Sports

Scott Stinson: Might be time to bow down to our baseball nerds as attitudes about player value change

In the Great Baseball Analytics Wars, we’ve long known that the
nerds won. Now it just feels like they are rubbing it in.

First came a regular season in which Tampa and Milwaukee
eschewed the traditional concepts of a starting pitcher, either
by starting a reliever and switching to a starter for the
middle innings (a middler?), or by just running out a string of
relievers to eat up nine innings. Analysts have long argued for
the potential effectiveness of such a strategy, since it
reduces the likelihood that the “starter” will be raked during
his third time through the batting order, where evidence shows
there is a noticeable decline in performance. Still, it was
assumed that managers would be loath to go there. Imagine
telling Jack Morris that he was going in for the second inning.
He would have jammed a tobacco wad down Sparky Anderson’s
throat.

The pro-analytics forces did suffer a setback of sorts in the
World Series, when data-focused Dodgers manager Dave Roberts
saw most of his moves blow up in his face like so many
short-fused firecrackers, although he was beaten by a team in
the Red Sox that is known to love the math, so that was
probably a wash.

Now this week comes news that in the voting for the American
League Most Valuable Player Award, Boston’s J.D. Martinez,
despite almost hitting for the dang Triple Crown, is not among
the three finalists. Those players are Boston’s Mookie Betts,
Anaheim’s Mike Trout and Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez. (Although
MLB uses the “finalist” term, they are the top three vote
getters, since voting from the membership of the BBWAA is
already completed.)

Frank Thomas called Martinez’s omission a “disgrace.” Harold
Reynolds, another player-turned-analyst who has much contempt
for the use of spreadsheets, called it “flat ridiculous.”
There’s a decent chance he was shaking his fist at the nerds
when he said it.

But enough voters are now considering “value” in the way that
analysts have long advocated: by accounting for everything a
player does on the field, and not just the counting
statistics

The explanation, though, is simple. Martinez was primarily a
designated hitter. Despite his finishing second in the AL in
home runs (43) and batting average (.330) and leading in RBI
(130), Martinez was just ninth in the league in Wins Above
Replacement (6.4). Betts was first (10.9), Trout second (10.2)
and Ramirez tied for fourth (7.4). WAR, another stat that tends
to make old-timers cranky, takes into account defence and base
running, which is how someone like Martinez can have a
remarkable offensive year at the plate and still not be within
sniffing distance of his teammate Betts, an all-world
outfielder who also stole 30 bases.

I should note, here, that I’m mostly joking about the nerds. I
understand the value of analytics. I, for one, welcome our new
nerd overlords. It’s just interesting that the MVP race has
essentially become a proxy for highest WAR, and it shows how
far attitudes about player value have come. Twenty years ago,
the AL MVP award went to Juan Gonzalez of the Rangers in a
landslide. Gonzalez had 45 home runs and a hilarious 157 RBI
that season, and in 1998 that was all that needed to be said.
But he was also 15th in the American League in WAR
(4.9), owing primarily to the fact that he was a defensive
liability but also because he didn’t draw many walks and he
struck out a lot. The AL leader in WAR that season, Alex
Rodriguez (8.5), finished ninth in the in the MVP voting. He
was a much more complete player than Rodriguez, and this was
back in his Seattle days when everyone still liked him, and yet
he was an MVP afterthought because his power stats weren’t
quite gaudy enough. He was the Mike Trout of 1998, but without
the end-of-season recognition.

That the MVP voting now closely follows the WAR leaders is a
fairly recent development. As recently as 2013, Miguel Cabrera
won the AL award over Trout even though Trout was first in WAR
and Cabrera was fourth.

But enough voters are now considering “value” in the way that
analysts have long advocated: by accounting for everything a
player does on the field, and not just the counting statistics
that can be dramatically affected by a player’s home park and
the teammates in the lineup around him. Where RBI totals used
to largely reflect the MVP voting, with the exception of the
odd leadoff hitter who snuck in there, now Ramirez is the lone
AL finalist anywhere near the league leaders in RBI, and he was
fourth. This despite the fact that it would not take you very
long in an average bar, or even an average broadcast booth, to
find someone who says that J.D. Martinez should be the AL MVP
because he drove in more runs than anyone else.

But the best proof of how much the conversation around value
has shifted in baseball will come next week when the final AL
MVP totals are released. Oakland’s Khris Davis led the league
in home runs with 48 and he was second behind Martinez with 123
RBI. But he’s a negative defender who strikes out a lot and
doesn’t walk much, which means his WAR is a relatively paltry
2.9. Will the AL home run leader even make the top 10 in the
MVP vote? Top 20?

Last year, with 43 home runs and 110 RBI, Davis finished
22nd in the voting.

 

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