. It doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t something go wrong? Shouldn’t he have been traded by now?  Despite lingering questions about his defensive ability, and despite multiple near-misses in trade talks, Jesus Montero is on the precipice. The greatest Yankee hitting prospect since Derek Jeter is ready for the bright lights of New York.

The last few years have been exciting times for prospect watchers. We’ve seen players like Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Colby Rasmus, David Price, Tommy Hanson, Matt Wieters, Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward, Buster Posey and Carlos Santana get hyped and then promoted to the bigs. Some like Wieters and Bruce struggled at first; others like Posey and Heyward became immediate game-changers for their club. The Yankees have the luxury of patience with Montero this spring, but they certainly will hope that he falls into the latter category of game-changer. For its part, PECOTA is expecting great things. We all are.