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. 

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