American League Award Predictions: Questionable ROY Edition

With awards season in full swing, we decided to do a little award voting of our own here at M-SABR. We voted for MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year in both leagues and below are the results from our American League award voting, in which 18 members of M-SABR participated. Voters were asked to choose their top 10 players for MVP, top 5 for Cy Young, and top 3 for Rookie of the Year. Here are the results (first-place votes denoted in parenthesis).

AL MVP

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Winner: Mookie Betts, RF, Boston Red Sox

Ever since Mike Trout has entered the league, AL MVP discussions have basically been the same: Trout is unquestionably the best player in the league, but a star player on a better all around team has the storyline and statistical case to push him over the top, or at least make the race close—think Josh Donaldson, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve/Aaron Judge, or Victor Martinez.

One of those competitors in recent years was Mookie Betts in 2016, whose 8.2 fWAR and 135 wRC+ were exceptional, but nowhere near Trout’s marks of 9.6 and 170. Yet it was the Red Sox’s 19-win advantage and AL East title that ultimately made 2016 the closest AL MVP race since Trout has been in the league.

So what’s different in 2018? Well, this year, the non-Trout storyline favorite, once again Betts, was not only as good but actually better than even the Melville Meteor himself. And that’s not even accounting for the 28-win gap between the 4th-place Angels and the historic 108-win Red Sox.

In fact, Mookie Betts’ 10.4 fWAR not only bested Trout’s 9.8 fWAR in 2018 but it topped any single-season WAR total Trout has put up throughout his career (even if only barely). And yes, Trout’s 191 wRC+ still points to a slightly better overall normalized offensive season compared to Mookie’s 185 wRC+, but new career highs of 32 HR, 129 Runs, and 30 SB in just 136 games set Betts apart. Throw in the best right field defense in all of baseball—his 15.3 UZR trailed only Andrelton Simmons, one of the best defenders at any position ever—and his role in leading the aforementioned historic team success and Mookie is a slam-dunk candidate.
 – Max Smith

Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels

Once again, the best player in baseball had an MVP-caliber season. Even though he missed half of August due to a wrist injury and his brother-in-law’s death, he came within two home runs of his career high and nearly set a new high in fWAR. He also increased his walk rate for the fourth straight season, leading the league with a 20.1% mark, as well as a league-leading 25 intentional walks, proving that pitchers want nothing to do with Trout. In the AL, Trout finished fourth in BA, first in OBP, second in SLG, first in OPS, tied for fourth in HR, second in fWAR, and, most importantly, first in WRC+, which measures total offensive contribution. And if his offensive abilities aren’t enough to give him the award, Trout was also nominated for his second Gold Glove award, showing how much he improved his defensive abilities. If it wasn’t for Mookie Betts’ historically good season, Trout would be a shoo-in for MVP. However, the Red Sox still would have been a top team without Betts, while the Angels would have been even worse without Trout. While that shouldn’t be the most important factor in deciding MVP, Trout and Betts are so close in every other category, it could very well come down to how important they are to their team.
 – Anthony Brown

Jose Ramirez, 2B/3B, Cleveland Indians

Jose Ramirez had 698 PA in 2018 while Mookie Betts had just 614. Because of his increased PA total, Ramirez had an advantage over Betts if you look at their counting stats. To even out the playing field, I divided Ramirez’s PA by Betts’ to get a common factor (~1.137) that I could use to get a prediction on what Betts’ stats would look like if he had the extra 84 opportunities. This is clearly just an estimate, but it should give us a good ballpark number by which to judge Betts’ production.

Ramirez finished 5th in the league in home runs (39) while Betts’ total placed 20th (32). By multiplying Betts’s 32 by the factor above, you get to a total of 34 home runs, still short of Ramirez’s total by five. Ramirez finished 10th with 105 RBIs while Betts found himself 49th with just 80. Multiplying Betts’ total by the factor would bring Betts up 91, still only good for 29th, a long way behind Ramirez. Using the above factor again for stolen bases, the pair would be equal at 34.  While Betts did have the 2nd highest OBP in the league (.438), Ramirez’s .387 mark was still good for 12th. Even though Ramirez had more opportunities than Betts, he still outpaced him in nearly every category while also keeping his slash line at a respectable level and walking more than he struck out. Ramirez’s offensive production give him a case for the AL MVP.
 – AJ Janetzke

JD Martinez, DH, Boston Red Sox

Last year, J.D. Martinez showed the league how much impact his bat alone can have on a team’s production. So, naturally, when the Red Sox signed him to a 5-year, $110 million deal back in February, they expected an impact player that could fill the hole left by David Ortiz.

And they got it. But with much more spice.

Martinez gave Boston fans what they were hoping for with a .329/.393/.644 line, .432 wOBA, 173 wRC+, and 29 homers in the first half alone. He also led the league to that point with 80 RBIs and was the starting DH for the AL All-Star Team. Heck, there was talk about restructuring his contract to have him stay in Boston longer due to his impact. He was so good this season that he even had the shot at the Triple Crown. And not just any Triple Crown, he was chasing the Global Triple Crown—leading in BA, HR, and RBIs in both leagues. The last time someone won that? Mickey Mantle in 1956. In the end, he fell short, but he still finished in the top three in most offensive categories including RBIs (first), total bases (first), and Bases-Out Runs Added (RE24) (first). Until the final weeks, he was neck-and-neck with Khris Davis in home runs and Mookie Betts in BA.

With Mike Trout and teammate Mookie Betts also contending, it will be tough for J.D. to take home the hardware, especially given that he hasn’t played many games in the outfield this year (and when he has played, he’s been abysmal, with a -8 outs above average in just 59 games). However, his impact was evident in the deep Boston lineup; he led the team to a franchise record in wins (108) with his bat. Hitting may not be everything and losing the Triple Crown bid certainly hurts his chances, but with a magical season for both him and the franchise, he surely deserves recognition for MVP.
 – Yuki Mori

Alex Bregman, 3B/SS, Houston Astros

While it is easy to overlook Alex Bregman as a legitimate contender for this season’s AL
MVP award, Houston’s young third baseman deserves every bit of attention he is getting. Bregman slashed a respectable .286/.394/.532 with 31 home runs and 103 RBIs. He also finished second in the AL in extra-base hits with 83, and his 7.6 fWAR was tied for 4th. What really sets Bregman apart from the other candidates is his AL-leading 5.94 win probability added, per Fangraphs. The importance of this metric to Bregman’s MVP candidacy is best explained in context. In 2018, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa—two of Houston’s offensive leaders from last year’s World Series campaign—both had down years relative to their normal production and spent time on the disabled list. If the Astros wanted to be serious contenders, someone had to pick up the slack at the plate. Bregman did just that, leading the 103-win team in many major offensive categories. Alex Bregman individually contributed more to Houston’s success than just about any other AL player did to their team’s, making him a very viable candidate for the 2018 MVP award.
-Harry Silverman

AL Cy Young

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Winner: Justin Verlander, SP, Houston Astros

The AL Cy Young race ultimately comes down to two players: Justin Verlander and Blake Snell. The former is undoubtedly strides ahead of the latter in terms of both performance and team contribution. I must acknowledge the fact I am a Detroit Tigers fan and Justin Verlander enthusiast, can still be found roaming Comerica Park in Verlander paraphernalia, and most importantly that Verlander had the Cy Young stolen from him in 2016. Regardless of all of that, Verlander deserves this award based solely on his terrific 2018 performance.

Although Snell compiled a better ERA and W-L record (21-5 with a 1.89 ERA for Snell vs. 16-9 with a 2.52 ERA for Verlander), this is 2018 and we can look beyond these basic stats. FIP, which takes defense out of the picture, shows that Verlander has a distinct advantage: 2.78 to 2.95. His 2.78 was his lowest mark ever—even lower than the FIP he posted during his 2011 MVP season. Snell posted a still-respectable 2.95 FIP, but this still shows he held one of the most overrated ERAs in baseball, helped by an outstanding Rays defense. Verlander also showcased impeccable dominance over hitters. He bested Snell in two important metrics, WHIP (0.90 vs. 0.97) and K/BB ratio (7.84 vs. 3.45). Finally, while Verlander had only three more starts than Snell, he faced 133 more batters, meaning he was consistently going deeper in games, providing the Astros with more value each time out, and giving all-around gutsier performances than Snell. Snell will likely get a boost from the same folks who voted for Rick Porcello in 2016, but Verlander deserves the Cy Young this year.
 – Matthew Kikkert

Blake Snell, SP, Tampa Bay Rays

Blake Snell is one of the most unlikely serious Cy Young candidates in a while. After two underwhelming seasons to start his career, Snell broke out in 2018. He posted a 1.89 ERA which helped him toward a 46 ERA-. Not only did he lead the American League in ERA, but his was 22 points lower than any other qualified pitcher. His 7.5 rWAR was first among AL pitchers. Hits did not come easily against Snell. Snell allowed 5.6 hits per nine innings, nearly a full hit ahead of second-place Gerrit Cole, who averaged 6.4. He shut down hitters all year; his .176 batting average against ranked first in the AL, 0.97 WHIP was second-best, and his 221 strikeouts landed him in the top five.

The most impressive part about Snell’s 2018 campaign was his ability to keep baserunners from scoring. His pace wasn’t just good, it was historic. Snell had an 88% LOB% (percentage of base runners were left stranded at the end of an inning), the second highest percentage since 1900! Overall, Snell has a very good case for the AL Cy Young award. He ranks highly in most of the important pitching stats and his exceptional ERA and high win total should bolster his case among the old-school voters.
 – Matt Schneider

Chris Sale, SP, Boston Red Sox

What is the goal of the Cy Young Award? Is it to honor the best pitcher in the league, or is it to honor a good pitcher with a couple more innings? Chris Sale was head and shoulders above every other pitcher in the American League this season. His 2.11 ERA was second in the league, and his 1.97 FIP was best by nearly half a run. His 6.5 WAR was barely behind Justin Verlander’s mark of 6.8, despite the fact that Verlander pitched 56 more innings. Sale’s season wasn’t just great, it was historic. Among pitchers who threw 150 innings, his 13.50 K/9 is the highest of all time.

If Sale had just thrown four more innings this season, his Cy Young case would be open and shut. However, he threw 158, just shy of the 162 IP threshold for a qualified starting pitcher. As such, people have disqualified him from the award due to an arbitrary innings count. And it’s not Sale’s fault, either. The Red Sox heavily restricted his innings when he returned from injury in September; he went fewer than five innings in each of his four starts down the stretch. Is it fair to deny Sale the Cy Young just because his team wanted him healthy in the playoffs? Sale was unequivocally the best pitcher in the American League this season. Let’s not deny him this award.
– Cam Cain

AL Rookie of the Year

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Voit exceeded rookie limits in 2017 and is thus ineligible to win the award in 2018.

Winner: Miguel Andujar, 3B, New York Yankees

While you may read a very passionate defense of M-SABR darling Shohei Ohtani about his better sabermetric statistics and “potential” numbers over a 149-game season, let me reassure you that Miguel Andujar is the true AL Rookie of the Year. While it would have been great to see Ohtani play 149 games like Andujar, the truth is that he was injured for almost a full two months, playing in just 114 contests. Only five players since 1995 have won the Rookie of the Year in either league playing in fewer games than Ohtani, and frankly, there was a lack of competition in each of those years for ROY. Andujar gave the Yankees consistent performance at the third base position, putting up a stat line of a .297 batting average, 27 home runs, and 92 RBIs, and helping them surpass the 100-win mark for the first time since 2009. Compare this to the offensive performance of 2015 NL ROY, Kris Bryant, who, in two more games, put up a .275 average, 26 home runs, and 87 RBIs. While Bryant was a runaway pick for ROY, Andujar is penalized only because of Ohtani’s popularity. As much as coaches like to say a player can bring value being in the dugout, the best ability is availability, and Andujar was excellent for nearly a quarter of a season more than Ohtani.
 – Matthew Kikkert

Shohei Ohtani, SP/DH, Los Angeles Angels

M-SABR has failed as a club.

In our Introduction to Sabermetrics class, we analytically inclined baseball writers are taught three core tenets to live our lives by:

  1. WAR is everything (though it is more effectively used as a helicopter view than an end-all-be-all tiebreaker).
  2. A walk is as good as a hit (so OBP is a far more useful metric than BA in a vacuum).
  3. RBIs are the devil.

Yet, none of these appeared to matter during the voting for AL Rookie of the Year. While Miguel Andujar had a highly impressive rookie season in his own right, there is simply no good argument by sabermetric or, frankly, any standards to give him the nod over Shohei Ohtani.

If the argument is that he was a better hitter than Ohtani, then volume is about all you have on your side. Yes, Andujar put up 5 more HR, 31 more RBIs, 24 more runs and had a higher batting average but he had an extra 239 plate appearances to get all that done. Instead, a quick look at each hitter’s respective wRC+ tells us that Shohei Ohtani was, in fact, the 8th best hitter (152 wRC+) in all of baseball among hitters with 300 PA. And while Andujar’s 128 wRC+ is extremely solid in its own right, a 12th-worst 4.1 BB% (again among hitters with at least 300 PA) should make advanced analysts shudder. And if you’re more of a Statcast fan, Ohtani’s top 10 rankings in Barrels/PA, Barrels/BBE, and 95+ Exit Velocity % further cement his case as the superior hitter. Even Ohtani’s 2.8 offensive fWAR outpaces Andujar’s 2.7—and WAR is a counting stat.

Being the superior hitter is not the extent of this argument though. Let’s not forget that Shohei Ohtani pitched a very good, and at times exceptional 50.1 innings in 2018, featuring MLB’s nastiest overall pitch in Whiff % (his splitter), and doing things that simply haven’t been seen since the Babe Ruth era. And even if his two-way superstardom was cut short for now by the devastating Tommy John news, the night his impending surgery was announced, Ohtani went 4-4 with 2 HR.

Ohtani is the best story in baseball, the likes of which might not be seen for another century. Coupled with a fairly obvious statistical case, this award should have been a no-brainer. Let’s hope the real voters do not repeat M-SABR’s mistake.
 – Max Smith

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