Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hypothetical Ballot: MVP

Last year, I thought that Clayton Kershaw was the most valuable player in the National League. The BBWAA voters did not concur, placing Kershaw seventh in the voting; the IBA voters were more generous at third. This season, though, it appears Kershaw is going to win the MVP award.

When you compare Kershaw 2013 to Kershaw 2014, it’s difficult to find good reasons for this (one obvious reason which I’ll discuss in a minute is anything but good). Granted, MVP voting does not occur in a vacuum--the 2013 field had much more to offer from a position player perspective, with Yadier Molina have an outstanding full season, his teammate Matt Carpenter, a pair of big-mashing first basemen in Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt, and the one holdover, Andrew McCutchen. Thus it makes sense that more voters would turn to Kershaw in a season in which there are fewer alternatives. Still, Kershaw pitched 38 fewer innings over six fewer starts in 2014. His ERA dropped slightly (1.83 to 1.77), but that hardly makes up for 38 innings. A big factor for the BBWAA will be his win-loss record, 21-3 in 2014 rather than a more pedestrian 16-9 in 2013, but it goes without saying on this blog that W-L is a silly basis to vote for MVP.

It might be useful to take a look at Kershaw’s performance in the categories that I feel are useful, with adjustments for league average since we are comparing across seasons, seasons in which the NL average RA dropped very slightly from 4.04 to 4.01 (the three RA figures have been divided by the league average RA; RAA and RAR have been very simply converted to WAA and WAR by dividing by the league average runs scored per game by both teams):

While Kershaw was slightly better in the pitching metrics that focus on actual results (RRA and eRA) and noticeably better in DIPS (dRA), the 36 inning difference looms large. I would take Kershaw’s 2013 season over his 2014 season. Obviously both were outstanding, but the fact that he will be an MVP afterthought in one and a strong winner in another speaks to the arbitrary and narrative-driven voting that still reigns supreme in the BBWAA even as more sabermetric approaches gain some traction.

For my ballot, last year I chose Kershaw narrowly over McCutchen. This year I’ve done the opposite. McCutchen starts with a 77 to 70 lead over Kershaw in RAR, but he does give some of that back. Per Fangraphs McCutchen was an average baserunner, while Kershaw created three runs at the plate with a .178/.228/.211 line. Since pitchers essentially average zero runs created per out, I credit the three absolute RC with no baseline. McCutchen also doesn’t fare particularly well in defensive metrics, -11 DRS, -11 UZR, -8 FRAA (Baseball Prospectus). Regressing these a little as I am wont to do, it’s very close between Kershaw and McCutchen.

However, Kershaw’s RAR is based on his actual runs allowed; were one to use eRA or dRA as the basis, he’d start from just 63 or 58 RAR respectively, and that would be too large of a gap to McCutchen to close with fielding, even with no regression. I have no issue with the notion of a pitcher being MVP, but I think it’s a pretty high bar, and when the alternate ways of valuing pitchers don’t support placing the pitcher ahead, I can’t do it either.

Giancarlo Stanton would have made things very interesting had he not been injured, although in the end there was very little difference between the amount of time missed by McCutchen and Stanton. McCutchen played 146 games with 632 PA; Stanton played 145 games with 633 PA. Stanton came in at 67 RAR, ten fewer than McCutchen, partially due to the position adjustment difference between right field and center field, but not exclusively. Based on my estimates McCutchen created five more runs (121 to 116) in six fewer outs, making him the superior (albeit well within the margin of error) hitter (62 to 56 runs above average, hitting-only). While Stanton fares better in the fielding metrics, Fangraphs has him as a -2 baserunner, and so the ten run gap holds up for McCutchen. Kershaw/Stanton for second is a tossup, but I went with Stanton on the same reasoning discussed in the prior paragraph.

After them I have the top Cy Young challengers, who each pitched significantly more than Kershaw despite less impressive rates (Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright). The rest of my ballot is pretty self-explanatory from my RAR leaders, except Anthony Rendon is placed ahead of Jonathan Lucroy and Cole Hamels thanks to strong showing in baserunning (+6) and fielding metrics (16 DRS, 7 UZR, -1 FRAA):

1. CF Andrew McCutchen, PIT
2. RF Giancarlo Stanton, MIA
3. SP Clayton Kershaw, LA
4. SP Johnny Cueto, CIN
5. SP Adam Wainwright, STL
6. C Buster Posey, SF
7. 3B Anthony Rendon, WAS
8. C Jonathan Lucroy, MIL
9. SP Cole Hamels, PHI
10. RF Yasiel Puig, LA

Many words were used to discuss the 2012 and 2013 AL MVP votes; many fewer will be used in 2014, but the basic story is the same for me--Mike Trout was pretty clearly the most valuable player in the AL. This year, the Angels’ record, Trout leading the league in RBI, and the lack of a triple crown stat standout other than Trout have combined to make the mainstream media agree. While comprehensive WAR metrics that include fielding with no regression may suggest this was the least valuable of Trout’s three full seasons, I would point out that offensively, there’s no pattern that could not be due to sheer random fluctuation. Trout’s RG relative to the league average for the past three seasons is 196, 209, 186. Trout is such a towering figure among intelligent followers of the game that he has become subject to intense scrutiny--Trout death watch has become a bizarrely popular topic at sites that should know better. This is not to say that Trout will continue to dominate baseball for the next decade with no risk, or that Trout will ever match his 2012-2014 performances. But if you think you've found a clear decline trend in a 23 year old who was the best player in baseball for a third straight season, you are likely overanalyzing. You may want to take a gander at Alex Rodriguez 1997-1999 as well. It’s more than a little uncouth if you ask me.

Rant aside, the rest of the ballot is not particular interesting, and I’ve mostly stuck with the RAR list. Some exceptions to note:

* Victor Martinez, a distant second among hitters with 64 RAR, just squeaks on to my ballot. Martinez was a -5 baserunner per Fangraphs, his RAR doesn’t penalize him for being a DH at all, and when he did play the field, he was poor in just 280 innings (-4 DRS, -6 UZR, -4 FRAA). It was not an easy choice to keep Martinez on the ballot ahead of Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre, who spotted him around twenty RAR but did everything else better.

* Similarly, Jose Abreu drops off entirely--it's the same story except he starts from 55 RAR.

* Jose Altuve is knocked down a few pegs thanks to fielding metrics; I kept him ahead of Cano among second basemen on the basis of his forty plate appearance edge, but with no strong conviction:

* Corey Kluber beats out Michael Brantley as Most Valuable Indian; the two are tied at 61 RAR prior to considering Brantley’s baserunning (good) and fielding (meh). Kluber would do worse using eRA, better using dRA, and the latter tipped the scales in his favor for me. After watching the Tribe all season, it would feel wrong to decide a tossup in favor of the pitcher rather than a fielder who played behind him. Cleveland’s fielding was dreadful and Brantley, while not a main culprit, did not really help either. I remain unimpressed by Brantley as an outfielder, even in left; his arm is solid, but he’s a left fielder, so...

1. CF Mike Trout, LAA
2. SP Felix Hernandez, SEA
3. SP Corey Kluber, CLE
4. LF Michael Brantley, CLE
5. SP Chris Sale, CHA
6. RF Jose Bautista, TOR
7. SP Jon Lester, BOS/OAK
8. 2B Jose Altuve, HOU
9. 2B Robinson Cano, SEA
10. DH Victor Martinez, DET

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