October 8th, 2012

A Perspective on the 2012 Season

A week or so ago, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News wrote a piece about SABR Geeks Sabatoging Cy Young and MVP Races. (Incidentally, Bill is a long-time SABR member.) His main concern is that new age stats may interfere with granting the awards to his choice of deserving candidates, namely R.A. Dickey for the NL Cy Young award and Miguel Cabrera for the AL MVP. The “R” in SABR stands for research and implies a level of objectivity and analysis. While it is true the some in the SABR community tend toward the numbers, there is at least an equally strong group at SABR who worship the history of the game and past precedent. Not all SABR people would agree on who the Cy Young and MVP winners should be, but we love to debate the merits of case for the various candidates.

Personally, I prefer to view a player’s accomplishments in context. In my mind, there are five historic season-performances for 2012. In order of achievement, I would rank them as follows:

  1. Mike Trout—he had one of the great seasons in modern times. According to Baseball-Reference.com’s WAR (wins above replacement) stat, only 3 players produced a better season in the last 40 years–Barry Bonds (2001, 2002), Cal Ripken (1991), and Joe Morgan (1975). What makes Trout even more extraordinary is he accomplished this in his age-20 season–an age when most would be major leaguers, including future Hall of Famers, are toiling in the low minor leagues.
  2. Bryce Harper—while Harper’s season was overshadowed by Trout’s accomplishments, no 19 year old in history, not even Mel Ott, accomplished what Harper did this year. According to the same WAR stat, Harper generated 35% more all-around production (offense, defense, baserunning) than Ott’s 1928 season. Offensively, one would need to give the edge to Ott, and perhaps Tony Conigliaro’s 1964 season, but still not bad—the 3rd greatest offensive season by a teenager in the last 90 years.
  3. Craig Kimbrel—last season’s NL Rookie of the Year has outdone himself in his sophomore season, by striking out more than 50% of the batters he’s faced—an all-time record. In 62.2 innings pitched, he K’d 116 of the 231 batters he faced, while allowing only 27 hits. His dominance over hitters resembled Eric Gagne’s Cy Young year with the 2003 Dodgers, when Gagne K’d 45% of the hitters he faced.
  4. Miguel Cabrera—winning the Triple Crown, which no one has done since 1967 is a tremendous feat. The stars were aligned for Cabrera this year as he registered a lower OPS than either of the last two years, but managed to lead the AL in the three triple crown categories. Notwithstanding, there’s no knocking a .999 OPS, 44 HR’s and 139 RBI.
  5. Derek Jeter—his accomplishments in 2012, much like Bryce Harper’s are noteworthy in the context of his age. Jeter recorded the most hits in any age-38 season in baseball history, with 216, topping Pete Rose’s 208. Only Paul Molitor’s 225 hits in his age-39 season top Jeter’s in the over-37 crowd. Making it more historic is that Jeter accomplished this offensive feat while playing the demanding shortstop position and leading the major leagues in plate appearances, all very impressive for a 38-year old.

Bill Madden is not alone in thinking that an historic accomplishment such as a triple crown should automatically translate into an MVP award, making Cabrera’s season the most misunderstood of the five great 2012 season-performances. As we learn more about baseball through the analysis of data, we recognize that batting average and RBI’s—two of the 3 triple crown categories—are not particularly informative in describing a hitter’s contribution to his team’s performance. The single most important thing a hitter can do is to avoid making one of the 27 precious outs in a game, which suggests a revised triple crown to include on-base-percentage, rather than batting average would make for a more informative measure. Runs-batted-in are even more suspect (than batting average) in judging a player’s offensive contribution and are largely dependent on the teammates around the player in question. A high RBI total are often the result of an abundance of RBI opportunities. Perhaps slugging percentage, instead of RBI, would focus the triple crown on measures that a hitter can control.

Another matter working against Miguel Cabrera’s candidacy for the MVP award is that the triple crown ignores defense and baserunning, focusing only on hitting. Given the length of time the triple crown has been around and the state of defensive measures back then (i.e., fielding percentage), it’s no surprise that fielding is not included. In recent years, new statistics have illuminated the value of fielding and helped rate and rank fielder defensive performance. Trout (along with Michael Bourn) is among the top center fielders in all of baseball, while Cabrera is kindly referred to as a below average fielder. If we were talking about a “player of the year” award, I would expect Trout to run away with the designation. Since we are talking about a most “valuable” award, many will consider that Cabrera’s Tigers reached the postseason, while Trout’s Angel’s fell short—perhaps because they called him up to the big leagues too late. I believe there is a case for MVP for both players, but I would easily favor Trout, while appreciating the case for Cabrera.

In expressing his concern over the NL Cy Young award, Bill Madden does not declare the reason for his fear that Dickey may not win the favor of the SABR crowd. I would expect the statistically-minded to rank Dickey high on their candidate list. If we evaluate a starting pitcher based on the things we ask him to accomplish—efficiently prevent runs—then R. A. Dickey ranks atop the list of candidates, along with Clayton Kershaw. I expect Dickey’s W-L record advantage will serve as the tiebreaker versus Kershaw. The one legitimate fear Dickey (or Madden) should have is the historic season by Craig Kimbrel. He will certainly (and deservedly) secure his share of votes. In fact, in the absence of Dickey’s outstanding season, I would expect Kimbrel to win it, but the voter’s bias toward a starting pitcher should be enough to give Dickey this year’s NL Cy Young. As we contemplate and celebrate the postseason awards for the next 6 weeks, let’s not forget to cherish this year’s performances of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Craig Kimbrel, Miguel Cabrera, and Derek Jeter. They made this summer a lot more fun.

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