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Mike Trout, Out of Context

Recently, Mike Trout was officially named the Most Valuable Player in the American League. To celebrate, let’s take Trout out of context and put him in a new one.

Part of the reason many fans believed Trout was more valuable than Miguel Cabrera in 2012 and 2013 was his home park. Angel Stadium is a pitcher’s park, whereas Comerica Park in Detroit is pretty average for hitters. In 2012, when Trout won AL Rookie of the Year but finished behind Cabrera for AL MVP, park effects played a huge, obvious role in the voting results. If you take out the home field and just look at road games, Trout’s batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage were all better than Cabrera’s:

Cabrera:         .327 / .384 / .529
Trout:             .332 / .407 / .544

Furthermore, this is a tough time to objectively evaluate hitters. Offensive production isn’t nearly at the level it was five or ten years ago, so stats that would’ve looked pedestrian in 2004 now lead the league. It’s tough to appreciate the greatness of a young player like Trout in a depressed offensive environment. So let’s take Mike Trout out of that environment and put him in a better one: Coors Field. From 1998-2001.

Using the Neutralized Batting tool at Baseball-Reference, I moved Mike Trout’s career back in time by 13 seasons and put him on the Colorado Rockies. Here are the horrifying numbers this produced:

Year Age G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI
1998/2001 19 40 145 130 29 34 7 0 6 23
1999/2012 20 139 728 623 207 246 36 11 40 133
2000/2013 21 157 834 661 179 262 54 13 38 159
2001/2014 22 157 782 652 172 223 51 12 46 166
TOTAL   493 2489 2066 587 765 148 36 130 481

You’ll notice that in Trout’s rookie season (1999/2012), he broke Billy Hamilton‘s century-old single-season record for runs scored. The following year, he made 834 plate appearances and tied Ichiro Suzuki’s single-season hits record, while pounding out 105 extra-base hits. This past season was his third straight with 220 hits, and he drove in 166 runs. He has a combined 338-340 runs + RBI in each full season. More stats:

1998/2011 19 40 145 5 12 59 .262 .331 .454 .785
1999/2012 20 139 728 67 90 424 .395 .473 .681 1.154
2000/2013 21 157 834 45 152 456 .396 .512 .690 1.202
2001/2014 22 157 782 20 107 436 .342 .439 .669 1.108
TOTAL   493 2489 137 361 1375 .370 .467 .666 1.132

Let’s get right to the point here: Coors Field Mike Trout has a slugging percentage of .666, because this version of the man is obviously the devil (or possibly Ty Cobb). His career slash line is .370/.467/.666, for an OPS of 1.132. He stole 67 bases as a rookie, batting .395. For an encore the next season, he walked 152 times and still gained 456 total bases. This was possible because he hit .396/.512/.690. This most recent season (the MVP year) was comparably pedestrian, but it was his third straight season with over 420 total bases.

The 2000/2013 season is particularly nuts. Trout made 834 PA, so that’s obviously part of it, but he had 262 hits and 152 walks (plus 13 HBP). That’s 427 times on base. No, seriously.

And this is just batting. Other than the stolen bases, we haven’t said anything about his (excellent) baserunning, or his defense, which was sensational in 2012. Trout is a great player in any context, but in pre-humidor Coors Field, he is a terrifying offensive force. Congratulations, Mr. Trout.

Bill James Awards

The piece below is not endorsed by Bill James, writer and sabermetrician, or, for that matter, anyone else named Bill James. Mr. James did not contribute to this piece and I make no claim that it expresses his views.

It’s award season in MLB. Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, MVPs … it’s a lot of fun, so let’s review some other, less official awards that should be recognized. Some of these were inspired by The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, while others are just off-the-wall trivia. After the jump, we’ll distribute:

* The George Grantham Award, for above-average performance in every offensive statistic.

* The other George Grantham Award, for errors at a key defensive position.

* The Joe Morgan Award. This honors the best percentage player in baseball, not idiocy in public statements.

* The Craig Biggio “little stats” award.

* The Ernie Lombardi Award, for great hitting despite slowness afoot. Measured as the difference between BA and BABIP.

* The other Ernie Lombardi Award, for worst GDP rate.

* The Ned Garvin Trophy, recognizing valorous performance by a pitcher on a bad team.

* The George Brett Citation, for exceptionally balanced offensive skills. Related awards include the Barry Bonds Distinction and the Jesus Alou Demerit.

* The Ozzie Guillen Trophy for fewest walks per plate appearance.

* The Jim Palmer Award, for outperforming one’s FIP, and its opposite, the Nolan Ryan Trophy.

* Also some quick ones: the Tris Speaker Trophy, the Sam Crawford Medal, the Mulcahy Award, and the Roger Maris Decoration.

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MLB 2014 All-Loser Team

I’m mostly an NFL writer. For years, I’ve been naming an NFL All-Loser Team at the end of each regular season. It’s an all-star team comprised exclusively of players whose teams missed the postseason. You can view it as a celebration of players who may be underrated or underappreciated because their teams aren’t very good, or you can view it as a shot at people who insist you can’t be that great if your team didn’t make the playoffs. Up to you. It’s a fun project, and it’s easy to apply to MLB as well football.

Here’s what you’re getting after the jump:

* Four teams. We’ll do an American League All-Loser Team, National League All-Loser Team, MLB All-Loser Team, and an all-star team taken exclusively from the six clubs that finished last in their divisions.

* For each list, we’ll do nine position players (the NL gets a pinch-hitter instead of a DH), and I’ll show my imaginary batting order. Each team will also feature a five-man rotation, a right-handed reliever, and a left-handed reliever. So, 16 players per team.

* I’ll offer some minimal commentary on the teams, with a paragraph or two for each team to discuss surprising selections and close calls. For the MLB team, I’ll list the top three in fWAR at each position and explain my selections. There’s nothing earth-shattering here, unless you think we can’t make a wicked lineup out of players from losing teams.
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Is Nolan Ryan Overrated by FIP?

Nolan Ryan was a singular pitcher. He’s unique in baseball history, so distinct that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m going to begin with the obvious: strikeouts. Nolan Ryan struck out 5,714 batters, 17% more than second-place Randy Johnson. Only 16 pitchers in history recorded half as many strikeouts as Nolan Ryan. He led his league in strikeouts 11 times, the most since Walter Johnson (12).

Ryan also walked the most batters in history — 2,795. Steve Carlton is second on that list, with 1,833. Ryan averaged 4.67 BB/9 and 12.4 BB%. Both figures are higher than anyone else who pitched even half as many innings. Ryan led his league in walks eight times.

Ryan also threw 277 wild pitches, most since 1900. He allowed 757 stolen bases, almost 40% more than second-place Greg Maddux. Ryan led AL pitchers in errors four times, and retired with a ghastly .895 fielding percentage. Joe Posnanski summed up Ryan’s career, “He’s the most extraordinary pitcher who ever lived, I think. But I also think he’s not especially close to the best.”

Nolan Ryan is unique, and it makes him hard to evaluate. Casual fans and the old-school crowd have always worshiped Nolan Ryan. His uniform number was retired by three different teams, and he was the leading vote-getter, among pitchers, for the MLB All-Century Team. He got more than twice as many votes as Walter Johnson. But when you really look at his stats, Ryan doesn’t come off well.

Take wins. Yes, the pitcher win, because this is surprising. In a career that spanned 26 seasons (not including 1966, when he had only one decision), Ryan only led his team in wins 7 times. Actually, it’s 5 times outright — 7 counts two years he tied for the lead. In 11 of his 27 seasons (41%), Ryan had a lower winning percentage than the team. He lost more games (292) than anyone but Cy Young and Walter Johnson. What about ERA? Ryan led his league in ERA twice, but in one of those years, he went 8-16. The other year, strike-shortened 1981, he didn’t lead the league in strikeouts, but did lead the majors in wild pitches (16). His 1.25 WHIP ranks 278th all-time. Ryan never won a Cy Young Award and never finished among the top 10 in MVP voting.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. When you look at stats like wins and ERA, Ryan looks more like a good pitcher than a great one. He’s almost a compiler, just a guy who played forever, rather than a true standout. Then you look at FIP. Ryan had a FIP of 2.97 (84 FIP-), and he pitched 5,386 innings, giving him 106.6 WAR. By FIP, Nolan Ryan is the 6th-most valuable pitcher of all time: Roger Clemens, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan.

I suspect the percentage of FanGraphs readers who believe Nolan Ryan was one of the six best pitchers ever is south of 5%, maybe less than 1%. He rates considerably worse by RA9-WAR, 89.5 instead of 106.6, 25th all-time. Even that would seem high to many stat-oriented fans. It’s better than Bob Feller, basically equal to Pedro Martinez. Ryan also ranks 20th in rWAR (83.8), again much lower than when judged by FIP.

I gave this post a stupid title, with an obvious answer. Is Nolan Ryan overrated by FIP? Yes, clearly. His ERA was 20 points higher — in a 28-year, 807-game, 5,400-inning career. I think the numbers stabilize before 5,000 innings. Ryan’s RA9-WAR is 17 points lower than his fWAR, the biggest deficit of any pitcher in history. Ryan is overrated by FIP. That’s not a major revelation. The interesting question is why Nolan Ryan is overrated by FIP — and whether he is underrated by RA and ERA.
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Leadoff Rating 2.0

It feels icky to create a statistical formula based on what “feels right”.

Last month, I introduced a stat called Leadoff Rating, or LOR. The idea was that most systems to identify great leadoff hitters tab players like Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, who would always hit closer to the middle of the order. I wanted to distinguish players specially suited to batting leadoff. The formula was simple: OBP minus ISO. By subtracting isolated power, we identified players who get on base a lot but aren’t true sluggers. It’s an easy calculation, and it produced fairly reasonable results. Two particular things bothered me:

1. Bad hitters occasionally had good leadoff ratings because of their very low ISO.

2. Rickey Henderson ranked 45th.

We know that leadoff is one of the two or three most important positions in the batting order. As little impact as lineup construction has on winning percentage, leadoff hitters are important. But LOR saw high OBP and low ISO as equally meaningful, so players with no power sometimes rated as desirable leadoff hitters. That seemed like something to correct.

Rickey Henderson is generally recognized as the greatest leadoff man of all time. LOR did not show this, for two main reasons. One was that the formula did not include baserunning. The other was that the all-time list slanted heavily towards Deadball players. Before Babe Ruth, everyone had low isolated power. Ty Cobb was a terrific power hitter, who led the AL in slugging eight times. Cobb’s career ISO (.146) is basically the same as Rickey’s (.140). Henderson only ranked among the top 10 in slugging twice. The game has changed.

Based on the feedback of FanGraphs readers and on my own muddlings, I’ve reworked the leadoff rating formula. The new system is more complicated — it’s annoying to do without a spreadsheet — and it’s kind of haphazard. OBP – ISO was a nice system because of its simplicity. With the updated formula, I’m guessing, choosing numbers that seem right. If someone better than I am at math would care to suggest revisions, please do so. I am fully prepared to give this stat away to smart people.

The formula I’m using now is — wait. There’s another calculation I abandoned, but it’s important for explaining how we arrived at the current iteration, and that middle step looked like this: OBP – ( .75 * ISO ) + ( ( .005 * BsR ) / ( PA / 600 ) )

On-base percentage is the heart of leadoff rating. A good hitter, and especially a good leadoff hitter, must get on base. But I only subtracted 3/4 of ISO, because (1) low ISO is not as important as high OBP, and (2) the original formula was probably a little too hard on doubles hitters. Guys like Rickey and Tim Raines ranked too low because they had more power than players like Jason Kendall and Ozzie Smith.

Commenter foxinsox suggested adding (Constant * BsR) to the calculation, which was a fine idea I should have seen earlier. The hitch was turning BsR into a rate stat.  By using BsR/PA or BsR/G, we can incorporate that element smoothly.

When I ran the numbers, the historical lists looked great (Rickey Henderson in the top 10!), but for active players, there were hits and misses. Elvis Andrus came back as the ideal leadoff hitter in 2013, and Craig Gentry (.264/.326/.299) ran away with 2014 to date. Even with the adjustments, LOR rewarded low ISO. While a .250 ISO isn’t really the right fit for the top of the batting order, neither is a sub-.050 ISO. We don’t want a guy who only hits singles, we just don’t want a cleanup hitter. Looking at the historical lists, I found that most of the top players had an ISO right around .100, so I created a Goldilocks formula, preferring a minimal absolute difference from .100 ISO. Rather than simply treating low ISO as desirable, we’re looking for the sweet spot between singles and slugging. The new formula is:

OBP –  .75 * | .100 – ISO |  + ( .005 * BsR ) / ( PA / 600 )

That’s on-base percentage, minus 3/4 of the absolute difference between ISO and .100, plus .005 times BsR per 600 plate appearances. Now very low isolated power is punished just as much as very high ISO.

Hopefully you want to see some lists. I’ll show you five: the all-time list, the post-Jackie Robinson list, the leaders for the 2013 season, 2014 to date (through July 31), and 2014 rest-of-season projections (ZiPS). We’ll also look at the 2014 leaders (both to date and projected) for every team in the major leagues. Read the rest of this entry »

Finding the Ideal Leadoff Hitter

We know, in 2014, that lineup construction has little effect on winning. And yet, it’s not any less frustrating when managers set their batting orders in ways that seem to defy any semblance of logic. Lineup construction matters to us. We may know it’s not terribly important, but we’re fascinated in spite of ourselves.

The lineup position subject to the most debate is probably leadoff. Multiple writers and analysts have noted that players who would make the best leadoff hitters are normally too valuable to use in the leadoff position. Bill James wrote in his New Historical Abstract, “All of the greatest leadoff men … would be guys who aren’t leadoff men, starting with Ted Williams … if you had two Ted Williamses, and could afford to use one of them as a leadoff man, he would be the greatest leadoff man who ever lived.”

Every method I’ve seen to determine great leadoff batters produces names like Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb … players who are probably better suited to the second through fourth spots in the batting order. I think I’ve found a simple method that solves the problem. I’ve always been interested in singles hitters who walk. It’s a skill set that matches our image of the prototypical leadoff batter.

Most fans agree that a good leadoff man should get on base and run the bases well. Most fans further agree that a player who both gets on base and hits with power is more valuable a little later in the order, where he can drive in runs. If we accept that we probably can’t have two Ted Williamses, a realistic ideal of the leadoff batter has a high on-base percentage but doesn’t hit with a lot of power.

With this in mind, I’m adapting a stat I’ve talked about elsewhere to identify optimal leadoff men: OBP minus ISO. In my head, I’ve always called this reverse ISO, but that’s sort of a misnomer, and it’s a little unwieldy, so from here on let’s call this stat combination Leadoff Rating, or LOR. We know a good leadoff man gets on base, but most players with high on-base percentage are great all-around hitters. We know power hitters are usually better suited to other spots in the batting order, but many players with low ISO just aren’t that great. By subtracting isolated power from OBP, we can identify players specially suited to hitting leadoff.

This stat does not include baserunning (because I have no idea how to incorporate it with two percentages) but it turns out not to matter very much. A significant majority of players who rank well in LOR were also accomplished baserunners, and base stealers in particular. Among the top 300 hitters of all time (basically everyone with 2,000 career hits), I found a fairly strong positive correlation between LOR and SB (r=.465). The relationship is weaker if you only look at 1947-present (r=.356), but a degree of positive correlation is clear. In both data sets, n=300.

When you calculate LOR for the all-time top 300 hitters, the leader is Billy Hamilton. That’s Sliding Billy Hamilton, the Hall of Fame outfielder for Philadelphia and Boston in the 1890s, not the rookie phenom for the Cincinnati Reds. The original Hamilton retired with 1,782 singles, 1,187 bases on balls, and 376 extra-base hits. He hit .344/.455/.432, with an ISO of just .088, and an OBP higher than his slugging percentage. Hamilton also stole 912 bases. He is a superb example of the hitter we’re looking for, and he leads the new stat by a huge margin. His .367 LOR rates 12% higher than second-place Eddie Collins (.328). Here’s the top 75: Read the rest of this entry »