An MVP For the Statcast Era and What That Means for Debate in Baseball

I have to say that when I originally heard this week that Major League Baseball had named White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu as their American League Most Valuable Player, I was a little bit surprised to say the least.

For instance, the phrase “highway robbery” may have come out of my mouth to friends and co-workers I had spoken to on the phone. I was absolutely adamant that Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez should have won the award. In fact, just a matter of weeks ago when I put together my own award ballot not only did I have Ramirez over Abreu, but I had the Rays’ Brandon Lowe, Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu, Angels’ Anthony Rendon AND Indians’ Shane Bieber over Abreu as well.

Why was I so tepid on the White Sox slugger? Is this some sort of anti-big market bias? Do I have some aversion as an admitted Indians fan to suggesting a division rival is that level of prolific? Is it categorical hatred of Cuban born right-handed infielders for the White Sox?

Hardly. Especially on that last one… in fact I had a tremendous amount of respect for Alexei Ramirez’s game back in his day- an above average bat at the shortstop position who started his career by impressing at the inaugural World Baseball Classic before defecting and coming to America? What’s not to like?

But I digress… its not any of the above reasons. It’s because Abreu was a lousy fielder playing the generally negligible defensive position of first base. The players I put above Abreu on my ballot all either posted better defensive metrics than him (Defensive WAR and Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 Games, specifically), or happened to be the league’s most dominant pitcher over the course of the 60 game season. In fact, the only position player I placed ahead of Abreu who didn’t have above replacement level statistics at his main spot on the field was LeMahieu, but he trumped Abreu by being the only player in the American League to surpass the White Sox slugger in both Weighted Runs Created+ and adjusted OPS+.

For me then, this was pretty cut and dry. While Abreu was absolutely one of the fiercest hitters in baseball from the end of July to the end of September, in order to be most valuable, he had to at least be decent with the glove. Sure, he could get consideration for MVP, but ultimately, I am looking for someone capable in both facets.

So, what happened in the real-life vote? Does the Baseball Writers Association of America just not know that it actually matters that players catch the ball? Did they become so enamored with Abreu’s league leadership in old school stats like hits, RBI, and the slightly more new-fangled slugging percentage that he stole the show? Is this another example of baseball writers lagging behind the times in terms of statistical analysis and trusting the eye test too much?

Perhaps, and honestly, in some cases, probably. But that’s to be expected in any group, right? Differing perspectives, opinions, and types of analysis. Without this, why even bother having a vote in the first place? Just give the award to the Wins Above Replacement leader (Ramirez, by the way, for those analytical types out there that recognize my sarcasm but think getting rid of the human element sounds like paradise) and be done with it.

But what if I told you that the exact opposite could be the case as well? What if I told you that the data actually suggests that Abreu, who was home to a -1.6 Ultimate Zone Rating per 150, bad enough to be 10th out of 15 qualified candidates in either league, and -4.7 Defensive WAR, good for 11th among the same sample was a better first baseman than those statistics suggest? You might ask, “how much better?”

To be precise, about 2 Outs Above Average. Allow me to explain.

While Abreu may have lagged behind in the theoretical formulas doctored up by sites like Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference (which I love by the way, this is not shade), Statcast data would suggest that Abreu isn’t somewhere towards the middle-bottom of the league in terms of defensive first basemen, rather he should be considered near the top.

For those that don’t know about it, Outs Above Average is pretty interesting. In short, smart cameras and historical data are used on every play to take note of how hard the ball is hit and where it is hit while also noting where the fielders are positioned. From there, a computer spits out the percentage chance that a fielder in question will be able to successfully make a play on the ball.

If the computer gives Abreu a 98% percent chance of fielding that slow roller to his glove side, then .02 gets added to his Outs Above Average total if he makes the play. If he flubs it, then 0.98 gets deducted. On the flip side, if he snares a one-hop smash to his backhand that he had only a 15% chance of catching, then 0.85 gets added to his total and only 0.15 would get deducted if he misses it. Ultimately, players get rewarded more “points” for making tough plays and penalized for missing the easy ones while only have minor deductions on tough misses and minor additions for easy success.

All of that was to say that Abreu tied for second in Outs Above Average among first basemen. Only Oakland’s Matt Olson was certifiably better while Abreu was comparable to Houston’s Yuli Gurriel and Seattle’s Evan White. To take it one step further, you’ll never guess who fares best in terms of OAA between the top 6 players that were on my American League MVP ballot.

Yep, its Abreu.

Ramirez comes close. He accumulated 1 OAA to Abreu’s 2 (an OAA of 0 would suggest you make all the plays you are supposed to but nothing more, higher is better), but surprisingly, Rendon who is known as being as sure-handed as they come is only average in terms of OAA with 0 outs accumulated while Lowe and LeMahieu were in the negatives. Unfortunately, Bieber is disqualified from this contest as numbers are not available for pitchers.

Statcast also measures how often a player is successful in making the plays afforded to him in comparison to the average expectancy on those plays. For example, if three balls are hit to Abreu and the expectancy for him to make those plays is 93, 95 and 97 percent then his average expectancy was the average of 95 percent. If he makes all three plays, then his success rate is 100% and his Success Rate Added would be the difference of 5%. This measures how often the player performs above average defensively.

Not only was Abreu also 2nd best in baseball at first base for this stat, his actual Success Rate Added of 3% was better than any of my other candidates. I haven’t even touched on the fact that Abreu is also a Statcast darling when it comes to offense. He had more Hard Hits (exit velocity of 95 mph or more) than any other player in the American League and only teammate Eloy Jimenez accumulated as many barrels (number of hard hits with a launch angle that dictates a line drive, basically).

What does that all mean? It means that Abreu is probably a better fielder than Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference would lead you to believe while still being the offensively dominant being we already knew him as. It means I was tricked into thinking he was the 6th most valuable player in the American League when maybe he was really the MVP. It means we have more to consider than ever as fans in baseball discussions. And maybe that’s actually most important.

Baseball’s statistics fanatics have been criticized in the past as becoming a hivemind rigid in its thinking and married to its numbers. Critics would suggest that the kind of discussion that is fodder for daily discussions on ESPN debate shows and keeps the game fresh in the general public’s mind can never be pushed for baseball the way it is for the NFL and NBA. There’s no reason to have a Ruth vs. Mays vs. Trout debate in baseball the way you would debate LeBron vs. Jordan. Just refer to the all-mighty WAR and that will tell you who is better. The thrill is gone. Subjectivity has been replaced by nerds with their mathematical formulas that take all the fun out of the discussion. If you picked Mays or Trout, then you’re a fool. Not because they didn’t or haven’t won as many titles as the Sultan of Swat or because he was the only one of them to star as both a pitcher and hitter. It’s because Ruth’s metrics are better and that’s all that matters.

But maybe baseball’s numbers are starting to work in their favor. If one source thinks Abreu is all thumbs in the field and another says he is nearly All-World, then who is to say which is right? Perhaps we once again have the type of ambiguity that could foster debate and bring back both the narrative and the eye test to some degree, and perhaps even more, the arsenal of numbers we can now work from to have that debate is more aplenty.

What else is left to say? Baseball has the best statistical resources to reference. Nothing is ever going to replace being able to watch the game itself and live the best moments of a 7-month marathon, but that same marathon is all the more reason to need the numbers. You are never going to see it all every day. We need good numbers to stem that tide.

I love Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference AND Statcast, even if they can contradict each other. In fact, I may grow to love them more BECAUSE they contradict each other.

Oh, and I was wrong… Ramirez is still the MVP to me for how he carried the Indians to the playoffs while Abreu benefited from the likes of Jimenez and Tim Anderson, but highway robbery this was not. That’s the case whether you live in the era of hits and RBIs or the era of Outs Above Average, and now I know that.

Thanks, Statcast!

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