July 7, 2007

Stark Criticism

Jayson Stark does some great work compiling his Rumblings and Grumblings, a collection of rumors from around the world of baseball. And I do enjoy his Useless Info work; here's one example of the kind of stuff he finds. But I read his Midseason Awards column, and it seemed like something you'd find from a less knowledgable baseball writer. So I'll take my cue from Fire Joe Morgan and go through some of the more puzzling parts of the column, with the intent of...well, I'm not sure exactly what this could accomplish.

AL MVP of the half-year -- Magglio Ordonez, Tigers
Alex Rodriguez may have had a more eye-popping year, especially if you factor in home runs and back-page tabloid appearances.

Jayson, you didn't know that Back-Page Tabloid Appearances was a criteria for the MVP voting? Last year, Derek Jeter led the league in BPTA for the fourth consecutive year with 132, just a couple shy of his all-time record of 141 back in 2004. That was one of the reasons it was so surprising that Justin Morneau edged him for the MVP award. Some critics have argued that BPTA is unfair to people who play in smaller markets, but MLB has yet to change the rule. A-Rod currently is on pace for a record-shattering 167 BPTA. I fully expect this to be the most interesting subplot of the second half of the season.

By the way, I love how Stark throws "home runs" into this sentence, to make it seem like they aren't important. What is the best thing anybody can do in any given time at bat? Hit a home run. So you should probably factor home runs into the MVP equation.

But the Yankees haven't been a factor in the division or wild-card races for more than about 20 minutes all season.

Okay, here we go again. I don't have nearly enough time here to discuss this, but my feeling is that the team that a player is on should have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on who wins the MVP voting. For example, I would vote for a .320/.400/.530 hitter on the Royals before I would vote for a .290/.360/.500 hitter on the Red Sox. But that's a debate for another time.

The more pressing issue here is that the Yankees are still in the race. Depending on whose odds you check, they have roughly a 10-20% chance of making the playoffs. (Here's two odds sites:
Baseball Prospectus and coolstandings.com.) And, to make matters worse, you can make a very good case that Alex Rodriguez is the only reason they are even in the race. Even if you're going with the conventional definition of "value", you'd have to say that A-Rod's been pretty valuable to the Yankees, wouldn't you?

Meanwhile, right there in the middle of the most lethal lineup in baseball, Ordonez is headed for a season that not even Ty Cobb ever duplicated in Detroit. And you can look that up.

Another little-known criteria for the MVP voting: To win the MVP, a player must have a season that even Ty Cobb never duplicated. Although Magglio still has a lot of catching up to do in fistfights and Racially Insulting Statements (although he could make up some ground in the former category
the next time Ozzie Guillen comes to town). By the way, Ordonez's OPS+ is currently 177. Cobb bested that for ten straight years, from 1909 to 1918. This isn't what Stark is talking about (see the next paragraph), but it makes the point that Stark's statement is stupid.

If Ordonez keeps mashing at his current clip, he'd finish with 68 doubles, a .369 average, 137 RBIs, 135 runs scored, 93 extra-base hits, a .445 on-base percentage and a 1.053 OPS. And even if we lower the doubles threshold to 50, no one has matched all those numbers since Hugh Duffy did it for the 1894 Boston Beaneaters.

That's completely irrelevant. If in 1921 Tris Speaker hits 83 doubles, drives in 160 runs and scores 170, gets 140 XBH, OBP's .507 and OPSes 1.200, but his batting average is just .368, he doesn't qualify. People come up with these types of comparisons all the time (often to make a case for somebody to get into the Hall of Fame), and it's a bad way of looking at numbers. If I looked through enough categories, I think I could come up with some numbers to group Neifi Perez with Cal Ripken, Jr. and Honus Wager as the best shortstops of all-time. By the way, almost all the numbers Stark mentions are either related (doubles and XBH; AVG, OBP and OPS) or unimportant (doubles, AVG, RBI/runs).

Oh, and we didn't even mention Ordonez is hitting .443 with runners in scoring position. Almost makes you want to run out and visit an Austrian knee surgeon, doesn't it?

Here are Ordonez's slugging percentages for the past four seasons: .485/.436/.477/.608. If this were 2004, you know the s-word (steroids) would be coming out in droves regarding Magglio. My point: this is a remarkably fluky year, and there's no reason to expect him to perform this well in the second half.

NL MVP of the half-year -- Matt Holliday, Rockies
How come most people look at Rockies hitters and automatically disqualify them from consideration for all honors, trophies, awards or emphatic high-fives?

Uh...because Coors Field is played at an altitude above 5,000 feet, making balls carry more and making it easier to get hits and home runs? Because Coors Field's
park factor is always at or near the top of the list of the best hitter's parks? By the way, Todd Helton may not have won any MVP awards, but his 1,386 career Emphatic High-Fives Received (EHFR) are good for fifth all-time among first basemen, making him a strong Hall Of Fame candidate.

All right, don't bother answering that. We know why.

Oh, sorry. You should have said this sooner.

But anybody who thinks Holliday is just another figment of baseball's most pervasive altitude sickness clearly hasn't been paying attention. True, he's hitting over 100 points higher at home (.405) than on the road (.301).

Yes, Holliday is a great hitter, and yes, he is underrated by the public. But you're not really helping yourself by mentioning his home/road splits; the impression I'm getting is that he'd be "just" a .300 hitter in any other ballpark. His stats are inflated by Coors Field, and even his raw numbers aren't as good as those of a bunch of other players.

But his road OPS (.828) is still higher than the road OPS of Chase Utley, Carlos Lee, Derrek Lee, Jason Bay, Torii Hunter or Grady Sizemore.

So, this is cherry-pick-random-players-who-fit-your-argument time? Cool. That road OPS is lower than the road OPS of Kelly Johnson, Casey Blake, Josh Willingham, Xavier Nady, Shannon Stewart, Randy Winn, Corey Hart, and Brandon Phillips. It's 34th among qualifiers in the NL alone. Bay's having a terrible year overall, by the way.

Plus, it was hard not to notice that it was Holliday who got more votes in the players' all-star balloting than any other player.

How was that hard not to notice? Do you really believe these guys are the most knowledgable and impartial people to decide who the best players are? Why not just let them vote for the MVP, then? These same players
voted Brian Fuentes into the All-Star game as well, by the way (it wasn't La Russa's decision, it was the players'; La Russa made plenty of questionable decisions, but you can't blame him for this one).

We admit we were leaning toward Prince Fielder in this MVP race for a long time.

That would be smart. Fielder's OPS is .980, fourth in the NL, and he doesn't get the park effect boost that Holliday does. Plus, in case you care, Fielder's team is leading the division and has the best record in the league.

But in reality, both Holliday and Utley have had more of an all-around impact on their teams than Fielder, who is batting just .232 with men in scoring position and only .154 with RISP and two outs. So why Holliday over Utley? Because Utley's home-road splits (.387 home average, .266 road) are even wider than Holliday's, among other reasons.

Utley would be a good choice because he plays second base, which is a much tougher defensive position than first or left field. But, as Stark mentions, he also gets help from an extreme hitter's park; my personal MVP ballot would go Fielder-Utley-Holliday, with Bonds fourth. But, more importantly, why does Stark say that Holliday and Utley "have had more of an all-around impact" than Fielder...and then just go on to talk about more hitting stats? How about mentioning that Utley plays a tougher defensive position, or that he runs better, or something? And Fielder's had exactly 26 at-bats with RISP and two outs...sample sizes don't get much smaller than that.

Even though the Rockies may be only hanging around the periphery of the NL West and wild-card races, they do have a better record since May 15 than the Dodgers, Mets, Phillies or Brewers. You think that might have something to do with that left fielder of theirs who's hanging with the league leaders in batting, RBIs, slugging, doubles, multi-hit games, hits and OPS? We do.

Woohoo! Holliday plays half his games at the best hitter's park in recent history, and he's "hanging with the league leaders" in seven random stats, of which two or three are meaningful? He must be the MVP!

NL LVP -- Pat Burrell, Phillies
When a team is paying a man 13 million bucks a year, it would kind of like him to be one of the best players in the league. But in this case, the Phillies aren't asking that of Burrell anymore. They'd just settle for having the guy actually seem worthy of starting a game once in a while. That isn't how it's worked out, though.

Well, if you've been reading my blog (very unlikely), you'd know that I'd jump all over this one, as I
just wrote about Burrell a couple days ago. And I was much more positive than Stark was. Burrell gets underrated for the same reason Adam Dunn gets underrated: lots of fans still look just at batting average, and think strikeouts are bad.

The one-time No. 1 pick in the whole 1998 draft has fallen so far, he just got benched nine times in a span of 13 games.

And the reason for that is that Charlie Manuel is an idiot. Burell's OPS+ is 101 - that means he's giving you basically league-average production. You can talk about the money all you want, but this guy should never be getting benched. By the way, here's a list of every #1 draft pick from the '90s: Chipper Jones, Brien Taylor, Phil Nevin, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Wilson, Darin Erstad, Kris Benson, Matt Anderson, Burrell, Josh Hamilton. I'd take Burrell over any of them except Jones and A-Rod. My point: Being a #1-overall draft pick in baseball is no guarantee of success, so a #1 pick shouldn't be labeled a "bust" if he's not a perennial All-Star.

Which might have something to do with the fact that he's hitting .159 since April 26, with 42 strikeouts and only 26 hits. (Sheez, that means his missing average is 100 points higher than his batting average.)

In a related story, Bud Selig just announced that all stats before April 26 don't count for this year. Burrell's hitting just .209, but his OBP is .373 (very good), and his slugging percentage is .391 (not great, but that's mostly a function of his low BA). By the way, here's a list of the top ten strikeout leaders in baseball last year: Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard, Curtis Granderson, Bill Hall, Alfonso Soriano, Jason Bay, Richie Sexson, Grady Sizemore, Johnny Peralta, Nick Swisher. All these guys except Peralta and Granderson OPSed above .840. Next on the list is Jim Thome and his 1.014 OPS. Strikeouts are not necessarily bad.

There's still hope, though. Burrell did have more homers and a higher slugging percentage last year than Magglio Ordonez, Prince Fielder or Adrian Gonzalez. And boy, do the Phillies need another productive right-handed bat. So since $13-million men tend to get lots and lots of chances, we're betting you won't be seeing Burrell slip into oblivion any time soon.

Burrell also had a .388 OBP last year, significantly better than any of the other guys you listed. Meaning he was better than any of those three guys last year. Meaning it's not a stretch to say he'll be better, or at least as good, as these guys will be in the second half. (Weird comparables for Stark to choose, though...it was Fielder's and Gonzalez's first full year in the big leagues, so it makes sense they wouldn't have done very well.)

That was fun. Again, no ill will against Stark...he's usually a great writer, but I had to call him out for this article. It was fun.


Anonymous said...

Are you a Phillies fan? Cuz you stick up for Burrell a lot. He's not even in the top 5 of his own team, nevertheless the third best # 1 pick of the 90s.

Kevin said...

I'm not really a Phillies fan at all...I just think Burrell is really underrated. There are not five position players on the Phillies better than Burrell. Howard, Utley, and Rollins are all better...maybe you could put Aaron Rowand ahead of him b/c he plays center, but that one's close. That's it, though.

Anonymous said...

You are right. I was not just thinking positon players as I should have. I was leaning with Cole Hamels and Shave Victorino ahead of Burrell. He may not deserve the heat but other players, including Nevin, GO FULLERTON have had better careers so far.

Kevin said...

Now that you mention it, Nevin did actually have a pretty good career...he had a great year in 2001 when he hit .306 with 41 homers and 126 RBI while slugging .588, but got overlooked because that was the year that Bonds, Sosa, and Gonzalez were putting up ridiculous numbers. (Was the NL pitching particularly crappy that year or something?) Nevin did probably have a better career than Burrell, though Burrell's still got a few seasons left in him.

Victorino's faster than Burrell and fields better, but Burrell gets on base much beter and hits for more power also. This one's pretty close...Victorino's still entering his prime, so we'll see if he gets better as he develops. Hamels would definitely be ahead of Burrell, but he's pretty much the only pitcher.