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2013 Baseball Forecaster and Encyclopedia of Fanalytics
By Ray Murphy, Brent Hershey
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 USA TODAY Sports Media Group LLC.
All rights reserved.
It has been a year of great achievements and great anomalies.
We just spent the 2012 baseball season marveling at an extreme performance from a player who, as late as August, could not legally drink. He finished the season as the #1 ranked fantasy commodity in all of baseball, posting the best Rotisserie line we've seen in 14 years.
These were the amazing numbers he put up at age 20, in about five months of play:
AB R H HR RBI SB BA
559 129 182 30 83 49 .326
No other player in major league history had ever compiled the trifecta of 125 runs, 30 home runs and 45 steals in a rookie season. There are 60 members of the 30-30 club, only four members of 40-40, but the 30-50 club is even more exclusive:
Player Year Age AB R H HR RBI SB BA
Davis, Eric 1987 25 474 120 139 37 100 50 .293
Bonds, Barry 1990 25 519 104 156 33 114 52 .301
Trout fell short by one bag. Here are other seasons that fell just short of achieving the 30-50 milestone:
Player Year Age AB R H HR RBI SB BA
Henderson, R 1986 27 608 130 160 28 74 87 .263
Davis, Eric 1986 24 415 97 115 27 71 80 .277
Henderson, R 1990 31 489 119 159 28 61 65 .325
Rodriguez, A 1998 22 686 123 213 42 124 46 .310
Pretty elite company.
But all the players on these lists were at least a few years older than Trout, and in some cases, much older. All of them had established a multi-year performance baseline. We don't have any such baseline for Trout so we don't know what direction his future may take. Rookies are unpredictable; sophomores only slightly less.
Of course, he might put up better numbers just by virtue of playing a full six months in 2013. If anything, that extra month provides a buffer against any major pullback in raw numbers.
And at age 21 now (and of legal age to drink but not to rent a car), he's a good 5-7 years from his physical peak. Could he get better? Sure, though it seems tough to imagine given the lofty perch from which he's made his debut.
Obviously, the percentage play is to expect some regression. But how much? Some folks like to toss around the 20% figure as a reasonable expectation of volatility. Well, 20% regression barely touches his standing as one of the game's elite. (We'll temper his batting average over a .250 base.)
That still makes him a candidate for a first round Average Draft Position (ADP) in 2013. That's still potentially a $40 player.
The amazing thing is that even a 50% regression would keep him in the discussion for the first two rounds and a $25-$30 value:
AB R H HR RBI SB BA
559 65 161 15 42 25 .288
That's essentially Andrew McCutchen's line from 2010.
This all looks wonderful, but there is one problem with it. Using the past season as a point of reference is wrong. This is one of the biggest mistakes that analysts often make. Every season starts as a clean slate. We take that blank panel and then build a new projection from the ground up, using the past merely as a rough guide.
Anyway, that's the way we should be doing it.
But come Draft Day, the recency bias will drive our expectations. All we'll see are his 2012 numbers as that fixed point of reference, carved in concrete.
The word on the street is that Trout will definitely go in the first round of most 2013 fantasy drafts, perhaps even at #1. According to the street, this is not even debatable:
"Trout is the second coming of Mickey Mantle. ... minus the switch hitting. I get the regression, but everyone has made adjustments and it has not worked. Dude is special."
"The key with Trout is that unless he gets hurt, he will still steal tons of bases for you. I am betting on something like .280 / 25 / 85 / 105 / 45 from him for next season which surely would put him in the top couple rounds. It's one thing to bet on regression, but another to ignore things like his supreme confidence and speed."
"I think I remember the year Albert Pujols and Alfonso Soriano were impact rookies, they continued to perform well for at least the next couple of years. That Braun guy was pretty good on a consistent basis since his rookie year too."
"As someone who is currently #1 overall out of 1050 teams in a high stakes NFBC league, I put my credibility on the line with this statement: Mike Trout will be the #1 player in fantasy baseball next year by any reasonable measure. My conservative projection: .285- 125-20-70-60. (This assumes he leads off all year.) I actually expect more like .290-130-2580-65. No one else will even sniff these numbers."
Sure, I get it. You look at 2012 and think, "How can he not be a top 5 pick?" How could he not go for more than $40? At minimum, he has to return first round value, right?
If history can be used as a guide at all, it does not provide much optimism. Rookie stars don't always sustain their early success over an entire career. Just look at the last 10 years' worth of Rookie of the Year award winners:
2002: Eric Hinske and Jason Jennings
2003: Angel Berroa and Dontrelle Willis
2004: Bobby Crosby and Jason Bay
2005: Huston Street and Ryan Howard
2006: Justin Verlander and Hanley Ramirez
2007: Dustin Pedroia and Ryan Braun
2008: Evan Longoria and Geovany Soto
2009: Andrew Bailey and Chris Coghlan
2010: Neftali Feliz and Buster Posey
2011: Jeremy Hellickson and Craig Kimbrel
Granted, none of these players had the type of rookie season Trout posted. Still, the number of sustained superstars makes up less than half the list. Some of these players were, in fact, one year wonders.
And as talented as baseball's best players are, it's also not just about skill. It's also about skill relative to the rest of a volatile player pool.
ADP research has shown that the first round (top 15) has a whopping 66% turnover rate each year. Players who hit the top 15 for the first time are only a 14% bet to repeat the feat the following year. And #1 finishers plummet easily from that tall pedestal.
In 2005, Derrek Lee hit 46 HR and batted .335, making him the #1 player that year. This was an 8-year veteran who had never hit more than 32 HRs or batted higher than .282. The next spring, he was being drafted at an ADP of 7. But after that one season, he never came close to cracking the first round.
In 2006, Ryan Howard hit 58 HRs and batted .313 in his first full major league season, ranking him 4th among all players. Howard opened the next four seasons with a first round ADP, but he never finished among the game's top 15 players after that first year.
In 2009, Joe Mauer hit 28 HRs and batted a career high .365, boosting him to a first round ADP the following spring. He hasn't finished anywhere in the top four rounds since. In 2010, Carlos Gonzalez finished #1 by posting a 34 HR, 26 SB, .336 line in his first full season. He's fallen short of the first round in the two seasons since, yet is still being ranked that high in early 2013 drafts.
In 2011, Matt Kemp, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez and Curtis Granderson used breakout performances as a springboard to a 2012 first round ADP. All four finished nowhere near the first round last year.
In each of these years, we could not conceive of those players failing. But statistical volatility, injury and the ever-changing composition of the player pool scattered them throughout the subsequent rankings.
Trout faces a similarly daunting task.
As amazing as his season was, it was not without a few vulnerabilities. (You can be sure that opposing teams will be looking to exploit these in 2013.)
His hit rate — or batting average on balls in play — was a high 39%. This is not a sustainable level, which means his batting average is likely to head south. In fact, his hit rate could easily drop 5-10%, yielding a batting average as low as .260.
A drop in batting average doesn't happen in a vacuum. If his BA heads south, so will his home run total and his stolen base opportunities. Projecting him to drop 40 points in BA while maintaining his output simply does not add up. Math.
His performance was already starting to wane as the season wore on. His second half monthly BAs were .392 in July, .284 in August and .257 in September. He wrapped the season with a nice 7 for 13 performance on October 1-3, but that was against the lowly Mariners.
And while Trout paced the field in raw stats and Rotisserie value, his peripherals were consistently behind more established players. He ranked fifth in OPS, third in Runs Created per Game, third in Runs Above Replacement and eighth in Base Performance Value. By all these measures, players like Braun, Miguel Cabrera and even Buster Posey and Giancarlo Stanton ranked higher. With more at-bats, Joey Votto might have lapped him as well.
And ... he could get hurt. Sure, it is impossible to predict what players are going to hit the disabled list at any time, but the odds are not good.
We've already seen that 45%-50% of each year's top 300 players spend time on the DL. The Top 30 are no less immune:
Year Number of Top 30 ADP Who Spent Time on the DL
2009 14 (47%)
2010 12 (40%)
2011 16 (53%)
2012 14 (47%)
And Trout is an all-in, max-effort defensive player.
Yes, there have been players who hit the ground running and never let up, like Pujols, Soriano and Braun. Note, however, that Pujols made his debut at age 22 (allegedly), Soriano at 26 and Braun at 24. They were somewhat more formed entities; Soriano could even rent a car. Trout is a mere embryo by comparison; his forecast error bar is potentially huge.
In late October, I was on Sirius/XM Radio's Rotowire Fantasy Sports show. Chris Liss asked me the following question:
Chris: Off the top of your head, Ron, give me a percent chance that last year was the best fantasy year of Mike Trout's career.
Me: Like 99%.
Regression and gravity are the two strongest forces known to man. They are unforgiving. Maybe.
There was quite a discussion among fans and analysts this fall regarding the race for the American League Most Valuable Player award. Some said that Trout was a no-brainer. Some said that Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown season — the 16th ever recorded in major league history — combined with the Detroit Tigers' division title made him the more worthy candidate.
Regardless of the result, Cabrera's Triple Crown — 44 HRs, 139 RBIs, .330 BA — is still noteworthy. The last player to pull off the feat was Carl Yazstrzemski.
That was 45 years ago.
Long stretches between major feats and milestones are not uncommon.
It took Pete Rose 62 years to eclipse Ty Cobb's lifetime hits record. It took Roger Maris 34 years to edge out Babe Ruth's single season home run record. And another 37 years for Mark McGwire to lay waste to that again.
But given today's game, will it take another multi-decade stretch for the next Triple Crown winner?
Joe Sheehan of JoeSheehan.com suggested that "Cabrera achieved the greatest Triple Crown ever. Forget the raw numbers or any single-number evaluation of his season, and consider that he beat out the largest field of any winner. No one had won the Triple Crown since 1967, and that's not a coincidence; it has nothing to do with specialization, the idea that there are more hitters for power and more for average. There are simply more hitters. It's a math problem."
Then the math solution would suggest that it will be a very long time until the next Triple Crown winner. That player will have to produce not only an extraordinary season on its own but also relative to the rest of a volatile — and large — player pool. If nothing else, regression and gravity will likely suppress a repeat performance by Cabrera.
But maybe not.
Hall-of-Famer Willie Stargell once said, "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox."
Knuckleballers are a different breed. We often say that a "young knuckleballer is 31" and that they "don't follow any of our rules." The history of some of the best knuckleball pitchers is characterized by lots of low-stress innings, productivity well into their 40s and no Cy Young Awards. At least until now.
Now, the lack of Cys was not necessarily an indictment of the pitch or bias against knuckleballers. According to Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract: "The Cy Young award usually goes to the pitcher with the best won-loss record and most knuckleball pitchers pitch for bad teams." Good teams can get better pitchers; bad teams have to settle for the uncertainty of the knuckleball.
But among the fellowship of the knuckle, Dickey is different still.
For one, he's broken through with a Cy Young Award.
Most knuckleballs are thrown at about 60-65 mph. Jim Bouton says he pitched his at 70 mph. Dickey can ramp his up over 80.
SBNation's Rob Neyer wrote, "R.A. Dickey is probably throwing a pitch that no professional batter had ever seen before he started throwing it."
The results are tangible. Dickey arguably had the best season ever for a knuckleball pitcher. He struck out 230 batters in 234 innings (8.9 Dom), walked only 54 (2.1 Ctl) with a 2.73 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. His Base Performance Value (BPV) was 127. And all this at 37 years old.
Neyer again: "If you were 29 years old and threw 85-90 miles an hour but your career seemed to be stalled in the high minors, what would you do? Keep plugging along and hope for a miracle? There might be another way, though. Lots of guys have tried to reinvent themselves as knuckleballers, and very few of them have succeeded. Maybe they were doing it wrong. Maybe instead of learning to throw it 65 miles an hour like Wilbur Wood and Phil Niekro and Tim Wakeield, they should have been learning to throw it like R.A. Dickey."
Maybe. But the real test will be to see if Dickey can repeat. Is the level of success demonstrated by this pitch a repeatable skill?
Regression and gravity remain powerful forces. But it's possible that an 80-plus mph loater could defy gravity.
In the early days of our Base Performance Value (BPV) gauge, Dennis Eckersley set the bar pretty high. In fact, the original version of the formula made him the only player ever to post four consecutive seasons with BPV levels more than 200. We've taken to calling that "Vintage Eck Territory."
It is tougher to achieve a BPV of 200 with the new formula introduced a few years ago. You'll find a few pitchers in this book that achieved it over short periods of time. The new formula is a little less appreciative of Eckersley's feat:
Year Age ERA Dom Ctl BPV Old BPV New
1989 34 1.56 8.6 0.5 345 159
1990 35 0.61 9.0 0.5 347 167
1991 36 2.96 10.3 1.1 226 174
1992 37 1.91 10.5 1.2 210 175
Compare that to Fernando Rodney, the pitcher who broke Eck's 0.61 ERA record (for all pitchers with minimum 60 IP):
Year Age ERA Dom Ctl BPV Old BPV New
2008 31 4.91 10.9 6.7 34
2009 32 4.40 7.3 4.9 35
2010 33 4.24 7.0 4.6 29
2011 34 4.50 7.3 7.9 -45
2012 35 0.60 9.2 1.8 152
Rodney's season is extraordinary not so much because of the ininitesimal ERA but because of the huge improvement in underlying skill. (Still, his 152 BPV falls just short of the levels posted by Eckersley.) Tampa coaches did make some adjustments to his approach and delivery, but it is tough to imagine this level of turnaround from someone who was a non-entity a year ago.
This was a player who went undrafted in virtually every 2012 fantasy league.
But in a season that saw the highest rate of closer failure in at least the last 14 years (since we began recording that rate), it is antithetic that we'd see not one, but two closers break records for positive achievement, and a third fall just short. Rodney was one. The others:
Year Age ERA Dom Ctl BPV
2011 23 2.10 14.8 3.7 189
2012 24 1.01 16.7 2.0 273
Year Age ERA Dom Ctl BPV
2011 23 3.60 12.8 7.4 62
2012 24 1.51 15.3 2.9 213
Kimbrel's 273 BPV and Chapman's 213 both leave Eckersley in the dust. Kimbrel's 16.7 strikeout rate breaks the record for a single season (min. 60 IP). Behind him on the list now:
Pitcher Year Dom
Marmol, Carlos 2010 15.99
Chapman, Aroldis 2012 15.32
Gagne, Eric 2003 14.98
WagneriBilly 1999 14.95
Lidge, Brad 2004 14.93
Kimbrel, Craig 2011 14.84
Benitez, Armando 1999 14.77
In the entire list of the top 30, there is only one pre-1997 pitcher: Rob Dibble. Over the past 15 years, Ks are king.
What can we expect for 2013? What do you think? Regression and gravity. Regression and gravity. But with so many achievements and anomalies this year, can we still count on natural forces and planetary alignment to direct our expectations? You have to wonder.
At minimum, it seems short-sighted to think that these extraordinary performances are all isolated, unrelated events. We made that mistake once before.
The May 29, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated contained a story about Dan Naulty, a fringe relief pitcher in the late 1990s. It described how Naulty's use of performance-enhancing drugs added 40-plus pounds to his thin frame, 10 mph to his fastball and won him a spot on a Major League roster. It told how he came up through the Minnesota system with three other pitchers of similar skill and how the others all fell short of reaching the majors because they played it clean.
Naulty credited PEDs with having given him an MLB career.
The reason that this story was published this year is that it's the 10th anniversary of the late Ken Caminiti coming forward about his own PED use. That was the watershed event that led to the lynch mobs over the subsequent years, ending (temporarily, at least) with the Mitchell Report.
Of course, everyone would like to put this all behind us already.
But we can't. Even now, we have been alternately entertained and disgusted by the legal issues of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. We have been reminded by the periodic headlines made by superstars like Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Ryan Braun. We are still taken in by the proclamations that the sport has been cleaned up, only to be reawakened by the suspensions to players like Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon.
Excerpted from 2013 Baseball Forecaster and Encyclopedia of Fanalytics by Ray Murphy, Brent Hershey. Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY Sports Media Group LLC.. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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