Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 16, 2000
BASEBALL: THE 2000 AL MVP BALLOT
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.
Well, trialís over, and the Crank is open for business. Iím still getting over the bitterness, so I may wait for the end of the postseason awards to put the finishing touches on the Subway Series Diary. Instead, without further ado...
THE 2000 AL MVP BALLOT
With the votes in for Giambi, who should have actually been named the 2000 American League MVP? Well, as usual, I like to set out my criteria for the award first: it should usually be given to the player who does the best job of scoring or preventing runs. At the end of this column Iíll talk a bit about the more intangible factors, but first we have to look at the bottom line: the numbers.
Baseball players have two basic jobs: putting runs on the scoreboard, and keeping the other team off the scoreboard. All the other goals Ė wins, pennants, championships Ė are team goals that the player can contribute to but canít control. Now, in a close MVP race, contributions to the ďteamĒ goals Ė like leadership and clutch performance Ė can matter. The award is for the player with the most actual value to his team, after all, not the most productive talent. If one player really does contribute big hits at big times, that makes him more valuable Ė even if we know that that extra value is largely luck or chance. But at the end of the day, the guy whose individual accomplishments produce and/or prevent the most runs is almost always the most valuable player (and the most deserving of the award).
In 1998, I surveyed the field and found that the numbers pointed to Nomar Ė even though I felt that the player with the greatest overall impact was probably Pedro. Last season, I was firmly in the Pedro column. As we turn to 2000, guess what? At the risk of sounding unoriginal or (gasp!) pro-Red Sox, there simply was not a more valuable player in the American League than Pedro Martinez. If someone tells you otherwise, ask them how many presidential candidates they voted for.
Here's the case for Pedro:
1. The Facts
Compared to the next best full-time starter in the AL, Pedro saved his team somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-55 runs. Compared to the average of the other top 24 starters (111 runs), the margin is 67. And thatís without adjusting for Pedro throwing more than the average number of innings. Compared to the average AL starterís ERA (5.09), projected over 217 innings, Pedro comes out 81 EARNED runs ahead. And we still havenít factored in Fenway; over the past 2 seasons, Pedro is 19-7 with a 2.04 ERA at home, 22-3 with a 1.76 ERA on the road.
In other words, itís safe to say that Pedro Martinez saved the Red Sox at least 50 runs compared to any other AL pitcher, close to 70 runs compared to the average number 1 or 2 starter in the league, and well more than 80 runs compared to an average AL starter.
2. The Hitters
Who were the best in the league? I started by asking the experts. I just got my copy of the STATS, Inc. 2001 Major League Handbook in the mail (order it NOW if you like to follow baseball by the numbers). The Bill James Runs Created formula (explained on page 393 of the book) rates Frank Thomas as the biggest stick in the league, by a margin of TWO runs over Jason Giambi and THREE runs better than Carlos Delgado. To be fair, those three guys were about 20 runs ahead of the rest of the pack, and Runs Created is just one of many statistical estimates of productivity (based on stuff like total bases, walks, etc.), plus it ignores defense, position, and park effects. The per-out measures of productivity put Giambi ahead. Either way, itís hard to see one guy towering over the pack. How far are the top guys above the average? As a baseline, the average AL team scored 857 runs, 95 per lineup slot. Runs Created, of course, means nothing if it doesnít add up to that: how many runs each player was responsible for. The top guys are in the 160s, and thus about 70 runs above average. Good, but no Pedro.
How else to slice the pie? Well, one simple stat that tells us how many runs a player actually put on the board Ė not what he was worth but just how many times his actions sent a run across the plate Ė is Runs Produced, which is the total of Runs and RBI, with homers subtracted (because driving yourself in is still just one run). Luck and teammates have a big impact here; at the extremes, a player who bats 1.000 and hits 40 homers but always bats with the bases empty will ďproduceĒ only 40 runs, while a player who bats 500 times with the bases loaded and hits .150, all singles, will produce close to 150 runs. The totals will be higher than the Runs Created method, because most of the top guys play in good offenses and thus feed off each other.
Still, if somebodyís putting an extra 50 runs on the board, over and above everyone else, itís gotta show up here. Seven AL players cleared 200 Runs Produced in 2000:
Still, we have five guys on this list who DH or play first base like a DH, and the top guy is a shortstop in a pitchers park... so we have a suspect. A-Rod was 7th in the league in OBP (.420), and 5th in SLG (.606), and while four guys (Thomas, Giambi, Delgado, and Manny Ramirez) were ahead of him in both, none of those guys is much distinguishable from the others, none has any defensive value, and Rodriguez slugged .702 on the road, the best in the AL. Only Manny Ramirez, barely, was within 50 points; Ramirez, Thomas, Giambi and Delgado all hit better at home, although in Giambiís case that was against the tide of a pitcherís park. Despite playing two more games at home, 135 of A-Rodís 225 Runs Produced came away from Safeco, which depressed scoring by a whopping 18% compared to Mariner Road games. If you double his road total to 270 you get closer to the 50-run advantage mark, but a fairer adjustment would be to increase his overall total by 9%, which puts us at around +20 compared to Giambi (rather than +5 compared to Sweeney).
If youíre wondering, after park adjustments A-Rod is still about 20 back in the Runs Created column, so this is hardly the final word. But we are looking for ANY evidence of a Pedro-like impact.
That leaves Rodriguez with at least 30 runs to make up in the field against Giambi to stand out the way Pedro does. Itís a difficult comparison to make, but A-Rod made in the neighborhood of 20 more plays than the average major league shortstop, and Giambi made only six errors, so it would be rather ridiculous to say that Rodriguez saved an extra 30 runs in the field if each man is compared to an average fielder (or even a poor one) at his position. On the other hand, as I plan to discuss in more detail in a later column, the Aís, for reasons that can not entirely be rationally explained, surrendered a staggering proportion of unearned runs this season. I donít know how many of those resulted from throwing errors, but only two major league teams approached Oaklandís penchant for throwing errors, so some of the blame for this probably belongs to the first baseman.
Thus, for Rodriguez to approach the impact of Pedro, the answer must reside in his being further above-average at his position, offensively, than Giambi. Thatís a tall order, given that three of A-Rodís thirteen compadres are Jeter, Nomar and Tejada. As it turns out, measuring by Runs Produced, the average AL 1B rates 18 runs ahead of the average SS. Looking at the percentages, a clearer picture comes into view: the first basemen were 37 points ahead in On Base Percentage and 80 points in slugging. So the real productivity difference may be larger than 18 runs.
What if we compare Rodriguez to another shortstop? Tejada, for all his gaudy totals, posted league average batting and on base percentages and wasnít that much higher in slugging. Jeterís defensive stats are horrendous - he made nearly 100 fewer outs in the field than Rodriguez, and if you add those 100 outs to Jeterís batting record you would see that his net contribution to the Yankees, while still impressive, isnít the stuff of MVPs. The real competition is Nomar. Before adjusting for the parks and the difference in playing time, Nomar is arguably Rodriguezí equal at the plate, posting a higher OBP (.434 to .420) and close in SLG (.599 to .606). Iíll spare you the numbers here but I would wager that the real offensive difference between these two isnít more than 40 runs and was probably closer to 10-15.
Itís also difficult to find a comparison to Nomar in the field that gives Rodriguez much daylight. Rodriguez made about 70 more outs and about half as many errors, but most of the difference in outs is due to an extra 100 innings in the field; the range factors are more comparable. Again, I canít see giving Rodriguez more than another 10-15 runs (charitably) with the glove. No way can he be worth an extra 50 runs a year, across the board, than Garciaparra.
To conclude, even a charitable reading of the statistical measures leaves A-Rod about 10 runs short of Pedro, when contrasted to his peers, and probably more than that. The real numbers probably put A-Rod much closer to Giambi, who really was a better hitter. Nobody here can really be said to approach Pedroís dominance, even with an extra 130 games to make that impact felt.
3. The Standings
Yet, this team Ė with a bad offense, four bad starting pitchers, mediocre fielding, rotten team chemistry, and chronic instability Ė was mathematically eliminated by the Yankees (on the way to their third straight World Championship) with ONE game left in the regular season. Derek Lowe and the bullpen deserve some of the credit for that, but the rest is Pedroís. The Sox were 64-69 when anyone else took the mound, a .481 team (projects to 78-84 overall); with Pedro, they were 21-8, a .724 team (projects to 117-45 overall). And they scored 1.6 runs per game in his losses, and two-thirds of the wins were by three runs or less. In other words, the deciding factor in the Red Soxí improvement with Pedro on the mound wasnít luck or run support; it was Pedro.
4. Outside the Box Score
Many voters believe that a pitcher canít have that impact. Thatís why pitchers rarely manage, you see; they arenít respected as the same sort of workhorse, carrying the load every day. But as clearly as the numbers show Pedroís impact, the intangible factors lean his way as well. Yes, the Red Sox took the field 133 times without him this summer. But think of the electricity in the air when the man pitches; think of the intimidation of other teams.
Most of all, think of how easily this Sox team could have quit this season; what kept them alive? It wasnít a loose, happy clubhouse, or a beloved manager. It was knowing that every fifth day, a man would take the mound and turn the Lansings and the Spragues and the Gilkeys of the world into a better team than the 1927 Yankees. It was knowing that any bunch of bozos might win a playoff series with Pedro in the rotation. Big slugging first basemen, even hard-hitting shortstops, arenít nearly as rare.