Thursday, September 27, 2012

Knuckle Sandwich

R.A. Dickey should win the National League Cy Young award. That's what I thought about a week ago. Nothing since then should have changed my mind. All Dickey has done in the last two weeks was throw 15.2 innings of 5-run ball against the Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates, giving up 14 hits, 4 walks, 1 home run, and striking out 17. Essentially, he did what he's done all season. Here lies the problem: In the words of Jed Bartlett (A character on The West Wing), "Show me numbers." I can look at the Mets knucklballer and say "Wow, he has been dominant this entire season, he should win the Cy Young." I needed to prove it, and not just with any old evidence, I needed to prove it with numbers.

So, here are some numbers for you. Dickey is 20-6 with an NL leading 2.69 earned run average, 222 strikeouts, and 1.041 WHIP. These are standard statistics that baseball folk have used for years in order to evaluate pitchers. Due to the recent statistical revolution in baseball, I've learned to discount some of these statistics, substituting more accurate and descriptive ones in their place. For example, wins and losses mean very little when evaluating a pitcher alone because a lot of what determines whether a pitcher gets a win or a loss has little to do with the pitcher. Earned run average, can still tell us something about a pitcher in a grand sense, but such a statistics combines the play of a pitcher and his defense, instead of the isolating solely the contributions of the pitcher.

Alright, all of this is interesting, but sabermetricians have found a way to show how many wins a given player has contributed above a replacement level (similar to league average) player. These statistics combine most to all of a player's contributions and uses some math in order to normalize other variables like league, environment, etc... The problem is that different websites calculate WAR in different ways. The two main types are rWAR and fWAR. According to rWAR, calculated and used by Baseball-Reference, R.A. Dickey is the 3rd highest WAR amongst pitcher in the National League, trailing only the Cincinnati Reds Johnny Cueto and Los Angeles Dodgers Clayton Kershaw. On the other hand, fWAR, created by Fangraphs, has Dickey as the pitcher with the 6th highest WAR in the NL. Why the discrepancy?

I've read a number of articles about WAR, and they have told me that the major difference in the calculations of WAR is the specific defensive metric used. fWAR uses UZR, rWAR uses DRS, and WARP uses FRAA. Well that is for position players, not pitchers. So, I delved into how WAR is calculated for pitchers. Although rWAR and fWAR have some differences they are relatively minor, including the manner in which park factors are adjusted for, and whether the metric is adjusted for interleague play. Overall, the main difference is simple. The statistic each used to begin the calculation is different. Fangraphs uses FIP and Baseball-Reference uses Runs Allowed.

Let's begin with the easier of the two. Runs allowed is as simple as it sounds, it calculates the number of runs allowed by a pitcher, earned and unearned. FIP, fielding independent pitching, attempts to calculate everything a pitcher does during a game that he can control. They include, strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches, and home runs. Fangraphs assumes that any ball put in play that isn't a home run is not the pitchers fault. While this is not always true, as we should assume that every MLB pitcher is subject to at least reasonable defense, when attempting to calculate how much a pitcher contributes to his team in order to compare him to other pitchers, using only those statistics that are solely attributed to a pitcher is reasonable. FIP is scaled to look and act just like ERA. So, in the end, rWAR includes a pitcher's team to some extent, while fWAR looks only at what a pitcher contribues while possibly leaving out some minor contributions.

So, why then does rWAR rank R.A. Dickey higher than fWAR, to the point at which we might not consider Dickey for the Cy Young award through Fangraph's goggles, but might do so when considering the confines of Baseball-Reference's rWAR? If rWAR might consider a pitcher's team too much, than it would make sense for Baseball-Reference to consider the Mets as an above average defense, right? Interestingly, the Mets have a -33 DRS, ranking them 6th from the bottom in that category.  So, what explains the disparity between Dickey's fWAR and rWAR?

We said that fWAR uses FIP, which focuses on a pitchers strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches, and home runs.
Name           IP            K/9              BB/9             HR/9
Gio Gonzalez 193.1 9.36 3.4 0.42
Clayton Kershaw 211.2 8.97 2.47 0.68
Cliff Lee 198 8.86 1.27 1.05
Johnny Cueto 210 7.03 2.06 0.6
Wade Miley 187 6.45 1.78 0.63
R.A. Dickey 220 8.55 2.13 0.86

         HR/FB               FIP             WAR
Gio Gonzalez 6.10% 2.84 5.2
Clayton Kershaw 8.70% 2.99 4.8
Cliff Lee 11.40% 3.07 4.8
Johnny Cueto 7.70% 3.27 4.7
Wade Miley 6.70% 3.2 4.5
R.A. Dickey 10.60% 3.28 4.5

When a ball is put in play in the air vs. Dickey, it is a home run 10.6% of the time. This ranks second to worst amongst these top pitchers. This makes sense due to Dickey being a knuckleball pitcher. When a pitch that averages between 75mph and 85mph floats into the strike zone with little movement, as a bad knuckle ball does, MLB hitters will generally crush the ball. In addition, despite Dickey's high number of strikeouts, his BB/9 are not very good either. Gio Gonzalez overcomes a higher walk rate by allowing almost zero home runs and striking out hitters more often than Dickey, while Clayton Kershaw's more innings combined with his low HR/9 gives him the edge over R.A.

Here is something to consider. As a former pitcher, I can vouch for the fact that it is easier to pitch with a lead. Certainly, all pitchers should be able to perform just as well with or without a lead. On the other hand, the more a pitcher pitches with the lead, oftentimes the more chances he can take in order to get hitters out. The pitcher/batter battle is a chess game, with each player attempting to outthink his opponent. The pitcher, who pitches with the lead, can do more that a batter cannot predict, than the pitcher who pitches with a deficit. So, R.A. Dickey gets the 15th best run support from his team in the National League at 4.61 runs/game while Clayton Kershaw, who ranks second in fWAR and rWAR, has had the NL's 8th worst run support at 3.77 runs/game. Maybe, Dickey has it easier because the Mets give him a lead more often than the pitchers ahead of him. Whether this is true or not, it does not mean he is necessarily a worse pitcher than Kershaw.

So, should R.A. Dickey win the NL Cy Young award. Looking only at the statistics, I have to say I think Gio Gonzalez deserves the Cy Young award. Walks can get a pitcher into trouble quickly, and while Gonzalez has a 3.4 BB/9, his inability to give up homeruns means that those walks do not come back to bite him as much as other pitchers'. In addition, Gonzalez strikes hitters out. He does so to the tune of 9.36 K/9, second only to his teammate Steven Strasburg. Gonzalez even satisfies old school voters with 20 wins, 2.84 ERA, and 201 strikeouts.

Okay, Gio is good. In fact, he's been incredibly good, but what about my man R.A.? Well, Dickey has statistics fairly comparable to Gonzalez's and one thing that Gio doesn't. Dickey does it all throwing essentially one pitch. Everyone praises Yankees Closer Mariano Rivera for getting out three batters a game with one pitch, but R.A. performs a similar feat but multiplied by 7. Now, the knuckleball is different from the cutter. The cutter is merely a variation of a fastball, whereas the knuckleball is as similar to a fastball as a rocket ship. It is almost impossible to prepare for a knuckleball because event he pitcher doesn't know how the pitch will move and where it might go. While the knuckleball is difficult to hit, it is even more difficult to throw properly. When thrown improperly, a knuckleball is as straight as an arrow and looks as big as a beach ball to opposing hitters. This fact is seen by Dickey's homerun percentage.

Dickey throws the most difficult pitch known to man and does so incredibly well. Gio Gonzalez does the job a hair better than Dickey, but uses the typical pitcher's arsenal. Were Gonzalez above and beyond the better pitcher, I would award him the Cy Young without question, but due to the difficulty it takes to control a knuckleball, and the even greater difficulty it takes to dominate opposing hitter with said pitch, I think Dickey deserves the award. Phil Niekro is known as one of the best pitchers to ever throw a knuckleball, yet he never attained the success that Dickey has. The same is true of Tim Wakefield, the most recent pitcher to throw a knuckleball. Dickey's numbers show he is one of the best pitchers in the National League this year, and the way in which he has dominated NL hitters warrants him the Cy Young Award. So, here are my top 3 in the NL as of today:
1. R.A. Dickey
2. Gio Gonzalez
3. Cliff Lee

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Senior Circuit Circus

We were all duped. That may sound dramatic, but we were fooled. In fact, we were fooled twice. And i think you know the saying. "Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me." Well, Ryan Braun fooled us once. He dazzled the Majors last season on rout to the National League's Most Valuable Player. He made conventional voters excited with a slash line of 332/.397/.597. He produced runs, hitting 33 home runs and knocking in 111 runs. He scored 109 runs, batting in the 3rd spot in the batting order, and even stole 33 bases. For those more inclined towards advanced metrics, Braun compiled a 7.7 fWAR, 178 wRC+, and wRAA of 58.6. Both Matt Kemp and Ryan Braun deserved the award, and even if you disagree with the selection (like I do), both players deserved the award, so neither choice was wrong. The deception came just after the season ended, when Major League Baseball suspended Braun for 50 games for a positive test showing that Braun took a banned substance. Immediately fans became puritanical, taking out their dusty copies of The Crucible, and calling for Braun's MVP award to be revoked, the MLB equivalent of death by stoning. Some called for an asterisk to reside next to his name in the record books to denote Braun's guilt, which is the MLB equivalent of wearing a big red A on your jersey, or am I mixing up my puritans?

Either way, Braun fought the case and through a technicality, MLB reversed their decision to suspend Braun. Most assumed, no matter what the conclusion, that Braun took PED's and it helped him win the MVP. So, the sneaky Braun got away, and fooled us for the second time. Now he's back, trying to fool us again. This season Braun has been better than ever before. Take a look:

Slash line

HR 40
RBI 107
Runs 98
Hits 175
SB 29
UZR/150 4.6
FRAA 3.6
DRS 10
fWAR 7.8
rWAR 6.8
WARP 5.9

So, Braun seems like a lock again for MVP. The Brewers lost cleanup hitter Prince Fielder to free agency, and while Aramis Ramirez, Fielder's replacement, has had a great season, he doesn't impose the same fear factor as Fielder did. Even more so, Braun has improved defensively, playing one of the better left fields in the National League. He's done all this, for a Brewers team that will not win as many games as they did last season. The team traded ace pitcher Zack Greinke at the trade deadline and has had some of the worst bullpen issues in the Majors, just ask the Phillies if you don't believe me.

So, making good use of the old adage to which I previously referred, I plan to make the case for someone other than the esteemed Mr. Braun to win the National League's 2012 MVP award.

The last catcher to win the National League Most Valuable Player Award was Johnny Bench in 1972. Catchers have historically not been the best players on their respective squads. They don't put up the flashiest numbers, spending more time working with pitchers and calling the game. Mike Piazza, arguably the best offensive catcher of all-time, never won an MVP. On the other hand, the American League has seen a catcher or two win the MVP with Joe Mauer winning the award in 2010, and Ivan Rodriguez accomplishing the feat in 1999, but it has been 40 years since an NL catcher won the award.  This streak could, and I argue, should be broken this season. Two candidates have broken away from the pack to distinguish themselves as catchers who also serve as very valuable players.

Yadier Molina has put together a great career thus far. As the younger brother of both Bengie and Jose Molina, who both play(ed) catcher in the Majors, Yadier has proven to be the best of the bunch. Fellow backstop (nickname for a catcher) Buster Posey is having an outstanding season. Posey, who plays for the NL West champion San Francisco Giants, has put together one of the best offensive seasons for a National League catcher since Mike Piazza. Oh, and he's doing all of this at the ripe young age of 25.

Offensively, both these catchers have excelled, but the edge has to go to Posey. While Molina, once thought to be just a defensive player with some offensive liabilities, has hit extremely well, Posey bests him in most categories. Let's take a look:
Games 129
Hitting 2012 NL Rank
wRC+  144 7th
wOBA 0.379 8th
Avg 0.321 4th
OBP 0.379 10th
SLG% 0.506 17th
ISO 0.186 27th
K% 9.9% 7th
BB% 7.8% 43rd
Contact % 85.7% 15th
Hits 152 21st
HR 20 Tied for 14th
RBI 64 36th
Runs 60 55th
BABIP 0.327 25th
Tav 0.317 20th
LD% 25.2% 5th
Clutch 1.16 6th
OppOPS 0.717 143rd
Games 139
Hitting 2012 NL Rank
wRC+  160 3rd
wOBA 0.404 3rd
Avg 0.335 3rd
OBP 0.409 1st
SLG% 0.545 4th
ISO 0.21 19th
K% 1.6% 42nd
BB% 11.4% 7th
Contact % 85.2% 17th
Hits 167 11th
HR 23 Tied for 10th
RBI 96 6th
Runs 74 Tied for 31st
BABIP 0.365 5th
Tav 0.349 1st
LD% 24.5% 6th
Clutch -0.6 37th
OppOPS 0.717 28th

So, as you can see, while both players are having fantastic offensive seasons, Posey definitely has an edge. Where I think Molina makes a statement is in his K%. Batters want this number to be as low as possible, and Molina had shown can keep it his strikeouts down. Molina has consistently kept his K% down throughout his career. The other stat leaning towards Molina is his Clutch. This is a statistic calculated by that determines how a player performs in high leverage situations. For those of you who care, the formula is:Clutch = (WPA / pLI) – WPA/LI 
Molina does extremely well in high leverage situations as 1.16 is considered great while Posey's -0.6 is designated between poor and below average. How a player performs in clutch situations is important, and more so valuable. The last three NL MVP's have posted a Clutch of 0.26, 0.20, and 0.60 respectively. Nonetheless, Buster Posey shows more power than Molina, hits for a better average, walks more, hits just as many line drives, and has done it all against better opposing pitching (OppOPS). Offensively, he gets the nod.

Offense is important, so much so, that it makes up most of what goes into the statistic Wins Above Replacement. Without runs, no one would ever win a baseball game, so by proving to be the better offensive catcher, Buster Posey has taken a solid lead in the MVP race. In the last few years, defense has become quite important as well. Now that we have metrics that can evaluate a players defense far better than fielding percentage, it is important to utilize them when discussing the Most Valuable Player Award. The catcher position is usually known as a premium defensive position due to the enormous responsibility placed upon the catcher during the course of a game. They must manage the pitching staff, oftentimes call the game, make sure no pitch gets by them for a passed ball or wild pitch, and crouch the entire time. Remember, catchers, unlike other position players, don't need great range when playing the field, so no one calculates UZR (ultimate zone rating) for them. On the other hand, DRS (defensive runs saved) and FRAA (fielding runs above average) are good ways of quantifying a catcher's defensive abilities. In addition, records a catcher's caught stealing percentage. Molina comes in 4th in the NL in that category while Posey does not.
Defensive 2012 NL Catcher Rank
DRS 17 1st
FRAA 2.1 3rd

Defensive2012 NL Catcher Rank
DRS -2 Tied Last
FRAA -2.1 Last

So, defensively Yadier Molina makes Buster Posey look like a designated hitter. In fact, Posey is a defensive liability, and that includes throwing base runners out as well as fielding bunts and blocking pitches. Molina has always been known as a terrific defender, but with Posey ranking among NL catchers in the dumps, Molina gets a major advantage here. Catcher is one of the most demanding defensive positions on the field and Molina does it better than almost everyone. 

Most catchers are large, and if not large, they are ubiquitously slow. Base running is not a facet of the game most catchers have in their arsenal. This is true of both Molina and Posey, but base running is still an important part of the game. All other MVP candidates should be judged based upon the same categories, and base running is one of them. 

Molina                                                  Posey

2012 NL Catcher Rank
2012 NL Catcher Rank
SB 12 1st SB 1 Tied 4th
BsR -5.8 Last BsR -4.1 2nd to Last

Surprisingly, Yadier Molina has 12 stolen bases, but when considering all base running, he ranks lower than Posey. Neither player, even in comparison to other catchers, run the bases well, but since Molina has 12 times the number of stolen bases than Posey, I have to give a slight edge to Molina. 

Finally, let's look at these two players through the lens of the many metrics that determine overall value.  Fangraphs, Baseballprospectus, and Baseball-reference all calculate WAR slightly differently. The calculations are different enough for each of their top 5 lists in WAR to be somewhat different. 

Molina                                                  Posey

Value 2012 NL Rank Value 2012 NL Rank
fWAR 5.6 6th fWAR 5.6 3rd
rWAR 6.7 Tied 2nd rWAR 6.3 Tied 3rd
WARP 5.6 6th WARP 5.6 1st
Value in $$ $28 Million Value in $$ $31.5 Million
By all accounts, Buster Posey seems to have the advantage in overall value. Fangraphs and Baseballprospectus consider him better than Molina, and Fangraphs consideres Posey to be worth $3.5 million more than Molina. Interestingly, Buster Posey is making $615,000 this season, which is due mostly to the fact that he is still under his rookie contract. Molina recently signed a contract extension with the Cardinals, but it hasn't kicked in yet, so his 2012 salary is $7 million. Now, according to rWAR, Yadier Molina has been worth more wins than Buster Posey. 

One aspect of a catcher's responsibilities that I haven't referred to yet is their ability to handle a pitching staff. Catchers must learn about each pitcher, how to handle them from the physical side, how many pitches they throw, and the mental side, keeping them calm and focused. The catcher is the manager's aid on the field, which is probably why so many catchers become managers. Yadier Molina has caught 7 different starting pitchers and 19 different relievers. The Cardinals starters combined for 15.8 fWAR, and while Molina has less to do with that than the pitchers do, as a receiver, Molina impacts pitchers' performances to some degree. One Cardinals starter, Adam Wainwright, throws a curveball with lots of downward movement, making it a difficult pitch to handle for a catcher (-9.6 y-movement). Molina handles 3 starters whose fastballs reach or exceed 93 mph and 6 or more relievers whose fastballs exceed 95 mph. By all standards, Molina does a great job handling the Cardinals staff and bullpen. Also, Molina has played 128 games at catcher this season, catching 80% of the 

In comparison, Buster Posey has caught 6 different starting pitchers. Those starters throw only 5 different types of pitches between them, and none of them throw their fastballs faster than 92 mph. The total fWAR of the Giants starting staff is 12.0. On the other hand, Posey caught Matt Cain's perfect game, which by all standards is a great achievement. Posey has dealt with 17 different relief pitchers throwing 7 different types of pitches, with none of those 17 pitchers acheiving a velocity higher than 95 mph. Giants pitchers have thrown 51 wild pitches this season, many during Posey's time behind the plate in comparison to St. Louis pitchers who have thrown only 42. This shows us that Posey has to deal with pitchers who can be more wild than does Molina. On the other hand Molina may keep his pictures calm enough, and catch pitches in the dirt better than Posey, thus leading to fewer potential wild pitches. 

Overall, both these players have been great this year. Posey is one of the best hitters in the entire game. Posey is most comfortable when standing in the batter's box, not the catcher's box, and due to the greater importance placed on offense, Posey has the advantage in both fWAR and WARP. In contrast, Yadier Molina's defense is unparalleled in today's game. He forces base runners to change their travel plans, getting them to remain at 1st base instead of attempting to swipe second. Also, Posey has only started 109 games at catcher, which is good enough for 72% of the Giants games this season. Posey has been the rock for the Giants, especially since they lost Melky Cabrera due to a positive test for PED's. 

Ryan Braun will probably win the National League MVP award this season, but if I had a vote, I'd give it to either Posey or Molina. If you are someone who thinks that an MVP winner's team should make the playoffs in order to consider said player for the award, than you will be happy to know that the Cardinals have a 74.4% chance of making the playoffs, the Giants have already made the playoffs, and Braun's Brewers have only a 24.6% chance of making the playoffs. Catchers are often overlooked, but one thing is certain, some if not much of what catcher's do cannot be quantified by statistics. Outfielders are important, but catchers are far more valuable to a team. So, Baseball Writers Association of America voters, take a chance and vote for Posey or Molina, one of them deserves to win. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Jacoby Ellsbury Sweepstakes, Possibly

Possible Suitors for Jacoby Ellsbury:

Jacoby Ellsbury
The Rangers farm system is full of good prospects. My guess is star in the making Jurickson Profar isn't on the table, but with Sox top prospect Xander Bogaerts a year or two away from MLB action, the Sox can do without Profar. 3B Mike Olt is a possibility, but unlikely as the Red Sox have a good young third baseman in Will Middlebrooks. My guess is the Red Sox will ask for top-pitching prospects. Most likely they will demand Rangers young lefty Martin Perez. Perez is the Rangers top-pitching prospect, but if they don't intend to resign Josh Hamilton and would rather spend that money on Ellsbury, giving up Perez looks like a reasonable investment for the Rangers who have a number of good starting pitchers other than the unproven Perez.

Shelby Miller
The St. Louis Cardinals have Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday in the corner outfield spots, but Ellsbury would be a big upgrade over current center fielder Jon Jay. Shelby Miller, the Cardinals top prospect, is Major League ready, and while the Cards don't want to part with him, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Jaime Garcia make up a favorable rotation before they even add Shelby Miller into the mix. Also, the Cardinals have 2 other young pitching prospects with lots of potential in Tyrell Jenkins and Carlos Martinez each one more season closer to joining the big league squad. If I were the Red Sox I would hope the Cardinals would make it known they were looking to trade for Ellsbury because they have prospects the Red Sox covet. 

The Braves have a number of pitching prospects including Julio Tehran and Randall Delgado. My guess is one of these pitchers combined with RHP Zeke Spruill would be what the Red Sox look for here. With Michael Bourn most likely leaving for free agency, the Braves are looking for a replacement center fielder, but may not have the money to sign him to an extension. Should they not sign him to an extension, the Braves would be giving up quite a haul to the Sox for one year of Ellsbury, so my guess is they will only make a trade for him if they know they can/will sign him to an extension.

The Giants most likely do not have the requisite pitching prospects to trade the Red Sox in return for Ellsbury. They will not want to trade prized prospect Gary Brown, and without Brown or any MLB ready pitching prospects in the mix, the Giants should count themselves out of this, unless they do something tricky.

Chris Archer
The Rays are an interesting team. The Rays have a wealth of great prospects, especially pitchers. They have a need for a center fielder, with B.J. Upton most likely leaving for free agency, but unlike the Cardinals or Rangers, the Rays do not have the money to pay Ellsbury past the 2013 season. Were the Rays to offer Chris Archer or Alex Cobb to the Red Sox in exchange for Ellsbury, I would pull the trigger on that deal every day of the week were I making the decisions in the Red Sox front office. 

My impression: Were any of these teams, other than the Giants, to make a solid offer to the Red Sox, I would do it. The best team to negotiate with has got to be the Tampa Bay Rays because they have the greatest wealth of young pitching, but they are historically stingy about giving up prospects, thus don't count on them giving up too much for only one season of Ellsbury. The best bet overall has to the Cardinals, who have Shelby Miller and other younger prospects to trade and with Ellsbury in center field would have the best outfield in the Major Leagues. John Mozeliak, pick up the phone.

New Look Red Sox

In every Major League Baseball season there are some surprise teams; those who play well despite expectations to the contrary, and those who play poorly when most thought the opposite. Teams consistently astound us. For example, the 2012 Baltimore Orioles have won 85 games this season and sit a half a game behind division leading New York. This from a team that won an average of 67 games over the last five seasons, and hasn't had a winning season since 1997. According to the Orioles have a 90.2% chance of making the playoffs this year, whether it be via the wild card or by winning the AL East. The Orioles as well as the Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals make up the positive surprise teams of 2012. For every success story there are usually for more failures. In 2012 the biggest failure in comparison to their pre-season expectations have to be the Boston Red Sox.

The Boston Red Sox in March 2012:
It's March ladies and gentlemen, the beginning of Baseball season. This year, like most in the past is one of hope, promise, and high expectations for the Boston's favorite team, the Red Sox. Oh sure, the team may have famously collapsed last season, losing on the final day of the season and thus not making the playoffs, but a new season brings new hope (like Star Wars), and the 2012 Red Sox look to reclaim the title of the "American League's best team" and win their third World Series title in 8 years. Even though this isn't news, just to get it out of the way, the Sox could finish with an awful record, which the won't, but as long as it bests the bleeping Yankees, that would be a win for Boston fans.

It's time to forget last season, especially Theo Epstein who left us for the friendlier confines of Chicago's north side, move on, and put every effort into winning this season. The Sox boast a strong, veteran line up that proves to thwart any pitcher standing 60 feet 6 inches away from home plate.

2012 Red Sox starting lineup:

PlayerPosition    2011 WAR
1  Jacoby Ellsbury CF 9.4
2  Dustin Pedroia 2B 7.9
3  Adrian Gonzalez 1B 6.5
4  David Ortiz DH 4.1
5     Kevin Youkilis 3B 3.7
6  Ryan Sweeney RF 0
 Cody Ross LF 1.1
8  Jared Saltalamacchia C 1.7
9  Mike Aviles SS 0.3
Total 34.7

So, offensively, going into the 2012 season the Red Sox had a powerful lineup. They returned young stud center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who was snubbed as the Most Valuable Player in 2011 in favor of Justin Verlander. In addition, the Sox returned staples at second base, third base, and designated hitter. Pedroia, Youkilis, and Ortiz have been Red Sox favorites for years, and have rarely disappointed on the field. In addition, juggernaut 1st baseman Adrian Gonzalez was coming off of a huge year for the Sox and set to man first base at Fenway Park for the next 7 seasons after signing a contract extension. Although Ryan Sweeney and Mike Aviles don't scare the boots off of opponents, Aviles, Sweeney, newcomer Cody Ross, and Jared Saltalamacchia all provided value for the Sox going into 2012.  

Now let's take a look at their starting rotation in March of 2012:

Player 2011 WAR
 John Lester 3.7
2  Josh Beckett 4.3
3  Clay Buchholz 1.1
4  Felix Dubront -0.1
5  Daniel Bard 1.9
Total 10.9
The Red Sox returned three solid starters in Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz, who pending any health issues should each provide at least 190 innings pitched. Daniel Bard was the most talked about Red Sox player in the off-season due to management's decision to move the young fire baller from the bullpen, where he flourished, to the starting rotation. Dubront was a young lefty that the organization wanted to look at in spring training, and due to solid outings in the pre-season, made the rotation. This rotation compared well to the Sox rival New York Yankees, and came up not too short in comparison to the Tampa Bay Rays stacked young pitching staff.  

For the Red Sox in March of 2012, the message was redemption. The team and it's fans wanted to redeem themselves after an historically tragic end to the 2011 season in which the team collapsed like a tent on which was dropped an elephant. Two players, LF Carl Crawford and RHP John Lackey looked to be on the disabled list for some time, and although Sox fans would have loved to see Crawford in the lineup, most happily waved goodbye to John Lackey who had just had his UCL reconstructed. The Sox also looked to rebound after losing their General Manager, Theo Epstein, who got out of his contract in Boston in order to sign with the Chicago Cubs. He left disciple Ben Cherington to navigate the rough and often cold waters of the Charles River by himself. With new manager Bobby Valentine at the helm, the Red Sox looked to prove to the Baseball world that 2011 was a fluke, and 2012 would be their sweet revenge.

The Boston Red Sox as of September 12th, 2012:
Unfortunately it didn't work out the way they had hoped. Here is the Red Sox lineup and starting rotation as of September 19th, 2012:

Player Position 2012 WAR
1  Pedro Ciriaco 3B 1
2  Jacoby Ellsbury CF 1.5
3  Dustin Pedroia 2B 3.9
 Cody Ross LF 2.8
5  James Loney 1B 0.1
6  Jared Saltalamacchia DH 1.9
7  Ryan Lavarnway C -0.8
8  Daniel Nava RF 0.9
9  Jose Iglesias SS -0.4
Total 10.9
Player 2012 WAR
1 John Lester 3.1
2 Felix Dubront 1.7
3 Clay Buchholz 2.1
4 Aaron Cook 0.6
5 Daisuke Matsuzaka 0.1
Total 7.6
Looks different doesn't it? A lot can happen in 6 months, and in the Red Sox case, a lot happened in the last 6 months. To note, the Red Sox have two injuries from their starting lineup. David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks are both on disabled list. If you put them in the lineup given their WAR's to date, the total for the Sox lineup would go from 10.9 to 15.6, which is considerably better. The rotation hasn't faired as badly as the lineup, but it has two new names, Aaron Cook and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and lost the member with the highest WAR from 2011, Josh Beckett. John Lackey remains injured, as Red Sox fans make for a collective sigh of relief. The most important fact of all this is, the Red Sox record as of September 12th was 68-82, 18 games back of the Yankees for first place in the AL East and 17.5 games out of the second wild card spot. Teams with a better record than the Red Sox include the Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles, Oakland A's, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres, and Milwaukee Brewers. Let's just say things didn't go as planned.

Looking to the future:
Obviously, the Red Sox need to figure something out, change, adapt, or all of the above, in order to get back to their winning ways. Every team's front office, players, coaching staff, and ownership group, have goals in order to either improve, or in the case of the World Series winning team, watch the video of their parade as many times as possible in the 150 or so days between November and April. 

What does the off-season mean to the Red Sox. First it means they can stop embarrassing themselves on the field, as was the case this past Wednesday night when the team lost 13-3 vs. the Rays. Second, a number of players on their roster will become free agents, thus allowing Sox management to either attempt to resign them or let them leave and obtain some salary relief. Here is a list of the Red Sox notable free agents: 

Player Position
Daisuke Matsuzaka RHP
James Loney 1B
Cody Ross OF
David Ortiz DH
Bobby Jenks RHP

Daisuke, more commonly referred to as Dice-K, has been, plainly put, as useful as a pile of leaves this season, after either pitching badly or minding his business on the disabled list in 2011. Matsuzaka is a high-risk high-reward player, and more importantly, one to whom the Red Sox will most likely decline to offer a contract. James Loney came to the Red Sox in the mega-deal that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto to the Los Angeles Dodgers in return for Loney and some minor league prospects. He has little value to the Red Sox and most likely will leave Boston not having even bought a piece of homely property near Coolidge Corner. David Ortiz is the lone name on this list that has a decent chance to return to Fenway Park in 2013. Ortiz has recently been offered a number of 1-year contracts at high costs, all of which he has accepted. Ortiz was taring it up this year until he succumbed to injury. I believe the Red Sox should spend the money to resign him, as long as his contract does not exceed the $14.58 million dollars he made in 2012. Bullpen pitcher Bobby Jenks comes off the books, and I foresee the Red Sox giving him the old heave ho. That leaves outfielder Cody Ross. Ross has played well this season, and the Red Sox have been rumored to want to negotiate with him on a new contract. They have exclusive negotiating rights with Ross up to 5 days after the end of the 2012 World Series. Ross is 31 years old and will most likely looking for a contract similar to the one Twins outfielder Josh Willingham received (3 years/ $27 million), as the market this offseason for corner outfielder is slim pickings. In my opinion, the Red Sox should look to resign Ross, but shouldn't pay him a dime more than $9 million a year.

Returning players include John Lester, John Lackey, Dustin Pedroia, and Clay Buchholz. Otherwise, everyone else on the Red Sox is either a free agent, under their rookie contract, or arbitration eligible. Those notable arbitration eligible players include, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Aviles. The others are mostly bullpen pitchers, and due to their replaceability, we are leaving them out. First, the easy one. Mike Aviles made $1.2 million in 2012. He can play multiple positions and 2.0 WAR and 9.5 UZR/150 at shortstop this season. My guess is, even in his second season of arbitration, his contract won't increase beyond the level at which the Red Sox shouldn't resign him. Offer him $5 million for one season, he will most likely accept it. He may not start every game, but he's a good fill-in player and definitely a solid bench option. 

Next we come to the biggest offseason question for the Red Sox. What to do about Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury is arbitration eligible, and will become a free agent in 2014, at which time he, with the help of super agent Scott Boras, sign a monster deal in the range of the one Jayson Werth signed with the Nationals. Ellsbury has only had one incredible season in the big leagues, but it was stellar. When he has played he has been great, roaming the large and treacherous center field of Fenway Park. The Red Sox have a few options here. One, they could let Ellsbury go to arbitration and sign him to a one-year contract. If they do that, they have the option of trading him mid-season, signing him to a contract extension mid-season, or allowing him to play out his contract and leave via free agency. I can bet that the chances of them signing him to a contract extension mid-season are 1% likely. Trading him mid-season isn't out of the question, but a better haul might be gotten in return were they to trade him this offseason. Letting him play 2013 in a Red Sox uniform and then leave would provide them with one of the best center fielders in the game for a season and then no salary requirements for the next 5-7 seasons. It isn't a bad option, but it definitely isn't the best. 

Were the Red Sox to sign Ellsbury to a contract extension, they would be signing a potentially superstar  player who has been oft injured in his short career. It's a risk, and one I don't think the Red Sox are willing to take, especially with Scott Boras on the other side of the negotiating table. I think the Red Sox should look to trade Ellsbury this offseason.  With one year of arbitration left before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, a team that trades for Ellsbury will either sign him to an extension or use him for a year and allow him to walk. Teams that might want to trade for Ellsbury include the Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, and St. Louis Cardinals. The Rangers, Giants, Cardinals, and possibly the Braves would be most likely to extend Ellsbury while the Rays would probably use him for 2013 and then let him go. If I were Ben Cherington, I would love to get at least one very good prospect and possible 2 other lesser ones in a deal for Ellsbury. If he could sway an MLB ready young pitcher in the deal, that would the best-case scenario. The best bets are the Texas Rangers, St. Louis Cardinals, and Tampa Bay Rays. For a look at all of the trade possibilities for Jacoby Ellsbury, see the adjoining article to this. 

Other possible offseason trade candidates for the Red Sox include John Lackey and Jon Lester. Lackey spent all of 2012 on the DL after Tommy John Surgery, and didn't pitch well at all in 2011. On the other hand he has been a 4+ WAR pitcher for most of his career, and with his divorce behind him, should be more focused on baseball. In fact, Lackey's situation is very similar to what the Yankees faced with A.J. Burnett last year. The Yankees wanted to unload Burnett's big contract, knowing full well they would have to pay a large portion of Burnett's contract to whichever team made a deal for the righty. This would prove equivalent were the Red Sox to attempt to trade Lackey. Lackey has $30.5 million left on his contract. If they Red Sox took a page from the Yankees play book and paid between $17-20 million of Lackey's deal, I think a few teams would be willing to take a chance on the right- hander. Were I the Red Sox, I would actually keep Lackey, hoping he rebounds and pitches well. If he doesn't, try and trade him mid-season, with the willingness to pay a at least 2/3 of his contract, something they would have to have done this offseason, in order to unload him. 

Jon Lester provides better potential. Lester has $11.625 million left on his deal with a $13 million team option for 2014. If Lester wins or comes in 2nd in the Cy Young voting in 2013 he would qualify to void the team option (worth $13 million) for 2014. Lester will make a large sum of money on the open market, whenever that comes. The Red Sox wouldn't mind having him back, but he would most likely have to give them some sort of hometown discount, similar to the one Jared Weaver gave the Los Angeles Angels. Any team that trades for him will want to sign him to an extension, other than small market teams like the Pirates, Padres, Royals, Rays, or A's. Lester would be a hot commodity since he is owed less than $12 million in 2013 and under team control for $13 million in 2014 at which time he will be 30 years old. In the end, I think the Red Sox should deal Lester. They could get a corner outfielder in return, which would compliment Cody Ross very well on the other side. Offense is vital in the AL East and getting a solid corner outfield prospect and possibly a high risk high reward pitching prospect in return for Lester would well worth it. 

Okay, trades are nice, and the Red Sox have the ability to do a lot in that regard, but how about trading money for players. Wait, isn't that called free agency? Why yes it is. So, what could the Sox do in the 2012-2013 offseason in the free agent market? Unfortunately, other than center fielders, there isn't much to look for on the market in 2013. The Red Sox should pass on big names like Zack Geinke, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, and Michael Bourn. They have no need for flipping a huge bill and not getting what they are looking for. That "feeding the beast" mentality is what got them into trouble in the first place. My advice for the Red Sox would be to go after one of he solid mid-level starting pitchers on the market like Edwin Jackson or Brandon McCathy Jackson has been getting 1-year deals recently, and has said he would like to sign a longer deal with his current team, the Washington Nationals. If the Nationals would rather not sign Jackson to his desired deal, the Red Sox could swoop in and offer Jackson a 3 year/$35 million deal. He would immediately become a big part of the Red Sox rotation, and Jackson would have the security of a 3-year deal. I like this deal for them, but if they can, the Red Sox should make an offer to A's righty Brandon McCarthy. Due to injury probability, which is somewhat high due to McCarthy's past, the Red Sox should offer him a 2 year contract worth between $19-23 million and refuse to take "no" for an answer. McCarthy gets strikeouts and ground balls, while not giving up home runs (0.81 HR/9) or walks (1.95 BB/9). He has pitched in pitcher friendly Oakland, but they wouldn't be expending too much for McCarthy while hoping to reap extreme benefits.

If I were GM and everything were to go the way I have said, this would be my 2013 Red Sox lineup and starting rotation in 2013:

Player Position 2012 WAR
1  Anthony Gose CF 0.1
 Dusin Pedroia 2B 3.9
3  David Ortiz DH 2.9
4Will Middlebrooks  3B 2.8
5  Cody Ross LF 2
6  Ryan Lavarnway 1B -0.8
7  Jared Saltalamacchia C 1.9
8  Jerry Sands RF 0
9  Pedro Ciriaco SS 1
Total 13.8
Player 2012 WAR
1 Brandon McCarthy 1.8
2 Felix Dubront 1.7
3 Clay Buchholz 2.1
4 Shelby Miller 0.2
5 John Lackey DL
Total 4
For your information I'm assuming that the Red Sox will make a trade with the Blue Jays, sending them Jon Lester and in return getting at least Anthony Gose, who they can put in centerfield to replace Jacoby Ellsbury. I have had it so that they traded Ellsbury to the St. Louis Cardinals for starting pitcher Shelby Miller. Jerry Sands is playing in right field. He is a prospect the Sox got from the Dodgers in the mega-deal. This implies that they signed Brandon McCarthy and did not deal John Lackey. Playing Ciraco at shortstop isn't a great option, but he's a stopgap until top prospect Xander Bogaerts is ready to come to the Majors. In fact, due to the youth already on the field for the Sox, bringing up Bogaerts earlier than expected might not be the worst idea. Overall, this isn't going to make the Sox amazing. They have a bunch of young guys, Ryan Lavarnway playing 1st base, and John Lackey back in the rotation, but this team isn't built to win in 2013. They are however built to compete well in the offseason of 2013-2014 and to return to the playoffs in 2014. Some Red Sox fans may not find this solution satisfying, but often times the best way to calm the beast isn't to feed it, but to let it salivate over a big meal before devouring it. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Triple Threat or the Flying Fish

Defining Value:
Let's get something straight. Especially in recent years there has been a lot of debate in the Baseball community over the Most Valuable Player Award. I have previously written about the Cy Young Award, given to the best pitcher, which is assumed to mean the pitcher with the best statistics, no matter which stats one utilizes.  The two sides of the argument surrounding the MVP award are as follows.  One side claims that the MVP award should go to the player who has been the most valuable to his team.  The other side claims that the award should go to the best overall player because by being the best it follows that the player would be the most valuable.

Fortunately, most of the people who argue about this do not have a vote. The Baseball Writers Association of America votes on the winner of each leagues Most Valuable Player. Here are some recent winners of the award:

Albert Pujols
Dustin Pedroia
Albert Pujols
Joe Mauer
Joey Votto
Josh Hamilton
Ryan Braun
Justin Verlander
Miguel Cabrera
Let's turn to 2012. While the National League is interesting, it deserves its own article, thus, moving on to the American League.  In the AL, the race for the MVP has come down to 2 players in particular, Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers and Mike Trout of the Angels. In all honesty, no one should forget about Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, but for the purposes of this article he is forgotten, POOF!  For all intents and purposes, until recently the race for the AL MVP was similar to the tortoise and the hare. One player was ahead of everyone, with another player or two far behind, but not completely forgotten. Mike Trout is the hare, and Cabrera the tortoise. In fact, as you will find out later, comparing the Angels outfielder to a hare is not unreasonable.  

On August 31st, Miguel Cabrera had an OPS (on base% + Slugging %) of .984. As of September 19th, he has an OPS of 1.008. In order to raise his OPS those 24 points, he needed to have a better month in September than he had had in any month in 2012 that preceding it. So far this month, Cabrera's OPS is 1.223. By all standards, Cabrera is having an outstanding month, without which he would probably not be a member of the conversation concerning the AL MVP. In fact, due to Cabrera's 2 home runs last night against the Oakland A's, he finds himself only 2 home runs away from the American League lead. This piece of information is important because he already leads the league in batting average and runs-batted-in. If one player leads their respective league in those three categories, they are said to have won the Triple Crown, an achievement last accomplished by Carl "Yaz" Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox in 1967. Was Cabrera to win the Triple Crown, it would be difficult for some not to consider him the de-facto MVP.   
Mike Trout

I consider a team's success to be of some importance when determining an MVP recipient. For a player's stats to contain the utmost value, his team must reap the benefits. The Tigers find themselves 3 games back of the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central, not an insurmountable disparity. In fact, one major reason for the Tigers' small distance from 1st place is the play of their third baseman, Miguel Cabrera. In fact, Cabrera's fWAR (batting, not pitching) makes up about 31% of the entire Tigers' fWAR. Nonetheless, the Angels have won more games than the Tigers have this season, even though they find themselves 6.5 games out of first in the AL West. According to, the Angels still have a better chance at 28.6% of making the playoffs than the Tigers, at 20.8%, do.  

The Comparison:
When comparing two players, we must compare them on a number of levels. Baseball is not merely an offensive game, it involves base-running, defense, intuition, etc... Fortunately, modern analytic tools allow fans, pundits, players, managers, and yes, even writers to evaluate a player in all of these categories. 

Let's first look at both players' hitting statistics.

Trout Cabrera
Games Played 125 146
wOBA 0.420 0.420
OPS 0.954 1.008
BABIP 0.380 0.335
Hits 166 189
wRC+ 174 169
Runs 118 110
BB% 9.9% 9.4%
K% 21% 13.8%
BB+HBP 65 77
Strike Outs 121 88
The first thing that might pop out to you is that Trout has played in 21 fewer games than Cabrera. This gap is due the fact that the Angels did not bring Trout up from the minors until April 28th, almost a full month after the season began. Nonetheless, Trout's statistics compare favorably to Cabrera's. Both players excel in getting on base, as is seen by their identical weighted on-base averages (for a full explanation of wOBA see this link: wOBA explained). Trout draws walks at a higher rate than Cabrera, and hits for a higher average on balls he puts in play, despite having a higher strikeout percentage. Each player has compiled a number of hits, but when you look at hits per game, Trout has a distinct advantage at 1.3 hits/game compared to Cabrera's 0.8 hits/game. Trout also creates more runs overall than does Cabrera, and since no team can win without scoring runs, that statistic, wRC+, is not to be taken lightly (for an explanation of wRC+ see this link: wRC+ explained. Cabrera's lone shining star is that he strikes out far less than does Trout. This is an admirable quality, and one that often comes with years of experience, something Cabrera has in spades over the 20-year-old Trout. (Just to note, in Cabrera's first two MLB seasons at the ages of 20 and 21, his K% were 21.3% and 24.6% respectively.) While not striking out is a good thing, it can mean that the player grounds into more double plays. Cabrera has bounced into 28 double plays this year, or once every 5 games, while Trout has grounded into only only 7 double plays, or 17 games. 

Next let's look at power hitting statistics. Producing a run combines getting on base with the ability to knock in a run as well. That's why OPS is such a nice statistic. Here are some power statistics to look at: 

Games Played
Home Runs

As you can see, Cabrera leads in most of the power hitting statistics. He has more home runs, runs-batted-in, a higher isolated power (slugging % - batting average), a higher slugging percentage, and hits more home runs for every fly ball he hits. Interestingly, according to ESPN's home run tracker, Miguel Cabrera leads the major leagues in lucky home runs. A lucky home run is described as a homer that would not have cleared the fence in the park it was hit on a calm 70-degree day. Trout has had 0 lucky home runs. Nonetheless, we can easily see that Cabrera is the better power hitter, albeit, not by that much. On the other hand, Mike Trout bats lead-off and Cabrera bats 3rd. Trout's job as the 1-hitter is to get on base so that the power hitters in the 3-hole, cleanup spot, and 5-hole can knock him in, thus scoring a run. So, Cabrera's job is to be a power hitter while Trout's is not. Trout still compares closely to Cabrera in every power hitting category other than home runs and RBIs, showing just how valuable he truly is. 

Next, let's look at speed:

Games Played
 This is not a fair comparison. Miguel Cabrera is 29 years old, 6 foot 4 inches tall and weighs in at a liberal 240 lbs. Trout is 20 years old, 6 foot, and 200 lbs. Also, Cabrera has never been fast, thus no manager in his right mind would ever ask him to steal a base. On the other hand, even slow players can be smart base runners. BsR is a statistic factored into's version of WAR that attempts to calculate the contribution of a players' base running abilities. As you can see, Trout leads the way in both stolen bases, no surprise there, and more importantly, in base running. A player who gets on base, but gets thrown out due to poor base running earns his team more outs and thus costs his team runs. Advantage here clearly goes to Trout.

So far all of the metrics used to determine Trout and Cabrera's value has been from an offensive perspective. Although defense is not as important for a player, other than pitchers, than is offense, it still counts. Here are some defensive numbers: 

Games Played
 UZR or ultimate zone rating is the defensive metric used by when determining a player's defensive rating. The stat centers on a players range, but incorporates other factors as well. I use UZR/150 because it allows us to compare two players who have played a different amount of games, like Trout and Cabrera. The statistic takes into account difference in position difficulty. According to his play this season, Cabrera would cost his team 12 runs at third base while Trout would save his team almost 15 runs playing a mix of the three outfield positions. This illustrates another point. Trout can play all three outfield positions as well as the DH spot, but Cabrera has played almost the entire season at third base. Miguel can play at 1st; a less defensively valued position, but has only filled in there twice in 2012. The ability to play multiple positions and do so incredibly well, gives Trout a serious edge defensively. If you want to know more about each statistic listed above, click on it to be directed to an explanation.
The AL MVP Award

Finally, while we have looked at numerous individual statistics covering a variety of categories, most analysts look at already created value measuring statistics that encompass all facets of the game. "Wins above replacement" is the commonly used metric for measuring a player's overall value. Each major website calculates it a little differently, usually depending on the fielding metric that site likes to use. 

Games Played
Value Salary
$42.1 Mil
$29.8 Mil 
 No matter how you look at the numbers, every form of WAR shows that Trout is the more valuable player to his team. In fact, Fangraphs even computes a players WAR into the amount of money they would be worth. Trout's season is worth $12.3 million more than Cabrera's. I only showed how much money they are making this year to underscore the fact that both players are easily out performing their 2012 salaries.  

So, in the end, the comparison leads me to conclude that Mike Trout is not only the better overall player, but the more valuable player. His team has won more games this season, and he has been a bigger part of that. His fWAR/win is .11 while Cabrera's is .08. Trout adds more every game than Cabrera, and has statistically helped his team win more games than Cabrera. Oh, Cabrera may be on the precipice of history, but just because no player has won the Triple Crown in 44 years, does not automatically make him the most valuable player. In fact, if I were to do a comparison between Cabrera and Robinson Cano (remember him, we made him disappear earlier in the article,) the two players would not be very far apart. As far as the Triple Crown goes, Ted Williams won the Triple Crown twice, in 1942 and 1947. Neither year did he win the MVP. Even more so, in 1934 Lou Gehrig won the AL Triple Crown and came in 5th in the MVP voting. Even in the 30's and 40's voters had more on their minds when determining the MVP than home runs, batting average, and runs-batted-in. No matter what happens this season, Mike Trout deserves to become only the third player all time to win both the rookie-of-the-year award and he MVP in the same season (Ichiro Suzuki and Fred Lynn being the others).