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September 26, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Triple Tandem

by Jay Jaffe

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I've spent a good portion of the past 10 years railing against Ye Olde Statistics. Wins rely too much on the support of a pitcher's offense, defense, and the bullpen behind him to reflect his true value. Earned Run Average owes plenty to that defense and bullpen, as well as the official scorer. Runs batted in depend upon the abilities of a hitter's teammates to get on base ahead of him. Batting average isn't anywhere close to the best measure of a hitter's productivity. You've heard it all before, and doubtless you shall hear it again, for the recognition of those truths has spread to a much wider audience than it had a decade ago. Nonetheless, sometimes you just have to say, "To hell with it. Roll over Henry Chadwick, and tell Bill James the news."

They won't be going to the postseason this year, but the Dodgers enter the season's final days with a potentially historic combination of individual accomplishments at stake. Not only might they wind up featuring both the National League's Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winners—a rare enough combination as it is—but with a little luck, they could lay claim to the first combination of hitting and pitching Triple Crown winners in baseball history thanks to Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw.

Through Sunday, Kemp leads the NL in RBI (120), is tied with Albert Pujols for the lead in home runs (37), and ranks third in batting average (.324), the latter having fallen a bit over a point due to a 1-for-5 showing against the Padres. Kershaw, after holding the Padres to two runs in 7 1/3 innings while striking out six, leads the league in ERA (2.28) and strikeouts (248), and is tied with Ian Kennedy at 21 wins. As good as the 23-year-old (!) lefty was on Sunday, he turned the game over to his bullpen with one out in the eighth, his fate in someone else's hands. In situations like that, you can do worse than call upon the guy who's setting the 50-inning minimum record of 16.1 strikeouts per nine, former catcher Kenley Jansen; he mowed down Will Venable and Cameron Maybin to strand the run. The tenuous nature of an ERA award was on full display right there; had the run scored on Jansen's watch, Cliff Lee would have been able to edge past Kershaw with seven shutout innings in his final start; instead, he'll need to work into a scoreless 11th inning. With a four-run lead, the win—which Kershaw needed just as badly for this little quest, as it was his 2011 finale—was in less doubt. In case you're asking, ties count in the Triple Crown game; Carl Yastrzemski, the last hitter to win in 1967, tied with Harmon Killebrew for the league lead in home runs at 44, and nobody held it against him.

It's silly to get so suddenly wrapped up in sets of stats I'd just as soon do without, but the combination of the feat's infrequency and its connection to history is irresistible. Since 1901, hitters have won the Triple Crown just 13 times, only four of which—Ted Williams in 1947, Mickey Mantle in 1956, Frank Robinson in 1966, and Yaz in 1967—have happened since the end of World War II. Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and the aforementioned—that's not a perfect list of the greatest hitters who ever lived, but it's a lineage worth savoring. Particularly if something is happening for the first time in 44 years, or 74 years when it comes to Joe Medwick's 1937 win, the NL's last.

The pitchers' Triple Crown isn't quite as rare. Since 1901, it's been won 30 times, including 11 since the end of the War, and eight since Yaz's feat, first by Steve Carlton (1972) and then by Dwight Gooden (1985), Roger Clemens (1997 and 1998), Pedro Martinez (1999), Randy Johnson (2002), Johan Santana (2006), and Jake Peavy (2007). Justin Verlander is positioned to join their company, thanks to his 24 wins, 2.40 ERA, and 250 strikeouts, but Jered Weaver, who has a 2.41 ERA, could horn in on his racket with a strong final start. Should Verlander and Kershaw both hold on, it would mark the first time since 1924 that hurlers in both leagues won Triple Crowns in the same year; Walter Johnson and Dazzy Vance did so that year, with Johnson and Hippo Vaughn having won in 1918, and Christy Mathewson and Rube Waddell doing so in 1905.

Despite my longstanding reservations about Ye Olde Stats, I have no problem rooting for both Kemp and Kershaw to win their necessary categories, even aside from the fact that they're both Dodgers (I'm a third-generation fan, my own allegiance going back to 1977). They've had tremendous seasons by most advanced measures. Aided by a .515/.543/1.000 tear over his last eight games and 35 plate appearances, Kemp entered Sunday leading the league in both batter WARP (7.9) and True Average (.350); he's now second in slugging percentage (.581) and fourth in on-base percentage (.400). Hell, he's second in stolen bases (40), and 12th in Equivalent Baserunning Runs (4.2) as well. Likewise, Kershaw went into Sunday leading the league in pitcher WARP (6.8) and Fair Run Average (2.88) while running second in FIP (2.39, 0.24 behind Roy Halladay), and third in strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.6).

Kemp's primary competition for the MVP award is Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, whose numbers trail Kemp's despite a better hitting environment, but who has the advantage of playing a key role for a contender. Their stats through Saturday (since our stat updates including Sunday's games won't run before this publishes):

Player

PA

HR

RBI

OBI%

AVG/OBP/SLG

BPF

TAv

Opp TAv

FRAA

BWARP

Kemp

670

37

119

18.3%

.325/.401/.582

95

.350

.254

-9.0

7.9

Braun

616

32

109

21.2%

.331/.394/.593

105

.338

.259

1.8

6.6

Kemp has a significant edge in playing time, and has managed better raw stats while playing in a tougher hitting environment (BPF is Batter Park factor) and facing tougher competition (Opp TAv is Opponent True Average Allowed). His defense has been nothing special according to our system, although UZR (-4) Plus/Minus (+2), and Total Zone (+9) all hold him in higher esteem; taking into account Braun's UZR (-7), Plus/Minus (-4) and Total Zone (+5), the two are basically even across four metrics. Kemp has managed that while playing the much tougher position, which carries with it more value, and he's outhit him while doing so.

Going by the "best player in the league" argument regardless of context, the data points to Kemp. I'll admit that in my hypothetical voting over the years, I've been less attached to that literal definition of Most Valuable Player than to a "best player on a contender" mindset, so I can't claim any high ground. The sabermetric consensus toward the first position is stronger than ever at the moment, and I'm more swayed by that argument than I have been in the past. If I had a vote, I'd cast it for Kemp. By that same logic, I'd lean towards Jose Bautista in the AL. The Jays slugger came into Sunday with a 1.8-WARP lead over Jacoby Ellsbury (10.4 to 8.6), though the latter narrowed that gap by smacking three home runs in a doubleheader against the Yankees, including a 14th-inning game-winner that helped the Red Sox avoid a sweep and maintain a lead in the wild-card race. I'm still inclined toward Bautista, but given Boston's tenuous grasp on a playoff spot, I'd leave the door open for Ellsbury's potential heroics until the last possible day.

As for the Cy Young race, I've touched on Kershaw's case before. Once you factor in opponent quality and ballpark, he's done better against a slightly tougher slate of hitters than Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.

The amazing thing is that these two players—both drafted by now-assistant general manager Logan White—come from a team that is still one win away from guaranteeing itself a .500 finish amid a nightmare season. They are stars among scrubs, and fortunately for a team whose finances are a bloody mess, they remain affordable. Kershaw will be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, Kemp for the third, and so both will almost certainly remain in Dodger blue next year.

Which certainly counts for something given how wrenching the team's 2011 campaign has been both on and off the field. Frank McCourt's divorce and financial chicanery have driven Dodger fans away in such droves that the team finished its home schedule with 627,179 fewer paying customers than last year, a drop of 17.6 percent that's projected to cost the Dodgers at least $27 million; that figure becomes higher once a good chunk of people decide not to renew their season tickets so long as McCourt litigiously clings to the reins. General manager Ned Colletti's roster mismanagement has been absolutely brutal, and rookie manager Don Mattingly has abetted Colletti's worst tendencies by giving scrubs Aaron Miles and Phony Gwynn over 800 plate appearances between them, about half in the top third of the lineup.

And yet between the baselines, the Dodgers have managed not to shame themselves. At 39-27, they have the league's fourth-best record since the All-Star break, behind only the Brewers, Diamondbacks, and Phillies. Since August 16 (selective endpoint alert) they're a league-best 25-12, including 11-6 against Milwaukee, Arizona, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Kemp and Kershaw have led the way, with youngsters such as Dee Gordon and Jerry Sands recovering from early struggles to pencil their way into next year's picture, and James Loney insinuating himself into a return as well, for better or (likely) worse. There's always danger in reading too much into late-season performance given the variable quality of competition; some teams (like last year's Dodgers under Joe Torre) become so laden with injuries, C-grade replacements, and/or apathy that they just pack it in.

 It's a feather in Mattingly's cap that the Dodgers haven't resorted to that, because they had every reason to by midsummer. More than anything else, it's a testament to the team's two stars, that they do have the power to lift this sorry lot out of its bleak abyss. Were it not for Kershaw and Kemp, this Dodger season would be best remembered by getting blackout drunk. Instead, it's something special, no matter where the stats and hardware end up. Now that's value.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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