Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Power to the Max: My National League Award Picks

Last night, Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger were named the 2017 Rookies of the Year by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA). They were virtually incontestable picks—but the rest of the awards-reveal week won't be nearly as clear-cut. Back in September, I agonized over my own picks for the National League's top performances when voting for those same awards for the BBWAA's digital shadow cabinet, the Internet Baseball Writers' Association of America (IBWAA). Here, preemptively, is why the real awards voters are wrong. (You can read my picks for the American League here.)

Reliever of the Year

1. Kenley Jansen
2. Corey Knebel
3. Pat Neshek

This IBWAA-only award is in perennial danger of being hijacked by gaudy save totals, but, happily, in this case, the league leader in saves is also the best reliever in baseball. Not only did Kenley Jansen shut the door 41 times for the Dodgers, but he led all qualified relievers in strikeout rate (42.3%) and was one-tenth of a percentage point away from doing so in walk rate (2.7%). If you strike dudes out and don't walk them, you're going to be very, very good—like 1.32 ERA good, also tops in the circuit. Jansen also crushes all comers—pitchers or hitters—in WPA (5.33), an important stat for a situation-based reliever.

Brewers closer Corey Knebel is the only other NL pitcher in Jansen's league when it comes to strikeouts (40.8%), but he also had a huge Achilles heel: his walk rate (12.9%). By contrast, Phillies-to-Rockies tradee Pat Neshek sported the stingiest walk rate of them all (2.6%) but a more mortal 29.4% strikeout rate. By K/BB ratio, Neshek blows Knebel out of the water (11.50 to 3.15), but the less denominator-skewed K−BB% stat gives Knebel a 27.8–26.8% advantage. Neshek also led in WHIP (0.87 to 1.16) and ERA (1.59 to 1.78) despite pitching much of the second half in Coors Field. So why did I opt for Knebel? Neshek's 4.2% HR/FB percentage implies he was quite fortunate in the dinger department, and his xFIP is accordingly 3.26—much higher than Knebel's 2.97.

There were plenty of runners-up for this category, most notably Archie Bradley and Felipe Rivero, but Bradley left a lot to be desired going by true skill (his 1.73 ERA masked an unremarkable 3.71 DRA), and Rivero benefited from a .234 BABIP.

Rookie of the Year

1. Cody Bellinger
2. Paul DeJong
3. German Márquez

Cody Bellinger (.933 OPS, 39 home runs, 4.0 FanGraphs WAR) was an easy pick here. Between him and honorable mention Austin Barnes (whom I would've ranked fourth) plus Rookie of the Year Corey Seager and Kenta Maeda last year, the modern Dodgers are debuting a streak of rookie talent reminiscent of the Eric KarrosMike PiazzaRaúl MondesíHideo NomoTodd Hollandsworth run of the 1990s. Cardinals middle infielder Paul DeJong—best known for hitting the foul ball caught by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—racked up 3.0 WAR and 25 home runs, making him a comfortable choice for second.

At 2.2 WAR in just 50 games, Phillies wunderkind Rhys Hoskins was awesome but didn't have enough at-bats to justify stiffing DeJong or my eventual number-three vote, German Márquez. The Rockies rookie was hated by Baseball Prospectus (who gave him a negative WARP!), but his FanGraphs WAR (2.4) matched Barnes's, and his Baseball Reference WAR (3.1) wasn't all that far behind Bellinger's. Despite a 4.39 ERA, he pitched 14% better than the average 2017 pitcher for 162 innings; it's rare for a rookie to be a solid contributor all season long.

Manager of the Year

1. Bud Black
2. Dave Roberts
3. Andy Green

There are so many more deserving candidates for Manager of the Year in the NL than the AL. Bud Black led Colorado to a playoff berth on the strength of their pitching (a 90 ERA−, the best in Rockies history), previously believed to be an impossible feat. That is surely a testament to this former pitching coach, who also managed his team to a great record in one-run games (21–14). Dave Roberts adeptly juggled playing-time dilemmas in his outfield and at second base, and he righted the ship after a rough stretch that set off a panic in Chávez Ravine. Immediately after losing 16 of 17 games in late August/early September, the Dodgers recovered to go 12–6 over the final few weeks.

The surprise on my ballot is Andy Green. I appreciate how Green has used his team's suckitude to experiment with unorthodox strategies, like shifting and multi-inning reliever usage. Something he did worked, as the 71–91 Padres outperformed their Pythagorean record (57–105) by more than any other team in baseball.

That's three picks, but there are two other NL skippers who would've cracked my ballot had they had the fortune to manage in the AL. Torey Lovullo was clearly a boon to the Diamondbacks, but I hesitated when I saw that they still underperformed their Pythagorean record by five wins. And Craig Counsell—he of the painfully erect batting stance—led the surprise Brewers to be the last team eliminated.

Cy Young

1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Zack Greinke
4. Clayton Kershaw
5. Jacob deGrom

NL Cy Young is one of those awards that everyone acknowledges is close but everyone also acknowledges there's an obvious correct choice. Therefore, I won't be surprised if Max Scherzer wins the thing unanimously on Wednesday night. At first glance, Scherzer appears to be neck and neck with his Washington teammate, Stephen Strasburg: ERAs of 2.51/2.52, xFIPs of 3.28/3.27. But Scherzer, befitting his reputation as a workhorse, pitched more than 25 more innings. He creates more distance when you note that he was the league's most dominant strikeout pitcher, with a 34.4% strikeout rate and a 15.5% swinging-strike rate. No wonder Baseball Prospectus gives him a 2.26 DRA (Strasburg's is 2.93) and a wide lead in WARP (7.41 to 5.95) over Jacob deGrom.

After Scherzer, Baseball Prospectus likes deGrom and Zack Greinke the best, while Baseball Reference ranks Gio González second in WAR among National Leaguers. But those three all had ERAs of at least 3.20, so it's clear that Strasburg is just being penalized for the three starts he missed due to injury. He is, though, second to Scherzer in FanGraphs WAR (5.6), the version that is the closest summary of the fielding-independent-pitching factors that I favor when considering Cy Young Awards.

Greinke slots in at third place, where he also ranks in FanGraphs WAR (5.1) and Baseball Reference WAR (6.1) if we ignore González. Despite that site's esteem for the Nationals southpaw, I just couldn't see a way that González was among my top five NL pitchers. His excellent run prevention (a 2.92 ERA) was not fully attributable to his actual pitching skills (a pedestrian 8.42/3.54 K/BB ratio; a 3.93 FIP). In the same way, but for opposite reasons, I disregarded FanGraphs WAR's own outlier, Brewer Jimmy Nelson. Nelson's 4.9 WAR was due to some significant revisionist history on the saber-site's part, dismissing many of his 75 runs allowed as products of bad luck. They may well have been, but no other site saw in Nelson (owner of a 3.58 DRA) what FanGraphs did.

Like his 2016, Clayton Kershaw's 2017 was difficult to pigeonhole. The Dodgers ace missed around five starts with a bad back, but he put up characteristically superb stats when he did pitch, including a 2.31 ERA and a league-leading 6.73 K/BB ratio. Yet, very uncharacteristically, he didn't pitch all that well beneath that veneer: he mustered just a 3.30 DRA thanks to some good luck on balls in play (.267 BABIP) and runners left on base (87.4% LOB%). That dropped what could have been a Cy-winning campaign with more innings and some better fundamentals to fourth place. Finally, deGrom rounded out my ballot. With what qualified as a workhorse season for the New York Mets combined with a strong 4.05 K/BB ratio, Baseball Prospectus makes a strong case for deGrom being one of the best pitchers in the league. But he flunks the eyeball test, with an ERA+ (119) a lot less impressive than Greinke's (149) or Kershaw's (180).


1. Giancarlo Stanton
2. Joey Votto
3. Max Scherzer
4. Charlie Blackmon
5. Kris Bryant
6. Nolan Arenado
7. Anthony Rendon
8. Zack Greinke
9. Gio González
10. Paul Goldschmidt

This messy MVP race makes the other NL awards look like the pictures of consensus. According to FanGraphs WAR (for pitchers, RA9-WAR added to their offensive and defensive WAR, for a picture of the whole player), Max Scherzer is the MVP with 7.3 WAR. At Baseball Prospectus, it's Giancarlo Stanton (8.55 WARP) in the lead by a distance roughly equivalent to one of his monster home runs. And at Baseball Reference, Scherzer, Stanton, and Joey Votto are all effectively tied at 7.6 (7.5 for Votto, but WAR is hardly an exact science).

As in the American League, I went to WPA/LI—a.k.a. the stat that best sums up all the times you contributed to helping your team win—to break the tie. By Baseball Reference, Votto leads Stanton 6.4 to 6.2, but at FanGraphs, Stanton has a clearer lead of 7.00 to 6.32. In the end, Stanton also ranks higher than Votto according to all three flavors of WAR, so he is my pick by a hair.

What about Scherzer, for whom a strong case can be made to be number one? His lead in RA9-WAR is effectively nullified by his deficit in WARP, so he doesn't clearly stand out from the pack of hitters to me. And then there's the National's WPA/LI of 3.05 (FanGraphs version, subtracting his negative hitting value from his positive pitching value)—good for a starting pitcher, but in the end he just didn't provide the constant jolts to his team's chances of winning that Stanton did for the Marlins.

The rest of the league didn't quite measure up to those three. FanGraphs ranked Kris Bryant (6.7) and Anthony Rendon (6.9) above Votto, giving them extra credit for playing the more challenging position of third base. However, Votto had more Defensive Runs Saved (11) than either Bryant (2) or Rendon (7), so a defensive penalty for him seems perverse. Rendon falls particularly far in my ranking because of his 3.29 WPA/LI; Bryant's was 5.20, third in the league.

Meanwhile, Baseball Prospectus's pet case was Charlie Blackmon, who they convinced me was at least Bryant's equal. The Rockies outfielder ranks just behind Votto in FanGraphs WAR (6.5) and is a close match for Bryant in other categories. Baseball Reference says the Rockies outfielder has the edge in WPA/LI (5.3 to 4.5); FanGraphs says the Cub does (5.20 to 4.88). But BP seemed more convinced that Blackmon was better than Bryant (7.70 vs. 6.67 WARP) than the other two sites were that Bryant was better than Blackmon (just a fraction of a win separated them at both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference). Blackmon also took 60 more plate appearances than Bryant.

Blackmon's Colorado teammate, Nolan Arenado, similarly gets a boost on my ballot because he is beloved by Baseball Reference (7.2 WAR), but unlike Blackmon, there is a wide gulf between him and Bryant in FanGraphs WAR (Arenado's is 5.6) and WPA/LI (3.43). Although Arenado is obviously an asset with the glove, his hitting (129 wRC+) is both easier to quantify and less impressive than Blackmon's 141 wRC+ and Bryant's 146. Arenado does get the nod over Rendon, though, as FanGraphs WAR is the only measure of value that believes Rendon was superior.

My last few slots give love to the pitchers—and specifically those who were valuable to their team in ways beyond balls and strikes. Zack Greinke boosted his overall value (6.70 WARP) with good defense, while Gio González, despite mediocre peripheral pitching stats, was valuable enough when paired with his team (i.e., his defense) that he prevented enough runs to tie Blackmon in RA9-WAR (6.5). However, his 1.25 WPA/LI revealed that he didn't actually boost the Nationals' chances of winning all that much. Finally, I fit Paul Goldschmidt onto my ballot in order to honor his contributions to win probability (4.3 per Baseball Reference, in fifth place) and his 6.36 WARP (good for seventh), although I could have just as easily gone with my top honorable mention, Justin Turner. Two of my other Cy Young votes, Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg, might also have shown up here, but as with Turner, I ultimately decided that their missed playing time was more of a disqualification in an MVP race. To help your team, you've got to be on the field.

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