The Triple Crown Is Not Evil.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
There has been a lot of banter about the Most Valuable Player Award this week. While the National League has an even field with multiple candidates, it’s the American League — with Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera — that’s gotten most of the attention.
At the center of the debate is baseball’s triple crown, an incredibly rare achievement that is within reach for Cabrera. The fact that Trout is going to finish with the better season, regardless, has led many to pooh-pooh the fact that Cabrera has the chance to become just the 14th player since 1901 to win the elusive title. And while the triple crown in and of itself doesn’t signify greatness, it has only been won by great players. And most often, the league’s best player has won it.
It’s common knowledge that no player has hit for the triple crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and even his claim to it is debatable. He tied for the AL lead in home runs with Harmon Killebrew, who matched Yaz’ 44 taters. History gives Yastrzemski credit for his triple crown, though, and so shall we. The feat has been accomplished just 13 times, with 11 different players (Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams each did it twice):
Year Player Lg Tm AVG HR RBI
1967 Carl Yastrzemski AL BOS 0.326 44 121
1966 Frank Robinson AL BAL 0.316 49 122
1956 Mickey Mantle AL NYY 0.353 52 130
1947 Ted Williams AL BOS 0.343 32 125
1942 Ted Williams AL BOS 0.356 36 137
1937 Joe Medwick NL STL 0.374 31 154
1934 Lou Gehrig AL NYY 0.363 49 165
1933 Chuck Klein NL PHI 0.368 28 120
1933 Jimmie Foxx AL PHA 0.356 48 163
1925 Rogers Hornsby NL STL 0.403 39 143
1922 Rogers Hornsby NL STL 0.401 42 152
1909 Ty Cobb AL DET 0.377 9 107
1901 Nap Lajoie AL PHA 0.426 14 125
You’ll recognize every name on this list. All 11 players are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The triple crown is not baseball’s rarest feat — there have been only four hit streaks of 40 or more games since 1901; only eight 60-homer seasons; and there have only been 13 .400 batting average seasons. But that doesn’t mean the feat isn’t ridiculously difficult to accomplish.
In most seasons, at least one player has won two of the three legs of the triple crown. At least one league has had a player win (or tie to win) two of the three triple crown categories in 85 of the 111 seasons, starting with 1901. In 33 of those 85 seasons, both leagues had a player win two of the three triple crown categories.
To put that more plainly: It’s just as frequent for two players — one from each league, in all cases — to lead their league (or tie for the league lead) in two of the three triple crown categories as it is for zero players to do so in any given season. History is littered with players who have led the league in two of the three categories, but not all three. Alex Rodriguez did it twice. Mike Schmidt did it four times. George Foster and Willie McCovey did it in back-to-back seasons. Hank Aaron did it three times. Babe Ruth did it six times in eight years — five times leading in both home runs and RBI, and one time leading in average and homers.
Not only is it a rare achievement, it is not a cheap one. While we don’t put much, if any, importance on RBI these days, these seasons weren’t exactly Dante Bichette’s 1999 season. Eleven of the 13 led their league in WAR outright, with Nap Lajoie tying Cy Young for the WAR lead in 1901 and Cobb’s 10.8 WAR in 1909 coming in slightly under Eddie Collins’ 11.1 WAR. The third-best WAR in the AL that season was Donie Bush, with 7.4 WAR, though, so it’s not like Cobb was a scrub that season.
In fact, let’s take another look at these guys, but with some advanced stats swapped in for the more traditional selections:
Year Player Lg Tm wRC+ wOBA OPS Batting WAR
1967 Carl Yastrzemski AL BOS 194 0.454 1.040 70.2 12.1
1966 Frank Robinson AL BAL 196 0.447 1.047 74.8 9.1
1956 Mickey Mantle AL NYY 204 0.502 1.169 93.4 12.2
1947 Ted Williams AL BOS 209 0.507 1.133 87.5 10.8
1942 Ted Williams AL BOS 211 0.522 1.147 94.2 12.2
1937 Joe Medwick NL STL 178 0.467 1.056 65.7 8.1
1934 Lou Gehrig AL NYY 196 0.509 1.172 100.9 11.5
1933 Chuck Klein NL PHI 181 0.468 1.025 62.3 7.8
1933 Jimmie Foxx AL PHA 192 0.508 1.153 91.4 11
1925 Rogers Hornsby NL STL 208 0.544 1.245 93.9 11
1922 Rogers Hornsby NL STL 198 0.521 1.181 98.9 11
1909 Ty Cobb AL DET 204 0.478 0.947 72.7 10.8
1901 Nap LaJoie AL PHA 188 0.504 1.106 80.8 10.3
Not too shabby, right? Aside from Lajoie’s and Cobb’s WAR, the players here finished first in their respective season and league in WAR, wOBA, wRC+, OPS and “batting” (from the value section). In fact, by wRC+, eight of these seasons are in the top 51 seasons from 1901 to 2011. Simply put, these were some of the best seasons in baseball history. As a group, they blew away the competiton in their respective years and leagues. To wit:
Stat Triple-crown winner Best/Next-best player
WAR 10.6 8.3
wOBA 0.495 0.444
wRC+ 196.8 166.5
OPS 1.109 0.984
Batting 83.6 54.9
Even with Collins beating out Cobb and Young tying Lajoie, the players here were more than two wins better than either the best or next-best player in their league and season — a description that doesn’t quite fit Cabrera. The Detroit slugger leads the AL in OPS, wOBA and batting, but OPS is the only category in which he has a sizable lead. He’s second in wRC+ and WAR.
But even when the triple crown winners thoroughly dominated, they didn’t always take home MVP honors. Only 10 of the players were eligible to be awarded MVP, as the MVP wasn’t around when Lajoie, Cobb and Hornsby (the first time) took their titles. Two of the other times, it was Williams who won and still didn’t get the MVP. In 1947, he lost because a Midwestern writer left him off of the ballot. There are two other instances where a player won the triple crown and not MVP: Chuck Klein in 1933 and Lou Gehrig in 1934.
Klein won the year before, and came in second in ’33 to Carl Hubbell, who posted a 1.66 ERA and won a league-leading 23 games for the World Series champion New York Giants. Gehrig tallied more votes and was closer to first in the AL vote a year later, but he finished fifth in what was a very fractured vote: Mickey Cochrane took first place with 67 vote points. Gehrig had 54 vote points.
Which brings us back to this year’s MVP debate. Cabrera hasn’t been a better player overall than Trout this season. But rather than cutting down the triple crown, we really should be praising Trout’s season. Since 1901, there have been 12,000 qualified position player seasons. Fewer than 200 of them have posted 9 WAR or better, and Trout would be just the second (Alex Rodriguez, 1996) to do so before his age-21 season. That Trout is on pace to finish with a WAR that is so much higher than Cabrera’s is essentially uncharted territory.
The triple crown is, as Keith Law said in his Wednesday chat, a statistical quirk. It’s one that doesn’t account for the full breadth of a player’s contribution. And while Cabrera might pass Josh Hamilton in homers, the triple crown wouldn’t necessarily make him the player most deserving of the MVP.
Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that winning the triple crown is incredibly rare. Yes, RBI is one of the categories — and yes, it doesn’t account for all of the nuances that more modern statistics do — but the triple crown is not evil. In fact, it’s actually pretty cool.
Matt Harvey’s Excellent Debut and the Next Step.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Matt Harvey’s first MLB season is over. In 59.1 innings, the 22-year-old gave the Mets everything they could hope for and more from a top-tier pitching prospect. His seven-inning, one-run performance Wednesday against the Phillies dropped his ERA to 2.73, paired with a solid 3.30 FIP. His seven strikeouts marked the sixth time he reached that mark in 10 starts; only Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer struck out more than Harvey’s 10.62 batters per nine innings among starters with 50 innings pitched.
His final start showcased everything that defined his season — the big fastball — hitting 97 at times — the breaking pitches to keep hitters off balance, the strikeouts, and the occasional lapses in control.
The big fastball is the alpha and the omega for Harvey, at least at this point in his development. He throws it just over 66 percent of the time and it still may be his best out pitch. Wednesday against Philadelphia, it generated nine of his 12 swinging strikes, most coming up in the strike zone:
When David Laurila interviewed Harvey back in April, Harvey deflected Laurila’s attempt to discuss the merits of working up in the zone as Trevor Bauer has alluded to on multiple occasions. Harvey said those merits come “if you’re using your power stuff,” instead choosing to focus on his efforts to work down and induce ground balls when necessary.
A fine proposition, to be sure, but Harvey’s power stuff is what has him succeeding in the first place. Those nine swinging strikes against the Phillies came on 84 fastballs, a 10.7 percent rate, just a slight tick above his 10.3% season rate. And that’s because he’s working with true power stuff: at 94.7 MPH, his average fastball velocity trails just Garrett Richards, Jeff Samardzija, David Price and Steven Strasburg among starters with at least 50 innings on the season.
Some pitchers — especially the young ones — see their big velocity readings start to slip after the first couple of innings. Harvey had managed to sustain his velocity through at least two trips through the order on a regular basis:
(Width indicates number of pitches thrown)
The problem, though, comes in the sixth, where Harvey dips to 94.0 MPH — still elite starter velocity, but every tick off the fastball makes each of those elevated offerings more dangerous. Harvey simply has seen too many deep counts — he averages at least 15 and as many as 19 pitches per inning throughout the first four, and that leaves him either gassed or up around 100 pitches by the time the sixth or seventh inning rolls around. Harvey’s biggest issue on a statistical level this season is inefficiency — he needed 10 starts to get to those 59.1 innings.
It’s a good problem to have, to be sure. But if Harvey is going to step up and be the Mets’ ace soon, he’ll have to chip away at the pitch count. Harvey walked 3.9 batters per nine innings and slogged through a whopping 75 three-ball counts in his 10 outings, the barrier allowing him through to the seventh inning just three times.
Harvey’s control is only particularly poor with his curveball, his least used pitch, and one rarely deployed in deep counts — over half have gone for balls. His fastball, changeup and slider all went for strikes at least 60 percent of the time, approaching or eclipsing the league average. The problem is falling into these deep counts in the first place.
Sometimes, Harvey just makes plate discipline too easy on the hitters:
The larger zone in this chart represents when it becomes obvious out of the pitcher’s hand the pitch will be a ball — six inches out of the zone above or to the sides, and a foot below the zone. In Harvey’s case, 90 percent of pitches outside this area resulted in balls (or hit by pitches). Things happen, of course, but typically once these pitches leave the hand you can feel safe notching a ball on the scoreboard.
Of the 648 fastballs Harvey threw, 97 (or 15 percent) were easily discernible balls. It doesn’t tend to matter what count he’s in or how many pitches he’s thrown in the at-bat — once every seven or eight fastballs, Harvey is liable to uncork one well out of the zone.
Harvey doesn’t even necessarily have to fire more pitches inside the strike zone. A key and perhaps underrated part of pitching is the ability to pitch around the zone, in places that can produce strikes but don’t risk serving up easy contact. These pitches are the drivers behind those two and three ball counts, where hitters expect the fastball and foul it off even more often (30 percent as opposed to 25 percent), only exacerbating the pitch count issue.
For a 22-year-old, these are but minor quibbles. Harvey’s results in his first trip around the majors were phenomenal for any rookie, much less one of his youth. His power fastball gives him a weapon any major league hitter will have trouble dealing with. Whether he steps into the ace role the Mets hope from him depends on his ability to rein that fastball in and use it (along with his arsenal of breaking pitches) to pitch deep into ballgames as he develops in 2013 and beyond.
The Chase Utley-Third Base Experiment.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
This has been a very disappointing season for the Philadelphia Phillies. After posting a poor 37-50 record prior to the all-star break, the team has turned things around to the tune of a 39-24 mark. However, the turnaround has mostly come too late, as they still have to make up four games with 12 left to play just to tie the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League’s second wild card berth. Despite barely even hovering around the .500 mark until recently, the non-contention has enabled the team to evaluate potential pieces of next year’s team at the major league level.
The Phillies installed Domonic Brown in right field on an everyday basis and shifted John Mayberry to center field after the trades of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. They took a cautious approach with Vance Worley, shut him down when his elbow proved too bothersome, and replaced him with youngster Tyler Cloyd. The improbably hot-hitting Kevin Frandsen has handled the majority of playing time down at the hot corner in Placido Polanco‘s absense. The Phillies have also called upon a slew of relief pitchers, either homegrown or previously acquired via trade, in the hopes that they don’t have to spend any more money in that particular area.
But the Phillies also have another player they plan on evaluating for next season, and he is already a star at the major league level. Chase Utley recently approached the front office with the idea of playing third base next season. It wasn’t a demand, or even a detailed conversation fleshed out logistically with the front office and managerial staff, but Utley suggested that, if it helps the team given the poor free agent class at the position, he could give it a shot. Ruben Amaro, Jr., added that Utley could even see time at the position this season if the Phillies are officially eliminated from the playoff race over the next two weeks.
The Phillies could definitely use some help at third base, but shifting Utley isn’t a cut-and-dried solution, and this positional swap isn’t necessarily going to solve the team’s issues.
For starters, the rationale behind moving him to third base is that the Phillies can’t truly upgrade the position on the free agent market. The third base free agent class is pretty anemic, with names like Geoff Blum, Miguel Cairo, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Scott Rolen. The latter seems mostly done, and the other three aren’t exactly upgrades over the Phillies current situation. Utley at third base represents a better option than anyone available via free agency. The Phillies could look to make a splash via trade, or if the options of David Wright and Kevin Youkilis aren’t exercised, but the team might not be inclined to dole out another lucrative deal to an aging player or ship away more of the already-depleted farm system.
Moving Utley to third base would solve that issue, but it would create another one in that the Phillies don’t exactly have someone waiting to replace him at second base. Sure, they have Freddy Galvis, who was playing defense at an elite level this season before breaking his back and getting suspended for having a trace amount of performance-enhancing drugs in his urine. Galvis hasn’t fully recovered from his injury yet, and can’t hit even if his glove is terrific. The Phillies have flirted with the idea of playing him at third base next season, along with Frandsen, but it ultimately makes no difference.
Whether Utley plays second base and that combo plays third base, or vice-versa, that light-hitting combo is still in the lineup. Using Galvis and Frandsen at the keystone would also have the added detriment of playing Utley out of his natural position, in a spot he may not handle well given his recent throwing problems.
The only way moving Utley to third base actually improves the Phillies — aside from determining if the assumption that his defensive skills would translate rings true — is if the team upgraded at second base. Unfortunately, the free agent crop of second basemen and shortstops isn’t that much better than the third base crop. Sure, Jeff Keppinger could fit nicely. Stephen Drew on a one-year deal, if it came to that, could be interesting as well. It seems unlikely that Marco Scutaro would have to settle for an inexpensive, short-term deal, and all indications are that the Phillies are trying to avoid spending a lot on older players. Aside from those names, the classes are loaded with the Ryan Theriot‘s, Yuniesky Betancourt‘s, and Cesar Izturis‘s of the world.
At that point, sticking with the internal options makes sense, but so does using them at third instead of making Utley learn a new position. Frandsen has gained experience at the position this season, and Galvis transitioned from shortstop to second base seamlessly. It’s hard to imagine that, if healthy, he couldn’t handle third base duty.
Besides, there is no guarantee that Utley could even play the position. Yes, Placido Polanco shifted back and forth between these two positions throughout his career, so there is precedent. However, Polanco always had a strong, reliable arm. Utley derives plenty of defensive value from his range and ability to convert fielded balls into outs. If there is a weakness in his usually pristine game, it’s his arm, as he struggles from time to time to make a strong throw to first base. How that throwing issue would translate to third base remains to be seen, but the skepticism is certainly merited. He hasn’t played the position since the Travis Lee and Omar Daal era of Phillies baseball, when he was in the minors, and it sure seems a lot to ask someone with chronic knee pain, who has played half-seasons the last two years, to learn a new position over the offseason.
If Utley could transition to third base seamlessly and, in doing so, stay healthy for a longer period of time, the idea starts to make some sense. Then again, there is no way of knowing if playing third base would be easier on his knees than second base, even though it seems like it should. There is also very little to suggest he could play the position well, let alone that it would keep him healthier, especially since his chondromalacia isn’t going to disappear. Further, the lack of viable external solutions to replace him at second base renders much of this discussion moot.
This is the type of selfless act Utley has become known for throughout his career, and it’s interesting out of the box thinking from a team that hasn’t used its resources that well in recent years. Unless Utley can handle the position well and the team can truly upgrade at second base, it’s an idea not worth pursuing.
2012′s Most Unhittable Pitch (By a Starter).Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Shortly after the Mariners made the mistake of trading Brandon Morrow for Brandon League and another guy, it was noted by the Mariners’ front office that, the season before, League had thrown baseball’s most unhittable pitch. No pitch in baseball, apparently, generated a lower contact rate against than Brandon League’s splitter, and that gave us Mariners fans something to look forward to. What it actually wound up doing was give us something to complain about all the time, but no matter. That was the first I’d personally heard of a most unhittable pitch, and I fell in love with the concept. What better measure of dominance than whiffs over swings?
Of course, we all understand that pitches don’t exist in isolation. That year, League’s splitter was baseball’s most unhittable pitch, but it wouldn’t have been so if League only ever threw his splitter and never threw his fastball. There’s a lot of game theory stuff at play, so isolating individual pitch types is a little improper and misleading. Still, it’s a fun exercise, and I’m about to indulge. So we’re all about to indulge.
Just recently Baseball Prospectus folded in PITCHf/x leaderboards, based on Brooks Baseball data. I found myself navigating the leaderboards this afternoon, and I grew curious about 2012′s most unhittable individual pitch. I decided that I only wanted to look at starters, because relievers throw fewer pitches and have very different jobs. I also decided that I wanted a minimum of 200 pitches thrown, to weed out some small-sample noise. Not that there isn’t still noise, and not that I’ve made any correction for game-theory data or count, but whatever, I knew what I was getting into. This left me with a pool of 632 pitchers and pitch types. The pitcher and type with the lowest contact rate: Stephen Strasburg, changeup, 46-percent contact.
PITCHf/x recorded Strasburg throwing more than 400 changeups this season. Batters swung at 219 of them, and of those swings, 119 completely whiffed. Less than half the time batters swung at Strasburg’s changeup did their bats so much as touch the baseball in flight. It’s not far and away the most unhittable pitch in the sample, but the gap between first and second does appear wide enough to hold through the end of the year. It’s not like Strasburg is going to be throwing anymore changeups.
For good measure, Strasburg’s change also generated a grounder two out of every three times it was put in play. But, as noted before, it was very seldom put in play, so I don’t know how much this matters. It was a good pitch, is the point.
The predictable thing to do here would be to show .gifs of Strasburg generating swinging strikes with his changeup. He did that very often, and the .gifs would allow you to visualize what the pitch looks like, if you can’t recall it off the top of your head. Instead I’m going to show you .gifs of the two times Strasburg’s changeup was hit for a home run. You can still visualize what the pitch looks like, but now it’s all been turned on its head! Wacky!
The first batter to take Strasburg’s changeup deep was Jose Bautista, and there’s hardly any shame in that.
The second batter to take Strasburg’s changeup deep was Tyler Colvin, and there’s some very limited shame in that. Although it’s not like Colvin identified the pitch out of the hand and hit the living crap out of it.
I still can’t figure out how that swing made that ball leave that yard, but it did, and I suppose one of the lessons here is that even a very good pitch can be drilled for a home run and nothing is automatic. Baseball’s most unhittable pitch — by a stater — was not actually unhittable.
Strasburg has a good changeup — this we know. This we basically just confirmed. It stands to reason that a big part of the pitch’s effectiveness is that the hitters have to look out for the heat and the slurve. Strasburg is known for his high-90s fastball, and he’s always had this devastating breaking ball, and including a changeup is some degree of unfair. What’s interesting is that people weren’t really talking about Strasburg’s change as a weapon at the time he was drafted. Strasburg said in college he just sometimes mixed the pitch in. This draft report essentially labels the change as inconsistent. Quote:
Nitpickers may look at the secondary offerings as being just average and his command needing a little refinement, but none of that will keep him from being atop just about every Draft board.
Strasburg’s long thrown a changeup, but it never got the attention that his fastball did, or that his breaking ball did. He does indeed have a very good fastball and a very good breaking ball, but his changeup looks to have been baseball’s most unhittable regular pitch by a starter in 2012. Ending be damned, this was a pretty good season for Stephen Strasburg.
Why the Pirates Always Limp to the Finish.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Yes, we collapsed in the second half, but if we get some pitching help in the offseason, we could contend next year. #talklikeapirateday
— Ruben Bolling (@RubenBolling) September 19, 2012
We can fairly well predict that the Pirates are not going to make the playoffs this year, for the 20th straight season. They still have a fighting chance at their first winning record in two decades, as they stand at 74-74 after Game 148, but that looked almost like a lock before their 11-17 August and their 4-13 September.
So why do the Pirates always suck in September? If you look at the team’s win totals, month by month, from 1993-2011 — their record 19 straight losing seasons, you see a remarkable pattern emerge:
March/April W 191 March-August W 874
L 244 L 1103
% .439 % .442
May W 233 August-Sept W 419
L 294 L 622
% .442 % .402
June W 227
July W 223
August W 210
September/October W 209
The 1994-1995 strike accounts for the fact that there are fewer games played in April and September than in the other months. But you can see: for the last two decades, the Pirates have been a much, much different team from March through July than in August, September, and October — which is to say, before and after the trade deadline.
Before the trade deadline, from 1993-2011, the Pirates were a .442 team — that’s 72-90 over a full year, 9 games under .500, not good but not catastrophically awful. However, after the trade deadline, they were a .402 team — that’s 65-97 over a full year. The difference is crucial: it measures the difference between a team that is a hot streak away from a winning season for most of the year, and a team that never has any hope.
It’s not a complete surprise to see that the Pirates have been worse, historically, after the trade deadline. After all, they have often been sellers at the deadline, getting rid of Aramis Ramirez and Brian Giles in 2003, Kris Benson in 2004, Oliver Perez in 2006, Jason Bay and Xavier Nady in 2008, Ian Snell and Jack Wilson and Adam LaRoche and Nate McLouth in 2009, and so on.
But they weren’t always sellers, and actually have made their share of misguided win-now trades. They traded Mike Gonzalez for Adam LaRoche in 2007, and a few days later traded Rajai Davis for a completely washed up Matt Morris; they brought in Derrek Lee in 2011; and in 2012, they got Chad Qualls, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, and Wandy Rodriguez before the deadline. Obviously, none of it worked. It isn’t obvious that their habit of getting rid of stars at the deadline is the sole explanation for their late-season ineptitude.
A better reason is almost certainly their catastrophically bad draft history. It’s not just that the Pirates don’t have much to call up in September. It’s that the Pirates have hardly ever had any organizational depth to speak of, so as the season wears on and injuries mount, they inevitably lack good replacements.
Case in point: In 1992, the Pirates had a great year: they won 96 games, finished in first place in the NL East, and drafted Jason Kendall. It was the last time that they finished above .500 for two whole decades, as we know. It was also the last time that they drafted an above-average player for a whole decade.
After Kendall, the team did not draft a single good player until Paul Maholm in 2003. (Andrew McCutchen came in 2005.) The only major leaguers of note that the team drafted in between Kendall in 1992 and Maholm in 2003 were Kris Benson, drafted in 1996, whose career was almost exactly average, and Sean Burnett, who’s a decent enough setup man. And they signed Aramis Ramirez as an amateur free agent in 1994. That’s it.
When current general manager Neal Huntington got his job in late 2007, he inherited a team whose earth had been scorched in both the majors and the minors for 20 years, thanks to the strategic short-sightedness and talent-blindness of GMs Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield. Huntington immediately moved to address his team’s depth, and those fire sale trades in 2008 and 2009 were his doing. Some of the players that he brought in have paid dividends, like Derrek Lee, or, at least for the first half of 2012, James McDonald. Others have not, like Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen, and Andy LaRoche.
This year isn’t the first time that the Pirates have come tantalizingly close to a good season only to come up disappointingly short. You only have to remember back to 2011 for another example of that. But it’s remarkable how robust the pattern has been over the past 20 years: the Pirates play decently for a while, and then they fall off a cliff. Rinse and repeat.
Of course, with the strides that Pedro Alvarez has made, and the tantalizing flashes of ace potential shown by McDonald, and Neil Walker‘s solid comptency at the keystone, there are the makings of a baseball team here, especially considering that their center fielder is a perennial MVP candidate. But it’s hard to say Wait ‘Til Next Year. To quote Battlestar Galactica, all of this has happened before.
Jimmy Rollins Amazingly Inconsistent Season.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
I thought about leading off this post with one of those “Guess who leads the Majors in WAR among shortstops” questions, but then realized that I put Jimmy Rollins name was in the headline, so that seemed to not be much of a challenge. But, yes, Jimmy Rollins currently leads all MLB shortstops in WAR, checking in at +4.9 for the season. He’s been the lynchpin to the Phillies second half comeback, but on the other hand, he was also one of the reasons that they had a big hole to dig out of to begin with, because Rollins is having one of the weirdest good seasons in recent history.
Here are his monthly splits:
Split PA AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP wRC+
Mar/Apr 93 0.235 0.283 0.271 0.035 0.290 58
May 127 0.241 0.302 0.336 0.095 0.268 77
Jun 129 0.303 0.357 0.580 0.277 0.306 150
Jul 105 0.208 0.276 0.375 0.167 0.225 73
Aug 120 0.213 0.283 0.417 0.204 0.205 94
Sept/Oct 79 0.333 0.405 0.681 0.348 0.314 201
Rollins was atrocious in the first month of the season, mostly because his strikeouts went way up (18.3% K%) and his power went way down (.035 ISO). The ability to hit for power while maintaining high contact rates have always been his calling card, so when both of those things go south at the same time, he’s a pretty awful hitter. Even with his usual solid defense at short, Rollins was a replacement level scrub in April.
His May was slightly better, but not by much. He got his strikeouts back in check, but there still wasn’t much power, and and again, Rollins was mediocre at best. Then came June.
After combining for just 10 extra base hits in the first two months of the season, Rollins hit 18 in the season’s third month, including six home runs and three triples. He slugged .580 in June and posted an 11.4% K%, his lowest mark of the season. The contact and power reappeared, and for the month, he was one of the best players in baseball, posting +1.7 WAR in the process.
While the skills stuck around, the same process didn’t lead to great results in July and August, as his BABIP crashed and took his offensive production down with it. The power helped him produce more than he had early in the season, but he wasn’t anything special, posting +1 WAR total between those two months. Had he carried over some of his June production into July, the Phillies may have traded him to a contender in need of an upgrade at the position, but given his age and the $30+ million left on his contract, there wasn’t a huge market for his services.
That looks like it’s pretty fortunate for the Phillies, because his September has been even better than his June. He’s already his seven home runs this month, and he’s slugging a ridiculous .681 over the team’s last 17 games. At +1.5 WAR, he’s been baseball’s best position player this month – yes, even better than the legendary Miguel Cabrera.
Rollins has played 40 games in June and September, which accounts for just 30% of his season total. In those two months, he’s accumulated +3.2 WAR, which is 65% of his total for the year. And, while some normal variation in performance over these kinds of arbitrary endpoints is expected, you don’t see these kinds of awful-bad-great-bad-okay-amazing kinds of swings too often.
Overall, the total package for the Phillies has been quite valuable, and there’s a pretty good case to be made that he’s been baseball’s best overall shortstop this year. It’s been a roller coaster of a ride, however, beginning with a few months where Rollins looked like a shell of his former self. However, for the last four months, he’s been showing better power than he has at any point since his MVP season of 2007, and even with the increase in strikeouts, Rollins is still a very productive player. While he turns 34 in November and is probably headed for some decline in the next few years, it certainly isn’t here yet. As long as he keeps driving the ball and playing quality defense at a premium position, he’ll continue to be among the league’s best players.