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.

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