Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 22, 2000

Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.

Jeff Kent, Most Valuable Player. Just when you thought you'd seen everything.

Kent has always been a good player, of course, but until he arrived in San Francisco nobody ever accused him of being an MVP candidate. The irony: across the bay, Jason Giambi pushed ahead of two nearly identical competitors (Delgado and Thomas) for the AL MVP on the basis of his clubhouse leadership. In the NL, the numbers 1 and 2 in the balloting went to two players who lead nobody but themselves - on the same team, no less. Kent and Bonds don't even speak. That must be what the voters had in mind when they made Dusty the Manager of the Year . . .

The choices in the NL this season are murkier and even more subjective than the AL. We can start with two basic points, though:

1. Forget the pitchers. With starting pitchers throwing fewer innings every year, a starter has to be overwhelmingly dominant to deserve MVP consideration. As I argued last week, San Pedro de Fenway, with an ERA half that of any competitor, meets that standard. As great as Randy Johnson is, though, no NL hurler comes close to the impact of the best everyday players. And don't get me started about giving MVP awards to closers who throw 65 innings a year. Not until a pinch hitter has won the award.

2. The numbers, taken on their face, demand that the award go to Todd Helton. Helton totally dominated all the important offensive categories. He clearly put more runs on the board than any other player. If you want to follow the route of 1997 (Larry Walker) and 1995 (Dante Bichette finishing second in the balloting), Helton's your man.

The fact that Helton finished fifth, and was placed first on only one ballot, is a good sign that even the most Luddite writers have now seen enough Coors Field baseball to recognize that hitting .370 with power in thin air does not make you Lou Gehrig. Helton's a fine player, just hitting his prime, and he had a wonderful year; even taken in context he deserves to be considered among the MVP candidates. But he's no Barry Bonds.

Since the candidates are all hitters, we can start with the batting stats. Helton and Bonds were the league's two toughest outs (.463 On Base Percentage to .440) and 1-2 in Slugging as well (.698 to .688). But while Coors did its usual number (scoring was up 65% there vs. Rockies road games), Pac Bell (for some unknown reason) was the third best pitcher's park in the league at -16%.

Nobody knows exactly why this happened, given the drooling occasioned by Pac Bell's 307 foot right field porch. Sometimes weather and other factors cause an odd year at a park; homer-happy Wrigley was the top pitchers' haven this year at -19%. Perhaps it's the massive power alleys, or the batting visibility. Still, park effects are real and usually turn out to be steady enough over time that they can't be ignored. Clearly, Bonds was a better hitter than Helton. For the mathematically inclined, the Rockies were outscored by the Giants 5.3 to 3.9 runs/game in road games, but still put up prettier numbers by scoring 7 runs/game to the Giants' 5 at home. Helton's slim advantages of 1.5% in slugging and 5.2% in OBP over Bonds are obviously the work of the same thin air effect.

How about Bonds and the other 1B/OF? Edmonds, Guerrero, Sosa, Andruw Jones and Sheffield were all great, but to my mind the top competitor was Bagwell. Bagwell had more than 100 more plate appearances than Barry Bonds, and was not so far off in production with the bat (.310 batting/.615 slugging/.424 OBP). Put another way, Bagwell's numbers minus Bonds' would be:
112 .300 .339 23 26
In other words, Bagwell's extra at bats were just filler; the Giants were better off with Bonds and with a bench player doing 100 plate appearances. Yeah, he had great Runs and RBI totals, but Bagwell also had some teammates having big years. And the writers are justifiably suspicious of guys who put up big offensive numbers in small ballparks for bad teams.

I ran the Runs Produced numbers last week for the AL; while it's not a true measure of offensive productivity, Runs Produced shows how many actual runs a player participated in actually putting on the board, so it's a good bottom-line sanity check on some of the more esoteric stats. The NL leader board:
Todd Helton 243
Jeff Bagwell 237
Jeff Cirillo 215
Jeff Kent 206
Brian Giles 199
Richard Hidalgo 196
Jim Edmonds 195
Sammy Sosa 194
Chipper Jones 193
Andruw Jones 190
Quick, hurry out and name your kid "Jeff." If you're wondering, Bonds was 12th, at 186; Piazza was off the chart at 165. The top three guys here all had a lot of help from the home cookin', which is ironic for Bagwell because the Astrodome killed him last year. But Enron Field was second only to Coors this season, pumping up scoring by nearly 20%, and the surge in Bagwell's stats (becoming the first player since Ted Williams to score 150 runs in a season) was more the effect of new scenery than any change in his performance.

I would gladly have honored Piazza, who has been repeatedly screwed in the MVP voting and had the lead going into September. But the double whammy of a late-season fade and a gap in offensive numbers puts Piazza at a big burden to get an edge for being a catcher. His defense is now poor enough that you can't give him much credit
for catching, so the Mets wait still another year for an MVP.

That leaves the quiet Giants. But how good was Kent, really? Kent, too, batted a lot more than Bonds; let's run the same "marginal production" comparison as with Bagwell:
88 .187 .318 (-15) 19
Yes, Kent scored 15 fewer runs than Bonds despite nearly 100 more plate appearances. As you can see, Kent's superior offensive numbers were also the result of bulk rather than quality; even at a lower level of playing time, Bonds did more good to the Giants. I won't go through the whole argument here, either, but Kent's RBI count was influenced by Bonds' "runs scored" more than the other way around.

But wait; we're forgetting something. Outs are not only made at the plate. Jeff Kent was caught stealing 9 times and hit into 17 double plays; Bonds' totals, even at age 35, were 3 and 6. Put differently, if you lumped in the outs on the basepaths (at least the ones the major stat services keep track of), Bonds' 16-point edge in OBP
swells to 24 points and Kent's "marginal" OBP drops to .262. Those numbers tell a simple story: Kent made so many more outs than Bonds that he just can't be viewed as a comparable hitter.

Bonds was the best hitter in the National league this season; Kent finished in the top ten, but would have to rank behind Bagwell and a few others including Sheffield, Sosa, Giles, and Guerrero.

Defensively, both Bonds and Kent are about average at their positions at this stage; Both were around the league average (Bonds a bit above, Kent a bit below) in range factor, and both above average in fielding percentage. For Bonds, that's a sign of decline; he used to be the best defensive left fielder alive. For Kent, adequacy is real progress.

What about timing? Kent partisans point to his early-season heroics that kept the team afloat while Bonds was injured. But if you recall, the Giants were still running fairly close with the Diamondbacks in the NL West, and facing 8 games with Arizona in the last 11 days of the season, until Bonds went berserk in September (11 homers and 27 RBI in 24 games between August 30 and Sept. 28) and the team blew the race open. That has to be at least a draw for Bonds, possibly a slight edge.

Leadership? Like I said, their teammates hate Bonds and ignore Kent, so you can take your pick. Thus, the entire issue between Bonds and Kent comes down to how much you value the difference between a left fielder and a second baseman.

Here are Bonds and Kent compared to (1) the average player at their position and (2) the next best hitter at their position:
Bonds 607 .306 .688 .440 129 106 -16% 11 9
Avg NL LF 702* .284 .490 .364 106 99 None** 12 14**
Sheffield 612 .325 .643 .438 105 109 -15% 4 19

Kent 695 .334 .596 .424 114 125 -16% 12 26
AvgNL2B 715* .284 .418 .359 100 71 None*** 20 20**
Alfonzo 650 .324 .542 .425 109 94 -11% 3 14
*This represents the batting line of all of each team's second basemen and left fielders, not the starters.

** The DP averages were unavailable, so I calculated an approximate average among starting second basemen and left fielders.

***The league totals average out park effects, at least to any significant degree.

Alfonzo and Sheffield were actually fairly close comparisons to Kent and Bonds, the major differences being that Sheffield is an awful fielder and Alfonzo batted behind Jay Payton and Derek Bell instead of Bonds. If cumulative stats like Runs Produced are your thing, Kent stands out at +49 over the league average at his position, while Bonds is at just +10. But if you prefer OPS, Bonds comes out at +274 to Kent's +243. When you add in baserunning outs, Bonds (-5) stretches his lead over Kent (+6).

I might have voted for Kent too, since it was so close and Bonds is a jerk who has plenty of hardware. I certainly can't fault sportswriters for parsing the numbers a little differently than I would have. But on a strictly objective analysis, here's my ballot:

1. Barry Bonds
2. Jeff Kent
3. Mike Piazza
4. Jeff Bagwell
5. Edgardo Alfonzo
6. Vladimir Guerrero
7. Gary Sheffield
8. Sammy Sosa
9. Brian Giles
10. Todd Helton

TRIVIA QUIZ: Before he was drafted by the Pirates, what team originally selected Barry Bonds in the amateur draft?

Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:00 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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