Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Baseball Greatness: The Best Players and Teams according to Wins Above Average, 1901-2017,  was published on March 1, 2018.  It may be ordered here.   Here are some pre-publication comments:

"Whatever you already think about measuring baseball greatness, Kaiser's tour de force will blow your mind…. In these days of websites and statistical black boxes and faith-based beliefs, we owe our gratitude to Kaiser, who shows all his work and doesn't flinch when the facts call for popping a few balloons." --Rob Neyer, author Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game

"Baseball Greatness honors under appreciated all-time great players by better incorporating fielding value for everyday players (e.g., Jimmy Wynn and Keith Hernandez) and filtering out team effects on perceived pitcher value (e.g., Wes Ferrell, Luis Tiant, and Dave Stieb). But more than that, author and real-world historian David Kaiser gives baseball fans a new and sophisticated history of the game: how owners and front office managers have built (and failed to build) great teams; how rare it has been that team greatness has relied on great pitching; and much more." --Michael Humphreys, author of Wizardry: Baseball's All-Time Greatest Fielders Revealed

"The Sabermetric revolution in baseball analysis is no longer in its infancy and the basic principles are now embraced widely in the press, on the air, and by average fans. David Kaiser has done a fine job in clearly explaining the logic behind the calculations and has provided a very welcome synthesis across the various era of Major League Baseball. This book is recommended for those who wish to have a better understanding of the context of modern (and future) baseball analysis."--Dave Smith, founder, Retrosheet.org

"Baseball's stately pace encourages discussions, with 'Who was better?' being a favorite topic. David Kaiser's nominations, making full use of Michael Humphrey's authoritative solution to the 'is it fielding or pitching' defensive dilemma, are presented in a delightful style." --Richard Cramer, Ph.D., founder, STATS INC.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

How valuable was Mariano Rivera?

Yesterday, Mariano Rivera became the first player ever to be elected to the Hall of  Fame unanimously, and on his first try to boot--something that players like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Mike Schmidt, and many others, failed to achieve.  He was elected because he was (as we shall see) a very effective pitcher, who played what many people believe to be a key role for the New York Yankees for many years, during most of which they enjoyed extraordinary success.  He certainly proved, over a long period of time, that he had Hall of Fame ability.  Yet for reasons having nothing to do with his ability, he actually contributed extraordinarily few extra wins to his team over the course of his long career.

The principle of reductio ad absurdum has solved a number of problems in mathematics, both theoretical and applied.  Essentially, it suggests that if the logical extension of a premise leads to an absurd conclusion, the premise itself is false.  For several decades now fans and writers have believed, and baseball organizations have acted as if, a pitcher who can reliably protect a lead of 1-3 runs for one inning (the ninth) plays a critical role in his team's success.  In 2016, in a typically thorough and insightful presentation at the SABR Convention in Miami, Dave Smith of retrosheet.org proved that that assumption is false.  An analysis of the career of Rivera--generally regarded as the greatest closer of all time--will confirm that conclusion in spades.

After a year as the Yankees' set-up man in 1996--a year to which we shall return--Rivera was the Yankees' closer for 16 of the next 17 years.  He was an extraordinarily effective pitcher for most of those seasons.  In Baseball Greatness, I use the measurement of Wins Above Average to measure the value of all players, and by that measure, Rivera appears to be the best relief pitcher of all time. Only once did he ever come close to the 4 Wins Above Average figure that represents a superstar season, but no other reliever has ever pitched enough to reach that figure either.  He exceeded 2 WAA in four out of five seasons from 2003 through 2008--seasons in which he pitched between 70 and 80 innings.  No other reliever--including those from earlier eras who pitched well over 100 innings a year--has been over 2 WAA that many times.  That means that if he could have pitched 220 innings, let's say, at the same rate of effectiveness, he would  have earned about 6.5 or 7 extra wins for his team, which represents an outstanding season for any of the greatest pitchers in history, such as Lefty Grove or Bob Feller or Roger Clemens.  I have no doubt that, given the chance, and if he could have stayed healthy for long enough, Mariano Rivera might have pitched his way into the Hall of Fame as a starter.  But we will never know.

Yet the New York Yankees, as it turns out, got remarkably little value, in terms of games won, out of this great pitcher.  The reason is that, as a closer, Rivera only came into the game when the Yankees already had an overwhelming chance of winning it.

I have not been able to find a thorough year-to-year record of Rivera's saves and blown saves, but an article by Jim Caple of ESPN written on the eve of his retirement has good aggregate data.  Rivera, he reports based on data from Elias, had 652 saves and 80 blown saves. That is a percentage of 89.1.   Unfortunately, I don't know how many of the blown saves resulted in  Yankee defeats.  They obviously lost all the games on the road in which Rivera actually surrendered enough runs to lose the game, and the vast majority--around 90%--of the games in which he fell behind in the top of the ninth at Yankee Stadium.  They should have won about half the games in which he allowed the other team to tie the game.  I'm going to be generous, for reasons that will become apparent, and guess that the Yankees might have won 20 games in which Rivera had blown the save.  That would mean that the Yankees won 92% of the games in which Rivera came into the game in a save situation.

How would an average pitcher have done?

Dave Smith's presentation provides some answers.  Team winning percentages in games in which the team enjoyed a 1-, 2- or 3-run lead going into the ninth inning are extraordinarily consistent from 1912 to 2015.  A 3-run lead gives a winning percentage of 97%, a two-run lead 93%, and a one-run lead,  84%.

Now the Caple article does break down Rivera's saves into 1-run, 2-run, 3-run and 4-run situations, but it doesn't do the same, alas, for his blown saves.  (Caple states, in effect, that even an entrance with a 4-run lead can result in a save, while Smith did not.  I don't know where this discrepancy came from, but I'll count 3- and 4-run leads together for the next calculation.)  I'm going to assume, generously I think, that Rivera blew 2/3 of his blown saves with a lead of just 1 run, and 1/3 with a two-run lead.  Adding that estimate into Elias's figures for successful saves, we would find Rivera entering with a one-run lead 263 times, with a two-run lead 241 times, and with a 3- or 4- run lead, 226 times.  Applying Smith's figures for success in those situations, we find that the Yankees with average 9th-inning pitching could have expected to win 664 of the of the 732 games that Rivera entered in a save situation, or 91% of them.  With  Rivera, we have estimated that they actually won 672 of them, or 92%.  That's 8 extra games in 16 full-time seasons as closer--exactly one-half a game a year.

Now as I have said, Rivera actually exceed 2 WAA a year four times as a closer--the most of any reliever--and he also exceeded 1 WAA on ten other occasions, implying that he was worth more than half a win a year to the New York Yankees.   But he wasn't, because the Yankees used him as a closer.  They used him in games in which the rest of the team--the hitter/fielders, starting pitchers, and other relievers--had already established a win probability of 91%.  There was no way that he could improve on that probability very much, given the way that he was used.  The same is true, obviously, for very other talented pitcher who is wasted as a closer.  Rivera's most valuable year for the Yankees, ironically, w 1996, when he pitched 107 2/3 innings as a set-up man and earned 3.4 WAA, more than he ever did as a closer.

There is, alas, another question that we really need to ask about Rivera and other closers.  Rivera's best seasons as a closer, when he earned more than 2 WAA in four years out of five, occurred at ages 33-38.  It certainly seems reasonable to assume that he managed to sustain that level of effectiveness at that age in part because he pitched only 70 innings a year.  What we have shown, though, is that that reduced his value to his team to a very marginal level.  Rivera was a very fine pitcher, in the very few innings that he pitched, for a very long time.  But based on the actual number of wins that he and other closers contribute to their teams, none of them should even be considered for the Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The election of Harold Baines to the Hall of Fame

The selection of Harold Baines to the Hall of Fame has excited a great deal of comment, most of it negative, because so few people, apparently, have ever regarded him as a potential Hall of Famer.  Once some one is in, of course, they are in forever, and there's no point ranting and raving about any mistakes that voters have made.  Yet it is worthwhile, it seems to me, to ask a few questions that situate this choice within the pantheon of the Hall, and help place Baines accurately among baseball's greatest players.  I shall focus on three questions:

1.  How exactly was Baines selected?

2.  How does Baines compare to broadly similar players already in the Hall?

3.  How does Baines compare to the other players who were on the ballot this year?

Baines was chosen by one of the subcomittees, one might say, of the old Veterans Committee.  Called  the Today's Game Committee, it "considers retired Major League Baseball players no longer eligible for election by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA), along with managers, umpires and executives, whose greatest contributions to the game were realized from the 1988-2016 era."   The committee membership included  Hall of Fame members Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Pat Gillick, Tony La Russa, Greg Maddux, Joe Morgan, John Schuerholz, Ozzie Smith and Joe Torre; major league executives Al Avila (Tigers), Paul Beeston (Blue Jays), Andy MacPhail (Phillies) and Jerry Reinsdorf (White Sox); and veteran media members/historians Steve Hirdt, Tim Kurkjian and Claire Smith.  The other players on the ballot were Albert Belle, Joe Carter, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, and Lee Smith. Smith also won election.

2.  I am going to compare Baines's record to others using the method I developed in my book, Baseball Greatness.  That method ranks players by the number of seasons of 4 or more Wins Above Average they had during their careers.  For hitters like Baines, WAA is computed using the offensive numbers from baseball-reference.com, but substituting Michael Humphreys's DRA fielding statistics for the ones baseball-reference uses, and eliminating position adjustments, which tend to be arbitrary.  These differences of approach help Baines.  DRA shows him to have been a significantly better fielder than baseball-reference does in the early years of his career when he played the outfield, and baseball-reference routinely subtracts about 10 runs above average for DHs, which of course was what Baines was for most of his career.  4 WAA is my definition of a superstar season because it turns out that it defines how good you have to be to be the MVP on a pennant-winning team.  The vast majority of pennant winning teams have had at least one player that good.

Now the number of seasons of 4 WAA or more that a player has does correlate reasonably well with lifetime totals, since a player who is great enough to have five such seasons (stand by for more explanation) will generally have a long career including a number of seasons in the 2-3 WAA range, as well.  As it turns out, 5 seasons of 4 WAA or more has in practice been the definition of a solid Hall of Famer, according to the actual voting results.  Of the 29 players with exactly five such seasons, 19 of them--Phil Niekro, Cy Young (1901 and later), Stanley Covaleski, Rod Carew, Jim Thome, Dazzy Vance, Harry Heilmann, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Gordon, Jackie Robinson, Hal Newhouser, Joe Morgan, George Brett, Jim Rice, Tim Raines, Ryne Sandberg,  Harry Hooper, and Tom Glavine--19 players who are in the Hall of Fame.  Three much older players from this group--Charlie Keller, Gil Hodges, and Wes Ferrell--are not in.  The remaining 7 players with 5 WAA are Roy Halladay, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Mike Mussina, and Jim Edmonds, who are on this year's BWAA ballot, and David Ortiz and Clayton Kershaw, who are not yet eligible.  On the other hand, of the 51 players in history with exactly four seasons of 4 WAA or more, only 17 of them are in the Hall of Fame--and many of them are pitchers, for whom the actual standards, by this method, tend to be a good deal lower.

There are, of course, a good many players in the Hall of Fame who do not have even 4 seasons of 4 WAA or more, but the vast majority of them are catchers or middle infielders, and they are not, therefore, good comparisons to Harold Baines, who began his career as an outfielder and spent most of it as a DH.

By this method, Harold Baines has no claim to the Hall of Fame, for the simple reason that he never, in his whole career, had a season of 4 WAA or more.  Not one.  Here are his annual WAA totals (I have combined the individual team totals for the several years in which Baines played for more than one team.)

1980     -2.1 WAA
1981       0.9 WAA (strike-shortened season)
1982       0.8 WAA
1983      1.3
1984      3.5
1985      2.2
1986      2.4
1987      0.5
1988      0.6
1989      2.5
1990      1.3
1991      2.1
1992     -0.3
1993      1.8
1994      0.1
1995      1.8
1996      2.6
1997      1.1
1998      0.3
1999      1.9
2000     -0.8
2001     -1.3

In 21 years, Harold Baines never had a superstar season.  He had 6 seasons of 2.0-3.9 WAA, all but one under 3 WAA, which I define in my book as "star seasons."  He had five seasons of 1-1.9 WAA, making him a modest asset on a winning team, six seasons in which he was essentially average (from -0.9 to +0.9), and his last season was below average.  For an outfielder/DH this is a very poor record for a Hall of Famer.

Are there any outfielders in the Hall whose records are very comparable to Baines'? Yes, at least three.  One, indeed, is indisputably worse than Baines, and ranks as a candidate for the weakest non-pitcher in the Hall of Fame.  That is Lloyd Waner, who got lots of base hits, played in a high-offense era, and benefited from the glow emitted by his brother Paul, a genuine all-time great.  Lloyd Waner also had a long career (18 seasons to Baines' 22) without ever having a season of 4 WAA or more, but his record is much weaker than Baines's.  He topped 2 WAA only once (in 1931) and 1 WAA only four times.  He was an average player, or worse, for nearly his whole career.

It is interesting to compare Baines to some of the other weaker outfielders who have reached Cooperstown.  Those most similar to Baines in terms of the length of their careers are Sam Rice (2404 games to Baines's  2830), Max Carey (2476 games), Zack Wheat (2410 games), and Heinie Manush (2008 games.) Rice was elected for a reason that apparently played a big role in Baines's selection as well: both of them finished their careers with close to 3000 hits, which has traditionally meant certain inclusion in the Hall of Fame.  As it happens, Rice was also rather unlucky insofar as he did not reach the majors until he was 25 and had his first full season at 27.  Nonetheless he played in 20 seasons, like Baines, but he was an outstanding center fielder, as it turns out, and he had much more impact on his teams than Baines did.  He had one superstar season (5.6 WAA in 1920, when he saved a remarkable 37 runs in center field.)  He was over 3 WAA five more times (compared to once for Baines), and over 2 twice more.  He was a star, although not the MVP, on the Washington Senators' pennant winning teams of 1924-5.  He is one of the weaker outfielders in the Hall, but he was significantly better than Baines was.  Max Carey had three superstar seasons of 4 WAA or more and three more seasons over 3 WAA (he too was an outstanding outfielder.)  Zack Wheat had three seasons in which he topped 5 WAA, and four seasons over 3 WAA.  Manush's two best seasons are better than Baines's two best (4.7 and 3.5 WAA), but Baines's record is better than his after that.  Outfielders with much shorter careers whose status as Hall of Famers is questionable include Chick Hafey, Ross Youngs, Earl Averill, Chuck Klein, and Hack Wilson.  Hafey is the only one of that group without a superstar season and he was definitely a less valuable player than Baines.  Youngs had two seasons over 4 WAA and three more over 2; Averill topped 4 WAA just once, and 3 WAA three times (his fielding hurt him badly; and Klein had three superstar seasons. Wilson, another fielder, never topped 4 WAA for a season, even in 1930, when he hit 56 homers and drove in 191 runs but cost the Cubs -33 runs in the field. He was over 3 WAA four times, however.  Combs is one of many players who were elected to the Hall of Fame thanks to their teammates.  He had a relatively short career with the Yankees--12 years, including 3 with less than 100 games--and he topped 4 WAA only once, in 1927, with 6, thanks largely to by far his best season ever in the field.  He had three star seasons, and thus, with the exception of that one big year, he was not as good as Harold Baines.  One could therefore argue that Baines ranks above Lloyd Waner, Chick Hafey,and Heinie Manush among outfielders in the Hall, but that's about it.

Baines is, I believe, the first selection to the Hall who spent the vast majority of his career as a DH.  Two other similar candidates are Edgar Martinez, who is on the ballot this year, and David Ortiz, who is not yet eligible.  Both are in a completely different league than Baines.  Martinez had an outstanding 7 seasons with 5 WAA or more, making him statistically overqualified for the Hall (although his career path, as I mentioned in an earlier post, raises some questions), and Ortiz finished his career with 5 such seasons.  Indeed, it is an interesting question as to why, in the high-offense era of the 1990s, several AL teams were willing to play Baines as their regular DH even though he was contributing only marginally to their success.

3.   Among the players on this year's ballot, Albert Belle had much better Hall of Fame credentials than Baines did.  Belle played only 10 regular seasons but he performed at a superstar level in 4 of them.  That is not enough, as we have seen, to give him a better than 50% chance of reaching the Hall, but Belle was the MVP on the Cleveland Indians' dynasty of the late 1990s for several years. Lee Smith was elected as a closer--but no closer, including Mariano Rivera, has ever had 4 WAA even once. They do not pitch enough to have that much impact.

The old Veterans Committee was responsible for most of the worst selections to the Hall of Fame, and the new committees look like they will do just as badly.  They have failed to elect the players that the  BWAA  unfortunately ignored despite ample credentials, such as Charlie Keller (whose great career was shortened by injury), Gil Hodges, and Keith Hernandez, while adding some players whose credentials are weak.   They do not seem to be in the least interested in any modern sabermetric measurements.  But in an era where rationality is under attack on many fronts, this is not surprising.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Hall of Fame ballot for 2019

In addition to the annual season update, below, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to use my methods to analyze the current Hall of Fame ballot based on my methods.  A little introduction, or refresher for those who have read Baseball Greatness, is in order.

As many will recall, I defined a superstar season as a season of at least 4 Wins Above Average as I compute it.  That, I found empirically, is the measure of how good you have to be to get an affirmative answer to the question, "If this guy were  the best player on your team, is it likely that you could win the pennant?"  To identify the greatest players I focused on how many times individuals had exceeded that threshold.

It turned out that both I and several generations of Hall of Fame voters have agreed, interestingly enough, that the key number, particularly for hitters, is 5 such seasons.   Very few players with 6 or more such seasons are not in the Hall of Fame, and a number of those who are not are Gen Xers tainted by steroid accusations, led, of course, by Barry Bonds and  Roger Clemens.  The 29 players with exactly five such seasons include Phil Niekro, Cy Young (1901 and later), Stanley Covaleski, Rod Carew, Jim Thome, Dazzy Vance, Harry Heilmann, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Gordon, Jackie Robinson, Hal Newhouser, Joe Morgan, George Brett, Jim Rice, Tim Raines, Ryne Sandberg,  Harry Hooper, and Tom Glavine--19 players who are in the Hall of Fame--and
Charlie Keller, Gil Hodges, and Wes Ferrell,. who are not in.  This list also includes some people on this year's ballot, as we shall see.

On the other hand, 51 players have exactly 4 seasons of 4 WAA or more, and most of them are not in the Hall.  The  17 of them who are in the Hall are Eddie Plank, Robin Roberts, Juan Marichal, Frank Chance, Rube Waddell, Frankie Frisch, Carl Hubbell, Luke Appling, Arky Vaughn, Robin Yount, Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner, Duke Snider, Sandy Koufax, Tony Gwynn, and Kiki Cuyler.  Long-time eligibles (or players who normally would have been eligible) in this category include Nap Rucker, Hippo Vaughn, Jack Fournier, Art Fletcher, Minnie Minoso, Ken Boyer, John Callison, Tony Oliva, Jose Cruz, Bobby Grich, Buddy Bell, Luis Tiant, Dave Parker, Willie Wilson, Jesse Barfield, Don Mattingly, and Brett Saberhagen, as well as a number of Gen Xers on this year's ballot.   Hall of Fame voters pay far more attention to lifetime totals than they do to peak value, which I am focusing on, but in the aggregate it does seem that both methods tend to reach the same conclusions more often than not.

OK.  Now it's time to rank the candidates on this year's ballot by seasons of 4 WAA or more.  Here are the people most mentioned as possible candidates on this year's ballot.

Barry Bonds         17
Roger Clemens 12
Edgar Martinez 7
Todd Helton          6
Larry Walker         5
Mike Mussina       5
Curt Schilling       5
Roy Halladay        5
Sammy Sosa         5
Jim Edmonds        5
Andruh Jones        4
Lance Berkman 4
Manny Ramirez 4
Gary Sheffield      4
Scott Rolen           3
Fred McGriff        3
Andy Pettite          2
Jeff Kent               2
Roy Oswalt           1
Miguel Tejada       1
Mariano Rivera 0
Omar Vizquel       0

Barry Bonds' 17 seasons of 4 WAA or more ties him with Babe Ruth for top on the all time list, and Roger Clemens' 12 tops the list for pitchers.   We all know why they are not yet in the Hall of Fame, and I am glad that I don't have to cast a vote on either of those two.

Moving down the list, it's fair to say that based merely on raw performance, Edgar Martinez and Todd Helton are overqualified Hall of Famers.  With respect to Martinez, however, there is, I think, a catch.  Martinez did not become a regular until he was 27, which is very late for a great player, and he had his first superstar season (5.1 WAA) when he was 29.  He slumped badly during the next two seasons, and then, starting in 1995 when he was 32, he had six seasons of 4 WAA or more in seven years.  No other great player has ever had his superstar seasons so concentrated in his late thirties, raising legitimate questions, in my opinion, about how Martinez managed it.

Moving down the list, we find that Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, and Curt Schilling have 5 seasons each of 4 WAA or more, which is more than Sandy Koufax or Juan Marichal, and appears to make them overqualified selections.  This however also raises a broader question about Gen X pitchers.  No less than eight of them (Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and those three) had at least 5 seasons of 4 WAA or more, and that is way above any other generation.  One is really forced to the conclusion that many of them managed to sustain peak performance for so long with the help of PEDs--but of course, there is no way of knowing exactly how many, or which ones.

Larry  Walker, Jim Edmonds,  and Sammy Sosa also have 5 seasons each of 4 WAA or more, which normally would qualify them for Cooperstown, although Sosa, for obvious reasons, is unlikely to make it.  Edmonds was also something of a late bloomer. The example of Sosa, however, raises a critical point about evaluating Gen X players. They played in one of the highest-offense eras in history.  Sammy Sosa hit 609 home runs to Frank Robinson's 586, but Robinson had 11 seasons of 4 WAA or more to Sosa's 5.  Robinson was a much more dominant player who did much more to help his teams win pennants.  We will run into this problem as we move down the list.

Thus, despite their often impressive lifetime totals of home runs and base hits, based on peak value and the contribution these players made to helping their teams win pennants, there is no compelling reason, in  my judgment, why Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Lance Berkman or Andruh Jones should be in the Hall of Fame.  Each of them topped 4 WAA only four times and as we saw above, most of the players from the past who had four such seasons are not in.  Their lifetime totals also allow for some interesting comparisons.  Manny Ramirez had 555 career homers to Reggie Jackson's 563, but Jackson had 9 superstar seasons (4 WAA or more) while Ramirez had only 4.  Gary Shefiield's 509 homers rank between Mel Ott (511) and Eddie Murray (504), but his 4 superstar seasons trail Murray's 7 and Ott's 12. Jeff Kent, despite his home run totals, is not remotely comparable in his impact to second basemen like Rod Carew or Joe Morgan or Ryne Sandberg.

During the last half century we have invented a new stat, the save, and a new role, the closer. Both have caught the imagination of the press and the nation, and thus, we have concluded that lifetime leaders in saves and distinguished closers belong in the Hall of Fame.  Now Mariano Rivera, as it happens, was the best reliever ever based upon WAA, with many seasons in the 2-3 range, but it is simply impossible for a closer to have the same impact on his team's fortunes as a great starting pitcher or hitter.  Still, he is going in. As for Vizquel, it turns out that he, like Rey Ordonez, was very overrated as a shortstop--not bad, but nothing spectacular--according to Michael Humphreys' DRA, and other measures. 

I shall look forward to the voting and will analyze the Veterans' Committee ballot if I can get information about who is on it.

Meanwhile, I would also like to alert readers to the appearance of my autobiography, A Life in History. It combines a detailed account of my education and career as an historian (and sabermetrician!)  with a commentary on what has happened to higher education over the last half century.  More information and a link to order it are available here.


Monday, October 29, 2018

2018 Season Update

This is the first annual update of my book, Baseball Greatness, The Best Players and Teams according to Wins Above Average, 1901-2018.  Each update will include a survey of the successful teams of the season just past, and a progress report on the careers of our greatest players.

Under rookie manager Alex Cora, the Boston Red Sox improved by a full 15 games, from 93 wins to 108, for three different reasons.  Their superb pitching staff was nearly as good as in 2017, earning +13 WAA  compared to +15 in the previous year.  Although injuries limited Chris Sale to only 158 innings, he still managed to finish at the top of AL pitchers with 4.7 WAA.  David Price added 2.6, Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello combined for 3 WAA more, and Hector Velazquez, Steven Wright, and Craig Kimbrel all had more than 1.  Their lineup improved substantially from -3 WAA to +9, although its positive value was almost completely concentrated among four players.  Mookie Betts finished with 8.1 WAA, giving  him a 5.6 average over the last three years, and easily topping the American League.  Free agent signing J. D. Martinez contended for a triple crown and finished with 6.8 WAA, by far the best  year of his life, even though he had just moved to a stronger league.  Last but not least, Xander Bogaerts improved his defense all the way up to average and finished with an excellent 3.2 WAA, while 23-year old Andrew Benintendi added 1.8.  With those four players accounting for 20 WAA, however, the rest of the lineup cost the team -11 WAA.  The biggest culprits were infielder Eduardo Nunez, disastrous at bat and in the field with -3.2 WAA;  catchers Sandy Leon, Christian  Vazquez, and Blake Swihart, who combined for -4.7 WAA; and utility man Brock Holt, -1.2 WAA in 109 games.  Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. had an average year in the field and hit poorly, costing the team -0.9 WAA overall. First baseman Mitch Moreland and 21-year old third baseman Rafael Devers--who had a fine year in the field--were average.  Last but hardly least, the team benefited from 5 games of Pythagorean luck.  The Red Sox marched triumphantly through the post season, losing one game each to the Yankees in the ALDS, the Astros in the ALCS, and the Dodgers in the World Series.  Jackie Bradley Jr. had three critical hits against the Astros, but manager Alex Cora held him out of two games in the World Series and fielded the team's strongest outfield of Benintendi in left, Betts in center, and Martinez in right.

The Houston Astros failed to equal or surpass Boston's record because they fell 6 games of bad luck behind their projected percentage and finished with 103 victories--a superior pennant winner--instead of 109.   Although their hitting fell of badly from 2017, their fielding and pitching were much stronger, and their lineup earned +16 WAA while their pitching staff brought home another +12.  Third baseman Alex Bregman, with 5.6 WAA, led the team, with center fielder George Springer (2.8) and 2017 MVP Jose Altuve (2 WAA, in part because of below average fielding), right behind.   Josh Reddick, Carlos Correa (who missed about 1/3 of the season), and Marwin Gonzalez were average.  On the mound, 35-year old Justin Verlander, acquired late in the 2017 season, earned a remarkable 3.8 WAA in 214 innings, and starters Gerrit Cole (3.1) and Charlie Morton (1.8) also performed well.  Bad luck and an outstanding Red Sox peformance took them out of the playoffs in the second round, after they had made short work of the Indians in the first.

The Yankees won 100 games with one game's worth of luck.  That looked very similar to their performance in 2017 when they won only 90 games while projecting to win 100, but the team changed.  Injuries plagued their lineup, which fell from +12 WAA to just +4.  Their fielders, led by terrible performances from third baseman Miguel Andujar (-25 runs), center fielder Aaron Hicks (-18), outfielder/DH Giancarlo Stanton (-10 in limited outfield duty), and catcher Gary Sanchez (-12), dropped all the way from +3 WAA to -4.   An injured Aaron Judge fell to 3.2 WAA in 112 games, remaining the team's best player, and Stanton earned only 1.2 WAA despite hitting 38 home runs.  No other player reached star status, and Sanchez cost the team -2.2 WAA.  Their pitchers on the other hand tied with Boston and Cleveland for the league's best with +13 WAA.  This was a team effort: Luis Severino led the team with 3 WAA,  six other pitchers had between 1 and 2, and only one pitcher was marginally below average.  The Yankees could certainly challenge the Red Sox in 2019 if they remain healthier.

After three sub-.500 years, Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics improved by 22 wins to finish with 97 and a wild card spot.  They combined very poor pitching (-5 WAA) with the league's best lineup, earning +9 in the field and +11 at bat.  One quarter of that value--5.7 WAA--came from one player, third baseman Mark Chapman, whose value was evenly divided between his hitting contribution and his remarkable +28 runs saved in the field.  The lineup had four other stars:  Marcus Siemen, the shortstop, with 2.9 WAA; DH Khris Davis, whose poor on-base percentage limited him to 3 WAA despite a league-leading 48 home runs; second basemen Jed Lowrie with 2.2 WAA, and first baseman Matt Olson with 2.2.  Center fielder Mark Canha, a very versatile player, and left fielder Chad Pinder combined for 2.9 WAA , and catcher Jonathan Lucroy made up for terrible hitting with outstanding defense.  Most of these players were in their mid to late twenties, suggesting that Beane might once again field a contending team for several years to come.  This year, they lost to the Yankees in the wild card game.

For the second year in a row the Cleveland Indians won their division thanks to a remarkable pitching staff.  While its +13 WAA were only a little more than half of the hurlers' truly extraordinary performance in 2017, it accounted for most of the team's positive value, which projected to win 98 games rather than the 91 they actually recorded.  Starters Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber just missed superstar status with 3.9 WAA apiece and Mike Clevenger and Carlos Carrasco added 5.5 between them.  Among the lineup, only shortstop Francisco Lindor, (3.7 WAA), third baseman Jose Ramirez (also 3.7), and outfielder Michael Brantley (1.6) had any positive value at all.

                                                         The National League

Fresh off of a superb 104-win 2017 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers survived the loss of their outstanding young shortstop Corey Seager for nearly the entire season and -10 games worth of bad Pythagorean luck to edge out the very fortunate Colorado Rockies for the NL West division championship with just 92 wins.  Although their defense cost them -4 WAA, outstanding hitting still left their lineup with +10 WAA.  Third baseman Justin Turner was the team's MVP with a remarkable 4.4 WAA in just 103 games, including a superb +16 runs saved at third base, while all-purpose infielder Max Muncy added 3.4 WAA in 137 games and young center fielder Cody Bellinger turned in 1.4 more.  The team apparently benefited from several games worth of run luck, as well, and several players, including outfielders Enrique Hernandez and Yasel Puig, hit well but lost much of their value in the field.  The pitchers turned in another strong year with +10 WAA, with starters Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Ross Stripling and Huyn-Jin Ryu earning from 2.9 to 1.9 WAA each.  Reaching the World Series for the second straight season, they lost to the Red Sox in just five wild games.

Although the Milwaukee Brewers' Pythagorean projection trailed the Dodgers by 10 games, they finished with the league's best record,96-67, thanks to 4 games worth of luck.  Their lineup contributed +6 WAA, +2 of them in the field, and their pitches just +3.   The lineup's three major assets were right fielder Christian Yelich, who joined the team after years as a star in Miami and earned 5.9 WAA, easily the league MVP, at age 26; center fielder Lorenzo Cain, signed as a free agent, who earned 3.1; and first baseman Jesus Aguilar, who earned 2.5.  One-time MVP Ryan Braun was now average, but with several below-average players in the lineup, the Brewers could easily improve.  On the mound, two slightly above-average starters, Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley, and relievers Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader were their only superior pitchers.  They did well to force the Dodgers to a seventh game in the NLCS before bowing.

The Brewers edged out the Cubs for first place in an extra game.   Despite excellent fielding, the Cubs' lineup continued its decline from +22 WAA in 2016 to +13 WAA in 2017, to +11 this year, +6 of it in the field.  Two extraordinarily versatile players, Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist, led the lineup with 3.5 and 2.3 WAA, followed by Anthony Rizzo with 2.1 and Kris Bryant, who missed more than 1/3 of the season with 1.3.  Jason Heyward was only average thanks to his fielding, and shortstop Anthony Rizzo cost the team -1.1 WAA.  Starting pitchers Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and late-season pickup Cole Hamels earned about 1 WAA each, but the staff overall had just +1 WAA.  The Cubs lost the wild card game to the very fortunate Colorado Rockies, who won 91 games with the help of 6 full games of Pythagorean luck.

The 90-72 Atlanta Braves were the weakest of the four division winners, with a +8 lineup and +4 pitching staff.  The lineup featured superstar first baseman Freddie Freeman (4.2 WAA) and stars outfielder Ronald Acuna (2.3) and very promising second baseman Ozzie Albies (2.2).  Every other member of the lineup was at least average.  With the exception of ace Mike Foltynewicz (2.3 WAA) and starter Annibal Sanchez (1.8), every pitcher on the Braves' staff was average.  They won one game against the Dodgers in the NLCS

                                           General Observations and Great Player Updates

The general shortage of superstar performances continued, as the two leagues had a total of only 16--a little more than one for every two teams--compared to 18 in 2017 Mookie Betts comfortably bested Mike Trout as the AL MVP with a remarkable 8.1 WAA, the highest total since Albert Pujols in 2004 and thus the best single season by a member of the Millennial generation. Among the pitchers, Chris Sale and Blake Snell of Tampa Bay posted identical 4.7 WAA seasons, the only superstar performances by AL moundsmen.  The two most valuable NL players were pitchers Jacob de Grom of the Mets (6.6 WAA) and Aaron Nola of the Phillies (6.0), while Christian Yelich topped league hitters with 5.9.  Only the Red Sox, with Betts, Martinez and Sale, had more than one superstar.

Generation X did not come close to adding another superstar performance in 2018, suggesting that David Ortiz's 4.2 WAA in 2016 marked the close of their era of greatness.  Older Millennials such as Josh Donaldson, Miguel Cabrera, and Joey Votto also fell far below that level, although Cabrera and Votto have already done more than enough to secure a plaque in Cooperstown.  Robinson Cano's career took an untoward turn when he failed a drug test and was suspended for a good deal of the season.  Mike Trout's 6.5 WAA gave him 7 consecutive superstar seasons, one shy of Ted Williams' record of 8 such seasons in his first 8 years.  He is still only 26 and looks a very good bet to reach double digits.  And Max Scherzer's 5.4 WAA tied him with Clayton Kershaw for five superstar seasons, nearly ensuring that he, too, will wind up in Cooperstown.  Mookie Betts's remarkable season was only his second over 4 WAA but he will be only 26 next year and looks headed for a Hall of Fame Career. 

Here is the current table of Millennials of 4 or more seasons of 4 WAA:
Seasons over 4 WAA
Best Season,

Miguel Cabrera
Joey Votto
Mike Trout
Paul Goldschmidt
Shin-Soo Choo
Josh Donaldson
Robinson Cano
Clayton Kershaw
Max Scherzer

See you next year!  Comments welcome.

Friday, June 1, 2018