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Bryce Harper, 2015 Ty Cobb Award winner

Bryce Harper, 2015 Ty Cobb Award winner

The regular season has ended, meaning that I will start up my winter writing again. My two favorite teams (Pirates and Yankees) are both in their respective league Wild Card games, so the next couple of days will be pretty darn interesting for me. I’m hoping at least one will continue into the Division Series, though I’ll be watching 90% of the games either way. A Yankees-Pirates rematch of 1960 would, of course, be ideal. Barring that, Clayton Kershaw vs. the vaunted Blue Jays offense could be pretty intense.

On to the award. This year there’s not much argument regarding the Best Offensive Player. Bryce Harper was historically great at the plate, and while he’s no Billy Hamilton on the bases, he was excellent nonetheless. Someone who is more traditionally oriented might suggest Josh Donaldson, who lead the AL in both RBI and Runs.

Donaldson is not a bad suggestion (though not because of the RBI and Runs). He was 7th in wRC+ and 6th in OPS, indicating that he had an outstanding year at the plate. He was also 5th in RE24, 4th in WPA and 3rd in WPA/LI, demonstrating his key role in the Blue Jays’ success this year. And while Donaldson is no base stealer, he ranked 3rd among third basemen in Base Running, showing he was no liability (think Mike Moustakas) on the bases. Regarding the RBI and Runs, one has to consider that the Blue Jays as a team lead all of baseball in scoring, and the two players hitting immediately after Donaldson in the Jays’ lineup hit 40 and 39 homers, respectively. Donaldson had protection and two sluggers knocking him in.

BryceHarper2015SD001

Harper running the bases.

Perennial contender Mike Trout might have won the award yet again if it hadn’t been for Harper’s explosion. His 172 wRC+ was tied with Joey Votto for 2nd place in the majors, and his superior Base Running would have given him the edge on Votto. Trout also lead MLB in OPS with runners in scoring position. As for Votto, his .459 OBP was massively impressive, and virtually tied Harper for the year.

Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt put up a brilliant season, ranking 5th in wRC+ and racking up the highest Base Running score among the top 20 wRC+ hitters in the league. He is one of those players who is consistently great, and will likely get his recognition one of these seasons when he peaks.

But again, the winner has to be Bryce Harper. Over the last 50 seasons, only five players have had seasons with a higher wRC+ than Harper’s 198 this season, and nobody has scored this high since Barry Bonds in 2004.

Mike Trout, 2nd place (he's either 1st or 2nd every year now)

Mike Trout, 2nd place (he’s either 1st or 2nd every year now!)

While wRC+ is a relative score, meaning that, in an age of great pitching, someone can have a high wRC+ but not have the same OBP or SLG as someone with a lower wRC+ in an era of great hitting, Harper still ranks well in OPS (an “absolute” score, regardless of league averages). Between 1965-1992, only George Brett had a higher OPS than Harper’s 2015. And since 2004, only Albert Pujols beats him out. Quite conspicuously, I have left out 1993-2004 in this equation. That era is often called the “Steroid Era”, in which offense exploded at historic rates. And yet, even when you include the Steroid years, Harper’s OPS score ranks 25th since 1965.

To sweeten the pot, Harper’s UBR (Ultimate Base Running) score was 16th in all of baseball this year. UBR doesn’t include stolen bases, but rates a players ability to go from 1st-to-3rd, 2nd-to-home, or to take an extra base on a hit or sac fly, etc. Of the 19 players who hit 30 or more HR this year, only Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes were better on the bases.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, they have Harper #1 in TAv and VORP, their two main offensive statistics. As one might expect, Votto and Trout are #2-3 in TAv and #4 and #2 in VORP, respectively.

Finally, while I don’t love RBI and Runs scored for telling me about a player’s abilities, I do tend to look toward WPA, WPA/LI and RE24 for “tie-breakers” when comparing players, or to see if a player was central in key situations for his team. The Nationals’ offense was pretty average this year, but Harper lead all of baseball (by a strong margin) in both WPA/LI and RE24. He finished 3rd in WPA.

What is very exciting to many baseball fans is that the “dream duo” of Harper and Trout is finally blossoming. This is this generation’s Mays v. Mantle, Cobb v. Wagner. This year, Harper and Trout finished 1st and 2nd (respectively) in both wRC+ and fWAR, indicating that, at least right now, they are the two best players in baseball. The fact that neither of them has yet turned 25 means that we might be witnessing the beginning of an incredible duel run to the Hall of Fame.

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