The inscription on Red Schoendienst’s Hall of Fame plaque begins “roommate Stan Musial credited him with ‘greatest pair of hands I’ve ever seen'”. This has nothing at all to do with the Baseball Bloggers Alliance‘s Stan Musial Award.
The last in a series of ballots I’m honored to submit to the Alliance, this one will list the ten best players in each league. Much like the BBWAA’s Most Valuable Player Award, this one does not explicitly exclude pitchers. Whether to include pitchers on my ballot has been the hardest decision I’ve had to make as an award voter. Of course, the second-hardest was whether to hyphenate “second-hardest” in this sentence. Did I do that wrong? Maybe I’m not cut out for this.
Ok, back to my dilemma. On one hand, the award is intended for the best player, and pitchers are players. It’s certainly possible that the player who had the best season was a pitcher.
On the other hand, I’ve named the best pitchers on several ballots already. Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay were my Walter Johnson Award picks. Jonathan Papelbon and Craig Kimbrel were my Goose Gossage Award picks. Kimbrel even topped my Willie Mays Award ballot, with Michael Pineda second on my AL list. Haven’t we given pitchers their due?
Here’s the distinction I’m making, and I’ll admit it’s a debatable one. We have metrics that help us compare pitchers and hitters in terms of value- that is, the number of wins they contribute to their teams’ records. These metrics aren’t perfect, of course, but they’re based on reasonable assumptions about the relative roles of hitters, pitchers, and fielders. We can compare the relative values of a top pitcher and a top position player with WAR or VORP and feel reasonably confident in our evaluations.
The Stan Musial Award, as defined by the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, is intended for the “top player”. I’ll substitute “best” for “top”, as I think they’re synonymous in this case. While I generally believe that the best player in the league is the most valuable because he was so good, I have no means to evaluate whether the league’s best hitter was better than the league’s best pitcher. Isn’t it possible that, of all major league players this year, Kimbrel was the best at his job? Pitching 80 innings, he certainly wasn’t as valuable as a decent starting pitcher, let alone a 30/30 center fielder who played 150+ games, but he struck out a ton of guys and that might make him the best player in the league. Furthermore, Justin Verlander might have been better at preventing runs than Miguel Cabrera was at creating them, or than Dustin Pedroia was at preventing and creating them, but how do we know? Maybe it takes five times as much talent to prevent a run from scoring than it does to score one. Maybe the opposite is true.
I’ve been asked to name the top pitchers in the league, and I did. Twice. Now I’ve been asked to name the top players in the league, and I’m going to ignore pitchers. If my ballot keeps Justin Verlander from winning a Stan Musial Award, I won’t feel too bad. He’s got a Walter Johnson Award (and an old fashioned Cy Young Award) coming his way. When they rename it the Babe Ruth Award, maybe I’ll change my mind.
Onto the ballots:
National League Stan Musial Award
1. Matt Kemp, Dodgers
Kemp had the same offensive season Ryan Braun had, only he did it in a pitcher’s park as a subpar-to-decent center fielder, while Braun did it in a hitter’s park as a clumsly left fielder. It’s not all that close.
2. Ryan Braun, Brewers
Two advantages Braun had over Kemp: he was caught stealing five fewer times (Braun stole 33 in 39 tries; Kemp stole 40 of 51) and he struck out a lot less (15% of PAs vs. 23%).
3. Joey Votto, Reds
Votto had essentially the same season he had last year, when he won the MVP Award, only with a little less power (29 HR, after 37 in ’10) and a little better defense (7.4 UZR vs. 1.6). Unfortunately, there were two better players this year.
4. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
Offensively and defensively, Tulowitzki is probably the most well-rounded superstar in baseball. 30 homers from a fantastic defensive shortstop? Yes, please.
5. Jose Reyes, Mets
Probably Kemp’s closest competition for this award until his autumn was marred by injuries, Reyes hit .337/.384/.493 and stole 39 bases in 46 tries.
6. Justin Upton, Diamondbacks
The two keepers of WAR disagree about his defense, but they agree that Upton created 40% more runs than the average player for a surprisingly excellent Diamondbacks team.
7. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
When the Pirates were contending for the NL Central title, McCutchen was among the frontrunners for this award. His batting average dipped to .259, but he walked in 13% of his plate appearances, hit 23 home runs, and stole 23 bases, all while playing solid center field defense.
8. Brandon Phillips, Reds
Defense tends to be undervalued in award voting, so I’m going to praise it by rewarding the best defensive infielder in the National League with an eighth place vote.
9. Pablo Sandoval, Giants
Actually, according to UZR, it was Sandoval, not Phillips, who played the best infield defense this year, and Total Zone agrees. Throw in a .379 wOBA and Sandoval may have been a legitimate MVP contender if he’d been healthy all year.
10. Albert Pujols, Cardinals
Yeah, he’s still pretty good. Apologies to Shane Victorino and Price Fielder, who were on the cusp.
American League Stan Musial Award (shouldn’t we call it the Ted Williams Award?)
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
This one’s a legitimate two-horse race. In the end, perhaps it’s best that the Red Sox didn’t make the playoffs, as we can now look at Ellsbury’s and Bautista’s seasons without giving one or the other a bonus for “leading his team” to the playoffs (not that I would anyway, but I suspect many of my peers would). The problem with comparing the two frontrunners’ cases is that they provide value so differently that there aren’t many apples-to-apples comparisons. To wit:
Ellsbury hit a career-high 32 home runs. Bautista hit 43. No contest.
Ellsbury had 364 total bases. Bautista had 312. Ellsbury needed 77 more plate appearances to accumulate those TBs, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t count them.
Bautista walked 80 times more than Ellsbury. That makes up for the difference in total bases and then some. With the bat in his hands, Bautista was just better. He created 31% more runs than Ellsbury did, and we can’t ignore that.
Ellsbury stole 39 bases, to Bautista’s 9, but was also caught 15 times, to Bautista’s five. Fangraphs also preferred Bautista’s non-steal baserunning (BRAA), so baserunning doesn’t tip the scales in Ellsbury’s favor any more than those extra walks benefit Bautista’s case.
Ellsbury was one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball this year. His 15.6 UZR led all center fielders. Bautista was a below average right fielder. Even though Total Zone Rating gives them the same grade (0.4), Ellsbury’s position gives him a clear edge on defense.
With all this information in hand, what do we know? Bautista hit better, by a lot. Ellsbury fielded better, by a lot. Ellsbury ran better, but not by much. How do we accumulate these things to determine who was most valuable? Well, Fangraphs does that for us, and concludes that Ellsbury led in WAR, 9.4 to 8.3. But then, so does baseball-reference, which concludes that Bautista was more valuable, 8.5 WAR to 7.2. They have very different ideas about Ellsbury’s defense, which means that we voters have to make our own conclusions.
My conclusion is this: Jose Bautista got on base in 45% of his plate appearances this year. That’s not debatable. Bautista slugged over .600, and has hit almost 100 home runs over the last two seasons. That’s not debatable. Jacoby Ellsbury did everything well this year. 32 homers, 39 steals, .321 average, great center field defense. His one big edge over Bautista, defense, is somewhat debatable.
2. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Amazing year. See above for details (if you skipped the Bautista write-up because it was too long).
3. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Where did this guy come from? When I looked at this race on August 2, he was nowhere near my radar. When I updated my ballot on September 12, I had him eighth. Now he’s a legitimate MVP candidate. Cabrera overtook Bautista in late September for the AL OBP lead. His .448 OBP was the best in the American League since Manny Ramirez’s .450 (in just 120 games) in 2002. If not for Cabrera’s negative value on defense and on the bases, he might have been the best candidate this year and last year.
4. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox
The Troy Tulowitzki of the American League, Pedroia was perhaps the league’s best hitting and fielding infielder (excluding first basemen).
5. Ian Kinsler, Rangers
Kinsler was right on Pedroia’s tail offensively (.370 wOBA to Pedroia’s .377) and defensively (15.0 UZR to Pedroia’s 17.9), and was a much better baserunner (30 steals in 34 tries, 5.8 BRAA to Pedroia’s 26 for 34, -0.9).
6. Mike Napoli, Rangers
A catcher with a .631 slugging percentage? Yes, please. Mark this down: 2012 will be the year when Napoli finally gets 550 plate appearances and shows what he can do in full-time duty.
7. Curtis Granderson, Yankees
Aside from walking in 12% of his plate appearances, Granderson didn’t really do anything better than Ellsbury this year, but that’s a high bar to contend with. Granderson hit .262/.364/.522 with 41 home runs and 25 stolen bases, all while playing center field. Had he played center field well, he might be an MVP candidate.
8. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox
Gonzalez’s .406 wOBA was better than any AL player except Napoli, Bautista, and Cabrera. His excellent first base defense (10.7 UZR) is offset by his horrific baserunning (-8.2 BRAA), so it’s hard to make a case that he was better than Cabrera, but the Red Sox aren’t complaining about his production.
9. Evan Longoria, Rays
The guy I thought should have won last year and my preseason pick to win this year, Longoria may very well have won if he’d stayed healthy all year. He only hit .244, but his .355 OBP and 31 home runs in 133 games make his offense the equal of his dazzling defense (10.7 UZR). His playoff berth-clinching walkoff homer on the season’s last day won’t hurt with the voters either.
10. Alex Gordon, Royals
This was a toss-up between Gordon, Ben Zobrist, and Alex Avila. Zobrist can do absolutely anything on a baseball field and Avila was the league’s best full-time catcher, but both keepers of WAR told me to recognize Gordon’s fine season. He finished seventh in fWRA (6.9) and rWAR (5.9) with a great all-around season and should be a true MVP candidate in the coming seasons.
A few other guys you’ll see on AL Stan Musial ballots and their places on mine:
14. Robinson Cano, Yankees- came alive late to pass Howie Kendrick as the fourth-best second baseman in the AL
26. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians- the best shorstop in the first half fell off a cliff (and behind five other SSs) in the second half
28. David Ortiz, Red Sox- created more runs than Ellsbury and had the best season from a DH, but still offered less overall value than Melky Cabrera (per fangraphs)
33. Michael Young, Rangers- led the league in hits. Also had a lower isolated power than Danny Valencia, Carl Crawford, and Mitch Moreland.
How can you put Dustin Pedroia , Kinsler, and Napoli in front of Granderson and Gonzalez?? I am also confused why you look at stats like those instead of the main triple crown numbers. Michael Young hit .338 this season and plays great defense at two positions for the sake of his team (which just won the pennant), and Alex Gordon and Ian Kinsler are in front of him. I really don’t get it at all…… As for your top 3, I think you did a good job. And for the NL voting, I also agree.
Yossif, thanks for the comment. I don’t understand your interest in “the main triple crown numbers”. Home runs and batting average contain some useful information, but wOBA considers hits and home runs as a piece of a hitter’s overall offensive contribution, which also includes walks, doubles, triples, and park effects. By using wOBA, I am incorporating batting average and home runs, but in the context of the environment in which they were compiled and without ignoring other contributions. I make a point never to look at the RBI column, which is more a function of a player’s lineup position and the strength of his teammates. Granderson and Gonzalez had huge seasons, but Granderson’s awful CF defense and Gonzalez’s excellent 1B defense aren’t as valuable as Pedroia’s or Kinsler’s excellent 2B defense. And for Napoli to compile those offensive numbers while adequately handling the catcher’s role makes him enormously valuable. Young gets a ton of hits, which are great, but they’re mostly singles and he’s an attrocious defensive player just about anywhere you put him.
Good point, but what I am trying to say is that it is best to integrate all those numbers rather than excluding some. And Granderson’s defense in CF is terrific, what are you talking about?
What am I excluding, besides context-driven numbers like RBI and wins?
UZR says Granderson was 5.1 runs below average. UZR isn’t perfect, but Total Zone has him two runs below average, which isn’t much better. His range factor was -10. You can argue that Gardner (and maybe even Swisher) were taking balls away from him, but wouldn’t a better center fielder have gotten to those balls? Of AL CF who played 1,000 innings, only Melky Cabrera made fewer putouts. What evidence do you have that he played CF well?
His range in CF is tremendous! He uses his ridiculous speed to get to balls that most outfielders can’t. He also has a decent arm and has 11 assists. You haven’t seen the countless amazing catches on the highlight reels throughout his whole career?!? 3 errors playing CF all year long isn’t so shabby either. How can you judge fielding by putouts?!? If the ball isn’t hit to him than what can he do?!? He only has three errors!
I have to side with Bryan on Granderson’s defense. Diving catches mean nothing to me when you misread the ball off the bat. Granderson is good, and I think he is better than his metrics say, but he is far from elite. Yes, his speed helps him a lot but he gets bad jumps and his reads are mediocre at best.
Thanks for weighing in, Jonathan. I’ll concede that Granderson may be better than these metrics indicate, as it’s possible that Yankee pitchers just didn’t give up many fly balls to center field this season. Even if that’s true, he caught a lower-than-average percentage of balls hit in his zone (per TZ), which means too many balls either fell for hits or were caught by other outfielders.
Yossif, by citing errors and assists, you’re using 14 plays to evaluate 1,200 innings of work. Raw putouts aren’t much more helpful because, as you say, more balls are hit to some guys than others, but over the course of a season, opportunities tend to level out and the fact that guys like Bourjos and Ellsbury make dozens more catches speaks to their skill (range, good jumps). The relationship between range and errors is more likely to be inverse than linear, as faster players are going to get to more balls that may be ruled errors when they clank off their gloves.
I understand the desire to evaluate range based on visual evidence, but unless you can watch thousands of baseball games in a season, no one can accurately gauge and compare the skills of a whole league of outfielders with their eyes alone. As primitive as some may be, we need metrics to evaluate fielders relative to their peers, and while it may be irresponsible to trust them implicitly, it’s even less responsible to dismiss them when they don’t match our eyes. Without stats, I would think Carlos Pena is a much better hitter than Hunter Pence, but the numbers show I’m wrong and I accept that.