Monday, November 13, 2017

Judging Aaron: My American League Award Picks

Another baseball season is in the books—and it was a weird one. Between record-breaking rookies, a total lack of parity, a rush on immaculate innings, and, of course, too many damn home runs, there was plenty to gawk at in MLB in 2017. This week, the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) recognizes the most eye-popping feats of all with its end-of-season awards, voted on by the beat writers who followed each team all season long. Meanwhile, the Internet Baseball Writers' Association of America (IBWAA) holds a parallel vote for the rest of us schlubs. Here's how I voted in that election.

Reliever of the Year

1. Craig Kimbrel
2. Chad Green
3. Andrew Miller

The one award given out by the IBWAA that the BBWAA doesn't bother with is Reliever of the Year. This year, that's to Craig Kimbrel's detriment. The Red Sox closer led all American League relievers who pitched at least 34 innings with a 1.43 ERA, a 1.42 FIP, and a 1.50 xFIP—that last one by a mile (at number two was Joe Smith, 2.39). Kimbrel struck out almost exactly half of the batters he faced while keeping his walk rate at a paltry 5.5%. In short, there was no one hitters wanted to see less at the end of a game.

The Yankees' Chad Green, whom many of you may not have even heard of until the playoffs, edged out Andrew Miller for second place. While Miller had the edge in ERA (1.44 to 1.61), Green's peripheral stats were slightly better: he struck out 41.0% of batters and walked just 6.6%, while Miller struck out 38.9% and walked 8.6%.

Rookie of the Year

1. Aaron Judge
2. Matt Chapman
3. Mitch Haniger

The easiest award of the year—if not the decade. Yankees sensation Aaron Judge hit more home runs this year than any rookie ever had in the history of this great game. Mitch Haniger (Seattle) and Matt Chapman (Oakland) were quite close for number two—it was the classic offense (Haniger's .282/.352/.491 line) vs. defense (Chapman's 19 Defensive Runs Saved) conundrum. I gave Chapman the nod because he played the harder position (third base) better. BBWAA finalist (and my preseason prediction) Andrew Benintendi just didn't amass enough WAR (2.2, going by FanGraphs) to beat any of these three guys.

Manager of the Year

1. Terry Francona
2. A.J. Hinch
3. Ned Yost

The one award left where you have to go with your gut. I'm not a very big believer in giving managers the credit for analysts misreading a team at the beginning of the season (*cough* Twins *cough*), nor do I think that managers suddenly switch between "brilliant" and "dumb" when their team has a good or bad season. For my money, Terry Francona has emerged in recent years as the best manager in the Junior Circuit. He is beloved by his players, and his groundbreaking methods of using Andrew Miller—his best reliever—in non-save situations have drawn raves. This year, of course, he deserves at least a share of the credit for the Indians' 22-game winning streak.

Houston's A.J. Hinch is a safe second choice; he imported stat-savvy techniques from a front office that hasn't always gotten along with its players and made them work on the field. Obviously, he was also able to overcome some slight clubhouse dissent to win the World Series (although these awards, BBWAA and IBWAA, were all voted on before the start of the playoffs). As for Ned Yost... yeah, I'm surprised too, but his Royals went 25–16 in one-run games and outperformed their Pythagorean record by nine wins.

Cy Young

1. Corey Kluber
2. Chris Sale
3. Luis Severino
4. Carlos Carrasco
5. Justin Verlander

Sometimes, the truth hurts. Chris Sale is undeniably one of the best pitchers of his generation—and yet he has never won a Cy Young Award. This season looked like it was going to be his year, until Corey Kluber (who won the award previously in 2014) turned on the jets in August and September. After August 1, he went 10–1 with a 1.42 ERA and a .492 opponents' OPS. He finished with a league-leading 2.25 ERA and 2.05 DRA (Baseball Prospectus's Deserved Run Average, the best indicator we have for what a pitcher's ERA "should" be, removing the effects of luck), and he crushed Sale 8.0 to 6.0 in the Baseball Reference WAR department.

You could still make the case for Sale—the Red Sox beat the Indian 7.7 to 7.3 in FanGraphs WAR mostly on the strength of his 12.93 K/9 (Kluber's was "only" 11.71) and slightly lower FIP (2.45 to 2.50). But ultimately I decided that voting for Sale would be interpreting the evidence selectively in order to get the answer I wanted to get. Sale's strikeout advantage nearly evaporates when you look at the more precise strikeout-percentage stat (Sale 36.2%, Kluber 34.1%), and Kluber's K/BB ratio is actually higher than Sale's (7.36 to 7.16). Moreover, FIP is a useful measure, but it's really just a blunt tool in assessing true pitcher performance—DRA is a far more refined statistic.

The battle for third place followed similar contours but was much more easily resolved. Despite similar peripheral stats (K/9 ratios in the 10s, BB/9s in the twos), Luis Severino posted a 2.98 ERA in a much tougher pitching environment than Carlos Carrasco twirled his 3.29. Severino's WHIP was also a skosh lower, 1.04 to 1.10, contributing to a 3.05 DRA (3.36 for Carrasco). Two of the three forms of WAR (FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) agreed that Severino was more valuable.

I was really close to giving Chris Archer the last slot. By FanGraphs WAR, he deserved it—registering at fifth in the league behind the above four men with a 4.6 mark, half a win ahead of Justin Verlander. Archer appeared to best Verlander in nearly every peripheral stat, including a dramatically better K/BB ratio, 4.15 to 3.04. But while I believe strong pitching fundamentals should undergird a Cy Young case, I couldn't bring myself to totally ignore end results, and Archer's 4.07 ERA just wasn't Cy-worthy. I consoled myself when I saw that both Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus gave Verlander the edge in WAR/WARP. In fact, per Baseball Reference, Verlander's 6.4 WAR was second in the AL only to Kluber's. In a nice little feat of balance, my final ballot thus includes five of the top six finishers in pitching value according to all three major sites.


1. Aaron Judge
2. Corey Kluber
3. José Altuve
4. Mike Trout
5. Chris Sale
6. José Ramírez
7. Carlos Carrasco
8. Luis Severino
9. Justin Verlander
10. Carlos Correa

Hoo boy, is there a lot to tease out here. Let's start with this: how the heck do you compare the six-foot-seven Aaron Judge to the five-foot-six José Altuve? According to the FanGraphs version of WAR, Judge has a small but perceptible lead, 8.2 to 7.5. According to Baseball Reference, though, it's the opposite: Altuve leads 8.3 to 8.1. As I often do, I broke the tie by going to the stat that comes closest to quantifying that pesky phrase, "most valuable": win probability. Judge had a 6.23 WPA/LI to Altuve's 4.59, indicating that, holding the leverage of their plate appearances constant, Judge's did more to increase his team's likelihood of winning. (Those numbers are from FanGraphs, but Baseball Reference agrees on the order.)

One problem: That pesky GOAT, Mike Trout, crushes both of them in that category. A not-unsizable part of me wanted to cast off my cloak of objectivity and lay my first-place vote at Trout's feet—his career-best 187 OPS+ made him indisputably the most valuable player on the field when he played. Ultimately, though, you can't just ignore the nearly 200 plate appearances he lost to injury. Just know I'm not happy about sticking him at fourth.

Then there's the debate everyone else seems to ignore: pitcher or hitter? Yup, both Corey Kluber and Chris Sale have a case for being better than any of the AL's position players this year. Kluber's 8.00 WARP from Baseball Prospectus leads the league, while Sale's 7.64 is second. FanGraphs and Baseball Reference put them more solidly in the muddle, though, and their WPA/LIs are far behind Judge's and Trout's. Kluber's 4.87 WPA/LI is better than Altuve's, however, which, along with his world-beating dominance in FanGraphs's RA9-WAR (the type of WAR I like to use for MVP voting), is enough to give him second place. Sale's 3.77 WPA/LI and 6.1 Baseball Reference WAR (not even in the top nine) give me an excuse to honor Trout's peak excellence a little more than I otherwise would.

José Ramírez is an easy pick for sixth place; not in the above five's league, but clearly better than everyone else. After that it's pick your poison. The next-most deserving based on WPA/LI are the Carloses—Correa and Carrasco. By FanGraphs RA9-WAR, it's Carrasco and Justin Verlander. By regular FanGraphs WAR, it's Francisco Lindor and Luis Severino. By Baseball Reference WAR, it's Andrelton Simmons and Mookie Betts. By WARP, it's Betts and Severino. The first two stats being my preferred ones for MVP, I therefore penciled in Carrasco, but then deferred to Severino given how close the two were for Cy Young. (I ranked them differently here because I believe Cy Young should assess pure pitching ability, while MVP is about the whole player, including defense, run-prevention outcomes, workload, and even hitting if applicable.) Then came Verlander and, squeezing onto the ballot despite missing 42 games with a torn thumb ligament, Correa, who, when he did play, increased his team's chances to win more than any other player remaining on the board.

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