Monday, August 4, 2014

How Surprising Is Each MLB Team's Top Performer?

On Sunday night, America* watched as Brett Gardner completed a torrid week and led the Yankees to an 8-7 win over the Red Sox. Gardner slammed his fifth homer of the week, bringing his season total to 15 dingers.

*By "America," I actually mean "people who enjoy staying up until midnight to watch mediocre baseball." 

Gardner's superb recent play has unquestionably left him with the best stats among Yankees regulars. The left fielder has been 30 percent better than the average MLB offensive player by park- and league-adjusted measures. When you factor in Gardner's stellar defense, he's been one of the main reasons the Yankees have remained in semi-contention throughout this injury-riddled season.

As a Yankees fan, it's hard to get used to the fact that Gardner is the team's best position player. For the half-decade before this season, Robinson Cano held that distinction. However, with Cano's departure, it would have been fair to expect Gardner to take the baton as the most productive player on the team. But just how surprised should fans be that Gardy is carrying the Yankees?

Gardy goes yardy! (Photo via
With Gardner's strong season in mind, I began wondering who each team's top performer is and -- more interestingly -- whether fans would have expected that production before the start of the season. In order to determine each team's best position player, I decided to use Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR). It's not perfect, but it's a simple enough measure to approximate each team's top performer. I also wanted to calculate how predictable each player's production would have been prior to the season. In order to do that, I created The Sam Champion Predictability Measure. For those who don't know, Sam Champion is a weather forecaster who may or may not have been romantically involved with Mike Piazza. We'll determine how predictable each player's season would have been on a scale of 1-10 champions, with 1 meaning "ridiculously unpredictable" and 10 meaning "duh."

Now, let's take a division-by-division look at every team's top producer and how surprising or predictable those performances would have seemed before the season. (All stats are current through Monday morning.)

AL East

Baltimore Orioles: Adam Jones (3.7 fWAR)
Jones has been an under-the-radar star for a few seasons now. This year, he's mashed 21 homers and remains a solid gloveman. With Manny Machado hurt for much of the season and Chris Davis regressing after last season's breakout, Jones is a mild surprise as the best player on the O's.
Predictability Measure: 4 champions

Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Batista (3.8 fWAR)
Joey Bats has been among the best hitters in the majors since 2010, when he pulled a Brady Anderson and crushed 54 homers. This season, his production at the plate has more than made up for subpar defense and baserunning. Bautista's power has been enough to stave off teammate Edwin Encarnacion and his parrot mascot.
Predictability Measure: 8 champions

New York Yankees: Brett Gardner (3.5 fWAR)
Cano's exodus was offset somewhat by the addition of Jacoby Ellsbury, who could have been expected to challenge Gardner as the team's best position player. Gardner has been considerably better, though.
Predictability Measure: 6 champions

Tampa Bay Rays: Ben Zobrist (3.9 fWAR)
Zobrist has always been the darling of sabermetrically-inclined Rays followers, but I think most fans would have pegged Evan Longoria as the team's best player. Despite playing in every game this year, though, Longoria has been outpaced by the versatile Zobrist.
Predictability Measure: 4 champions

Boston Red Sox: Dustin Pedroia (3.1 fWAR)
Despite an un-Laser Show-like season at the dish, Pedroia has played his usual outstanding defense. (Over the weekend, he robbed the Yankees of several hits.) Since designated hitter David Ortiz provides no defensive value and Mike Napoli plays an undemanding position, Pedroia remains Boston's most valuable regular.
Predictability Measure: 9 champions

AL Central

Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler (3.7 fWAR)
The main surprise here is that Cabrera is not completely outpacing all of his teammates. After an offseason trade from Texas, Kinsler's great production has been a pleasant surprise for the Tigers.
Predictability Measure: 5 champions

Kansas City Royals: Alex Gordon (4.9 fWAR)
Gordon has been an underrated star for the Royals, averaging over 5 fWAR over the last three seasons, largely on the strength of his outfield defense. To any fan that values advanced stats, Gordon's production should come as little surprise.
Predictability Measure: 8 champions

Cleveland Indians: Michael Brantley (4.2 fWAR)
I think the vast majority of fans would have penciled either Carlos Santana or Jason Kipnis into this spot. Brantley has been a revelation, though, making up for poor defense by performing 54 percent better than the average hitter. Brantley came to the Indians in the CC Sabathia trade in 2008, and he's been a productive player over the past few seasons. But he's absolutely crushed the ball this season after signing a long-term extension with the Tribe in February.
Predictability Measure: 2 champions

Chicago White Sox: Jose Abreu (4.0 fWAR)
If I told you Abreu would have been this productive despite missing a couple weeks due to injury, you'd have called me a filthy fibber. But the Cuban rookie slugger has exceeded expectations and -- along with Chris Sale -- he provides a foundation upon which the Chisox can build.
Predictability Measure: 3 champions

Minnesota Twins: Brian Dozier (3.1 fWAR)
Dozier has been surprisingly productive, but "top performer" is a relative term for the moribund Twins.
Predictability Measure: 4 champions

AL West

Oakland A's: Josh Donaldson (4.5 fWAR)
Boy, some people get really pissed that Donaldson is called a star despite a .243 average and .328 on-base percentage. He plays great defense, we're told. Still, those 18 errors are hard to ignore. Either way, WAR loves Donaldson and his production would have been relatively easy to predict.
Predictability Measure: 8 champions

Los Angeles Angels: Mike Trout (6.0 fWAR)
Predictability Measure: 11 champions

Seattle Mariners: Kyle Seager (4.2 fWAR)
Like Donaldson, Seager is a third baseman with great range who most traditionalists don't recognize as a star. His power and defense offset his relatively low batting average. Robinson Cano, who many would have predicted as Seattle's top performer, trails Seager by just 0.1 win.
Predictability Measure: 3 champions

Houston Astros: Jose Altuve (3.4 fWAR)
Altuve has hit a ridiculously-high .363 on balls he's put into play, allowing him to take pole position in the race for the NL batting title. He regressed a bit in July, hitting .324 after a .411 mark in June. Still, even if he returns to his career norms, he'll out-produce the rest of a weak and inexperienced Houston lineup.
Predictability Measure: 7 champions

Texas Rangers: Adrian Beltre (3.4 fWAR)
In an otherwise depressing season for the beat-up Rangers, Beltre has continued to build his Hall of Fame case. The third baseman had amassed at least 5 WAR for the past four seasons, and he would have been the safe preseason pick as the most productive Ranger.
Predictability Measure: 8 champions

NL East

Washington Nationals: Anthony Rendon (4.3 fWAR)
Many people thought Bryce Harper would join the game's elite this season, but another major injury has prevented that from happening. Rendon, on the other hand, has broken out after a solid rookie season. Most preseason predictions pegged him as a part-time player, but he's exceeded all reasonable expectations.
Predictability Measure: 1 champion

Atlanta Braves: Jason Heyward (4.5 fWAR)
Heyward has provided great defense and steady hitting. Some fans would have forecasted Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, or Andrelton Simmons to be Atlanta's best player, but a healthy Heyward should be expected to out-perform each of them.
Predictability Measure: 7 champions

Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton (4.5 fWAR)
Stanton should hold this spot for as long as he remains in exile in Florida.
Predictability Measure: 10 champions

New York Mets: Daniel Murphy (2.5 fWAR)
The Mets can send out as many superhero pitchers as they want next season. It won't matter if they can't find some above-average everyday players.
Predictability Measure: Who-cares-how-many champions

Philadelphia Phillies: Chase Utley (3.4 fWAR)
I think most Phillies fans saw this coming. GM Ruben Amaro, on the other hand, probably expected Ryan Howard to return to 2006 form and post a 5.8 WAR.
Predictability Measure: 8 champions

NL Central

Milwaukee Brewers: Carlos Gomez (4.2 fWAR)
Some Beermakers fans hoped that steroid-free Ryan Braun would produce like steroid-filled Ryan Braun. It was more likely, though, that Gomez would be the team's best player.
Predictability Measure: 7 champions

St. Louis Cardinals: Jhonny Peralta, Matt Carpenter (3.5 fWAR)
Yadier Molina produced 2.6 WAR over just 83 games, but we probably won't be seeing Yadi on the field until 2015 (unless it's to leave a snack on his brother's plate). Absent Molina, Matt Holiday might have been the safe pick as the Cards' best player. Peralta and Carpenter are both playing a bit above their heads.
Predictability Measure: 3 champions

Pittsburgh Pirates: Andrew McCutchen (4.6 fWAR)
Along with Trout and Stanton, McCutchen would have been one of the safest predictions to lead his team in WAR.
Predictability Measure: 9.5 champions

Cincinnati Reds: Todd Frazier (3.5 fWAR)
If healthy, on-base cyborg Joey Votto would be a shoo-in as Cincinnati's best player. However, Votto has been plagued by injury all season, making the contributions of Frazier and Billy Hamilton (3.3 fWAR) all the more necessary.
Predictability Measure: 4 champions

Chicago Cubs: Anthony Rizzo (3.6 fWAR)
Rizzo and Starlin Castro were really the only preseason possibilities for this spot. Beginning next season, though, that pair should have competition for the distinction of the team's best regular.
Predictability Measure: 8 champions

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers: Yasiel Puig (4.8 fWAR)
Do you think Puig has any idea what the hell WAR is? In case he wants to know, it's a way for nerds to explain how awesome he is.
Predictability Measure: 9 champions

San Francisco Giants: Hunter Pence (4.2 fWAR)
When the Giants traded for Pence in 2012, do you think they had any inclination that he'd be their best player for the next couple years. The hard-charging outfielder has outperformed stars Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval since arriving in the Bay Area.
Predictability Measure: 5 champions

San Diego Padres: Seth Smith (2.5 fWAR)
Smith is the only Padres position played that Fangraphs lists as having a positive WAR. How on earth is San Diego in third place?
Predictability Measure: 6 champions

Arizona Diamondbacks: Paul Goldschmidt (4.2 fWAR)
Oh, yeah; the Padres are in third place because they play in the NL West. Goldshmidt would have been the obvious preseason choice as Arizona's best player. Unfortunately, the team just found out that he's out for the remainder of the season. His WAR lead is safe in a punchless D-backs lineup, though.
Predictability Measure: 9 champions

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki (5.1 fWAR)
Even after adjusting for hitter-happy Coors Field, Tulo was one of the league's most productive players before being sidelined by a hip flexor injury. Both the strong performance and the injury would have been eminently predictable before the season began.
Predictability Measure: 8 champions

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