Monday, September 26, 2011

WAR Muddies Rookie of the Year Thoughts

The Rookie of the Year Award has somewhat of a checkered past. For every Justin Verlander and Dustin Pedroia, we've also gotten Angel Berroa and Marty Cordova. The award is hardly a blueprint for continued success. Nor is it an award that has been given out with consistent logic. We can look back no further than 2009 to see that Chris Coghlan and Andrew Bailey were not the best choices in either league for the ultimate award winners. This year's award will be more controversial than ever. Jeff Passan, lead baseball writer for Yahoo Sports highlighted that succinctly in the following tweet this morning:

Rookies don't always get full playing time. Some may come up later in the season. Some may be babied along early in the season before getting larger roles. And then there is the matter of where they play and how those positions are valued compared to others. With a lot of emphasis on WAR these days (wins above replacement), awards are voted on more differently than they have been in the past. One only has to look at the Cy Young Award for the past couple of years to see the change occurring. And this author doesn't disagree with valuation being a strong part of the argument. It's certainly better than a bunch of storied writers voting willy-nilly based on what they perceive they see on the field. But Passan's point is well taken. Eric Hosmer plays first base, a lowly position on the diamond according to the lords of WAR. And since the metrics state that he doesn't yet play that position particularly well, he gets a double whammy of WAR hit for his position and his success at that position. Is that how we should vote?

WAR also tells us that Craig Kimbrel has been more valuable than other rookie pitchers such as teammate Brandon Beachy, Josh Collmenter and Vance Worley. All three of those latter pitchers have pitched twice as many innings as Kimbrel. Being a closer, Kimbrel has had a lot of glory in that role with his 46 saves and his WPA is certainly higher than all of them. But can a guy who has succeeded in 76+ innings be more valuable than a guy who has slogged through 154 tough innings? Perhaps. It just doesn't sit well. 

And in the American League, has Michael Pineda really been nearly a win better than Ivan Nova when Nova pitches in the AL East and still has a much better record? Is Pineda's fWAR the same as Alexi Ogando who has to pitch half his games in Texas where the ball flies out of the yard? The difference in WAR is basically because Pineda strikes out more batters than Nova. Should WAR put that much influence on strikeouts and is that really a difference of nearly a win? Again, perhaps. Like most posts here, this one doesn't shape the answers, but merely asks the questions. When it comes to voting for something like the Rookie of the Year, this WAR (which this author loves by the way) sure muddies up the water.

If we vote strictly on WAR, then Danny Espinosa of the Nationals would be your National League Rookie of the Year. He has an fWAR of 3.8 compared to Kimbrel's 3.4. Espinosa has had a promising first season, no doubt. He plays a prime position (second base), is a good fielder and a good base runner. But he's batting .239 with an on base percentage about league average. Freddie Freeman of the Braves is better in every offensive category including wOBA and wRC+ but is considered a clank at first (if you believe his fielding metrics) and leaden on the base paths. It doesn't really sit real well that Espinosa's fWAR is a full 2.3 wins above Freeman. But that's what we're seeing.

This writer will have his own official BBA ballot on awards in a couple of days, but as you can see from this post, the Rookie of the Year--or as we like to call it, The Willie Mays Award for the top rookie--has this writer gasping. WAR calculations do muddy the rookie considerations. Which only goes to show you that the more we try to understand baseball, the harder it sometimes gets.


Jonathan C. Mitchell said...

I am a stats guy. I love WAR. But I also do not believe Brian Bougesivic and Bryan Peterson have been as valuable or more valuable than Eric Hosmer. Good stuff, per usual!

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