2017 Three Finger Brown Award

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corey-kluber-dallas-tigersGoing into the final two weeks of the regular season, there was quite a lot of debate about who should win the AL and NL Cy Young Awards. There were good arguments for Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber… But as I look on the group as a whole, it is immediately obvious to me that Corey Kluber is the best pitcher of 2017, and therefore the winner of the 2017 Three Finger Brown Award.

Take a look at Kluber’s numbers, and the corresponding MLB rank:

totWAR 23.3 1st
rWAR 8 1st
RA9-WAR 8.5 1st
ERA 2.25 1st
ERA- 50 1st
FIP- 57 1st
xFIP- 57 1st
WHIP 0.87 1st
WPA 4.72 1st
WPA/LI 5.31 1st
RE24 53.46 1st

And the other impressive numbers he put up that weren’t quite the best in the league:

fWAR 7.3 2nd
xwOBA 0.248 2nd
K-BB% 29.5 2nd
AVG 0.192 2nd
K’s 265 3rd

It should be mentioned here that the other candidates for Cy Young (and this award) had some amazing stats too. Clayton Kershaw brought in another minuscule ERA (2.31), Chris Sale had 7.7 fWAR and 308 K’s, and Max Scherzer had a 2.51 ERA and 268 K’s.

Justin Verlander, after turning in a respectable 86 ERA- and 3.0 fWAR in Detroit, reverted to Cy Young form after he was traded to Houston. In five starts for the Astros, Verlander struck out 43 in 34 innings and recorded a 1.06 ERA. Luis Severino, the 23-year-old ace of the Yankees, had a 2.98 ERA while striking our 230 on his way to a 5.7 fWAR.

 

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Hall of Fame Value

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roberto-alomar-baseball-hall-of-fame-plaque-framed-print-toronto-blue-jays-1An easy trap to fall into (I would know) is to lean too heavily on modern advanced metrics when evaluating a player’s worthiness to enter the Hall of Fame. Using various forms of WAR, OPS and wRC+ are all valuable ways to judge a player’s value, but they aren’t really the answer to whether or not a player should or should not be in the Hall. After all, “fame” in sports isn’t based solely on performance. Flashy players, eccentric players, likable players and players on successful teams always overshadow their peers, even if some of those peers are almost as good as they are (or better).

Of course, popularity or “fame” is extremely subjective. How popular was Barry Bonds in his prime? The answer would be very different if you were to ask a Giants fan versus asking a Dodgers fan. Likewise, generational popularity is extremely difficult to gauge. How popular was Willie Randolph in his prime? Well, beats me. I was a toddler when that happened. But I know exactly how popular David Ortiz is, seeing as how I witnessed his prime years and I live near Boston. We might call this subjective view of popularity as the “perspective deficit”. No two cities or generations are going to agree on all players.

ryno02

Ryne Sandberg in action

However, if we use a slightly less subjective formula, we might find a way to measure fame. Right up front, we should establish that everything we talk about next is still subjective. We’re talking about fame, not statistics, so while we don’t want to be too widely subjective (i.e. every fan’s individual perspective), we do want to balance out the extremely objective (i.e. stats) in order to better gauge who might belong in the HOF. With that in mind, we will take a look at the various awards players might get during their careers. Every single award below is a subjective consensus by one group of voters or another. All Star Games are probably the most subjective, as they include fan voting, so players from big cities often get the edge. Popular players from previous years often get re-elected to the ASG even if they are having a bad first half. On the flip side, a player with a great first half might make the team, but then have a terrible second half. It really is all about popularity in that moment. You will see below that because of this relatively high level of subjectivity, ASG are given the least value of the awards.

Below is the formula (though it isn’t really as fancy as it sounds). I am experimenting in order to build an overall “Hall of Fame Value”. In addition to the Awards Points, Total WAR (totWAR) will be the other aspect.

Awards Points:

All-Star Games, LCS MVP, WS MVP x 0.5

Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, Rookie of the Year, World Series Rings x 1

MVP Award x 3

After you add up the above, you add it to (totWAR/3). The sum = HFV (Hall of Fame Value).

This is certainly not a perfect way to judge – I expect that there isn’t a perfect way – but I think it might be a better way than simply picking one of the versions of WAR and comparing based on that alone. Let’s take a quick look at some second basemen to see if this formula makes any sense.

Below you will see a comparison of three HOFers, three excellent players not in the HOF, and one player currently on the ballot. The left side orders them according to one version of WAR (fWAR) and the other by HFV. Which one jibes most with your concept of which second basemen were the best?

fWAR HFV
1 Bobby Grich 69.2 Roberto Alomar 85.9
2 Lou Whitaker 68.1 Ryne Sandberg 79.5
3 Craig Biggio 65.8 Lou Whitaker 77.9
4 Roberto Alomar 63.6 Craig Biggio 76.2
5 Willie Randolph 62 Bobby Grich 73.6
6 Ryne Sandberg 60.9 Jeff Kent 66.5
7 Jeff Kent 56.1 Willie Randolph 64.8

Here it is again, using outfielders; three Hall of Famers and three HOF hopefuls:

fWAR HFV
1 Frank Robinson 104 Frank Robinson 126.2
2 Larry Walker 68.7 Dave Winfield 85
3 Tim Raines 66.4 Larry Walker 84.6
4 Dave Winfield 59.9 Andre Dawson 80.3
5 Andre Dawson 59.5 Vladimir Guerrero 74.6
6 Vladimir Guerrero 54.3 Tim Raines 74.1

As one would expect, Frank Robinson is light years ahead of the rest of this particular crew, no matter how you cut it. But Tim Raines loses his sizable fWAR lead over Vlad Guerrero, perhaps explaining why so many voters seem to believe that Vlad will make it into the Hall, but Tim Raines has been on the ballot for years and years. It also draws into question my inclusion of him on my own “ballot”, while deciding that Vlad Guerrero does not belong. And as much as I would love for this formula to be as simple as possible, a problem has already popped up: Robinson, Winfield and Dawson all played many or all of their prime years before the Silver Slugger Award was initiated. So while Larry Walker is a notch above Dawson and just barely behind Winfield, it’s not a stretch to think that if there had been a SS award in the 70’s, the numbers might look different.

Findings:

  • Maybe Vlad Guerrero belongs in the Hall… or maybe Tim Raines doesn’t.
  • Jeff Kent does not belong.
  • Larry Walker does belong.

 

2017 Hall of Fame Ballot: Vladimir Guerrero

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BA OBP SLG wRC+
0.318 0.379 0.553 136
HR fWAR rWAR WARP
449 54.3 59.3 63.8
9 All-Star Games 1 MVP 8 Silver Sluggers

115223There was a ten year period of time (1998-2007) in which Vlad Guerrero was an elite hitter. Of the 203 players with at least 3000 plate appearances during that time, Vlad ranked 5th in BA, 7th in SLG and 10th in wRC+. He had 200+ hits four times and joined the 30-30 club twice. He lead all right fielders in Assists three times (and finished top five in five other seasons). It was an impressive peak.

But was his career worthy of the Hall of Fame? I don’t know. Lots of baseball analysts on TV seem to think so. He was very good, and between his rocket arm and unorthodox batting style, he certainly was memorable. Let’s do a pro/con.

PRO:
All-Time Ranks
56th in BA
24th in SLG
34th in OPS
49th in Total Bases
38th in HR
45th in Extra Base Hits
CON:
All-Time Ranks
90th in wRC+
138th in fWAR
125th in rWAR
Lead League in Errors for an OF 8 times
SB success rate was below 70% in both of his 30-30 seasons

What these lists seem to tell us is that Vlad was an outstanding hitter, with an emphasis on slugging, but his overall value (i.e. the era in which he got his big hits, his fielding, base running) demotes him from elite status. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that being ranked in the top 150 players is something to dismiss. But when we’re talking about the HOF, “138th” doesn’t sound very special.

vladimir-guerrero-2008-angelsOn the other hand, Vlad had the “Fame” part on his side. From 1997-2008, he received votes for at least one award in every single season. He got votes for Rookie of the Year, MVP, ASG, and Silver Slugger. In addition to winning the MVP in 2004, he finished 3rd two other times, 4th once and 6th another time. Baseball Reference has an interesting stat called “MVP Shares”, which calculates how many “shares” of MVP ballots every player accumulated over the years. Vlad ranks 39th on that list, above popular Hall of Famers like Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline. (NOTE: MVP awards were given differently – sometimes not at all – in the first third of the 20th century, so the list is more of a “Modern Day” rather than an “All Time”.)

When we debate a player’s eligibility for the Hall, I think we should look at both ends of the spectrum: players that have made it in already, and then players that did not make it in, but who might have deserved to. For me, Lou Whitaker and Kenny Lofton both come to mind, particularly because both players were eliminated from the ballot on their first try, despite having WAR scores significantly higher than players who got in fairly quickly. I agree with those who say that WAR isn’t the only (or best) way to judge a player’s entire career, but on the other hand, if a player ends up with 10 WAR higher for their career than another player, there are usually good reasons for it.

vladx-inset-communityIn the cases of Whitaker and Lofton, both players earned their greatness through excellent fielding at important positions, while Whitaker added above average hitting and Lofton added exceptional base running. But neither had the ASG or Awards numbers that Vlad had, or the gaudy power numbers that are the quickest way to identify a good player. To me, Vlad is not far from their level, falling into the Fred McGriff maybe/maybe not column.

In some ways, Vlad’s career was similar to Larry Walker’s, a player who I think should be in the Hall. And Vlad had more Hits, more HR, and more Awards. But Walker had significantly higher WAR scores, a slightly higher wRC+, and – possibly most importantly – positive scores in both fielding and base running, making him a complete player. When I look at Vlad’s career, he looks like a one dimensional player (ok, maybe two, if you count his Arm; but not his overall fielding). He was a crazy good hitter in an era chalk full of crazy good hitters.

I won’t say that Vlad unequivocally shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, but at this point I wouldn’t be able to vote for him. Maybe someone can convince me next year.

2017 Hall Of Fame Ballot: Larry Walker

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PA 8030
HR 383
BA/OBP/SLG .313/.400/.565
wRC+ 140
1 MVP
7 Gold Gloves
5 All-Star Games

e590776752636b56342b2baaf5387a6eFor years, I have written off Larry Walker’s accomplishments. After all, how much credit can you give a guy for hitting .366 with 49 home runs when he played half his games at Coors Field (pre-humidor) at the height of the steroid era? I mean, who gives Harry Heilmann credit for hitting .403 in 1923 (the beginning of the Live Ball Era)? How many people even know his name?

But now that Walker is entering the last part of his eligibility range on the Hall of Fame ballot (this will be his 7th year), I think we should take another look at him. One of the perspectives we can take is the “relative stats”. All this means is the handful of valuable stats that rate a player compared to others in his league, in his era, and accounting for ballparks. Ideally, this approach would cancel out the effects of Coors Field and steroid-fueled home runs. Realistically, it gives us an imperfect yet better idea of his accomplishments. We’ll use wRC+, OPS+ and various versions of WAR.

JAWS is a fairly well-known rating system for prospective Hall of Famers. It uses rWAR, and calculates a combination of a player’s 7-year peak rWAR and career rWAR, which allows us to compare them to actual Hall of Famers who played the same position. With the exclusion of steroid-users, it’s a pretty good indicator. If we look at Walker’s score, we see a couple of things: first, his JAWS score (58.6) is higher than any other Outfielder on the ballot besides Barry Bonds. Second, we see that the average HOF outfielder has a JAWS score of 58.1, meaning that Walker’s score is very much on par for the Hall.

So far, he looks good.

Next, we’ll take a look at fWAR. Walker had 68.7 fWAR for his career. That puts him at #66 all-time (1871-present), #58 since 1900 and #39 since 1947. He’s higher on the list than HOFers Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Gwynn. He is also higher on the list than Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez, two players that I have had on my ballot for several years now.

Again, things are looking good.

560eaac1b770333e253229fb2e91734aWe can also take a look at his performance before he played in Coors Field, and before what is generally considered to be the steroid era. From 1989-1994, he had 2690 plate appearances for the Montreal Expos. He had a slashline of .281/.357/.483, good for a 128 wRC+. Standing out specifically was his 1992 season (a year before league-wide power numbers started to suspiciously rise), in which he slugged .506 and hit for a 142 wRC+. In his final one and a half seasons, he slugged .560 in 178 PA for STL in 2004, and .502 in 367 PA in 2005, again for STL. He was 38 years old that year.

And check this out: his power numbers with the Rockies indicate that, while he unequivocally benefitted from Coors Field,  he wasn’t dependent on that infamous dry air to be an excellent power hitter.

His four best home run years with Colorado:

1995 1997 1999 2001
Home (HR) 24 20 26 20
Away (HR) 12 29 11 18
Home (SLG) 0.730 0.709 0.879 0.687
Away (SLG) 0.484 0.733 0.519 0.625

Those “Away” SLG numbers range from good to excellent to truly great. To be thorough, we need to look at Walker’s career numbers in Coors and in other ballparks.

PA HR BA OBP SLG
Coors Field 1796 154 0.381 0.462 0.710
Everywhere Else 2501 229 0.282 0.357 0.496

So we see that yes, Coors made a big difference. In Coors, Walker was Babe Ruth. Everywhere else, he was an all-star. Yet it still isn’t so simple. In the aggregate, he was just an all-star “everywhere else”. But take a look at how he performed in these other particular ballparks:

PA SLG
Montreal 1369 0.518
STL 558 0.536
SD-Qualcomm 322 0.573
CHC-Wrigley 304 0.551
CIN-Cinergy 250 0.586
Arizona 170 0.550
ATL-Fulton 144 0.545
ATL-Turner 118 0.624

For quick reference, Eddie Mathews’ career SLG was .509, Mike Schmidt’s was .527 and Mickey Mantle’s was .557. So at least in these 3235 non-Coors plate appearances, Walker was a serious HOF-caliber slugger.

But let’s say you aren’t impressed by his .282/.357/.496 slashline in non-Coors games. Does an .853 OPS mean much in the 1990-2005 run scoring environment? Well, of the 318 players who came to the plate at least 3000 times between 1990-2005, Walker’s .853 would have landed him 59th. That’s in the top 20% of hitters, and probably something like a 120-125 wRC+ (based on the wRC+ of players with a similar OPS). Of course, while top 20% is nice, it’s not overly impressive, putting him right next to guys like Trot Nixon and Cliff Floyd (though higher than Kirby Puckett and Derek Jeter within that period). Here is where the other aspects of his game might make his case.

Los Angeles Dodgers vs Colorado Rockies - July 26, 2004Walker was an excellent right fielder. So much so that, from 1990-2005, he was 3rd among all RF (min 4000 innings) in Total Zone Fielding, and won seven Gold Gloves. Unfortunately, we don’t have the improved metrics UZR or DRS for his prime years, but he had extraordinary Arm ratings and positive UZR in his final two seasons with the Rockies (age 35 and 36 years). We can extrapolate from those late-career numbers and high Total Zone rates that he was an exceptional fielder with a truly great arm. Baseball Prospectus supports this argument, giving Walker a positive FRAA score in every season except 1997 and his final two years with St. Louis, ranking him 10th in career FRAA among all RFers since 1950.

He was also an outstanding baserunner. He stole 230 bases in his career at a 75% success rate. At his peak (1993-1999) he ran at an 80% success rate (slightly higher than the speedster Kenny Lofton had during that same stretch). Again, we don’t have the advanced base running data for those prime years, but we know that he ranked 13th in all of baseball in UBR in 2002 (age 36), hinting that he was probably a valuable base runner during his prime (i.e. running 1st to 3rd, 2nd to Home, etc.) Baseball Prospectus ranks him ahead of Tony Gwynn in Base Running Runs, and very close behind Hank Aaron.

walker_450x407Since we don’t have any evidence that Coors Field is beneficial for fielding or base running, we have to give Walker full credit for these accomplishments.

On a lighter note, when we talk about the Hall of Fame, we sometimes shy away from players who racked up stats but didn’t do anything memorable. Well, Walker was not one of those guys. Check out his famous All-Star Game backwards helmet stunt.

I think what we see here is a player who, no matter where he played, would probably have been a career .500 slugger with all-star level fielding, an outstanding throwing arm, and above average base running. Stats that adjust for ballpark and scoring environment indicate that he was one of the top Right Fielders of the last 50 years. He impressed contemporaries enough to win seven Gold Gloves and an MVP award. I believe he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Focus On: Ty Cobb, pt. 3

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859fd906a9690a86944e804ef170190dI mentioned in part two of this series that Cobb wasn’t only a talented ballplayer; he was also a dedicated student of the game. While his enthusiasm and daring often gave him an edge in the lower professional leagues, it wasn’t until he learned how to thoughtfully train himself to be a better player that he showed signs of his future greatness.

In Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, author Charles Leerhsen describes Cobb’s experience with George Leidy, a man who has no other claim to baseball success, but who was instrumental in creating one of the great hitters in the game. Leidy took over as manager of Cobb’s low-pro Augusta Tourists in 1905. (They didn’t have real farm systems or the “A” ratings we have now.) He was known as a disciplinarian, and because of the terribly rowdy bunch on the Tourists, he didn’t have much success… except with Cobb.

As Leerhsen describes it, Cobb had hit a low point in his young professional career. He was hitting somewhere in the .230 range, and had picked up careless habits from his lackluster teammates, like snacking while in the outfield (!) The night after Cobb missed an easy fly ball because he was busy eating, Leidy took Cobb on a long walk, talked some sense into him, and convinced him to meet him first thing in the morning at the ballpark.

What happened the next morning (and many mornings afterward) wasn’t anything that seems remarkable to us today, but was hardly the norm at the time. Leidy had Cobb practice bunting into a sweater, which Leidy placed at various points on the infield. Over and over and over. He made him practice pulling the ball, hitting the opposite way… in other words, he took long, repetitive batting practice. This was something Cobb’s teammates almost never did, at least on this scale. What Cobb learned wasn’t only discipline, but also that a player could really change what was wrong on the field, if he wanted to take the time. By June, he was hitting over .300.

c1a7c5d630a9ff0aca2d187002dde238Cobb was eventually spotted and signed that year by the Detroit Tigers, who were looking for any help they could get. Cobb hit .438 over the four game series witnessed by the Tigers’ scout. Cobb ended up playing in 41 games for an average Tigers team that ended 15 games out but with a winning record. He hit only .240, but was exciting enough on the base paths to gain some recognition among fans.

But it was around this same time that an infamous tragedy occurred. Cobb’s father W.H. Cobb was shot and killed by his wife – Ty’s mother – Amanda. W.H. had come home a day or two early from a conference, and it was past 11 p.m. when he arrived.

Leerhsen clarifies several myths about this terrible night. There is little to no proof that Amanda had been cheating on Ty’s father; Amanda almost surely did not know that it was W.H. trying to enter the house; she used a pistol, not a shotgun; and Cobb was far away in another town when it happened: he did not witness any of it.

wh-cobb

W.H. Cobb

It seems more likely that W.H. had been doing some amateur detective work for a local judge. The two men had decided to try and gather hard evidence against a couple of supposed prostitutes who were a “blemish” on the small town of Royston. W.H. may have been attempting to peer into the windows of the nearby house where the women lived. Coming home, he would have been coming in from the side yard, rather than the front, which is why Amanda would not have assumed it was him. Without going into all of the sordid details, Amanda was eventually acquitted, and no mysterious lover ever surfaced.

The psychological effect on Ty is hard to measure. Surely it caused him great heartache, and he did return home for the funeral and the court proceedings. But there isn’t any direct correlation between the shooting and Cobb’s play or his temperament. It’s certainly possible that those feelings lay dormant until later years, when his anger was more pronounced, but that it more of a guess than anything based on evidence.

Part 1

Part 2

… continued in Part 4

Focus On: Ty Cobb, pt. 2

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60fc688acfd251c7b9b5e1923fd3c16bIn the first part of this short series on Detroit Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb, I talked a little bit about his statistical accomplishments. This time, I’d like to do a brief overview of some of my favorite parts of the early chapters in the recent biography on Cobb titled Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.

The Georgia Peach, an intellectual? Well, maybe not in so far as college degrees and general lifestyle go. Yet Cobb was not a dumb hick raised by ignorant farmers, running around beating up black folks. That’s a myth perpetuated by such fictional (and damaging) productions as Al Stump’s 1962 biography and the lame 1994 film starring Tommy Lee Jones.

Instead, Cobb’s father, W.H. Cobb, was a college graduate and a respected teacher. A former student once said of him, “He had a very cosmopolitan mind”. He was known for confronting locals who spoke in favor of “Jim Crow brutality”. Serving in the Georgia state Senate for two years, a W.H. speech saved funding for negro schools in the state. He probably got many of his ideas from his own father (Ty’s grandfather), who was an abolitionist before the Civil War.

Cobb Ty 132.46aa PDTy’s mother was known as the disciplinarian of the family. Uneducated but savvy, she was known as a very attractive woman. She kept a tight household that included Ty’s brother and sister. It was a relatively middle class home in an unremarkable small town in Georgia, the kind of old southern town where cursing in public wasn’t the norm. Cobb often took offense when, after going north to join the Tigers, he found that the supposed “mature men” of the major leagues cursed at will.

Early in life, Ty Cobb used a thoughtful approach to baseball. He saved every penny – working extra jobs to come up with extra cash – to always keep himself stocked with a ball, glove and bat. He spent hours practicing and many hours reading pamphlets and articles like “How to Sprint” from the back of The Police Gazette. He hated being called a “natural hitter”, because he spent so many hours over the course of his career studying and working on being a better hitter. He once said, “I had the gift of being able to appraise myself, even at that age [twelve]. It has been the greatest asset of my life.”

He was also a reader of other things besides baseball. His favorite book was Les Miserables, and he carried (and reread) it several times in his first years with the Tigers. He loved biographies, favoring books on Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson. Like Cobb, neither of those men were famous for simple brute strength or thoughtless natural talents. Perhaps Cobb used some of what he learned from those two savvy men when, upon entering the big leagues, he used a deliberately psychological approach to defeating physically superior opponents.

… continued in Part III

Focus On: Ty Cobb, pt. 1

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220px-ty_cobb_1916-restoreTy Cobb doesn’t need much of an introduction, at least in terms of his legend. Sure, most baseball fans know that he was the all-time Hits leader for most of the 20th century, and most have heard the stories (real and mythic) about his temper. Yet it might help refresh interest in Cobb to look at him from the point of view of some of the newer, advanced statistics. Was he really that good? The answer to that is yes, most especially when viewed in relation to his era (which is really the only way we can fairly judge). Check this out:

  • Ranks #4 all-time in both fWAR and rWAR
  • Ranks #8 all-time in career wRC+
  • Had a season wRC+ of over 160 in 16 different seasons, covering an 18 year range (he hit 161 in 1907 and 166 in 1925)
  • He lead all of MLB in OPS+ nine times, and lead the AL three other times

Comparing Cobb to later great players is difficult. First, many of the rules have changed, the quality of training has improved in every decade, and the league has progressively grown in size and become more integrated, changing the dynamics of greatness. Second, and perhaps in some ways just as challenging, is that we don’t know almost any details about his base running and fielding. For the bulk of Cobb’s career, we have literally no 635695383870925505-cobb-01records of how many times he was caught stealing, let alone how good he was at going from 1st to 3rd or 2nd to Home, etc. Fielding has a similar veil: all we have are Assists, Putouts and Errors. Did he have good Range? Did runners try to advance on his arm more or less often than other centerfielders? We have no idea. Still, there can be no doubt that he was, relative to his own era, one of the greatest hitters ever to play the game.

Cobb’s popularity at the time isn’t as apparent as it would be for players in later generations, either. There were no All-Star Games, Gold Gloves or Rookie of the Year Awards to win. He did win the MVP Award in 1911, but there was an odd rule that disqualified previous winners from winning again. What we do know is that, when the Hall of Fame had its first induction in 1936, Cobb lead all vote getters, beating out Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson. People knew he was great.

In Part II, I will begin to highlight the most interesting parts of the recent biography on Cobb titled Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. In the early chapters of this book, author Charles Leerhsen sheds light on some truly fascinating and surprising facts about Cobb’s youth, intellectual life and progression as a ballplayer.

 

Three Finger Brown Award 2016

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635795791486046765-usp-mlb-san-diego-padres-at-los-angeles-dodgers-76483644

Is it this guy again?!?

Was this year’s pool of top pitchers much deeper than usual, or did we instead witness a sub-par season with a dearth of stand-out pitching? As a whole, league ERA was the highest in seven years, and considerably higher (4.19) than two seasons ago (3.74). It’s the first time in four seasons that nobody had a season ERA under 2.00; Kyle Hendricks’ league-leading 2.14 would have put him at #4 last year.

On the other hand, Hendricks’ 2.14 was lower than any pitcher’s ERA from 2006-2012. And of the 614 individual pitching seasons of 120+ IP since 2012, Noah Syndergaard’s 6.5 fWAR ranks 8th. Jose Fernandez’s 6.2 ranks 13th. Over the last 10 years, only Clayton Kershaw in 2015 struck out more batters in a single seasons than Max Scherzer did this year. In other words, there weren’t any all-time great performances, but there were plenty of excellent ones.

Let’s take a look at the top contenders and their numbers in some of the most important stats. First, a few more traditional statistics:

IP SO ERA
Bumgarner 226.2 251 2.74
Cueto 219.2 198 2.79
Fernandez, J. 182.1 253 2.86
Hendricks 190 170 2.13
Kershaw 149 172 1.69
Kluber 215 227 3.14
Lester 202.2 197 2.44
Porcello 223 189 3.15
Quintana 208 181 3.20
Sale 226.2 233 3.34
Scherzer 228.1 284 2.96
Syndergaard 183.2 218 2.60
Verlander 227.2 254 3.04

And then some more modern, advanced stats:

K% BB% ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Bumgarner 27.5 5.9 69 83 86
Cueto 22.5 5.1 71 76 83
Fernandez,J. 34.3 7.5 70 58 62
Hendricks 22.8 5.9 51 78 87
Kershaw 31.6  2.0  43 45 56
Kluber 26.4 6.6 73 76 82
Lester 24.8 6.5 59 82 84
Porcello 21.2 3.6 71 81 92
Quintana 21.6 6.0 75 81 95
Sale 25.7 5.0 78 79 84
Scherzer 31.5 6.2 71 79 82
Syndergaard 29.3 5.8 65 56 65
Verlander 28.1 6.3 72 81 89

Next, a version of “Total Wins Above Replacement” that combines fWAR, rWAR, RA9-WAR and pWARP (which covers every major approach to WAR):

Verlander 25.21
Scherzer 24.86
Kershaw 24.58
Kluber 23.1
Sale 22.85
Syndergaard 22.57
Lester 22.26
Cueto 22.19
J. Fernandez 22.03
Porcello 21.29
Bumgarner 21.28
Hendricks 20.88
Quintana 20.29

I think what we see right away is that Clayton Kershaw was obviously the best pitcher in baseball this year, with the lack of innings being his only (though not insignificant) drawback. Kershaw had the best ERA, lowest BB%, second best K% and the best ERA-, FIP- and xFIP-. He finished 3rd in totWAR, despite pitching about 60-70 fewer innings than the other top contenders.

justin20verlander20151111_0

Verlander, best in the AL this year

This is not analysis of the BBWAA Cy Young Award, and of course I can create my own guidelines for my own awards. However, I think it is relevant that it is pretty rare for a Starting Pitcher with fewer than 200 IP to win the Cy Young. Quantity is a legitimate measure of value in a SP. Pitchers who don’t miss starts and who pitch late into games take wear and tear off the rest of the pitching staff, and bring a continuity to the rotation. Also, if you miss 10 or more starts, it reduces your chances of having  a bad outing that can ruin a great ERA. Therefore, I will have to count the lack of IP as a negative against Kershaw.

The challenge is that, once you take Kershaw down a peg, the field gets crowded. Kyle Hendricks had an incredible year with a very low ERA, but he ranks low on the strikeout rates and pitched 30 innings less than guys like Verlander and Scherzer. Of Hendricks’ 30 starts, he pitched fewer than 6 innings in 10 of them. Contrast that with someone like Scherzer, who pitched fewer than 6 innings just four times in his 34 starts, and Verlander, who had just five such games in 34 starts.

Nonetheless, even when he adjust for league and ballpark, Hendricks’ ERA was much, much lower than Scherzer’s and Verlander’s. It should also be pointed out that Hendricks did have a significant advantage over those two pitchers in some of the so-called “luck” measurements. On the flip side, he also had a much lower FB% and a much higher GB%.

Here we see that teammates Lester and Hendricks benefitted the most (of the 13 finalists) in “Fielding Dependent Pitching Wins”. This means that BABIP and LOB% worked to their advantage. This does not automatically discredit their accomplishments: a pitcher who routinely induces groundballs throughout a career is obviously doing something right, and it can’t be discounted. However, it is difficult to tell how much of Lester and Hendricks’ success was due to the Cubs #1 Defense. In fact, the entire Cubs pitching staff had twice as many Fielding Dependent Pitching Wins as any other team, so it seems likely that it was a factor.

Name FDP-Wins BABIP LOB%
Jon Lester 3.1 0.256 84.9 %
Kyle Hendricks 2.5 0.250 81.5 %
Justin Verlander 1.4 0.255 79.9 %
Max Scherzer 1.3 0.255 81.7 %
Jose Quintana 1 0.293 79.0 %
Madison Bumgarner 1 0.265 79.1 %
Rick Porcello 1 0.269 74.3 %
Johnny Cueto 1 0.293 78.0 %
Corey Kluber 0.6 0.271 74.8 %
Chris Sale 0.6 0.279 76.6 %
Clayton Kershaw 0.3 0.254 80.0 %
Jose Fernandez -1 0.332 76.6 %
Noah Syndergaard -1.2 0.334 76.9 %

Finally, we can take a look at Win Probability:

Name Team WPA RE24 WPA/LI
Jon Lester Cubs 4.56 36.56 3.01
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 4.19 35.03 4.34
Kyle Hendricks Cubs 3.91 38.77 4.06
Johnny Cueto Giants 3.76 23.74 2.58
Max Scherzer Nationals 3.6 30.79 3.54
Justin Verlander Tigers 3.45 32.58 2.07
Jose Fernandez Marlins 3.18 22.86 2.63
Jose Quintana White Sox 2.36 24.87 2.24
Chris Sale White Sox 2.29 24.19 2.76
Noah Syndergaard Mets 2.1 21.14 1.89
Madison Bumgarner Giants 1.93 17.19 1.88
Rick Porcello Red Sox 1.79 23.84 2.92
Corey Kluber Indians 1.65 21.32 2.84

The Cubs as a team are head and shoulders above the others in pitching WPA, RE24 and WPA/LI. They were also 4th in team pitching fWAR. In fact, the top WPA teams were awfully similar to the top fWAR teams. So there might be a pretty strong connection between the two, meaning that great defense isn’t the only thing giving pitchers a good WPA.

j4_2yvzi

Scherzer, a close runner-up

One thing we do see though is that Lester drops from first on this list in WPA to 4th in WPA/LI, which might be attributed to the fact that the Cubs were the type of team that rarely fell far behind but also didn’t blow out the other team very often. So Lester had a lot of chances for WPA points. And, while he converted a high total volume, he may not have been quite as effective per situation as Kershaw, Hendricks or Scherzer.

If you take their rank in each of the three columns and average it out, Kershaw and Hendricks tie for best in this category.

It seems to come down to this: Clayton Kershaw was by far and away the best starting pitcher in baseball this year, in almost every way. If you discount him because he only pitched 149 innings, then the question is murkier, and guys like Scherzer and Verlander start to rise to the top.

But 149 innings at a rate that is substantially better everyone else in the league is still of huge value. When it comes down to it, I have to say that, yet again, Kershaw is the Three Finger Brown Award winner.

 

 

Ty Cobb Award 2016

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Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Me again!

It’s easy to get tired of the same player or team winning so often. But there is just no reasonable way to assign the label “Best Offensive Player” in 2016 to anybody but Mike Trout. As we will see, David Ortiz made an excellent case for the award in his final season, but Trout just flat out beats him.

When we look at the straight-up hitting stats (top 5 in wRC+), Trout leads easily in both wRC+ and OPS+. Some of the components of the more traditional slash line are split between other players. Trout again leads in OBP, while Daniel Murphy is second in the league in BA and Ortiz is first in SLG.

Name PA AVG OBP SLG OPS+ wRC+
Mike Trout 681 0.315 0.441 0.550 174 171
David Ortiz 626 0.315 0.401 0.620 162 163
Joey Votto 677 0.326 0.434 0.550 160 158
Daniel Murphy 582 0.347 0.390 0.595 157 156
Josh Donaldson 700 0.284 0.404 0.549 152 155

One of the biggest arguments for David Ortiz’s greatness is his “clutch” play. There’s no doubt that he has excellent post-season numbers, and his Win Probability numbers are also generally far above average. Let’s take a look at some “clutch” stats from 2016.

WPA RE24 WPA/LI
Mike Trout 6.96 Mike Trout 76.42 Mike Trout 7.32
Josh Donaldson 4.66 David Ortiz 61.15 Freddie Freeman 5.56
David Ortiz 4.65 Freddie Freeman 50.81 Miguel Cabrera 5.41
Paul Goldschmidt 4.52 Josh Donaldson 50.47 Josh Donaldson 5.24
Joey Votto 4.39 Joey Votto 49.59 Nelson Cruz 5.21
Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox, Game 3

Great. But not the best.

Again, we see that players like David Ortiz and Josh Donaldson had great years, but that Trout is clearly the leader.

For those of you who might be looking for a more traditional “clutch” stat, Mike Trout batted .328 with runners in scoring position this year, while David Ortiz hit .348. Ortiz also had a higher SLG and lower K% in those situations. However, Trout’s wOBA and wRC+ was slightly higher than Ortiz’s. Interestingly, Trout had a slightly higher RBI-per-plate- appearance rate with RISP than Ortiz.

Finally – and this would be the back breaker even if Trout hadn’t already been ahead in so many categories: base running.

Of the 27 players who had a wRC+ of 130 or higher this year, Mike Trout’s (+3.2) was the 3rd best Ultimate Base Running (UBR) score. He was 14th in all of baseball. (UBR is essentially a measure of how well a player moves from 1st to 3rd or second to home on a base hit, and scoring from third on a sac fly.) Daniel Murphy had a (+1.6), Josh Donaldson had a (+0.1), Joey Votto had a (-3.2), and David Ortiz had a (-7.5), second worst in all of baseball. In other words, while Trout was one of the best running the bases, Murphy was very good, Donaldson was about average, Votto was bad and Ortiz was terrible.

la_miketrout_15

When we look at Weighted Stolen Bases (wSB), Trout is 7th in all of baseball, and 3rd among players with a 130 wRC+ or higher. His (+2.6) is more than three times as much as any other player in the top 5 wRC+ listed above.

Here’s a way to visualize it (listed by top wRC+ in MLB this year):

Name wRC+ UBR wGDP wSB BsR
Mike Trout 171 3.2 3.5 2.6 9.3
David Ortiz 163 -7.5 -2.5 0.1 -9.9
Joey Votto 158 -3.2 -0.2 0.7 -2.7
Daniel Murphy 156 1.6 2.3 -0.5 3.4
Josh Donaldson 155 0.1 -0.4 0.5 0.2
Miguel Cabrera 152 -6.6 -3 -0.4 -10
Freddie Freeman 152 -1.3 2 0.4 1.1
Jose Altuve 150 -1.1 -0.2 1.5 0.2
Kris Bryant 149 3.2 5 -0.9 7.3
Nelson Cruz 147 -3.2 -0.1 0 -3.3

Only Kris Bryant comes anywhere close to Trout in base running, and his wRC+ is 22 points lower.

In summary, Mike Trout is the best pure hitter, performed the best in “the clutch”, and is one of the best baserunners in the game, possibly the best base runner among top hitters.

300 K Seasons

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California Angles

Ryan, bringing the heat

A clear sign of a stand-out season for a pitcher is 300+ strikeouts. Since 1900, no pitcher has ever finished with more than 300 strikeouts and an ERA above 3.36. In fact, 27 of the 34 times a pitcher has achieved 300k, the pitcher’s ERA has been below 3.00. The lowest fWAR for a 300k pitcher is 5.3. Even at its worst, a 300k season is a good season.

But what are the very best 300k seasons? The ones that rank among the all-time great years?

When baseball fans talk strikeouts, the inevitable name to pop up is Nolan Ryan. Ryan was a great pitcher. He is the all-time leader in career strikeouts, single-season strikeouts and no-hitters. His fWAR is over 100. But he also walked a lot of batters. And by a lot, I mean the most ever. He walked 2795 hitters in his career; Steve Carlton is second on that list with 1833. That’s a 34% gap between first and second place on the all-time walks list. That’s not good. And he lead the league in walks 8 times, so it wasn’t just his longevity that added up to bite him.  He owns six of the 34 single-seasons with 300+k, but he is also the only 300k pitchers with an ERA- of 100, and he never won a Cy Young Award in 27 seasons, largely because of those walks. In his six seasons of 300k, he walked fewer than 157 batters just once.

K BB ERA- fWAR
1973 383 162 79 8.7
1974 372 202 85 6.3
1977 341 204 71 6.6
1972 329 157 79 5.4
1976 327 183 100 5.3
1989 301 98 81 7.0

Some of those ERA- and fWAR scores are excellent, and we don’t want to detract from what Ryan did. But none of his seasons were, individually, the best in this category.

Arizona Diamondbacks' starting pitcher Randy Johns

The terrifying Randy Johnson.

Who is next on the list? Randy Johnson seems fitting. He was the lefty version of Nolan Ryan for the first part of his career, averaging 128 walks pers season over his first four full years. But then he mastered control of his fastball and turned into one of the all-time greats.

Like Ryan, Johnson can claim six spots on the 300k list. Unlike Ryan, several of Johnson’s seasons were all-around brilliant, and he might contend for one of the top spots.

K BB ERA- fWAR
2001 372 71 55 10.4
1999 364 70 53 9.5
2000 347 76 56 9.6
2002 334 71 54 8.1
1998 329 86 72 7.6
1993 308 99 74 7.0
sandy-koufax-joins-dodgers

Koufax

Johnson’s ERA- from 1999-2002 never broke 56, a dazzling stat. Ryan only dropped below 70 once, and that was in a shortened 1981 season.

Johnson’s 2001 season is probably his best, but all four highlighted seasons above belong in the discussion of “best”.

The next pitcher with multiple 300k seasons is Sandy Koufax. He did it three times, including 382 in 1965, which was the record at the time. At a glance, it appears that one or two of his seasons will match up well with Johnson’s best.

K BB ERA- fWAR
1965 382 71 63 10.0
1966 317 77 53 9.1
1963 306 58 62 9.2

Curt Schilling also had 300k three times, though he doesn’t quite match up to Koufax. While walks limited Ryan, Schilling actually had very low walk rates. What appears to have hurt Schilling’s numbers were the hard hits and home runs allowed. He has a couple of the highest HR/9 on the 300k list. Still, when you rarely walk anybody and strike out more than 300 batters, there’s only so much damage those hits can do.

K BB ERA- fWAR
1997 319 58 69 8.2
2002 316 33 75 9.3
1998 300 61 76 8.3
pedro

Pedro

At this point, we’ve covered four players who make up more than half of the list. But have we seen the very best seasons yet?

Pedro Martinez. While his thin frame somewhat limited his IP, at least compared to some of the burly workhorses above, he still managed to top 300k twice. His 1999 season in particular is worth noting, as it may just be the greatest single season by a pitcher, 300k or not. Let’s take a look.

K BB ERA- fWAR
1999 313 37 42 11.6
1997 305 67 45 8.5

Pedro has the two lowest ERA-, the highest fWAR and second best K/BB on the list. Playing devil’s advocate, the 313k only ranks 18th on the list, and is 70 short of Ryan’s record. It’s an argument of quality vs. quantity.

Who owns the other 14 spots on the list?

K
BB
ERA-
fWAR
R. Waddell
1904
349
91
61
9.2
1903
302
85
80
8.0
B. Feller
1946
348
153
65
10.0
S. McDowell
1965
325
132
63
8.7
1970
304
135
75
7.6
W. Johnson
1910
313
76
56
9.6
 
1912
303
76
42
9.3
J.R. Richard
1979
313
98
78
8.9
1978
303
141
94
6.4
S.Carlton
1972
310
87
56
11.1
M. Lolich
1971
308
92
83
8.3
M. Scott
1986
306
72
63
8.6
V. Blue
1971
301
88
56
5.6
C. Kershaw
2015
301
42
57
8.6

There are quite a few 300k seasons with astounding ERA- and fWAR scores. Since swing-and-misses are the best thing a pitcher can achieve, this shouldn’t be surprising.

Still, there are a couple of instances when a slightly higher ERA- or lower fWAR might be pushed to the side in favor of historical importance, such as Rube Waddell’s 349k season and Koufax’s 382k season. Both were records at the time. Nolan Ryan’s 383k was obscured by the enormous number of walks, as we discussed above. The list below is an approximate ranking of the absolute best 300k seasons. There is a general trend toward higher fWAR near the top, though you can see that fWAR was not the deciding factor throughout the list.

 Top 10 K ERA- fWAR
P. Martinez 1999 313 42 11.6
S.Carlton 1972 310 56 11.1
R. Johnson 2001 372 55 10.4
S. Koufax 1965 382 63 10
R. Johnson 1999 364 53 9.5
W. Johnson 1912 303 42 9.3
P. Martinez 1997 305 45 8.5
R. Waddell 1904 349 61 9.2
R. Johnson 2000 347 56 9.6
W. Johnson 1910 313 56 9.6