October 2012

A Most Valuable debate

I am a baseball traditionalist at heart, I really am. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Chicago, where I fell in love with Wrigley Field and National League baseball.

For years, I didn’t like the designated hitter. I also had an affinity for catchers who stuck with the traditional mask. Hitters who didn’t wear batting gloves were my favorites, along with players who wore high socks. I have always loved the long history of the game and the traditions that have been established through the decades.

I love the Triple Crown, I really do. I never thought I’d see a hitter accomplish the feat in my lifetime. It takes such a blend of skills: hitting for average, but still having enough power to produce home runs and the kind of poise it takes to drive runners home to pile up runs batted in at critical points.

Miguel Cabrera is a special hitter and the Detroit third baseman showed just how special a hitter he is by capturing the American League Triple Crown this season. He’d led the league in average, home runs and RBI in separate years, but finally paced his peers in each category in the same season. No one had done that since Yaz in 1967.

This is why, in my heart, I hope Cabrera wins the AL Most Valuable Player Award. There is something magical about winning the Triple Crown, and Cabrera should be rewarded accordingly. Like I said, though, that’s my heart talking.

Anyone who has followed my writing over the years knows my love of statistics and historical perspective. There is plenty to dive into as far as Cabrera’s season is concerned, but I have a problem. The more I dissect the data, the more I delve into the digits, the more I break down the historical elements of the 2012 season, the more my brain tells me that Cabrera should not win the MVP.

I don’t have a vote, but if I did, I would cast it for Angels outfielder Mike Trout. That’s my brain speaking.

It seriously pains me a little to write that, because I really, really do love the Triple Crown.

In my version of a perfect world, Cabrera and Trout would wind up as co-MVPs so both of their seasons could be honored in a way where one isn’t pushed slightly to the side in the history books.

Let’s take a look at some aspects of this polarizing argument.

Cabrera has the edge in games and plate appearances, but you can’t really fault Trout for the fact that the Angels waited to promote him. It is also worth noting that L.A. took off after Trout’s arrival. The Tigers made the playoffs and the Angels didn’t, but L.A. ended with more wins. Again, you can’t fault Trout for the Angels playing in a tougher division than Detroit.

Looking at some of the traditional numbers, Cabrera gets the obvious edge in average, home runs, doubles, hits, extra-base hits, total bases and runs batted in. Trout struck out more, but he also drew more walks and stole a significant higher amount of bases, and he did both in 22 fewer games and 58 fewer plate appearances.

If we’re going to get into “clutch” stats, well, Cabrera has a bit of a leg up.

He had a .714 OPS with two strikes, a .784 OPS when behind in the count, a 1.005 OPS with runners in scoring position, a 1.029 OPS with two outs and a 1.211 OPS with RISP and two outs. Trout’s OPS for the same situations was .699, .657, .951, .986 and .782.

It is also worth noting that Cabrera hit .343/1.083 in his final 35 games of the season, while Trout hit just .269/.824 over his final 37 games. That said, the Angels (24-13) posted a better record than the Tigers (19-16) in those respective spans, so it’s tough to argue that one was more valuable to the team’s performance in that small sample.

Trout played in fewer games, but if you add his extra-base hits, stolen bases and extra bases taken (18), you’ll get 132. Add Cabrera’s extra-base hits, stolen bases and extra bases taken (22) and you get 110. Cabrera’s low stolen base total hurts that number, but it’s still worth pointing out given the gap in games and PAs.

On the basepaths, Trout took an extra base (more than one on a single and more than two on a double) 65-percent of the time, compared to 44-percent for Cabrera. When on base, Trout scored 44-percent of the time, compared to just 28-percent for Cabrera. Part of that is on the men hitting behind them, but their abilities on the bases are also a factor.

If you like WAR — I do to a certain extent — well then Trout is your man. His 10.7 WAR is head and shoulders over the 6.9 mark turned in by Cabrera. That said, that number incudes defense. So, if you isolate offensive WAR, well, Trout still leads 8.6 to 7.4.

Don’t bother with the defense argument. Since we’re comparing an outfielder to a third baseman, I’m not going to focus too much on that. Trout has the clear edge there — no matter how you slice it — but that didn’t factor too much into my take on this situation.

What I wanted to see was history.

One number that jumped out to me was the fact that Trout had 138 runs created (9.4 per game) compared to 139 (8.2 per game) for Cabrera. A player has achieved at least 139 RC in a season 189 times in history. Posting a 138 RC in 139 games or fewer? That’s only been done 20 times in baseball history. The two most recent occurrences (Joe Mauer, 2009; Barry Bonds, 2003) netted MVP awards.

That list includes: Trout (2012), Mauer (2009), Bonds (2003), M. Ramirez (2000), Walker (1999), Thomas (1996), E. Martinez (1996), Thomas (1994), Williams (1957), Williams (1948), DiMaggio (1941), Foxx (1939), DiMaggio (1939), Vaughn (1935), Ruth (1932), Simmons (1931), Simmons (1930), Ruth (1929), Hornsby (1925), Lajoie (1901).

Cabrera has history on his side, too.

In baseball history, there have only been 11 times when a hitter achieved at least .330/.390/.600 with at least 40 homers, 40 doubles, 100 runs, 130 RBI and 200 hits in a single season. If you narrow that to needing at least 44 home runs, here is the list you come up with:

Miguel Cabrera (2012)
Larry Walker (1997)
Lou Gehrig (1934)
Lou Gehrig (1927)
Babe Ruth (1921)

The fact that Trout only played 139 games adds to the historical aspect of his season, though.

In baseball history, there have only been seven instances where a player scored at least 129 runs in 139 games or fewer:

Mike Trout (2012)
Jimmie Foxx (1939)
Joe DiMaggio (1936)
Al Simmons (1930)
Earle Combs (1930)
Rogers Hornsby (1925)
Nap Lajoie (1901)

Of those, only Hornsby, Simmons, Lajoie and Trout had a slash line of at least .325/.390/.560/.960 and at least 180 hits. Trout is the only player of the seven to have more than 27 stolen bases in a single season.

If you search for seasons with at least 40 stolen bases and 129 runs, combined with an OPS+ of at least 170, here is the select group you come up with:

Mike Trout (2012), George Sisler (1920, 1922), Ty Cobb (1911, 1915) and Tris Speaker (1912).

When you take all these things into account, it is hard not to come away thinking Trout was simply the more valuable player throughout his time in the big leagues this season. He didn’t crush as many home runs, or drive in as many runs (can’t fault the guy for hitting leadoff compared to third for Cabrera), but he did more on the diamond that contributed to his team scoring. Isn’t that the bottom line? And Trout did that better than any player in the past seven or eight decades.

We will always have this Triple Crown, this special accomplishment by a special player, but giving Trout the MVP is the right way to go, in my opinion. That does not lessen Cabrera’s feat in any way and, hey, his trophy — an actual crown – is pretty cool. Let Trout have the MVP plaque.

My 2012 season-end award picks

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Most Valuable Player: Mike Trout, Angels
Cy Young Award: David Price, Rays
Rookie of the Year: Mike Trout, Angels
Manager of the Year: Buck Showaler, Orioles

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Most Valuable Player: Buster Posey, Giants
Cy Young Award: R.A. Dickey, Mets
Rookie of the Year: Bryce Harper, Nationals
Manager of the Year: Davey Johnson, Nationals

–JB

Bringing back Ubaldo

In the midst of this past season, during a long off-the-record chat at his locker, an Indians position player expressed his firm belief that Ubaldo Jimenez would pitch more like his old self in 2013.

The theory went something like this: injuries took a toll on Ubaldo’s body in 2011, and 2012 was going to be an up-and-down roller coaster as the pitcher got used to being healthy again, with his velocity returning gradually over the course of the summer. Come 2013, Ubaldo would be more than a year removed from all the stress (mental and physical) of his turbulent 2011 season split between Colorado and Cleveland, with his mechanics smoothed out once again.

Ubaldo would no longer be Big Ugly.

He’d be Big U once again.

We will most likely get a chance to see if this player was on to something with his theory, or whether his prediction was nothing more than false hopes and dreams spewed in the middle of a terrible season. By Wednesday, we will hear — barring an unexpected change in thinking — that Cleveland has exercised Jimenez’s $5.75 million club option for 2013.

The Indians have three club options to sort through: Travis Hafner ($13 million), Roberto Hernandez ($6 million) and Jimenez. Given his history of injury and performance, Hafner is surely going to receive a $2.75 million buyout. Given his legal woes and small sample size from this year, Hernandez is unlikely to be retained at a $6 million salary.

As for Jimenez, expect him to be back in the rotation as things currently stand.

I know, I know. There are plenty of you out there saying Cleveland should dump the Big U — admit the trade was a bust, kick him to the curb and move on already. It’s not that simple, though, folks. If the Tribe declined Ubaldo’s option, he’d earn a $1 million buyout and then be eligible for arbitration.

Sure, the Indians could non-tender Jimenez — making him a free agent — but this is about eliminating risk. If Hernandez is gone (shoot, even if he’s back on a reduced deal and as unpredictable as ever), there is simply too much uncertainty in the rotation.

Justin Masterson is coming off a bad season. Josh Tomlin is out for 2013 due to an injury. Carlos Carrasco is coming back from injury and will surely be on a limited load deep into the summer. Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber showed promise in spurts, but looked overwhelmed and pitched like rookies in other spots. Kevin Slowey’s salary is high enough to make him a non-tender candidate and, even if he were brought back, he’s no sure bet to be a work horse in 2013, either. The free-agent crop? Given the cost of pitching these days, the urgency within Cleveland’s rotation, there’s simply too many holes and not enough dough.

Like it or not, picking up Jimenez’ option is the best option under the circumstances.

OK, you say, but what about declining the option and going to an arbitration hearing? That’s $1 million for the buyout, plus whatever he’d earn through that salary-defining process. Could Cleveland offer less than his 2012 salary ($4.2M)? Only 20-percent less (roughly $3.36M), which would be slightly above his ’12 rate when the buyout is factored in.

There is simply no way Jimenez’s camp would agree to that, though. They’d counter with a salary higher than $5.75 million (the value of his club option), and a panel would then decide between the two salaries (unless the sides reached an agreement before it reached a hearing). Believe it or not, Jimenez’s party would have a case for a larger salary, too.

Consider this, over the course of his career, Jimenez has notched 69 wins, 1,093 IP, 978 strikeouts and a 4.03 ERA in 180 games. If you filter out active players with at least 60 wins, 900 IP, 900 strikeouts, and a 3.75+ ERA over 175+ games, you get a list of comparables that includes:

Erik Bedard, 33: 63 W, 3.85 ERA, 1,077 IP, 1,044 K, 192 G
Chris Capuano, 34: 69 W, 4.28 ERA, 1,162 IP, 969 K, 214 G
Edwin Jackson, 29: 70 W, 4.40 ERA, 1,268.2 IP, 969 K, 234 G
Bruce Chen, 35: 71 W, 4.60 ERA, 1,356.1 IP, 1,022 K, 351 G
Ricky Nolasco, 29: 76 W, 4.49 ERA, 1,113.1 IP, 911 K, 195 G
Joe Blanton, 31: 83 W, 4.37 ERA, 1,434.2 IP, 978 K, 237 G
Wandy Rodriguez, 33: 85 W, 4.03 ERA, 1,381.2 IP, 1,143 K, 240 G

The average 2012 salary for that group is $7.6 million. The average salary of the two 29-year-old pitchers (Jimenez is 28) was $10 million for 2012.

We all know it’s not really fair to look at the career numbers, though. So let’s glance at the last three seasons, when Jimenez went 38-38 with a 4.22 ERA, 537 strikeouts and 586.2 IP over 96 games. Over that span, only one other pitcher hit plateaus of at least 35 wins, 4.00 ERA, 550 IP, 500 K and 80 games.

Ryan Dempster, 35: 37-34, 4.04 ERA, 590.2 IP, 552 K, 96 games.

Dempster is significantly older, but the fact remains that he earned $14 million in 2012 with a similar three-year split as Jimenez. Ubaldo was actually better than Dempster over that span in home runs and hits allowed. And, like Jimenez, Dempster’s three-year split included an off year (10-14 with a 4.80 ERA in 2011).

Once again, however, we all know that it’s not really fair to include Jimenez’s stellar 2010 (19-8, 2.88 ERA) showing given the extent of his struggles in 2011-12. Well, let’s take a look at his past two seasons worth of performances: 19-30, 5.03 ERA, 365 IP, 323 K, 173 BB, 63 G.

There are nine other pitchers who, over the past two years, have had at least 19 wins, 300 IP, 300 K and 50 G with a winning percentage below .500: Trevor Cahill, Ricky Romero, Chris Capuano, Tim Lincecum, Justin Masterson, Wandy Rodriguez, Josh Beckett, Ervin Santana and Anibal Sanchez.

Jimenez’s camp could make quite a salary case based on some of those names, even if you narrow the field a bit more. Of that group, there are four other pitchers with an ERA of 4.00+ over the past two seasons:

Romero, 27: 24-25, 4.19 ERA, 406 IP, 302 K, 185 BB, 64 G
Masterson, 27: 23-25, 4.05 ERA, 422.1 IP, 317 K, 153 BB, 68 G
Capuano, 34: 23-24, 4.12 ERA, 384.1 IP, 330 K, 107 BB, 66 G
Santana, 29: 20-25, 4.16 ERA, 406.2 IP, 311 K, 133 BB, 63 G

The average 2012 salary for those four pitchers was $6.5 million.

All of a sudden, that $5.75 million club option seems reasonable, and absent of the kind of risk found in an arbitration process. Even with Jimenez’s 2012 showing being as abysmal as it was, it makes the most sense to pick up his option for ’13. The only way the Tribe should part ways with Jimenez is if the team knows there are a couple of experienced starters —  capable of providing 180-200 innings — who are willing and ready to sign.

–JB

Month in review: Sept/Oct

Things were bound to go up for the Indians after turning in a 5-24 August that wrecked Cleveland’s season. Sure enough, September included a few bright spots for the troubled Tribe.

The offense improved, and the team even enjoyed a handful of walk-off wins. Lonnie Chisenhall returned nicely from his right forearm injury. Carlos Santana continues his second-half surge. Fans got a closer look at Russ Canzler. All in all, it was a decent month with some positives for the Indians to head into the offseason thinking about.

The damage of the season had already been done, though. September saw Manny Acta dismissed as manager, and now the club is looking for a new voice to lead the way. Sandy Alomar Jr. and Terry Francona are first up in the interview process, and both options would represent a sound option for the team.

I will follow with my yearly honors soon, and a wrap up of some Minor Leagues highlights. You can also expect to see some more in-depth analysis of the season that was, and the needs going forward, in the next few weeks.

For now let’s take a quick glance at the final month of the Indians’ 2012 season:

Overall: 13-17
At home: 6-8
On road: 7-9

Offense (AL rank):

.259 average (4)
.336 on-base (2)
.362 slugging (13)
.698 OPS (10)
19 home runs (13)
44 doubles (10)
124 RBI (10)
132 runs (8)
113 walks (3)
216 strikeouts (11)
23 stolen bases (6)
276 hits (5)

Pitching (AL rank)

4.57 ERA (11)
8 saves (8)
273.2 innings (8)
286 hits allowed (12)
156 runs (10)
139 earned runs (10)
35 home runs (8)
90 walks (6)
203 strikeouts (3)
1.37 WHIP (11)
2.26 K/BB (10)

Player of the Month: C Carlos Santana
Stats: .280/.368/.495/.863, 5 HR, 4 2B, 19 RBI, 20 R, 16 BB, 27 games

2012 winners: DH Travis Hafner (April), 2B Jason Kipnis (May), RF Shin-Soo Choo (June), CF Michael Brantley (July), Carlos Santana (August, September)

Pitcher of the Month: LHP David Huff
Stats: 3-1, 3.38 ERA, 26.2 IP, 19 K, 5 BB, 1.31 WHIP, 6 games, 4 starts

2012 winners: RHP Derek Lowe (April), CL Chris Perez (May), RHP Justin Masterson (June), RHP Zach McAllister (July), RHP Esmil Rogers (August), LHP David Huff (September).

Reliever of the Month: RHP Frank Herrmann
Stats: 1.32 ERA, 13.2 IP, 11 K, 1 BB, 0.59 WHIP, 11 games

2012 winners: RHP Vinnie Pestano (April, July), CL Chris Perez (May), RHP Esmil Rogers (June, August), RHP Frank Herrmann (September).

Performance of the Month (hitting): Carlos Santana
Line: 3-for-6, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 3 runs, 9 TB in 15-4 win over Royals on Sept. 23.

Performance of the Month (pitching): LHP David Huff
Line: 3.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 10 BF in 7-6 win over Twins on Sept. 7.

—————————————

Month in review: August
Month in review: July
Month in review: June
Month in review: May
Month in review: April

–JB

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