Sunday, September 25, 2011

The NL MVP Conversation

With the NL races pretty much wrapped up, I’d like to take a look at the MVP race. This also provides an opportunity for me to discuss the way I approach the MVP award. Much of the disagreement about which players are the most deserving of the award stems from the fact that the Baseball Writer’s Association of America, which presents the award each year, doesn’t provide any specific guidelines for what “most valuable” actually means.

Many voters simply see the award as being for the player who added the most value to his team. Regardless of what any other player on his team accomplished, if that player is the best in the league, he should be the MVP. For the NL, you’d have a hard time arguing that that isn’t the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp. 2011 has been something of a lost year for Los Angeles, as ownership and attendance problems have crippled the team for essentially the entire season. However, Kemp has shrugged off the numerous distractions and acted as the offensive engine of the club, while Clayton Kershaw (who after Ian Kennedy’s win last night needs a win to match Kennedy and lock up the NL Triple Crown) has anchored the rotation. Kemp’s 8.3 WAR leads all NL hitters, and he currently leads the league in both home runs and RBIs as well, sitting only .006 points of batting average short of Ryan Braun and the first offensive NL Triple Crown since Ducky Medwick in 1937. While it looks like he’ll fall short, he’s still been the best player in the NL by the numbers.

However, the way I see it, that doesn’t necessarily make him the MVP. All wins aren’t made alike, and some are much more valuable than others. The Win Curve describes the marginal value of each win to a baseball team, and it shows fairly clearly that a team’s 85th win is far more valuable than either win 65 or win 105. If a player adds value to a team that doesn’t have much of a playoff shot, the extra wins that player might provide really don’t make much of a difference; functionally, there’s no major difference for a team that finishes with 64 or 65 wins. Similarly, for a player on one of the best teams in the league, winning 100 or 105 games likely isn’t going to be the difference between October baseball and October tee times. However, for a team in a tight race, every win is much more likely to decide the fate of that team’s season. The value a player adds to his team needs to be considered in the context of what that value means to that team, and whether the resulting wins are icing on the cake or that team’s ticket to the postseason.

With this in mind, two other NL outfielders on contending teams stick out to me as MVP contenders. Both will probably end up being the difference between their teams making and missing the playoffs, as they’ll lead their respective clubs into October after winning their divisions by reasonably tight margins. At 7.2 WAR, Ryan Braun trails only Kemp among NL position players. Both players provide all of their value on offense, allowing their skill at the plate to make up for a complete lack of defensive tools. Braun has averaged a UZR of –10.2 in left field over the past three seasons, while Kemp has put up –8.9 in center. Braun’s 177 wRC+ makes him the best hitter in the NL, and both add value on the basepaths. While their raw numbers suggest their seasons have been nearly equally impressive, the wins Braun created for the Brewers will give them a shot at a title. While it may seem unfair to penalize Kemp, as he has very little ability to turn the Dodgers into a contender singlehandedly, his play simply wasn’t in the same context as Braun’s, and therefore doesn’t have the same value.

There’s only one other batter who I believe has a compelling argument that his play was more valuable to his team. That batter is Justin Upton. Like Braun and Kemp, Upton has been a consistent contributor to the Diamondbacks’ lineup. Though he provides a similar speed/power threat to Kemp and Braun, Upton’s 141 wRC+ is a notch down from his competitors’ league-leading marks. However, Upton is less than half a win short of Braun according to WAR, largely because he also adds significant value on defense. Although single-year UZR values are the most commonly disputed component value of WAR, Upton has demonstrated through his three-year average of 7.9 UZR that his 10.1 mark this year isn’t just a statistical blip. For me, he’s Braun’s strongest contender, but Braun has been the most valuable player on the senior circuit.

Though the voting for these awards is often a bit of a head-scratcher, I’m convinced that Braun is the deserving recipient of the NL MVP, at least based on the way I define value. Voters may eventually decide Kemp’s raw numbers are too strong to ignore, or a pitcher like Kershaw or Roy Halladay deserves the award. However, when you consider the context of the value these players have provided, Braun played the best for his team when it mattered the most. As I define the award, that makes him the NL’s Most Valuable Player.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Arizona Wins the West

For all intents and purposes, the NL West race is over. Improbably, the Diamondbacks sit at the top of the division, a year after finishing dead last in the division and 27 games out of the playoff picture. Back in June, I said that I expected the D’Backs to stay in the race, but at that time it was still the Giants’ race to lose. Fortunately for Arizona, that’s what they did, as the champs are just 37-41 since that post, while the Diamondbacks are an incredible 48-30.

As with most teams, this turnaround can’t be attributed to a single player. Justin Upton is in the thick of the MVP race, and Miguel Montero has been one of the top catchers in the NL. The historically bad bullpen of 2010 has been reworked and currently sits at sixth in the NL in WAR, thanks to a combination of free agent signings (J.J. Putz), trades (David Hernandez), and essentially every other way a team could go about an overhaul, including adding impressive Rule V draft pick Joe Paterson. However, the team’s rotation has led the way, and after finishing 12th in NL starter WAR last season, the Diamondbacks’ rotation has risen to sixth with the 2011 regular season nearly complete.

Specifically, three of Arizona’s starters deserve credit for stepping their games up. Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy have continued their development and cemented themselves as true staff aces, while rookie Josh Collmenter’s deceptive delivery and impressive control have allowed him to provide a solid third option on the mound.

Hudson, 24, flashed his impressive skills last season on the way to a 3.64 SIERA and 2.3 WAR in 14 starts for the White Sox and Diamondbacks. Hudson moved to Arizona just before the trade deadline in exchange for Edwin Jackson in a deal orchestrated by interim GM Jerry Dipoto. Hudson’s absurd 1.69 ERA was fueled by incredible (and unsustainable) underlying numbers, especially his .216 BABIP against and 91.5% strand rate. However, 2011’s 3.41 ERA is essentially luck-neutral, as Hudson’s 3.56 SIERA shows that he’s for real. His strikeout rate has fallen by nearly a batter per game, but this dip has been offset by large improvements in both his walk rate and groundball rate. After a slight drop in his velocity last season, Hudson is once again averaging 93 MPH on his fastball, and has increased his velocity on the rest of his arsenal as well. Whether this is due to improved strength, conditioning, mechanics, or some other factor is unclear. Whatever the case may be, Hudson’s stuff is getting better, and his improved walk rate suggests he’s also learning the art of pitching. At only 24, Hudson has a lot of career in front of him. If he can continue this career trajectory, it’ll spell trouble for the rest of the NL West.

Sharing ace duties with Hudson, Ian Kennedy has reinvented himself in the desert. Kennedy’s 2.4 WAR in 32 starts last year wasn’t particularly impressive, but it was certainly a step forward from his early career struggles. As a top prospect in the Yankees’ organization, Kennedy was under the microscope, and may have had trouble handling the pressure. Though 2010 was a success as Kennedy’s first full season in the starting rotation, it was only an appetizer for what he has provided the Snakes this season. No matter the metric, Kennedy looks like a true ace this year. Like Hudson, Kennedy has done a better job of limiting his walks and inducing grounders, but unlike Hudson, it hasn’t been at the expense of his strikeouts, as he’s up to nearly eight K’s per nine innings. From his 3.34 SIERA to his 19-4 record, the old-school and new-school numbers are in complete agreement on Kennedy’s dominance this season.

Though both Kennedy and Hudson’s seasons are a positive development for Arizona, neither is a complete surprise, as both have shown impressive potential at various points earlier in their respective careers. More surprising is the success of soft-tossing rookie Josh Collmenter. Collmenter’s fastball is averaging 87.4 MPH, and he hasn’t thrown a pitch harder than 90 all season. Nonetheless, Collmenter has thrown the pitch nearly 70% of the time to great effect, as his deceptive mechanics make his fastball-changeup combo much more effective than his pedestrian velocity would suggest they should be. Though he won’t blow any of his pitches by hitters (7.9% swinging strike rate, below league average), he has found ways to be effective without pure stuff. With crafty pitching and consistent command, Collmenter has been a solid addition to the back of the team’s rotation, putting up a 3.55 FIP and 3.94 SIERA. Behind the team’s two young aces, he’s done exactly what the team has asked of him, and as a result the rookie might very well get a chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of making an October start.

We can’t point to any one reason for the Diamondbacks’ worst-to-first turnaround, as they’ve made huge strides on both sides of the ball and from the top to the bottom of the roster. However, their rotation seems to be leading the way, as Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson have been a dominant tandem at the top of the rotation and Collmenter has filled in admirably behind them. More help is on the way, as the word on the street is that third overall pick in the 2011 draft Trevor Bauer and top prospect Jarrod Parker will get called up for a taste of the pennant chase sooner rather than later. If both are ready to join the D’Backs rotation full-time in 2012, Arizona’s starting staff will be a force to be reckoned with. However, thanks to Kennedy and Hudson, Arizona is still focused on 2011, where their young aces will lead them into the playoffs as they hope to catch some October magic.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Reinvention of Brandon McCarthy

The first seven years of Brandon McCarthy’s career were mostly pretty pedestrian. He accumulated a total of 3.3 WAR in 56 starts, never eclipsing 1.3 WAR in a single campaign. He worked as a starter and out of the bullpen for the White Sox before being moved to Texas in the John Danks deal in 2006. McCarthy struggled with the Rangers, bouncing back and forth between triple-A and the majors and unable to post an ERA or SIERA under four in any of his four years in the organization. Last year, he spent the entire season with the Rangers triple-A ballclub and dealing with shoulder issues, and it would have been quite reasonable to assume that after six mediocre years, he might never make it back to the bigs.

Last offseason, McCarthy signed a $1,000,000 deal with the A’s, and was something of an afterthought as the team’s fourth starter behind Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, and Gio Gonzalez. However, McCarthy has reinvented his game, and in doing so outperformed his more heralded rotation-mates. McCarthy once showed serious potential; he was the White Sox top pitching prospect in 2004, according to Baseball America. So how has he rediscovered the form that caused him to be so highly rated as a prospect and established himself as the most productive starter in a very good rotation?

Though McCarthy’s calling card was his impressive control, for years it escaped him in the majors. McCarthy was actually rated as having the best control in the White Sox minor league system as a promising prospect, but walked more than 8% of batters for each of his first four full seasons. McCarthy’s career 16.2% strikeout rate is slightly below league average, so he doesn’t have the strikeout stuff to make up for his wildness.

Fortunately, McCarthy seems to have realized the offensive value of a base on balls, and with his rediscovered control is finally fulfilling the potential he showed back in 2004. After coming into 2011 with a career 8.8% walk rate, McCarthy has cut his walks to a Halladay-esque 3.8%. In fact, the only pitchers with better walk rates than McCarthy this year are Halladay, Dan Haren, and Josh Tomlin. Though Tomlin doesn’t strike out enough hitters to dominate like Halladay and Haren, McCarthy has enough stuff for his numbers to look more like the two pitchers ahead of him with a combined 11 All-Star appearances than the forgettable Tomlin.

In addition to avoiding the free pass, McCarthy has drastically changed his pitch mix. Before 2011, McCarthy had thrown his fastball at least 60% of the time in each of his previous seasons in the majors. He’d tried to use his slider (12.7% of offerings in 2009, his last major league year) and changeup (11%) to catch hitters off balance, but this year he’s pocketed both pitches (both under 3% of pitches) in favor of his newest weapon, a devastating cut fastball. McCarthy’s throwing his straight fastball only 44.3% of the time this year, instead using his cutter for 31.5% of his pitches, a number that increases to over 40% in two-strike counts. McCarthy’s showing incredible confidence with his new toy, and is using it and his curveball (18.9% of pitches, up from 11.4% in ’09) to mow down hitters in 2011.

McCarthy, like so many other pitchers in the past few years, has used the cutter to great results because it’s truly a multifunctional pitch. Its sharp, late-breaking action has allowed pitchers like Haren and Halladay, and others, to use it as an effective strikeout pitch. However, even when hitters do put it in play, the same late breaking action usually means the ball misses the bat’s sweet spot and instead induces weak contact. McCarthy’s benefited from his cutter in this respect as well, as his 47.1% groundball rate is by far the best of his career.

Though it’s certainly easier said than done, the formula for pitching success is quite simple. Pitchers who limit walks, strike out batters, and keep the ball on the ground when it is put in play have what it takes to be successful in MLB. McCarthy has finally learned how to prevent the base on balls and rediscovered the control that once earned him top prospect status, and along with an update to his arsenal, his new approach has turned him from an afterthought into one of the biggest pitching surprises of the season.