Monday, November 26, 2012

2012 Leadoff Hitters

This post kicks off a series of posts that I write every year, and therefore struggle to infuse with any sort of new perspective. However, they're a tradition on this blog and hold some general interest, so away we go.

This post looks at the offensive performance of teams' leadoff batters. I will try to make this as clear as possible: the statistics are based on the players that hit in the #1 slot in the batting order, whether they were actually leading off an inning or not. It includes the performance of all players who batted in that spot, including substitutes like pinch-hitters.

Listed in parentheses after a team are all players that appeared in twenty or more games in the leadoff slot--while you may see a listing like "ATL (Bourn)” this does not mean that the statistic is only based solely on Bourns's performance; it is the total of all Atlanta batters in the #1 spot, of which Bourn was the only one to appear in that spot in twenty or more games. I will list the top and bottom three teams in each category (plus the top/bottom team from each league if they don't make the ML top/bottom three); complete data is available in a spreadsheet linked at the end of the article. There are also no park factors applied anywhere in this article.

That's as clear as I can make it, and I hope it will suffice. I always feel obligated to point out that as a sabermetrician, I think that the importance of the batting order is often overstated, and that the best leadoff hitters would generally be the best cleanup hitters, the best #9 hitters, etc. However, since the leadoff spot gets a lot of attention, and teams pay particular attention to the spot, it is instructive to look at how each team fared there.

The conventional wisdom is that the primary job of the leadoff hitter is to get on base, and most simply, score runs. So let's start by looking at runs scored per 25.5 outs (AB - H + CS):

1. LAA (Trout), 7.7
2. DET (Jackson/Berry), 6.6
3. SF (Pagan/Blanco), 6.0
Leadoff average, 4.9
ML average, 4.3
25. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), 4.2
28. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victornio/Gwynn), 3.9
29. MIA (Reyes/Petersen), 3.9
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), 3.8

Detroit’s leadoff hitters performed very well in context-neutral measures as you’ll see, but you also are well aware of the biases inherent to runs scored, and having Cabrera and Fielder to drive you in is nice. Likewise, Jose Reyes had a fine season, but Miami didn’t score any runs (also, Reyes was only in the leadoff spot for 95 games).

Speaking of getting on base, the other obvious measure to look at is On Base Average. The figures here exclude HB and SF to be directly comparable to earlier versions of this article, but those categories are available in the spreadsheet if you'd like to include them:

1. LAA (Trout), .382
2. DET (Jackson/Berry), .361
3. NYA (Jeter), .356
4. ATL (Bourn), .341
Leadoff average, .320
ML average, .315
28. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), .258
29. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victornio/Gwynn), .278
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), .247

The five point margin between the leadoff and overall OBA is in usual range, perhaps a little on the low end (the gap was seven points in 2011 and two points in 2010).

I have been doing this review of leadoff hitters since 2006. The lowest OBA for a team’s leadoff hitters in each of those seasons, the gap between #29 and #30 are listed in the table below, and that team’s adjusted OBA relative to the major league average for leadoff hitters in that season:

The point of this chart--the Reds leadoff hitters were really, really bad. In my last post, I wrote about how bad Cincinnati’s offense was. On paper, it should have been much better, and hemorrhaging outs at the top of the lineup was certainly a contributing factor. Dusty Baker was content to allow Zack Cozart to make an out three out of every four times from the leadoff spot. To be fair, Cozart’s low OBA was a bit of a surprise, but there was nothing in his record that suggested that he would be a good leadoff option.

The next statistic is what I call Runners On Base Average. The genesis of it is from the A factor of Base Runs. It measures the number of times a batter reaches base per PA--excluding homers, since a batter that hits a home run never actually runs the bases. It also subtracts caught stealing here because the BsR version I often use does as well, but BsR versions based on initial baserunners rather than final baserunners do not.

My 2009 leadoff post was linked to a Cardinals message board, and this metric was the cause of a lot of confusion (this was mostly because the poster in question was thick-headed as could be, but it's still worth addressing). ROBA, like several other methods that follow, is not really a quality metric, it is a descriptive metric. A high ROBA is a good thing, but it's not necessarily better than a slightly lower ROBA plus a higher home run rate (which would produce a higher OBA and more runs). Listing ROBA is not in any way, shape or form a statement that hitting home runs is bad for a leadoff hitter. It is simply a recognition of the fact that a batter that hits a home run is not a baserunner. Base Runs is an excellent model of offense and ROBA is one of its components, and thus it holds some interest in describing how a team scored its runs, rather than how many it scored:

1. LAA (Trout), .332
2. NYA (Jeter), .330
3. DET (Jackson/Berry), .327
5. COL (Fowler/Scutaro/Young), .312
Leadoff average, .289
ML average, .282
27. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), .258
28. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), .252
29. PIT (Presley/Tabata/Marte), .250
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), .224

Angels leadoff hitters led the majors with 30 homers (PHI was next with 24), but their advantage in getting on base was large enough that even with home runs removed as times on base, they still led the league in ROBA.

I will also include what I've called Literal OBA here--this is just ROBA with HR subtracted from the denominator so that a homer does not lower LOBA, it simply has no effect. You don't really need ROBA and LOBA (or either, for that matter), but this might save some poor message board out there twenty posts, so here goes. LOBA = (H + W - HR - CS)/(AB + W - HR):

1. LAA (Trout), .347
2. NYA (Jeter), .336
3. DET (Jackson/Berry), .334
5. COL (Fowler/Scutaro/Young), .320
Leadoff average, .294
ML average, .290
27. TOR (Lawrie/Davis/Escobar/Johnson), .263
28. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), .254
29. PIT (Presley/Tabata/Marte), .254
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), .229

There is a high degree of repetition for the various OBA lists, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since they are just minor variations on each other.

The next two categories are most definitely categories of shape, not value. The first is the ratio of runs scored to RBI. Leadoff hitters as a group score many more runs than they drive in, partly due to their skills and partly due to lineup dynamics. Those with low ratios don’t fit the traditional leadoff profile as closely as those with high ratios (at least in the way their seasons played out):

1. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), 2.2
2. SF (Pagan/Blanco), 2.1
3. ARI (Bloomquist/Parra/Eaton), 2.1
4. KC (Gordon/Dyson), 2.1
Leadoff average, 1.7
27. PHI (Rollins/Pierre), 1.5
28. BAL (Markakis/Chavez/McLouth), 1.4
29. TEX (Kinsler), 1.4
30. BOS (Ellsbury/Aviles/Nava/Podsednik), 1.3
ML average, 1.1

Again, this is not a quality list, as indicated by Cincinnati leading the way. While Cozart and Co. may have been terrible, at least they avoided driving in any runs so as to upset the traditional leadoff profile.

A similar gauge, but one that doesn't rely on the teammate-dependent R and RBI totals, is Bill James' Run Element Ratio. RER was described by James as the ratio between those things that were especially helpful at the beginning of an inning (walks and stolen bases) to those that were especially helpful at the end of an inning (extra bases). It is a ratio of "setup" events to "cleanup" events. Singles aren't included because they often function in both roles.

Of course, there are RBI walks and doubles are a great way to start an inning, but RER classifies events based on when they have the highest relative value, at least from a simple analysis:

1. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), 1.8
2. ATL (Bourn), 1.5
3. STL (Furcal/Jay), 1.5
4. MIN (Span/Revere), 1.3
Leadoff average, 1.0
ML average, .7
27. BAL (Markakis/Chaez/McLouth), .7
28. WAS (Lombardozzi/Desmond/Werth/Espinosa), .7
29. PIT (Presley/Tabata/Marte), .6
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), .6

What’s interesting here is that Cincinnati’s leadoff hitters did not really fit the traditional profile despite failing to drive in any runs. The Reds had the lowest RER as their leadoff hitters drew the fewest walks (37) and stole the fewest bases (10) of any team. Even so, their RER denominator wasn’t very good, as their isolated power of .119 was still below the leadoff average of .130.

Speaking of stolen bases, last year I started including a measure that considered only base stealing. Obviously there's a lot more that goes into being a leadoff hitter than simply stealing bases, but it is one of the areas that is often cited as important. So I've included the ranking for what some analysts call net steals, SB - 2*CS. I'm not going to worry about the precise breakeven rate, which is probably closer to 75% than 67%, but is also variable based on situation. The ML and leadoff averages in this case are per team lineup slot:

1. LAA (Trout), 40
2. SD (Venable/Denorfia/Cabrera/Amarista), 21
3. OAK (Crisp/Weeks), 18
4. SF (Pagan/Blanco), 18
Leadoff average, 9
ML average, 4
25. NYA (Jeter), 1
28. NYN (Tejada/Torres/ Nieuwenhuis), -4
29. PIT (Presley/Tabata/Marte), -8
30. ARI (Young), -24

While the Reds only stole 10 bases from the leadoff spot, they were only caught once, so their net 8 was essentially average. The Yankees were next with just sixteen attempted steals. If Chris Young’s basestealing attempts are not toned down in Oakland, then the media may get its moment to declare that Moneyball is dead.

Let's shift gears back to quality measures, beginning with one that David Smyth proposed when I first wrote this annual leadoff review. Since the optimal weight for OBA in a x*OBA + SLG metric is generally something like 1.7, David suggested figuring 2*OBA + SLG for leadoff hitters, as a way to give a little extra boost to OBA while not distorting things too much, or even suffering an accuracy decline from standard OPS. Since this is a unitless measure anyway, I multiply it by .7 to approximate the standard OPS scale and call it 2OPS:

1. LAA (Trout), 899
2. DET (Jackson/Berry), 821
3. NYA (Jeter), 793
4. COL (Fowler/Scutaro/Young), 768
ML average, 725
Leadoff average, 721
28. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), 634
29. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), 600
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), 575

Along the same lines, one can also evaluate leadoff hitters in the same way I'd go about evaluating any hitter, and just use Runs Created per Game with standard weights (this will include SB and CS, which are ignored by 2OPS):

1. LAA (Trout), 7.4
2. DET (Jackson/Berry), 5.7
3. NYA (Jeter), 5.2
4. SF (Pagan/Blanco), 5.1
ML average, 4.4
Leadoff average, 4.4
28. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), 3.3
29. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), 2.9
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), 2.6

It’s not a surprise that 2OPS and RG produce similar results. Finally, allow me to close with a crude theoretical measure of linear weights supposing that the player always led off an inning (that is, batted in the bases empty, no outs state). There are weights out there (see The Book) for the leadoff slot in its average situation, but this variation is much easier to calculate (although also based on a silly and impossible premise).

The weights I used were based on the 2010 run expectancy table from Baseball Prospectus. Ideally I would have used multiple seasons but this is a seat-of-the-pants metric. The 2010 post goes into the detail of how this measure is figured; this year, I’ll just tell you that the out coefficient was -.215, the CS coefficient was -.582, and for other details refer you to that post. I then restate it per the number of PA for an average leadoff spot (737 in 2012):

1. LAA (Trout), 45
2. DET (Jackson/Berry), 21
3. SF (Pagan/Blanco), 13
ML average, 0
Leadoff average, 0
28. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), -18
29. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), -24
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), -32

After reviewing all of these metrics, I reach two major takeaways--namely, there were two teams that got historically notable production out of their leadoff spots. On the plus side were the Angels; fueled by Mike Trout, they swept all of the quality categories--even net steals, which are a plus but not an imperative, even for a leadoff hitter. Sometime if I am bored, I will do a retro version of this post looking at 1985 or 1990--vintage Rickey/Raines seasons, which would probably produce similar dominance to what Trout did in 2012. On the negative sides, Cincinnati’s leadoff hitters were really awful. As Howard Medgal pointed out to me, it’s a good thing they have Billy Hamilton on the horizon.

Follow this link for the spreadsheet with full data.

Monday, November 12, 2012

IBA Ballot: MVP

There have been way too many words written about the AL MVP race already. I’m pretty sure that I don’t have any perspective to offer that you have not already had the opportunity to read from someone else. Nonetheless, I will run through a perfunctory comparison of the top two candidates and then address a couple of other side issues that the discussion has raised.

Mike Trout by my estimation created 131 runs, adjusted for park (the key word in that sentence is “estimation”). Miguel Cabrera created about 133 runs. Trout did this while making 382 outs; Cabrera while making 418 outs. It does not take any advanced understanding of sabermetrics to conclude that two less runs in 36 less outs is a tradeoff that would benefit a team. This is before considering the fact that Trout is an excellent center fielder and baserunner and Cabrera is a third baseman of questionable ability and is not going to add much of anything on the bases. It’s pretty clear that Trout is ahead before any factors not captured in the statistics are taken into account.

If you want to poke holes in that perfunctory analysis, one place you might start is the park factors. I estimate that Angels Stadium has a park factor of .96 and that Comerica Park has a park factor of 1.02. I don’t want to get into a debate about the park factors themselves, but rather I’ll assume for the sake of argument that both parks were neutral. After making that change, I estimate that Trout created 125 runs and Cabrera 136. Instead of a two run difference over 36 outs, we now have an eleven run difference over 36 outs, which suggests that Cabrera was the more valuable offensive player. Of course, the aforementioned fielding and baserunning is more than enough to preserve the choice of Trout as more valuable before subjective factors are considered.

Side issues:

* It has become surprisingly common to see sabermetric-minded people suggest that leadoff hitters should have their RAR discounted in some manner due to the extra plate appearances they get due to their role. I don’t know how widespread this view is, or where exactly it got started, but I find it quite odd.

My conception of value holds that if a player is used or is able to take advantage of his talents in such a way as to increase his contribution to the team, then he should be credited for this added value. One example is a hitter than can exploit his home park. Some people would look at the hitter’s home/road splits and discount his value accordingly. I would only discount his home stats to the degree to which the runs have a lower win value (in other words, use a runs-only park factor).

In order for me to believe that a leadoff hitter should not get credit for the additional PA he takes, you would have to demonstrate to me that his average PA had less win impact (production as measured by context-netural metrics being equal) than the average PA of the lower in the order hitter. Before you conclude this would be easy to do, I’d invite you to read the point I made about leverage and relievers in the Cy Young post--I don’t believe it is necessary to limit value to a real-time perspective. This applies within innings as well as within games.

In Trout/Cabrera, though, the real-time perspective measure of RE24 (real-time on the inning level) does not even support the contention that Cabera’s batting order position meant he had a greater impact. Fangraphs’ context-neutral wRAA has Trout at +48, while their RE24 for Trout is +54. Cabrera is +57/+47. So even if I were to accept the premise, I’m not sure how this is supposed to help Cabrera.

*An argument that was oft-cited but got less traction with saber-minded folks was the notion of “penalizing” Cabrera for playing third base. This argument holds that Cabrera made a noble sacrifice for the good of the team to play third, which allowed Detroit to sign Fielder and improve the team. Off the bat, I reject the notion of crediting a player for allowing another to be signed, because it removes the focus from the player’s on-field contributions and opens a Pandora’s box of circumstantial arguments that could not be objectively evaluated or even fully documented (just as a hint of where this road could end up leading, compare Cabrera and Trout’s salaries--or the fact that Fielder was signed after Victor Martinez’s injury, which means that Cabrera’s sacrifice, at least for 2012, allowed Delmon Young and his pitiful 3.9 RG to play every day at DH/LF).

Setting that portion of the debate aside, the RAR figures I use do not account for fielding, so any penalty that Cabrera takes for playing third base can only be added after the fact. Playing third rather than first earned Cabera 7 RAR. Even if Cabrera is an average third baseman (and I don’t think his backers would claim much more than that), it’s hard to spin this into a positive compared to Trout.

* I’ve seen the argument floated that Cabrera has been a great player for several years and has not won an MVP award; this may be his last best chance while given Trout’s age, he may have many MVP opportunities in front of him.

The primary reason I disagree with this position is that the MVP award is a single-season award, and as such I believe that the criteria should be a good faith evaluation of which player was more valuable in the season in question. If the award was a true talent award, then certainly Cabrera’s track record would be relevant, and in fact if I could choose one of these players for my team in 2013 (with no consideration given to anything beyond 2013), I would take Cabrera. But that’s not the criteria suggested by either the voting instructions or consensus of interested parties.

More generally, I call this the Zenyatta argument. Zenyatta won Horse of the Year in 2010 over Blame despite there being no way to argue that Zenyatta had a more impressive 2010 campaign than Blame without twisting one’s self into knots. But Zenyatta was a great mare of historical significance who had been edged out for the award by Curlin in 2008 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009 (in those years, I believe that a very reasonable case could be advanced for Zenyatta, but ultimately agreed with the selections of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra). It was seen as unfair that a horse as accomplished as Zenyatta would never win Horse of the Year.

I find this argument utterly unpersuasive. Miguel Cabrera has been an excellent player over an extended period, which is why he ranked fourth on my IBA ballot in 2006, tenth in 2009, second in 2010, second in 2011, and second in 2012. There’s no shame in being the second-best player in the AL or the second-best horse in the country for three years running--it's a more impressive achievement than being MVP one year and not on the ballot in the other two years. But it doesn’t entitle one to the MVP in any given season.

With respect to the “Trout is young and will have many more chances” component of the argument, we’d all like to think this is the case but you never know. Al Kaline was a great player for many years and finished in the top ten in MVP voting nine times, but he arguably had his best major league season at age 21 and never won an MVP (I’m not suggesting that he should have won it in the age 21 season, only that it may have been his best chance). Mike Trout could be a slam dunk Hall of Famer and yet never match his 2012 season.

* Finally, there is the issue of a margin of error in RAR/WAR calculations. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that the 95% confidence interval on RAR is 15 runs wide (I pulled this number completely out of thin air, and am just using it to make a point; of course, a 95% confidence standard is also pulled out of thin air despite its ubiquitous application in statistics).

So I have Trout at 81 RAR and Cabrera at 78, not considering fielding and baserunning. Let’ s suppose that Trout was worth 9 runs in these areas to give him an even 90 and that Cabrera was worth -3 for an even 75. Obviously, I’ve engineered this example so that they are separated by 15 runs.

So to put it in stats lingo, we cannot, at a 5% significance level, reject the null hypothesis that Cabrera and Trout were of equal value. So if you believe that Cabrera was as valuable as Trout, it is a defensible position. But saying that we can’t be confident at the 5% significance level that Trout was more valuable than Cabrera does not change the fact that our analysis indicates that it is highly likely that Trout was more valuable than Cabrera.

What I’m trying to get at here is that there is that I sometimes detect (perhaps incorrectly) in the arguments of folks who like to harp on a margin of error that 1) if the confidence intervals overlap, then you cannot use RAR to make the case that Trout was probably more valuable and 2) that in lieu of airtight evidence that Trout was more valuable, you should go with Cabrera. Maybe I’m imagining this, particularly the second, but that is the impression that I was left with after reading some discussions.

Of course, the proponents of the pure confidence interval approach need to be cognizant of the logical conclusion of their arguments--if we can’t argue for Trout ahead of Cabrera on a ballot on the basis of his higher RAR, we also can’t argue for Cabrera over Robinson Cano or Justin Verlander, because our confidence intervals on their RARs overlap with Cabera’s.

It would be nice if a MVP ballot was constructed in such a way that you didn’t have to assign a strict rank order. It might be a better system if you could give Trout the equivalent of a 1.2nd place vote, and Cabrera the equivalent of a 2.5th place vote. It might be a better system if you could somehow throw a net over Trout and Cabrera on your ballot, and then throw another net over Cabrera, Verlander, and Cano, and then another over Verlander, Cano, David Price, and Adrian Beltre. But that’s not how the system works--you have to make a rank order, and all the margin of error tells you is that it’s not crazy to think that perhaps Cabrera was as good as Trout, and that you’re not an abject idiot for putting Cabrera first. It doesn’t do much to convince anyone else to follow suit, though.

Given the way MVP voting is constructed, I am going to vote for a guy with 76 RAR over a guy with 75 RAR every time unless I can be convinced of a reason not incorporated into those figures to do otherwise. I say this even though one run (or an alternatively small quantity) is a meaningless distinction--the ballot structure forces one to make meaningless distinctions, and just parroting your value estimates is no less arbitrary than any other way of making those distinctions (and at least allows for consistency in lieu of confidence).

Getting back to the rest of the ballot, I have five pitchers in eight spots, which I think is a record for me. Outside of Trout, Cabrera, and Cano, the rest of the AL position players didn’t put up seasons that jump out. Joe Mauer is fourth on the RAR list, but that gives him full-time credit for being a catcher; take that away and he drops to 52 RAR. Prince Fielder is at 55, but that’s before baserunning or fielding, which knocks him down a bit. Edwin Encarnacion is next, but he adds nothing outside of the bat, which leaves two Rangers, Adrian Beltre and Josh Hamilton, to battle with Mauer for the ballot spots. I chose the two Rangers. They were extremely close in offensive value (.347/.543 for Beltre and .342/.557 for Hamilton) and equal in RAR (53) thanks to playing positions with even position adjustments. I nudged Beltre ahead on the basis of fielding and Hamilton’s extensive play in left field:

1. CF Mike Trout, LAA
2. 3B Miguel Cabrera, DET
3. SP Justin Verlander, DET
4. 2B Robinson Cano, NYA
5. SP David Price, TB
6. SP Chris Sale, CHA
7. SP Felix Hernandez, SEA
8. 3B Adrian Beltre, TEX
9. CF Josh Hamilton, TEX
10. SP Jered Weaver, LAA

You would never know it from the clash of worldviews offered by the AL race, but the NL MVP race was much closer, and there are three candidates between whom it’s tough to make meaningful distinctions.

My figures credit Buster Posey with 77 RAR, Andrew McCutchen with 75, and Ryan Braun with 74. Posey’s RAR is inflated since he’s considered a full-time catcher, but the evidence seems to suggest that he is a solid enough catcher and not a disastrous baserunner. McCutchen does not fare all that well in fielding metrics, while Ryan Braun is considered a solid left fielder. Seeing no reason to knock Posey down, I put him in the top spot, but I would certainly accept an argument on behalf of any of the three. With so little to separate Braun and McCutchen, I chose to go with the one who fares better in the area in which I’m more confident in our value estimates--offense. Braun created 6 more runs in just 3 more outs, a difference well within a margin of error but also the largest daylight you’ll find between these two.

There are a number of interesting position player candidates for the remainder of the ballot. The two closest position players are a pair of third basemen, Chase Headley and David Wright. Headley is ahead in RAR, 68-61, but fielding metrics suggest that Wright may have been better. UZR really liked Wright’s fielding at +15 to Headley’s +2; Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA was less enthusiastic about both (Wright +1, Headley -7). I’ll side with offense and keep Headley ahead.

Joey Votto missed a significant amount of time (only 111 games), but was brilliant when in the lineup, leading the NL with a .465 OBA and 9.5 RG for 58 RAR. Yadier Molina is also a candidate with 55 RAR and a brilliant fielding reputation backed up by what limited data we have, but he also appears to have been a liability on the bases (-6 runs according to Baseball Prospectus) and it’s tough to know exactly how to evaluate his fielding. Votto is no slouch in the field, either, albeit at a far less demanding position. Aramais Ramirez was also quite good, and I had no idea until looking at the stats systematically that Aaron Hill hit .293/.347/.507. Hill is a case in which fielding metrics disagree (+21 FRAA, +2 UZR), and I’m inclined to give more credence to Molina’s fielding. Mixing in the starting pitchers, I have it as:

1. C Buster Posey, SF
2. LF Ryan Braun, MIL
3. CF Andrew McCutchen, PIT
4. SP Clayton Kershaw, LA
5. 3B Chase Headley, SD
6. 3B David Wright, NYN
7. SP RA Dickey, NYN
8. 1B Joey Votto, CIN
9. C Yadier Molina, STL
10. SP Johnny Cueto, CIN

Thursday, November 08, 2012

IBA Ballot: Cy Young

2012 was not really a banner year for starting pitchers. The RAR totals turned in by the top pitchers in each league were not quite at the typical levels for recent seasons. To illustrate, here are the AL and NL leading RAR totals for 2008-2012:

AL: 80, 91, 76, 84, 72
NL: 75, 70, 82, 73, 67

In the American League, though, I think the Cy Young choice in 2012 is easier than it was in 2011, when Justin Verlander’s 24-5 record propelled him to a unanimous Cy Young and a MVP award. And once again it is Verlander on top of the ballot. He led the AL in innings, eRA, RAA, and RAR, and was third in RRA and second in dRA.

The second place finisher in RAR was David Price, who led the league in RRA. But he pitched 27 fewer innings than Verlander and his RRA was only .16 runs lower, giving him 67 RAR to Verlander’s 72. If you use a higher baseline, it’s naturally closer--Verlander's RAA lead was 39-38. Verlander and Price were very close in both eRA and dRA, but in each category Verlander had a narrow lead. Verlander also had a narrow edge in strikeout rate (9.5 to 9.1) and walk rate (2.4 to 2.6). Price is close enough that I wouldn’t dismiss a case made on his behalf (that Price led the AL in QS% 81-76 over Verlander would not be the way to start that case)--but I wouldn’t make it myself.

After Verlander and Price, five pitchers fall between 55-61 RAR and make a good group to consider for the final three spots on the ballot. Chris Sale led this pack with 61, and his 2.86 RRA was second only to Price. However, he only pitched 192 innings and his peripherals were not as good as his RRA. The pitcher right behind him, Matt Harrison, had 59 RAR but a much bigger problem with peripherals--his 3.99 eRA, 4.43 dRA, and 5.7 KG don’t stand up in this company. Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver, and Jake Peavy had just one RAR between each step (57, 56, 55); Hernandez logged the most innings (232 to 189 and 219), Weaver’s 3.03 RRA was .42 runs lower than Sale’s and .44 lower than Hernandez’s, and while only .14 runs of eRA separated the three, Hernandez led the league with a 3.10 dRA while Peavy (4.00) and Weaver (4.11) had more pedestrian marks. All had essentially the same walk rate (2.1-2.3), but Hernandez’s 8.9 KG led Peavy (8.3) and Weaver (7.3). Given how close these three were, Herandez’s peripherals put him over the top in my book, but not convincingly enough to move him ahead of Sale. So my ballot was:

1. Justin Verlander, DET
2. David Price, TB
3. Chris Sale, CHA
4. Felix Hernandez, SEA
5. Jered Weaver, LAA

The NL Cy Young race is a great example of why it’s silly to pretend that award winners from year-to-year are created equal. The third-place finisher from one season could very well have contributed as much to his team as the winner from the next season. Clayton Kershaw is my choice for NL Cy Young in 2012, but his season was no better than his 2011:

I didn’t adjust these figures for league scoring context, but the NL average R/G was 4.13 in 2011 and 4.22 in 2012, so it would make little difference.

In 2011, Kershaw won the real award, but was edged out on my ballot by Roy Halladay. This year, RA Dickey was second to Kershaw with 60 RAR, and I would love to find an excuse to elevate the knuckleballer to #1 on my ballot. But I can find no such reason. Dickey’s eRA was .42 runs worse than Kershaw’s, his dRA .35 runs worse.

Much closer is the second-place choice between Dickey and Johnny Cueto. Dickey’s edge comes from his sixteen additional innings as Cueto had a better RRA and they were very close in eRA (3.43 to 3.49, Dickey) and dRA (3.69 to 3.72, Cueto, with the caveat that knuckleballers and DIPS don’t play nice), so Cueto’s injury was the only thing stopping him from earning the second spot on my ballot.

The final two spots on my ballot went to Matt Cain and Gio Gonzalez, with Gonzalez getting the edge over Cain thanks to his significantly better eRA (2.91 to 3.40) and dRA (3.25 to 3.86):

1. Clayton Kershaw, LA
2. RA Dickey, NYN
3. Johnny Cueto, CIN
4. Gio Gonzalez, WAS
5. Matt Cain, SF

A quick word on relievers, since Fernando Rodney and Craig Kimbrel will garner a fair amount of Cy Young votes (although we now know that neither finished in his league’s top three). First, both had outstanding seasons and ranked as the top relievers in their league in RAR. It’s quite common for a non-closer to lead the league in RAR thanks to pitching more innings, but Rodney’s .73 RRA in 75 innings was good for 35 RAR (Kelvin Herrera was second with 25), and Kimbrel’s .84 RRA in 63 innings for 27 RAR led NL relievers (excluding teammate Kris Medlen, who with less than 15 starts was classified as a reliever in my stats; Aroldis Chapman was next with 25).

However, the bottom pitcher on my AL and NL ballots had 56 and 53 RAR respectively. That means that I would have to give Rodney a 1.6 leverage credit and Kimbrel a 2.0 leverage credit to pull them even. However, I would not simply apply their leverage indices directly to adjust their RAR. This really should be a longer, post-length explanation of my position, but to try to sum it up in two paragraphs:

WPA and associated metrics (like LI) are based on a real-time perspective on value. A real-time perspective on value is quite valuable, as it is what the participants in the game actually face at any given time. But since estimating value is by its nature a backwards-looking exercise, I don’t see any reason why we should feel constrained to measuring real-time value. After the game is over, it is clear that each run was equally important (absent the effect that it had on future strategic decisions, any emotional/psychological effect, and the like), regardless of how it appeared at the time. A run-scoring play in the bottom of the ninth of a 1-0 game will almost certainly have a higher WPA than the same play in the bottom of the first. But both were equally essential to the game’s outcome, and looking back after the fact, I don’t feel bound in the slightest to give more credit to the former.

So I believe that elite relievers do in fact deserve credit beyond what their non-contextual stats would indicate, as they log a higher percentage of their work in high-leverage games (that is, close games) than starters. But their leverage indices from an ex post facto game perspective would necessarily be less than their leverage indices from a real-time perspective--and the former are barely high enough to push them into the Cy Young conversation.

Monday, November 05, 2012

IBA Ballot: Rookie of the Year

Over the next few weeks I'll be posting the ballots I cast (with some explanation) for the Internet Baseball Awards sponsored by Baseball Prospectus (and held in memory of the late Greg Spira).

The American League Rookie of the Year race is not particularly interesting to discuss. It wouldn’t even be that interesting to discuss if it was a vote for Rookie of the Decade. If it was Rookie of the Century, that might be a fun debate. There’s no hyperbole here--Mike Trout was that good.

The down ballot for any award is always a lot less interesting than who you choose for the top spot, but when you are engaging in a vote with a group of people, it’s important to still take it seriously in order to preserve the integrity of the vote (of course, the IBAs are voted on by a large enough pool that you can safely assume your vote will have no impact on the outcome…sort of like another vote in the news). In theory, though, your fifth place vote can help determine who ends up winning.

But that nagging sense of responsibility is not strong enough to stand up to a slam dunk vote. Trout will be ROY, and no one really cares about who finishes second or third in the ROY vote, as opposed to the MVP where there is mild interest.

I believe that I have deviated a bit from the consensus by slotting Jarrod Parker second. Parker pitched just ten fewer innings than Yu Darvish, and he leads him in RRA 3.51 to 4.16, resulting in 11 more RAR (44 to 33). Darvish does perform better in eRA and dRA, but my primary consideration for pitchers is their actual runs allowed rate. Parker and Darvish look much closer in terms of RA than RRA (Parker’s lead is 3.50 to 3.91), but Darvish received the best bullpen support of any AL starter. He bequeathed 25 runners, but only 2 scored, five and a half fewer than one would expect. Parker was on the poor support side with 7 of his 18 bequeathed runners scoring (2 more than expected).

The only other position player in the mix (Jarrod Dyson ranked second in RAR among AL hitters) is Parker’s teammate Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes had a fine season with 36 RAR, but the fielding and baserunning numbers don’t suggest a big shift, and so he only comes out as the A’s second-best rookie.

The final spot on the ballot comes down to a gaggle of solid starters--Scott Diamond, Tommy Milone, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, Jose Quintana, Hishashi Iwakuma, Matt Moore, AJ Griffin. There’s little to distinguish these guys in terms of 2012 performance; Diamond leads them in RAR with 32 and I don’t see a compelling reason to pick one of the others instead. I don’t think much of Diamond’s long-term prospects thanks to his poor strikeout rate (4.8), but he had a nice little season in 2012:

1. CF Mike Trout, LAA
2. SP Jarrod Parker, OAK
3. LF Yoenis Cespedes, OAK
4. SP Yu Darvish, TEX
5. SP Scott Diamond, MIN

The NL race is competitive, although if you insert any sort of future projection/historical significance/age factor into your thinking, it becomes a runaway as well. I don’t though; I attempt to make an honest evaluation of each player’s value for the season in question and use that as the criteria for my ROY ballot. I might allow those considerations to seep in if it’s a virtual tie and one player clearly has the edge in the other factors.

During the summer, as Todd Frazier surged and Bryce Harper tailed off, it appeared as if Frazier might pass Harper as the NL’s top rookie hitter. But Frazier got inconsistent playing time in September and Harper blew by him with a 39 to 28 lead in RAR. Norichika Aoki (27), Yonder Alonso (26), and Wilin Rosario (25) were in the mix as well. However, Rosario’s fielding appears to have been dreadful behind the plate, and it’s tough to move Alonso up on the basis of fielding and baserunning. Aoki versus Frazier is closer; Frazier’s RAR figure treats him as a full-time third baseman, but he played about a third of his games on the other corners. In the end, I kept Frazier ahead, but you can certainly argue the other way.

Wade Miley is Harper’s closest competitor, compiling 40 RAR in 195 innings. His peripherals (3.73 eRA, 3.72 dRA) were a little less impressive but by no means out of line with his 3.35 RRA. Harper’s 39 RAR don’t give him any credit for fielding or baserunning, though, and most metrics indicate that some is due to him. I think that you can make this case without letting age seep in.

The last spot on my ballot went to Lucas Harrell over Mike Fiers. Both are 27 year old starters; Fiers had a lower RRA (4.02 to 4.19) and a big advantage in dRA (3.61 to 4.31) thanks to his .329 %H, but Harrell’s 66 additional innings carry the day:

1. CF Bryce Harper, WAS
2. SP Wade Miley, ARI
3. 3B Todd Frazier, CIN
4. RF Norichika Aoki, MIL
5. SP Lucas Harrell, HOU