What Fans Like in a Baseball Player

I intended to post this before opening day, so that I start could focusing on, you know, actual baseball, but life intervened. Alas.

ESPN just finished its list of the Top 500 Players in baseball in 2012. I’m moving away from ESPN and toward fangraphs, but I still read David Schoenfield’s usually excellent Sweetspot, so in my somewhat limited exposure to today’s ESPN baseball writers, I’ve grown to expect fairly sophisticated analysis. As such, I was quite disappointed by the results. The two players they expect to have the biggest seasons in 2012 are a combined 67 years old. The two players I expect to have the biggest seasons finished 16th and 8th, respectively.

Dan Szymborski already did a similar analysis using ZIPS, but I thought my readership (I have a readership, right?) might like to see how ESPN’s list compared to mine. If you haven’t read my list, it’s based on a simple analysis of each player’s fWAR over the past three seasons, and an estimate of his 2012 WAR based on age and trajectory. A few clear trends emerged when I laid the lists side by side.

To be clear, when I say “fans like” certain attributes, I’m talking about the “panel of MLB writers, analysts and contributors” who made ESPN’s list. Generally, the list seemed to reflect the opinion of the average fan (an ESPN reader), rather than the average analytically-inclined fan (a fangraphs reader). Without further ado, fans like:

Proven Closers
Studies have shown again and again that relief aces are not used in ways that maximize their value in terms of wins. The save is perhaps the most overrated stat in baseball. Perhaps even more notably, a modern relief pitcher rarely throws more than 75 innings in a season, which means he can almost never provide the same value a starting pitcher or regular position player provides. This is not evident in the ESPN 500, where:

Mariano Rivera is 12th: That’s right. A 42-year-old closer (albeit probably the best closer in the history of the position), is ranked higher than, among others, Evan Longoria, Matt Kemp, and Dusin Pedroia. That’s just foolish. The only closer I ranked, Craig Kimbrel, was basically a token pick at #100.

Jonathan Papelbon is 52nd: No knock on Pap, but after Rivera (who’s still among the game’s best closers and would have made my top 200) and Kimbrel (the game’s best closer now), he was tops among relievers on a list that also includes Brian Wilson, John Axford, Ryan Madson, and Heath Bell in the top 100. It’s refreshing that non-ninth-inning relievers David Robertson and Johnny Venters were in the same tier as the elite closers (they’re just as valuable), but that tier shouldn’t have been ahead of dozens of starters who might be closers if they failed as starters.

Experienced Veterans
I’m 32. In my late 20s, I played several recreational sports with ease. In my 30s, I’ve made attempts to play softball and basketball, each season ending with a serious injury.

Albert Pujols is 1st: Pujols is also 32, about a month older than me, in fact. He’s a world class athlete, while I’m a gangly accountant. Still, his fWAR in the last three seasons were 9.0, 7.5, and 5.1. While that trendline may be steeper than one might expect, it’s a fact that most baseball players peak in their late 20s and start to stumble in their 30s. Do we really expect Pujols to move to the tougher league, hit in bigger ballparks, and be so much better at 32 than he was at 31 that he’s the best player in the league? I’m a big Pujols fan, but I think he fits more comfortably at #16 than at #1.

Alex Rodriguez is 43rd: There’s one active player who has a better case in the Greatest of All Time argument than Pujols does, and that’s ARod, who hit just as much as Pujols while playing excellent shortstop defense for several years. That said, Rodriguez hasn’t played 140 games, hit more than 35 home runs, or slugged .600 since 2007 (when he turned 32). Yet he ranks just seven spots behind Adrian Beltre and ahead of Pablo Sandoval (who’s 25 and was 1.3 wins better in 2011)? Rodriguez is an all-time great, but not a 2012 great.

Kevin Youkilis is 57th: I won’t pick on the Yankees third baseman without picking on his Boston counterpart. Youk is 33 and was still a great player at 30, but injuries have derailed his last two seasons and the switch base to third base may have been too much for his aging body to take. I seriously considered putting him on my list, but at a projected 3.5 WAR in 2012, I just couldn’t find room.

Offense
This one seems obvious. We know how to measure offense; we’re still learning about defense. Offensive numbers are on the backs of baseball cards; defensive numbers are limited to errors and putouts in many fans’ minds. Still, it’s amazing that writers and so-called analysts can completely disregard defense when ranking players. To wit:

Robinson Cano is 10th
Cano’s a great hitter, and a cornerstone on a New York team that won’t seem to fade away. He brings immense value by hitting 25+ homers every year as a second baseman. If we look a little deeper, though, it becomes a little ridiculous that Pedroia is separated from the second base pack. There are four elite second basemen in the American League, all between 28 and 30 years old. Here are their 2011 and career wOBAs:

Player 2011 Career
Cano 133 119
Pedroia 134 122
Kinsler 128 120
Zobrist 131 115

We could conclude that Pedroia (who happens to be the youngest) is the best hitter in the pack, but there’s not much separating any of them. Let’s call it a four-way tie for now. On the defensive end, here are their 2011 and career Runs Saved Above Average:

Player 2011 Career
Cano -3.0 -39.9
Pedroia 17.9 40.5
Kinsler 15.0 5.2
Zobrist 10.2 36.9

Here, Pedroia (10th on my list, 22nd on ESPN’s) truly separates himself from the pack. Zobrist (23rd on my list, 97th on ESPN’s) is not far behind Pedroia offensively and defensively, and adds versatility on defense, having played several positions well. Kinsler (13th on my list, 44th on ESPN’s) seems to be improving with the glove and is the best baserunner of the four, both in terms of stolen bases and non-steal baserunning.

Cano, whom I listed 25th, is by far the worst fielder in the group and rarely swipes a bag. He’s this high on the list because the voters don’t seem to care about defense, and because he accumulates similar offensive value to the other players in a more traditional way: with power (.495 career slugging, best among the four), rather than patience (.347 OBP, worst among the four).

Brett Gardner is 141st
I’ve been picking on the Yankees here, and for good reason. Rivera and Rodriguez were first and second on my list of most overrated players (calculated by their ranking on my list less their ranking on ESPN’s), and Cano and Mark Teixeira weren’t far behind. But I’m not going to chalk it up to Yankee bias. If there were a pronounced Yankee bias on this list, Gardner, who was 49th on my list, would have finished somewhere around 100 spots higher.

While it doesn’t bear out in his batting average and RBI, Gardner’s a decent offensive player. He’s gotten on base at a respectable .354 clip throughout his career, has put up above average wOBAs the last two seasons, and has stolen 96 bases over that span. More importantly, he may be the best defensive outfielder in baseball, having saved an otherworldly 50.7 runs above average between 2010 and 2011. If the best hitting outfielder in the game were an above average hitter (say, Ryan Braun with a better glove), he would be ranked in the top ten. Yet the opposite is true of Gardner and he can’t crack the top 100.

Positional Scarcity Isn’t Important
The list of players ranked high on ESPN’s list and not as high on mine is full of first basemen, both those with decent gloves (Teixeira, Pujols) and those who should probably be DHs (Prince Fielder, Paul Konerko). But the most ridiculous placement of any one on ESPN’s list could have fallen in several of these groups:

Ryan Howard is 66th
Yes, a guy who was worth 3.0 total WAR over the past two seasons and started 2012 on the DL finished ahead of Zobrist, Brandon Phillips, Matt Wieters, and far superior teammate Shane Victorino. Howard once hit 58 home runs, then broke 40 in each of the next three years. He’s settled in as a 30+ homer hitter, and still drives in runs. But as his wOBA has slipped from 162 to 123, his defense has gotten worse (-17.4 RSAA the past two seasons) and his baserunning has gone from bad to awful (-15.5 BRAA the past two years). He’s 33, injured, and a shell of his former self even when healthy. I’m not sure he’ll be one of the 660 best players in baseball this year.

Alexei Ramirez is 133rd
I could have named a handful of shortstops (Jhonny Peralta, JJ Hardy, Ramirez) or center fielders (Cameron Maybin, Michael Bourn, Peter Bourjos) here. It seems like most GMs (and a lot of fantasy players) understand that a league-average hitting shortstop is more valuable than a first baseman with a 120 wOBA. I’m not sure the average baseball fan (or writer) has figured that out yet. Ramirez is an average hitter (.269/.323/.421 for his career) who runs well (13 BRAA) and plays stellar defense (15 RSAA despite an ugly first season). Yet ESPN lists him behind Dan Uggla, Derek Jeter, and Michael Morse.

I could go on and on with things fans like. Batting average and RBI still seem to be fashionable metrics to evaluate offensive players. Wins and saves are hanging on as individual pitching stats. Park factors seem to be neglected (Maybin is 204th, I had him 58th; think that might have something to do with Petco Park?). But I expected all of these things to be factors. I was more surprised to see such love for closers and thirtysomethings and statues in the field.

Could some of the differences between my list and ESPN’s be a function of shortcomings in my methodology? Sure. fWAR may overstate the value of great defensive players (if Peter Bourjos’s glove slips in ’12, by #79 ranking may seem foolish). I may be too high on some high strikeout pitchers (I had Brandon Beachy 64th and Brandon Morrow 92nd). I might have gotten carried away in thinking Madison Bumgarner was one bad outing away from being perhaps the best pitcher in the NL last year (I ranked him 14th, ESPN had him 86th.

Still, I see my list as objective with a dash of subjectivism, and I expected the same from ESPN’s panel. Instead, it seems we got a list of the players most likely to be overpaid by Ruben Amaro, Jr. There was, however, one player ESPN and I ranked in the same place. We both see Adrian Gonzalez as the 15th best player in the game.

So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

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