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April 10, 2013

Sobsequy

Austin Jackson's Most Valuable Future

by Adam Sobsey

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When making my choices for last week’s pre-season BP staff predictions, I nearly included the Tigers’ Austin Jackson on my MVP ballot. I settled on safer choices: Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, and Mike Trout, who took three of the top four spots in the cumulative staff voting results.

Jackson, though, while not an obvious candidate, is at least a defensible choice by one important advanced metric. He finished tied for 10th in BWARP last year at 5.8. Yet although 12 of the top 16 players in BWARP from 2012 appear on BP’s 2013 pre-season MVP ballot this year, Jackson is not among them. Perhaps this has to do with PECOTA, which projects his WARP to fall to 2.7 WARP, making him less than half as valuable, overall, as he was last year. He is also projected for a big drop in TAv—over 40 points’ worth. But since PECOTA makes a strong case against A-Jax for 2013, let’s make the MVP case for one of the most valuable players in baseball last year. The ultimate goal here, though, is to consider the complexities of predicting.

First, a little thought about MVP voting. As last year’s contentious, two-man campaign reminded us, MVPs aren’t selected (at least not entirely) out of collective advanced-stat thinking. Miguel Cabrera’s Triple-Crown season won the vote over Trout. Yet the high-profile controversy almost surely helped the sabermetric cause—not so much in terms of getting the entire BBWAA to embrace advanced stats in the future (arguably a good thing), but in terms of getting doubters to see the thinking behind those stats. His nearly 10 WARP figure is saying, simply, that Trout was a more complete player than Cabrera was in 2012. He did more to help his team win. His FRAA, for example, is 10 runs higher than Miggy’s. He plays a premium position, and plays it really well. He led MLB in stolen bases; Cabrera led in GIDP. (And so on. It’s not necessary to rehash the matter at this point.)

If the voting population begins to shift because of last year’s Trout-Cabrera schism, it wouldn’t be surprising if the overall vote skews less toward a statistically complete player in the abstract—abstractions don’t win votes—than to a player like Trout himself. We are, in the end, hero worshipers, especially in sports. We need idols. We vote with our eyes, not our heads or hearts, or, ultimately, the data communicated by our numbers. Numbers are idols, too. Whether you favored Trout or Cabrera had a great deal to do with which kinds of stats you find more appealing, and I mean aesthetically appealing. Things like homers and RBIs and batting average have a certain kind of allure, of the sort that sublime sights do: the Grand Canyon, the Sagrada Familia—things that simply make you stop and say, “Wow.”

Advanced stats are more complex. They tend not involve pure addition, and their appeal can be harder to spot. But they result in their own simple beauty, and it is one of streamline and proportion. Take everything about Player X, express it in a single stat: WARP. Take all the ways of measuring power, balance them, and you have ISO. Remove all the variables that surround a pitcher at work (fielders, pebbles, BABIP, etc.) and you have FIP. There is something Bach-like about this model: there is nothing spectacular about, say, the Goldberg Variations—they’re just exercises for piano—but Bach’s greatest compositions waste no notes, and are gorgeous in their precision and clarity. We know that WARP is an evolving stat, requiring constant adjustment, but what it strives for is that precision and clarity—we want it to need nothing else but itself.

No matter which one you prefer, though, these are both simply models, posing for us in the form of ballplayers who exemplify them. We needed Trout to show what a player whose value is perhaps best shown through advanced stats looks like (while acknowledging that he led MLB in stolen bases and that his 30 home runs were the same number hit by Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, who are much more Cabrera-like players).

And that’s why Austin Jackson could win the MVP award. Maybe we’ll have an easier time with a young, a fleet center fielder who scores higher on the WARP scale than on most counting-scale measures—one who plays on a contending team, who also hits for some power, who fields his position at an elite level, and who plays in the shadow of a power-hitting corner infielder who himself already has his own MVP hardware. That’s Jackson, who was the second most valuable center fielder in baseball last year after Trout.

Of course, the more obvious candidate is Trout himself. He finished second in the voting last year, after all, got sympathy from the cognoscenti when he lost out to Cabrera, and if he has another excellent season will probably score some votes he didn’t get last year, in a way somewhat similar to Hall of Fame candidates whose stock rises despite doing nothing differently. (That is, doing nothing at all—the point being in this case that, were Trout and Cabrera to have the same seasons in 2013 that they had in 2012, it would be no big surprise to see Trout win more votes, or even win the actual award.)

A season that excellent almost surely won’t happen for Trout again, and PECOTA knows (or predicts) it. As Ben Lindbergh observed recently, Trout is projected for the largest WARP drop in baseball this year—which would still make him the fifth-most valuable player in baseball, but no longer the runaway leader he was in 2012. Sabermetricians won’t have his nearly 10-WARP brilliance to use for argument’s sake.

Let’s say a “sophomore slump” suppresses Trout’s 2013 performance—Austin Jackson endured one himself in 2011—and take a moment to consider this recent statement, on the subject of PECOTA, by Colin Wyers: “Changes in performance are more frequent and more dramatic than changes in talent.” But someone else with Trout’s skill set could improve, and we may find more voters looking for another Trout, if for no other reason than that our loyalties are fickle: Having voted for the Triple Crown winner, we may be ready for the check-and-balance of a WARP-winner. If Austin Jackson has a breakout season, we may be readier to see an MVP there.

(Aside: We could also see an MVP in another speed-and-power center fielder with the initials A. J.: Adam Jones, who finished just behind Jackson with 5.7 WARP and appears on one BP staff MVP ballot (Matt Sussman’s, second place). For three years from 2009-11, Jones was a consistent four-win player, and that number jumped to 5.7 WARP in 2012. He has just moved into his prime, as he turns 28 on August 1. Yet he, too, like Jackson, is projected for a regression. PECOTA predicts a WARP drop down to 3.3: still a very good season (it’s Paul Goldschmidt’s 2012, i.e. the sort of thing that helps earn you a $32 million dollar extension after just one full season), but not the elite level of last year’s 5.7 total. Meanwhile, Jones is so far leading the majors in hitting at a cool .500 through 31 PAs.)

Jackson is 26, still molting some young feathers, which is where optimism may kick in regarding his future. He made an adjustment to his mechanics last year, eliminating a high leg kick. Our player comment for him notes that “the cleaner approach gave him more balance, which aided a massive power boost and a significant drop in strikeouts. He slashed his strikeout rate from 27 percent to 22. Meanwhile, his improved discipline was reflected in a career-best 4.15 pitches per plate appearance, tying him with Michael Bourn for the best among leadoff hitters.” That 4.15 mark was also 14th-best in the majors overall.

Jackson saw a drop in base-stealing success last season, and even with his “massive power boost” still hit only about half as many home runs (16) as Trout hit (30). Yet he was still worth nearly six wins. If Jackson continues to improve, adding more power and regaining his previously excellent stolen base rates (49/60 in 2010-11), he could add to his already formidable value and step into the frame last occupied by Trout. After all, he was worth almost six wins with only 16 homers and 12 stolen bases (and he was caught nine times). There is room to improve some of the key counting stats that feed into player-value stats.

PECOTA doesn’t think he will be able to do it. It is “skeptical by nature,” Colin reminds us, and we want it to be that way—that’s in line with the sort of restrained beauty of Bach (or Madame Bovary, say—a novel we are basically still writing versions of 150 years later) that sabermetrics is after. We don’t want PECOTA to account for Jackson’s abandoned leg kick. That is the noise in the signal. We want it to use longer, deeper data to try to iron out predictive kinks and develop a contoured picture, so that if it’s wrong, we can more easily see why—see how a player beat it (or undershot it). PECOTA thinks Jackson will strike out in 2013 the way he did in 2010 and 2011, not the way he did in 2012. It thinks he’ll steal more bases and hit fewer homers, like he did in 2010 and 2011. It thinks his TAv (.264) will be somewhere in between the .250 and .271 he produced in 2010 and 2011.

Two other projected PECOTA plummeters in Ben’s recent piece are Alex Rios and Aaron Hill. They, too, made adjustments last year that resulted in mighty upswings in WARP production for both. They didn’t appear on any MVP ballots this year, either, even though they placed in the top 20 in WARP in 2012 (Hill finished sixth, Rios 20th). We are using advanced, forward-thinking stats, but we still look backward at them. Our innovative valuation demands skeptical thinking about that valuation.

Jackson is young, and it seemed useful to take a snapshot of where he is right now; so here’s a look at similar players by position and WARP over their age 23-25 seasons:

Curt Flood 13.6
Andrew McCutchen 13.5
Len Dykstra 11.9
Adam Jones 11.7
---Austin Jackson----11.2
Tommie Agee 11.1
Matt Kemp 10.8
Devon White 9.1

To strengthen this set of comps, Baseball Reference’s “Similar Batters through Age 25” list offers a single common element: Dykstra. This is a difficult comp, and instructively so. Dykstra had a promising early going, manufacturing 4.7 WARP in his first full season of play, but then declined steadily (4.0, 3.2, 1.4) in the three seasons after that. Then came a 9.3 WARP explosion in 1990, a pair of injury-shortened (partially by car-crash) seasons, and another spike to 8.9 WARP in 1993. In 1990 and 1993, Dykstra had the third-highest BVORP in baseball, playing at Hall of Fame levels. Then came the strike, the PEDs, the injuries, and a quick end to Dykstra’s career (plus the ugly aftermath). There is simply too much noise in Dykstra’s career for PECOTA to handle. The early three-year closeness to Jackson falls apart if you try to use it to predict anything.

Baseball Reference is much more optimistic than PECOTA is. PECOTA gives these comps for Jackson: Lloyd Moseby, B.J. Upton, and Chris Young. Of Young, we wrote in the 2011 Annual:

From 2006-09, PECOTA projected All-Star caliber production from Young, only to be terribly disappointed by the time September rolled around. Last year, the projection system effectively gave up on its problem child, forecasting a .252 TAv and one win above replacement. Naturally, Young responded with his best season.

PECOTA learned from Young: don’t get your hopes up about Jackson. Upton is a curious player because he always seems about to become something he doesn’t quite become. “The real Upton lies somewhere in between” extremes, we wrote in 2012, which is where PECOTA likes to live. Lloyd Moseby had great hair.

Baseball Reference’s closest comp for Austin Jackson (“Similar Batters through [age] 25”) is Lou Brock. That’s a Hall of Famer, although it takes some time, looking over Brock’s year-by-year stats, to see one. He didn’t set his (at the time) single-season stolen base record (118) until his age-35 season, and was a sub-70-percent base thief until he was 27 years old. His on-base percentages were mostly poor until he was 30. He was mostly a corner outfielder but mostly lacked corner outfielder power. His highest single-season WARP came in 1967 and was 5.8, exactly what Jackson produced last year, but twice as far into his career (six years). His 167 career errors are the most ever by a left fielder, nearly twice as many as the next guy—who happens to be Barry Bonds—and in more than 500 fewer games. From ages 29-31, his closest comp according to Baseball Reference is Darin Erstad, one of the favorite overvalued whipping boys of the Fire Joe Morgan crew.

But from 32-40, Brock’s closest comp is Tim Raines—and Tim Raines, by sabermetric measure, is probably the most deserving Hall of Famer not in the Hall of Fame. Brock made his push for Hall worthiness after PECOTA would have given up on him, as it gave up on Chris Young. It will be satisfying if Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, or Evan Longoria wins the 2013 AL MVP Award, or if one or all wind up in the Hall of Fame. But it will be so much more exciting if Austin Jackson wins the award, or makes the Hall, because it’s still so hard to see how he might.

Thanks to Ryan Lind for research assistance.

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

Related Content:  MVP,  Austin Jackson,  Mike Trout,  Miguel Cabrera

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