Monday, October 3, 2016

Trout/Bryant 2016! And the Rest of My Baseball Ballot Selfie

You know that guy on Facebook who's way too eager to share whom he's voting for? That's me right now, and I have to warn you—I'm heavily biased toward the Sabermetric Party. Last weekend, I filled out my awards ballot for the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, which votes on all the same end-of-season awards as the big boys. Here's my full ballot and, therefore, my picks for who was the best in baseball in 2016.


American League

1. Mike Trout
2. Mookie Betts
3. Josh Donaldson
4. José Altuve
5. Robinson Canó
6. Manny Machado
7. Kyle Seager
8. Adrian Beltré
9. Justin Verlander
10. David Ortiz

I've heard people say how there isn't a clear AL MVP this year. How maybe even an unorthodox choice like Zach Britton is warranted. I don't understand this talk, and in fact I strongly suspect that this year's American League Most Valuable Player will win his hardware in a landslide. Unlike in past years, Trout stands undeniably alone at the top: first in fWAR by 1.7, first in rWAR by 1.0, first in wRC+ by eight points, ahead of a man in David Ortiz whose job is to do nothing but hit, hit, hit. In terms of win probability, Trout leads the world in making his team more likely to win (6.96 WPA) and increasing the run expectancy of each play he touched (76.42 RE24).

In the battle for second, Donaldson had a higher OBP (.404) and SLG (.549) than Betts, but Betts's 32 Defensive Runs Saved—first in baseball—and 9.7 Baserunning Runs won me over. At the Houston keystone, Altuve was basically Betts without defense (−2 DRS) and shrewd baserunning (he got caught stealing an AL-worst 10 times) and with a lot more luck (he needed a .347 BABIP to beat out Betts's OPS), so he fell to fourth for me. After those four, it's a bit of a jumble. Canó and Machado had very similar raw stats (.298/.350/.533 with 39 home runs and 107 runs for Canó, .294/.343/.533 with 37 home runs and 105 runs for Machado), but Canó did it in a tougher environment and had a greater impact on his team's likelihood of winning. I waffled over whether Beltré or Brian Dozier had a better season, with Dozier flashing more power in a much tougher park as well as running the bases better, yet paling in comparison to Beltré's 15 DRS. And I yielded to homerism by squeezing Ortiz onto my ballot, but in a Troutless world he meets at least one definition of "most valuable": his 61.15 RE24 is second in the league, while his 4.65 WPA is third. I ranked him 10th on the following logic: FanGraphs docks him about 1.5 WAR simply for being a DH. Add that back in, and he's at 6.1 fWAR, just edging out Dozier.

National League

1. Kris Bryant
2. Freddie Freeman
3. Corey Seager
4. Max Scherzer
5. Madison Bumgarner
6. Clayton Kershaw
7. Jon Lester
8. Kyle Hendricks
9. Noah Syndergaard
10. Johnny Cueto

Bryant has, by measures traditional (39 home runs, 121 runs, 102 RBI) and advanced (a .396 wOBA and 8.4 fWAR), been the best player on the best team in baseball this year, so he's a lock for NL MVP. Freeman gets the nod over Seager because of his league-leading 157 OPS+ and nine-to-zero advantage in DRS, despite playing the easier position. He was also the NL's most valuable hitter in context, with a 5.56 WPA/LI and 50.81 RE24.

Then come the pitchers, who as a whole were more valuable than the hitters in the NL this year. See below for a detailed comparison of the NL's many talented hurlers this year, but know that I consider overall impact when ranking them for MVP (their hitting, their fielding, how much of a workhorse they were, how many runs were prevented when they took the field, win probability added) versus more sophisticated considerations for Cy Young (strikeout-to-walk ratios, FIP, luck). Scherzer and Bumgarner lead the way, each taking the ball 34 times and ranking one-two in innings pitched and one-three in strikeouts. Bumgarner also gets credit for the 1.0 fWAR he produced offensively. Kershaw was certainly the most valuable player on a per-inning basis, but his partial season held him back here. Lester and Hendricks, the two Cubs aces, benefit from their excellent ERAs (2.44 and 2.13), which led Lester to an 7.4 RA9-WAR on FanGraphs and Hendricks to a 38.77 RE24, both NL bests. Together they ranked first and second in the NL in all three of those categories. For the final two slots, Cueto may have pitched better than Syndergaard according to rWAR and two of the three flavors of fWAR—thanks in large part to his 36-inning advantage—but Syndergaard gained 0.8 fWAR from hitting and defense, while Cueto lost 0.2. But it was a close enough call that I simply gave Cueto that 10th spot rather than try to make the impossible decision of whether Daniel Murphy or Anthony Rizzo deserved to be left off the ballot less.

Cy Young

American League

1. Justin Verlander
2. Chris Sale
3. Corey Kluber
4. Rick Porcello
5. Masahiro Tanaka

First, a word on Zach Britton. His 0.54 ERA is a thing of beauty. And I'm not opposed to voting for a reliever for Cy Young. But Britton is an imperfect vessel. Other than a phenomenal 80.0% groundball rate, Britton simply wasn't that dominant. Other relievers had better K/BB ratios (see below). He got way lucky with 89.7% of runners left on base. And his FIP—more representative of true skill as a pitcher—is a strong 1.94, but hardly historic compared to how elite relievers normally fare.

Instead, this is a six-man race. Going by fWAR, rWAR, and FanGraphs's RA9-WAR, Sale, Porcello, Kluber, Verlander, Tanaka, and José Quintana are all in the top six in some order, but beyond that they're very hard to tease apart: all have ERAs between 3.04 and 3.34. Peripherals begin to tease apart who was more dominant: Verlander and Sale stand out with the lowest SIERAs, highest K−BB%s, and lowest contact rates on pitches inside the zone. What's more, they were practically identical in these categories—we're talking one bad start's difference. I happen to believe that Chris Sale is the most deserving pitcher never to have won a Cy Young, but happily my vote doesn't count toward the real winner. Verlander has the tiniest of edges.

Sale's White Sox teammate Quintana is my other pick for most criminally underappreciated mound artist, but it's a stretch to call him Cy-worthy. Quintana's K/BB ratio (3.62) and SIERA (4.01—ew) were the worst of the bunch, which proved decisive in dropping him off my ballot. Kluber's K/BB was fifth in this group, his WHIP fourth, his SIERA third, so he fit somewhere in the middle. I wanted to reward Porcello for his minuscule walk rate and 1.01 WHIP, but he simply wasn't as dominant as the others in terms of allowing contact (8.2% swinging-strike percentage).

National League

1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Max Scherzer
3. Noah Syndergaard
4. Johnny Cueto
5. José Fernández

Sorry, kids—if Britton can be the AL Cy Young with his 67 innings, Kershaw can be the NL winner with only 149. Like last year, there are plenty of reasons not to decorate the best pitcher in baseball, but I prefer to dwell on the reasons why we should. Kershaw finished with the best strikeout-to-walk ratio, 15.64, of any starting pitcher ever. He also took the crown for lowest WHIP ever (0.73) for a pitcher with more than 100 innings pitched, beating out Pedro Martínez. He was so dominant in his 149 innings that, in order to match Scherzer, Kershaw would have had to give up 47 earned runs (as it was, he allowed just 28) in his next 79.1 innings pitched—a 5.33 ERA pace. Scherzer had a terrific season too, by the way: a 3.05 SIERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 284 strikeouts to 56 walks in a league-leading 228.1 innings pitched. He and Kershaw were clearly the league's most intimidating pitchers, ranking one and two in swinging-strike percentage as well.

After the top two, it was a decision between an elite fielding-independent pitcher (Syndergaard), the best run preventer (Jon Lester), or someone who split the difference (Cueto). I opted for Syndergaard because he was simply more dominant: a 218-to-43 K/BB ratio and 14.2% swinging-strike percentage. Syndergaard's SIERA of 2.95 was also far better than Lester's 3.61 or Cueto's 3.59, as he achieved his excellent 2.60 ERA even while being unlucky on balls in play—that's the mark of a superior pitcher. In fact, Lester was weak enough on the peripherals that the late Fernandez (2.81 SIERA) rated a better overall pitcher than he did; Lester will just have to settle for what I'm betting will be his best ranking on any IBWAA MVP ballot.

Rookie of the Year

American League

1. Michael Fulmer
2. Gary Sánchez
3. Chris Devenski

Tyler Naquin doesn't make the cut because he was heavily reliant on luck (.411 BABIP) to achieve a wOBA that paled compared to Sánchez's. The young Yankees catcher was simply a phenomenon in the second half, to the point where he edged out Fulmer in fWAR despite only 229 plate appearances. However, Fulmer is penalized by FanGraphs for his high FIP; in the end, the fact that a rookie almost led the AL in ERA is damned impressive. Sánchez simply didn't play enough for me to outweigh Fulmer's sustained excellence, but you can blame the Yankees front office for that: he did everything he could with the time he was given, with a .376 OBP, .657 SLG, and 2.83 WPA/LI. Speaking of WPA/LI, Devenski's actually led all rookies at 3.12, reflecting how utterly valuable he was as a swingman/spot starter/multi-inning reliever. He also had a phenomenal 8.64 K/9, 1.66 BB/9, and 2.34 FIP, all far better than Fulmer's, but in the end he pitched only two-thirds the innings—so he, too, was Sánchezed.

National League

1. Corey Seager
2. Kenta Maeda
3. Trea Turner

It was a great year for rookies in the National League—I couldn't believe Trevor Story and Aledmys Díaz didn't even make my ballot, but Turner really turned on the jets in his final month to pull ahead of them. Even so, it wasn't clear that even Turner deserve to crack the top three. I was surprised to find myself considering both Jon Gray, he of the 4.61 ERA, and Junior Guerra, who ranked seventh in fWAR among just NL rookie pitchers. But Coors Field, of course, obscured Gray's fundamentally sound season: his 9.91 K/9 and 81 FIP− were both first among NL rookies with at least 100 innings pitched. Guerra, on the other hand, boasted a 2.81 ERA and 1.13 WHIP that ranked among the best of even non-rookie pitchers, but he was also incredibly lucky (.250 BABIP and 4.42 SIERA). I just couldn't give him much of the credit for that run prevention, and I couldn't bring myself to honor Gray when he didn't prevent many runs, so I broke the tie in favor of Turner and Maeda. Maeda played a less flawed version of Guerra and Gray, approaching the former's greatness with a 3.48 ERA and a far better SIERA (3.69) while having the latter's ratios (9.17 K/9, 2.56 BB/9) and pitching the most innings of the trio (175.2). Of course, Seager blows them all away with his phenomenal season of 26 home runs and a .372 wOBA behind Maeda at Dodgers shortstop.

Manager of the Year

American League

1. Jeff Banister
2. Terry Francona
3. Buck Showalter

I'm kind of meh on the AL managerial field this year, but I see no reason to change my overall pick from last year: the Rangers' Banister. Banister works well with his front office and is conversant in advanced stats. He had to deal with some very crowded infields and outfields this year but got everyone enough playing time. He was also unafraid to change directions in the bullpen when closers faltered. The Rangers' 36–11 record in one-run games may not be sustainable, but it's to Banister's credit. Francona, meanwhile, is a solid do-no-harm manager who always creates a positive clubhouse environment; that may not mean much, but it certainly didn't hurt the Indians' title quest this year. As for Showalter, I don't like the Orioles' organizational approaches of favoring power over on-base ability and whatever the hell they're doing wrong in pitching development, but Showalter is at least a shrewd bullpen operator.

National League

1. Dave Roberts
2. Joe Maddon
3. Bruce Bochy

What didn't Roberts have to deal with this year? The Dodgers set an all-time major-league record with 28 players on the disabled list. Yasiel Puig became persona non grata to the club, but he still existed in the clubhouse without (known) incident and then came back to contribute semi-usefully in the final stretch. The team's ace was very prickly about his catcher, and even more so when A.J. Ellis got traded away. But Roberts kept it all under control, and he won the division to boot—pretty open and shut. Maddon remains a stat-savvy manager and beloved leader, so he'll always be high on my ballot—but it helps that his Cubs won 103 games, too. And Bochy remains one of the league's most talented talent-deployers and calmest hands on the tiller.

Reliever of the Year

American League

1. Zach Britton
2. Andrew Miller
3. Chris Devenski

This one was easy for reasons you'd think would be hard and hard for reasons you'd think would be easy. There were only three truly elite relievers in the AL this year; Britton, Miller, and Devenski were the only three with ERAs and FIPs both under 2.15 and more than 45 innings pitched. They're also one-two-three among AL relievers in WHIP, RE24, and WPA/LI. But despite all the fawning over Britton this year, he wasn't a lock to finish first here. Miller's insane 13.67 K/BB ratio blew Britton's out of the water, and he pitched more innings with a better SIERA. But, of course, Britton just isn't that kind of pitcher; he's proven that he can reliably get outs via the groundball. His .230 BABIP is more a product of skill than luck, as his 80.0% groundball percentage shows. (Miller also had some luck of his own, with a 95.7 LOB%.) Finally, Britton has a commanding lead in perhaps the definitive relief-pitching stat: win probability added (6.14). So yes, Zach Britton fans, his record-low ERA is award-worthy after all.

National League

1. Kenley Jansen
2. Seung-hwan Oh
3. Addison Reed

We've lucked out in the NL, too; only three pitchers fit the same profile as above, thereby separating themselves from the pack. (Aroldis Chapman gets kinda stiffed here, since he meets the thresholds in both leagues combined but doesn't have enough innings in any one league to qualify—but I don't feel particularly sorry for him.) Jansen is one of the most underrated players in the game; last year, only a low innings total kept him from being the NL's best reliever, and now that he's pitched a full season, it's undeniable. His 9.45 K/BB ratio, 41.4% strikeout rate, and 18.15 RE24 all rank first. His 0.67 WHIP, 1.60 SIERA, and 1.44 FIP do too, by huge margins. Oh and Reed sport very similar numbers, but Oh's higher strikeout rate, lower contact rate, and lower SIERA give him the edge. Honorable mentions go to Héctor Rondón and Shawn Kelley, who have better peripheral stats than the Oh/Reed duo but don't have the numbers in terms of actual run prevention; reverse that for Mark Melancon, whose 24.1% strikeout rate and 2.83 SIERA were just not that dominant despite being the best situational reliever (3.06 WPA) in the NL.

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