With the 2011 season a few days past the midpoint, now seems like a good time to dig into our trusty Oliver projection system to see who may be the recipient of a few major awards at season’s end. To make matters simple, I will list the top five players projected to finish ahead in WAR for each league according to their particular category.
For those unfamiliar with how Oliver calculates WAR, the quick answer is that it’s a combination of batting runs above replacement, fielding runs above average along and stealing runs above average. Obviously, a lot more complicated work is required so for further reading I recommend you check out the detailed introduction by the creator, himself: Brian Cartwright.
And, by the way, our THT Forecast system is now half off its original price: click here for details to order.
2011 American League MVP, Jose Bautista
Jose Bautista is looking like the gold standard among all offensive performers and, according to our projections, should maintain his comfortable lead at season’s end. At the break, Bautista is hitting .333/.467/.691 as well as leading all of baseball with a .482 wOBA and 212 wRC+. His batting average is expected to drop since his .321 BABIP is nowhere near his career average of .275, but can we expect it to drop that much?
Last season, Bautista was hounded by a very high infield-fly ball rate of 14.9 percent (last season’s average was around 9.7), but an adjustment has been made, and that number has dropped to a reasonable 11.4 percent. Another advantage Bautista has (among many) is his improving plate discipline.
Bautista simply doesn’t have many weaknesses. If memory serves, there was talk about him not being able to handle breaking pitches around this time last season; obviously, that was scuttled when adjustments were made.
Just as a further example to show how far ahead Mr. Bats is, let’s take his percentage of runs contributed and outs made per plate appearance. At the All-Star break, Bautista had contributed to a staggering 23 percent of runs created (most All-Star caliber players average around 14 to 15 percent) and has only accounted for only 55.3 percent of outs made (again, most players in the upper tier average around 63 to 65 percent).
Barring an injury, the only competition Bautista could face are sportswriters affiliated with the BBWAA who will bemoan the fact that the Blue Jays are a non-playoff team and, thus, he doesn’t merit MVP consideration. That opinion will be voiced, but logic should prevail.
Other AL considerations
(data provided by THT Forecasts)
Among the Red Sox in this list, Kevin Youkilis is expected to improve the most according to our WAR forecast with an attractive .403 expected wOBA. Arguments can be made over his defense this season; our metrics seem to differ with UZR and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) which see him as a liability. I‘m not as bullish on Youkilis as Oliver is, since his higher strikeout rate and dip in contact percentage need to be reversed.
Adrian Gonzalez seems to be the favorite to compete for the MVP title. It’s expected that his numbers should come down a bit. His BABIP is sky high at .394 and is 44 points above his previous high in 2006. His walk rate is down, but I’m not too concerned, as he has been seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone but has the prior plate discipline if adjustments are needed. One curious note: Gonzalez has been hitting a higher frequency of ground balls this season (47 percent compared to his 41-percent career rate).
Rounding out the other candidates, Jacoby Ellsbury has made Red Sox fans quickly forget about any issues regarding durability. The season is only half over, so anything can happen, and any time spent on the DL could reawaken issues regarding his “slow to heal” reputation.
Miguel Cabrera has performed well despite some off-field issues at the beginning of this season. His improving plate discipline and strike zone awareness have moved into elite status. He slumped a bit prior to the All-Star break, but so far the sample size is much too small to consider.
2011 National League MVP, Matt Kemp
Obviously, this race is projected to be a lot closer than its AL counterpart. Due to injuries and early season slumps to many NL stars, our projections for the rest of the season for players like Kemp, Jose Reyes and Ryan Braun are expected to lag behind others like Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez and Chase Utley. Of course, it’s better to finish strong than recede from a hot start in the eyes of many voters.
Kemp got off to a torrid start in April and followed it up with an improved June where he posted a .536 wOBA. Our forecasts see Kemp finishing with a wOBA of .372 in the second half, but he has never had a history of relying on contact rate that met the MLB average. This season we have seen a rise in his contact percentage, but his overall numbers are below the usual MLB averages:
Outside the K-zone
Inside the K-zone
(contact data provided by Baseball Info Solutions)
Where Kemp has been unusually successful is in his newfound plate discipline. This season we have seen a 61 percent rise in his walk rate compared to his previous three-year average. Looking at his pitches per plate appearance, nothing much has changed, since his 2011 rate is currently at 3.94 pitches and is a few points lower than last season (3.96).
According to pitches seen inside the strike zone, Kemp currently has a rate of 46.2 percent, which is near the MLB average of 46.5 percent. However, if we look at what’s right in front of our face, we will see that Kemp is second in the NL in intentional walks with 12, but that still doesn’t account for the 60 percent increase.
Some of the change can be attributed to age as Kemp enters his prime at the age of 26, but unless opposing pitchers keep avoiding him, I doubt his high walk rate can be sustained.
Other NL considerations
Braun has the credentials, along with a playoff-committed team, to warrant some serious consideration. The only problem is, he has to compete with a fellow teammate close to being every bit his equal in Prince Fielder. Braun is another player in his prime and is projected to age well. The major knock against him will always be his defens,e but defensive metrics don’t see him as terrible as his disastrous season at 3B in 2007.
Andrew McCutchen has quietly developed into one of the better all-around players in baseball. His power seems to be developing at an earlier age. Looking at Hit Tracker, we can see that McCutchen was lucky on a few home runs but nothing out of the ordinary. It’s expected for his power to regress a bit, but don't expect anything too drastic.
The recent hamstring injury to Reyes will keep him on the shelf for the next few weeks, minimum. This could be trouble since so much of Reyes’ value is connected to his legs. I’m a bit bearish on his projection for the rest of this season.
Troy Tulowitzki is an interesting study. He typically begins to heat up in the second half and has a current BABIP of .256 that just screams for a correction. Over the past three years, Tulowitzki has shown some positive growth in his contact rates that have translated into a low strikeout rate of 8.8 percent.
Beginning last season, we have seen Tulo hounded by a very high infield-fly ball percentage (16.5 percent in 2010; 16.8 percent this season) as well as seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance (3.44 this season compared to 3.62 in 2010 and 3.92 in 2009). This could be an example of him “pressing,” so these trends need to be fixed if he wants to maximize his contact abilities.
2011 American League Cy Young, Justin Verlander
In 2009, Verlander did experience some fatigue after posting a career-high 240 innings pitched, but concerns about him being anything but a workhorse were quickly washed away after last season. Our projections see him clocking in about 250 innings. That’s a lot, and since pitchers tend to go through more variance than positional players, let’s look at some key secondary stats for this season:
Besides CC Sabathia, it seems as though everyone in this group is benefiting from a BABIP much lower than the current AL average of .289. This could be a result of the 21 percent line drive rate against him. However, Sabathia seems to be benefiting from an incredibly low HR/FB rate of 3.9 percent (he typically falls around 8 to 9 percent), which will be tough to sustain against the AL East.
On the positive side, Sabathia has shown a healthy increase in overall velocity levels since June. This is expected as the weather warms up and very promising as we move into the second half.
Both Jered Weaver and Dan Haren have been incredibly effective for the Angels this season. Weaver tends lean more towards the flyball side in terms of batted balls, and it should be expected that some of his infield fly balls (IFFB) should find their way into the outfield and possibly over the fence, just as his xFIP predicts.
This season, James Shields has increased his curveball usage by a fair amount (according to Baseball Info Solutions), and this pitch has contributed to much of his success. Last season, Shields was the poster boy for bad luck, but it seems things have evened out for him on the other side of the spectrum:
It's amazing what can happen when you strand a few runners and extra batted balls find their way into gloves.
2011 National League Cy Young, Roy Halladay
I would say the odds are very good this season’s NL Cy Young award will go to someone wearing a Phillies uniform. All three pitchers have been as advertised and are showing no signs of slowing down.
Looking at the secondary stats below, we can see that Halladay has been dominant according to his strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his reputation as a solid groundball pitcher doesn’t point to any possible red flags in his low HR/FB rate.
Cole Hamels has utilized his cut fastball with more frequency this season, and it has translated into an increase in ground balls. His changeup has also been effective as a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch against right-handed batters.
Cliff Lee has been his same solid self; nothing new to report here.
Jair Jurrjens is an interesting case. As we can see in his peripherals, he should be due for a regression, and it’s not surprising that our forecasts reflect this. So far, he has gotten by with an incredibly low home run-to-fly ball rate at 4.2 percent. His BABIP is also low, which is interesting since he seems to give up an above-average number of line drives at 21.5 percent compared to the MLB average of 18 percent.
Looking at Jurrjens' velocity chart one sees a lot of volatility, but his improved command doesn’t point to any red flags.
Opponents of Clayton Kershaw have not only had to put up with an increase in fastball velocity but have also had to contend with a higher frequency of sliders regardless of his opponent’s handedness.
Kershaw also has flashed his changeup a bit, with some success. Both his changeup and four-seam fastball display a lot of vertical movement, which has helped in keeping his opposing hitters from “barreling” the ball, exemplified by his low line drive and home run-to-fly ball rates since 2010.
2011 American League Rookie of the Year, Michael Pineda
Understanding it is somewhat foolish to speculate on this award at the midpoint, I still figure it should be fun to look at which players have already established themselves in their first season while also speculating on others just coming up to the major league level.
So far, pitchers have made the biggest impact among the AL rookie class:
Michael Pineda is only 22 years old and by August will be approaching his career high in innings pitched (139.1). Texas and Los Angeles are finally making the AL West a two-team race, so it’s expected that the Mariners will shut him down around the 165-inning mark. Barring any disastrous results in his next seven or eight starts, Pineda could win the award.
Rookie relievers on playoff teams always have a chance, and both Jordan Walden and Vinnie Pestano could get the opportunity to shine.
Among positional players, Mark Trumbo and J.P. Arencibia rank among the top positional rookies in terms of our WAR full-season projection. Of course, both have established themselves through their .200-plus Isolated Power scores but are still limited in terms of long-term potential.
Casper Wells has put up some interesting numbers in Detroit, but he’s been battling for playing time all season against fellow rookie Andy Dirks and Brennan Boesch. Wells has been getting a majority of his play against left-handers, though viewing him primarily as a platoon option against southpaws is obviously premature, since last season’s similar sample size saw Wells hit righties to the tune of a .481 wOBA (this season in 43 plate appearances, that number has dropped to .301).
Speaking of small sample sizes, Josh Reddick has done everything possible to shed his reputation as a 24-year-old fourth outfielder, but the return of Carl Crawford sometime this week should limit any future Fenway heroics.
Earlier this season, the Royals called up Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and LHP Danny Duffy, but they are still making adjustments as the league adjusts to them. It's all part of the standard educational curve.
Not many expected the Mike Trout era to start so soon…or has it? Peter Bourjos is a nice piece, but I doubt the Angels ever saw him in their long-term plans; however, he has been out-fWARing his more affluent outfield partners. Last week Bourjos strained his hamstring, which prompted the call-up of Trout. It will be interesting to see if Mike Scioscia keeps his word that Bourjos will remain the starting center fielder when he returns.
2011 National League Rookie of the Year, Danny Espinosa
According to our forecasts, Danny Espinosa and Brandon Beachy currently lead all NL rookies in projected WAR. Espinosa has been showing above average power with his 16 home runs and .218 ISO while playing above-average defense at second base. As a switch-hitter, Espinosa has shown a considerable split as left-handed hitter (.333 wOBA) compared to the right-handed side (.384 wOBA). These numbers are still small in sample, so more data will be necessary.
Beachy was briefly sidelined with an oblique injury in May and early June. He primarily pitches with a four-seam fastball that has a lot of vertical movement and—coupled with his above average command—he has racked up a considerable strikeout rate of 10.43. With his time missed, Beachy should have no problem making his starts and still have something left over for the postseason.
Craig Kimbrel and Fernando Salas are the current closers on possible playoff teams. As always, that will be fun.
Darwin Barney has been a pleasant surprise in Chicago. He sustained a fairly high BABIP this season, but his glove and contact skills look legitimate.
Lance Lynn has been interesting after his return from Triple-A in long relief for the Cardinals. In only 20 innings, he has compiled a K/BB of 5.75 and has induced a high number of ground balls, but his low swinging-strike percentage (SwStrk) of 8.7 probably isn’t enough to justify his strikeout-per-nine of 9.70.
Freddie Freeman doesn’t rank as high in our projected WAR compared to other sites, but he has been solid as a 21 year old for the Braves this season. Opposing pitchers have stayed away from the strike zone, since his zone percentage comes in at 39.9, which has forced him to see, on average, about four pitches per at-bat. Some doubt his power, especially since he will have to make up for his shoddy defense, but time is on his side.
Dillon Gee and Vance Worley are a couple of starting pitchers playing for high-profile teams. Both have found some luck with low BABIPs, but both have a K/BB rate around 1.80 and should face some rocky outings in the second half.
Finally, we have seen some major league service time logged by top prospects Anthony Rizzo, Domonic Brown and Brandon Belt. Obviously, the second half is still young, but injuries and questionable player development strategies have worked to slow them down.
References and Resources
All stats and WAR data were compiled prior to the start of the second-half (July 14, 2011).
Vince has his own blog, The League of Transparency, and has also written for SBNation.
Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.