01 October 2020

Pitching Leaders and MVPs and Cy Youngs for the East, West and Central

 As I mentioned yesterday, the way MLB chose to set up its schedule for 2020 effectively means that there really was no true National League and American League.  Normally it makes sense to have the Yankees competing for a playoff spot with the White Sox and the A's and other Junior Circuit teams because they are all in the same league, and face much of the same competition.  

But with the 2020 rules, teams from the East, Central an West divisions in each league only faced each other and the corresponding division in the other league.    The Giants are sitting home this October and watching the Astros - who had the same record against the same competition - advance a step closer to the World Series.  The Twins had the best record among all the Central teams, and yet found themselves as a #3 seed, playing #6 seed Houston, which had a losing record.  It would be like allowing the 103-win 1954 Yankees to face the 111-win Indians in the World Series because the New York Giants only won 97 games, against a completely separate slate of teams.  

Anyway, the players, too, should be rewarded for leading their competition in whatever statistical categories they did.  Mike Trout, for example, should now have his first home run title to go along with all the other amazing things he's done in his career, since his 17 homers led all players in the West this year.  But alas, Luke Voit hit 22 (against all different teams and pitchers) so it's not to be.  

Anyway, we covered most of that yesterday.  

But what about the pitchers?

You surely already knew about how amazing Shane Beiber was this year, leading the "AL" in all three triple crown categories, Wins, ERA and K's.  As it happens, he led the Central "League" in all three of those as well as both Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) and and Baseball Reference WAR (bWAR).  

Yu Darvish led both the actual NL and the true Central with the same 8 Wins.  Gerrit Cole led the East with 7 Wins, and Marco Gonzales of the Mariners and Zach Davies of the Brewers also both had 7 Win for the year, which led all comers in the West.  

You may have known that Jacob DeGrom had another Cy Young-worthy year, and he indeed led the East in both ERA and strikeouts (but not Wins, because he still pitches for the Mets.)  You may not realize, however, that the leader for the West is not Clayton Kershaw or some big name, perennial superstar, but a relative unknown.  Dinelson Lamet, the Padres' pitcher who compiled a 10-13 record and a 4.37 ERA in parts of the 2017 and 2019 seasons - straddling a year-plus missed due to Tommy John surgery - led the West in ERA and strikeouts, though he went just 3-1.  Heck, even DeGrom won four!  

The Saves leaders were remarkable in that none of them ever led their leagues in Saves before.  Kintzler had been a closer in the past, but had struggled since 2017 while bouncing from the Twins to the Nationals to the Cubs to now the Marlins.  Brad Hand was the closer for the team that won the AL Central, and has been a pretty good closer for a number of years.  Liam Hendricks anchored the A's bullpen as they were the only team in the AL West with a winning record.   

And when you get to b/fWAR, again you see some familiar names: DeGrom, Lamet, Bieber, of course.  But also Zac Gallen, who went just 3-2, but fanned 82 batters in 72 innings with a 2.75 ERA while pitching half his games in the thin, hot air of Arizona.  Antonio Sentzatela ties Gallen for the lead in the West with 2.8 bWAR, which you might not guess from his decent-but-not-extravagant 5-3 record, 3.44 ERA and only 41 strikeouts in 73 innings.  

Hyun Jin Ryu (5-2, 2.69) wasn't just the best starter on the Blue Jays staff, he was practically the only good starter for them until they traded for Taijuan Walker.  And also he led all pitchers in the East in bWAR.  

The Real Awards Winners:

If the annual awards were given based on the players' actual competition instead of their traditional leagues, these are who I think might deserve them:

Cy Youngs:

DeGrom led the East in ERA, K's and fWAR.  Beiber led the Central in the same, plus Wins AND bWAR, and will likely win the actual AL Cy Young Award.  Dinelson Lamet led the West in ERA and K's, as we discussed, plus fWAR. 


Freddie Freeman led the East in Runs scored, bWAR and fWAR.  Bieber deserves all the accolades in the Central, though you couldn't go wrong giving the trophy to one of the Joses, Abreu or Ramirez.  In the west, Mookie Betts was head and shoulders above the rest.   

Rookie Pitchers:

In the East, the Braves' Ian Anderson went 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA in half a dozen starts, which normally would not be enough to garner consideration for an award like this, but this year, that was half the season.  

In the West, Tony Gonsolin made eight starts and had a 2.31 ERA to go with his 2-2 record and 46 strikeouts in as many innings.  

But the real story is Devin Williams, who only pitched 27 innings in relief, but he was amazing in all of them.  He struck out more than half of all the batters he faced - 53 K's out of 100 batters - and had a 0.33 ERA, which is the lowest ERA in a season by a major league pitcher with at least 25 innings under his belt in over 110 years!  (Someone named Earl Moore allowed zero earned runs in 26 innings for the Phillies in 1908.)  

So there you have them, the leaders and awards if life were fair, which it is not.  

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29 September 2020

2020 Playoff Teams and Batting Champs, by Region Instead of Leagues

This was a weird year.  

In an effort to minimize travel, and thereby minimize potential exposure to COVID-19, Major League Baseball implemented an odd, 60-game schedule that allowed teams only to play the other four teams in its own division and the five teams in the corresponding geographical division in the opposite league.  This means, for example, that the Yankees played both the Atlanta Braves and the Miami Marlins, but not the Tigers or the Indians, who are both obviously a lot closer, not to mention in their actual league.   

Additionally, as another concession to the disease and its effects on us all, we have a new, 8-team-per-league postseason format in which the winners from each division and their runners up all make the postseason, plus the two teams with the next best records.  This gives us not one but two teams with losing records (the Brewers and the Astros) who actually have a chance to win the World Series.  

Which sucks.

The decisions on who makes the playoffs are, in themselves, somewhat nonsensical.  Here are the three actual in-practice regional quasi-leagues this season (East, Central and West) and how they stack up against each other.  The teams in bold are the ones going to the actual playoffs.  

You can probably see a couple of things wrong with this picture right away.  Almost everyone from the Central got in (7 of 10 teams), while the Phillies, for example, have almost as good a record as the Astros and Brewers, whom they never played.  If MLB had chosen instead to take, say, six teams from each regional league, and give two teams a bye for the first round or something like that, instead of doing it the way they did, Philly might be in the playoffs right now instead of one of those teams.  Not that they would deserve to be, but still.  

Furthermore, the Giants had the exact same record as the Astros, against the same competition, but did not make the playoffs.  Granted, their head to head records (Houston won two of three) would likely have given the advantage to the Astros anyway, but if MLB had chosen instead to take the best five teams from each region, plus one more to round out the 16  - which probably would have been more fair -  then the Giants would have been in and the Brewers out.  And the Phillies would still be watching the playoffs from their couches, as they should be.  

As it is, in this reality, the teams will all play a three-game series, entirely at the home stadiums of the higher seeded teams in the first round.  Then, if they get past that, they will play the ALDS and NLDS at neutral sites in California and Texas, as shown below.  As a result, we have a playoff picture that is murkier that it has ever been, heading into the first day of competition.  

Another problem with this format is that the seeding was done based on division winners and runners up getting the highest seeds, rather than by best overall record.  So the Twins are a #3 seed, even though they had the best record among the teams against whom they actually competed. They're playing the Astros, who had a losing record, but are seeded above both the White Sox and the Jays, both of which had winning records, because the TrAshtros finished second in the AL West, which was pretty awful outside of Oakland.  

Part of the reason for this format is that the shortened season and limited competition sort of inhibits our ability to tell how good a team is.  Sure, Gerrit Cole seems to be the ace the Yankees signed for a bajillion dollars in the offseason, but he was 5-1 with a 1.69 ERA against teams that did not make the playoffs (Phils, Sawx, O's and Nats), and 2-2 with a 4.10 ERA against teams that did (the Braves, Rays and Jays).  How would he have fared against the A's, or the Twins?  We may never know, especially if the streaky Yankees can't advance past the first round.  

But I was curious to see who would have led their respective "regional leagues", and more important perhaps, who might have "won" the awards if the players were being compared to their regional peers this year instead of to players they never faced until the postseason, or maybe not at all.  I'll look at the position players today and will save the pitchers for tomorrow.

Position Players:

So here are your hitting leaders!  

Luke Voit and DJ LeMahieu would still have their respective crowns, but Tim Anderson and Donovan Solano would also have won batting titles.  

Interestingly, LeMahieu takes the title over Anderson in real life this year, the reverse of 2019, which marks the first time since 1956-57 that the same two players have finished #1 and #2 in the AL batting title race, albeit not in the same order each year.  

At that time it was Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams, and of course Mickey won the Triple Crown in 1956, including his only batting title and the first of his three MVPs.  Williams hit .388 a year later and won the "slash line triple crown" (leading the AL in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) but finished 2nd in the MVP coting for the 4th time, each time losing to a Yankee (twice to DiMaggio, once to Mantle and once to Joe Gordon).  

Good times!  Anyway, back to 2020...

Manny Machado would have led the West in RBIs!  Mike Trout in homers!  In the Central, Jose Abreu would have two of the three triple crown pillars all to himself, instead of the just the AL RBI crown.  

Donovan Solano seems to have followed the Gio Urshela path to becoming a major league regular.  Both were signed as amateur free agents as teenagers from Colombia.  Both bounced around multiple organizations for many years, primarily as a glove-first backup infielder.  And both somehow just learned how to hit in their late 20s.  Urshela famously filled in for the injured Miguel Andujar, and has hit .314 with 27 homers in 650 plate appearances the last two seasons, while remaining a plus defender at the hot corner.  Solano, meanwhile, has hit .328 with 28 doubles and 7 homers in over 400 at-bats the last two seasons, and by rights should now have a batting title to his credit.  

Jonathan Villar is also an interesting case: He was traded from the Marlins to the Blue Jays for a PTBNL in mid-season, and stole a total of 16 bases.  (The Jays sent Griffin Conine to Miami to complete the trade, apparently having decided that having four sons of former MLB or international baseball stars on their roster was enough.)  On paper it looks like Villar amassed fewer than 10 steals each in the AL and the NL, but in reality, he stole more bases than anybody he played against in the eastern "League".  His 16 steals were one more than Trevor Story had, and yet Story has some black ink on his ledger, for leading the Senior Circuit, whereas Villar does not get credit for the second time he led his competition in steals (he had 62 in 2016 with Milwaukee, which easily led the NL).        

I have also listed the Wins Above Replacement leaders from both Baseball Reference (bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR) as well as the position players who I thought might be considered the Rookie of the Year for each region.  In this case, the bWAR and fWAR in two of the three regions both agree on Freeman and Betts.  Mookie Betts leads both WAR types, both in the NL and in the "west" thanks largely to his stellar defense in addition to his excellent hitting and base running skills.  Despite not leading the West in any of the individual stats (he hit .292 with 16 HR and 10 steals), he appears to have been the best overall player, in his or any division or league.   

As for the Central, if the BBWAA were deciding they would probably give it to Abreu, who led middle America in both homers and RBI.  But Jose Ramirez essentially carried the entire Cleveland offense, and played stellar defense at the hot corner to boot (or, you know, not to boot, which is what you're trying to do when you play third base), so I might give the MVP to him if I had the chance.  

And Now for the Rookies...

EAST: Alec Bohm did not play the whole year but when the Phillies called him up, he hit .338 in 44 games with gap power (11 doubles, 4 HR) and didn't totally embarrass himself on defense.  Only one MLB rookie with at least 160 at-bats has hit better than that in a season since Ichiro burst on the scene hitting and AL leading .350 in 2001.  (Trea Turner hit .342 in 307 at-bats in 2016.)  Maybe if the Phillies can upgrade some of that dumpster fire of a bullpen of theirs, they'll have something to build on next season.  OK, probably not.  

CENTRAL: Luis Robert hit just .233, but keep in mind that the major leagues as a whole hit just .245, the lowest mark since 1972 (.244), which was so terrible that half of the owners voted to implement the DH and old people have been whining about it ever since.  Also keep in mind that Robert hit 11 homers and 8 doubles, stole 9 of 11 bases in just 202 at-bats, and played stellar defense in center field.  Extrapolate that out to a full season and you're talking about a Gold Glove rookie knocking on the door of the 30-30 club.  

WEST: Kyle Lewis is another rookie centerfielder, albeit not as good defensively as Robert.  He also hit 11 homers, and hit .268 and took a walk more than once every other game, giving him the best OBP among rookies in the AL.  

Tomorrow I'll look at the pitchers and see who I think should win the MVP and Cy Young awards for each region.   

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27 September 2020

The 2020 Yankees: So Streaky, Even Facing the Twins May Not Save Them...

People sometimes talk about a team being "consistently inconsistent," meaning that they never seem to string together a winning (or losing) streak of more than a few games.

The 2020 Yankees are, I think, better described as "inconsistently consistent," i.e. that they seem consistent for a while, and just when you think you know who they are, they do a 180.  

Here is a schematic of their season results:

Green markers, above the reference line, are Wins, and red ones are Losses, with the margin of victory (or defeat) indicated by the size. The bar is capped at 10 runs, so the Yankees' 20-6 win against the Jays looks just like their 13-2 win the next night and their 12-1 win earlier this week.  

You can see the problem.
  • They won 8 of their first 9.
  • Then they lost 5 of the next 7. 
  • Then they won six in a row.  
  • Then they lost seven in a row.  
  • Then they won 4 out of 5. 
  • Then they lost 7 of 8.  
  • Then they rattled off 10 straight wins(!), which included sweeping Toronto, outscoring them 43-15 in a 3-game set, and setting a new record with 19 homers in a series. 
  • And now they've lost five of their last six, despite having most of the team back and ostensibly healthy.  

Somehow, despite finally enjoying the presence of Gleyber Torres, and Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton, and Urshela and LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks - all players who have spent some time on the injured list this season, some more on it than off - the Yankees still have not been able to stave off either the Blue Jays or the Marlins.

The Jays, despite being four games over .500, have actually been outscored a little this season (292-303). Similarly, the Marlins are two games over .500 but have actually been outscored a LOT this season (254-293). Two teams that not only shouldn't come close to making the playoffs in a "normal" year, but probably shouldn't even have winning records this year, have both clinched a playoff berth at the Yankees' expense in two consecutive nights.  It was hard to watch.

I dunno what any of this means, but I find it interesting, and a little disconcerting heading into the playoffs. How can a team that can't even beat the Marlins, let alone the Tampa Bay Rays, an actual good team, win a championship? 

I mean, obviously the Dodgers would have to be the favorite, but the Dodgers have notoriously choked in several postseasons since their last World Series win in 1988, and especially with the bizarre way the playoffs are set up this year, you would have to think it's anybody's game.  

As things stand now, the Yankees could face the Twins in the first round*, which under normal circumstances would be a guaranteed win. For one thing, the Twins have not won a playoff game since 2004, which was three presidents ago. It was so long that Destiny's Child was still together. So long that the iPhone was still almost three years away. So long ago that Hilary Duff was the most searched name on AOL. Also, AOL was still important.   

*Sorry, I wrote most of this before the final couple of games of the season, and it now looks like the Yankees will have to face the Indians in the first round.  So, take the rest of this post for what you will.  Maybe the Twins will somehow beat the Astros and the Yankees can face them in the ALDS or something.  

Second, in case you hadn't heard, the Yankees have owned the Twins for the better part of the last two decades. The Yankees are an astonishing 119-39* against Minnesota since 2002, including 16-2 in the playoffs, spanning five different series and a Wild Card game. They have won more than 75% of their games against the Twins, which is the best record any team has against anybody over that span, and might be the best record any team has ever had against another team over so long a time. To be fair, the Yankees and Twins have not played each other this year because of the weird COVID rules, so it's hard to know how they match up in 2020. But still.  Winning more than 3 out of every four contests for 18 years???

 How dominant is that? Here are two comparisons:

1. The 1936-53 Yankees vs. Browns 

Back in the so-called Golden Age of Baseball (really just the Golden Age of New York, specifically New York Yankee, Baseball), the St. Louis Browns were a perennial doormat in the Junior Circuit. During their last 18 years in St. Louis, they won barely 40% of their games overall, and that includes three winning seasons, so you can surely imagine how awful they usually were in the other ones. They were so terrible that the owners thought they could make more money in Baltimore, which had not had a franchise since 1902. They lost 100+ games five times and 90+ games six other times. 

Sure, they went to a World Series in 1944, but that was still during WWII, when a lot of the best players were wearing olive and khaki uniforms instead of pinstripes or gray flannels. That team only won 89 games in the regular season, and had only two players with double digit homers, one who hit .300, and one with 100 RBIs.  

Other than Vern Stephens at shortstop, the lineup was pretty forgettable, as was the pitching staff.  About half of the players were out of MLB by 1945 or '46, pushed out by the players returning from military service. Many had never been in MLB before the War, or had only come out of retirement when younger, healthier and better players were conscripted to fight the Nazis. 

In 1945, the Browns were so desperate they tried a one-armed outfielder named Pete Gray.  Later, with Bill Veeck at the helm, they hired a midget for one game, as a promotional stunt, to try to boost attendance. They once played a game with the fans giving managerial advice via placards that were handed out at the gate, and they brought 45-year old Satchel Paige out of retirement.  All of that happened in 1951.  Within about a month.  They were bad. 

Small in stature...but also in attendance. And winning percentage. 

Meanwhile, in that same 18-year span (1936-1953) the Yankees won 13 AL pennants and a dozen World Series. They developed eleven future Hall of Famers, not to mention many other stars.  They had a winning record every year, and finished lower than third just once, in 1945, when the likes of Tuck Stainback  and Mike Garback manned CF and catcher instead of Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra, who were in the service.  But otherwise, they were a perennial juggernaut, and a regular winner.  

Imagine almost two decades in which the same team won, on average, two out of every three World Series. That's baseball (Suzyn) in the "Golden Age". 

Anyway, those Yankee teams faced the lowly Browns 22 or 23 times per season - there were only eight teams in the AL at the time - and regularly trounced them, amassing a 272-124 (68.7%) record against them in that time. And even that winning percentage is well shy of how dominant the Yankees of the 21st century have been against Minnesota - which has actually had some pretty good teams - since 2002. 

B. The 1998 & 1927 Yankees vs. The Field

Or, to look at it another way, the 1998 Yankees, widely considered one of the greatest baseball teams of all time, went 114-48 in the regular season and 11-2 in the playoffs, winning the first of three straight championships. If there is another claimant to the title of Greatest MLB Team ever, it is perhaps the Yankees' 1927 Murderers Row squad, who went 111-44 in the regular season and then swept the Pirates, 4-0, in the World Series. And even those teams "only" won 71.4% and 72.8% of their games, respectively, including their postseason heroics.

The Twins are at the bottom of the pile, obviously.

The Yankees' winning percentage against the Twins since 2002 (75.3%) would equate to a 122-Win regular season team, which no team in history has come close to achieving. So the 2002-2019 Yankees have actually been better against the Twins than either the 1927 Yankees or the 1998 Yankees were against, well, everybody.  

Of course, this Yankees team is neither those.  The 1927 team famously used only 25 players on its roster the entire season.  Literally nobody got hurt, ever, whereas these 2020 Yankees can't seem to stay of the injured list for more than a week.  The 1998 Yankees lost more than three in a row only once all season (they had a 4-game streak in August), and only lost three in a row three times all year.  

But this 2020 team' propensity for being maddeningly unlike, well, itself from one week to the next could spell doom for them in the playoffs.  They'll likely be on the road against the Twins for that 3-game series, were they have only a 11-18 record (compared to 21-8 at home).  Moreover, the Twins are 23-6 at home this season, so this could be the year the curse of Tom Kelly (??) is finally broken.  

Or, the fact that the Yankees have been pretty terrible this week might indicate that they're ready to go on a tear, and sweep through the early rounds of the playoffs.  It's anybody's guess.  That's why they play the games.  


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18 August 2020

Tatis' Grand Slam, and Writing about Unwritten Rules


I dunno if y'all heard about this one, but Fernando Tatis hit two homers! The second one when his team was already leading by quite a little piece! A lot of people were really upset about this, apparently. Fernando Tatis owes the pitcher an apology! The nerve! Hitting a grand slam - his second homer of the game! - when his team already had a significant lead! How *dare* he??

Oh, wait, No, not last night.

*This* game, from 1999.

In that game, Fernando Tatis SENIOR hit two homers, actually two grand slams, IN THE SAME INNING, both off Chan Ho Park of the Dodgers. In Sr.'s case, they had a 7-2 lead in the third inning - due largely to his first grand slam of the inning - and would go on to win 12-5.

Actually, now that I think of it, nobody told him he should have laid down and coasted after that first homer. MLB actually celebrates it! Someone writes a story and shows the video every year on the anniversary. Sure, it was a smaller lead, earlier in the game, and he swung at a 3-2 pitch (his first one came on a 2-0 pitch), but still. The parallel is there at some level.

OK, it's weak, I admit, but I'm trying to make a point here:

Fernando Tatis The First had easily his best season in 1999. In January, his son was born, which was probably pretty exciting. After floundering with the Rangers for a couple of seasons, he'd been traded to the Cardinals at the deadline in 1998 and played well enough down the stretch and in spring training in 1999 to win the starting 3B job outright.  

He rewarded the team by hitting homers in each of his first three games that year, and he continued to hit. The two-grand-slam game was bracketed by games with homers before and after, and by early May his average was over .300, and he was on a 66-homer, 192 RBI pace. Obviously he cooled down after that, but overall, he would hit .298 with 34 homers, 104 Runs and 107 RBI as a 24-year old. He even stole 21 bases and walked 82 times!

All would turn out to be career highs, as he was never fully healthy again. Sad face.

He played only parts of the next four seasons, hitting just 37 homers *total* from 2000 to 2003, then missed two whole years, then played a few games with the 4th place Orioles in 2006, then missed all of 2007, and then caught on as a part timer with some forgettable Mets teams (...or anyway I had forgotten them.) in the late 2000s. He won the dreaded Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year award in 2008, but even at that, he hit 11 homers in 92 games and was already 33 years old. His star had passed.

In short, Fernando Tatis The Younger should hit 'em while he can. Life is too short. Baseball careers are too short. For every Ken Griffey or Barry Bonds, a good player whose son would turn out to be one of the all-time greats, there are probably a dozen Tim Raines Jrs and Josh Barfields and Sean Burroughs and Kyle Drabeks who never make much of a mark in the majors, despite the accomplishments of their parents.  Tatis and Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette all look like wonderful young players, the future of MLB. All three have already spend time on the injured list. Anything can happen.

The real problem with these unwritten rules comes out in the quote from Rangers' manager Chris Woodward: 

“I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game. I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game.”

Except we were not all raised that way.  Apparently in Woodward's home territory in Southern California, and for that matter in Padres' manager Jayce Tingler's original stomping grounds in Missouri, maybe kids are raised not to ever swing at a 3-0 pitch. Even when it looks like a meatball and you've got the bases loaded. Or not to try to hit homers when your team is already winning by several runs.  

Kids in Latin America aren't raised that way. Those cultures tend to be a little less stuffy, a little less concerned about showing each other up. People get that it's a game, and that they're playing ball for a living, and that it's OK to find that exciting. The alternative for so many of them is destitute poverty, so why not get a little psyched if you've found a way out of that??

But suburban American white kids often have it drilled into their heads that they should be calm and dignified and that they should not show up the opposition and that they should "act like they've been there before" even if they haven't. You hit your homer and keep your head down and trot around the bases - not too slow, not too fast - or he'll drill you (or worse yet, your teammate) in retaliation.

Well, Tatis hasn't been there before, and he wasn't "raised in the game" that way. (Plus, apparently he missed the "take" sign. :-/ ) He's 21, and he'd never hit a grand slam in the majors before. He'd never homered on a 3-0 pitch before. When you're that young, it's all new, and when you're that talented, you should be allowed to explore the depths of that talent.

Not for his sake, or anyway not just for his sake, but for ours. The fans. We're the whole reason he's here, he has this job to entertain us. And we want some damn excitement once in a while! This friggin' pandemic is hard enough on all of us without having to suffer through watching a talented youngster take a get-me-over fastball down the pipe on 3-0 with the bases loaded. Take a chance and enjoy it while you can! 

And let us enjoy it a little too.

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12 August 2020

What the DiMaggio-Williams Rivalry Can Teach us About Modern MVP Voting...

Welp, here I am again, going down another JoePos rabbit hole...

Today's baseball-in-the-time -of-COVID essay details the inexplicable way in which Ted Williams managed to win his second Triple Crown in 1947 but lose the MVP by one point to Joe DiMaggio.  Posnanski attributes it to the fact that the Yankees won their division by a dozen games and the writers did not often vote for players who were not on pennant winners or at least serious contenders in those days, not for first place in the MVP running, anyway.  

He blames, perhaps rightly, the three first-place votes for the resurgent firstbaseman, George McQuinn, who had been released by the Philadelphia Athletics a year before but hit over .300 for the Yankees as they won the AL pennant running away.  McQuinn was out of MLB a year later after hitting just .248, but in the mean time it looked an awful lot like McQuinn was the reason they won.  

Personally, I thought the seven first place votes given to Yankees super-reliever Joe Page had more to do with it than that, but in any case, The Kid Lost and the Yankee Clipper won, and that was that.  

However, this McQuinn "correlation = causality" argument reminds me of the 2003 AL MVP vote.  Shannon Stewart got traded to the Twins for Bobby Kielty and a PTBNL at the All Star break.  They were 44-49 at the time, but they went 46-23 in the second half, the best record in baseball.  Stewart hit .322 with 6 homers and 38 RBI (2.6 bWAR), which made it seem like Stewart was the reason they were winning.  

In reality, the team as a whole hit almost exactly as well in the second half (779 OPS) as they had in the first (768), even though Stewart himself was markedly better than the guy he largely replaced in the lineup, Bobby Kielty, had been.  The lineup did average almost 5.4 runs per game after the break, compared to 4.6 before, but that must have been due to the timeliness of their hitting more than its overall quality.  

In fact it was the pitching staff that got its act together in the second half, pitching to a 3.96 ERA, compared to the 4.74 they had racked up before the break.  In particular Brad Radke and Kenny Rogers both pitched notably better, and Johan Santana just pitched more, as the Twins finally realized tat he should be starting every 5th day.  

At around the same time, the White Sox traded for Carl Everett, another outfielder who really picked up his game after being traded.  He hit .301 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs (2.0 bWAR) for the Pale Hose, and Chicago went 41-27 in the second half, after playing 5 games under .500 in the first half.  Simultaneously, the first-place, 51-41 Royals (!) went back in the tank for the second half (32-38) and fell to third.  

And for what it's worth, at around the same time the Blue Jays, who had traded Stewart away, also played better in the second half.  Using the same logic, then, this would suggest that Stewart's absence was the reason the Jays started winning, which is only slightly more silly a suggestion than the previous one.  

In any case, Everett didn't get a single MVP vote of any kind (nor, for that matter, did Bobby Kielty), while Stewart got three first place votes and finished 4th overall!  So, what gives?  

Well, there were two things at play here:

  1. The Twins ended up winning their division by four games over the White Sox.  In particular, they went 5-2 against Chicago in September, in the heat of the pennant race, including a three-game sweep at home that was part of an 11-game winning streak which effectively put the last nail in the coffin for the ChiSox.  They went from two games behind Chicago on September 9th, after losing to the White Sox twice in a row, to 3.5 games up on Chicago on September 18th, after that sweep.  So the optics were there, the Twins literally overtaking the White Sox down the stretch, even if Stewart himself didn't especially do anything remarkable in those particular games or in the pennant drive in particular (he hit .289 with zero homers in September).    
  2. Jayson Stark, senior baseball writer on ESPN.com and regular contributor to ESPN's various online and cable TV products, such as SportsCenter and Mike & Mike in the Morning, was lobbying hard for Stewart to get the MVP.  

Admittedly, others made this argument as well (Mark Sheldon from MLB.com, Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, who may have had a bit of a home bias) but none with as large an audience or as much clout in the world of baseball journalism as Stark. Stark has made something of a career of finding interesting looking numbers in baseball and writing about them, but of course just because they're interesting - or more to the point, just because they correlate with winning - does not necessarily mean they're meaningful or causal.  

My favorite, which I learned about in Psychology I as a freshman at Lehigh, is the Superbowl indicator.  From 1967-1997, the conference that won the SuperBowl correlated at 90% with the way the Dow Jones finished, though there is really no good causal explanation for this.  My psych professor used it to remind us that correlation never implies causality, an expression he repeated so often that I can still hear his voice in my head as I type it out, now almost 27 years later.  

Likewise, there is no more reason to believe that McQuinn deserved all the credit for the success of the 1947 Yankees than that Stewart deserved it for the 1997 Twins.  Or that the Superbowl conference winner deserves credit for the stock market finishing up (or down).  But it's an easy case to make, and harder to disprove when the optics seem to support it.  

In 1947, nobody had the kind of audience that Stark did in 2003, but writers like Dick Young or Jimmy Cannon probably had wider readership than just about anybody else out there, writing for the New York papers, and may have advocated for McQuinn's votes with their fellow writers as well as their readers.  

We'll probably never know, exactly.  But it's interesting to consider how these decisions may have been made.  None of them occurs in a vacuum, and the modern day decision makers (if indeed 2003 can even be considered "modern day" anymore) are not immune to the same kinds of flawed lines of logic.   

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30 July 2020

Missing the Markakis in the Quest for 3,000

The news today that Nick Markakis is to rejoin the Braves, having changed his mind about opting out due to concerns over COVID-19 reminded me of this article I read on MLB.com more than two years ago, in which the possibility of Markakis eventually getting to 3,000 career hits was discussed.  That article was inspired by another one from the Sporting News, which I did not read at the time.

But I read the first one with interest because Joe Posnanski wrote it, and he's like, my hero and stuff, and because it was on the official website of Major League Baseball.  If MLB says it, well, it must be worth considering!  Joe apparently either read the article in TSN on his own or was alerted to it by an editor who asked him to run with the theme of whether Markakis had a real shot at the 3,000 hit club.

The theory, at the time, basically went like this:

  • Markakis already had over 2,000 hits, and was "only" 34 years old.
  • Markakis was off to a really hot start (hitting .336 with walks and power when the article was posted online).  
  • Other players in the 3,000-hit club (Rickey, Raffy, Winfield, Biggio) were actually behind Markakis' hit-pace at that age
  • Markakis plays almost every day, so he doesn't have to be awesome to get his hits.  

The other factor, possibly, was that the original article was written by a Braves' homer with a deadline to meet.  Dave Jordan wrote that article for TSN, but I can't find anything else he's ever written for them.  He appears to have covered sports for the Brunswick (GA) News in 2015, but not since then.  His Facebook page says he did the same for the Chatsworth (GA) Times, but it is not clear when or for how long.  He appears to be now retired, though he still comments frequently on Georgia sports issues.  Old habits die hard, I guess.

The article itself is full of the kinds of meaningless tidbits you tend to see in local sports pages from home-friendly writers, quasi-analysis to justify his take (focused mostly on Markakis' durability and seemingly favorable comparisons).  That, and quotes from his manager or hitting coach about how "driven" he is or how he "never lets off the pedal", and from the player himself about how he tries not to over think things and to takes it one day at a time.

Posnanski's take on it was a little more nuanced, a little more guarded, though he exaggerated a bit:

Then Markakis settled into being, well, the sort that scouts will call "a professional ballplayer." They're all professionals, if you want to be technical about it, but Markakis was one of those guys who went out there every day and, without fanfare, without flash, without fail, just did his job. He hit around .300. You could count on him for 40-plus doubles and 20 or so homers. He played a solid outfield. One year he led the league in sacrifice flies.

Markakis was the kind of guy who would lead the league in sacrifice flies.

In reality, Markakis had not hit 20 homers in a decade by then, and had not hit 40 doubles since 2010 (though he would end up hitting 43 in 2018). The problem with saying that a player does his job "without fanfare, without flash" is that while the phrase implies that you won't see the kind of antics you see from the likes of Wille Mays Hayes, what we really mean is that the player is not excellent at anything.

He hits for a decent average.  He has modest power.  He doesn't make mistakes on the basepaths (indeed, because he rarely takes chances).  He plays solid (or serviceable) defense.  The top comps for Markakis include the likes of Buddy Bell, Cesar Cedeno, Al Oliver, and Bill Buckner.  Guys who you might describe as "pretty good for a long time" and not a whole lot more.  There are worse things to be described as than "workmanlike" but it rarely gets you to the Hall of Fame, and anyway those guys tend to peter out by age 37 or so.

Speaking of comparisons, Pos compared Markakis to the eerily similar Johnny Damon at that age.  Their numbers were nearly identical at the time, and Damon would go on to have four more productive seasons after age 33.

Then, he just disappeared.

Damon hit .222 in 61 games in 2012 and was released by Cleveland, never to play again.  He was, and will likely forever remain, 231 hits shy of 3,000 and an all-but-certain Hall of Fame election.  As it was, when his name first appeared on the ballot, he got 1.9% of the vote and was removed from the running, probably forever.  The fact that he ranks 330 (!) players better in career bWAR than recent Cooperstown inductee Harold Baines is unlikely to help him much. 

Posnanski cited Bill James' Favorite Toy, his milestone prediction tool, which at the time gave Markakis a 28% chance of reaching 3,000 hits.  That sounds about right, maybe even a little high.  Certainly not as optimistic as Dave Jordan seemed to be.  Posnanski talked about how Markakis would need to have a really incredible career from there on out to have a real shot at it, a Raul-Ibanez-kind of second half (or latter third) of his career, which of course are few and far between.   

For what's it's worth, I really did not buy it at the time, but the take looks particularly bad now, more than two years later.  Why?  Well, for one thing, latter-half careers like the one Ibanez had don't come around very often.  It appears that Ibanez was probably better than the Mariners realized at the time (also he was a disaster on defense), so they kept running a cavalcade of former stars out to left field instead of giving Ibanez a real shot:  Rich Amaral, Rickey Henderson, Brian Hunter, Glenallen Hill.  Finally Ibanez became a free agent and signed with the Royals, for whom "disaster" was just one of many typical adjectives to describe them, so why not!  He hit well in his first season (though he did not qualify for a batting title for the first time until he was 30) and he didn't stop hitting for more than a decade!

But Markakis has been around for a decade and a half at this point.  He's a known commodity, and therefore unlikely to suddenly "break out" as Ibanez did, because he's already had 14 years in which to prove he can be something more than "workmanlike" and has yet to do so.

Also, Markakis has a few things going against him that he did not at the time:

  • After that hot start in 2018 (he was hitting .354 with an OPS just north of 1.000 at the end of play on May 5th) he essentially went back to being the "professional ballplayer" he's always been, hitting .282/.346/.407 the rest of the 2018 season, almost exactly in line with his career totals prior to 2018 (.288/.358/.422).  
  • While his rate numbers did not suffer in 2019 (.285/.356/.420) he missed significant time last year, for only the second time in his career.  He got hit on the wrist by a pitch and missed almost two months, playing in only 116 games total, and amassing only 118 more hits, 55 fewer than he had averaged in his previous six seasons.  
  • He, like everyone else, will have missed about 100 games this season due to COVID-19.  That's probably cost him about 100 more hits, given his standard production.  
That's basically a whole season worth of games lost between last year and this, games he can never get back. 
Actually, Markakis will have missed even more, since he opted out on July 6th and has therefore not been working out with the team, and so cannot just show up at the stadium and expect to get his name in the lineup tonight like the hero in some cheesy sports rom-com.  Maybe he comes back quickly and misses, say, only 10 games total of the 2020 season.  That still means he has less than a third of a true season to play this year, maybe 50 games total. 

At his usual rate of production (assuming no deterioration of skills due to age, which is unlikely) we might expect Markakis to get about 50 hits in a little over 200 plate appearances.  That will give him a little more than 2,400 hits for his career, as he heads into his age 37 season.

But it's actually even worse than that.  The outfield crop for the Braves is pretty crowded already without Markakis:

  • Ronald Acuna, one of the bet players in the game, has center field nailed down.  
  • Marcell Ozuna is just 29, which happens also to be the number of homers he hit last season, to go with a dozen steals.  Sure, his beard is ridiculous, but the man can hit.  
  • Adam Duvall may have hit 30+ homers a couple of times, but he's basically a backup at this point in his career.  He's an ideal platoon partner, as he tends to struggle against righties while crushing lefties.  
  • Scott Schebler and Ender Inciarte are both lefty batters, like Markakis, though both with something to offer that Markakis does not.  Schebler has some pop (he hit 30 homers for the Reds in 2017) and Inciarte has speed and defense.  He's stolen 20+ bases three times, and has won three (deserved) Gold Gloves.  (Admittedly Markakis also has three of them, but he had a negative dWAR in each of those three seasons.  The Fielding Bible awards write-ups have never even mentioned him, much less awarded him anything.)  
The Braves, like everyone this year, can also use a DH, but they already have Matt Adams, a lefty hitter with 20+ homers each of the last three seasons, albeit with batting averages below .250 in two of those seasons.  Adams cannot hit lefties (no seasons above .220 since 2016) but then neither can Markakis, as we will see...

Reports suggest that Markakis is expected to be a platoon player whenever he does come back.  This makes some sense, as Markakis has not been great against lefties for quite a while, and fared particularly poorly against them last season, hitting just .245 (compared to .298 against RHPs).

In the last seven seasons, dating all the way back to 2013, Markakis has averaged .269 with about one home run a year against southpaws, compared to .286 with 9 homers per season against righties.  Still not great, but serviceable.

And therein lies the problem.  Players who are "not great, but serviceable" do not amass 3,000+ hits.  Especially when they fit that category only against right handed pitchers, and have really never gotten above that level in their whole careers.

Everyone - literally everyone - who eventually reached that 3,000-hit plateau was legitimately excellent at some point in his career, usually for quite a while, and often at more than one aspect of the game.  Thirty two different players have at least 3,000 hits and among them, they averaged more than eleven .300+ batting average seasons per career and almost three batting titles each, and none had fewer than four seasons of hitting .300 or better.

Markakis has only two such seasons, 2007 and 2008, when he hit .300 and .306, respectively.  So he has not hit .300 for a season in a dozen years, and has never come close to a batting title.

Even those in the 3K club who did not hit .300 often had incredible longevity, generally bolstered by other skills and/or their status as an icon in the game or for their particular franchise:

  • Carl Yastrzemski "only" hit .300 six times, but he also won three batting titles including a Triple Crown in 1967.  He played in an era in which batting averages were low for everyone, famously winning the AL batting title in 1968 hitting just .301, the only player in the Junior Circuit to hit .300 that season.)  He was a Red Sox icon who played for 23 seasons, was still an everyday player at age 39, and a serviceable part timer after that.  
  • Eddie Murray never won a batting title, but he led the majors hitting .330 in 1990 for the Dodgers despite not actually leading his league.  How?  Willie McGee was hitting .335 in 501 at-bats with the Cardinals when he got traded to Oakland, where he hit only .274 against American League pitchers, bringing his MLB season average down to .324.  However, he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the NL batting title already, so he won it instead of Murray.  In any case, Murray hit .300 or better seven times and amassed more than 500 homers (including 20+ at ages 39 and 40).  They called him Steady Eddie for a reason, not just the rhyme.  
  • Cal Ripken Jr. hit .300+ only four times, and never won a batting title, but he played in over 3,000 games, including several of them consecutively, as I understand it.  
  • Adrian Beltre, Robin Yount and Rafael Palmiero each hit .300 or better six times but did not win a batting title between them.  Beltre and Raffy both hit for power and almost never missed a game.  Beltre almost never walked, either, which gave him more chances for hits.  Beltre and Yount both played excellent defense at key positions (whereas Markakis is a replaceable right fielder).  Also, Yount was washed up at age 37, the age Markakis will be in 2021.  He only got to 3,000 because he was a regular at the age of 18.  
  • Craig Biggio and Dave Winfield each hit .300 or better four times without winning a batting title, but Winfield was still productive into his 40s (he hit .290/26/108 for the 1992 Blue Jays at the age of 40) and hung on for a few years as a bat-for-hire to get his 3,000th hit.  Biggio was, frankly, kind of an albatross around the neck of the Astros' offense by the last few seasons of his career, but by then he was a demigod in Houston, so he got his at-bats.
  • Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock never won a batting title, but each hit .300+ more than half a dozen times, and both were after the career stolen base record (and others, in Rickey's case) late in their careers, so they got to stick around long enough to amass 3,000 hits.  
  • Others in the 3K club who never won a batting title include Derek Jeter, Paul Molitor and Eddie Collins, but they each hit .300 or better at least a dozen times!  
  • And the rest of those 32 players?  Most of them were so good, you know them by their nicknames: Charlie Hustle, Hammer, The Georgia Peach, The Man, The Machine, Tris, Cap, Flying Dutchman, Say Hey, Nap, Mr. Padre, Mr. Tiger, Ichiro, A-Rod, Big Poison, Chicken Man.  
  • Also Rod Carew, George Brett and Roberto Clemente, who each hit .300+ more than ten times and won at least three batting titles, despite not having a good nickname.  All of them are absolute icons of MLB history, often the best player in their franchises' history.   

So there you have it:

The road to 3,000 hits is either to hit .300 early and often, or to stick around forever compiling hits based on your other skills even while that ability has declined.  Yes, everyone who has amassed 3,000+ hits is in the Hall of Fame, but as you've seen, each of those players brought something else to the table, too, often several things.  Markakis fits none of those categories.  He's never been an excellent hitter, topping out at what you might call "pretty good" more than a decade ago.  He doesn't walk a ton, or steal bases, or hit for power, or play great defense, and now he doesn't even hit lefties at all.

That same Predictor that gave him a 28% shot at it two-plus years ago?    Well, if you give him credit for, say, 45 hits this year i.e. what we might expect from his normal production but in slightly reduced playing time due to the delays and being platooned, he would have exactly 2400 hits at the end of 2020.  If we project out those 45 hits over, say 150 games (to account for the model not knowing about COVID-19), and use that in the Favorite Toy, he ends up with just a 7% chance at 3,000 hits.

And that is already giving him credit for a bunch of hits he doesn't yet have, and assumes that the 2021 season is something resembling normal, and that Markakis is playing in it.  If he misses more time this year, or spends more time on the bench because Ozuna, Duvall, Inciarte and others are all more productive, that chance can drop to zero in a hurry.  Markakis is only on a $4 million, one-year contract.  That's a rounding error for the giant banking conglomerate that owns the Braves.  They could drop him like a hot potato, and he might not catch on anywhere, like Damon.

And all that talk about how he could get to 3,000 hits would seem silly in retrospect, if it doesn't already. 

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05 March 2020

Ken Griffey Jr. and NL Gold Glove Voting Trends

One of the more fun aspects of Joe Posnanski's run-down of the 100 greatest players of all time over at The Athletic is his tendency to go down into "rabbit holes".  He'll chase something that takes his fancy and the next thing you know you've learned about all the notable players named after US Presidents, or about the Negro Leagues, or about whether Warren Spahn really threw a screwball.  Or whatever.

Also, I like that these articles often send me off into some rabbit hole of my own, usually due to some throwaway line in the article. Thrown away only because (I imagine) - with 100 of these articles to write in 100 days - Joe simply does not have time to chase down every one of these esoteric little tidbits, not because he doesn't want to.

A few weeks ago it was about how/why Robin Roberts somehow did not win the 1952 NL MVP Award.  The answer to that, the three or four of you who may have read my blog post will recall, was that the sportswriters were dumb and inexplicably voted for relief pitchers with unusually high Win totals on the merits of they'd never seen that before.

Today's rabbit hole comes from the article on player #48, Ken Griffey Jr.

Griffey was traded to Cincinnati by request just 10 or so weeks after he turned 30. He was good in his first year with the Reds — he hit 40 homers and slugged .556 — but for the first time since he was a rookie, he did not win a Gold Glove.*

*The voters, oddly, gave a Gold Glove to Steve Finley instead. Look, over his career, Griffey won several Gold Gloves that, in retrospect, look questionable, but it’s entirely unclear how he could have lost the 2000 Gold Glove to Finley, who was playing with a bulging disc in his back and had well-below-average range that year. 

So this got me to looking into the history of NL outfield Gold Glove Awards.

The first ones were given in 1957, but these were for all the major leagues.  Willie Mays won one, of course, but so did Al Kaline of the Tigers and Minnie Minoso of the White Sox.  The next year they split them up by leagues, and the NL winners were Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson.

In those days they actually assigned ones to Left, Center and Right field, though that would change in 1961 when they just started giving them to any three outfielders, which meant (usually) Roberto Clemente and two center fielders.  If you were assigned to Left, it was usually because you were not a good defender in the first place.

From 1961-68, the NL Awards went to Mays, Clemente and someone else, usually Curt Flood.  Those three won them six years in a row, the longest such stretch in history.  Fifteen years earlier, White America would have never even see those three play.  Think about that for a while. 

By 1969, Mays was 38, and played in only 117 games, so Pete Rose won "his" award.  Then Curt Flood got himself embroiled in a legal controversy you may have heard of, so he was no longer playing in 1970, and Tommie Agee won that award instead, along with Rose and Clemente.

In 1971, Rose and Agee were replaced by Bobby Bonds and Willie Davis.  And that is the last time until 1995 that two new players will the NL Gold Glove in the same year, almost a quarter of a century later.

You see, I think Griffey's failure to win the 2000 NL Gold Glove comes down to what you might call "institutional inertia".  The NL GG voters - managers and coaches - evidently rarely deviated much from whomever they had voted for last year. In the AL, though the number of different players winning Gold Glove awards in the outfield is nearly identical overall, there was a lot more year-to-year change than in the NL, for some reason. 

But for the NL, between 1962 and 2005, a span of 44 seasons, only three(!) times did two of the three outfield Gold Glove awards go to people who had not won it the previous year.  The first was the one I just mentioned.  The other two:

1995: Finley, Grissom, Mondesi (Grissom, Barry Bonds and Darren Lewis had won in 1994)
1997: Bonds, Mondesi and Larry Walker (following Bonds, Finley and Grissom in 1996)

And that's the end of the list.  In the other 41 seasons, no more than one change was made from the previous year, and seven times, no changes happened at all.

I don't know if this means that those players really were that dominant or if it means the managers and coaches were just lazy and generally voted for whomever they listed last year, unless that player changed leagues, or positions or died or something.  It's just an observation of a trend.

Anyway, as for the NL Gold Glove situation in Y2K...

In 1999, Finley, Andruw Jones and Larry Walker had won the NL Gold Gloves.

Jones, was, of course, AMAZING in CF with 3.8 dWAR, not that anyone knew this at the time, since that statistic did not exist yet, but they knew he was awesome.  That easily led all NL outfielders, which is to say that he deserved the award.  Finley was 3rd in dWAR (1.9), a good distance behind Mike Cameron (2.6), but deserving, nonetheless.  Larry Walker actually had the worst defensive season of his career in 1999, -1.2 dWAR, but he also threw out 13 runners in just 114 games, and those are the kinds of things voters remember, I suppose.

In 2000, well, Finley and Jones were both still healthy and productive but Larry Walker was injured (because of course he was...) so who should the third OF award go to?

If you look at dWAR among NL outfielders in 2000 (min 130 games), the top 3 were Jones (2.7), Tom Goodwin (1.4) and Griffey (1.3), with Richard Hidalgo (1.2) hot on their heels.   Edmonds was 11th, at 0.4 dWAR.  Finley was 18th (!), at exactly zero.  But voters can be fooled by recency bias and by SportsCenter, so here we are. 

The trouble, I think, was that Griffey joined the NL in the same year as Jim Edmonds - who simply *looked* a lot more exciting out there in CF, made more SportsCenter highlights, etc.  So, even though Griffey covered more ground, made more plays, etc., Edmonds had one more Assist, made one less Error, and that's as far as anyone probably looked at the numbers at that time.  They likely never even thought much about Goodwin or Hidalgo of the fact that The Kid made 24 more Put Outs in CF than Edmonds.

In 2006, the voting started to change in character.  With the advent of better measuring sticks for defense, voters started paying more attention, doing more homework as it were, and the voting became less of a popularity contest.  In 2011 they went back to awarding Left, Right and Center-fielders separately.  In 2013 they incorporated a sabermetric element to account for 25% of the vote weight.  And it's all helped.

In the 14 most recent seasons, i.e. since 2006, only three times have the NL Gold Gloves been awarded to two or more of the previous year's winners.  Just as many times, all three winners have been someone who did not win the previous year.  And every year since 2006 has seen at least one brand new name appear on the list of awards, including eight seasons with two new names.  Not just two who didn't win last year, but two who had never won before. 

But 20 years ago, none of that was happening.  Steve Finley was winning the award despite being exactly average on defense.  Rafael Palmeiro was winning the AL GG award for first base despite playing only 28 games there.  Jermaine Dye won an AL Gold Glove that year, and he was straight up terrible! (In fact he only had a positive dWAR in a full season once in his 14-year career!)  It was chaos!

So yes, Griffey probably deserved that award in 2000.  But since the same system had allowed him to win the award with a negative dWAR of his own twice (1992 and 1999) as well as in a season in which he played only 72 games (1995) perhaps the system does not owe him anything?

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21 January 2020

Notes on the MLB HoF Voting before the 2020 Announcements

Modern technology is great.

For the last decade or so, a small group of devoted fans, led by Ryan Thibodaux, has been collecting the publicly and privately confessed Cooperstown voting results from BBWAA members  prior to the announcement of the actual vote, which is anticipated tonight at 6PM.  Far from eliminating any tension or wonder before the official announcements, this serves only to increase it, or perhaps just change its nature.  

Since we only know a portion of the voting results (they have a little over half of the ballots accounted for at this point) they also calculate the percentage and number of remaining ballots needed to make enshrinement, or to meet the 5% minimum requirement for staying on the ballot. They track not just which sportswriters voted for whom, but who they didn't vote for, if they did last year, and who they may have added to their ballot.  Additions are coded in green, retractions in red.  

Pete Abraham, for example, added Todd Helton and Billy Wagner to his ballot.  Filip Bondy removed Gary Sheffield (in his 6th year of eligibility) but added Helton, Jeff Kent, Manny Ramirez and Larry Walker, in his 10th and final year.  Bondy used all 10 of his available votes, so you can see why he would think Sheffield expendable, if it meant giving Walker one last chance at enshrinement.  

Peter Gammons, on the other hand, removed Helton and Walker from his ballot, but added Kent.  Gammons has also consistently voted for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, so I guess it's OK to be a loudmouth who jokes about reporters being killed or a cheater who uses drugs to improve his results, but being an awesome hitter in Colorado is somehow no longer acceptable behavior.  Man, having his face on the $20 bill has really gone to Gammons' head.  

Other curious things to note here:

  • Derek Jeter is the only player named on every ballot so far.  With Mariano Rivera having finally broken the longstanding trend of non-unanimous voting results, writers have no good reason not to vote for an obvious Hall of Famer like Jeter except spite.  Nobody can stand any longer on the logic of, "If Joe DiMaggio didn't get in on the first ballot then nobody should!"  or, "If Babe Ruth wasn't unanimous then nobody should be!"  That ship has sailed.  There is a precedent now, and it's doubtful any of the BBWAA members want to deal with the backlash from perhaps being the ONE writer who inexplicably refused to vote for Jeter.  

Whatever his shortcomings, and this is not to say that there were none, Jeter checks EVERY box for a Hall of Famer:  He was a 14-time All Star shortstop who hit .310 over a 20-year career on the game's biggest stage, led the team to five World Championships, won five Gold Gloves, five Silver Sluggers, a Rookie of the Year award, and the MVP awards for the All Star game and the World Series.  His postseason career is like another All-Star caliber season unto itself, as he is the career leader in almost everything except homers and RBIs, not the stats you expect from a shortstop who usually hits leadoff.  (He's 3rd and 4th all-time in those, BTW.)  He's the total package, and his defensive shortcomings or perceived overratedness are no reasons to pass him up.  

  • Three voters - Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe, Anthony Reiber of New York Newsday, and former Newsday writer Steven Marcus all voted for ONLY Derek Jeter.  
    • Marcus either did not vote for anyone last year or did not have a vote, as his line shows neither greens nor reds, including the Jeter vote.  
    • Shaughnessy is a well known curmudgeon who's not above making something like this about himself and his own sense of indignation.  Last year he voted only for Mariano Rivera.  
    • The real curiosity is Reiber, who actually had voted for Bonds, Clemens, Pettitte, Ramirez, Schilling and Vizquel last year, but took those away so he could make a statement, I guess.  Maybe in the blinding light of the awesomeness that was Derek Jeter's career he saw that nobody...OK, never mind.  He's an idiot.  
  • Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are getting closer, but are not there yet.  Both have over 70%, but experience suggests that the writers who do not publish their ballots in advance or email the trackers privately about them tend to slant more conservatively in their voting, so those percentages are likely to drop a bit in the final tally.  Since both finished with about 59% last year, though, they're still poised to make a significant jump.  
    • Curiously, two voters, Jon Heyman and Christina Kahrl, have given the nod to Bonds (a 7-time MVP award winner who ostensibly started using PEDs after having already won three of them.) but not to Clemens (a 7-time Cy Young Award winner who ostensibly started using PEDs after having won three of them.)  Clemens even has the better postseason resume, often something of a tiebreaker for tossups like this.  Heyman's logic was picked apart by Deadspin a few years ago, but as far as I can tell, despite all the questions about her ballot on Twitter, Kahrl has not explained her ballot. 
  • Curt Schilling (78%) and Larry Walker (83%) are the only other players polling over the 75% required for enshrinement at this point.  
    • Walker's vote total, like those of Bonds and Clemens, dropped a little more than 11% in the final tally last year, which would put him slightly below the threshold.  Again, the more old-school voters who don't know (or care to know) how to Internet tend to discredit players whom they think received a disproportionate benefit from their home ballpark.  (Jim Rice excepted, evidently.) However, players often get a bit of a bump in their final year, and this being a less crowded ballot than in recent years, Walker may still make it.  
    • Schilling probably will not, as he's just barely over the threshold to begin with, and if he drops as much as he did last year (about 9%) he'll end up well below it, but still close enough to likely achieve enshrinement in 2021, his 9th year on the ballot.  
  • The only other players polling even close to 50% are Omar Vizquel and Scott Rolen.  This is their third year on the ballot, but they've followed very different paths here.  Vizquel started out strong, with 37% and then 43% last year.  He may even end up over 50% this year, as he and Andy Pettitte were the only two from last year who did better in the final count than the pre-announcement polling had showed.   Rolen, however, started at about 10%, then got 17% last year, so if this result holds - he's currently at 47.7% - it would be a ~30% jump in one year, which is pretty rare, I would imagine.  Evidently there is a pretty serious Scott Rolen is better than you think campaign going on somewhere, and it's working.
  • Several players appear likely to fall off the ballot for not receiving at least 5% of the vote.  In fact, several of them have only one vote to date: Cliff Lee, Eric Chavez and Jason Giambi.  
    • Not that I expected him to get elected, or even think he should be, but it surprises me that Giambi isn't getting a little more support.  He has the sort of resume that might have kept him on the ballot in the Old Days - 440 homers, over 2000 hits, an MVP award (and he probably should have won another) - but players like this have gone once-and-done on the ballot several times recently: Carlos Delgado, Lance Berkman, Mo Vaughn, Andres Galarraga, Jim Edmonds, Paul Konerko (who currently has two votes and is epected to fall off the ballot), etc.  
The unfortunate side effect of the so-called Steroid Era and all the wonderful hitters we got to watch at the time is that we don't know whose stats to take seriously, and the BBWAA tends to err on the side of caution.  Plus, Giambi has his sniveling press conference in which he apologized - sorta - for using steroids.  

And he has recency bias going against him.  That is, the way in which his career just kinda petered out over a drawn out time after his Yankees contract probably hurts him a bit, too.   He hit .212 over parts of six seasons at the end of his career, with about as many homers (44) in his last 410 games - more than half in a Rockies uniform - as he did in his MVP season alone (43).  The voters tend to frown on "padded stats" preferring guys to go out closer to their peak.  Take away those six seasons and Giambi's career (.286 batting average, 396 homers, 146 OPS+ in almost 8000 plate appearances) looks a lot like Duke Snider's or Orlando Cepeda's, but also Frank Howard's and Albert Belle's.  Not a slam dunk or anything, but maybe more than one person would have thought him worthy of a check mark.
  • Two players - Rafael Furcal and Alfonso Soriano - have not received a single vote yet.  Furcal I get: He was a pretty good player for a few years, but didn't amass the counting stats the voters like to see.  His defense bumps his overall WAR total to about 40 (Vizquel has about 45, for reference, in about 10 more seasons) which is impressive for a short career, but just not enough.  
  • Soriano, though?  He got some MVP votes, finishing as high as 3rd one season.  He hit over 400 homers, had over 2000 career hits, had a 40-40 season and just missed a second one by a single homer. You'd think someone would give him a vote.  I mean, Danny Tartabull got a single vote, for crying out loud, and Soriano hit 150 more homers!  Danny Tartabull!  
Anyway, it'll be interesting to see how this goes tonight.  I fully expect Jeter to be unanimous and Walker to just make the cut, but that should be it.  

Next year though, with all of these guys carrying over and nobody who seems particularly like a Hall of Famer being added to the ballot (Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Torii Hunter are the best of the new nominees next year) it could be Clemens, Bonds, and Schilling giving speeches on the dais in Cooperstown next July.  

It may be a good year to get cheap accommodations and tickets to the ceremonies.  To paraphrase  Yogi Berra, people will be staying away in droves.  

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