Toward an MLB MVP-Voting Rubric

[The following is an introduction to a more thorough study I intend to publish at Banished to the Pen following the conclusion of the current MLB season the purpose of which is to suggest an approach to harmonizing traditional ways of thinking about the sport’s annual MVP award with available sabermetric principles. -ed.]

Last week’s Zach Britton trade reminded me about the idea of championship win probability added (cWPA). In 2016, Ben Lindbergh made the case that Britton, then serving as the closer for the Baltimore Orioles, should win the award for the most valuable player in the American League based on the idea that Britton, at least during the regular season, had done more to help his team win the World Series than any other player had helped his own team win the championship. Britton– again, a relief pitcher who threw sixty-seven innings– finished eleventh in MVP voting. Mike Trout, the WAR leader, claimed the award, his second, and I don’t suspect many people have thought much about cWPA since then.

What should make cWPA (defined: cWPA “takes individual game win probability added (WPA) and increases the scope from winning a game to winning the World Series. Where a player’s WPA is the number of percentage points that player increased or decreased their team’s probability of winning a single game, their cWPA is the number of percentage points the player increased or decreased their team’s chances of winning the World Series.”) attractive to a broad swath of the MVP electorate is that it accounts for the traditional notion that the individual award-winner ought to have been on a winning team. When handing out performance awards for a given season, it makes sense to reward players based on what they actually accomplished, as opposed to what they should have accomplished but for bad luck, sequencing, weak teammates, strong opponents, environmental variations, and other contextual and extrinsic factors. After all, these factors work, to some extent, on all players, and just as we determine team season standings based on actual win percentage (and not a sabermetrically adjusted winning percentage), so too should we determine individual season awards based on actual results.

This is not to say that the MVP should go to the player with the best batting average or the Cy Young to the hurler with the most pitcher wins, obviously. While using cWPA as a guide will steer us toward players who are, in the conventional sense, winners, it uses accepted sabermetric principles to maneuver in that direction. Still, I think there may be some concern that cWPA, when used alone as a player-valuation measure, might be too context-dependent and inclined to reward disproportionately an otherwise unremarkable player who happened to find himself in one or two of the right places at one or two of the right times. Certainly, though, it seems likely that a player who accumulated performances in those situations often enough to find himself near the top of the cWPA leaderboard also would be a well-rounded and highly productive player in all situations.

Still, I was curious how well cWPA correlated with WAR, something it ought to do reasonably well if it’s to be available as a useful informant for MVP voters. I pulled the cWPA numbers for the current season and used FanGraphs’ version of WAR mainly because their combined WAR leaderboard made data manipulation easier.

(click image to enlarge)

I don’t have a statistics background, so I won’t comment on the significance of the correlation between cWPA and fWAR except to say that it seems sufficiently strong. If you’re curious about who’s who on this plot, here are the current top-ten players by cWPA:

There is a lot of significant, championship-relevant baseball yet to be played in 2018, and a more significant study of the above would have involved prior, completed seasons, but I think there’s something here and wanted to share what I had compiled on the current season as it moves into August and teams begin their playoff charges in earnest. I anticipate updating this information after the conclusion of the regular season and supplementing it with historical data to create an even more robust analysis. In the meantime, I welcome any input on win probability added and seasonal awards.

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WTF: At deadline, Tigers move their best player

martin farewell

Today is the MLB non-waiver trade deadline, and it looked like the only news out of the Detroit Tigers camp was going to be a bummer about a season-ending injury to Franklin Perez, a pitching prospect who came to the Tigers organization in the Justin Verlander trade a year ago.

It now appears that General Manager Al Avila had a working lunch today, however, as news recently broke that the team had worked an intra-division trade with Cleveland:

In his first season in Detroit, Martín has been one of the Tigers’ top performers, and he departs sitting atop the team’s fWAR leaderboard (tied at 2.1 fWAR with Jose Iglesias and Nicholas Castellanos). Cleveland already was going to win the AL Central. Martín, who seems likely to platoon with former Tiger Rajai Davis in center field, should help them run away with it down the stretch.

Martín’s contract with Detroit was a one-year, $1.75 million deal (apparently with a team option for 2019), and I don’t have any problem with the team trying to move him for value right now. Two weeks ago, during the All-Star break, I tagged him as one of the Tigers likely to be on the move this month:

The Tigers’ new outfielder (and new U.S. citizen), already a veteran of eight MLB seasons at age thirty, is having far and away his best season at the plate in 2018. His offensive numbers (.257/.327/.431, .271 TAv, 104 OPS+, 106 wRC+) make him essentially an average hitter, which is way better than what he’s been in the past. Coupled with a strong arm and the ability to cover center field, this makes Martín an attractive pickup for a contender looking to add robust depth. He’s on a one-year contract ($1.75 million plus incentives) with the Tigers and is eligible for salary arbitration next year, so he’s cheap. He’s also hurt. A left hamstring injury sent him to the disabled list on July 1, and the team has not issued a definite return timetable, but they have indicated they’re hoping he’ll be back late this month. Prior to that, he had been Detroit’s best player this season by fWAR. If they receive a good offer for Martín, the Tigers should listen.

Was the offer a good one? I don’t know anything about Willi Castro, but early reactions from MiLB reporters suggest he’s a decent infield prospect:

From MLBTR:

Castro, a shortstop signed five years ago out of Puerto Rico, earned a 50 overall grade from MLB Pipeline.  Currently at Double-A, Castro is a switch-hitter with an above average bat and a good chance to stick at shortstop, according to MLB Pipeline and Baseball America.

The Tigers also are sending pitching prospect Kyle Dowdy to Cleveland as part of the trade. Dowdy was a twelfth-round pick in 2015 and, at age twenty-five, has split this season between Erie and Toledo in a part-time starting role.

Acknowledging my lack of knowledge, I think this is a good move for the Tigers, who get what looks like a decent infield prospect in exchange for a couple months of Martín, who gets to spend them with a contender instead of playing out the string in Detroit, and a minor-league pitcher who, it doesn’t appear, did not have a significant future with the Tigers at the major-league level.

I will supplement this post with any further significant analyses or reactions that emerge in the coming days.

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Previously
WTF: The case for watching the Detroit Tigers in the second half – 7/18
WTF: Which Tigers may move in deadline deals? – 7/16
WTF: Bos to the Races, Part II – 6/29
WTF: Bad Company? – 6/26

WTF: Busted – 6/13
WTF: Bos to the Races – 5/22
WTF: Welcome Back Kozma – 5/9

Related
2018 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training

Quick observations on the occasion of the latest Cole Hamels trade

When the Phillies traded Cole Hamels to the Rangers in 2015, it felt like a big deal. Texas was in the playoff hunt, and Hamels went 7-1 in twelve starts for them down the stretch. The return for Hamels (plus Jake Diekman) was voluminous in that it was comprised of six players. If you squint or are a dedicated Phillies or Rangers fan you might recognize a couple of those names.

Last night, the Rangers, decidedly not a contender just three years later, chose to ship Hamels up to the Cubs. The teams have not officially confirmed the deal, but reports indicate that the return includes minor-league pitcher Rollie Lacy, a second pitcher who is “not a prospect,” [UPDATE: Eddie Butler, a pitcher who’s split time between the majors and Triple-A for the past four or so seasons; cash considerations also provided] and a player to be named (even) later.

What are the Cubs getting in the oft-heralded Hamels? In short, a starting pitcher in decline. Hamels had an excellent run with Philadelphia, but he’s been something a little less than excellent since. His 2017 (4.20 ERA, 4.59 FIP, 5.47 DRA) was his worst MLB season to that point (0.2 WARP), and he’s been even worse in 2018 (4.72 ERA, 5.22 FIP, 6.26 DRA, -0.2 WARP).

As news of the Hamels trade was breaking last night, some people contended that things would be better for Hamels in Chicago because Wrigley Field’s friendly confines are friendlier to pitchers than the Rangers’ home in Globe Life Park. There’s not nothing to that idea: offense played up in Arlington more than anywhere else in 2018. Wrigley hasn’t exactly been a run suppressor, though, as it too favors hitters. Hamels may see some comparative venue-based benefit as he moves north, but it likely will be negligible over a couple months.  (One possible estimation of the magnitude of the difference is the difference between his FIP (5.20 on FanGraphs) and xFIP (4.18) in light of the slightly wider spread between Globe Life and Wrigley looking just at home runs, though Wrigley still is playing hitter-friendly in that regard.) And, of course, metrics like DRA and WARP (which, for pitchers, is based on DRA) already account for park factors.

Another thing I noticed last night as news of this transaction began to leak out was that Hamels is allowing a 23.2% line-drive rate, almost 4.5% over last season and a career high. That isn’t something that is park-specific, nor is it something for which Hamels really can share responsibility with his teammates. Hitters are squaring him up this year.

Continue reading

A narrowly focused update on Zach Britton, new New York Yankee

blern

Last night, the New York Yankees completed what to this point constitutes the second-most significant trade of the month when they sent three prospects to Baltimore in exchange for a few months of closer Zach Britton’s services.

The Orioles drafted Britton out of high school in 2006, and Britton debuted five years later as a full-time starter for Baltimore in 2011. By 2014, he had transitioned to a full-time bullpen role, and my earliest memories of him date to two years after that.

Britton was a key part of the 2016 Baltimore team that finished second in the AL East and made the postseason as a wild card. That was the Orioles’ last playoff appearance, and manager Buck Showalter’s decision not to use Britton as the win-or-go-home contest went into extra innings granted the game an air of infamy.

Prior to that, writer Ben Lindbergh memorably made the case that Britton, a closer who would pitch sixty-seven innings that season, merited serious consideration for the AL MVP award. As recorded contemporaneously in these digital pages, Lindbergh’s argument was based on a modification to the notion of Win Probability Added (WPA):

Earlier today, Ben Lindbergh argued that Baltimore reliever Zach Britton has a claim to the 2016 AL MVP award. To make that case, Lindbergh demonstrated that Britton had done more than any other player to help his team win games that mattered. Lindbergh did this by placing Britton’s performance in the context of the individual games in which Britton pitched– did Britton’s actions help or hurt his team’s chances of winning that game, and to what degree did they do so?– and then placing those games in the context of his team’s position in the playoff hunt. Viewed this way, Britton (excellent contributions to a good team in close contention) is more valuable than, for example, Mike Trout (superlative contributions to a bad team far out of contention). The metric that captures this contextual performance concept is called Championship Probability Added (cWPA), and Britton currently holds a commanding lead atop that leaderboard.

(Emphasis added.)

The road has been a bit rough for Britton since that 2016 season, however, as the trade article linked above summarized:

After consecutive two-win seasons in 2015 and 2016, he has missed time with the following injuries:

  • April 16, 2017 – Hits the disabled list with a strained left forearm and misses a little over two weeks.
  • May 6, 2017 – Almost immediately after return from disabled list, goes back on it with same injury.
  • August 25, 2017 – Injures his left knee and is shut down in September.
  • December 2017 – Hurts his right Achilles in an offseason workout requiring surgery.

The lefty returned to action on June 12 but hasn’t been lights out like he was before 2017, with a 4.43 FIP and 3.45 ERA thus far. He’s been a bit better of late, tossing eight straight scoreless outings, but has still produced just six strikeouts against four walks in that span. Perhaps more encouragingly, his velocity is up over his last few outings, getting closer to the 97 mph sinker he used to throw. If the velocity return is here to stay, better results might follow.

By a clear margin, Britton led all pitchers in WPA in 2016. This year, however, he’s nowhere to be found atop that list. That no team has done as little winning as Baltimore (record: 29-73) likely contributed to that shift. Still, the fact that he has a negative WPA (-0.13) for the first time since he moved into the bullpen seems worth noting in light of the foregoing.

As the block quotation immediately preceding the immediately preceding paragraph indicates, there are a number of red flags that suggest that the version of Britton the Yankees acquired (insert reference about Redcoat POWs) last night may be meaningfully different from the one who presented an intriguingly compelling case for consideration as the most valuable player in the American League in 2016.

As a closing addendum, the current leaders in pitcher cWPA for 2018 are Justin Verlander (.023) and Josh Hader (.020).

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Related
Baltimore Closer Zach Britton Isn’t Just a Surprise Cy Young Contender — He’s the AL MVP

From Detroit to Cooperstown: Approaching Hall-of-Fame-induction weekend 2018 with a quick note

The MLB HOF is a manifestation of writer opinions, so it’s a shame to see even the local press minimizing Whitaker as they attempt to garner clicks on Trammell features as we approach induction weekend. There’s a surplus of outrage, genuine and otherwise, on the internet right now, and I’m not saying that every article has to be a protest piece or that Trammell doesn’t deserve the attention in his own right, but it strikes me as a fairly significant injustice by the relevant standards that the longest-tenured double-play pair in the game’s history will be separated at the gate to the sport’s hall of honored memories.   Continue reading

WTF: The case for watching the Detroit Tigers in the second half

tigers miss

The Detroit Tigers enter the second “half” of this season 12.5 games out of first place in the American League Central, and, because that division is so poor, eighteen games out of a wild card position. I’ll spare you the various rest-of-season projections and third-order win percentages. The 2018 MLB postseason is a world that does not belong to the Tigers.

That isn’t a new piece of information, though; indeed, it’s something everyone knew before the season began. Many of us nevertheless watched with some regularity, if not with the same steadfastness as we might have just a few years ago. Miguel Cabrera still was out there, at least to start. Some of the young guys– Jeimer Candelario, Joe Jimenez– looked like they were ready to start making waves. Nick– excuse me, Nicholas– Castellanos and Michael Fulmer, at just twenty-six and twenty-three, respectively, were, by necessity, to be thrust into whatever passes in Detroit for senior leadership roles.

My suspicion is that most fans used to watching major-league-caliber talent will have a difficult time sustaining attention to a team for a full 162-game season on player-development grounds alone, especially when a number of the developing guys might be gone in two weeks. I was there for Drew VerHagen’s first start. I don’t know how many of those will be appointment-viewing this September. Cabrera’s out for the year. Victor Martinez’s farewell tour has been pretty rough.

Plenty of people watch baseball, even bad baseball, because they appreciate the sport’s routine, its rhythms and regularities. It’s a relaxing habit, a way to wind down at the end of the day. In that sense, a reduction or removal of concern about the games’ outcomes may even improve the viewing experience. Here we reach a point where the aesthetics of a team’s performance become important, and it is at this point that the Tigers have something to offer the viewing public.

Last night’s All-Star Game, in which all but one of the fourteen runs plated came by way of the long ball, was the epitome of modern baseball, which is more dinger-driven than at any point in its history. The so-called three true outcomes (“TTO”)– homers, strikeouts, and walks– prevail like never before. Home runs, the single best offensive act in the game, are beginning lose their luster. Like strikes in professional bowling, we’re approaching a point when disappointment in the absence of a home run could prevail over excitement upon the hitting of one.

Like Buckley’s conservative, the 2018 Detroit Tigers stand athwart baseball’s historic march toward its ultimate extremity and shout–or, perhaps, murmur– “Stop!” If you have TTO fatigue, these Tigers are your antidote. So far this year, no team has scored a lower percentage of its runs with the long ball than Detroit (thirty-two percent; cf. the Yankees at fifty-two percent). Sure, they don’t score a lot– twenty-fifth in runs/game at 3.94– but when they do, they find more creative ways to do it. They strike out at a below-average rate and only two teams walk less often. In short, they are a ball-in-play dream and, in 2018, that makes them an entertaining oddity worth watching.

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Previously
WTF: Which Tigers may move in deadline deals? – 7/16
WTF: Bos to the Races, Part II – 6/29
WTF: Bad Company? – 6/26

WTF: Busted – 6/13
WTF: Bos to the Races – 5/22
WTF: Welcome Back Kozma – 5/9

Related
2018 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training

The 2018 All-Star Game was one for the age

Image result for joe jimenez all star

The American League continued its All-Star-Game winning streak last night, claiming an 8-6 victory in ten innings at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. The game included a record ten home runs, far more than the previous ASG record of six, which had been matched three times (1951, 1954, and 1971).

What’s both more remarkable and unsurprisingly typical is the fact that all but one of the fourteen runs scored last night came by way of the home run, the sole exception being Michael Brantley’s sacrifice fly that scored Jean Segura to extend the AL lead to 8-5 in the top of the tenth:

asg hr log

While absurd in its extremity, this homer-laden affair merely serves to illustrate that, across the sport, a larger share of all runs scored come by the home run than ever before.

guillen no 88-18 (asb)

Blame (or credit!) launch angles, player fitness, chicks, or the ball itself, but last night was a snapshot of the modern game’s offensive environment, as much as a single, top-tier exhibition game ever could be.

Whether you find this new reality fun and exciting or an inflationary bore, the trend seems likely to continue absent external intervention. Of all of the sport’s (seemingly) natural evolutionary developments, this is the only one for which I currently would consider the introduction of reforms with the goal of shifting gameplay away from consumption by the three true outcomes and toward a greater ball-in-play experience. It isn’t clear to me how to accomplish this, as most of the obvious changes likely wouldn’t work or raise other serious consequences, but I think this– not game time or designated hitters— is where the Commissioner should focus his energy with respect to on-field matters.

Designated Sitter, or, Manfred Ado About Nothing

manfred dp

For people who write about baseball, the All-Star break offers at least two things: (1) an intraseasonal oasis in which one can examine and address baseball topics over the span of a day or two without worrying that the otherwise constant barrage of new baseball events occurring that might, for example, mess up the performance numbers on which a writer had founded his or her baseball writing and (2) a probably countervailing force in the form of significant public interviews with the sport’s leaders addressing the sport’s Big Topics Of The Day.

Regarding the latter, Commissioner Rob Manfred kicked things off this morning with an appearance on Dan Patrick’s radio show. Here are my notes of the highlights:

manfred dp notes

People love to talk about the designated hitter and whether the National League will adopt it, and Manfred’s mention of the subject this morning predictably reignited the “conversation”:

I suspect that those on the fence or without a considered opinion on the subject may have found prodding from recent articles like this one Ben Lindbergh published last month illustrating the historically poor offensive numbers from current pitchers. What many of these conversants don’t do is think about this conversation from the DH side, however. There really is no doubt that a designated hitter is going to bat better than a pitcher, but the nature of the DH position is changing, both in terms of the players who are filling that role and their performance levels.

Regarding the union’s particular partiality to the DH, are David Ortiz-types really the players finding extra PAs as designated hitters? Take a look. Continue reading

The MLB Hot 100: At the 2018 All-Star Break

There are plenty of ways to win in baseball, and plenty of ways to assemble winning baseball teams. To state the extremely obvious, a team needs productive players in order to win. FanGraphs took a detailed look at the assembly and production of this year’s teams in terms of their players’ wins above replacement, with a particular focus on the Houston Astros’ ability to avoid playing negative-WAR players:

What follows here is a significantly less-detailed look at 2018 team composition and production as of today, the first day of the All-Star break and the artificial halfway point of the season. Teams have not all played the exact same number of games to this point, but the game totals are sufficiently close for a coarse-grained “analysis” like the one I’ve conducted today, which isn’t analysis so much as making a graph for you to view while there isn’t real baseball for you to view.

The idea is that teams that are poorly represented among baseball’s top-100 players, defined here as the top 100 players on the FanGraphs combined WAR leaderboard, probably are poorly represented as among the top performing teams. Too many words already spent on a simple point. To the graph:

2018 mlb top 100 and team wins

The rosters of the Blue Jays, Padres, and White Sox include none of the top-100 players of the 2018 season, and those teams have bad records. The Astros have the most top-100 players, and they have a good record. The Mets have four of the top-100 players– Jacob deGrom, Brandon Nimmo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Noah Syndergaard– but a bad record– just thirty-nine wins– reflective of the fact that what remains is not merely mediocre but bad (check that negative-WAR graph above). Oakland maybe isn’t going to keep winning at a .567 rate in the second half.

I don’t know if this graph tells you anything you don’t know. I don’t know if it tells you much at all beyond the data it contains, which is quite simple. But, if it speaks to you, let me know.

The Home Run Derby is tonight at 8:00 on ESPN. The All-Star Game is tomorrow night at 7:30 on FOX.