11 December 2003

Fool's Gold

Andy Pettitte is on the brink of changing the course of history, and he doesn’t even know it.

Rumors out of Houston yesterday, and subsequently all over the country this morning, indicated that the erstwhile Yankees left-hander was on the cusp of signing a contract with the Houston Astros. These rumors are not new, only recently solidified, and unless King George pulls another multi-year, multi-million dollar trick out of his hat (as he did when it appeared that Bernie Williams would soon become – horror of horrors – the Boston Red Sox centerfielder) Pettitte has thrown his last pitch as a Yankee.

This is where history comes in. You see, Pettitte’s not really that good. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of other teams would love to have a pitcher who’s “not that good” like Pettitte, but the fact of the matter is that the guy is a little overrated because

A. He’s left-handed, and

2. He’s a Yankee.

Or at least he was. Yankee Stadium is not as biased to left-handed pitchers as it used-to-was, back when the left-centerfield fence was 461 feet from home plate and Joe D. or The Mick got to everything hit in their general direction, but it’s still comparatively kind to lefty pitchers, not to mention pitchers in general. As Pettitte is not predominantly a fly-ball pitcher, he may not benefit from this advantage as much as someone like Roger Clemens or David Wells would, but it still helps.

The other, and in my mind, more significant factor, is that the Yankees have been all but spectacular during Pettitte’s tenure in Pinstripes. Since 1995, when Pettitte began pitching essentially full-time for the Yankees, they’ve won 79, 92, 96, 114, 98, 87, 95, 103 and 101 games in his seasons. Pettitte’s own 149-78 record gives him a stellar .656 winning percentage (21st all-time), which is even better than the Yankees’ .602 winning percentage in that time. There is not a long list of teams that could reasonably be expected to win 60% of their games over the next decade (only Atlanta and the Yankees have done so over the last one), and Houston certainly isn’t on it. This fact brings Pettitte’s legacy into jeopardy.

Now as I mentioned, Pettitte is quite good, with a very high career winning percentage, owed largely to the fact that the team he’s played for has scored runs for him pretty consistently throughout his career, and won a lot of games in its own right. But his career park-adjusted ERA is only 17% better than average, right between the likes of Al Leiter/Chuck Finley (15%) and Jose Rijo/David Cone (20%).

None of these names are particularly high on the list of expected Cooperstown enshrine-ees, and Pettitte probably wouldn’t be either, if ERA were the only number anybody in the BBWAA examined while they’re pondering their Hall of fame ballots. But the baseball writers like wins. They always have, and they’re probably not going to just abandon that tendency within the next decade and a half. Which means that by the time Pettitte comes up for consideration, the best thing he could have going for him is his wins and his winning percentage. Say what you want about the irrelevance of such statistics in measuring the true worth of a pitcher, and I’ll probably agree with most of it, but in the end, you and I don’t get to decide who is Hall-worthy, the baseball writers do. And they like their wins. Three hundred of them is a sure ticket to Cooperstown, and Pettitte’s chance at such an accomplishment essentially dies with the demise of his career as a Yankee.

Lee Sinins pointed out in his Around The Majors report this morning that Pettitte has the fifth highest difference between his expected (.573) and actual winning percentages, behind Vic Raschi, Johnny Allen, Allie Reynolds and Jack Coombs. You might notice something about those names: three of them spent significant portions of their careers as Yankees too, and won a lot more often in Pinstripes than out. The fourth, Jack Coombs, spent a lot of his career pitching for the very good Philadelphia Athletics and Brooklyn Dodgers of the early part of the last century. Winning teams breed winning pitchers, and ain’t nobody wins like the Yankees wins.

Making a lot of BIG assumptions, finishing his career in Pinstripes might have afforded Andy another 130 to 150 wins, if he remains healthy and reasonably talented for the next ten to twelve years (a big if for anyone). He could average something like 16-11 with a 4.30 ERA for nine or ten years and end up with almost 300 wins at the age of 40. That gives him a good shot at serious consideration for the Hall, though he may need to wait quite a few years to get enough of the vote. The BBWAA is sometimes dense, but not blind to the fact that those win totals have a lot to do with the players around him.

In Houston (no laughingstock of a baseball organization, but one that can hardly hope to be as consistently competitive in today's economic climate as the Yanks will) those numbers might be something more like 13-12 or even 12-15 on average per year, which makes a difference of about 40 wins over the course of his career. Perhaps his career won't be as long either, if he's not winning as much, further reducing the possible win totals at the end of it. There aren't many pitchers with career numbers like 240-200 in the Hall, especially if they don't have some other spectacular numbers, lemme tellya.

Just wait, it gets worse: Houston's ballpark (whatever they're calling it this week) is not kind to pitchers in general, as Baseball Prospectus' 2003 edition labels it a "Severe Hitters' Park", increasing offense by over 5%. That number may drop a little, as 2003 marked the second year in a row that the JuiceBowl did not significantly increase offense for Houston's opponents, but it's still generally regarded as a bad place to be on the mound. So now maybe Pettitte's typical ~4.00 ERA becomes 4.30 or 4.50, and maybe over 5.00 in a bad year. Take those higher ERAs, toss in a few losing seasons (for the team and for Pettitte), a healthy dose of late-inning pinch hitters to lower his innings totals, and a dollop of missing the playoffs (in which Andy's career record is 13-8, and where a good record could have been the tie-breaker for Pettitte's Cooperstown candidacy), and you've got yourself a formula that will appease any critics of Pettitte's Cooperstown credentials: He hasn't any. And Andy's OK with that.

Or at least he won't now. The official word came this morning that Pettitte's definitely signed. Three years, $31 mil, about $8 mil less than the Yankees offered him, but we all knew that Andy never cared much about the money. A reasonable man realizes that there's not a whole lot of difference in the lifestyle you can lead making $13 million a year compared to $10 mil, and that if your relationship with Jesus is priority #1, you can have that anywhere. If your family is priority #1a, then they're limited by existing in our current time-space continuum, and can therefore only be in one place at a time. If that place happens to be close to a different employer who's willing to pay you (slightly fewer) gobs of money to do what you love, then you'd be a fool not to take them up on that offer.

If Pettitte knows God like he says he does, then he realizes that it's about God's glory, not his own, and that a piece of bronze with his mashed-down likeness in a small town in upstate New York is not going to last as long or reward him as much as his family, and his Lord, will. He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. In the end, all George Steinbrenner had to bait him with was fool's gold. And Andy wasn't biting.



Good for you, Andy. We'll miss you. God Bless.


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10 December 2003

Braves New World

Has there ever been an off-season with more big question marks in it?????

Probably. It seems to me that the 1994-95 off-season was pretty up-in-the-air, if for no other reason than the fact that no one was quite sure when/if there would be an on-season.

But given that we all kind of expect most of the more-or-less usual suspects to actually be playing professional baseball at the major league level next year, it seems to me that there is a surprisingly high number of players, especially high-profile players, for or against whom we have no idea where to go to actually root in 2004. Not only are we talking about some of the big-name free agents (Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmiero, Javy Lopez, Vladimir Guererro, Miguel Tejada, Ivan Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, etc.) but some players who are already signed to pretty significant deals (Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, Reigning AL MVP Alex Rodriguez) may not be with their current teams next year either.

And it seems to me that the Atlanta Braves may be the most severely affected by this phenomenon. Rob Neyer rightly points out that they’ve lost two of the five best players in the NL to free agency, and you just can’t make up for that. Not without a whole lotta luck.

Maddux has spent the last eleven seasons with the Atlanta Braves, and they have not failed to make the playoffs in any of those seasons. Maddux pitched at least 200 innings in all but one of them, won at least 15 games in each of them (194 total), won three Cy Young Awards, and more than solidified his stature as a Hall-of-Fame pitcher. But these Braves are not in the habit of overpaying for anything, certainly not a once-great pitcher in the twilight of a HoF career (cf. Glavine, Tom), and so he’s out.

In his stead, the Braves signed journeyman John Thompson, a 30-year old pitcher who’s never had a winning record and whose career ERA approaches 5.00. Heck, last year’s ERA approached 5.00 (4.85). He had had the misfortune of spending only a handful of his career games pitching for a team that plays in a pitchers’ park (nine games in 2002 with the Mets), the bulk of it having been spent in Texas (yuk) and Colorado (yukker). The Braves aren’t paying him much ($7 mil total) or for very long (two years, plus an option), and Leo Mazzone has a knack for taking pitchers who have struggled/underachieved and making them worth their pay (Paul Byrd, Mike Hampton, Mike Remlinger, etc.), so it’s a somewhat fair guess that Thompson could take a step forward in 2004. Or, having just had the best season of his lackluster career, the Braves may have deluded themselves into thinking that the career year was a breakout year, and hafta pay $7 million for two years of continued mediocrity. I suppose that’s about the going rate for mediocre these days, so maybe it’s not a bad deal either way.

In addition, Javy Lopez, who had easily his best offensive year (.328, 43 homers, 109 RBI) at age 33, is also gone, because the Braves know better. They know that it’s not often that a player sets personal bests in hits, runs, doubles, homers, RBI, BA, OBP, SLG, OPS and a bunch of other stats as he enters his mid thirties and then repeats the performance. And it’s not often that such a player would be content to settle for a paycut from the $7 mil he made last year, even though he had been grossly overpaid in 2001 and 2002, making almost $14 million in two years in which he hit at a level roughly 80% of mediocre. So Javy’s gotta hit the pavement too.

Gary Sheffield, no slouch himself with 39 homers, 132 RBI and a .330 batting average, is also looking for a new employer, which he may have found in George Steinbrenner’s Yankees. Steinbrenner, unlike John Schuerholtz in Atlanta, never met an aging, overpaid free agent he didn’t like. However, unlike Atlanta, and pretty much every other team in professional sports, Steinbrenner can afford to make such mistakes. I’m not sure that signing Sheffield to a three-year, $36 to $39 million contract is exactly a mistake, but Sheffield isn’t young, probably just had the best year he’s ever going to have, and is headed to a park that’s not traditionally kind to righty power hitters. Besides this, he’s got a reputation as a troublemaker, and seems to have already begun this process before even having signed with the Yankees, by asking for $3 million more than their alleged handshake agreement originally called for. No wonder the Braves let him go.

Atlanta’s front office has its work cut out for it. It seems like every year we say this, “No, really, this year they’re gonna drop off from contention…No, wait, I mean this year…no wait…” but honestly, this could be it for the Braves’ run of division titles, which is sad. Thirteen seems like plenty though, and it won’t be broken any time soon (the Yankees currently have a 6-year streak for division titles, 9 playoff appearances, plus a quasi-division title in the unfinished 1994 season.)

The Braves won’t just disappear. They’ll be decent, but it’s hard to see them losing all the offense they (surprisingly) got from Lopez and Sheffield, not to mention the relative rotation stability afforded them by Maddux (albeit in an “off” year) and still winning 100 games next season. There just isn’t a catcher out there who can make up for what Lopez did this year, and they can’t afford to get someone like Vladimir Guerrero if they’re attempting to pare $20 mil from the payroll. Add to this the facts that Marcus Giles and/or Rafael Furcal aren’t likely to be quite this good again and that the journeymen stalwarts of the bullpen may be due for a drop-off, and you’ve got a recipe for backsliding, if not disaster.

Should be interesting watching to see what the Braves do to figure out how to beat the pants off the rest of the NL East. I don’t see it happening in 2004, but then I didn’t see it last year either, and it did. Rob’s smarter than I am when it comes to thinking about baseball, and the Braves continue to confound him, too.

I should know better than to guess by now.

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04 December 2003

Vazquez Right-Wing Conspiracy

I am not happy.

My favorite team has just officially announced a trade for one of the ten best pitchers in all of major league baseball, and I'm not happy about it.

It would appear that there is some vast conspiracy, some grandiose plan to rid my favorite team of anyone who might be both successful and cheap at the major league level, thereby neccessitating these continuous, infernal ticket price increases. Sadly, the conspirators in this process happen also to be the ones who actually run the team, so there's nothing I can do about it.

Evidently it was almost too good to be true to think that an up-and-coming young LHP (Brandon Claussen) might have actually earned himself a rotation spot next year, so they dumped him off on Cincinnati. And now, the possibility of having not one, but two or three relatively inexpensive, home-grown players who might not just be good parts of a championship club, but actually stars on it, was just too much to bear. So, out go Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera, and in comes Great Pitcher about to Get Expensive.

Oh, sure, I'm looking forward to watching Javier Vazquez win some games in Yankee pinstripes. The 5-6 runs per game the Yankees could score when he pitches mean that he could win 20 games even without matching the kind of stellar performance he has compiled with the Expos over the last few years. You couldn't do any better to fill a hole in your starting rotation via trade. Well, unless you can get Curt Schilling, but who could pull that off? Besides, with the age difference, I'll take Vazquez long-term any day.

As a Yankee fan, I won't especially miss Juan Rivera, even though he's young, cheap, and could have been the heir to Bernie Williams in CF if the organization ever admits to itself that Bernie doesn't belong out there anymore. Rivera's kind of projected as Juan Gonzalez-lite, which is a pretty good guy to have on your team, as long as he doesn't come with Juan-Gone's trips to the doctor.

I won't miss LOOGY (Lefty-One-Out-GuY) Randy Choate. Heck, I don't think I even knew that Choate pitched for the Yankees in 2003. I think I sneezed once in April or something and I missed it.

But I'll miss Nick. Oh, will I ever miss Nick. Nick Johnson is the kind of player you dream about your team developing. The kind of player a stat-head like me lays awake at night trying to figure out how to make one of these for the computer baseball game I play to pass time between loads of laundry on quiet Saturday afternoons. The kind of player you tell your kids you got to see play before anyone knew how good he was gonna be.

BP said last year that he might end up a cross between Barry Bonds and John Olerud, in terms of his hitting. This is a guy with already tremendous plate discipline, now walking more than he strikes out, developing power (slugging percentages from .313 to .402 to .472 the last three years in NY) and a pretty decent glove to boot (or not to boot, as is the hope with infielders...) Johnson's 1999 season at AA-Norwich, at age 21, saw him rake for a Bonds-ian .526 on-base percentage, not to mention 52 extra-base hits in only 420 at-bats for a .538 slugging%), which made him one of the best prospects in all of baseball, if not for his health.

This guy's talent might be once-in-a-lifetime. The problem is that his injuries are more like once-in-a-season, and tend to cost him a month or two at a time. Consider:

1998: Separated shoulder. Misses six weeks.
1999: 37 hit-by-pitches, due to plate-crowding. Plays 132 of 140 games at AA.
2000: Does not play. Undiagnosed wrist injury keeps him out entire season.
2001: Plays 110 games for Columbus and 23 for Yankees
2002: Wrist sprain. Misses four weeks.
2003: Stress fracture in his right hand. Misses over two months

If not for the injuries (which, I realize, is right up there with "If Woody had gone right to the police...") Johnson would not be traded for anyone. You couldn't offer a GM enough to let this guy go. His career numbers, to this point, compare favorably to John Olerud's after three years in the majors, and Johnson hasn't even had three full years. Take a look:

Johnson	Age   AB   R    H  2B  HR RBI  BB   SO   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS

2001* 22 358 32 69 11 11 43 37 80 .194 .308 .313 .621
2002* 23 454 67 110 18 18 70 58 118 .243 .347 .402 .749
2003* 24 458 85 130 27 20 66 99 81 .284 .422 .472 .894

Olerud
1990 21 358 43 95 15 14 48 57 75 .265 .364 .430 .794
1991 22 454 64 116 30 17 68 68 84 .256 .353 .438 .791
1992 23 458 68 130 28 16 66 70 61 .284 .375 .450 .825


I've normalized(*) for Johnson's relative lack of playing time, since he saw only 23 games in the majors in 2001, and only 96 in 2003.

Now I'll grant you that John Olerud is not Lou Gehrig, but who is? And the fact that Johnson displays the command and ability he's shown at this young stage in his career, though he is a year older, but without the benefit of as much playing time as Olerud had through three years in the bigs, is impressive. Think about it: If you could get John Olerud's skills, with more power, even more patience and possibly better defense, wouldn't you take it in a heartbeat? Omar Minaya would. And did.

And if he gets enough playing time, Johnson could break out next year, just like Olerud did, win a batting title, lead the league in OBP and OPS, and lead the Yankees to a World Series.

Sorry, I meant the Expos. So much for the World Series. So now, instead of fulfilling his destiny of becoming the neext, great cog in the Yankee Championship Machine, Johnson gets to be the shiny chrome bumper on the rusty '78 Pinto the Montreal Expos organization has become. Very sad.

But the Yankees needed to make a splash, and they needed some solid starting pitching, and they felt that with the injury risk that Johnson seems to be, it would be a worthwhile opportunity cost. The ironic part is that in three or four years, Nick Johnson will be elligible for salary arbitration, and if he's as good as I think he'll be, the Expos won't be able to afford him. So the Yankees could get him back anyway. And he may still do great things in Yankee pinstripes. Just not for a long while.

So long, Nicholas Robert Johnson. We hardly knew ye.

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Shout-Outs...

I recently added a few new links:

Redbird Nation, a Cardinals (duh) blog, was kind enough to post a reference to my ALMVP analysis posts, and I got a nice spike in hits for a day or so because of it. Thanks. Redbird Nation is now a permanent link on the left, the old-fashioned St. Louis logo toward the bottom of the image links.

Another kind soul, General Zod, made reference to my body of work as "[his] top 5-7 of best overall baseball blogs" for which I am flattered, on a discussion forum called Birds on the Bat. Though I don't have the time to become an actual member and spend that much time discussing these things, I have added a link on the left for them also, in case you do have such time, in which case, you should probably go out and get a job.

Also, I noticed that a website called 2-Headed Monster was linking to me, which is a blog about Chicago baseball (both teams, as you might have guessed), so the picture of the Cubbies pez dispenser on the lower left is a link to them.

In addition, one of my least new links, Jay Jaffe from the Futility Infielder, has a long break-down of the starting pitching on the market and how some of them might help the Yankees, or your own team, for that matter. Jay does good work. Go read his stuff.

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Milton For All He's Worth...

Here's a headline:

Phillies Get Former Yankees LHP...

...Eric Milton?

Where did this come from? The Andy Pettitte rumors of previous off-seasons might have suggested to us that we could expect the Phils to make a splash picking up someone like this, but nobody guessed it, as far as I know. I suppose we get so used to hearing the rumors long before any trade actually occurs that when a GM actually does a good job of hiding his intentions, we're all surprised. I was.

In truth, Milton never got a chance to throw a pitch at the Major League level for the Yankees, despite having been so excited about being drafted by the Bombers out of college that he immediately went out and got a Yankees tattoo. (reason #257 not to get permanent markings on your body...). He was traded to the Twinkies with three other players for Duck! Chuck Knoblauch before the 1998 season, and immediately became…mediocre?

Baseball Reference.com indicates that Milton’s adjusted ERA has never been more than 13% better than average in his career, and that his career ERA overall of 4.76 is not appreciably better than the 4.80 average for the AL in that time span, though his career numbers are hurt significantly by that 5.64 he posted over 170 innings as a rookie in 1998. He's Livan Hernandez without the durability.

The Yankees caught a lot of flack at the time of that trade for letting this “future of the franchise” get away, and the heat intensified when Milton was winning 15 games and making an All-Star team in 2001 as Chuck Knoblauch’s aim, batspeed and career abandoned him, but Milton’s never really been as great as his hype suggested. Slightly more than 200 innings/year with slightly better than average ERAs is NOT a star, and not worth the $9 million for which the Phillies are now on the hook for 2004.

Baseball Prospectus’ synopsis of Milton’s career suggests that, like Ron Guidry, who didn’t have his first great season until he was 27 years old, Milton might still have his best years ahead of him, but I tend to disagree. Milton’s a big lefty (6’3”, 220) who throws hard and has decent control, but a lot of scouts have questions about his mechanics, and besides, the reason Gator suddenly became so successful was his discovery and perfection of the slider (more of a cut fastball by today’s standards) in 1977-78. BP's reviews of each of Milton's seasons through 2001 are always gleaming, in spite of the fact that the numbers just don't seem to support their hope in him. His 2002 season saw all of Milton's numbers drop off, across the board: fewer innings, higer ERA, lower strikeout rate, and perhaps not all of that is attributable to the knee injury. Perhaps he was hitting the plateau before he got hurt.

Milton’s knee surgery essentially wiped out his 2003 season, in which BB Prospectus expected him to take a step forward and become one of the 10-15 best pitchers in baseball. Didn’t happen, though it could in 2004. Or the arm injury everyone’s been waiting for could happen instead, and the Phils could end up paying $9 million for another pitcher not to live up to expectations. The more likely result is what we usually see from Milton, if he’s healthy: about 200 innings of league average or slightly better pitching, which any team can use.

Kudos to the Phillies, who didn't give up too much for Milton. Knowing that they would have to pick up an All-Star salary, they leveraged the deal by taking something the Twins couldn't afford to keep (an expensive but oft-injured and ultimately replaceable starter) and gave up a replaceable relief pitcher in Carlos Silva and a middle infield prospect with some speed and patience but no power at all, in Nick Punto. And a PTBNL. No big losses. Serviceable pieces of a decent major league team, but all replaceable.

And if Milton does what BP thinks he can do, Ed Wade looks like a genius. Worth the risk, I think.

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02 December 2003

Yankee Roster Moves...

Well, I have to admit that I'm somewhat less than impressed by the Yankees recent signings.

The first official signing they've made was to re-up with a thirdbaseman who hit .254/.302/.418 as a Yankee, who hit .297/.366/.530 at the Great American Phonebooth and .251/.308/.413 everywhere else. If he can keep up the .295/.337/.534 pace he hit for in September, Aaron Boone will be worth the $5.75 million they'll pay him in 2004. But I have my doubts that he'll do much more than .260 with 20 homers and 70 RBI. Some would argue that his ALCS heroics make him already worth that money, but I don't play that way, and neither do the New York fans. If he's hitting .160 in May, they're gonna forget all about him ever having blasted a hanging knuckler into Bronx Bomber history.

Tom "Flash" Gordon was also signed to a two-year, $7.25 million contract, to bolster the bullpen, though it's was not clear from the deal which half of which season he would actually be pitching. Since he became a full-time reliever in 1998, he's had exactly two seasons in which he's pitched more than 45 innings: 1998 and 2003. The rest of the time he was either stinking, recovering from arm injuries, or both. Now don't get me wrong, he was great last year:91 strikeouts, 31 walks and 57 hits in 74 innings with an ERA just over 3.10 is stellar for a relief pitcher in this age, but giving seven million dollars to a 37 year old pitcher with a history of arm trouble and only one season of "proof" that he's past them is rarely a wise move. Maybe they figure that between Gordon and Steve Karsay they might actually get a whole season's worth or right-handed relief pitcher, and for the bargain basement price of just over eight million dollars! It's all starting to make sense now...

Gary Sheffield, on the other hand, would be a great addition. Sure he's got his health problems too, but he's managed at least 130 games in each of the last eight seasons, and has averaged 145 games the last five years, which isn't completely awful. Heck, it's more than Bernie Williams. I argued over a year ago that Sheffield could have been a lock-Hall-of -Famer if not for his injury history, and that was before he hit .330 with 39 homers and 132 RBI in 2003. A few more years like that and he will be a lock for the Hall. A few more years even close to that and he should have little trouble getting into Cooperstown, but there are no guarantees, and for $36 million, you sure wish there were.

Incidentally, is it just me, or is "Yankees Looking to Trade Jeff Weaver to Dodgers for Kevin Brown" the silliest headline since "O.J. Looking for the 'Real' Killer"?

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20 November 2003

AL MVP Debate, Part II

This is Part II of Boy of Summer's MVP Thoughts. You can read Part I here.

As I mentioned, some sportswriters are really not happy about this, perhaps most notably, Jayson Stark. As Rob Neyer confirms, Stark is a prince of a guy, so I'll be as kind as possible. However, it should be noted again that I think he's dead wrong on this issue, and that I think he's not much of a statistician, when you get right down to it. Most baseball writers would take that as a complement.

Examining Jayson Stark's MVP criteria is not as easy as it sounds, becasue he seems to keep grasping at different things, anything, to get people to believe him instead of the Rules.

If you've read Stark's columns for any length of time, you've learned that he's a pretty good journalist. He gets good stories, and he writes them well. He's interesting and creative and seems like a decent fellow. But he seems to have something less than a firm grasp on how statistical analysis ought to be utilized. One of the worst things you can do with stats, and one of the things that Stark does fairly often, is to pick an arbitrary number that seems to support your point, and don't bother to give any other information that might make your point look anything less than salient.

In an article he wrote in September about why A-Rod shouldn't be the MVP, he said, "Since 1994, when baseball broke into six divisions and created twice as many pennant races, no player from a losing team has finished within 100 points of the winner. That includes A-Rod last year. And it undermines his candidacy this year."

OK, he picked 1994 because of the break between the two and three division formats, meaning that there are more contenders and therefore (theoretically) more potential MVPs. But the 100 points could have been anything. It sounds like a nice, round number, but it's arbitrary.

When players have MVP voting clauses written into their contracts, they're written by placement, not point totals. And while what Stark says is true, it's misleading. Players from losing teams have been as high as second or third in the voting on several occasions in that timespan. A-Rod was second in 2002, Griffey was second in 1994, and Frank Thomas finished third to Griffey in 1997, all playing on losing teams. Players from non-playoff teams have been up pretty high in the tally as well, including Carlos Delgado (4th in 2000), Griffey (4th in 1998), and Mo Vaughn (5th in 1996).

That same article made three "key" points in the argument against Rodriguez's candidacy for the AL MVP:

1) WHAT PART OF "VALUABLE" DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? - Stark argues that the BBWAA has almost always chosen a player from a winning team for the MVP, so why should we change that tradition now?

2) WHERE WAS HE WHEN THEY NEEDED HIM? Stark argues that A-Rod faded when his team sank from contention in June, and that he didn't consistently produce the way an MVP should.

3) THIS ISN'T 1991 - Stark argues that an MVP should only come from a losing team if there are no true/close pennant races, and therefore no clear player who makes the differene between his team making the playoffs or not.

Let's take these on one at a time...

1) WHAT PART OF "VALUABLE" DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? The meaning of the word "valuable" has nothing to do with the context of the object in question. The Hope Diamond would be no less valuable in the bottom of a landfill in Staten Island than it is in the Smithsonian, it just wouldn't be as useful. Once the diamond's recovered, the landfill would admittedly be somewhat less valuable without it.

The fact that baseball writers have traditionally used winners, especially playoff contenders, to determine the MVP does NOT mean that it should be this way. History held many 'traditions' to be perfectly acceptable right up until someone showed that there was a better way. Ever read a short story called 'The Lottery'?

2) WHERE WAS HE WHEN THEY NEEDED HIM? This has to be Stark's weakest argument. He cites the following as evidence that Rodriguez was not the MVP:

So as the ship sank, he sank with it. It really wasn't until his team's season was essentially over that he began compiling many of these alleged MVP numbers.

He hit the second-most home runs in the league in April (8). But he was 10th in May (6), 20th in June (5) and 21st in July (5), before leading the league in August (15) and September (7).[Ed. NOTE: A-Rod was 5th in the AL in Sept.]

He was fifth in the AL in RBI in April (22). Then he fell to 44th in May (13), 34th in June (15) and 17th in July, before leading the league in August (31) and ranking third in September (15).

OK, how about slugging percentage -- a stat that doesn't depend on the contributions of anyone around him? He was fourth in the league in April (.667). But then he was 54th in May (.462), 31st in June (.540) and 37th in July (.505), before an .849 August (first) and .594 September (fifth).

Does that sound like an MVP season to you? It doesn't to us.


Well, Jayson, maybe it does and maybe it doesn't but since you don't give us anyone else's numbers to compare with A-Rod's, how are we to know whether it does or not? He could have picked a lot of other stats (runs scored, on-base%, etc.) but I suspect that he chose these because they supported his point. I'm going to use OPS (on-base% + Slugging%) to try to rebut his point, because it's a pretty good rough measure of a player's offensive contributions, apart from his teammates contributions, and also because I didn't feel like charting all of the possible stats.

Here are the monthly ranks for for each of the top ten MVP points-getters:

April May June July Aug Sept Avg (T) Avg (5) Season
Delgado 1 5 14 12 16 10 9.7 8.4 1
Ramirez 16 40 6 4 20 2 14.7 9.6 2
A-Rod 3 49 22 26 1 13 19.0 13.0 3
D. Ortiz * 45 18 11 3 5 16.4 16.4 5
Posada 18 36 40 25 11 6 22.7 19.2 10
Beltran ** 16 43 17 9 14 19.8 19.8 12
V. Wells 58 19 9 23 31 12 25.3 18.8 13
B. Boone 23 10 17 18 68 25 26.8 18.6 15
No-mah 49 11 10 44 28 92 39.0 28.4 20
Stewart 54 38 *** 24 44 51 42.2 42.2 32

First, a few explanations:

Only the top 100 players, in terms of at-bats, were rated each month. I had to cut it off somewhere.

*David Ortiz wasn't the everyday DH in Boston until June, but he amassed essentially one month worth of at-bats between April and May, which got him an OPS around .800, which would rank him around 45th in the league in any given month, hence the 45 in May and nothing in April.

**Carlos Beltran was injured the first month of the season and only got 38 at-bats in April.

***Shannon Stewart got only 33 at-bats in June.

The Avg(Tot) column is the average rank of the totals for all six months of the season. The Avg(5) column is the average of the player's five best months, which helps to normalize for players who didn't get enough at-bats in a particular month to qualify due to injury (Beltran and Stewart) or platooning (Ortiz). It also gives some grace to players who may have had one really off month that skewed their average. The Season column is the overall rank of that player for (you guessed it) the season.

OK, with that said, what can we learn from this?

A) Carlos Delgado is the only player who meets Stark's criteria of "consistently" producing. He's the only player in the top 20 in every month, never straying higher than 16th (Aug), and therefore ranked 1st overall at the end of the year. However, based on Stark's insistence upon players from winners and playoff contenders, Delgado's no good either. The standard deviation in his rank (which I didn't post here) was two and a half times smaller than anyone else's on the list.

B) Manny Ramirez, A-Rod, Vernon Wells and Bret Boone are the only other players who rank in or near the top 30 in the AL five out of six months. Other players either didn't qualify for a month or had more than one month in which they ranked over 30th.

C) Nomar Garciaparra was particularly flaky, ranking as high as 11th in May and as low as 92nd(!) in September. Ouch. Still, he managed to finish a solid 20th at the end of the year.

D) Jayson Stark's pet candidate, Shannon Stewart, was so valuable that he never ranked higher than 24th, and easily averaged the lowest among the lot. Even when he was supposedly somehow turning the Twins around and leading them into the postseason, he ranked as the 44th and 51st best hitter in the AL down the stretch. And Stark wants you to vote for him?!?

Regarding the fate of the Rangers with relation to Rodriguez's play, the fact that the team was as close to the .500 mark as they were (25-27 on May 29) was essentially a fluke, a mirage created by the ability of the early season to skew our views of reality (remember when we thought the Royals were contenders?).

The team's Pythagorean record at the end of May (the wins and losses you'd expect them to have based on the total runs scored and allowed) was a couple of games worse than what they actually had, which means that they'd been lucky to do as well as they did to that point. Certainly, there's no denying that June was Rodriguez's (and the Rangers') worst month, but there aren't many players who avoid a 3-week swoon all season, and the man couldn't do anything about the Rangers' pitching staff's 6.63 June ERA. And besides, A-Rod's worst month (49th in OPS) is about as good as Shannon Stewart's average month (42).

3) THIS ISN'T 1991 Stark contended that MVPs only come from losing teams whn there are no pennant races. This simply isn't true. He uses the AL's only example (Cal Ripken in 1991) because it supports his point. But if you dig just a little deeper, and choose another league to analyze, I don't know, let's say...the National League, you find that this isn't the case at all. Andre Dawson won the NL MVP in 1987 on a Cubs team that finished last, even though both the Mets and the Expos finished within four games of fisrt place in the NL East.

Also, in 1959, when Ernie Banks won the NL MVP on a losing Cubs team, both the Braves and Giants finished within four games of the Dodgers, who won their first pennant in LA. So we see that the Senior Circuit doesn't necessarily discriminate against a truly great and valuable player just because there are pennant races and good players on the teams vying for them.

Stark's post-mortem article on the MVP debate revisits the issue of tradition, which we've already addressed, so I won't get into that again. However, he also asks "Where would the team have finished without him?" and answers it accurately: Last. Again, though, his answer is uninforming and misleading.

In any other division in all of MLB, the Rangers (71-91) would not have been last. They were, admittedly, the worst team in a relatively strong division, but taking A-Rod away and replacing him with Joe Average Shortstop costs the Rangers something like six to ten wins in the standings, which is a lot. I'm sure that as bad as the Rangers were last year (and the year before that, and...) a lot of Texans are really glad that they didn't lose 100 games in 2003, and A-Rod is a major reason for that.

If that's not Value, then value doesn't exist.



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18 November 2003

AL MVP Debate, Part I

The following is the first of a two-part series on the 2003 AL MVP results. Just like the Wachowski Brothers, I found that I had way too much preachy, self-important, overblown and ultimately disappointing crap to fit into only one offerring. Sorry. Stay tuned for Part II.

I was having trouble coming up with something to write about the AL MVP Award being given to Alex Rodriguez (finally). I was going to find the instructions for the award somewhere and then re-vamp them with a bunch of tongue-in-cheek crap about clutch hitting down the stretch and fighting for a pennant and such, but then it occurred to me: They actually got it right for once. So I don't hafta do that. Wait til next year.

Several people, including David Pinto and my hero, Rob Neyer, argued that not only does A-Rod deserve the award, but that he might actually win it this year, as no offensive American Leaguer was really having a standout season besides him. Turns out they were right.

Others, however, most notably Everyone's Favorite Empirical Scientist Jayson Stark, are actually upset about this occurrence. Can you believe that crap?? I mean, A-Rod has easily been the best player in the AL for the last half decade, and the BBWAA finally finds a way to actually give him one award, and Stark's pissed about it??

It turns out that I found the actual ballot instructions at Aaron Haspel's God of the Machine, who had found them on (are you ready?) Jayson Stark's home page. When he argued that A-Rod didn't deserve the MVP last year either.

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team.

The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot.

Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, and that includes pitchers and designated hitters.

Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.



Let's look at each of these criteria individually, shall we?

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

The main argument against A-Rod, or any other great player on a losing team for that matter, is that the team still wouldn't have won even if he sucked. Which is a true statement, but limited in its usefulness. The writer of the ballot instructions seems to understand that a player can have value even if his team is stinking up the joint, and frankly, the Rangers weren't really that bad in 2003. Oh, their pitching was terrible, but they were among the best offensive teams in the majors, and had a record (71-91) identical to or better than four other teams in the AL. So A-Rod's value clearly was not completely wasted on a truly awful team, as Aubrey Huff's or Dmitri Young's was.

The irony here, as a fellow blogger pointed out last year, is that the argument against thinking that an MVP must come from a winner is right there in the instructions: The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier. And the definition of "value" is given right there in the instructions as well: Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense. So the strength of a player's offense and defense actually defines his value, regardless of his team's position in the standings.

And if this is the case, then A-Rod has to be the MVP. By almost any objective measure you'd ever pick, he was the best player in the AL last year. First in the league in homers, runs scored and slugging percentage, second in RBI, 3rd in OPS, and eighth in walks and On-base %. Bill James' Win Shares has him tied with Carlos Delgado atop the AL, according to David Pinto. A great hitter, who plays great defense at a tough position, with no obvious competition as the best player in the league? Sounds like an MVP to me.

2. Number of games played.

No problem there. Alex Rodriguez suited up and played 161 games. The game he missed? Sept 24th, at Oakland, after playing in 546 straight games. Say what you want about him being overpaid, but the dude shows up to work. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the Rangers lost that game, so there you go: Every time A-Rod doesn't play, they lose. How's that for value?

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

Boy, I don't see how anybody could coplain about this. Again, he may make too much money, but you don't ever hear him complaining about being underappreciated, about the "daily grind," about the fans, about anything. He just straps on his gloves, laces up his cleats, goes out there and kicks butt. And then the Rangers' pitching staff squanders his efforts by giving up all those runs. Personally, I'd be complaining, but he doesn't.

4. Former winners are eligible.

Not a problem. A-Rod's been shafted in the MVP voting at least two or three times previously, so there's no conflict here.

5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

Well, that won't be necessary, although this is what killed A-Rod's chances in '96, when he and Ken Griffey Jr. ('member when he was good?) split the MVP voting, even in their own city, and the trophy went to Juan Gone.

So we see that based on the criteria set forth by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, Alex Rodriguez clearly should be (and is) the AL MVP for 2003.

But some are still not satisfied...


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