AL MVP Race — How to measure Value

There are a number of players right now that have a legitimate shot at the American League MVP award. Adrian Gonzalez heads the pack in the more conventional categories – a .352 average and 92 RBI – while Jose Bautista has crushed 34 bombs with a videogame-like slugging percentage of .636. Dustin Pedroia combines exceptional defense with rare offensive value from the second base position, and Curtis Granderson trails Bautista by just one dinger, while posting 107 runs, 94 RBI, and 22 stolen bases.

First let’s talk about the award, and what “value” means. From the Hardball Times via the Baseball Writers Association:

“The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931: (1) actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense; (2) number of games played; (3) general character, disposition, loyalty and effort; (4) former winners are eligible; and (5) members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.”

Number one on that list shows up the name of the award, “value of a player to his team.” (The other points, even number two, are definitely secondary considering Josh Hamilton won the award last season after sitting out nearly all of September.) Value, in my mind, is a measure of where a team would be with versus without that player. How much better a player makes his team in place of some schmuck. This is not to say that a player on the Red Sox is automatically more valuable than a player on the Mariners just because the Red Sox are going to the playoffs. It is not Dustin Ackley’s fault, for instance, that the rest of his team sucks. With that in mind, here I go.

Runs and RBI are flashy stats and easy to count. There are no decimals, no acronyms that liken baseball to a battlefield, and they’ve been around forever. However, when it comes to measuring value, they stink.

Players record runs in part because they can get on base, and in part because they are fortunate enough to have a GM/Owner that puts Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher right behind them. (Oh hey there, Curtis.) Players record RBI in part because they hit the ball far with runners in scoring position, and in part because Stephen Hawking could rack up RBI batting behind Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia (combined .385 OBP and 53 stolen bases). There are better ways to measure a player’s skills and value to his team.

There are two things that Adrian Gonzalez does better than Jose Bautista. Hit for average and accumulate RBI. How about these stats, though: Adrian Gonzalez has 15 more RBI than Jose Bautista. Adrian Gonzalez has seen 87 more Red Sox(es?) out on the bases than Jose Bautista has seen Blue Jays. If “clutchness” is what you want in a hitter, then Fangraphs’ Win Percentage Added (WPA) and Clutch (Clutch) statistics are for you. These are statistics that weight a player’s performance based on the leverage, or importance, of the situation – do his homeruns come in the top of the 7th, down 12-1, or in the bottom of the ninth with the game tied? Here are the results for our four candidates (more positive is good):

Player

WPA

Clutch

Bautista

6.04

0.63

Gonzalez

2.92

-0.28

Pedroia

2.33

0.05

Granderson

2.30

-0.52

You might look at each player’s average with runners in scoring position (RISP) and wonder how Bautista is ahead of any of these guys. After all, a .250 batting average with runners on 2nd and/or 3rd is hardly impressive. First of all, “high leverage” situations can occur when no one is on base, though baserunners definitely add importance to the at bat. Second, Bautista does two things well with RISP: he walks, and he hits for power. Granted, in these situations a hit is favorable to a walk, but I think it really goes to show how much teams choose to pitch around Bautista, as opposed to Gonzo, Pedroia and Granderson who are surrounded by the equivalent of offensive nukes. I assume you’d like some stats for that. I’m on it. The following is graph that so eloquently articulates the pitching-around-phenomenon, complete with bars, lines, words and the % symbol.

Bautista gets shit to hit. Only 47% of all pitches he sees in “high leverage” situations are in the strike zone, and it shows in his slash line with RISP: .250/.512/.463. That’s a huge OBP. He has been intentionally walked 16 times in these situations with 28 “unintentional walks” (though, based on the graph above, I would bet there’s some intention to these unintentional walks, making them…intentionally unintentional?) Opposing pitchers are stripping Bautista of RBI opportunities, and this is another perfect reason to disregard that stat altogether. Also, it’s not like those walks are worthless. He’s avoiding an out while adding an extra baserunner (himself). This is why advanced metrics have been created: to weight the importance of a walk versus a hit…and to do other things, too.

Overall, Bautista’s weighted on-base average (wOBA) – one of these very stats that weights the importance of things like singles and walks differently – is .452. Albert Pujols’ best season ever in the wOBA department (located next to the UZR hats and accessories) was .462. Bautista is bordering on historically awesome this season, and crushing his competition. See below.

Player

wOBA

Bautista

0.452

Gonzalez

0.412

Granderson

0.405

Pedroia

0.390

So where can Granderson and Pedroia compete in terms of value? Their positions! 2nd base and center field are, respectively, the 2nd and 3rd most difficult positions on the diamond according Fangraphs’ Position Adjuster Thingy (PAT). Again, when I think of value, I think about how good a player’s team would be if he were abducted by aliens…or traded. Take away my first baseman or left fielder? No big deal. Those positions can be much more easily replaced. Hell, the Mets put Todd Hundley in left when Mike Piazza came over from the Dodgers. Remember that? Oh, and Mo Vaughn used to play first. Enough said. So value over an average replacement player at that position needs to be taken into account. How much better is Dustin Pedroia than other second basemen. Dave Cameron wrote a nice piece about positional value that I think applies very well here. The main point? Here are your top AL first basemen by homeruns and wOBA:

Name

Team

wOBA

HR

Miguel Cabrera

Tigers

0.414

23

Adrian Gonzalez

Red Sox

0.412

18

Paul Konerko

White Sox

0.400

27

Casey Kotchman

Rays

0.377

8

Michael Cuddyer

Twins

0.370

18

Mark Teixeira

Yankees

0.367

32

Average

TiRed White Twinkees

0.390

21

And AL second basemen:

Name

Team

wOBA

HR

Dustin Pedroia

Red Sox

0.390

16

Robinson Cano

Yankees

0.380

20

Ben Zobrist

Rays

0.376

15

Ian Kinsler

Rangers

0.356

18

Howie Kendrick

Angels

0.340

8

Gordon Beckham

White Sox

0.291

9

Average

Syntax Error

0.356

14.3

Get it? It’s harder to play a more demanding defensive position and still hit well. Pedroia’s wOBA is 22 points below teammate Gonzalez’s. However, the top 6 second basemen average a wOBA 34 points below the top first basemen. Just using the top 6, Pedroia is 12 wOBA points better than Gonzalez relatively.

While he still sits 15 wOBA points behind Granderson, Pedroia’s defense at second base eclipses Granderson’s center field glovework by a wide margin. UZR estimates that Pedroia has saved his team nearly 15 runs with his glove in place of an average second basemen. Granderson is at -8 (negative things are rarely good in baseball). Two other defensive stats have him at -15 and -16, so there is a lot of agreement that Granderson is a poor fielder this season. That 20+ run difference defensively makes it a no-brainer for me: Pedroia leaps ahead of both Granderson and Gonzalez in the MVP race because of position scarcity and defensive ability.

That brings us to Jose Bautista and Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia still has a major positional and defensive edge, but Bautista’s offensive value this season is unmatched. Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR) suggests they provide virtually the same value. What I am then inclined to argue is the same argument I made for Albert Pujols last season. Defensive stats have come a long way, and tell us far more now than something as simple and flawed as fielding percentage. However, 2/3 of a season of data is not enough for these systems to be very accurate. Pedroia is most certainly an above average defender, but not likely to the extent that UZR claims. The other two defensive stats rate him at +9 and +10. Still very good, but not quite the +15 that Fangraphs suggests.

All four of these players provide a lot of value for their teams, but if I have to pick the most valuable, I gotta go with “Joey Bats” Bautista. Oh, Canada!

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2 Responses to AL MVP Race — How to measure Value

  1. Tom Cassutt says:

    I am a big fan of the “TiRed White Twinkees” although I have never seen “Syntax Error” play.

    Seriously, thanks for a great analysis of the AL MVP race. Any chance that you would consider looking at the NL MVP race?

    • uoduckfan33 says:

      Thanks! I hope you enjoy the NL one, too. Though I know who you’re pulling for…

      It’d be nice for a Dodger to win something this year 😉

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