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King of Little Things 2014

My very first post at FanGraphs just over five years ago was about the King of Little Things. It might be seen as another annual junk stat-based post like the Carter-Batista Award and the reader is free to think of it that way. However, while both are in some way about the murky issue of situational hitting, the Carter-Batista Awared is about how RBI can exaggerate a player’s offensifve value, while the King of Little Things is about what might be seen (rightly or wrongly) as a hitter’s response to the overall game state beyond what is measured by traditional linear weights (as measured by wOBA, for example).

What does that mean, and who is 2014’s King of Little Things?

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The 2014 Joe Carter-Tony Batista Award

The days of having to rail against runs batted in as a particularly useful indicator of individual offensive value are long behind us. That does not mean there might not be potentially interesting research to do on situational hitting or the like, but simply that the straight-up use of RBI is not something that really needs to be debated.

Nonetheless, it is still interesting to see what sorts of hitters can accumulate high numbers of RBI, something we recognize with an award named for two players who managed big RBI numbers despite less than impressive advanced hitting metrics: the John Carter-Tony Bautista Award.

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Players Who Were Better Off Bunting

Bunts were more topical before the Royals discovered how to hit home runs in the playoffs. But bunt fever can never be cured, only controlled. Hopefully people have a more nuanced view of bunts. Jeff Sullivan recently discussed how the Royals’ bunts this year actually have not been so bad according to Win Probability Added, a tool I also use in my annual Best and Worst Bunts posts (the anticipation is building!).

While much of the positive value of bunts comes from the chances of the defense making errors. A WPA analysis takes into account the game state — at some point things like one-run strategies are pretty good ideas. Moreover some players are better bunters than others, and some players are such poor hitters that bunting might be more advisable for them than others.

Looking back at the 2014 regular season, which players were better off bunting?

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The MVP and the DH Adjustment

No designated hitter has ever won the Most Valuable Player award. Barring a surprise, that will not change this season. Victor Martinez has had a amazing year, but he is not going to be the American League MVP. (I have a feeling he does not have much of a shot at being the National League MVP this year, either.) Who knows where he will end up in the balloting, but does outside of some Twitter arguments the day the winner is announced, will anyone really care about the down-ballot voting?

According the metric everyone loves to hate, Wins Above Replacement, that sounds about right. Martinez is not even close to the top. This might really bother some people. After all, one could argue that Martinez has been the best hitter in the American League this season. The problem with WAR, from the Martinez partisans’ perspective, is the positional adjustment for the DH.

This is not a post about where exactly Victor Martinez should be in the MVP discussion this season. The question is whether anyone would really have a shot at being the most valuable player according to WAR if they DHed all season.

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The Eyes Have It: Seth Smith’s Laser Show

Seth Smith is having the best year of his career at the plate. He has slowed down during the second half of the season after a monster first half, but his overall line is still quite good. These days, .266/.370/.444 with half of the games happening in one of the league’s tougher parks for hitters is good for a 134 wRC+.

Even though Smith is having his best year as a hitter at 31, an age at which most players are expected to decline, in itself the story is not terribly interesting. During the off-season and the trade deadline, one could take about the Padres trading Luke Gregerson for him, giving Smith an extension, and electing not to trade him at the deadline (when his numbers was much more impressive) to generaet a bit of heat, but this is not exactly Trout-versus-Cabrera 2012-2013 territory. The Padres are a mediocre team (to put it kindly) in another transitional year, and Smith is only really good by their 2014 standard. He has hardly reshaped himself into a superstar. Smith is a platoon hitter whose greater level of success this year might very well be random variation.

What makes Smith’s performance this season more intriguing than it might appear at first is the possible connection to laser eye surgery Smith had late last season.

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Small Things Adding Up: Michael Bourn’s Speedy Decline

After 2013’s surprise run to the playoffs, in 2014 Cleveland is making a good show of it. However, at this point their playoff contention is mostly nominal.

Cleveland had a number of good things happen for them this year. They have both a serious Cy Young contender in Corey Kluber and (in a Trout-less world) a legitimate MVP candidate in Michael Brantley. The team has also made some free agent signings over the past couple of years, acquisitions that were supposed to be part of the team’s return to relevance. Despite the overall success, though, players like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn have mostly been disappointing. In the case of Bourn, it is not any one thing, but a number of factors that have contributed to his disappointing performance the last two years.

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The Cardinals Offense and the Failure to Live Up to 2013

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Cardinals were just behind the Brewers in the National League Central. Just over a week ago, the Cardinals pulled just barely ahead of the Brewers. Today, after taking three of four against Milwaukee, including yesterday’s 9-1 crushing, the Cardinals are five games up on the Brewers, who are actually now in third next to the Pirates. Over the last week the Brewers’ rotation has not exactly made its defenders look good.

While one could go on about the Brewers’ fall, the Cardinals are the main story. They have never really been out of it. At the beginning of the season, St. Louis was a solid favorite to win their division. Two months ago, when they were four games behind the Brewers, the Cardinals’ chances of winning the division were roughly the same as the Brewers. Today, they are overwhelming favorites.

The 2014 Cardinals are not clearly dominant in either pitching or hitting. In particular, on the offensive side they have not hit nearly as well as the 2013 team. Yet they again are poised to win the division. In many ways, the regression was predictable. But does that mean the Cardinals made mistakes when preparing for 2014?

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Aceless in Milwaukee

With two losses in a row to the Cubs, the Brewers have fallen out of first place in the National League Central. The National League West looks a lot like the American League West: Whichever team of top two teams in the West does not win the division very probably will be a very good first Wild Card team. If the current standings hold, the Brewers would be the second Wild Card team.

The second Wild Card spot is not nearly as desirable as winning the division, of course, but it is still much better than sitting at home during the playoffs. Moreover, the Brewers are just one game behind the Cardinals. A roughly one-in-three shot at winning the division (and one-in-two of making the playoffs) is not bad at all.

Milwaukee was not projected to be terrible, so this year has not been totally out of nowhere. Like the Royals, for example, they projected to be a roughly .500 team in a division that was not terribly strong. Still, the Brewers’ long stand on top of the Central this season was pretty surprising. As with all teams, there have been various surprise performances (on balance good for the Brewers).

One particularly intriguing aspect of the Brewers’ success in 2014 is their lack of an obvious “ace” – which is sometimes said to be necessary for a team to be successful – in their starting rotation. Read the rest of this entry »

The Second Wildcard Spot and the Unquantifiable Element

Not long ago, it looked like the As were running away with the 2014 American League West. Things have changed. After Sunday night’s game, the Angels are in first place by one game and the As are the first wildcard team at the moment. Whichever team ends up winning the division, barring a shocking twist, the other team will be a very tough matchup for the second wildcard team.

The prospect of facing such a particularly tough opponent in the wildcard game might lead some to think that the second wildcard spot is not all that valuable this season. Not only is the opponent likely to be very good (arguably better than the other division winners), but they will be playing at home. The second wildcard gives a team a chance at advancing, but it does not look like a very good chance. This is probably true most seasons, but it seems particularly clear this year.

Taking that all into account, the question arises as to how much value teams should place on that second wildcard spot. Sure, any team would take that spot over not making the playoffs, but should it really alter a team’s plans with regard to the future budget, trading away prospects, or making other “win now” moves? Is this something that can be quantified?

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Adam Jones’ Historical Plate Discipline Peers

What Mike Petriello wrote in July, continues to be true in August: the Orioles are tough to figure out. What is objectively true is that Baltimore is leading the American League East by a substantial margin, and that it unlikely to change.

As Mike noted in July, the Orioles are doing this despite many things not going as expected. However, one player is pretty much the same as he always: Adam Jones. From 2010 to 2013, Jones’ cumulative wRC+ was 116. To date in 2014, his wRC+ is 115. Jones’ offensive production so far this season may be a bit down from his 2012 and 2013 performances, but he is still pretty much the same hitter: good (not great) production based on average and power despite a low walk rate.

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