Friday, November 08, 2013

IBA Ballot: MVP

I think we can all just dust off what we wrote last year, change the numbers a little bit, and save a bunch of time, because the essence of the AL MVP race is once again Cabrera v. Trout. The circumstances have changed a little, though. For one, both had better seasons with the bat in 2013 than they did in 2012 (which serves to illustrate the silliness of positing that leading the league in three particular categories makes a season inherently more valuable than another). Cabrera went from hitting .326/.390/.600 for 8.1 RG in 2012 to .344/.434/.630 for 9.6 RG in 2013. Trout had a less dramatic uptick, from .332/.406/.575 for 8.7 RG to .329/.438/.568 for 9.1 RG. These productivity increases were even more valuable than those figures suggest as the AL’s run/game average dipped from 4.45 to 4.33.

Put it all together (including position, which isn’t a huge difference when comparing a centerfielder and a third baseman using my position adjustments), and the RAR gap between the two is unchanged from 2012--three runs in favor of Trout (81 to 78 in 2012, 93 to 90 in 2013). Fielding and baserunning are still in Trout’s favor, regardless of his slippage in the fielding metrics--Cabrera also saw his fielding metrics take a plunge, and Trout’s -2 FRAA, +4 UZR, and -9 DRS aren’t enough to flip this race. Cabrera’s fielding, if given 100% credibility, might be enough to allow the rest of the field to challenge for the second spot (-13, -17, -18 in those three metrics).

This will mark the fourth consecutive year in which I have placed Cabrera in the #2 position in the AL MVP race, which has to be some kind of “record” (scare quotes since my opinion on awards are not of sufficient heft to constitute a record).

The rest of the ballot is not that interesting to discuss. The top four pitchers are sprinkled in along with Chris Davis, Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson, and Evan Longoria. I saw no reason to deviate from RAR ordering with those guys except for Longoria, who was slightly behind Carlos Santana and David Ortiz but has a pretty clear fielding advantage over that pair:

1. CF Mike Trout, LAA
2. 3B Miguel Cabrera, DET
3. 1B Chris Davis, BAL
4. SP Max Scherzer, DET
5. SP Yu Darvish, TEX
6. 2B Robinson Cano, NYA
7. 3B Josh Donaldson, OAK
8. SP Hisashi Iwakuma, SEA
9. SP James Shields, KC
10. 3B Evan Longoria, TB

The National League race is actually more interesting, as there are five players who I believe to be very much removed from the rest of the field, any one of whom would make a completely justifiable MVP selection. And since one of the five is a pitcher, there are a number of ancillary issues that come into play.

I’ll set Clayton Kershaw aside for a moment and first discuss the four position player candidates. Two make an easy comparison to each other given position. Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt had very similar seasons in terms of overall offensive performance, and very similar numbers in two key broad “shape” categories, yet still achieved those in different ways. Votto had a .303 BA to Goldschmidt’s .296 and a .415 secondary average versus .404 for Goldschmidt. Votto’s SEC was balanced between a .187 walk/at bat ratio (second among all qualified major leaguers behind Mike Trout) and a .185 isolated power (38th in the NL among those with 300 PA). Goldschmidt’s W/AB was .137 (8th in the NL), but his .244 ISO was third.

I estimate that each created about 124 runs, with Votto using 20 less outs to do so, and so he ends up 3 RAR ahead. In the field, Goldschmidt’s metrics come out a little ahead of Votto’s, but not by a large enough margin to tip the comparison. Where Goldschmidt does have a clear edge is in context-dependent metrics like RE24 and WPA; generally I don’t put much weight on these, but Goldschmidt’s advantage is enough to push him just ahead of Votto on my ballot.

Matt Carpenter is also a legitimate candidate, with 66 RAR. Carpenter is a recent convert to second base and his metrics suggest he’s average, which may be a kinder assessment than the eighteen times Mike Matheny inserted him at third base mid-game. However, Carpenter is ranked by Baseball Prospectus as the top baserunner in the game (excluding stolen base attempts which are already considered in my RAR estimates) with an estimated 9 run contribution. Giving full weight to baserunning could move Carpenter to the head of the position player pack.

Andrew McCutchen is the fourth, and he leads the position pack with 71 RAR. His 7.39 RG is an exact match for Goldschmidt; Goldschmidt’s 40 extra PA prevent that comparison from being a runaway. While fielding metrics aren’t and haven’t been universally enthusiastic about McCutchen (-7 FRAA, 7 UZR, 7 DRS in 2013), I don’t think that’s enough to push Goldschmidt/Votto ahead.

So that leaves Kershaw v. McCutchen for NL MVP. Kershaw starts with a 77 to 71 advantage in RAR, but that is based on his actual runs allowed total. Kershaw’s RAR based on his eRA would be 72, and based on dRA it would be just 53. Using either of those figures, there’s no statistical edge for Kershaw; maybe one can create a little space by considering Kershaw’s own hitting, which was pretty good for a pitcher (.187/.238/.266 over 82, probably about 4 runs beyond an average pitcher).

If I’m going to choose a pitcher over a hitter for MVP, I’d prefer that he at least have the edge when using eRA, since the use of a component RA is conceptually the same methodology that is being used to estimate the batter’s contribution through a runs created analysis. That is, both approaches take the components of performance (hits, walks, outs, etc.) and estimate run contributions rather than look at an actual count of runs contributed/allowed.

Of course, pitcher’s runs allowed are more attributable to an individual pitcher than runs scored or batted in or to a batter; while a pitcher’s runs allowed are influenced strongly by his fielding support, and less so by his bullpen support, the pitcher at least bears some responsibility for the situations in which he finds himself (base/out situations). The batter is presented with these situations independently of his own actions. Sequencing does matter, and pitchers have control over it--but so many other factors are in play that I do consider it worthwhile to consider methods that attempt to control for these other factors, be it sequencing (as done in the case of eRA) or fielding (as done bluntly in the case of dRA and other DIPS approaches such as FIP, and attempted more carefully in the case of some other measures like bWAR).

So my natural inclination would be to side with McCutchen, ever so slightly, but in a case like this I think it is useful to bring in the perspective of other methods (In many other cases, looking at different methods is not particularly helpful because the reason for differences is methodological choices about which one is more comfortable, or because the methodologies are quite similar and so differences are minimal). Two two most used methods are Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs’ WAR. I find the latter unhelpful in a case such as this due to its complete reliance on FIP to value pitching; the former estimates that McCutchen was worth 8.2 WAR and Kershaw 7.9--a difference of about three runs.

This race is extremely close, closer still when you consider the narrow margin by which I chose McCutchen over Goldschmidt, Votto, and Carpenter. And in a complete hand waiving of reason, that is what I will use to tilt the scale--that Kershaw was so much better than any other pitcher, while no one hitter could pull away from the pack. Arbitrary and capricious? Yes. Any sillier than any other rationale for separating the two? That’s for you to judge.

The toughest decision for the rest of the ballot is what to do with two players for whom fielding is such an important consideration. Yadier Molina and Carlos Gomez each have 47 RAR, tied for thirteenth in the NL, but Molina’s defense behind the plate is universally lauded and Gomez was rated highly by all the metrics (11, 24, 38). Molina’s fielding value is harder to quantify, and its impact on his overall value is muted by his poor baserunning (a very believable -5 according to BP). I give them enough of a boost to climb over all but one of the other position players ahead of them by six or fewer RAR (Freddie Freeman, Jayson Werth, Hanley Ramirez, Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Matt Holliday) and the non-Kershaw pitchers, but not above Shin-Soo Choo (59 RAR, bad defensive, extra hit batters) and David Wright (52 RAR with well-regarded fielding and baserunning). I feel bad about leaving Ramirez off the ballot since his 9.4 RG was the highest in MLB among those with 300 PA except for Miguel Cabrera, and 53 RAR in 331 PA is eyepopping, but sketchy fielding makes it a little easier to swallow. My ballot:

1. SP Clayton Kershaw, LA
2. CF Andrew McCutchen, PIT
3. 1B Paul Goldschmidt, ARI
4. 1B Joey Votto, CIN
5. 2B Matt Carpenter, STL
6. CF Shin-Soo Choo, CIN
7. 3B David Wright, NYN
8. C Yadier Molina, STL
9. CF Carlos Gomez, MIL
10. SP Matt Harvey, NYN

Finally, a brief missive on a topic I wrote about in my MVP post last year but thought worth revisiting: the margin of error for advanced metrics (I’ll use RAR, but it applies equally to WAR) and the use of that uncertainty in award discussions. It is good to acknowledge that the metrics we use have an associated level of uncertainty. It is good to recognize that other people’s award picks may be perfectly justifiable, even by your preferred method, due to the uncertainty. It is good to recognize that certain components of an uberstat may be less reliable than other components (fielding v. batting is the most obvious case and the one with the most impact), and adjust one’s rough estimate of uncertainty in the metric accordingly (or regress the components in question prior to aggregation).

But the margin of error should not be used as a backdoor credit for one’s preferred candidate. If the metric you are using can’t distinguish between Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto, and you’d like to use your judgment or some non-quantifiable factor to pick Goldschmidt, that’s great. Just don’t try to tell others that they are obligated to do the same. You might think that I am arguing against a strawman here; please don’ t make me search a few message boards to find those making arguments along these lines in last year’s AL MVP debate.

My philosophy is typically to use a metric and follow the results fairly closely in filling out a ballot. I am not saying that this is the only justifiable way to fill out an IBA ballot, but that’s how I choose to do it. Some might dismiss such an approach as an unthinking reliance on a metric, but that ignores all of the thought that has gone into selecting the metric to be used (and more importantly, if you can get away with claiming some credit, the thought that went into developing the metric). If just picking the player with the higher RAR appears to be ducking the question of which player was more valuable by falling back on an easy answer, realize that it’s not--I've already put time into thinking generally about the questions of how to measure value and have a set (but not inflexible) manner of applying that to particular cases.

Additionally, I will tend to defer to differences in the metric, even those that are clearly not meaningful, unless I can be convinced of a good reason to deviate. This does not mean that I think the difference between 65 RAR and 64 RAR is meaningful; if the choice is essentially a coin flip, then I may as well use the metric as the coin. It’s also worth remembering that from a probability distribution, the player who is 65 RAR +/- 10 RAR is more likely to have a higher true RAR than the player who is 64 RAR +/-10 RAR (this is more important when the difference is larger, say five or ten runs).

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