Vote For Change: My 2018 Year End Awards

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Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The World Series is in the rear-view mirror and free agency has officially begun. That also means we are engulfed in award season, as the BBWAA has unveiled their winners throughout the last week. Meanwhile, my fellow writers in the IBWAA have also chosen their triumphant few and to the victor go the spoils. For the fifth year, I was able to vote as part of this illustrious group and decide on who was truly worthy. If you want to check out my voting record over the years, you just have a few clicks to adhere to: 201420152016 and 2017. As always, it is a true honor to have this opportunity to vote and I always vote with the utmost respect. With that being said, here are my picks to win awards in 2018:

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American League MVP: Mookie Betts

Every year, I plan to pencil in Mike Trout for this award and most years that is how the vote ends up happening. Even last year, despite missing noticeable time due to an injury (or an upgrade, for those that believe Trout is a cyborg) he was my choice for MVP because of the sheer level of production he was putting up. But this year, Trout’s banner year just wasn’t quite enough to topple the year Mookie Betts had. 

Bett’s numbers speak of a new level for him: .346/.438/.640, 32 home runs, 80 RBI’s, an OPS+ of 186, 10.9 bWAR and 10.4 fWAR. Betts lead the American League in runs, batting average, slugging percentage and WAR all while helping lead the charge for the Red Sox to procure another world championship. 

But it wasn’t just the core numbers that won Betts this award. Mookie posted the highest extra base hit % of his career (13.7%), a great AB/HR ratio (16.3%), all while raising his walk rate to 13.2%, the highest of his career.

But what truly sealed the deal for me was his Win Probability Added, which lead the American League. Betts posted a 6.0 WPA according to Baseball-reference and a 5.77 for Fangraphs. The other candidates, most notably Trout and teammate JD Martinez are far enough away that this is a no-contest for me. Betts not only tore up the rest of the league, but was the most vital cog of the Red Sox’s arsenal.  

With Betts posting another great year offensively and defensively (and the third consecutive above six wins a season) it will be interesting to see if the conversation starts of his place on the hierarchy of baseball’s elite. Trout has held the mantle for years, but if Betts keeps up at this pace, we could have to start inserting him into the conversation of ‘Best Player in Baseball’ sooner rather than later.

My Top 3: 1-Betts, 2-Martinez, 3-Trout

IBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

BBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

National League MVP: Christian Yelich

When the season began for the Milwaukee Brewers, their big offseason acquisition was former Kansas City Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain. But the other pick-up turned out to be even more notable, as the team went and acquired Christian Yelich from the Miami Marlins. While Cain had a great season, Yelich performed out of this world and garnered himself an MVP trophy.

Yelich has always had the talent to make himself an elite producer and in 2018 he elevated his game to a new stratosphere. By the time the season had wrapped up, Yelich led the NL in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, total bases and WAR (both bWAR and fWAR) among position players in the league.

What really pushed Yelich over the edge was the second half of the season:

Down the stretch, Yelich was a monster as he hit a robust .370/.508/.804 in the final month of the season, not only cementing this award but also wrapping up a playoff spot for the Brewers.

The biggest change in his game was the elevation of the ball. The funny thing is, Yelich actually saw his fly ball rate go down (23.5%) from last year (25.2%), but he also saw his ground ball rate drop as well (down to 51.8% from last year’s 55.4%). But the increase happened in his line drive rate, which soared to 24.7%, up from 19.4% in 2017. Yelich was making better contact on the ball and it showed in his final numbers.

The cherry on top of the sundae for Yelich is his WPA, which lead in the NL for position players at 6.02. In fact, next on the list is Paul Goldschmidt, who posted a 4.66 WPA. That huge gap (as well as stellar defense) not only helped the Brewers but showed that Christian Yelich is far and away the winner of the National League Most Valuable Player award.

My Top 3: 1-Yelich, 2-Cain, 3-Carpenter

IBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

BBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

Credit: 
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

 American League Cy Young Award: Blake Snell

This was easily the hardest vote for me and one that took me awhile to be comfortable with. Snell and Justin Verlander both put up stellar performances in 2018 but only one man can win, and my vote went to Snell despite a few issues that in years past would probably cost him an opportunity to win this award.

Let’s start with the “dark print”, or where Snell lead the league. Snell was first in ERA (1.89), ERA+ (219) and hits per 9 (5.6). There were two more categories that Snell lead in, which I want to focus on a bit deeper. First is RE24 (Run Expectancy, or for pitchers Runs Saved), where Snell lead with 48.4. To give you an idea of just how impressive that number is, the only pitcher better than Snell this past year was Jacob deGrom, who had an absolutely amazing year for the Mets. Also, Snell’s previous high in this category was 1.6…seriously.

The other stat Snell lead in was wins at 21, and I found this a bit amusing. Over the last few years, there has been a progressive movement to “Kill the Win”, with MLB analyst Brian Kenny leading the charge. The reasoning being that there are so many factors involved in a pitcher getting a “W” that doesn’t even involve the pitcher that it feels like an empty statistic. If we are being honest, I never look at a pitcher’s win total anymore. The only time I am even aware of it is if it is mentioned in a broadcast or in an article. The win to me doesn’t factor into how I vote, so I don’t even give it a second thought.

That being said, the other numbers did enough to help his case. But he did receive some stiff competition from Verlander, who lead in strike outs, WHIP, strike out to walk ratio and pitchers WAR. The most notable difference between the two pitchers was innings pitched. Verlander threw an impressive 214 innings over his 34 starts this season, while Snell threw only 180.2 innings over 31 starts.

For some, that would be a deal-breaker. There is a case that can be made that the extra 33 innings thrown by Verlander should count for a bit more and I can see that argument. There aren’t many pitchers that toss 200+ innings in today’s game and having that kind of stallion to ride can be a difference maker.

But for me, the numbers just leaned too far to Snell’s side to get me to throw my vote to Verlander. It was a tough choice and I honestly believe either pitcher is worthy of the award, but at the end of the day I picked Snell, as did both the BBWAA and the IBWAA.

My Top 3: 1-Snell, 2-Verlander, 3-Kluber

IBWAA winner: Blake Snell

BBWAA winner: Blake Snell

National League Cy Young Award: Jacob deGrom

I don’t get to do this very often but…I predicted this at the beginning of the year. Yep, I took a big swing and actually connected for a change. Honestly, this felt like a natural progression for deGrom and it felt like at some point he would put everything all together. That year was 2018.

In fact deGrom absolutely dominated this year and pretty much ran away with this award. deGrom lead the NL in ERA, ERA+, FIP, HR/9, WPA, RE24 and WAR. Dominance isn’t always a given when it comes to pitchers but this year was truly the year of deGrom. 

To give you a deeper view of his dominance, let’s break down a few of the numbers. Batters hit .196/.244/.277 against deGrom, only taking him deep ten times this year. In fact, deGrom only gave up 40 total extra base hits this year over 217 innings. To give you a better view of how big a deal that is, the Anderson twins (Chase and Tyler, and yes, I am aware they aren’t actually twins) both gave up 30 home runs this year, or almost deGrom’s entire extra base total.

Want to go deeper? deGrom gave up 215 total bases. That number is actually pretty close to his 2016 number of 213 total bases. Oh, that was in 69 less innings then he accumulated this year. In other words, deGrom was a machine this year that no one could shut down.

There were even some analysts that felt deGrom was worthy of the NL MVP award this year, and it’s not too far of a reach.  deGrom posted an insane 9.6 bWAR and 8.8 fWAR this year, both fairly large numbers for a starting pitcher. Throw in the 5.85 WPA and you have an argument that determines the value of deGrom is possibly on par with any hitter in the league.

I’ve always viewed the MVP as a hitter’s award, unless there is a pitcher that blows away the rest of the competition. By that, I mean there are players who play every day who are having really, really good seasons but not quite great. If that happens and there is a pitcher who has being insanely dominate, I would vote for the pitcher. In this case, Yelich had an amazing season and because he is out on the field every day, 162 games a year, my vote went to him. 

I know that probably feels like I am slighting pitchers, but I am a firm believer in the mental aspect of the game and the wear and tear it has on position players. To say it is a grind would probably be an understatement. So while deGrom was out of this world this year, so was Yelich. 

Luckily for the Cy Young award, there is no argument. deGrom wins this hands down and can put his season up there with such greats as Gooden, Gibson and Kershaw. Jacob deGrom was the best pitcher in the National League this year, period.

My Top 3: 1-deGrom, 2-Scherzer, 3-Freeland

IBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

BBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

   

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

American League Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani

This felt like a slam-dunk for me and I was a bit surprised to hear some backlash from Yankees fans, but the best rookie in the American League this year was Shohei Ohtani. Sure, there were some great performances from Gleyber Torres, Brad Keller and Miguel Andujar, but none of them did what Ohtani did.

Let’s start there: Shohei Ohtani did things this year that hadn’t been done in a century. In. A. Century. Over the last 100+ years of baseball no one has achieved the feats that Ohtani did this year:   


Ohtani is also the first player since Ruth in 1919 to throw 50 innings and hit 15 doubles, or to throw 50 innings and draw 25 walks, or to throw 50 innings and drive in (or score) more than 35 runs, or to throw 50 innings and make 200 plate appearances. He’s also the first player since George Sisler in 1915 to throw 50 innings and steal more than eight bases. You get where I’m going with this. Even Ohtani’s abbreviated rookie run was something no one had seen since before the Black Sox scandal, and it happened in a league that’s vastly more talented and specialized than the one Ruth revolutionized.

You get where we are going with this. Ohtani broke down the norms of what is expected of a major league ballplayer. He was a successful pitcher and hitter in 2018 but that isn’t even all of it. He did all of this while playing in a different league than he was used to. He did all of this while playing in a completely different country than he was used to. If that wasn’t enough, he pretty much made it look easy.

.285/.361/.564 batting line. 22 home runs, 61 RBI’s. OPS+ of 152. 126 ERA+. 1.6 WPA. 29% K rate. All while shuffling in between being a hitter and a pitcher. In a new league. In a new country. If he would have just put up average stats and been an average performer it still would have been impressive. But the fact he made it look easy shows what a true talent he is.

So sure, Andujar, Torres and Keller had great seasons. Any other year it is a different conversation and even possibly a battle for the winner. But this is a no-contest. Ohtani is the Rookie of the Year and no one came close to what he did.

My Top 3: 1-Ohtani, 2-Torres, 3-Keller

IBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

BBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

National League Rookie of the Year: Juan Soto

I mentioned earlier that the AL Cy Young was the toughest one to pick a winner, but a close second was this race. Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna were not only two rookies that shined in 2018, but they were pretty close to equals as well.

The two rookies tied for fWAR (3.7), were separated by four homers, 6 RBI’s, and .001 in batting average. Soto had a slightly higher OBP, while Acuna’s slugging was a bit higher. wRC+? Soto 146, Acuna 143. In other words, either player was worthy of being the best of 2018, but only one could win. 

In matters like this, where two competitors are so close that you would have to break a tie, I normally lean toward value. Looking at WPA, Soto had the sizable lead, 3.46 to Acuna’s 1.96. RE24 is a bit closer, but still a runaway for Soto (30.45 to 26.69). Finally, with the Clutch stat on Fangraphs, Soto wins again, 0.22 to -0.12. When it came down to helping their team and making sure they are put in winning situations, Soto came away with a lengthy lead.

So while you can see why I picked Soto, it’s not like Acuna wasn’t deserving. In fact, these two were so good this year that you almost forget all the other great rookies in the National League. Guys like Harrison Bader and Walker Buehler are rarely talked about despite putting up numbers that are very good for a first year player. With a NL class like this, you wonder who will break out and shrug off the ‘Sophomore Slump’ in 2019. If this year was any kind of barometer,  Soto and Acuna will soon be the cream of the crop of not just the NL, but the entire baseball world.

My Top 3: 1-Soto, 2-Acuna, 3-Buehler

IBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

BBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

    

Credit: AP Photo/Steve Nesius

American League Manager of the Year: Kevin Cash

This was another close race and one that could easily be a three-way tie. Bob Melvin of Oakland led his team of vagabonds and youngsters to a playoff spot despite starting the year with the lowest payroll in the game and 34-36 on June 15.  Alex Cora led the Red Sox to 108 wins (and eventually a world championship) in his rookie year as a manager and was able to turn away the playoff bound New York Yankees.

But what Kevin Cash did with the Tampa Bay Rays is some other level managing job. Cash propelled a team that was supposed to hang out in the basement of the American League East and led them to a 90 win season. Despite the team trading off some of their best players before the trade deadline, they went out and turned themselves into contenders. The funniest part of the whole deal is he did this almost from a survival standpoint.

The Rays lost a couple of their top pitching prospects (Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell) before the season to injuries. Anthony Banda joined that list a few months into the season. After trading Chris Archer at the trade deadline, they were left with one actual starting pitcher. The lack of starters led Cash to use “The Opener”, where he would have a reliever start the game, pitch an inning or two and then hand the ball off to someone who could go deeper into the game.

This wasn’t done to be cute or try something new out as much as just a lack of starting pitching…and it worked. ‘The Opener’ became a regular part of their rotation and helped bridge the gap for a number of their younger pitchers.

The team focused on good pitching and defense and that helped get them to third place in the East, ten games behind the second place Yankees. Cash pushed the right buttons and his calm demeanor helped keep his team focused through a number of rough patches.

So while Melvin and Cora deserve a ton of praise, Kevin Cash deserves this award. If anything, Cash earned his managerial stripes in 2018 and has come out with a contract extension. It’s too bad he didn’t get some hardware to go with it. 

My Top 3: 1-Cash, 2-Melvin, 3-Cora

IBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

BBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

         

Credit: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

National League Manager of the Year: Brian Snitker

The story of Brian Snitker is one that easily could be made into a ‘feel good’ movie for Disney. Snitker is a guy who has been the loyal soldier, a guy who has been in the Atlanta organization since 1977, when he was a minor league player. He has managed for almost every one of their minor league teams and even spent a stint as the major league team’s third base coach from 2007 to 2013. Snitker has been there and done that when it comes to the Braves organization.

But in May of 2016, Snitker was promoted to manager for the Braves on an interim basis and he would get the job full-time in October of that year. So the path Brian took to this role was a long and lengthy one, but he didn’t really reach his stride until this past season.

What Snitker did in 2018 is something no one, not even the Atlanta front office, expected. He led the Braves to a 90 win season, a National League East title and their first playoff appearance since 2013. This from a team that wasn’t really supposed to contend until 2019.

But it shouldn’t be too surprising it came early. With a nice mix of veterans (Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis) and top-shelf prospects (Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna), the Braves took advantage of the Washington Nationals’ pratfall and dominated the NL East for most of the season. While the talent will get most of the credit, Snitker deserves some heavy praise for the culture he has fostered in Atlanta. Former Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur told a great story of Snitker that goes back years before:


One of Jeff Francoeur’s favorite stories occurred after he homered a few times for Double-A Mississippi and then got drilled in the ribs against Montgomery. Snitker instructed a reliever to retaliate. When the pitcher simply buzzed a batter, Snitker blasted the pitcher in the dugout and told him to get out of his sight.
When one of Mississippi’s pitchers retaliated the next inning, the benches cleared and the umpires halted the game.
“After we got back in the clubhouse, [Snitker] grabbed a beer and told us he had never been more proud of the way we came together as a team that day,” Francoeur said. “If you play for him, you know he’s always going to protect you and have your back.”

Probably one of the best ways to describe Snitker is hard but fair. It appears that his mentality is exactly what this Braves team needed. Craig Counsell and Bud Black did some great things for Milwaukee and Colorado, respectively, but Snitker’s accomplishment this year has earned my vote for NL Manager of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Snitker, 2-Black, 3-Counsell

IBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

BBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

 

Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

American League Reliever of the Year: Blake Treinen

Blake Treinen of Oakland had a year for the ages in 2018. Before this year, Treinen was almost a stereotype for a reliever: Great stuff,  but not consistent enough with his location. Treinen could miss bats, but didn’t miss them as much as he needed them to.

That all changed this past year, as Treinen’s late break on his pitches helped increase his numbers across the board. He bumped up his strike out rate to 31.8% (previous high was 24%) and saw his walk rate take a dip. Hitters also went from hitting .271 against him in 2017 to .157 this year. 

Treinen posted an ERA of 0. 78 and a FIP of 1.82. An interesting look into his numbers show a guy who’s luck appeared to switch around in 2018. In 2017, batters posted a BABIP of .344 against him. Luck was not on his side. But in 2018, his BABIP was .230, .114 points lower. Whatever he changed this year made a huge difference in his results.

What’s interesting is there is a huge difference when it comes to pitch usage this past season. Treinen did use his slider a bit less (21% compared to 25.5% in 2017) but  his cutter was used 11.8%, up from 0.5%. His velocity also saw a slight uptick this year, but nothing that will blow the doors off. More than anything it appears he used his cutter slightly more and the extra movement made it harder to put the ball in play. 

Whatever he did, it appears to have elevated him to the top of the relief game in the American League. His dominance not only helped lift Oakland to a playoff spot, but also my nod for American League Reliever of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Treinen, 2-Diaz, 3-Leclerc

IBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

BBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

National League Reliever of the Year: Josh Hader

There was no reliever in the NL this last year that dominated quite like Josh Hader. Hader steamrolled through the league in his second season and left a litany of whiffs in his path. My comparison has been ‘Mitch Williams with control’ and in 2018 he proved to be a force to be reckoned with. 

Let’s begin with the numbers:  2.43 ERA, 2.23 FIP, 2.7 fWAR over 81 innings. Hader struck out batters at a 46.7% clip while posting a K-BB% of 36.9%. The best part is that he did this basically using two pitches: a fastball and a slider.

What Hader did was basically tell the hitter “here it is, now hit it” and most of the time the batter failed. Hader did allow nine homers this year, which equates to allowing one every nine innings. Hitters did make contact on Hader at almost a 70% clip when he put the ball in the strike zone. But this one blemish wasn’t enough to take away from his great year.

With Jeremy Jeffress still in the fold, it will be interesting to see if he continues to close or if Hader will get more opportunities in 2019. Hader did save 12 games and blow 5 (if you keep track of that stuff) and that number could see an increase in the next season. What Hader has done is put the rest of baseball on alert that he is one of the best relievers in all of the game, no matter what inning he is throwing in.

My Top 3: 1-Hader, 2-Jeffress, 3-Erlin

IBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

BBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

 

Credit: Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

So there you have it, another season officially wraps up as we reward those that reached the highest of achievements. It is a great honor that I get to vote every year like this and I can only hope I do a respectable part to show the value of an organization like the IBWAA. This is a game we all love and while we might squabble here and there on numbers, it really comes down to what you value. I can only hope 2019 brings us just as many highly contested winners. Here’s to baseball being back sooner rather than later.

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Rock the Vote: My 2017 Year End Awards

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It’s been only a few weeks since the World Series ended and baseball came to a close for 2017. I’d like to say I’ve dealt with it in a fair manner, but I’ve been counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report (89 by my count) since the season ended. Luckily, the Hot Stove season will keep us seamheads occupied, as will this week’s award season. All throughout this week, the BBWAA has been unveiling their winners, as has my brethren in the IBWAA. As a member of the IBWAA, we vote just like the members in the BBWAA while not getting quite the fanfare (although if anyone wants to toot our horn, go for it!). I’ve been a member for a number of years, so you can go back and take a gander at my previous voting record: here is 20142015, and 2016. As always, it is a true honor to have this opportunity to vote and I always vote with the utmost respect. With that being said, here are my picks to win awards in 2017…

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Credit-Sports Illustrated

American League MVP: Mike Trout

While most have declared this a two-man race between Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge, I feel the true winner is Mr. Michael Nelson Trout. I’m sure at least one person is reading this, shaking their head at me; that’s fine, as I have zero issue with anyone picking Altuve and I at least understand the voters who picked Judge. But to me, Trout was head and shoulders above the rest this year, despite only playing in 114 games. If you want a real in-depth look at how and why I voted for Trout, go back to August when I wrote about Trout being amazing despite the 40 so games he missed in the first half of the season. I really broke down the how and why of this vote with that article, so let’s just recap some of the main points here. Trout led the league in On-base Percentage, Slugging, OPS, OPS+, and wRC+. This is all impressive considering the time he missed, but what really swayed my vote was Trout leading the AL hitters in Win Probability Added (WPA). Considering WPA is a stat that accumulates as the season wears on and factors in the change in Win Expectancy from one plate appearance to the next. It’s all about the opportunities you get and what you do with them, and Trout did better than anyone else in this category. The interesting aspect of that is those games missed, which should mean he got fewer opportunities, and more than likely he did. What it really tells us is that Trout did the most with those chances, leading the league with a 5.58 WPA. The next closest player? Nelson Cruz at 3.90. Altuve was 4th in the league at 3.74. Think about that for a moment: In 40 fewer games, Trout was a bigger factor in his team’s victories than Altuve, who had a fantastic season…and it isn’t even close! FYI, Judge came in at 17th, with 2.38. We all juggle with what “Most Valuable” means in MVP, and for me it is the guy who is giving his team the best chance to win. Mike Trout did that in his limited time in 2017 and for that he received my vote.

My Top 3: 1-Trout, 2-Jose Altuve, 3-Aaron Judge

IBWAA Winner: Jose Altuve

BBWAA Winner: Jose Altuve

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National League MVP: Joey Votto

Over the years, there appears to be a divide when it comes to a person’s opinion of Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto. If you believe a middle of the order guy should drive in runs and hit for power, you probably are frustrated by Votto’s patience at the dish and focus on just getting on base. If you are of the opinion that it’s all about not getting out and making sure you extend the inning for your team, then you probably love the guy. I am in the latter position and nothing speaks volumes about Votto’s true value than what he did offensively in 2017. If you love the black ink that shows up in the statistic category (which means a player led the league in that category), then Votto should be your man. He led the NL this year in Walks, On-Base Percentage, OPS, OPS+ and wRC+. You can probably also tack on 36 home runs, 100 RBI’s, 323 total bases, a slugging percentage of .578 and 7.5 bWAR. Offensively, Votto was a beast in 2017 and to add the cherry on top of this offensive sundae, he lead the NL hitters in WPA, 4.96 to Giancarlo Stanton’s 4.84. Some will poo-pah that Votto wasn’t on a contending team; I would counter with this being an individual award, so what the other 24 players do should have no factor into the winner of MVP. While Stanton put up monster power numbers and Charlie Blackmon had an amazing season out of the leadoff spot (and easily baseball’s best mullet), the true Most Valuable Player was Joey Votto in my eyes.

My Top 3: 1-Votto, 2-Giancarlo Stanton, 3-Charlie Blackmon

IBWAA Winner: Giancarlo Stanton

BBWAA Winner: Giancarlo Stanton

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American League Cy Young Award: Corey Kluber

The debate the last two months of the season was the two-man race for the AL Cy Young: would it be Corey Kluber or Chris Sale? What once appeared to be Sale’s award to win turned into Kluber’s gain, as he absolutely shoved the last two months of the season. In those last two months, Kluber threw 89 innings and produced an ERA of 1.42 and a WPA of 3.07. Batters only hit .172 against him in that span with a paltry .290 slugging percentage. Those two months were just the nail in the coffin, as Kluber led the league in ERA, Complete Games, Shutouts, ERA+ and WHIP. Sale held his on, as he lead in Innings Pitched and strike outs, but the stats tell the true story. Kluber lead in ERA+, 202 to 157. WHIP was 0.869 to Sale’s 0.970. WPA? 4.9 to Sale’s 3.7. WAR? Kluber 8.0 to Sale’s 6.0. While Sale made three more starts than Kluber, the gap wasn’t so wide that it would diminish Kluber’s accomplishments. At the end of the day, Kluber proved he was worthy of yet another Cy Young Award.

My Top 3: 1-Kluber, 2-Chris Sale, 3-Luis Severino

IBWAA Winner: Corey Kluber

BBWAA Winner: Corey Kluber

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National League Cy Young Award: Max Scherzer

Over the last couple seasons, there hasn’t been much discussion about who the best pitcher in baseball is. Clayton Kershaw was pretty much hands down the best and very few were putting up a fight. But during that span, Max Scherzer followed behind, nipping at Kershaw’s heels. While the debate will continue, the one definite is that Scherzer has just as much of a claim to that title in 2017 as Kershaw and proved himself worthy of this award. Scherzer has the black ink for the year, leading the league in complete games, Strike Outs, WHIP and Hits per 9. Kershaw lead in ERA and ERA+. But while Kluber and Sale’s numbers felt pretty far apart, Scherzer and Kershaw felt neck and neck. Scherzer beat Kershaw in WHIP, 0.902 to 0.949, while Kershaw beat Scherzer in ERA+ by a margin of 180 to 177. So to dig further, Scherzer easily beat him in WAR, 7.3 to 4.6, but WPA was much closer, 4.6 to 4.3. One wonders if Kershaw hadn’t missed those starts in the middle of the season, if this race would have turned out a bit different. Instead, Scherzer proved once again why might be the closest thing to Kershaw’s equal and why these two seem to battle it out for this award every season. But in 2017, Max Scherzer was the better pitcher.

My Top 3: 1-Scherzer, 2-Stephen Strasburg, 3-Zack Greinke

IBWAA Winner: Max Scherzer

BBWAA Winner: Max Scherzer

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American League Rookie of the Year: Aaron Judge

This award felt like a ‘Gimme’, as Judge was a dominant force for a large chunk of his rookie campaign. It was hard to read an article or watch a video without mention of Judge and his accomplishments this season and for the most part they were very deserved. Judge led the league in Runs, Home Runs, Walks and Strike outs. Judge’s 52 home runs (a new single season record for a rookie, breaking Mark McGwire’s 49 HR’s back in 1987) and 114 RBI’s spoke of a force in the middle of the Yankees batting order, while the walks showed the ability to show patience at the plate. Judge was different from many rookies, as this year was his age 25 season, which would explain a maturity not seen by many a rookie. While his contact rate was a bit low (65.1%, with league average being 80%) and the strike outs were high, Judge is no different than most of the power hitters that fill up major league rosters in 2017. To me, the most telling stat of Judge’s worth is OPS+, which sits at 171, second in the AL behind Trout. Since OPS+ is a statistic that adjusts to league and park effects, it means that despite playing in a very hitter friendly park in Yankee Stadium, Judge still raked like an elite hitter. That to me speaks more of his skills than a home run total, to be honest. While the sky is the limit for Judge, I worry about all the attention that the media bestows on him. I’m not a big fan of all the hype that the baseball media granted to him this year, but I get it. Judge had one of the best rookie seasons in baseball history and New York has been starving for a young power bat for years now. Judge more than deserves the honor of AL Rookie of the year but…what will his sequel look like? It’s not going to be easy for him to match what he did throughout this magical first year.

My Top 3: 1-Judge, 2-Matt Chapman, 3-Andrew Benintendi

IBWAA Winner: Aaron Judge

BBWAA: Aaron Judge

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

National League Rookie of the Year: Cody Bellinger

If anything has been proven over the years, it is that the Los Angeles Dodgers might just have a ‘Rookie Tree’ near Chavez Ravine where they pluck healthy, fresh new talent from on a consistent basis. That tree continued to produce in 2017, as young first baseman Cody Bellinger came away with the NL Rookie of the Year award, the 18th Dodger to win that award. Bellinger now sits beside such notables like Seager, Valenzuela, Karros, Nomo, Sax, Mondesi, Newcombe, Sutcliffe, Howard, Piazza and the man who now has his name on the award, Jackie Robinson. Bellinger debuted on April 25th this year and from almost day one he punished baseballs. Cody hit 39 home runs (a new National League single season record for a rookie), 26 doubles and posted an OPS+ of 142. Bellinger lead the National League Champions in homers, RBI and slugging percentage while putting together a 4.2 bWAR season in his rookie campaign. Maybe the most impressive stat for him this season was a 4.3 WPA, good enough for 5th in the NL, ahead of MVP hopeful Charlie Blackmon and teammate Justin Turner. Bellinger had been a highly touted prospect for a few years now and he showed this year that there was a reason for the hype. Like Judge, Bellinger will now have to follow-up a splendid first season with the hope for even bigger numbers. Bellinger won’t turn 23 years old until next July but is already showing the patience and maturity of a 10 year veteran. It’s a lot of expectations for such a young player, but so far so good for Cody Bellinger.

My Top 3: 1-Bellinger, 2-Paul DeJong, 3-Austin Barnes

IBWAA Winner: Cody Bellinger

BBWAA Winner: Cody Bellinger

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

American League Reliever of the Year: Craig Kimbrel

When digesting the numbers for American League relievers in 2017, it became very apparent that there was no dominant force like in year’s past. No Zach Britton, no Andrew Miller, no Wade Davis. But while digging in the depths, it did appear that Craig Kimbrel of the Red Sox had put together a stellar season that had flown under the radar. Kimbrel threw 69 innings, striking out 126 batters while posting an ERA+ of 319, three times above the league average. His strike out rate (49.6%) was the highest it had been since 2012 while his walk rate (5.5%) was the lowest of his career. His WPA was also huge, posting a 4.5 Win Probability while his Run Expectancy (RE24), which calculates the runs he saved, was the highest of his career at 28.0. Kimbrel also had a 1.43 ERA, which is great but fairly normal for a reliever of his caliber, but I was interested to see how the runs he did give up (which were 11 over those 69 innings) were scattered about. In August he gave up the most runs in one month (4), while May was his best effort, giving up none. Over the last two months of the season, Kimbrel pitched 25.1 innings, giving up five runs while striking out 46….and that wasn’t even his best two month stretch! While Andrew Miller and Chad Green both had great seasons this year, Kimbrel showed why he has been an elite closer since 2011. For anyone calling for his demise in 2016, Kimbrel showed this year why his career isn’t dead yet.

My Top 3: 1-Kimbrel, 2-Andrew Miller, 3-Chad Green

IBWAA Winner: Craig Kimbrel

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Credit: USA Today

National League Reliever of the Year: Kenley Jansen

While the American League relievers felt like a closer race, in the National League on closer stood out over all the rest and his name is Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Jansen was dominant in 2017: 68.1 innings, 1.32 ERA, 318 ERA+ with 109 strike outs. Jansen even posted a 2.9 bWAR this year, the highest of his career. But a couple other stats just blew me away for Jansen this year. Jansen allowed seven walks all year-long. Yes, 7…that is it. Which leads to another stat that blows my mind, which is his Strike out to Walk ratio: 15.57. Seriously, that number is just ridiculous. Finally, the most impressive statistic for Jansen in 2017 was his league leading WPA, 5.7. Not only did that number lead the NL, it lead all of baseball, even better than Mike Trout’s 5.58 in the AL. If there was ever any doubt that Los Angeles made the right move to re-sign Jansen last offseason, his spectacular 2017 warranted almost every dollar he earned. Those numbers speak as a dominant reason why Kenley Jansen is the NL Reliever of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Jansen, 2-Archie Bradley, 3-Pat Neshek

IBWAA Winner: Kenley Jansen

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American League Manager of the Year: Paul Molitor

While managers like Terry Francona and Joe Girardi guided their respective teams to the postseason this year, one man stood head and shoulders as the true manager of the year in the American League, and his name is Paul Molitor of the Minnesota Twins. The Twins came into the year trying to bounce back from a 100 loss season in 2016 and they more than bounced back. Despite having a pieced together rotation and an occasional spotty bullpen, Molitor was able to lead Minnesota to an 85 win season and a Wild Card spot in the AL. No one expected the Twins to reach .500, yet along wrap up a playoff spot but that is exactly what happened in the ‘Twin Cities’ this year. The team really took off in August, as the offense went on a tear and pushed the team to the upper section of the American League Central. Molitor was able to work around some of the team’s flaws and gave youngsters like Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco the playing time they needed to be comfortable in the big leagues. Two of the team’s big issues the year before was the defense and the pen, which both improved in 2017 with his use of mixing and matching. Sometimes he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but Molitor was able to lay out some strategies this year that appeared to pay off:

“He’s extremely baseball smart,” Twins catcher Chris Gimenez told reporters. “He’s in the Hall of Fame for a reason. Yeah, he was a great player, but you have to think the game to do what he did on the field. I see it constantly. He’s very much ahead of the game. Sometimes it hasn’t worked out necessarily the way you draw it up, but I think for the most part I’d take him any day of the week.”

I know some don’t feel that the Manager of the Year award should just go to a team that outperforms expectations, but I think that is exactly why someone like Molitor deserves this award. Once the Twins started to excel, teams began to pay more attention to them and it caused Minnesota to revert the course they had been on. The team you saw in April wasn’t the same team there in September and it was for the better. While Francona lead his Indians to an AL Central title, he did so with pretty much the same roster he took to the World Series the year before. Molitor’s roster was revamped and a large chunk of the credit of their turnaround should be given to Molitor. He did what few expected and that is why he is my choice for Manager of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Molitor, 2-Terry Francona, 3-Joe Girardi

IBWAA Winner: Terry Francona

BBWAA Winner: Paul Molitor

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Credit: Getty Images

National League Manager of the Year: Torey Lovullo

Does anyone remember the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016? The best way to describe them is by just saying they were a mess. They only won 69 games last year and the team didn’t appear to have a set direction they were going in, other than down. GM Mike Hazen decided to restructure the roster, inserted Lovullo into his first big league managing spot and the team flourished. While all the attention was on the Dodgers, Lovullo kept Arizona just slightly off their pace while holding their ground on the Wild Card spot throughout the year. There was more attention paid to pitching strategy, defense and run prevention while he melded with his players:

Lovullo’s ability to incorporate analytics with his locker-room skills made him an instant success. He built a solid foundation in his first year and seems to have the Diamondbacks on track to compete for division titles and the World Series for the foreseeable future.

The Diamondbacks now look like a consistent contender in the NL West and with their young talent they shouldn’t have to make many major moves in the future. Lovullo changed the atmosphere in the desert and for that he is the best manager this year in the National League.

My Top 3: 1-Lovullo, 2-Bud Black, 3-Craig Counsell

IBWAA Winner: Torey Lovullo

BBWAA Winner: Torey Lovullo

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So there you have it, another season officially wraps up as we reward those that reached the highest of achievements. I did find it amusing that back in April when I made my season predictions  I guessed only one of these correctly (Bellinger as NL ROTY, which felt like a slam dunk). It goes to show how hard it is to really guess what will happen during the duration of a 162 game season. It is a great honor that I get to vote every year like this and I can only hope I do a respectable part to show the value of an organization like the IBWAA. This is a game we all love and while we might squabble here and there on numbers, it really comes down to what you value. I can only hope 2018 brings us just as many highly contested winners. Here’s to baseball being back sooner rather than later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle For the AL MVP & How Mike Trout is Trying to Crash the Party

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

When baseball reached the All-Star break, the American League MVP race felt like a two-man battle. Jose Altuve of Houston was once again a top contender while the Yankees Aaron Judge was making baseball writers and analysts go ga-ga as he invoked memories of Ruth and Mantle. The normal leader in MVP conversations, Mike Trout, was sitting on the sideline, finishing up a rehab assignment and hoping to get back on the field after missing close to 40 games. While Trout was the front-runner before his injury, there appeared to be no way he could catch Altuve and Judge in any of the statistics that mattered. But then Trout came back, picking up where he left off, and something happened…Trout slowly climbed up the fWAR leaderboard. Day by day, game by game, Mike Trout was catching up to the two leaders. Just like last year, what appeared to be a two-man race turned into a three-man battle to the end. While it would appear Trout missing those 40 games would deter his case, it’s actually enhancing the argument that he is the 2017 American League MVP.

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Let’s start with the WAR argument, which I referenced above. As of this writing, Altuve sits atop the American League leaderboard, with 6.5 fWAR. Trout follows with 6.2 and Judge sits in third place with 5.7. Just as an aside, this is just speaking for the hitters in the league; Chris Sale leads everyone with 7.5 WAR and Corey Kluber is at 6.0. Both Sale and Kluber can be calculated into your MVP discussion (and trust me, Sale is in that convo), but at least for me, I don’t value pitchers in MVP talk UNLESS they have been so dominant and crucial to their team’s success (and since I know it will be asked, the next closest Red Sox to Sale’s WAR number is Mookie Betts at 3.8). So Altuve and Trout are 1-2 in hitter’s WAR, but that gap was much larger at the All-Star break. At the break, Aaron Judge led the AL with 5.4 fWAR, followed by Altuve at 4.1 and Trout was down in 6th place with 3.4 fWAR. So in this second half of the season, Altuve has accumulated 2.4 WAR, Judge 0.3 and Trout 2.8. Now, the gap between Altuve and Trout wasn’t that big at the break, but Judge’s lead above both was quite a bit more. So while Trout’s push in this second half has been impressive, Altuve’s has been equally impressive in that short amount of time. What has been the most important aspect of this gain is not just how Trout has shortened the gap between the two candidates; the most impressive part of this whole debate is that WAR is a stat that accumulates over time, so the more you play the higher your number should go. Obviously not every player sees that (Alcides Escobar has played every game this year for Kansas City and his fWAR sits at a sickly -0.3 right now) but if you are an elite player, your Wins Above Replacement will rise the more you play. The fact that Trout has almost reached Altuve in over 150 less plate appearances, says a lot about how good Trout’s season has been.

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Credit: The Sporting News

So how is Trout doing with some of the other statistics? Obviously Trout can’t win it on WAR alone, and luckily the numbers prove he won’t. Trout leads the league in weighted Runs Created Plus, weighted On Base Average, On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, walk percentage, Win Probability Added, Walk to Strikeout ratio, On-Base Plus Slugging, 2nd in Isolated Power, and 10th in stolen bases. The most impressive out of all these numbers to me is Trout’s Win Probability Added number. Trout is at 5.74; the next closest batter is Nelson Cruz at 3.67. I mentioned earlier how WAR is a stat that accumulates and so does WPA. For Trout to have an over two point lead in a stat that adds up over time is amazing. No other player in the American League has had a larger effect on his teams outcome than Trout AND IT ISN’T EVEN CLOSE! When I think of the term ‘Most Valuable Player’, I think of someone who is so valuable that you can’t even imagine what that team would look like without that player on the field. Trout missed 40 games (40 games!!) and has had a larger effect on his team than any other player in all of baseball. If that doesn’t speak of value, I can’t imagine what else does.

Brett George 2400.81 NBL

Now, there is one slight issue, which is that Trout is not quite a qualified batter, as he is sitting at 325 at bats for the season and 412 plate appearances. Trout would need to reach 502 plate appearances to be a qualified batter and with 24 games left Trout would have to average 3.75 plate appearances per game, which is doable. So while Trout has a good chance of reaching the bar he needs to get to, there would still be a few writers who might not vote for him because of time missed. Luckily, there are a few precedents that show it can and has been done before. First, go back to 1962 when Mickey Mantle missed 25 games in May and June of that year. Mantle would justbarely squeak in enough plate appearances (502) to qualify for the batting title and win MVP. Mantle also lead in many of the same categories that Trout leads in right now and would garnish a Gold Glove award. George Brett in 1980 missed 25 games with an ankle injury and racked up 515 plate appearances. George flirted with .400 for most of the year and would also lead the league in most of the same categories as Trout. Finally, Barry Bonds missed 32 games in 2003, racked up 550 plate appearances, 10.2 WAR and would win his 6th MVP award. In all three of these cases, a player missed a significant amount of time to injury yet had such potent offensive seasons that the voters could not dismiss their contributions to their team. To me, that reads just like Trout this year and shows that if the numbers are there, it should be an easy vote come the end of the season.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

So while Mike Trout hasn’t passed Jose Altuve just yet, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it doesn’t happen before the end of the season. You almost feel sorry for guys like Altuve, Judge, Manny Machado and others; they are playing at the same time as one of the greatest players of not only this time period, but easily one of the best of the last 30-40 years. Mike Trout appears to be on a completely different level and this year the numbers say he is doing it in a slightly shorter amount of time. While a vote for Altuve wouldn’t be a bad vote, it would be ignoring not only what Trout is achieving but also what he is doing to help lead an Angels team to contention. It might feel redundant to say Trout should be MVP each year, but it would also be foolish to vote against him just for the sake of change. Last year in August, I said Trout should be in the conversation for MVP and I was scoffed at. I was told Altuve had it in the bag. Trout ended up winning the award. This year I make a different proclamation: Mike Trout should be MVP again. This time, it might be wise to just admit the arguments against him aren’t as strong as the arguments for. All hail Mike Trout.

Firing Up The Royals Rumor Mill

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We are halfway through December and the Kansas City Royals’ hot stove is lukewarm at best. So far this offseason Kansas City has re-signed Drew Butera, traded Wade Davis for Jorge Soler, and have said goodbye to Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales and Tim Collins (who signed a minor league contract with the Nationals this past week). So we have seen a very uneventful  winter so far and the likelihood of something happening around the holiday season is very slim at best. That being said, a number of Royals have been linked in trade rumors so far, which makes sense as the Royals don’t look to be major players in the free agent market. So which Royals could be dealt and where? Let’s dive in and break down these rumors.

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Let’s start with the most recent rumor, which is that the Houston Astros are looking at upgrading their rotation and have placed Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy on their targeted list. I tend to feel like the chances of Duffy being dealt are slim or none, especially considering the Royals have opened talks with him on a contract extension. So if we take Duffy out of the equation (for now), then that leaves 25 year old Ventura, who has been a lightning rod throughout his early career. Most know Ventura has electric stuff, as he can reach 100 MPH on the radar gun and an equally as nasty curveball. The issue with him has been bouts of inconsistency and maturity, which continues to rear it’s ugly head. The potential of Ventura, plus his age, makes him a salivating target for GM’s around baseball, and when you add in the fact that he still is under team control for another three seasons (plus two more years of team options), you can see why a team like Houston would be interested. With all of that factored in, I can see a scenario where a Ventura trade could happen, but only if Kansas City got a healthy haul from their trading partner. Kansas City doesn’t have one of the best rotations in baseball, so if they dealt a Ventura, they would have to get at least one more arm in return that could fill his spot on the team. I actually believe Kansas City should look deep into a deal with someone like Houston, since they have a stocked farm system and could help bring them a couple of players in return to help replenish the Royals main roster and/or farm system. It would be hard to deal a player with the potential of Ventura, but one has to wonder if he will ever grasp the mental aspect of the game, which would elevate his game to the level of his potential. I think this is a deal worth exploring if you are the Royals front office.

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One trade that has been rumored that I believe will happen at some point is the Royals dealing Jarrod Dyson, who is entering the final year of his contract. Dyson so far this winter has been linked to Baltimore, Texas, St. Louis and most notably Oakland, who was talking to Kansas City during the Winter Meetings about Dyson. Dyson is an affordable (he made $3.45 million last year), versatile outfielder who brings plus defense and baserunning, especially as a secret weapon off the bench as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. Dyson’s value has never been higher and is coming off a season where he led the Royals in bWAR (3.1). It only makes sense to deal Dyson, especially with Billy Burns on the Kansas City roster, a player who essentially is a younger, cheaper version of Dyson. I would expect before the winter is out that Dyson is elsewhere and hopefully the Royals can get a solid trade piece in return, like a plus arm for the rotation or bullpen.

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Another trade possibility is Kansas City centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, who is also entering the last year of his contract in 2017. Cain is coming off an injury plagued season that saw him appear in only 103 games for the Royals.So far this winter the Rangers, Cardinals and Dodgers have all inquired about Cain and at one point they had discussed him in  multi-player trades involving Wade Davis, before Davis was dealt to Chicago. When healthy, Cain has become a force in the Kansas City lineup, a third place MVP finalist back in 2015. But that health is the issue and probably why Kansas City won’t look too deep into extending him past 2017. Cain has only played in more than 140 games once in his career (2015) and has been a regular visitor to the disabled list throughout his seven year career. Add in that he is entering his age 31 season and has been rumored to want at least a four year deal when the Royals had discussed extensions a couple of years ago. I don’t believe there is a very high chance of Cain being traded, but it might not be the worst thing for Kansas City to listen to any offers that teams have for Lorenzo. Cain could probably get a couple of solid big league players and teams would be drawn to his defense and postseason experience. I’m not expecting him to get dealt, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if it happened.

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A player I see getting traded even less than those mentioned above (and in fact I would say the chances are about as slim as they come with him) is Mike Moustakas. Now, I haven’t really seen his name mentioned, but his name had at least been tossed out there:

Moustakas is also entering the final year of his contract but he is coming off of an ACL injury that sidelined him for the final four months of the 2016 season. While I doubt Moose will get traded, the Royals do have a surplus of third basemen in Moustakas, Cheslor Cuthbert and Hunter Dozier (who the Royals have moved to the outfield but a team could still be interested in him at the hot corner). While the Royals have mentioned moving Cuthbert and Dozier around to other positions, with the right offer I could see Kansas City dealing one of these three. While the Royals would love to keep all three (especially with Moose possibly gone after 2017), there is always value in trading from a strength and right now Kansas City has one at third base. Like I said, I’m not counting on any of these three being dealt, but never say never, not with the position that the Royals are in right now.

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The Royals are in a tight situation that makes this offseason different than the last few. They are entering the final year of their contending window, as they have a number of players who will become free agents at the end of the 2017 campaign, so it would appear that the team should be pushing all their chips in on another playoff run. Unfortunately, owner David Glass is refusing to increase payroll, leaving the Royals front office in a position where they have to improve the team by making trades and essentially ignoring the free agent market. Because of this, the dealing probably isn’t done and at least one or two more deals appear to be on the horizon. Dayton Moore has spent much of his time in Kansas City working around small market limitations, but this might be the most creative he has ever had to be. How do you stay a contender by not increasing payroll and not having any major prospects on the immediate horizon? Hunker down Royals fans, because a player you are probably attached to emotionally could be gone within the next couple of months. Contending can still be done; but the Royals are being forced to shift the pieces on the board more by subtraction than addition. It can be done, but the makeup of this team is about to change. Time will tell if it is for the better or worse.

 

Winners and Losers: My 2016 Year End Awards

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November is a great month to be a baseball fan; there is the afterglow of the World Series, Hot Stove season gears up and we all get to take a glance back and venture back into just how great this past baseball season has been. This of course means that the award winners are announced by not only the BBWAA, but by a group I am proud to be a member of, the IBWAA. Being a member allows me to vote on the year-end awards and for the third straight year, have done just that. If you want to check out my past ballots, here they are: 2014 and 2015. It is an honor for me to be allowed the opportunity to vote and I take it very seriously. With that said, here are my picks for this past 2016 season.

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American League MVP: Mike Trout

For the second consecutive year, my vote was for the best player in the game, Mike Trout. This actually has been a very heated debate over the last few months, as even back in August I was saying Trout should be given heavy consideration for this award. The sentimental pick is Jose Altuve and the ‘my team made the playoffs’ pick is Mookie Betts. I instead went with the ‘his numbers are ultimately better’ pick in Trout. All Trout did this year was lead the league in runs, walks, on-base percentage, OPS+, bWAR, fWAR, oWAR, runs created, adjusted batting runs, win probability added for an offensive player and RE24. Oh, he also got better this year, in case anyone didn’t notice. Trout walked more, struck out less, stole three times more bases this year than last, and hit for a higher average, while his other stats were on par with last year. The argument against Trout was…well, it was that his team sucked. But that is really not his fault and in fact you can say the Angels might have been way worse if it was not for Trout. His WPA sat at 6.5, which factors in how he helped his team change the outcome of the game. The next closest batter in the American League was Josh Donaldson…who was at 4.3 WPA, over 2 wins less than Trout. At some point, baseball should view Trout for what he is: the game’s best player no matter whether or not his team is losing. Considering the MVP award is an individual award, not a team one, I give the nod to the player who had the best season and that would be Trout…and it’s not really even close.

My Top 3: 1-Trout, 2-Mookie Better, 3-Jose Altuve

IBWAA Winner: Mike Trout

BBWAA Winner: Mike Trout

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National League MVP: Kris Bryant

In this space just last year, Kris Bryant was the easy choice for NL Rookie of the Year. Just one year later, he is my choice for NL MVP in just his second season in the big leagues. Bryant led the league in bWAR, fWAR, oWAR, and runs scored while finishing second in WPA/LI and third in five other categories. While finishing second in home runs and third in runs created is very nice, there was two very big numbers that swayed me to Bryant. For one, Bryant was third in RE24, which factors in runs added in a resulting play by either a batter or baserunner. Considering he was also fourth in both adjusted batting runs and adjusted batting wins, this would tell me that Bryant contributed greatly from both his bat and his baserunning. The other big factor for me was Bryant’s defense, or more precisely the factor of his value all over the field. While Bryant posted a dWAR this year of 0.8, what makes it even more impressive is just how many positions he would play and not hurt his defensive stats. Kris would start games at 3B, 1B, LF, RF in 2016, and would also make appearances for an inning at both CF and SS for a game. So here is a guy who would play all over the diamond this year, producing MVP offensive numbers and above average defensive numbers. While Daniel Murphy, Freddie Freeman and Corey Seager were all worthy candidates, only one player was an all-around choice for this award, and his name is Kris Bryant.

My Top 3: 1-Bryant, 2-Corey Seager, 3-Freddie Freeman

IBWAA Winner: Kris Bryant

BBWAA Winner: Kris Bryant

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American League Cy Young Award: Chris Sale

This was easily the hardest category to make a decision on and I can honestly say I’m still not 100% comfortable with my pick. To me, there were positives and negatives to almost all of the candidates for this award and after digesting the numbers I felt like Chris Sale was the most deserving pitcher for this award. That being said, no one pitcher stood out of the bunch and that is why you are seeing such discourse when it comes to this award. Let’s start with my choice, Sale. He was tied for first in fWAR, first in complete games, 2nd in strike outs, 3rd in FIP, innings pitched, K/BB ratio, and WHIP and fourth in hits per 9 innings and walks per 9, all while facing the second most batters in the league. This is why this was such a hard pick: Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander also led in a number of categories and were on par with Sale’s performance this year. So what about Rick Porcello? He had a good year, but I had a hard time going with a guy who got the best run support in baseball (6.61) and much of his case was dictated on his win total. Zach Britton? I considered him for the award, but I had a few issues with his case (which we will go into later in this article) and even felt that Andrew Miller had a better season than he did. So I went with Sale, although if you told me that Kluber or Verlander were more deserving, I probably wouldn’t put up much of a fight. This was the year where no clear winner was defined.

My Top 3: 1-Sale, 2- Corey Kluber, 3-Justin Verlander

IBWAA Winner: Corey Kluber

BBWAA Winner: Rick Porcello

Clayton Kershaw

National League Cy Young Award: Clayton Kershaw

Remember how I wrote above how I had considered Zach Britton for the AL Cy Young? A lot of the Britton argument was based on ignoring his innings pitched and focus on how tremendous his numbers were in 2016. So if we are considering Britton,  then shouldn’t we have to look at Clayton Kershaw as a worthy candidate in the National League? I believe so and I will take it a step further by saying that Kershaw’s season was so spectacular that even with only 149 innings tossed, he was my pick for NL Cy Young. Follow me on this one, if you will: despite Kershaw’s low innings total, he was still 2nd in bWAR and first in fWAR, stats that are normally driven up as the season progresses. Read that again; in 33 less innings than Noah Syndergaard of the Mets (the fWAR runner-up), Kershaw accumulated more WAR than any other pitcher in the National League. If he had been qualified, Kershaw would have led the NL in ERA, WHIP, hits per 9, walks per 9, strikeouts to bases on balls ratio, ERA+,  and FIP…and if he had stayed on par with what he had done to that point it wouldn’t have even been close! Kershaw did lead the league in shutouts, WPA/LI, REW, and adjusted pitching wins, 3rd in complete games and win probability added and 2nd in adjusted pitching runs and RE24. All in just 149 innings.To put it another way, Kershaw was on course for an absolutely record-breaking season if it were not for being sidelined for a couple of months over the summer. To me, it was worth enough to win him the Cy Young. This wasn’t a knock on Kyle Hendricks, Max Scherzer, Syndergaard or Jon Lester. It was more that Kershaw was absolutely dominating when healthy…and it wasn’t even close. We really saw an absolutely amazing season from a probable future Hall of Famer in Clayton Kershaw.

My Top 3: 1-Kershaw, 2-Noah Syndergaard, 3-Jose Fernandez

IBWAA Winner: Max Scherzer

BBWAA Winner: Max Scherzer

MLB: MAY 21 Rays at Tigers

American League Rookie of the Year: Michael Fulmer

There was a small debate late in the season for this award, as Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez made a late push, but in the end this was Michael Fulmer’s prize to win. Fulmer compiled a great rookie season in Detroit, racking up 159 innings over 26 starts, a 135 ERA+, 3.76 FIP, and a WHIP of 1.119. Fulmer also put together a 33.1 inning scoreless streak early in the season, that was put to bed on June 18 in Kansas City. Fulmer was a great addition to the Detroit rotation but late in the year he did receive some competition from Sanchez, who was able to piece together a 3.0 bWAR season in just 53 games. Fulmer was still able to beat him out with 4.9 bWAR and for the honor of being the best rookie in the American League. All this from a pitcher acquired the year before from the Mets for Yoenis Cespedes, a deal that could be paying off in Detroit for a long time.

My Top 3: 1-Fulmer, 2-Gary Sanchez, 3-Tyler Naquin

IBWAA Winner: Michael Fulmer

BBWAA Winner: Michael Fulmer

MLB: OCT 09 NLDS - Game 1 - Mets at Dodgers

National League Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager

This was another slam dunk pick and one that many (like myself) predicted before the season began. Seager blew away the rookie competition this year and even forced himself into the NL MVP race this year. Seager led all National League rookies in fWAR, bWAR, RBI’s, runs, and was second in home runs and wRC+. Overall, he was 5th in bWAR and runs scored, 2nd in oWAR, 1oth in slugging percentage and runs created, 4th in total bases, 7th in doubles,  and 8th in RE24. The Dodgers struggled quite a bit offensively in 2016, but Seager was solid the entire year, never posting an on-base percentage below .311 in any month. Seager’s rookie season was almost record-breaking as well, as he had the 6th best rookie campaign according to fWAR this year, sitting at 7.5, and has the second best rookie season in the modern era (1988-today). So while Trea Turner, Trevor Story and Jon Gray had good to great first seasons, none were quite as good as the Dodgers starting shortstop.

My Top 3: 1-Seager, 2-Jon Gray, 3-Trea Turner

IBWAA Winner: Corey Seager

BBWAA Winner: Corey Seager

MLB: OCT 11 ALDS - Game 3 - Blue Jays at Rangers

American League Manager of the Year: Jeff Banister

Banister was last year’s pick in both the IBWAA and the BBWAA, and I had him a close second to Minnesota’s Paul Molitor. But this year, my pick went to Banister. The Texas Rangers dealt with a number of issues this past year,most notably when it came to injuries. The team lost portions of their rotation throughout the year, whether it was Yu Darvish, Derek Holland or Colby Lewis. Shin-Soo Choo was in and out of the lineup most of the year and Josh Hamilton never even got going. Throw in the ineffectiveness and injuries for Carlos Gomez and the career-ending neck injury to Prince Fielder and you have a team that could have been a mess. Instead, Banister led his team to the best record in the American League and found a number of working parts to fill any holes he had. While Terry Francona and Buck Showalter were both excellent choices, to me Jeff Banister overcame a ton of obstacles and did the best managing job in the American League this year.

My Top 3: 1-Banister, 2-Terry Francona, 3-Buck Showalter

IBWAA Winner: Terry Francona

BBWAA Winner: Terry Francona

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National League Manager of the Year: Dave Roberts

Managing in the big leagues isn’t always an easy job. For a first-time manager, it can be twice as daunting. So while Dave Roberts walked into a solid roster when he inherited the Dodgers as manager, he also had his work cut out for him. Not only was he going to have to juggle a roster that was littered with veterans, but he also fell into a rotation that be dealt a number of injuries and the whole Yasiel Puig situation. There was also an offense that lingered in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories in 2016 but did manage to accumulate the 3rd highest fWAR in the NL. Oh, he also had to deal with losing the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, for about two months of the season. Throw in those struggles of a first year manager that we mentioned earlier and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Los Angeles didn’t even capture a playoff spot. Instead, Roberts steered his team to a division title and took them all the way to Game 6 of the NLCS before being ousted. To me, that wins you NL Manager of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Roberts, 2-Dusty Baker, 3-Joe Maddon

IBWAA Winner: Joe Maddon

BBWAA Winner: Dave Roberts

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American League Reliever of the Year: Andrew Miller

Someone right now just said “He misspelled Zach Britton”. No, I didn’t. I know this will shock some, but despite Britton’s fantastic 2016, I viewed Andrew Miller’s season in a much brighter light. Let’s go ahead and break down some numbers to get a better view of where I am coming from. First, I won’t squabble over innings pitched. Miller only threw 7 more innings than Britton this year, which means very little. Miller led Britton in K/9 (14.89 to 9.94), BB/9 (1.09 to 2.42), LOB% (95.7 to 89.7), HR/FB ratio (20 to 7.1), FIP (1.68 to 1.94), xFIP (1.18 to 2.09) and possibly most importantly, fWAR (2.9 to 2.5). Yes, Britton had a better HR/9 ratio (0.13 to 0.97) and a much lower ERA (0.54 to 1.45) but to me that wasn’t enough to say Britton was better. Yes, despite Britton’s insane WPA (6.14 to Miller’s 4.79), it still felt to me that Miller was the better reliever this year. One final number tipped me to Miller’s side over Britton. In Britton’s 69 appearances, he pitched only 6 games of more than 1 inning and 11 games where he pitched less than 1 inning. In Miller’s 70 games, he threw 11 games of more than 1 inning and 8 games of less than 1 inning. It’s not a giant gap, but it does show Miller was used in longer stretches in the game than Britton, and it might have been even more if he had been pitching in Cleveland all year. For all the talk about Britton this year, there should have been a lot more talk about Andrew Miller’s 2016. For me, the choice is easy. Miller was the best reliever in the American League this past year.

My top 3: 1-Miller, 2-Zach Britton, 3-Dellin Betances

IBWAA Winner: Zach Britton

AP METS CUBS BASEBALL S BBN USA IL

National League Reliever of the Year: Jeurys Familia

This was another tough battle and while I thought Kenley Jansen had a great year, I felt like Familia’s was just slightly better. Jansen did beat Familia in a number of categories: K/9, BB/9, ERA, FIP, ERA+ and fWAR. All solid categories and I don’t discount any of them. Familia did pitch in about 7 more games, while throwing about 9 more innings. Familia also had a better HR/9 rate and it wasn’t even very close (0.12 to 0.52). Where I liked Familia a bit more was WPA, Win Probability Added. Familia had a WPA of 1.82 to Jansen’s 1.77 while his WPA+ was much higher than Jansen’s, 11.54 to 7.32. These numbers tell me that Familia seemed to pitch in more high leverage situations, which is a bit more valuable. The Clutch stat also leans a bit toward Familia, 0.27 to 0.95. So in the end I voted for Familia, although a vote for Jansen isn’t a bad one either. If I was being 100% honest, looking at everything right now, I might have changed my vote for Jansen if I could do it again. Either way, both had great seasons with Familia getting the very slight edge in this battle.

My Top 3: 1-Jeurys Familia, 2-Kenley Jansen, 3-Tyler Thornburg

IBWAA Winner: Kenley Jansen

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So there you go, my votes for this 2016 season. I’m sure some of you will disagree, but that is part of the fun of these picks. It is a great honor that I get to vote every year like this and I can only hope I do a respectable part to show the value of an organization like the IBWAA. This is a game we all love and while we might squabble here and there on numbers, it really comes down to what you value. I can only hope 2017 brings us just as many highly contested winners. Here’s to baseball being back sooner rather than later.

 

 

Royals Retro: Bret Saberhagen

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Back in the spring, I got to thinking about the history of the Kansas City Royals and how it was embedded into the fabric of my fandom as much as anything else. In the past I have done pieces on Hal McRae and have taken a look back at the history of the team, both at shortstop and a ‘Where are They Now’ piece as well. But I really wanted to dive into the past a bit more here on the blog and knew that during the season wouldn’t exactly be an opportune time to do that. Instead, I decided to wait until the off-season to get started with a monthly segment that will be called ‘Royals Retro’. Once a month, I’ll take a look back at the career of a past Royal who deserves to have a light shined on their career. I honestly couldn’t think of a better candidate to start off with than possibly the greatest pitcher in Royals history, Bret Saberhagen.

MLB Photos Archive

Saberhagen wasn’t a glorified first round draft pick by the Royals as I assume many would think he was. Instead, Bret was drafted by Kansas City in the 19th round of the 1982 draft, a high school pitcher out of Reseda, California. Saberhagen would sign late in July of that year, but wouldn’t make his professional debut until the 1983 season. In fact, 1983 would be Saberhagen’s only year in the minors, starting 27 games, posting an ERA of 2.55 over 187 innings, averaging 6.3 strike outs per 9, 2.3 walks per 9 and a WHIP of 1.134. Saberhagen took the fast track to the major leagues, as he would make his debut in Kansas City just one year later in 1984, splitting time between the rotation and bullpen for the Royals. He would throw 157 innings over 38 games (18 games started), posting an ERA+ of 115, striking out 4.2 batters per 9, and a FIP of 3.64. As probably expected, Saberhagen put up slightly better numbers in his 20 appearances out of the bullpen, posting an ERA of 2.32 over 54 innings, while averaging 4.1 strike outs per 9. One aspect of his game that was evident even early on in his career was how Sabs was good about trusting his defense and making pitches for the batter to put in play. Spanning his career, Bret’s ball in play percentage was on average anywhere from mid 70% to upper 70%; during his rookie year, it sat at 79%. Saberhagen would also make his first postseason start, throwing 8 innings while only allowing 3 runs, 2 earned. Nothing overtly stands out in his 1984 numbers that showed how he would break out the following year, but it was at least obvious that the Royals had a keeper.

Kansas City Royals

Saberhagen would enter his age 21 season and it wouldn’t take long for him to become the Royals ace. By the end of the season, he would lead the American League in FIP, WHIP, walks per 9 and strike out to walk ratio. He would also rack up an ERA+ of 143, an ERA of 2.87 and would win his first Cy Young award while coming in tenth in the AL MVP voting…basically on two pitches:

“The year Bret won 20, he relied mostly on two pitches: his fastball and his changeup, which he throws extremely well,” said Kansas City pitching coach Gary Blaylock. “Even though he also threw a curveball and a hard slider, he never really had control of either of them. Too often they were just waste pitches.

The icing on the cake was during the Royals playoff run that October. During the World Series in 1985, Saberhagen would make two starts, throwing two complete games, including a complete game shutout in Game 7 to help Kansas City take their first championship. Bret would end up MVP of the World Series, while his wife would give birth to the couple’s first child, Drew William, on the night of Game 6. All in all, it felt like the beginning of a very prosperous career for the young righthander.

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But Saberhagen would fall back in 1986, as a nasty combination of struggles and injuries limited him to 25 starts and 30 appearances overall. Injuries were the biggest issue, as Bret dealt with shoulder, elbow and foot problems and contributed to a 4.15 ERA, a 102 ERA+ and just 2.0 bWAR, a year after racking up an impressive 7.3 bWAR. Many wondered  back in ’86 if success had spoiled Sabs, but Saberhagen was just as unsure as anyone else:

“Everybody’s trying to come up with a solution or theory of what I could have done to change things,” Saberhagen said before the Kansas City Royals met the Angels Tuesday night in Anaheim Stadium. “When you’re not going as well as you should be, everybody shines the light at you and asks why.”

1986 would also be the beginning of weird odd year/even year pattern where it concerned his success. It appeared over time that Bret excelled in odd years, while struggling during even years. This odd phenomenon would continue throughout his Kansas City career.

Kansas City Royals

1987 saw Saberhagen restore his old glory, throwing an impressive 257 innings over his 33 starts, compiling 15 complete games, a WHIP of 1.163, an ERA+ of 136 and 8.0 bWAR. Bret would also earn his first All-Star nomination and a WPA+ of 19.1. A big part of his success that year was the added use of a curveball, a new addition to his pitching repertoire:

“That’s why we decided to take the hard slider away from him in spring training and have him work on perfecting his curveball, which actually fits his mechanics a lot better,” Blaylock continued. “Now he can consistently get hitters out with his curveball, where before it was just there. I won’t say that’s the chief reason for Bret’s fast start this season, but that’s part of it.”

It also appeared that any distractions he had in ’86 were in the rear-view mirror:

Saberhagen reportedly is also a lot more disciplined on days when he is scheduled to work than he was last year, when on at least one occasion he came to the park early, not to work on some of his problems, but to film a car commercial. This year he definitely seems more organized, more able to block out distractions, and more willing to challenge the hitters with a fastball that has been clocked as high as 96 m.p.h.

The one downside to 1987 was a shoulder injury in the second half of the season that affected his performance on the field, as only 4 of those 15 complete games were in the second half. Saberhagen would also allow more hits, runs and home runs in the second half, all in 42 less innings than he had in the first half.

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The pattern would continue in 1988, as Bret struggled, allowing the most hits in the American League and giving up the most runs in his career. Saberhagen would post an ERA+ of 106, a FIP of 3.08 (which actually wasn’t that bad) and a bWAR of 3.8. The good news was that he stayed healthy and that health would remain as he ventured into 1989. ’89 would be his career year when it came to numbers, as he would lead the American League in wins, W-L%, ERA, complete games, innings pitched, ERA+, WHIP, FIP and strike out to walk ratio. His bWAR that year was the highest of his career, 9.7, as he would earn his second Cy Young award, while earning his first Gold Glove and finishing 8th in the AL MVP voting. From July 26th on, Saberhagen would compile four shutouts and only once in a game over that period would a team score more than two runs on him. In many ways, 1989 was the year that Saberhagen went from being a really good pitcher who won the Cy Young award at one point to one of the best pitchers in the game and an elite ace. Most Royals fans will discuss his 1985 campaign when talking about his greatness, but 1989 was easily his best year.

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1990 was the expected off-year for Saberhagen, as he would appear in just 20 games while throwing 135 innings. The one positive for him was his second All-Star game appearance, one in which he would pick up the win for the American League. Bret would pitch in one game during the second half before being shelved, as he would have successful arthroscopic surgery on his elbow in July. At this point, he was 26 and the litany of injury issues were starting to pile up.

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1991 would be Bret’s final year in Kansas City and as patterns go, it was another solid season. Saberhagen would throw 196 innings in 1991, with seven complete games, an ERA+ of 135, a WHIP of 1.070 and a bWAR of 5.1. The crowning moment for him that season was his first career no-hitter, as he blanked the Chicago White Sox, 7-0. All these years later and it is the last no-hitter thrown in Royals history. Bret really didn’t think about getting it until about the 7th inning:

“The funny thing is that once we got to the seventh inning — and I’d been at that point a few times before in my career (with a no-hitter) and I’d never been able to finish it off — I started to think about getting that darn thing,” Saberhagen recalled. “So at that point, I told myself I was going to go at every batter like he was the last batter of the game.

The toughest out might very well have been the final out:

“It was a breaking ball to Frank, and he hit the ball to Terry Shumpert at second base,” Saberhagen recalled almost 23 years later. “Terry got it and fired to first and that was it. Such a cool feeling.”

How ironic, 25 years later, that this would be just a few months before Saberhagen’s time in Kansas City would wrap up. It seems fitting that possibly the greatest pitcher in Royals history would throw a no-no in his final year as a Royal.

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On December 11, 1991, the Royals shockingly traded Saberhagen to the New York Mets (with Bill Pecota) for Kevin McReynolds, Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller. Bret was entering his age 28 season, and while there were some concerns about injuries, this was a way to fill three holes in the Kansas City offense:

“Any time an organization gives up a player of Bret Saberhagen’s caliber, it’s a hard thing to do. But we had to take a risk and do some things that you don’t always want to do. But we feel we’re a better ball club because of it. We were able to fill three holes. The Mets probably were the only club in baseball talent-rich enough to do something like this.”

What is interesting to see all these years later is the reactions, such as this one from former Mets GM Al Harazin on whether or not New York felt like they overpaid for Saberhagen:

“I think we gave up an awful lot of talent, but we got one of the best pitchers in baseball. I’ll leave it to others to decide if we overpaid.”

It was a shocking move, even for Bret as he wasn’t expected to leave Kansas City:

“When you win a couple of Cy Young’s you start thinking maybe you’re a fixture and one of the main reasons they’ve accomplished what they have in the past.”

The move was equally as shocking for Royals fans. I remember being crushed as a 15 year old Royals fan to learn one of my favorite players was no longer a Royal. At the time I wasn’t as privy to the business side of baseball; all I knew was a player I had gotten attached to was now going to pitch in New York. So how did the trade work out? Not great for the Royals. Saberhagen would accumulate 11.7 bWAR during his time in New York, including a third place finish in the National League Cy Young voting in 1994. Miller would play parts of four seasons with Kansas City, raking in 1.4 total bWAR in that span. McReynolds put together 1.9 bWAR in his two seasons in Kansas City (and never endeared himself to Royals fans), while Jefferies had a 2.2 bWAR in his lone season in Kansas City. Jefferies at one point was considered a future star, but was a slightly above average player whom the Royals would trade the following winter for Felix Jose. Jose was an even bigger bust, posting a -0.2 bWAR during his time in Kansas City. It’s hard to say one move could lead to the downfall of one organization, but the Saberhagen trade didn’t accomplish what Royals management was hoping it would and instead began a downfall that would fall even farther in upcoming seasons.

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The Mets would deal Bret to Colorado during the 1995 season and would finish out the year with the Rockies, including pitching in a Colorado playoff game that fall. He would sit out the 1996 season due to injury, but would return to baseball the following year, joining the Boston Red Sox. Saberhagen would pitch part of four seasons in Boston, and while at times he would show a glint of his past success, at this point of his career he was a nice middle of the rotation starter. He did become the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year in 1998 and would also win the Tony Conigliaro Award. He would miss the 2000 season and while he tried a comeback in 2001, he would only pitch in three games and retire at the end of the season.The latter part of his career was littered with injuries and stunted what at one time was considered a possible Hall of Fame career.

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So two questions have gnawed at me over the years: one, ‘is Bret the greatest Royals pitcher in history?’ and two, ‘how close did he actually get to becoming a Hall of Famer?’. Let’s start with the first question, his place in Royals history. In all-time career bWAR, Saberhagen is just behind Kevin Appier, 47.3 to 40.8. He is fourth in ERA (behind three relievers), sixth in wins, fourth in win-loss%, 1st in WHIP, 2nd in walks per 9, 6th in innings pitched and fourth in strikeouts. At this point, it is pretty close between him and Appier, so I’m going to venture to the advanced side of things. Saberhagen is 5th in team adjusted ERA+ (second behind Appier for starters), first in team FIP and third in WPA. With all these numbers at hand, I would say in a very close race that Kevin Appier might just slightly edge out Bret for being the greatest Royals starting pitcher of all time. That also tells you how super underrated Appier really was.

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So how about the Hall of Fame? Going off the great website Hall of Stats, Saberhagen is in, as they gave him a Hall Rating of 122, as they take the top 217 players (the amount of players currently in the Hall of Fame) based just off of their career statistics and nothing else. Their formula?:

The Hall of Stats uses a formula called Hall Rating to rank every player in baseball history. Hall Rating combines the value of a player’s peak and longevity into a single number that represents the quality of that player’s Hall of Fame case. It’s not perfect, but there’s a lot to be said for rating all players in history according to the same objective criteria.

Now this factors in both longevity and peak of career, which has become more and more important over the years. Saberhagen’s case is 62% peak and 38% longevity and by their Hall Ratings he is 152nd all-time, 134th among eligible players and 45th among pitchers. Saberhagen will be eligible for the upcoming Today’s Game Era Committee, but the likelihood of him getting voted in is probably pretty slim. What this does tell us though is that his battle with injuries late in his career probably hurt his case and has made many voters ignore his numbers during his peak. The good news is that Saberhagen is already in the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame, which is a great honor in Kansas City and was also voted one of the ‘Franchise Four’ for the Royals back in 2015.

MLB: World Series-San Francisco Giants at Kansas City Royals

For a number of years, it felt like the Royals had forgotten about Saberhagen and his place in the team’s history. There were a few public acknowledgements, but that was about it. It always bothered me, considering his place in franchise history. Luckily, over the last few years while the Royals have made their epic playoff runs, Saberhagen has continuously been seen at Kauffman Stadium. After all these years, it is still great to see ‘The Kid’ at the stadium, even for just a moment. I’m sure a kid from California never imagined while he was growing up that he would become such a large part of the fabric of a team in the midwest, but he has. When you talk about great Royals pitchers, names like Splittorff, Leonard, Busby, Appier and Greinke are often mentioned. But for me, the conversation started and ended with Saberhagen…and it always will.

 

 

 

Race For The Prize

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Over the last couple months, there has been quite a flurry of discussion about Houston’s Jose Altuve and him being the front-runner for the American League MVP award with the magnificent season he is having. Boston’s Mookie Betts has also moved himself into the conversation, posting amazing numbers in his age 23 season. Both players have been producing at an elite level this year and it could be a battle down to the wire for the MVP award. Only issue is that there should be a third member in this discussion, someone who has been here before and has also posted stellar numbers this year. His name shouldn’t be a shock; it’s Mike Trout.

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The numbers for all three are worthy of the American League’s biggest prize. Altuve is hitting .363/.425/.575 with 20 home runs, 83 RBI’s and an OPS+ of 173. Altuve is leading the league in batting average, hits and OPS+. Betts numbers are a bit lower, but comparable: .313/.353/.555 with 28 home runs, 89 RBI’s and an OPS+of 133. Betts leads the league in at bats, runs and total bases. Trout’s numbers? .309/.427/.543 with 23 home runs, 77 RBI’s and OPS+ of 167. Trout is leading the league in walks and on base percentage. Just perusing these numbers it would appear Altuve probably has the best overall statistics, but a case could be made for both Betts and Trout. In fact, Trout’s numbers, while slightly below Altuve’s, match up quite well with Jose’s so far this year. It would only make sense for us to take a deeper look at the numbers to see just how close Trout, Betts and Altuve really compare.

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(Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY)

No conversation is fully complete without a deeper, sabermetric slant to it. Looking at fWAR, Trout has a very slight edge over Altuve, 6.9 to 6.8. Betts is fourth in the American League with 5.9, with Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson sitting in third place at 6.4. Trout has the highest walk % and strike out % of the three, while Betts has the higher ISO(isolated power). Looking at their hard hit rate, Trout is second in the league with 41.2%, Betts at 35.2% and Altuve is sitting at 34.4%. Not a big surprise, considering Altuve is leading the league in singles(119) and those are normally of the softer hit variety. I decided to delve a bit deeper, since I wanted to see just what type of category each of these hitters fit into. Altuve had the highest O-Contact %(percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with when swinging outside the strike zone) with 78.3%, 5th best in the league. Trout was at 71.1% and Betts clocked in at 69.2%. When it comes to Z-Contact %(percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with when swinging inside the strike zone), Betts is 2nd in the league with 95.3%, Altuve at 91.4% and Trout at 85.9%. To me, this made total sense; Altuve has long been known as a hitter who likes to swing at pitches outside the strike zone and is infamous for dunking a single to the opposite field by slapping a pitch outside the strike zone away from defenders. Betts has the highest contact rate of the three (86.9%) and is actually fifth in the league when it comes to making contact. His numbers tell me that once he sees a pitch within the strike zone, he is swinging and making contact. He also has the lowest walk % of the three, walking only 6% of the time. It also made sense that Trout would be making the least amount of contact, as he has the highest strike out rate of the three, plus the highest walk rate. That tells me he is the most patient of the three and that can lead to both walks and strike outs. These numbers all tell an interesting story, but there is one more stat that needs special attention.

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A statistic that has been making a lot of noise is WPA, or Win Probability Added. The case has been made the last few weeks for Zach Britton of Baltimore, one of the best relievers in the game, to win the Cy Young Award and much of the case hinges on his league leading WPA of 4.29. To get a better idea of what this means, here is the definition given on Fangraphs:

Win Probability Added (WPA) captures the change in Win Expectancy from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team’s odds of winning. Most sabermetric statistics are context neutral — they do not consider the situation of a particular event or how some plays are more crucial to a win than others.  

Alright, so how you feel about this stat depends on how much weight you want to put into a single play, from inning to inning. I lean toward it having stock, but there are so many variables to it and is purely a context driven statistic that it wouldn’t ever be my “end all, be all”. That being said, it does determine importance, so it does help in this argument on the importance of each player in their team’s success. No shock to me, Trout is tops in the American League at 5.03. The Angels have struggled throughout 2016 and any success they do have in many ways can be attributed to the “Best Player in the Game”. Altuve is 5th in the league, with a WPA of 2.91, while Betts is 14th with 2.24. Hey, all three are in the top 15 of the league, so it is quite easy to see their value. But Trout thumps the competition in this category, 2.12 higher than the runner-up Altuve.

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(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

So after this, who is your front-runner for AL MVP? Altuve is going to be the popular vote at this point and the numbers show someone who is worthy. Like everyone else, I love watching him play and as a short guy myself, I can’t help but root for him. That being said, I think there is an argument for Mike Trout, and in fact I might lean a bit more toward him. Just because he is playing on a losing team doesn’t mean he is unworthy of being the league’s MVP. In some ways, one has to wonder just where the Angels would be without Trout. There is over a month before votes have to be turned in, and as I learned a couple years ago, making a pick weeks in advance is a silly mistake. This race could go right down to the wire and very well could be a pier six brawl for the MVP trophy. Much like in 2012 when both Trout and Miguel Cabrera were worthy winners, this year looks to be much the same. There might not be a wrong choice, but more than likely there will be a better choice. Right now, it looks to be Mike Trout.

 

Selection Tuesday: Which Royals Are All-Star Worthy

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On Tuesday, Major League Baseball will announce the All-Star team rosters and it appears that the litany of Kansas City Royals players on the roster will not be as hefty as they were in 2015. With that being said, manager Ned Yost will once again be at the helm of the American League All-Star team and will have a say in some of the participants of the team. There will be Royal blue in San Diego on July 12, but how much? Let’s go ahead and look at my predictions for the Royals and who will be joining Yost at Petco Park next week.

All-Star Locks

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Salvador Perez

Salvy, a fan favorite not only in Kansas City but all around Major League Baseball, was leading the AL catcher position last we checked so the likelihood of him going is about 99.999999%. Normally Perez gets to the All-Star game on his charming positivity and his stellar defense behind the dish. But this year you can add a lethal bat to the mix; .281/.315/.490, 12 home runs, 37 RBI’s, 110 wRC+ and 2.1 WAR. I remember back in 2012 when former Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa was being interviewed the day before the All-Star game and was asked about Perez, who was in his first full major league season. LaRussa had compared Sal to Cardinals elite receiver Yadier Molina, which at the time was the highest of compliments. At this stage, it feels like Salvy has overtaken Molina and is the standard-bearer for catchers, at least in the American League. This won’t be a shock and will be well deserved when Perez starts next week in San Diego.

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Eric Hosmer

Hosmer has been battling the first base position out with the Tigers Miguel Cabrera for the starting nod and deservedly so. Hosmer has produced like a star so far in 2016, hitting .303/.361/.490 with 13 home runs, 49 RBI’s, 127 wRC+ and a 0.4 WAR(with his defensive metrics dragging this number down). Hosmer has looked the part this year of offensive force rather than just potential,  and at this point is probably more worthy of starting the game than Cabrera. Hosmer is a lock either way to be on the roster, it’s just a matter of whether he is voted in or heads to San Diego as a reserve.

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Wade Davis

I’m sure there will be someone out there, somewhere, who will say Wade doesn’t deserve to go to San Diego next week because he “isn’t quite as dominant” as he has been the last two years. That is pretty much the equivalent of Mike Trout’s numbers falling a smidge but still being an MVP candidate. Davis has thrown 29 innings so far this year, and while his numbers don’t pop out at you like in the past(K rate is down, walk rate is up) he is still producing. Wade has an ERA of 1.23, FIP of 2.69, and is still stranding 87% of his runners on base. He is easily one of the top five relievers in the game and deserves to be an All-Star. No way Ned doesn’t make that happen, if he isn’t voted there by the players. Wade will be an All-Star, period.

All-Star Probables

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Lorenzo Cain

This will be a complicated pick, but one that should happen. Cain is currently on the disabled list, which means he would be unable to play in the All-Star game, but he can always be picked as a reserve and then have someone else take his spot; not like that has never happened before in All-Star’s past. Cain is hitting .290/.336/.416 with 8 home runs, 39 RBI’s, 1.9 WAR with 9 defensive runs saved. Sure, Cain is not tearing it up offensively the way he did in 2015(April was not kind to Lorenzo), but he is still considered one of the elite center fielders in the game and that’s what this game is for: the best of the best. It will interesting to see if Cain gets a spot, as it would be another honor that he could use when negotiating a new contract with Kansas City after the 2017 season. I feel he is worthy, but he might end up being a borderline selection by the players and coaches.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY)

Kelvin Herrera

To me this is an easy pick but Herrera could be cast aside for another Royals reliever this year(more on that in just a bit). Herrera has put up dominating numbers this: 11.41 strikeouts per 9, 1.63 walks per 9, 87% left on base percentage, 1.40 ERA, 2.01 FIP and 1.3 WAR, all over 38 innings of work. Herrera added a slider to his repertoire late in 2015 and it has made him even more unhittable than he was before. The Royals aren’t the defending World Champions without Herrera and he has continued to be the bridge to Wade Davis this year to help lock down the late innings for the Royals. Herrera is an All-Star; now we will see if he actually gets the honor or is passed over for a bullpen brother.

All-Star Longshots

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Luke Hochevar

Yep, bet you probably didn’t see this coming. Above, I mentioned Herrera could get passed over for another Royals reliever and of course I was talking about Hochevar. Hoch, a man who I once despised, has been one of the most reliable Royals relievers this year and the numbers back that up: 10.16 strikeouts per 9, 2.03 walks per 9, 79% left on base percentage, 2.90 ERA and 0.4 WAR over 31 innings. Sure, these aren’t eye-popping numbers like Davis or Herrera, but they are more than solid and worthy of the adulation. Now, if Hoch gets picked it will be by manager Ned Yost, who will want to reward Luke for his hard work out of the pen and the fact he doesn’t get a lot of the recognition that his bullpen mates get. Yost has asked Hochevar to perform in a lot of high-leverage situations this year and for the most part he has been highly effective in that role. If he is rewarded with the honor, it will show just how loyal a man like Yost is and a nice nod for a guy who turned his career around after being a failure in the rotation.

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Whit Merrifield

Okay, okay, I know; Whit has played in only 40 games for Kansas City and more than likely has no business even being in this discussion. But…those 40 games have been stellar with steady production from a guy who is supposed to just be an afterthought after the season started. Instead, Merrifield has posted a line of .308/.328/.426 with 26 runs scored, 15 RBI’s, a .385 BAbip, 100 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR…all in 40 games! Merrifield is 8th in WAR for second baseman in the American League and while Robinson Cano, Jose Altuve and Ian Kinsler are all worthy of roster spots this year, the story of Whitley Merrifield would make a great story. It’s not going to happen and for the most part, it shouldn’t. But it’s hard not to root for this guy and everything he has accomplished in about six weeks. To see him gaining an All-Star nod would be about as warm and fuzzy as one can imagine. Think of watching ‘Toy Story’ while cuddling with a bunch of puppies and you will be close…not quite, but close. So Merrifield isn’t going to San Diego, but I felt like I should at least mention him. Rock on, Whitley.

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The Royals aren’t going to send as many players to San Diego as they did last year in Cincinnati(no bus needed this year. Sorry, Rex) but I would expect a healthy dose of Kansas City blue at the festivities next week. For years Royals fans would hem and haw about who actually deserved to get Kansas City’s lone spot at the game, and there were even years were no one was really worthy(hello, Mark Redman!). The Royals will have enough players going this year to where you should probably pay attention to the game to see if any of the players end up playing pivotal roles. Just don’t take the game too seriously; it is an exhibition game after all. An exhibition game where Salvy could throw a runner out, Hosmer could hit a home run and Wade could record the final out. Sure, there is a good chance none of that happens, but you never quite know.

 

 

Welcome To The Jungle

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“Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same.” ~Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again.

It’s hard sometimes to visit the past. As much as we want to look at the past through rose-colored glasses, most times the truth is that there was just as much bad as good. Go ahead, look back at an old relationship and really dissect what worked and what didn’t. There is a reason you parted ways. This holds true in baseball as well; if a player leaves a team, there is normally a reason. For the most part, Joakim Soria was a positive when it came to his first go-around with the Kansas City Royals. Multiple time All-Star, reliable closer, and even racked some American League Cy Young  and MVP votes back in 2010. Sure, there was the rough patch he had in 2010 when  he was using a cutter way too often(and saw him get hit hard because he hadn’t mastered the pitch), but those five years of glory endeared him to the Royals fanbase. Unfortunately, Soria was part of the losing years in Kansas City, the years that aren’t always looked back on fondly. It wasn’t his fault, but it’s hard not to associate him with that era of losing.

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So when the Royals signed Soria to a 3 year deal this past offseason, it was mostly met with cheers and adulation. Soria had put up some good numbers last year during his stint in Pittsburgh and was only entering his age 32 season. But there were reasons to be concerned; I for one wasn’t fond of the length of the deal nor the amount of dollars spent. I wasn’t Anti-Soria, but my feeling was that solid relief pitching could not only be found on the cheap, but younger relief pitching wouldn’t be that hard to find. Instead, the Royals latched themselves to Soria for three years with the hope that he still had some of that old glory left in his arm. In some ways Soria hadn’t changed much; his average velocity is still on par with years past and he still uses his four seam fastball to set up a nasty change-up that is a real worm killer. Soria was known to throw the change-up to generate more swings and misses, as it is slightly firmer than the usual change and has more natural sink to it. The feeling was that Soria could help set-up for closer Wade Davis while also using his past closing experience to help in case of emergency.

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The first month of the 2016 season wasn’t a warm welcome back to the fold for Soria. Call it nerves, call it bad pitch location or just bad luck, but in his first outing back he would only throw 2/3 of an inning, allowing 3 hits, 3 runs and 2 walks. In fact, just chalk up April as a bad month; 12 games, 11 innings pitched while giving up 8 runs and posting an ERA of 5.73. Many a Royals fan was already wanting him to be pushed back to less intensive work, a few even wanting him to only pitch during blow outs or in mop up duty. But the truth was that Soria just wasn’t pitching as bad as it appeared; his line-drive rate was down and his hard hit rate also leaned downward. This told me that hitters were just not hitting the ball very hard off of him. This was even more evident when looking at his BAbip, which stood at .355. Luckily, things would turn around starting in May.

Cheslor Cuthbert, Joakim Soria
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

May would lead to more prosperity for Soria; 12 games, 13 innings thrown only allowing 2 runs and posting an ERA of 1.35 while his BAbip lowered to .222. In fact, since May Soria has been one of the most reliable Royals relievers. Over his last 22 appearances, Soria has given up only 5 runs over 24 innings, putting up an ERA of 1.88 while almost striking out a batter per inning(striking out 21 over those 24 innings). So what has changed?

Brooksbaseball-Chart

For one, it appears his velocity has gone up. There is a slight decrease in the speed of his change-up, but to me that is actually a good thing, as it puts more distance between his fastball and his off-speed stuff. This is a good sign.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (1)

It also looks as if left-handed hitters have hard a harder time hitting him, as the release speed has changed by a decent amount from the beginning of the season.Right-handed hitters speed has gone up, but not by very much. This is also shown in the percentage of pitches:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (2)

So what is Soria doing differently from April? He has drastically increased the use of his off-speed pitches:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (3)

If you notice, the percentage of hard stuff has been drastically reduced by Soria, while both his breaking balls and off-speed pitches have seen an increase since April. This change in philosophy can also be seen in the pitches that batters are swinging at:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (4)

Hitters are swinging at more of his breaking balls thrown and is also seeing their batting average go down on breaking balls as well:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (5)

It goes to show how a slight change in philosophy can change everything. Batters are hitting better against Soria’s hard stuff, but they aren’t seeing those pitches nearly as much as early in the season. As has always been the case for him, he is using his fastball to set up his off-speed stuff, and because of that the results are looking more and more like they did back in his heyday.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros
(Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY)

I’m not sure who to give credit to for the change in Soria’s pitch usage(my gut thinking is it was probably pitching coach Dave Eiland) but whomever it was should get a raise. Normally players at Soria’s age start to see a regression; less foot or bat speed, or a decrease in velocity for pitchers. Thankfully for Soria, he seems to have skirted the enivitable…for now.  There is no way to tell if we will be able to say the same by the end of his contract, but for now he is a main cog in the Kansas City bullpen. Players come and go for your favorite baseball team and a select few hold a special spot in your memory. Normally, if a player returns it is at the tail end of his career and he is but a shell of his former self. Thankfully, we are still seeing top shelf Joakim Soria. Sometimes you can go home again.

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