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June 19, 2007 at 1:48 PM

Is Ichiro an MVP?

Now, that’s more like it weather-wise. A fairly sunny day so far, just the way I like to spend my days off after finally sleeping in. I’m sure the Mariners didn’t want to wake up this morning knowing that the Angels came back to win that slugfest with the Houston Astros by a 10-9 score. Yes, the Astros reverted to form. They were up 9-4 in the seventh. Hey, looks like the Angels do have an offense.
Oakland also got back on the winning track against the Reds. More fine pitching from them and some offense as well. Nothing like NL teams to get the bats going. The M’s thought so until last week.
Guess the folks at the USS Mariner didn’t like my last post yesterday. They are right when they say that pitching and defense are part of the ERA equation. I should have added the “and defense” part when I discussed what one of our readers, Jack Lattemann, had dug up. That’s my mistake, not Jack’s. The “and defense” part just kind of goes hand-in-hand with pitching for me. But it’s definitely the duo that is superior to offense alone. Not just the pitching.
There was a movement afoot a few years back, mostly from outside of the baseball teams themselves, arguing that defense was overvalued. That view seems to have changed quickly, especially as the sabermetric crowd comes up with improved ways of measuring it. It remains, however, a much more inexact science than the study of hitting and tricky to gauge in regards to pitching.
Back to yesterday’s post, I actually understated the infrequency with which teams have made the playoffs with an ERA of 4.50 or more. While the number of playoff teams with an ERA that high, since the advent of the wild-card, was 13 out of 96, the number of teams making the playoffs with an ERA that high was just 13 out of 354. One in 27. Is this all just a coincidence, as some suggest? Is there really no direct relation between ERA and making the playoffs? Well, let’s just say that the more runs you allow, the more you have to score to win. The more wins, the easier to make the playoffs. Could we get scientifically more precise? Of course.
But I had no problem with Lattemann using an ERA of 4.50 and higher as a measuring stick. The average ERA in baseball last year was 4.44 and it’s averaged out to roughly that since this decade began. So, anything 4.50 and worse would generally stand to be below average.
Some people objected to using ERA at all, while others say we should have adjusted it for park factors — which looks at the difference between runs allowed at home versus the road and adjusts statistics accordingly. Well, park factors may have been needed if, say, we’d used ERA to gauge a Cy Young Award race. But not in this case, since we’re merely looking at who made the playoffs. In other words, who won more games by scoring more runs than they allowed (or allowing fewer runs than they scored?) Park factors are irrelevant here. You score (and allow) the runs where the games are played and that alone determines who wins. At the end of a season, all MLB cares about in deciding a winner is who won the most games, not how easy or difficult it was to score runs in those games because of ballpark intangibles.
Was ERA the best statistic to use? Would total runs per game allowed have told the story that much better? Perhaps, but to any significant degree? A glance at this year’s numbers shows very little difference in the AL ranking of teams in terms of ERA and total runs allowed. The top four clubs, the A’s, Red Sox, Angels and Blue Jays, are the same in both categories and while there is some movement up or down a spot or two by teams in the middle, or bottom, of the pack, it’s nothing, I suspect, that would dramatically alter a playoff race.
Bottom line? If your team has an ERA significantly above average, it almost certainly has good pitching. Probably, though not always, it will have good defense too. And in some cases, the ballpark will factor into it. But the higher the ERA, or the runs per game allowed, the more runs a team has to score to win.
Will good pitching and defense always trump good hitting? Not always. And is hitting unimportant? No, it isn’t. In fact, it’s vital if your team’s ERA is below average. Right now, the Mariners only score roughly as many runs per game as they prevent. They are essentially a .500 team.
But considering the scarcity of quality pitching in baseball, it stands to reason that loading up on the better arms will usually put a team ahead of the curve. That’s because good hitters are more easily found and acquired in today’s overall talent pool than good pitchers. But yes, hitting is still important.
I’m interested in seeing more studies on the direct impact of defense on teams and their pitching. The study of defense continues to improve from where it was even a few years ago but still falls short of what we know about hitting.
But let’s get to a subject that hits near and dear to your heart. I used a throwaway line in yesterday’s post about the Mariners not having any MVP candidates. I suppose this isn’t entirely fair to Ichiro, who is having a phenomenal season for Seattle.
But is he a candidate for MVP?
Realistically, no. Not yet, anyhow. These awards tend to go to players whose teams actually do something other than play .500 ball. Players who contribute something while under the pressure of a playoff race. And players will tell you it’s tougher to perform when a team has something to play for. Right now, off the top of my head, I can think of four players whose names will be on the ballot ahead of Ichiro’s and all of them play for teams likely to be in a playoff race much deeper into the season than the Mariners at this stage: Vladimir Guerrero, Magglio Ordonez, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz.
Is a guy who finishes fifth an MVP candidate? Well, I suppose the ballot itself does have 10 spots. At what point does a guy become a serious candidate? Do I expect Ichiro to finish in the top-five? Fifth at best right now. So, that’s my subjective, realistic take on how voting would go if the season ended now.
Now, in going strictly by the numbers, it gets interesting. The numbers depend on which ones you choose. Ichiro could be a batting champion this year, but the days of looking at batting average to determine an MVP are fading. The voters are more sophisticated than that, despite what you may hear in places. But there’s no denying that Ichiro’s .356 batting average looks great, as do his league-leading 100 hits and his .408 on-base percentage.
Where Ichiro has trouble in these votes is with his on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS). He has always been more of a singles hitter than a power guy and power is big component of OPS. Right now, Ichiro is 22nd in league OPS at .875 and fourth among center fielders. Good numbers, but not MVP caliber.
But as we all know, it’s the other stuff Ichiro does that tends to be his biggest strength. That’s why I gave him my first place vote back in 2001 when all the OPS supporters were screaming bloody murder. So, what can we look at to measure Ichiro’s value? There’s the whole “clutch hitting” aspect to this that usually factors into an MVP decision.
Ichiro actually fares very well in “close and late” stats, posting an OPS of 1.098. Ortiz and Guerrero are both significantly higher at 1.293 and 1.274 repsectively and have made their reputations off this. A-Rod is at .938, while Ordonez falls dramatically in this category at only .782.
Ordonez fares better In the traditional “runners in scoring position” category, placing second behind Derek Jeter. Ichiro is once again third in this category, so he’s hanging in with the big boys.
But how big have Ichiro’s contributions been to helping his team win? Should he get the same credit he got in 2001 while performing under the pressure of a playoff race for a 116-win team, especially if this year’s squad wins only 82 games? We’ll go strictly by the numbers for now. Forget about “leadership” and other off-field intangibles, although the fact Ichiro has done what he has while the hitters around him struggle through fatigue definitely plays in his favor. Let’s just check numbers. We’ll look at a couple of sabermetric stats that attempt to answer the question.
There is the Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) stat, which tells you how many more runs a player brings to his team than would a ficticious “replacement” player with the same plate appearances. Ichiro does well here, placing third behind Ordonez and A-Rod. I personally like to look at the “Win Shares” stat, developed by Bill James, but enhanced by The Hardball Times. To sum it up in a nutshell, Win Shares gives credit to hitters for things like “clutch hitting” and other factors that weigh heavily in MVP debates. VORP does not.
“Win Shares” is a formula that tries to show how much a player contributed to his particular team’s total number of wins. It’s not a perfect stat. But no stat ever is. In this case, using The Hardball Times model, Guerrero leads with 17 win shares, Ordonez is next at 16, followed by Orlando Cabrera (wow) at 16 and then A-Rod, Ichiro and Victor Martinez in a three-way tie for fourth spot.
So, Ichiro still fares well, but has a little more company here.
I’d have to delve into more of what Cabrera has done for the Angels, setting the table for Guerrero primarily, but I find his placing there very interesting. So many different stats, so hard to pick an MVP. As it always is. For right now though, I will amend what I said about Ichiro to at least state that he is an “outside candidate” for MVP. Seems only fair. I just don’t see him finishing better than fifth. Does that make him a legit candidate? Who finished fifth last year? Jermaine Dye of the White Sox. Don’t recall him being seriously favored to win.
Anyway, this post is getting a bit long. A big night ahead for the Mariners after their off-day. Time for Miguel Batista to go another seven innings. Or more. The folks at aren’t liking Seattle’s chances lately. How to improve them? Just win. Score more than you give up. Hopefully, for the M’s, tonight’s pitching won’t require the offense to score a half dozen or more. But let’s keep the debates going.
NOTE TO “LANCE”: I actually find stats fun and don’t mind people who use them to explain things. But you’re right, they can say different things. As long as those using them keep in mind there is a human side to this game and that intangibles, luck, fate, excruciating travel and plain old inexplicable stuff all has their place. If not, we’d all go to Vegas and get rich predicting the future standings. A lot of the numbers we discussed today are a serious attempt at factoring in those elements that previously could not be measured. Well, maybe not the travel.
NOTE TO “DAVID”: Not “explaining away” anything. I took a closer look at Ichiro’s numbers and yes, he’s having “a phenomenal season” as I wrote. In the end, I think his sub.-900 OPS will have as big an impact on negating his MVP chances. But yeah, Ichiro is making an impact so far.
NOTE TO “EVAN”: Yes, other players help put these guys into clutch situations. But they still have to perform in them. Baseball is a game of many players put into many different situations. It’s not a game of isolated players, swinging away by themselves in a soundproof cage cut off from the world. I realize there are two firmly entrenched camps in this debate and each has done exhaustive studies of this issue. I’m not going to sway you and I know it. My personal view is, I just don’t see how you can discount clutch hitting stats the way VORP tends to do in an MVP debate. Even if a player does get “lucky” in clutch situations in one particular year, so what? Did we take away the Mariners win in Chicago the other night because they got lucky when Cubs catcher Michael Barrett dropped the ball on the decisive play? Of course not. Lucky or not, a clutch hitter delivers hits in high-leverage situations that can help win games. That’s sports. It isn’t all pre-determined. Maybe the MVP will be a one-year wonder. It’s about who did what to produce the wins, under varying circumstances, in that particular year. For me, anyway, even if you feel differently. And yes, the player “makes” the team. But when that team doesn’t win enough, it hurts the voters’ perception that something was “made” in the first place. And I’m convinced that will work against Ichiro.



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