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?
With each successive year (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013), I have tried to spend less space explaining what this metric is or even defending it. It is what it is. For longer (if not necessarily better) explanations, one can go back and read those older posts. For those who want a briefer summary, I will quote myself:
Basically, traditional linear weights (wRAA/Batting at FanGraphs) measure the average change in run expectancy for each event. WPA/LI scales linear weights to the game state while removing the leverage aspect (which is what makes it different from straight WPA or Clutch). The classic situation for explaining the difference between traditional linear weights and WPA/LI is two outs, bottom of the ninth, and the bases loaded. For traditional linear weights, a walk and a home run have the same value in every situation; that is a walk is always valued at about .3 runs, a home run about 1.4. For WPA/LI, events have different values for each situation relative to base/inning/score state and are valued according to wins rather than runs. Thus, with two outs in bottom of the ninth, the bases loaded, and the score tied, a walk and home run have a the same WPA/LI value — either wins the game. WPA/LI also includes events that wRAA doesn’t at the moment including (but not limited to) reached on error and double plays.
“Little Things” is derived by taking a hitter’s WPA/LI and subtracting Batting Wins (park-adjusted wRAA converted to wins scale) so you get just the game response aside from both the average linear weight run value or the clutch/leverage factor.
WPA and derivative metrics like WPA/LI are still somewhat controversial with respect to their usefulness or their adequacy to what they are purport to measure. As mentioned earlier, I am not going to sort through those issues here. I do think that WPA/LI (and thus Little Things) are at least useful as descriptions of what happened, whether they have useful predictive value is more questionable.
Here are the 2014 top give Little Things players (minimum 500 plate appearances, there were 149 eligible players).
5. Melky Cabrera, 1.222
Are you excited for an off-season of arguments about whether Melky Cabrera is on PEDs again and/or whether he should be allowed to sign a nice contract despite past PED use? Personally, I would be a bit more concerned about his health and the related issue of how well he can still play in the outfield, but I am just a blogger.
As for 2014, Cabrera had a really nice bounceback season at the plate. He still does not walk much, but his unintentional walk rate has basically been the same over the last three seasons while the league-wide walk rate has gone down. Cabrera’s primary skill is getting the bat on the ball, at which he excels, and his power came back in 2014.
As for game awareness (or luck, depending on one’s view), Cabrera had a nice season. The last couple of seasons in particular he has been grounding into an higher percentage of double plays, likely a combination of his ability to avoid the strikeout coming into conflict with his declining speed. So that is not where the high Little Things score comes from this season. He was not great in high-leverage situations, but the Little Things number leaves leverage aside. Mostly, Cabrera did a better job than average at moving runners over and the like.
4. Jay Bruce, 1.267
A little over a year ago I wrote about how Jay Bruce was not the superstar a lot of people (including myself) thought he would become, but that he was merely very good. There are worse fates. One worse fate would be Bruce’s 2014 season, during which he hit .217/.281/.373 (79 wRC+). Bruce had his usual issues with contact this season, but his BABIP and power both dropped considerably. This may or may not be related to his knee injury — it might be just random variation (much of the power outage was a drop in doubles). Still, given that Bruce’s past value as hitter comes from his power, it was a troubling performance.
Bruce was one of the worst at the Little Things back in 2011, and maybe there is a minor lesson there. When a hitter’s traditional linear weights numbers are good, it it harder to go beyond that using Little Things. Even with the higher ground ball rate this season, Bruce still did not ground into many double plays, and he did a good job advancing baserunners. Neither is an especially big deal by itself, but given his performance measured without them, it was value he gave to his team that went beyond what OPS or wOBA measures.
3. Jason Heyward, 1.743
Heyward was a something lightning rod for saber-controversy this season because of his defensive metric-fueled WAR. Even just looking at his bat, it has been a weird journey for Heyward. He had an awesome rookie season at 20, a rough sophomore slump, then a nice comeback in 2012 during which he not only had an encouraging power spike, but was the King of Little Things in 2012, which he surely sees as the high point of his career. His 2013 was decent, if shortened by injury, but in 2014 the seeming disappearance of his home run power (about half the rate of home runs on contact as in 2013) was shocking.
Given the run environment, Heyward’s bat (110 wRC+) would have been adequate even if he was a merely average defensive outfielder. But given that home run on contact rate is meaningful is smaller samples than most other rates, it is a concern. On the bright side, while Little Things as a whole is not something we can project in a meaningful way, part of his high score here probably has to do with his incredibly low rate of grounding into double plays (in only three percent of chances this season), something he has managed throughout his career. On the less-projectable side, this season he also managed a higher-than-usual rate of productive outs.
2. Jimmy Rollins, 1.804
Jimmy Rollins seems like a cool guy. I mean, who knows, do we really “know” what any athlete or celebrity is “really” like? Probably not, but I have always had a inexplicable soft spot for Rollins. Whatever other minor controversies there might have been around the Rollins and the Phillies this year, he just keeps doing the same thing he has been doing the last few years. He hits decently if unexceptionally, but Rollins is still a pretty good defensive shortstop who runs the bases well. Do baseball fans realize how much they are going to miss watching the Rollins-Utley middle infield?
Rollins’ power came back this season, but he was not exceptional when it came to moving base runners over and stuff like that. One should not pin all of a player’s Little Things score on one factor, but his low double-play rate (six percent) was probably one of the big ones.
1. Christian Yelich, 1.889
Yelich’s peripherals, at least the ones that usually jump out to saberists, are not that amazing. He has an above-average walk rate, but his strikeout rate could at best be described as average. He has not hit for much power, and most of that comes from doubles. He is a corner outfielder, so although a career 116 wRC+ is good enough, it hardly screams “star,” especially since most of that is due to a .363 career BABIP. Even if hitters seem to be peaking earlier, Yelich still does not turn 23 for about a month. Moreover, there may be good reasons to think that Yelich’s true talent BABIP is on the high side. He will be worth following.
It is not clear to me why exactly his Little Things score is so high, either, as the seasonal numbers advancing runners and the like are good, but not amazing. A big single or something like that is a big game situation probably had a lot to do with it, even if he was not “clutch” this year (-0.91). Yelich definitely helps his team in a number of ways. Whether he actually has an ability to do so in particular game states is more than questionable, research to this point suggests it was likely just luck. Either way, for 2014, he was the King of Little Things. Congratulations, Mr. Yelich.
Without comment (although that would interesting for those willing to dig), here are the bottom five just for fun:
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.