Strasburg and the AL MVP
October 2, 2012

For five months the sports media was obsessed over the Nationals’ decision to limit Stephen Strasburg’s innings this season.  The opinions mostly ran from the simple “it was foolish” to the patrician “it has no basis in science”.  And when thoughts of the post-season began to become more realistic, the echo chamber became even more intense.  Nevermind that they had no scientific basis for this prevailing opinion; it just wasn’t the way things were done.  One has to maximize one’s chances this year and let the future take care of itself.  Almost unbelievably so, that noise grew even louder when the Nationals actually did shut Strasburg down, although I suspect a great deal of the caterwauling was due to sportswriters who were depending on Strasburg to carry their fantasy teams through September and were just finding an outlet for their bitter grapes that the Nationals actually did what they said they would.

All the knee-biting about the number of innings aside, in his last few starts Strasburg showed signs of fatigue and some sloppiness in his mechanics in an effort to maintain his velocity.  There was a legitimate concern, since he was doing some things mechanically that he doesn't normally do, not that he would reinjure his elbow, but that he could possibly injure his shoulder, an injury that is much more difficult to repair and from which to recover.  That was the concern expressed by Dr. Lewis Yocum who performed the Tommy John surgery on Strasburg last year.  


Given the fact that Strasburg had never thrown more than 100 pitches in any outing in his entire pitching career dating back to high school yet still suffered an injury requiring reconstructive surgery, it seems logical that the Nats elicited the opinion of his doctor.  I don't have his pitch counts for his games in high school but for every game he pitched at San Diego State and in the minors, I do.  It wasn't until April 11 this year against the Mets that he topped the century mark for the first time.  So being cautious was merited.  And unlike Baseball Prospectus, whose efforts to predict pitching injuries have been laudable albeit unscientific and consequently futile, the Nationals have the advantage of being able to consult actual experts in biomechanics and the surgeons who perform the re-constructive surgeries.  They got the most scientific insights into how to keep this particular pitcher healthy.  The Nationals also had the benefit of going through this process last year with another hard-throwing right-hander, Jordan Zimmermann, and so far their handling of his recovery has gone pretty well.  Just ask National League hitters.

What the Nationals absolutely didn’t want is for this once-in-a-generation arm to end up like Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Dwight Gooden, Alex Fernandez, Steve Avery etc. who all suffered tragic compromises to what might have been brilliant careers because some people thought it was better to ride them hard for a year in an effort to win it all.  Following the doctors’ advice as opposed to some statisticians’ guess seems like the more reasonable path.  Was it exact science?  No, but it was state of the art.

It seem obvious that Rizzo was likely thinking about the imminent shutdown when he signed Chen Ming Wang and John Lannan to those ridiculous one-year contracts for a combined $9 million this past spring.  At least that is what they were called at the time by many of these same analysts.  Neither pitcher had to be great over the long haul; just for maybe a month or two and maybe not even that.  If they were really good for one or two starts that would be enough as long as the rest of the rotation continued to pitch well.  The Nats already had a playoff-quality rotation with Gonzalez, Zimmerman, Jackson and Detwiler, which as Tom Boswell noted earlier this season, was one of the hardest throwing and most effective in baseball even without Strasburg.  Maybe Rizzo knew then, just as he knew Bryce Harper was going to be a significant contributor to this year's team, just as he knew that Kurt Suzuki was the right catcher to trade for, just as he knew that Tyler Clippard would be a good enough regular season closer until Drew Storen was healthy again...


But maybe Rizzo and company had something else in mind when they offered the range of potential innings between 160 and 180 yet shut him down just short of 160.  Obviously Gio Gonzalez will start Game 1 of the playoffs wherever they may be.  But who to start in Game 2, on the road with the game being a possible must win?  Does one go with the veteran, Edwin Jackson?

Jackson          G    GS    W    L      CG    SHO    IP     H      R    ER    HR    BB    K     ERA     WHIP    BAA     
 Home           14    14    5    6       1     0    92.2    78    38    36     9    25    87    3.50    1.11    .230     
 Away           16    16    4    5       0     0    90.1    89    51    48    14    32    75    4.78    1.34    .255    
vs. ATL 2012     2     2    0    1       0     0    12.1     9     5     4     3     3    16    2.92    0.97    .196    
vs. ATL career   6     4    0    1       0     0    27.1    27    12    11     3     9    27    3.62    1.32    .252    

Probably not as he is considerably better at home, although if it's in Atlanta he's not a bad choice.  But his numbers against the Cardinals are not good: 7.71 ERA in two starts this year, 1-3 with a 4.58 ERA career.  To be fair, most of the damage this year was done in one start.  His first start against them, at home, was a brilliant 8-inning outing in which he allowed no earned runs on four hits while striking out 10.  But again, that was at home.  The Nats need to find someone for a potential road start in St. Louis

Zimmermann       G    GS    W    L      CG    SHO    IP     H      R    ER    HR    BB    K     ERA     WHIP    BAA     
 Home           16    16    5    3       0     0    96.2    91    42    38    11    22    71    3.54    1.17    .247     
 Away           16    16    7    5       0     0    99.0    95    27    26     7    21    82    2.36    1.17    .255
vs. ATL          5    5     2    1       0     0    28.1    26    13    12     4     9    23    3.81    1.24    .243     
vs. STL          5    5     0    2       0     0    25.2    38    26    26     6     6    21    9.12    1.71    .345     

Zimmermann has been solid at home and the road, but again, not so good against the Cardinals.   How about Detwiler

Detwiler         G    GS    W    L      CG    SHO    IP     H      R    ER    HR    BB    K     ERA     WHIP    BAA     
 Home           17    14    8    2       0     0    90.1    83    34    26     7    26    56    2.59    1.21    .245     
 Away           16    13    2    6       0     0    74.0    66    41    36     8    26    49    4.38    1.24    .237     
vs. ATL          5     5    1    1       0     0    29.1    31    12    11     1     8    18    3.38    1.33    .272   

Well, no, he was tattooed in his only start against the Cards and now possesses an ERA over 11 against them.  But the team looks to be in good shape versus Atlanta, don't they?  Still, there's only a 50/50 chance that is who they face in the first round.  Lannan is the other possibility and he's been pretty good down the stretch but do the Nats really want to trust a pitch-to-contact lefty on the road against a predominantly right-handed slugging line-up, particularly if it means avoiding an 0-2 deficit with three to play?  The only power-threat the Cardinals have from the left-side is switch-hitting Carlos Beltran but he's significantly better against lefties both this year (.278/.331/.542 vs .268/.355/.424) and career.
Let's assume for the sake of argument that Rizzo has another pitcher in mind, one who will be well-rested, who has been long-tossing on the side for three weeks now and has been practicing his bunting the last week.  Surely the Nats wouldn't put a designated bunter on the postseason roster unless...

????????         G    GS    W    L      CG    SHO    IP     H      R    ER    HR    BB    K     ERA     WHIP    BAA     
 Home           14    14    6    3       0     0    77.1    72    33    30    11    19    88    3.49    1.18    .247     
 Away           14    14    9    3       0     0    82.0    64    29    26     4    29   109    2.85    1.13    .214   
vs. ATL          5     5    3    1       0     0    26.1    24    12    12     2    12    34    4.10    1.37    .250   
vs. STL          1     1    0    0       0     0     6.0     2     0     0     0     1     9    0.00    0.50    .095   

unless he was capable of helping in other ways.  How many innings does a starting pitcher pitch in a post-season if he averages 5.2 innings a start and starts four times? 


I learned long ago that getting all bent out of shape over who the writers ultimately deemed MVP was an exercise in futility.  Their claim is that they are voting for the most valuable player, not the best player.  Their determination of who is most valuable is largely dependent on the antiquated idea that the player has to be on a playoff-contending team.  But I defy anyone to find me a single player who was ever solely responsible for his team's playoff contention.  There's just no such thing as a 30-win player; at best a single player might be responsible for 10-12 wins above replacement.  The rest of the wins have to come from other players on the team, frequently several 3-5 win players.  So this notion that a player having an unbelievable season can't be MVP because the rest of his team stinks is just ignorant.  I'll grant the possibility that when splitting hairs, a player on a playoff team could conceivably deserve an edge over an equal player on a bad team, but both should be duly considered in the voting.  Unfortunately, it rarely works that way. 

Which brings me to the topic of this year's AL MVP which is between Miguel Cabrera, who could conceivably win the Triple Crown of hitting, something that hasn't been done since 1967, or rookie phenom Mike Trout, who is leading the league in steals and runs and is 3rd in on base and has hit 30 homers for good measure.  I won't go over the arguments that have emanated from both the old-school and the number-crunching schools.  Suffice it to say that both sides are sufficiently condescending and nauseating. 

The old school side won't recognize the arbitrary nature of the Triple Crown as an honor.  Truly, it is an incredible feat to accomplish, something only a handful in history have ever done and those who have are generally considered some of the best hitters ever.  But if you're gonna go that route, then the fact that Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron and Stan Musial and Willie Mays and Honus Wagner never did it means that, while it is spectacular, it is not the most indicative achievement for greatness.  Plus it ingores a lot of other things that are pretty important in baseball as well, like baserunning, defense, drawing walks, etc.

The number-crunching side won't recognize that the statistics they generate these formulas from are inherently flawed.  Not everything in baseball that determines the outcome of the game is tabulated, and frequently it is mis-assigned by the offical scorer, not because of any incompetence (although that does happen) but because the scoring rules have an enormous amount of ambiguity in them.  Even beyond that, and I'm speaking as someone who scored the games professionally for five years and has hands-on experience with the scoring software from STATS, MLB and BIS, that a lot of the scoring decisions are judgment calls and in no way precise enough to draw conclusions on with certainty.  Sure, generalizations can be informatively made from the data, but the notion that something as variable-dependent as defense can be precisely measured enough to generate an accurate summation of a player's defensive overall ability is just silly, especially given a single-season time-frame.  Even the creators of the defensive stats admit this.  The defensive metrics we have to today are as accurate as batting average is a measure of a hitter's overall value: it gives you a superficial idea of the quality but very little in the way of depth. 

With that out of the way, I thought I would look at a few back-of-the-envelope figures that might add more grist for the mill.  For example, Cabrera has fewer than 100 strikeouts.  Of the hitters who have 40 or more home runs this season, only he and Edwin Encarnacion have fewer than 125 strikeouts.  Mike Trout has 136.  In an age when pitching specialization has increased the likelihood that a strikeout will be the result of a plate appearance, it's pretty amazing to think that there are still guys who have enough strength and coordination and discipline to hit 40 balls 400 feet and not whiff more than 100 times.  Of course, there's a drawback to making so much contact: Cabrera leads the majors in hitting into double plays with 28. 

One of the things that is consistent with Cabrera is that in addition to the homers, he also hit a lot of doubles.  He has 40 this year, which makes the fifth time he has topped that mark and he's never hit fewer than 30 in a full season.  His 375 total bases so far this season is the 85th highest total ever and with two games remaining it’s not far-fetched to imagine him finishing ranking in the high 60s.  Mike Trout on the other hand, has been a very prolific doubles hitter in the minors, hitting two and a half times more than homers, yet in the majors has hit more homers than doubles.  I suspect that is something that will be pertinent in future projections. 

Cabrera leads the AL in RBI, which is pretty impressive considering only one guy who hits ahead of him in the line-up (Austin Jackson) has an on base greater than .350:

Tiger second basemen have an on base of .276

Tiger shortstops have an on base of .305 

Tiger right fielders have an on base of .285

Tiger left fielders have an on base of .326

It's pretty remarkable that both he and team mate Prince Fielder (probably) will end up with at least 110 RBI given that sorry crew.

However, Mike Trout also has an interesting claim along those lines.  The Angels hitters behind him haven't been that stellar either.  Of the hitters who could have a chance of driving him in:

Angels #2 hitter has a .423 slugging percentage

Angels #3 slugged .508 

Angels #4 slugged .455

Angels #5 slugged .460

Angels #6 slugged .416

Angels #7 slugged .411

After the #5 guy, that's a pretty huge drop-off.  Trout is getting home a lot of the time on his own efforts, either by driving himself in with a homer or stealing bases or taking extra bases to get into easy scoring position.  There’s little debate his is one of, if not the most impressive rookie seasons ever.

I'll close with another off the beaten-path stat.  Both sides argue theoretically how much each player helped their respective teams, but what if someone looked at what they did in the actual games.  Or rather, what they didn't do.  I decided to see how the teams did when the candidates didn't do anything to help the team.  That is, when they were in the line-up but did not accumulate any walks, steals, RBI, runs or hits.  How did their teams do without their help? Obviously, when players have such incredible years there aren't going to be too many games where that is the case.  But if you are wondering, the Tigers went 10-14 when Cabrera went 0-for, the Angels were 5-10 when Trout did nothing.

All that said, because Cabrera's team made the playoffs and Trout's did not, Cabrera will likely win.  Whether he should or not will likely be a point of contention for a long time.