This time of year is so terribly conflicting for die hard baseball fans. On one hand, the playoffs are right around the corner. If you’re lucky enough to be a fan of a team in contention, this time of year is the absolute best. Baseball, make no mistake about it, is a summer game. But there’s something about watching the leaves change colors and walking around in the crisp autumn air that screams baseball at the top of its lungs. On the other hand, whether your team wins its final game or not, baseball is coming to an end soon. 29 of the 30 teams will end the season with a loss, no matter how well the rest of the year went, and then baseball slips onto the backburner for four miserable months. Even if your team were to win, four months without baseball always seems like an eternity.
Fortunately for us, it really isn’t an eternity. In the blink of an eye, the calender will have turned to March and Spring Training will once again be ramping up. And with it, hopes and expectations of a new year will overshadow most of the memories from the year before. With that in mind, there a some things about the 2012 season that I don’t want to forget. While most of the attention this last week will be on the playoff contenders and the awards races, there are tons of other stories around baseball that are just waiting to get erased from the public memory. Below are just a few things from this season that I wish people would take a second to appreciate.
Chase Headley’s Amazing Year
Let’s be honest, prior to the second half of 2012, hardly anyone who knew who he was. Headley, a victim of his home park, was a solid not spectacular guy playing for a largely irrelevant team on the west coast. Not exactly a recipe for fame. Though he wasn’t a secret to everyone: many fans in the saber community loved Headley for what might be. Imagining what his overall numbers might look like if he didn’t play in such a pitchers haven, paired with his solid defense at third base, many tabbed Headley as a potential breakout guy if he were to get out of Petco. Well, it turns out he didn’t even need to leave San Diego.
After never hitting more than 12 home runs in a season, he’s got 29 with a week to go. His .283/.371/.487 line is too good to be ignored, but it seems like it might go unnoticed anyway. Whether you believe in WAR or not (in this case the Fangraphs version), it is important to note that Headley has been the sixth best hitter in all of baseball. And it’s not like you really need WAR to justify him at least being in the top 10 or 15, as he’s reached many of the “traditional” benchmarks of a stellar season (particularly 100 RBI). Here’s what I’m hoping: that Chase Headley gets that 30th home run so maybe a few more people will pay attention. There’s almost no way he finishes in the top 5 for NL MVP voting, but there’s very few more deserving candidates.
Billy Butler Finally Tapping Into His Power
Another guy that’s constantly underrated, Billy Butler, that of 140 doubles from 2009-2011, has finally broken out of that “gap power” pigeon hole. After his home run tonight, Country Breakfast sits at .314/.372/.506 on the season with 27 home runs and 103 RBI. In fact, if you just look at offense (as defense is completely a non-factor with Butler), his season is every bit as impressive as Headley’s. Butler seems like an all-around good guy and he’s done nothing but hit since he came up to the big leagues in 2007: he’s a dead even .300 lifetime hitter with 162-game averages of 182 hits and 41 doubles. I really hope that people remember how awesome he was in 2012.
Joe Mauer. Yeah, That Guy.
It would seem impossible for a guy with three batting titles and a 184 million dollar contract to fly under the radar, but that’s exactly what Mauer has done this year. He had an undeniably down year in 2011, failing to reach the .300/.400 benchmarks for the first time in three years, but he is back and then some this year. Currently hitting .323/.414/.454, Mauer has exactly matched his lifetime batting average and eclipsed his mark for OBP. What’s keeping him from the MVP discussion (in addition to really any discussion) is his lack of power.
When he hit 28 home runs in 2009, people assumed that he would replicate that type of power output on a yearly basis. When he failed to do so over the proceeding two seasons (9 HR in ’10, 3 in ’11) people were quick to label his contract a bust and dismiss him from the top catcher in the game conversation. I must admit that I too thought he was succumbing to leg troubles at an early age, but this guy is just an absolute machine. When you look at his career numbers, the 28 home runs were just a favorable blip in the radar. He is 10 home run guy who is going to barrel the ball up at an incredible rate. And when he’s doing it as a catcher (albeit not full-time), it’s something we should all step back and appreciate.
Trout vs. Cabrera Has Nothing To Do With Sabermetrics
When awards season comes around and these two inevitably occupy the first and second spots, the rash of irrational analysis on the distinction between the two will pour in. Let’s get one thing out of the way: Mike Trout should absolutely win the MVP. We haven’t seen a season this good since maybe Barry Bonds in his prime. He has been elite on offense, defense and on the base paths. This is not to take anything away from Miguel Cabrera, who has been a bit better on offense. This is about the entire game of baseball. It’s not about the Triple Crown and it’s definitely not about sabermetrics, and it baffles me that people can’t understand that.
Without citing a single metric, I can explain to you how much better Trout has been than Cabrera. We’ll go with the Triple Crown stats to display the point. Trout is hitting .320 with 28 home runs and 78 RBI while Cabrera is currently at .326 with 42 home runs and 133 RBI. While Cabrera clearly has the superior line, there are other immensely important criteria to consider. To start, Trout has stolen 47 bases in 51 attempts. Cabrera, a complete non-threat on the bases — perhaps even a liability — has four steals in five attempts. What about defense? Cabrera has made 13 errors to Trout’s four. And yes, this is an awful comparison given that Cabrera plays third and Trout is mainly a center fielder. However, Cabrera has made the eighth most errors of any third basemen. Given that there are 30 teams, that puts him in the bottom third defensively. Trout meanwhile leads the world in robbed home runs and is undeniably an above-average center fielder.
So someone please explain to me how this became about sabermetrics? The gap between these two on offense is there, sure. But who in their right mind wouldn’t take a gold glove center fielder with 30 home runs, 80 RBI and 50 steals (obviously he may not reach all of these in the final week, but it’s close) over a third basemen goes for 40 home runs, 130 RBI and is a liability in the field and on the bases? Obviously you’d take either guy on your team and that’s not the point. But if you can’t see why Trout has been more valuable, I don’t know how to make it any clearer. You could bring money into the discussion if you want — Trout is earning rookie money while Cabrera is signed to a 150 million dollar contract — but that is maybe a different take on “value”. What it really comes down to is this: do you value the game of baseball as whole, or just offense? Some people may have different MVP philosophies that are contingent on making the playoffs or performing down the stretch, and that’s certainly reasonable even if I don’t agree, but if you’re just looking for the guy who’s provided the most value, it’s really not complicated at all.
I bring to you a rough edit of a film I made with classmate Harrison Antognioni. Who knows if we’ll ever have a final edit, but check it out and let me know what you think in the comments, on Facebook, or by mentioning me on Twitter — @bgeary8.
If there is one thing we can all agree on about Tim Tebow, it is this: he is the most polarizing sports figure we have today. But why all the fuss about Tebow? Why are people arguing to no end, claiming to either love or hate him? The thing about Tebow is that people are more concerned about what is said than what he is actually doing.
Almost everyone is talking about him. Most people align themselves in one of two camps. First, there is the “Tebow just wins!” camp. This one is particularly annoying. Not only are they unwilling to acknowledge his flaws, but every spec of objective analysis is filed under “fueling the fire”. Let’s get real for a second. Tebow is still not a good quarterback. There is nothing derogatory about saying that. There’s a reason John Elway isn’t sold. I’ll take his opinion over the resident Tebow apologist. And more importantly, myself or anyone else who isn’t convinced of his actual quarterbacking ability are not fueling the fire, for two reasons. First, there is not a chance in hell that Tim Tebow gives a shit about what I think. Second, most people aren’t attacking him as a person, or even his ability as a football player. They’re just not convinced of his ability to play the quarterback position.
This brings me to camp number two. This camp hates Tebow because of his outward religious behavior, which is just inherently stupid. We (not everyone, but many people) are willing to idolize the Michael Vick’s of the world, but for some reason Tebow and his religion are a problem? Get real. Is it a bit over the top sometimes? Sure. Is it hurting anybody? Not a chance. As always, some of the loudest cries of Tebow hate come from this type of person, which is unfortunate because most sensible people want nothing to do with this opinion.
Here’s what I’m saying about Tim Tebow — give credit where credit is due, but we need not get carried away. No one has any reason to take my opinion about football, a sport that I don’t care about a great deal. But what I see is a guy who has a will to win that may actually be one of these “intangibles” that everyone loves to talk about so much. But the other thing that I see is something that is extremely explainable. Any good football guy will tell you that two of the biggest keys to winning games are playing good defense and not turning the ball over. This is exactly what the Broncos have done since Tebow became their starter. Practically no one is giving John Fox the credit that he deserves for the work the defense has done. If you want the real reason that the Broncos are winning, look no further than the defense, because I promise you that their offense isn’t going to win a shootout. But what Tebow is so good at fits right in to what they’re doing right now — he refuses to turn the ball over. He has just one interception in six starts. That’s extremely valuable. When you also take into account their schedule — Miami, Oakland (without McFadden and in Palmer’s first start), Kansas City, the Jets, and San Diego — it’s really no surprise that they’ve won five of six. It’s also no surprise that Detroit’s pass rush gave them fits in the one loss.
The bottom line is that I have nothing, absolutely nothing, against Tim Tebow. I’m sick of his apologists who look down at me for even suggesting that he has extreme limitations in his game. The rest of Denver’s schedule is pretty easy, save for the New England game, so I expect plenty of wins, probably even a playoff berth. But none of that will change my opinion on Tim Tebow the quarterback.
I am in no way, shape, or form an expert on this topic. I have not done the scientific or psychological research myself, nor am I capable of doing so. However I have spent an entire lifetime playing, coaching, and studying sports. Recently, this argument came to an astounding head with one of my roommates and best friends. His argument (in cliff notes) — an athlete’s mental approach is what gives them the ability to be one of the best in the world. My argument (cliff notes) — mental preparation can only take you so far if you do not have the physical ability to perform like one of the best in the world.
When people make the mental argument, they often turn to less physically gifted athletes — David Eckstein comes to mind. The argument is that they must have “willed” their way to the professional ranks because typically athletes of that size do not have the ability to succeed. Recently, my roommate used Tim Tebow as a prop in this side of the argument. He said that Tebow’s mental preparation allows him to win and constantly defy the odds. (Before we get any further into this, let’s acknowledge one thing — Tebow is clearly a superbly intelligent human who will not allow himself to be unprepared mentally). But how in God’s name would Tebow be able to do what he does on the field if he was not an absolute physical specimen. The man is 6’3″ and 235 lbs. He is built like a tank. Let’s clear one thing up. Tim Tebow does what he does, which is run the football extremely well primarily, because of his physical gifts. Does he make more of what he has than most? Possibly. But how many other quarterbacks are built like Tebow? Could Tom Brady or Peyton Manning absorb the hits that Tebow has taken throughout his career? No. They are neither fast enough or solid enough, which is why they stay in the pocket and do what they do best.
How did Tebow get to be so big and strong? Quite clearly, he worked at it. He is a tireless gym rat, one that by some accounts had to be asked to tone down his training. He has, without a doubt, maximized his potential as an athlete. This is something many athletes fail to do. Tebow deserves credit for this. And does it have something, probably a lot, to do with how committed he was mentally to all of this? Yes. However it seems to me that there is a gigantic difference in the potential of Tebow and the potential of myself. I played three sports in high school and I continued on to play baseball in college. I would consider myself a good athlete. But if I pushed my body to the absolute limit, would I be able to do the things that Tebow can do? Absolutely not. He made himself the best that he could be, but he was born with an ability that most are not.
This is my belief of 99.9% of professional athletes. Could you find examples of athletes who went further than they are supposed to? Yes. But I guarantee you that this is the exception, not the rule. There are millions of athletes who have given everything they have to their sport and still failed miserably. This, quite simply, is because not all of us were made to be professional athletes. There is a reason that these guys get paid like they do — they were born with the ability to do things that 99% of the population cannot.
Mental preparation is of course a crucial part of any athlete’s training. It can take you to the next step and make you the best athlete you can be. But the fact is that some staircases simply weren’t built as high as others.
Playoff baseball. For me, there is nothing like it. Perhaps that is because I’m lucky enough to watch the Yankees make it to October so frequently. But quite honestly, even when the Yankees are not involved, this time of year is something special. Watching the Giants make their postseason run last fall was as captivating as anything I’ve ever watched. Amazing things will happen and I do not want to miss any of it.
October is the time when heroes are born. Sometimes, they are born without explanation or precedent. I can’t explain to you why Scott Broscious had a 1.294 OPS (!!!) in the 1998 World Series, including one giant 3-run home run off of Trevor Hoffman. Nor can I explain how the 1960 Yankees outscored the Pirates 55 to 27 and still lost the World Series. (FIFTY-FIVE TO TWENTY-SEVEN). But the best thing about the playoffs is that there is no need to explain any of it.
Certainly regular season numbers can be a good predictor of performance in October, but weird things happen in short series. The playoffs are the home of the ultimate Small Sample Size (SSS). At most, a player will play in 19 games. Yet year after year, we insist on assigning infinite value on what is sometimes no more than a fluke. Some people made Cody Ross into a superstar even though his performance last October was so far above his actual skill level it is comical. Other people deemed Alex Rodriguez “unclutch” in his first few seasons with the Yankees.
Really, there’s no point in making these snap judgments. Mainly they are used to fill the sports pages with garbage about how Player X is a choker and Player Y just knows how to win. It’s incredibly shortsighted and just completely unnecessary.
October baseball comes just once a year. Some players will succeed, some will fail, and just one team will be standing when it is all said and done. This is the only thing we know for sure. So rather than wasting our breath trying to figure it all out, for a few weeks, let’s put the numbers aside and just enjoy the ride.
From now until November, we’re going to hear a lot about this topic. Sabermetricians will be villains for ruining the sanctity of the game and calling for award votes to be objective. Writers around the country will continue to vote subjectively because that is their right. As this Hardball Talk article highlights, MVP voting, and consequently all other award voting, is inherently a subjective process. There is nothing we can do to change that. It is up to each individual to decide what criteria is most important to them.
With that in mind, here are my 2011 MLB Award Winners:
AL MVP: Jacoby Ellsbury, OF Boston Red Sox
This was a very tough choice. Curtis Granderson, Justin Verlander, and Miguel Cabrera have nice cases, but Jose Bautista was the real object here. Though Ellsbury is ahead in fWAR (9.4 to 8.3), Bautista has the edge in rWAR (Baseball-Reference WAR) at 8.5 to 7.2. Bautista’s triple slash of .302/.447/.608 paired with his immense power and defensive versatility make him a fine choice for MVP that I would not argue with. However, Ellsbury’s consistent offensive output, excellent defense at a tough position, and his awesome September put him over the top for me. Could a pitcher win the MVP? Certainly. But with how great Ellsbury and Bautista were, I don’t think this should be the year.
AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander, SP Detroit Tigers
Though I think Verlander is the ultimate winner, I don’t think it should be open and shut as it seems. CC Sabathia has been incredible this year and deserves careful consideration. He is ahead of Verlander in FIP and xFIP and actually has been more valuable per fWAR (7.1 to 7.0). Additionally, there is no denying that Sabathia’s task of pitching in the AL East is tougher than that of Verlander’s in the putrid AL Central. But even with all of that, Verlander has been truly dominant this year. Though I don’t really care about wins, his high total suggests that he was consistently pitching deep into ball games, and the fact that he led the league in innings pitched backs this up.
AL ROY: Dustin Ackley, 2B Seattle Mariners
This may have actually been the most difficult to decide among the AL awards. Ackley’s teammate Michael Pineda had a nice case, as did Eric Hosmer, Jeremy Hellickson, Ivan Nova and to some extent Mark Trumbo. Ultimately I went with Ackley because he stepped into an atrocious Seattle lineup and immediately became their best hitter. This does not say much, granted, but I believe this was a pretty tall task. When you combine his offense with his above average defense and take into consideration future potential, I think Ackely is a fine choice.
NL MVP: Matt Kemp, OF Los Angeles Dodgers
Ryan Braun will probably win this award as voted on by the writers. He had a great season and his team made the playoffs. That stuff matters to writers. But for me, Matt Kemp has been so incredible that there’s no way he shouldn’t win this award. While the two had similarly great offensive seasons (with a slight, slight edge to Kemp), Braun plays an easier defensive position than Kemp, and is not particularly good at it. Granted, Kemp is no world class center fielder. But from all accounts I have read, Kemp has worked hard enough on his defense that is has become respectable. And with that kind of offense, respectable is something you can deal with.
NL Cy Young: Roy Halladay, SP Philadelphia Phillies
Deciding this award was next to impossible for me. I don’t know that we’ve ever had three candidates for this award that were as close as Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, and Cliff Lee were this year. Kershaw has become somewhat of a media darling this year, as he is young, left-handed, and just generally awesome. Additionally, he won the triple crown of pitching, which is wins, ERA, and K’s. This really doesn’t matter to me because I basically throw wins out the window. In terms of advanced numbers, Halladay has the edge in nearly every category: WAR, FIP, xFIP, ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP- (read more about ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP- here). If Kershaw’s edge in traditional stats like K’s, innings pitched, and ERA had been huge, I could have neglected the advanced numbers. But Halladay is just so freaking good. He’s so good that we didn’t even notice how good he was this year. That’s good. Did that make sense? No?
NL ROY: Craig Kimbrel, RP Atlanta Braves
This vote is more about the lack of a stud candidate that how much I like Kimbrel. Don’t get me wrong, Kimbrel was great this year and I put the blame squarely on Fredi Gonzalez for overworking him in an irresponsible way. I just don’t really like the idea of giving the award to a reliever because of the way their performance can so rapidly decline. Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos and Freddie Freeman are the best positional candidates, yet none had standout seasons (though I don’t think Freeman is as bad on defense as UZR, traditionally poor with rating first basemen, says he is). The case for Kimbrel is pretty simple: he was utterly dominant for the better part of 162 games. If you thought he was the Rookie of the Year before the meltdown on Wednesday night, you should still think he’s the Rookie of the Year today.
I left out Manager of the Year because I really have no idea how to qualify who managed the best. The award typically comes from a team that “overachieved” in the eyes of the media. So I guess this year that would give you Kirk Gibson or Ron Roenicke in the National League and Joe Maddon or Manny Acta in the American League. But honestly, who’s to say that they did a better job than Joe Girardi, Charlie Manuel, or any other manager? I don’t know. So I don’t really care about the award. If we come up with a better way to figure this out, let me know.
In my opinion, Keith Law is one of the best and brightest baseball writers going today. He rubs many people the wrong way because of his sarcastic tone and heavy reliance on advanced metrics, and of course the fact that much of his writing is behind the paywall of ESPN Insider. I am lucky enough to have a subscription and I read nearly everything KLaw writes.
His latest is his postseason awards picks. If you follow Law on Twitter (@keithlaw) many of these picks do not surprise you. Here are a few things you should know about Law and his philosophy:
1) Player performance and team performance are two separate entities and should be treated as such.
2) For hitters, batting average, RBI, and runs scored are irrelevant because they are too context dependent.
3) Pitcher wins are completely meaningless.
So if you didn’t know it before, you know it now: Law is firm in his beliefs and doesn’t give a damn that they aren’t popular among some crowds. For the most part I do subscribe to his line of thinking. Traditional stats do not give enough context, therefore aren’t especially useful for telling the true story about a player’s production. However I do think that they give entertainment value, while Law sees no such value. But overall, if you want to really evaluate players based on numbers, there’s no one better to read than Law.
I don’t want to give away much of his article since it is behind a paywall and ESPN has decided that those who aren’t willing to pay can’t read his work. He gave his entire ballot for all the awards along with explanation. I’ll just give you the winners.
AL MVP: Jose Bautista
AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander
AL ROY: Dustin Ackley
NL MVP: Matt Kemp
NL ROY: Craig Kimbrel
The NL Cy Young is missing from his ballot because he will actually vote for the award and is required by the BBWAA to keep his vote confidential until after the award is announced. If I had to guess, I would say that he will vote for Roy Halladay. Though Clayton Kershaw has become the trendy pick, Halladay’s advanced numbers are actually a little bit better.
Halladay has the edge in FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) and xFIP (FIP but calculated using the league average HR/FB). Both of these metrics normalize BABIP. What this means is that Kershaw’s low BABIP (.269) suggests an element of luck or good defensive help. Since FIP aims to take defense out of the equation and calculate only what a pitcher can control (BB, K, HR), this actually hurts Kershaw. Meanwhile, Halladay put up similar traditional numbers, but did it with a BABIP that is right near league average (.298). Additionally, Law would certainly look at the fact that Kershaw pitched against some of the worst offenses (Giants, Padres) in the NL on a regular basis. On top of all of that, Halladay beats Kershaw in fWAR by a fair margin (8.2 to 6.8).
I think Law would tell you that both would be fine picks, but that Halladay has just been a little better. Of course you don’t have to listen to me. When the NL Cy Young voting comes out, Law will be completely transparent about his vote and exactly why he voted that way. This is one of the reasons I respect him the most. While other writers will hide behind the anonymity of the voting process, Law has no problem defending his vote. That is what I expect from a true professional.