2013 Sabermetric Awards

Matt Harvey is one of a few names that may surprise you

AL MVP - Mike Trout

With the first award we will enter into the heart of one of the most active debates within the game today. Miguel Cabrera, representing the traditional slugger, against Mike Trout, the five-tool player. Cabrera, the best player on a playoff team, against Trout, the best player on an underachieving team. Cabrera, the RBI machine, against Trout, the sabermetric darling. The debate is very live, but lets examine why sabermetricians like myself are so adamant about Trout being more deserving of the 2013 AL MVP Award than Miguel Cabrera or any other player.

Let’s begin with a key distinction: the MVP does not go to the best hitter but instead the best overall player. The best overall player in the American League this season has been Mike Trout, as evidenced by his 10.4 WAR compared to Cabrera’s 7.6. However, as much as sabermetricians hate to admit it, WAR is not a perfect statistic and others remain quite relevant for settling this debate. Miguel Cabrera is the better hitter by almost every metric. His K/BB rate, AVG/OBP/SLG, total HRs, Line Drive percentage (LD%), wRC+ (aimed at showing total talent of a hitter relative to the rest of the league), and Park Adjusted Batting Runs Above Average are all superior to Trout’s. However, Cabrera is a poor defender and baserunner while Trout excels in those areas. Do the gains made by Trout in these areas exceed the gains made by Cabrera as the superior hitter?

The answer is yes. Despite ranking behind Cabrera in each of the previously listed categories, the gap between the two is very small in many of the categories. In baserunning and defense, however, the gap is quite large. The statue of Miguel Cabrera at third base has posted the worst defensive season of his career, a brutal -16.8 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), while Trout has saved 4.4 runs in the Angels outfield. This means that some of the value gained by Cabrera’s elite offense is erased by his poor defense. Furthermore, Cabrera’s baserunning has cost the Tigers 4.4 runs while Trout’s 33 steals in 40 attempts have helped him accrue 8.1 Baserunning Runs Above Average (BRAA). Trout’s large advantages in these areas outweigh the gains made by Cabrera at the plate, thus meaning Trout has been a more valuable asset to his team this season. With no other legitimate candidates for the top spot, including Chris Davis, Mike Trout should be awarded as 2013 AL MVP.

NL MVP - Andrew McCutchen

This award does not require advanced statistics to decide. Andrew McCutchen is everything an MVP should be: five tool player, high WAR, advanced stats proving the gaudy raw numbers are legitimate, and even a feel good story of ending a playoff drought. McCutchen’s value is not derived from a single category nor is he dominant in any single category, but his combination of power, speed, bat control, batting eye, and defense add up to his present status as a superstar. He is one of the most exciting players in the game, plays a premier position, and has phenomenal hair. This was the easiest award to decide. Others receiving votes should include Carlos Gomez, Paul Goldschmidt, and Yadier Molina.

AL Cy Young - Felix Hernandez

The American League Cy Young Award was by far the most difficult to decide. Six pitchers, Max Scherzer, Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, Anibal Sanchez, and Hisashi Iwakuma, could all make legitimate cases for the award. The obvious choice is Max Scherzer, who compiled a 21-3 record and started the All Star game for the American League. However, this is the sabermetric Cy Young Award, where pitcher wins resulting from the Tigers elite offense mean very little. Instead of results, sabermetric statistics for pitchers aim to understand and consider only what a pitcher has direct control of, specifically K rate, BB rate, K/BB rate, Skill Interactive ERA (SIERA), HR rate, LD rate, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and expected FIP (xFIP), which computes FIP using a league average (10.5%) HR/FB rate for the purpose of taking “luck” out of the equation. Using these metrics as the basis, Felix Hernandez emerges slightly ahead of Scherzer and the rest of the pack as the best pitcher in the American League.

Hernandez’s traditional numbers must be taken with a grain of salt due to the poor play of the Mariner’s defense. Run prevention is a combination of pitching and defense, where factors such as range of fielders play an important role in many of the statistics of the pitcher. The Mariner’s poor defense was a direct cause of Hernandez posting a high .314 BABIP despite a LD rate of 21.4 that falls in line with the rest of the group. To continue with Hernandez’s batted ball data, he boasts the highest GB rate and consequently the lowest FB rate of the group, at 51.4% and 27.2% respectively. These rates are significant for the obvious reasons that ground balls likely to either be converted into outs or result in a single while fly balls have the propensity to become extra base hits or home runs. Of the fly balls Hernandez allowed, a close to league average 10% went for home runs which combines with his extremely low FB rate to show that his very low 0.66 HR/9 is indicative of his true skill of limiting the longball.

Along with home runs, strikeouts and walks are the two areas of which pitchers demonstrate complete control. Neither Hernandez’s 26.3% K rate nor his 5.6% BB rate rank as best of this group, but his 4.70 K/BB rate finishes second to Chris Sale’s 4.91 mark. These three statistics, HR rate, K rate, and BB rate combine to form FIP, where Hernandez ranks second to Sanchez and xFIP, where Hernandez leads the group. Like FIP and xFIP, SIERA is scaled to resemble ERA but is based off of batted ball date (LD, FB, GB, HR, K, and BB rates) and Hernandez is again among the leaders of the group with a minuscule 2.84, a mere hundredth of a point behind group leader Darvish. These statistics indicate that despite holding the second highest ERA of the group at 3.04, Hernandez pitched much better than that figure would indicate. An easy way to justify this is through the simple equation ERA - FIP, where a high positive number would mean a pitcher’s true skill is better than their ERA would suggest. As expected, Hernandez’s .43 is by far the best of the group. Sabermetric statistics, specifically many of these Defense Independent Pitching Statistics (DIPS), allow us to find which AL pitcher was the best at performing his task of preventing runs while removing factors outside the pitcher’s control, such as park effects and the defense behind him. Though the race is very close, Felix Hernandez edges Max Scherzer to become my choice for 2013 AL Cy Young Award.

NL Cy Young - Matt Harvey

At a glance, this race does not seem to be close. Clayton Kershaw’s 16-9 record, 1.83 ERA and 0.92 WHIP not only represents the best line in the National League this season but among the best of this century. A glance at Kershaw’s advanced metrics, however, reveal that this race is much closer than it initially appears. Though Kershaw’s traditional stats are far better than those of any other pitcher in the league but a closer look at some of his advanced metrics suggest that Kershaw was the beneficiary of good fortune and that Matt Harvey may have had the better season.

Kershaw has a lower ERA and WHIP than Harvey, but Harvey boasts a lower tERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, all of which are more accurate predictors of a pitcher’s true skill set. Furthermore, Harvey posted a higher K rate, lower BB rate, and consequently a higher K/BB rate, results which are entirely under his control. It has also been more difficult for hitters to square up Harvey’s pitching, as his 19.8% LD rate and 0.35% HR/9 suggest when compared to Kershaw’s respective 22.7% and 0.42% marks.

So how does Kershaw boast a better ERA and WHIP when the DIPS favor Harvey? The difference is team defense. The Dodgers boast the fourth highest Total Zone Fielding Runs above average at 40 while the Mets are second to last at -36, a 76 run difference. This means that despite allowing fewer line drives, more of the balls in play against Harvey have fallen for hits because of the poor defense behind him. Should this count against Harvey? Advanced statistics are clear that Harvey was the better pitcher but surrendered runs at a higher rate due to poor defensive play behind him. Conversely, fewer runs were scored while Kershaw was on the mound due to his defense converting a higher rate of balls in play against Kershaw into outs. Should the award go to the better pitcher or the pitcher with the better team results? I believe the award should go to the pitcher who was the superior pitcher, with external factors such as defense excluded. The advanced numbers show that Harvey clearly pitched better than Kershaw this season and thus Matt Harvey is my choice for 2013 NL Cy Young Award. Adam Wainwright also deserves a mention and finishes third following his elite season for the Cardinals.

AL Rookie of the Year - Wil Myers

This race features two midseason callups from the Tampa Bay Rays, Wil Myers and Chris Archer, both of whom played important roles in the Rays run to October. Myers was immediately slotted in as the everyday right fielder and often held a prominent position in the lineup while Archer’s dominant season was highlighted by earning the American League July Pitcher and Rookie of the Month Awards. Comparing dominant pitchers with dominant hitters is often a difficult task, but the data still supports Myers for a number of reasons.

The easiest statistic to examine is WAR, where Myers holds a substantial 2.4 to 1.2 lead over Archer. WAR does not translate to value pitchers and hitters the same, as the league’s top hitters traditionally have a significantly greater WAR than the top pitchers. Nevertheless, we can look beyond WAR and toward other advanced metrics to find the true skill level of these players. Archer’s sabermetric statistics show that his 3.22 ERA was not indicative of his true skill level, as his 3.95 SIERA suggests. Additionally, Archer’s K/9, H/9, HR/9, AVG against, and LD% were all higher during his cup of coffee last season during which he posted a 4.60 ERA. The bottom line with Archer is that he was the beneficiary of a low BABIP and improved defensive play from the Rays.

Contrary to his teammate, Myers’s advanced statistics show that he deserved his .293/.354/.478 slash line with 13 home runs over 373 Plate Appearances. A .357 wOBA coupled with a 131 wRC+ prove that Myers was not only the best AL Rookie but among the best hitters in the league. Though some could point to his inflated .362 BABIP and 15.5% HR/FB rate as flukes, these numbers are traditionally higher for power hitters such as Myers and I expect them to remain consistent in the future. Jose Iglesias of the Red Sox and Tigers should also receive votes, but his lack of an offensive contribution beyond hitting singles limits his value.

NL Rookie of the Year - Jose Fernandez

Like the American League ROY race, the NL race features a prominent pitcher against a prominent hitter. Both Yasiel Puig and Jose Fernandez are elite candidates, with Fernandez boasting a 2.19 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and Puig slashing .319/.391/.534. WAR does not help us settle this dispute, as Fernandez was worth 4.2 wins against 4.0 for Puig. Many of Fernandez’s sabermetric numbers, specifically his 2.73 FIP, 3.08 xFIP, and 3.22 SIERA, suggest Fernandez deserved an ERA of roughly 3.00. A rookie pitcher deserving of a 3.00 ERA while boasting a 27.5 K rate and 3.22 K/BB rate certainly adds up to a tremendous season, slightly better than Puig’s debut.

Puig is a very easy hitter to diagnose. He is extremely aggressive, chasing 38.9% of pitches outside the strike zone, but also has extreme power, as evidenced by his .383 BABIP and 21.8 HR/FB rate. One of the biggest knocks on Puig is his propensity to chase, but his walk rate has improved to a somewhat respectable 8.3% once pitchers began throwing him less pitches in the zone. Puig is a true five tool talent, boasting a 3.3 FRAA, perhaps one of the best arms in baseball, and plus speed, though his reckless baserunning and 11-8 SB-CS rate gave him negative value on the bases this year (-4.2 BRRAA). Any additional value to a player with a 160 wRC+ will result in an elite player, and Puig certainly fits that bill. Both players seem to be on track to enjoy successful careers, especially considering Fernandez is only 20 years old and jumped directly from High-A to the bigs this season.