06 February 2011

Vladimir Guerrero and the Ten Worst Monster Seasons Ever

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I noticed something interesting the other day while discussing the Vladimir Guerrero trade with Daniel Moroz of Camden Crazies.  Vlad's 2010 season has continually been referred as, to some extent, a monster season.  I heard it first coming from Brian Roberts in a Baltimore Sun article with his statement: "You are talking about a Hall of Fame guy coming off a monster year."  I saw it again over at Orioles' Hangout when Scott Hoffman referred to Vlad's "monster 2010 season."  It has also been in great use in message boards, Twitter feeds, and talking heads.  It just is not true.  His season can be pretty much summed up as an average to slightly above average year for a designated hitter.  Vlad is an aging bad ball hitter (which he is still quite good at) who cheats on fastballs, cannot run, cannot walk, and has much trouble in the field.  He is so talented at hitting bad pitches that he can still rack up those hits.  They are just becoming less and less impressive.  In Oriole terms, we have seen this erosion of similar skills before in Miguel Tejada and Sammy Sosa.  Vlad was a monster, but he really is no longer.  So why do people keep referring to last season as a monster season?

I figured it was simply a halo effect where an average performance looked better because the team went to the World Series and the hitters around him (i.e. AL MVP Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz) did pretty well.  A non-science example of this was recently mentioned in a Scientific American article.  In that article people were asked what they thought the calorie content of various meals.  One of the comparisons they made were between meals consisting of a hamburger or alone or a hamburger with three stalks of celery.  The average caloric estimate for the hamburger was 691.  When the burger was paired with celery the average estimate was 648.  Well, celery does not work that way, but perception does.  In a similar way, I thought Vlad was a burger and the stalk was the World Series.

However, a third party (@getstoked) entered our Twitter dialogue and gave a different insight.  He mentioned that perhaps to a lot of people a monster season is actually what they would call Vlad's season.  As in, Vald was no burger, he was a stalk of celery (I probably need to abandon this analogy).  Anyway, Vlad hit 29 home runs, drove in 115 runs, and managed .300 for his batting average.  These are all solids numbers for the traditional Triple Crown perspective.  For someone who has embraced more advanced statistics for the past ten years, I sometimes lose the ability to understand performance through another's perspective (even perspectives I once dearly held).  For me, home runs are nice, but you have to take into consideration other types of hits and ballpark factors.  For instance, a difference of 8.7 feet will reduce home runs by about 25%.  RBIs are a notorious opportunity statistic and are therefore heavily reliant on who is hitting in front of the batter.  I think we all remember Jay Gibbons' 2003 season.  Finally, batting average is a poor metric because it condenses all hits as equal and completely ignores other aspects of avoiding outs (e.g. base on balls).  These Triple Crown stats are burned into the majority of the baseball fans.  It is often considered the norm.  It was for me.  So it is conceivable that many are defining a Monster Season as a year where a player hits 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, and a .300 average.  Vlad just missed this by a home run, but it seems to fit.

After the jump, a short primer on advanced statistics and the worst 30/100/.300 seasons ever.

The new Triple Crown that is much better is the slash line of batting average / on base percentage / slugging percentage.  It is often shorthanded by using OPS (OBP+SLG) or modified with league and park factors to OPS+ which enables some comparison of performance between different years or eras.  I think a sizable minority of fans are in step with these metrics, which is progress.  However, it these also have several problems.  We have already mentioned issues with batting average, which are lessened by showing on base percentage and slugging.  On base percentage has issues here because it is being shown on the same scale as average and slugging, which it is not.  Additionally, even with park and league factors added, the metric still falls short because it fails to consider positional effects.  This is where Wins Above Replacement (WAR) comes in as it does consider the value of hitting at different positions with defensive worth as well as league and park factors.  (edit: for this post I used Baseball-Reference's WAR numbers, which are calculated slightly differently from FanGraphs).  If one considers a great hitter to be defined as someone who hits above a 300/400/500 slash and considers only shortstops and designated hitters, he will find that Edgar Martinez' 1995 season (356/479/628) is the top ranked DH.  Mixed in with SS and he will find himself at 13th.  Picking more recent seasons, 11th would be Derek Jeter's 1999 season (349/438/552) and 15th is Hanley Ramirez' 2008 (301/400/540).  The span here is 7.6 to 8.0 WAR.  Number one on this list happened to be Honus Wagner's 1908 season with 11.6 WAR.  Alex Rodriguez was second with 11.0 in 2000.

What follows now is using the Triple Crown criteria for a Monster Season and finding the ten worst seasons in baseball history by WAR when hitting 30 home runs, 100 runs batted in, and a .300 batting average.

No. 9 (tied) Vinny Castilla and Moises Alou

Vinny Castilla
1997, Colorado Rockies, 3B
40 home runs, 113 runs batted in, .304 batting average
.304 / .356 / .547
2.5 Wins Above Replacement (2.3 offense, 0.2 defense)

I'll write more about this later as we move on down the list, but this would be an example of how ballparks can great affect these Triple Crown statistics.  Also, Castilla and someone else are the only ones with 40 home runs on the list.  They also happen to bookend it as well.

Moises Alou
2000, Houston Astros, LF-RF
30 home runs, 114 runs batted in, .355 batting average
.355 / .416 / .623
2.5 Wins Above Replacement (4.0 offense, -1.5 defense)

For Moises Alou, 1998 was a great season.  He had the best year of his career hitting the ball well and playing solid defense.  After the season, misfortune arrived with him tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.  This forced him to miss the entire 1999 season.  With questions abound, Alou raked in 2001.  He far surpassed his original season high for batting average and collapsed his strikeout rate by a third.  It was an impressive offensive display, but Alou would have been better set as a DH in the American League instead of splitting his time in right and left field for the Astros.  His -15 runs on defense took his great offensive display and made it a slight notch above average.  In fact, after that injury in 1999, Alou went from being an above average fielder to one who never rated a positive defensive WAR for the rest of his career.

No. 8 Paul Konerko
2006, Chicago White Sox, 1B-DH
35 home runs, 113 runs batted in, .313 batting average
.313 / .381 / .551
2.4 Wins Above Replacement (3.0 offense, -0.6 defense)

In 2006, Konerko was enjoying the first year of his new contract.  The Baltimore Orioles finished a runner up in those negotiations.  Konerko provided the White Sox with a good offensive display which was undercut by his placement as a first baseman (first basemen tend to hit well, so replacement level is higher than for other fielding positions) and that he did not seem to field his position well.

No. 7 Todd Helton
1999, Colorado Rockies, 1B
35 home runs, 113 runs batted in, .320 batting average
.320 / .395 / .587
2.1 Wins Above Replacement (2.1 offense, 0.0 defense)

We'll discuss the main culprit here (park factors) later on down the list, but being a first baseman also hurt Helton's WAR here.  But, no, not as much as the adjustment for the Coors Field.

No. 6 Carlos Lee
2007, Houston Astros, LF
32 home runs, 119 runs batted in, .303 batting average
.303 / .354 / .528
1.7 Wins Above Replacement (2.1 offense, -0.4 defense)

A few things are becoming apparent in this top ten:
1. Park Factors,
2. Houston Astros acquistions, and
3. Baltimore Orioles attempted acquisitions.

Carlos Lee fulfills these three.

No 5. Danny Tartabull
1987, Kansas City Royals, RF
34 home runs, 101 runs batted in, .309 batting average
.309 / .390 / .541
1.6 Wins Above Replacement (3.9 offense, -2.3 defense)

Tartabull marks our first player under 2 WAR or what we can roughly consider an average player.  What is astounding is that the Royals took a great positive in that bat and made it worth much less by making him wear a glove.  A far better solution would have been to put Bo Jackson's arm in right, Lonnie Smith's defense in left, and put Tartabull at DH.  Even more astounding, Tartabull first season of DHing more than playing the field was 1993 during his second year with the Yankees.  At no point in his career was he ever an exclusive DH and at no point was he anything other than a butcher in the outfield.  He accrued the worst -11.8 dWAR of any corner outfielder.  Gary Sheffield saved himself from that honor by partitioning some of his dreadful play at shortstop and third base.

No. 4 Don Hurst
1929, Philadelphia Phillies, 1B
31 home runs, 125 runs batted in, .304 batting average
.304 / .390 / .525
1.4 WAR (1.9 offensive, -0.5 defense)

There seems to be a story here, but I cannot find it.  Hurst put up some decent offensive numbers at the Baker Bowl, which was a hitter's haven, from age 22 to 26.  His hitting collapsed his next two years and he was a manager by the time he was 29.  From all accounts I could find, he was incapable of playing 1B, but with that bat one would think he would have been given additional opportunities.  Interesting.  So his low WAR was a product of park factors, an offensive environment (people forget how hitting comes and goes over the decades), and miserable defense at first base.

No. 3 Carlos Lee
2006, Milwaukee Brewers and Texas Rangers, LF-DH
37 home runs, 116 runs batted in, .300 batting average
0.9 WAR (3.6 offense, -2.7 defense)

Lee's second appearance on the top 10 was the year that preceded his first appearance.  Again, you see a mix of offensive parks and horrific defense.  It seems Texas' other LF options in Kevin Mench and Brad Wilkerson were equally as bad, so the Rangers would have saved little from putting someone else out there.  It is amazing how much the Astros ignored that defense and startling that it appears the Orioles had interest in slotting him into left field and not as a DH.

No. 2 Dante Bichette
1996, Colorado Rockies, RF-LF
31 home runs, 141 runs batted in, .313 batting average
0.7 Wins Above Replacement (1.9 offense, -1.2 defense)

Wait for it . . . wait for it . . .

No. 1 Dante Bichette
1995, Colorado Rockies, LF-RF
40 home runs, 128 runs batted in, .340 batting average
0.3 Wins Above Replacement (2.2 offense, -1.9 defense)

What is amusing is that the better 1996 Bichette finished 20th in MVP voting while the worse 1995 Bichette was 2nd in MVP voting and won a silver slugger award.  I think sometimes people forget how much a ballpark can affect hitting.  Before the Rockies introduced the humidor, Coors Field would routinely have park factors in the 120s.  Add that to horrible defense and you begin to see who your real monsters are.


Alas, Vladimir Guerrero did not qualify for the list as he fell one home run short.  If this was a 29 home run, 100 rbi, .300 club, Vlad would have nestled into 7th with Todd Helton at 2.1 WAR.  I imagine if he was forced to play in the field any benefit given by the position switch to offensive WAR would have been mitigated or worse by his defense WAR.

I think this gets back to the point here.  These are not really great seasons.  A WAR of 2 is about average and that is about what Vladimir Guerrero is these days.  With 1 WAR equaling about 4.5MM on the free agency market, 8MM for Vlad seems fair.  However, there are some issues with that.  Jim Thome registered a WAR of 3.5 and will be paid 3MM this upcoming season.  Jack Cust had a WAR of 2.2 and will see 2.5MM.  Edwin Encarnacion is essentially a DH who would be around 1.5 WAR and will take in 2.5MM.  Hideki Matsui is a 2 WAR DH and will earn 4.25MM.  Manny Ramirez is a 2 WAR DH and will earn 2MM.  Why are DHs making half of what the general market would seem to dictate?  I imagine it is because teams are going with 12 man pitching staffs.  Dedicating a spot for someone on the bench who is incapable of adequately fielding a position is not something that is highly valued.  It is difficult for a bench to operate with backups for every position if you have a full time DH, back up catcher, and three backups.  Vladimir Guerrero at 8MM is quite curious.


Anonymous said...

Another great article with fantastic perspective...thanks, especially for the top 10 worst of the best, if you will. VERY impressive insight.

A couple things jump out at me after reading this:

- Fantasy sports...a lot of us play it religiously, and follow the real game with the same value system in mind. Big mistake, obviously, and this list does a good job of showing some of the reasons why.

- "Monster year" is clearly rhetorical and pretty cliche', but then again, especially from the new clubhouse, it's just a compliment. Vlad is a larger than life baseball icon, and from a end of season BA/HR/RBI perspective, he had a pretty good year. The reality, however, is that anyone who watched the Rangers from March until October knows full well he was good to great for about 50 or so games, and that was with him playing half his games at a triple stamped and certified bandbox that he's owned over the course of his career.

- The 8 million. Look, I think we can all agree this was too much; now it's just a matter of the "why?". I originally thought it was just a matter of getting the guy on the roster, but now I think i'm buying into the idea that that's what he needed to play in Baltimore this year. With more or less a zero percent chance of making the playoffs, the opportunity the O's present to Vlad is nothing more than a payday, and it cost them a premium to bring him him. Could the Rangers, or Angels, or just for example, the Yankees, gotten Vlad for cheaper? IMO, yes, yes they could have.

Long story short; the O's paid a premium for being the O's.

And that's just a punch to the stommach for me, but i'll get over it. I'm an O's fan. :|

Back to the Jersey Shore marathon, I guess.

- spc in Grapevine, Texas.

Anonymous said...

I realize that the numbers will never support Vlad because he's a free swinger and so much emphasis is placed on OBP these days. With that said, Vlad brings plenty of intangibles to the Orioles. Here are just a few

1. He's still a very feared hitter. I can't speak for all pitchers, but if I was facing a guy like Vlad who could literally smash pretty much anything I gave to him, even if it's a garbage pitch, that would probably scare me half to death. He's lost some bat speed, but the strikeout numbers tell me he still has the swing.

2. Very respected veteran who's been around. I think he's going to prove to be invaluable to Jones and Pie. I've heard nothing but great things about his leadership. Vlad's also one of the smartest and wisest players in the league. He's also hard working. I believe Vlad's work ethic will prove to be contagious. It's proven to be contagious everywhere he's went, and I can't see why it wouldn't be contagious here in Baltimore.

3. Gives the lineup one more power bat. In the AL East, pitching isn't enough. Definitely helps, but you need power to compete. Vlad is the icing on the cake in a middle of the order that has a chance to give the Orioles 80+ HRs.

4. Helps respectability to return to Baltimore. Until the Orioles can put a competitive team on the field, they will have to overpay to get good players. I think Vlad's going to help make the Orioles respectable again.

I'm a little mad at the price... but it's only for a year so why not?

Disclaimer: I might be the biggest Vlad apologist out there. Loved the guy ever since he was in Montreal. Stupid turf ruined his knees.