October 7, 2010
Checking the Numbers
The Turnaround Kids
In addition to post-season baseball, the month of October brings with it the first chance to reflect on the regular season that has just ended. For many fans whose favorite teams did not qualify for the postseason, such reflections can conjure up disappointing memories stemming from the previous offseason, or from a putrid stretch in the middle of the year that knocked them out of contention. For fans of the playoff teams, the reflections often form a mental highlight reel of the season. Regardless of personal team allegiances, I always find it fun to reflect on the season by looking at some of the surprise performances of the year. In this context, a surprise performance would belong to a player whose numbers were nowhere near as appealing a year ago.
For instance, what makes Josh Hamilton’s numbers stand out isn’t strictly how eye-popping his rates are, but rather how substantial of an improvement they represent over his 2009 slash line. The same can be said of Justin Morneau’s dominance prior to suffering a concussion, or Adrian Beltre’s renaissance in Boston. The season produced some really interesting individual performances, and my goal today is to take a look at the batters who dwarfed their prior year’s numbers in both the TAv and WARP departments. Similarly, I’ll look at starting pitchers who improved substantially in SNWP and relievers with the biggest improvements in WXRL.
Batters must have had a minimum of 350 plate appearances each season. Starting pitchers had to throw 120 or more innings in both seasons, and relievers had to pitch at least 40 innings each year. To kickstart this shindig, the table below holds the biggest TAv improvements:
Nobody improved more with the bat than Josh Hamilton did. The Rangers' star was riddled by injuries last season and struggled with his hitting mechanics when healthy. He had been fiddling around with his swing during spring training, but the new approach did not translate to success when the season began, and his inability to stay on the field made it tough to make any corrections. Regardless, whatever he has done this season worked, and it is tough to consider anyone else more worthy of the American League MVP this season. Hamilton has done it all for a division champion, and while broken ribs sidelined him for most of September, the fact that the Rangers had clinched a post-season spot early likely led to the extra precautions. Hamilton isn’t a true-talent .346 TAv hitter, and he shouldn’t be expected to produce at that clip in the playoffs, but he is much more talented than his 2009 mark indicates.
The rest of the list is interesting, as it is comprised primarily of three categories: the young star breaking out, the veteran rebound, and the Jose Bautista. Of course, the latter is all by his lonesome in his category, performing well last season while producing numbers relatively off the charts this season. The young studs coming into their own would be Geovany Soto, Delmon Young, and Colby Rasmus.
Young had compiled a .290/.322/.416 line entering the 2010 season, showing an ability to make contact but avoided getting on base at a clip that would make Dayton Moore salivate. He showed some pop, but not much, making him quite the conundrum as a hitter. This year, the OBP did not really improve all that much, but Young did what he could to make up for that with a barrage of power, launching 21 home runs and 46 doubles. His .298/.333/.493 might not be tremendously impressive on the surface, but given the Yuniesky-esque line leading up to this season, he performed very well.
Soto had experienced success already, winning the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2008, but his numbers drastically dipped a year ago. His solid performance was more of a Junior Rebound following the Sophomore Slump than a true change from suckitude to awesomeness. In the case of Rasmus, it is increasingly likely that he simply went through growing pains last year and came into his own this year. He wasn’t terrible last year, but raw, and this year he looked more comfortable at the plate.
Lastly, the Aubrey Huff-Adrian Beltre-Rafael Furcal-Paul Konerko-Vernon Wells-David Ortiz sextet produced seasons that showed they could all still hit well after disappointing seasons or those plagued with injuries. Wells didn’t exactly light the world on fire, but if the Blue Jays can get a .330 OBP and .500 SLG from him, that has to be considered some type of “bonus” on a cost already considered to be sunk. Huff helped keep the Giants afloat in the first half of the season, and while pitching and Buster Posey catapulted them into the postseason, they don’t get there without Huff's first-half heroics. But what if we phrase the question a bit differently and look at the biggest changes in the all-encompassing WARP?
Some of the same names show up, but here we see some new blood, the most surprising of which is obviously Jamey Carroll. A career utility infielder, Carroll not only excelled in the field, but he put up a stellar .379 OBP. Now, the man cannot slug at all, with a career OBP higher than his SLG, but reaching base 38 percent of the time while playing solid defense at a few positions certainly earns him a spot. Alexei Ramirez is another “surprise” on the list, with just a .260 TAv this season, but his defense was valued so highly that he produced over six wins above replacement. Perhaps we should take that one with a grain of salt given the uncertainty surrounding fielding data, but even with some regression it isn’t as if his numbers would lessen into the terrible category.
Moving onto pitchers, which starters displayed the biggest improvement in SNWP?
Why, none other than the AL Comeback Player of the Year himself, Francisco Liriano, leads the pack. He finally seems to be somewhat back to where he was prior to the Tommy John surgery. He might never be as dominant of a force as many foresaw, but a .550+ SNWP is in no way shabby. He’ll headline an overall solid Twins rotation for years to come. It’s also great to see Max Scherzer on the list. In addition to being a friend of advanced analysis and this wonderful website, he put together what is likely the most underrated season of the, well, season. In the tougher junior circuit he was an ace in hiding, with tremendous numbers following a brief demotion to the minors. Should he keep this type of performance up, the Diamondbacks may be kicking themselves over what was already widely regarded as a very questionable trade.
Moving onto relievers, who improved the most in the WXRL world?
Oh, Lidge, Lidge, Lidge. Last year I had the misfortune of waxing poetic on Brad Lidge's horror film of a season, as his WXRL marked the worst amongst closers who were consistently given the ball in the history of baseball. That isn’t even hyperbole. It was the absolute worst, and yet the Phillies still gave him the ball. This season, he wasn’t exemplary, but he performed very well, especially down the stretch, when he converted 17 of 18 save opportunities and posted a 0.73 ERA. In fact, from August 1 until the end of the season, the span in which he recorded the 0.73 ERA, one of the earned runs came in a non-save situation, with the other coming in a freaky game against the Padres in which he hit a batter and balked in the run. Those can’t be discounted, but he was borderline unhittable during the Phillies' torrid stretch, and was a big reason for their success.
Daniel Bard’s improvement isn’t as indicative of a change in success as much as it is of his being trusted with the ball in more crucial situations. That isn’t to say his numbers didn’t improve, as they did, but the composure in crucial spots bodes well for the man most see as the future closer of the Red Sox. Heath Bell and Brian Wilson are different than the rest of the list, as both were very solid last season, before taking it to the next level this year.
So let’s open up the floor for comments. From the tables above, or maybe even players not tabled, who had the biggest turnaround?