Sunday, December 2, 2007

Cabrera gives the Halos a 1-2 punch much like Manny & Papi, but is it necessary?

More Angelic Musings by J. Northrop

The recent insatiable desire for Miguel Cabrera among many Angels fans—which is bordering on unwarranted desperation, in my opinion—got me thinking: just how necessary are elite hitters to winning the World Series? There is certainly a psychological difference between having an extra big bat in the lineup--and in the Angels loss to the Red Sox in the divisional series, certainly having Miguel Cabrera would have changed the tenor of the lineup. But what does recent history tell us?

Let me first offer some statistical analysis, focusing on OPS (on-base + slugging percentage) which, while not being all-inclusive, is probably the best single easy stat to determine a player’s overall offensive value. Last year the American League OPS was .761 (.338 OBP + .423 SLG). Going back from 2007, the AL OPS was .761, .776, .754, .771, .761, .755, .762, and .782 in 2000. The highest in the modern era was .795 in 1996, the lowest .636 in 1968. But for the most part, in recent years it has hovered around .750, which is the basis for what I will call “average”—anything above is “good,” anything below is “poor" (The 2007 NL OPS was .757—surprising only slightly lower by .004 percent; usually the difference is more pronounced—in the .010 to .020 range).

2007 Player Distribution by OPS
Key: OPS (Descriptor): # ML players (AL/NL) – % of players at that level or higher
  • 1.000+ (Upper Elite): 7 (4/3) – 4%
  • .950-.999(Lower Elite): 9 (3/6) – 10%
  • .900-.949 (Excellent): 9 (2/7) – 15%
  • .850-.899 (Very Good): 21 (8/13) – 28%
  • .800-.849 (Good): 36 (23/13) – 51%
  • .700-.799 (Average): 63 (37/26) – 90%
  • .650-.699 (Poor): 10 (4/6) – 96%
  • .649 or below (Terrible): 7 (4/3) – 100%

It is interesting to note that the vast majority of regular players had an OPS of .700+, which I place in the average range (even though .761 was the AL average)—145 of 162 players. Why? Well, very simply, regular players tend to be better than bench and platoon players, not to mention pitchers. Fully 117 of 162 players had above .761 OPS—just over 72%. That means that almost three-quarters of all regular players were above the major league average. Or to put it another way, below average players rarely get a chance to compile enough plate appearances to qualify.

What is the point of all that?

I’m going to go through World Series champion teams since 2000 and look at how many hitters in each category they had. I’m going to simplify the categories into:

  • Elite (.900+)
  • Good (.800-899)
  • Average (.700-.799)
  • Poor (.699 or below)

I’m also going to include players with 200 plate apperances or more, but drop those players with less than 400 PA to a half share; I will designate these players in italics.

2007 Red Sox

  • Elite: 1 (Ortiz)
  • Good: 4 (Ramirez, Lowell, Youkilis, Pedroia)
  • Average: 3 (Drew, Varitez, Crisp)
  • Poor: 1 (Lugo)

It should be noted that Manny Ramirez had a down year and is usually in the Elite (and obviously played as such in the postseason). Thus the Red Sox have two Elite hitters and three Good ones.

2006 Cardinals

  • Elite: 1.5 (Pujols, Duncan)
  • Good: 2.5 (Rolen, Edmonds, Spiezio)
  • Average: 1 (Encarnacion)
  • Poor: 4 (Eckstein, Taguchi, Miles, Molina)

The 2006 Cardinals illustrate the limitations of this system, for Chris Duncan--despite having a .952 in 90 games--hardly qualifies as elite (his 2007 OPS was a more accurate .834 in 127 games).

2005 White Sox

  • Elite: 1 (Konerko)
  • Good: 1 (Dye)
  • Average: 7 (Iguchi, Crede, Everett, Rowand, Pierzynski, Uribe, Podsednik)
  • Poor: 0

The 2005 White Sox were the quintessential "decent hitting, great pitching" team that wins it all. Their lineup shows that timely hitting is more important than sheer firepower.

2004 Red Sox

  • Elite: 2 (Ortiz, Ramirez)
  • Good: 5 (Varitek, Damon, Millar, Bellhorn, Mueller)
  • Average: 1.5 (O Cabrera, Youkilis, Kapler)
  • Poor: 0
The classic great offense, decent pitching staff--but with enough heroics to win it. Once again, timeliness is key.

2003 Marlins

  • Elite: 0
  • Good: 3 (D Lee, Lowell, I Rodriguez)
  • Average: 5 (Castillo, Encarnacion, Pierre, A Gonzalez, M Cabrera, Hollandsworth)
  • Poor: 0
How did this happen? The Marlins were clearly outclassed by the Yankees on paper, who won 101 games--10 more than the Marlins--and had 2 Elite hitters, 3.5 Good ones, and 3 Average ones). But, again, the best team on paper doesn't always (usually doesn't?) win.

2002 Angels

  • Elite: 0
  • Good: 5 (Fullmer, Salmon, Anderson, Spiezio, Glaus)
  • Average: 3.5 (Kennedy, Eckstein, Erstad, O Palmeiro)
  • Poor: 1 (Molina)

Our boys. They, as much as any team on this list, exemplify the importance of balance and timeliness. The 2002 Angels had no weaknesses but were very good in every facet of the game, but overpowering in none. I am reminded of a Bill James comment about Pedro Martinez during his peak, when he was contemplating how Martinez could be so good--so much better than anyone else, and in one of the most difficult eras to pitch in:

How can [Pedro] be so much better than the other pitchers? His fastball is good, but there are 20 or 50 people in the league who throw just as hard. His curve isn't better than anyone else's, his control isn't. But he is vastly better in toto because he has some additional factors--his ability to change his arm angle, his ability to change speeds on all of his pitchers without losing control--which interact to make geometric combinations.

From The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

2001 Diamondbacks

  • Elite: 1 (L Gonzalez)
  • Good: 2.5 (Sanders, Grace, Dellucci)
  • Average: 5.5 (M Williams, Finley, Miller, Bell, Counsell, Bautista)
  • Poor: 1 (Womack)

We should all remember the heroics that ended the Yankees dynasty--was this the result of an overwhelming offense? Nope.

2000 Yankees

  • Elite: 2.5 (B Williams, Posada, Justice)
  • Good: 1 (Jeter)
  • Average: 4 (O’Neill, Knoblauch, T Martinez, Spencer, Ledee)
  • Poor: 1.5 (Brosius, Bellinger)

The only team on this list to have more than 2 Elite shares, but all of those players would quailfy as "Excellent" in my earlier categorization.

Now let’s look at the Angels last year:

2007 Angels

  • Elite: 1 (Guerrero)
  • Good: 3 (Kotchman, Anderson, Figgins)
  • Average: 4.5 (Matthews, O Cabrera, Willits, Kendrick, Napoli, Izturis)
  • Poor: 1 (Hillenbrand, Aybar)

Is that significantly different than the World Series champions of the last eight years? Most of those teams don’t have more than one Elite hitter, and some—including the 2002 Angels—didn’t even have one. Most of these teams had the bulk of their lineup in the Good-to-Average range, pointing again at balance. While scoring a lot of runs over the course of a season is important—and those that say “pitching is 90% of baseball” are wrong in the sense that pitching is technically less than half of baseball--half being scoring runs, half preventing them (and a part of preventing runs is defense). But in the playoffs? Technicalities are out the door—pitching becomes much more important, just as sheer offensive firepower becomes secondary to timely hitting.

To put it another way, the more we focus on our supposed "need" for another top hitter, the more we move away from what truly wins World Series—which is a combination of good hitting and defense, timely hitting, and a combination of all those intangibles that are impossible to statistically quantify--chemistry, coaching, focus, and even destiny. And let's face it: In the 2007 divisional series the Angels were not only walking wounded, but completely demoralized by the Red Sox and their recent dominance over them. To put it more bluntly, since 2004 the Red Sox have owned the Angels. It would be misleading to reduce their loss to them, and lack of success against them in the past, to a missing second elite hitter.

What do the Yankees have to blame their last two postseason losses to the Angels on? A great thing about baseball is that any player can have a great day, any team can beat any other team, and the best team on paper doesn't always--or even usually--win the World Series. Very simply, the team that plays the best when it most matters does.

In 2008 the Angels should be even more balanced than last year. Not only will their young players continue to improve, but the lineup won’t be burdened by as many poor performances, such as those given by Hillenbrand, Aybar, Mathis, Quinlan, and Jose Molina—all of whom had at least 125 plate appearances, and all of whom had a sub-.700 OPS. That is a lot of wasted at-bats--about 1.5 shares of terrible hitting. I see no reason why we shouldn’t see something like the following:

2008 Angels

  • Elite: 1 (Guerrero)
  • Good: 4 (Kotchman, Hunter, Kendrick, Napoli, Morales)
  • Average: 3.5 (Figgins, Anderson, Matthews, Izturis)
  • Poor: 1 (Aybar, Mathis)

Perhaps a seemingly insignificant different, but an overall movement upward (and both Aybar and Mathis should be better than they were last year). Trading for Miguel Cabrera would add one to the Elite category, while taking away one from Good (Kendrick). Nice, but probably not as much of a difference maker overall and in the playoffs as the expected development of the team should be.

In other words, Miguel Cabrera would be icing on the cake--but the cake will be plenty good as it is (and improved from last year). And, most importantly, the quality of the cake is not based on quantity, but the proper balance of ingredients.

Love to hear what you think!


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