Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

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Who *really* should be in the HR derby?

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Puig would *make* the home run derby.  photo mlb.com

Puig would *make* the home run derby. photo mlb.com

I have to admit it: the home run derby has probably become my favorite part of the all-star game festivities.  That and the futures game of course.  The all-star game itself has devolved into a farce with a slew of issues (I posted a lot of these criticisms in my 2011 Nats all-star piece, and they remain issues today, so no need to go back into them here).  Lets talk about the Home Run derby.

I kind of like the wrinkle of naming “captains,” which for this year occurred on 6/23/14.  But the captains have to pick the right guys.  I hate the format; when a guy like Josh Hamilton is remembered for his epic performance in an early round moreso than the winner, something’s wrong with the format.   But they’re changing it this year.   And the players take *way* too many pitches.  But whatever.  This year’s captains are Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista.  Fans can vote on who they want to see in the competition.

Here’s my ideal home-run derby slate of participants.  In the interest of keeping the competition “small” i’ve limited this to 5 per league:

National League:

  • Giancarlo Stanton: owner of 3 of the biggest 11 homers on the year, on pace for 45+ homers, leading the NL in home runs.  And he wants in this year.
  • Bryce Harper: last year’s runner-up is one of the few players in the majors scouted with 80 power; despite his injury-plagued season he belongs in this competition.
  • Michael Morse: not too many all-or-nothing hitters like Morse, whose name dots the leader board on hittracker.
  • Evan Gattis: you don’t just turn on chest-high fastballs from Strasburg if you’re a plain ole hitter.
  • Yasiel Puig: just because.  Can he do a bat flip after every homer?

Left out:

  • Troy Tulowitzki: He’s in as a captain, but even despite that selection he’s a decent choice: he’s 5th in the majors in ISO and tied for 6th in Homers.
  • Paul Goldschmidt: has the power capabilities and the overall game.  But he’s not nearly as explosive as the guys above.
  • Ryan Howard: He may not merit inclusion based on his performance, but he’s a classic three-true outcomes hitter.  Lefties get him out with ease; i’m sure batting practice pitchers don’t.
  • Todd Frazier: his power numbers spike thanks to playing in Cincinnati, but he’s still got some serious underrated power.
  • Justin Upton: Owner of the 3rd longest homer on the year.

American League:

  • Yoenis Cespedes: gotta let the man defend his crown.
  • Edwin Encarnacion: MLB leader in Homers as of this writing.  Has to be in this competition.
  • Jose Abreu: MLB leader in ISO and on a 40 homer pace despite hitting the D/L.
  • David Ortiz: Owns the 2nd longest homer hit this season and would make a nice homecoming in Minnesota.
  • Mike Trout: He’s such a good hitter, that he could just sit at the plate and hit homer after homer.  And, he just hit a 489 foot homer to take over the longest homer of the year.

Left Out

  • Jose Bautista: He’s a captain, so we’ll list him here.   Otherwise he’s a stretch to make this list.
  • Victor Martinez: he’s quietly one of the best power hitters in the league right now.
  • Mark Trumbo: too bad he’s hurt; he’s a great power hitter to watch.
  • Nelson Cruz: his homer totals may be augmented by playing in Baltimore, but he’s still putting numbers on the board.
  • Adam Dunn: you know he’d be a favorite to win if he was named to this team, but I could only select 5.  He’d be the 6th man in for the AL.

Are these the best lineups you could possibly ask for in this competition?  Who else would you put on this list of power-crazy players?  Jim Caple posted his own tongue-in-cheek version of this same post, worth a read for a quick giggle.  There’s a handful of other DH-only types in the AL (Billy Butler, Chris Carter, Adam Lind, Juan Francisco, etc) who might make sense.

(I used three resources to name these names: the current major league leaders in Homers, the current major league leaders in Isolated Power, and an eyeballing of the leader board for most astoundingly long homers on the year from Hit Tracker Online.  All stats are as of 6/24/14 and may have changed slightly between then and the publication of this post).

First Look: Kevin Gausman

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Kevin Gausman made his MLB debut on 5/23/13 just a year after pitching in the SEC. Photo unk via orioles-nation.com

With no Nats game on Thursday 5/23/13, and with a vested interest in newly promoted Orioles starter Kevin Gausman (my vested interest being that I was considering nabbing him in my fantasy league), I watched his first start against Toronto.

First thoughts; Wow.  I know Gausman’s line wasn’t that great last night, but I just pulled up his  Pitch F/X data on the night and am impressed.  He threw 63 fastballs on the night with an AVERAGE speed of 97.26.  By way of comparison, right now Stephen Strasburg leads the majors in average fastball velocity at 95.4.  This kid was holding that average velocity through 60+ fastballs and 90 pitches on the night.  That’s some serious heat.  His mechanics were clean, the arm action easy, and he easily kept his mechanics while pitching from the stretch.  Gausman has good size (6’3″ 190) and has raced through the minors to make this debut in 2013, only the 3rd guy out of last year’s draft to do so (Mike Roth, Paco Rodriguez).

He has a fantastic change-up with reverse action away from left-handed hitters (this was what his scouting report said too): 84mph average.  That’s a 13mph delta between his 4 seamer and his change up.  That’s just silly.  In a recent post I posted a table of average velocities for the pitches of some of the league’s top pitchers; the best fb-ch delta out of that group of hard-throwers was Samardzija‘s 11.6 mph delta.  Strasburg’s is only 7.4mph difference and he’s considered to have a completely unhittable change up.  Gausman’s change is almost too slow; hitters sitting on 98mph may actually have enough time to re-adjust to his change.  Though that being said, he got a lot of strikes and some silly swings on the change on the night.

He didn’t really use his curve that much; 11 times out of his 89 pitches (pitch f/x gives him both a slider and a curve, but the speeds look the same and the speed delta has to be a curve; his slider would be nearer 91mph).  At one point he threw 4 straight changeups, which directly led to a walk b/c the hitter (Colby Rasumus) knew what was coming and laid off.  I bet this kid has never thrown four straight changeups in his entire life.  Wasn’t a fan of that At-bat nor the pitch calling from Weiters.  He may need to develop a 4th pitch, or at least work on his curve, despite how plus his firs two offerings may be.

The hits he gave up were a combination of legitimate and lucky.  Later on Rasmus laced a 2-0 fastball that he could sit on (he’s a dead-red fastball hitter who got a fastball in a fastball count, another poor job of calling that at-bat again from Weiters).  Lind wristed an 0-2 pitch for a hit on a hanging curve.  He gave up at least two other 2-strike hits when he missed his spot.  Lawrie bunted and Chris Davis misplayed the play, calling off the pitcher only to let the ball try to go foul and it didn’t.  That led to a bases-loaded no outs situation in the 4th and he was lucky to get out of that with only one run.  Even the 5th inning homer he gave up seemed weak; Arencibia didn’t seem like he got it all; it was an inside pitch that he wristed out.  He hit the ball 369 feet as it turns out; Toronto is an easy place to hit down-the-line homers like this.  Hittracker classified the homer as being “plenty long” and it would have been out of 22/30 parks in the league, so maybe it wasn’t as lucky as I’m characterizing it.

I was slightly surprised to see Gausman get yanked after 5innings.  He was through the meat of Toronto’s order and was facing 8-9-1 in the 6th on only 89 pitches. Looking at the score, yes you’d understand him getting pulled.  Looking at his stuff and what had transpired?  I’d have given him another inning with a short leash (one baserunner and you’re out).   Showalter had seen enough though, brought in a couple of relievers who promptly conspired to give up a grand slam to Encarnacion and blow the game.  Loss for Gausman in his MLB debut.

Final line: 5ip, 7hits, 2 walks, 5 Ks and 4 earned runs. 89 pitches 58 strikes for a 65% clip.   He had a 49/5 K/BB ratio in the minors this year, an amazingly good ratio for someone with 99mph heat, so the two walks were uncharacteristic.    Very much looking forward to his next outing.

The AL MVP and the Triple Crown; do we need a modern version?

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Does the Triple Crown guarantee Cabrera the MVP?

A large part of this year’s AL MVP narrative revolves around Miguel Cabrera‘s “winning” the Triple Crown this year, an incredibly rare feat that hadn’t been done since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 and has only been done 16 times in the history of the game.  Make no mistake; leading the lead in average and home-runs is very difficult, as it has been for most of the game’s long history.  Babe Ruth never won a Triple Crown despite a career .342 batting average; he only led the league in hitting one year.  Most high-average players are power-starved and would never have a shot at winning the home-run title.

However, as any sabermatrician would tell you, the triple crown is a collection of three relatively flawed hitting statistics that basically should have no meaning in the evaluation and analysis of a player.  Home Runs are the “cleanest” of the statistics but aren’t necessarily the best indicator of power in a hitter.  Runs Batted In are greater measures of the efficiency of the batters ahead of the hitter getting on base than of his own hitting prowness, and Batting Average treats a bunt single and a towering home-run as the same “hit” while calculating the statistic.

So, is there a better Triple Crown out there, using modern baseball statistics?  And, if we found three replacements how would Cabrera’s MVP case look?

If you took the three stats in the current Triple Crown and tried to “improve” them, I think you’d end up replacing Batting Average with Weighted On Base Average (wOBA), you’d replace home-runs with either Slugging Percentage or perhaps more directly with the Isolated Power (ISO), and you’d replace RBIs with the Weighted Runs Created (wRC) statistic.  Hitting prowness is replaced with the wOBA statistic, which acknowledges that getting on base via a hit or a walk is more important than just the hitting portion.  Power measurements are more accurately displayed via the ISO than by the simplistic Home Run category (which is heavily dependent on the home-park of the player).  And the “run creation” aspect that RBIs attempts to measure is more accurately displayed by the wRC statistic.

How would the AL’s top 5 in each of these three “Modern Triple Crown” categories look (data pulled from Fangraphs.com leader board splits for advanced hitting stats for 2012):

Rank Name wOBA
1 Miguel Cabrera 0.417
2 Mike Trout 0.409
3 Prince Fielder 0.398
4 Edwin Encarnacion 0.396
5 Robinson Cano 0.394
Rank ISO
1 Josh Hamilton 0.292
2 Miguel Cabrera 0.277
3 Edwin Encarnacion 0.277
4 Josh Willingham 0.264
5 Adam Dunn 0.263
Rank Name wRC
1 Miguel Cabrera 137
2 Prince Fielder 125
3 Robinson Cano 124
4 Mike Trout 121
5 Edwin Encarnacion 115

Interesting.  Cabrera would nearly win the “Sabr-Triple Crown” as well, and if you replaced ISO with Slugging he would have (Cabrera easily led the AL in slugging).   His MVP competitor Mike Trout fares pretty well here: he was 2nd in wOBA,  10th in ISO and 4th in wRC (where his lack of a full season hurts him the most, since wRC is a counting statistic over an entire season).  But make no mistake; Cabrera’s year at the plate still looks incredible.  Keep this in mind when you make “Trout for MVP” arguments; yes Trout’s base-running and fielding prowness gives him a ton of adavantage in the all-encompassing WAR statistics, but voters don’t really care about your fielding when it comes to measuring MVP-calibre seasons at the plate.  And the above stats show that Cabrera’s triple crown is no fluke.  And, as I pointed out in my awards prediction piece on 10/22/12, Cabrera has a few more things going for him that will sway voters (especially the “old school” types who still view the MVP as a “valuable player” and not a “best player” award).

Also of note in these lists: Edwin Encarnacion continues to have monster production years in relative obscurity of the bottom of the AL east.  And notice the #4 and #5 ISO guys in the AL?  Why yes its former Nationals Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham.  People forget just how good the Nats 3-4-5 hitters where when these two guys and a healthy Ryan Zimmerman were in the lineup.  Too bad they never had any pitching to go with them.

Lets pull the same information for 2012 in the National League:

Rank Name wOBA
1 Ryan Braun 0.413
2 Buster Posey 0.406
3 Andrew McCutchen 0.403
4 Aramis Ramirez 0.384
5 Matt Holliday 0.378
Rank Name ISO
1 Ryan Braun 0.276
2 Jay Bruce 0.263
3 Jason Kubel 0.253
4 Garrett Jones 0.242
5 Aramis Ramirez 0.240
Rank Name wRC
1 Ryan Braun 131
2 Andrew McCutchen 124
3 Chase Headley 115
4 Buster Posey 114
5 Matt Holliday 114

Ryan Braun clearly had a monster season at the plate, winning the modern Triple crown (again, had we replaced ISO with slugging Braun wins again, leading the league in slugging by more than 40 points).  In the “normal” Triple Crown Braun finished 3rd in batting, first in homers and 2nd in RBIs, not really even close to Buster Posey‘s league leading BA of .336 to ever have a triple crown in his sights.

But we all know Braun has zero shot at an MVP (now or forever in the future most likely) by virtue of the off-season drug testing snafu.  Which is a shame; not that Posey won’t completely deserve the award, but Braun’s season at the plate should be noted.

What do you think of the “Modern Triple Crown?”  Should I be looking at different stats?