With the ducks on the pond,
HOLLIDAY WAS the MAJORS’ MVP in 2014
By Gabriel Schechter
The first time I ever talked to John Holway, in 1991, he was looking for help compiling something he called Games Won At Bat (GWAB). The concept fascinated me then, and still does, as a measure of a hitter’s actual value to his team.
Its simplicity is appealing—if the runs you create (scoring them or driving them in) account for the margin of victory, you get a GWAB (now called a Batter Win, or BW). If you hit a two-run homer in a 3-1 victory, it’s a BW, but if that two-run homer comes in a 10-1 blowout, you don’t. In a one-run game, everyone who scored or knocked in a run gets a BW—without that run, the team would not have won.
When John published his 2014 BW data, the most striking thing was his assertion that Matt Holliday should have been the MVP of the National League, because Holliday’s 32 BW topped the runner-up by five. Holliday finished 14th in the writers’ MVP voting, based on a .272 batting average and 90 RBI for the division-winning Cardinals. His modest stats included an OPS of .811, lower than all but four of the hitters who received MVP votes. So how did he wind up as John’s choice for MVP?
I took a closer look at the 40 players with 20+ BW in 2014 (23 in the NL, 17 in the AL). I looked specifically at performance with runners in scoring position (RISP), a popular measure of “clutch” hitting. Batters face RISP situations in roughly 20-25% of their at-bats. Is there any correlation between excelling with RISP and BW?
You bet there is!
The following table shows the 40 players, ranked by BW, and how they fared in RISP opportunities compared to their overall batting average and their non-RISP average.
Player Team BW AVG RISP non-RISP Difference
Holliday Cardinals 32 .272 .361 .239 .122
Trout Angels 30 .287 .305 .283 .022
McGehee Marlins 27 .287 .319 .276 .043
Stanton Marlins 26 .288 .316 .278 .038
Kinsler Tigers 25 .275 .322 .259 .063
A. Jones Orioles 24 .281 .320 .269 .051
Cespedes A’s-R Sox 24 .260 .309 .239 .070
Cruz Orioles 24 .271 .259 .275 -.016
Utley Phillies 24 .270 .294 .261 .033
Brantley Indians 24 .327 .376 .312 .064
Rizzo Cubs 23 .286 .241 .299 -.058
LaRoche Nationals 23 .259 .261 .258 .003
Pence Giants 23 .277 .351 .261 .090
Gomez Brewers 22 .284 .331 .272 .059
McCann Yankees 22 .232 .250 .226 .024
Gardner Yankees 22 .256 .279 .251 .028
Carpenter Cardinals 22 .272 .280 .270 .110
A.Gonzalez Dodgers 22 .276 .333 .249 .084
Abreu White Sox 22 .317 .317 .317 0
Desmond Nationals 22 .255 .277 .245 .032
Lucroy Brewers 21 .301 .265 .312 -.047
Ellsbury Yankees 21 .271 .280 .269 .011
Hill D’backs 21 .244 .258 .239 .019
Cabrera Tigers 21 .313 .336 .305 .031
McCutchen Pirates 21 .314 .303 .317 -.014
Donaldson A’s 21 .255 .299 .241 .058
Werth Nationals 21 .292 .338 .277 .061
Kendrick Angels 21 .293 .326 .281 .045
Walker Pirates 20 .271 .276 .270 .006
Ortiz Red Sox 20 .263 .285 .256 .029
Yelich Marlins 20 .284 .318 .275 .043
Howard Phillies 20 .223 .243 .215 .028
Eaton White Sox 20 .300 .355 .288 .067
Freeman Braves 20 .288 .294 .287 .007
Duda Mets 20 .253 .301 .238 .063
Gomes Indians 20 .278 .289 .275 .014
Rendon Nationals 20 .287 .269 .293 -.024
Marte Pirates 20 .291 .243 .305 -.062
Pujols Angels 20 .272 .256 .277 -.021
Span Nationals 20 .302 .296 .303 -.007
Look at Holliday! He did poorly with nobody on base or only a runner at first, but was terrific with ducks on the pond. It isn’t surprising that the top BW guy also had the biggest improvement with RISP, a 122-point difference in his batting average. Over his career, Holliday’s averages are very close in those situations, and his exceptional performance in 2014 was largely overlooked by the BBWAA electors.
Of the 40 top BW hitters, 31 had a higher batting average with RISP, eight were lower, and Jose Abreu fared the same. Most of the biggest differentials are in the top half of the chart; most of the negatives are at the bottom. Here are some other observations:
- RISP covers only the RBI component of BW, but of course more BW come from RBI. In a two-run win, you have to get on base twice to score twice, but one hit can drive in multiple runs. Eight of these 40 players are top-of-the-order hitters who had fewer RISP opportunities and compiled far more runs scored than RBI. Most of them are at the bottom of this chart, notably Denard Span, Christian Yelich, and Adam Eaton
- The biggest anomaly is Anthony Rizzo, who was awful in RBI opportunities. In addition to the .241 average with RISP, he hit just .220 in what Retrosheet calls “close and late” situations, and failed nine out of the ten times he batted with the bases loaded. So how did he get so many BW? I thought the explanation was that the Cubs notched an inordinate number of one-run victories, but no. They had the second-lowest total in the NL. The better question might be: how many BW would Rizzo have had with a good season?
- The flip side of Rizzo was Michael Brantley, whose .376 average topped this fine field of Top 40 BW hitters. He went 6-for-11 with the bases loaded and even belted 15 of his 20 home runs with nobody on base. He hit over .300 at home and away, against righties and lefties, in day games and night games, and probably standing on his head. His runs produced (runs plus RBI minus HR) exceeded Holliday’s, 171-153. If anything, 24 BW seems low for this kind of production.
- You would think that players on winning teams would have more BW, since runs created in losses count for nothing. But many of the top guys played on the worst teams. Casey McGehee and Giancarlo Stanton played for the 77-win Marlins, while Chase Utley, Abreu, and Rizzo’s teams won 73 games.
- Not surprisingly, two-thirds of the big BW producers batted either third or fourth in the lineup. Only four of them spent most of their time in the bottom half of the lineup: Ian Desmond, Brian McCann, and Howie Kendrick, who usually batted fifth; and Yan Gomes, the Indians’ catcher who batted seventh most often.
- While Holliday upset the apple-cart in the NL, Mike Trout led the parade in the AL by the same 5-BW margin. What was his secret? For one thing, he led the majors with 115 runs scored and was second to Adrian Gonzalez with 111 RBI. Even with 36 home runs, he still produced 190 runs, also tops in the majors. The two guys who hit behind him, Albert Pujols and Howie Kendrick, padded their BW totals by driving in Trout so much, and the Angels led the majors with 98 wins, which helped. When you’re that prolific, you can’t help piling up any other stat that comes down the pike. Imagine the total he would’ve compiled if he hadn’t also led the AL with 184 strikeouts. Amazing!
Then there’s Aaron Hill, a .244 hitter on the 64-win Diamondbacks who nevertheless compiled 21 BW. It makes me wonder whether an even better measure might be BW per team win. Hill’s figure was 33%, one of the better figures in that regard. A lot of the players from teams that reached the post-season had BW in about 25% of their team’s games. The big exception to that was Holliday, with 32 BW in 90 wins, or 35.6%. One more reason why he contributed the most to his team’s success.
- The Washington Nationals, who led the NL with 96 wins, placed five hitters on this list of 40. Their top BW producer, Adam LaRoche, amassed 23 in just 494 at-bats. Only Adam Eaton (486) and Yan Gomes (485) made the list in fewer at-bats, and they topped out at 20 BW. The Nats made a big mistake letting LaRoche go after the 2014 season.
- Finally, we have the player who finished the highest in the MVP balloting without cracking the top 40 BW list–Victor Martinez. His raw stats were impressive: .334, 32 home runs, 87 runs, and 103 RBI. But he had a mere 17 BW. How did that happen? The big reason is that in 11 of the Indians’ 21 one-run victories, Martinez did not score or drive in a run. By contrast, Matt Holliday created at least one run in 24 of the Cardinals’ 30 one-run wins.
Martinez, the runner-up in the MVP vote in 2014, wasted a lot of his run production in losses and in wins when his teammates didn’t need much help.
Holliday, 14th in the NL vote, made his runs count when the team needed them. What could be more valuable than that?
TOP RISP HITTERS
(Includes only the Top-40 BW leaders)
National League American League
RISP-BA MVP RISP-BA MVP
Holliday SL .361 14 Brantley Clv .376 3
Eaton Atl .355 – Cabrera Det .336 9
Pence SF .351 11 Kendrick LA .326 18
Werth Was .331 18 Kinsler Det .322 –
Gonzalez LA .333 7 Jones Bal .320 14
Gomez Mil .331 16 Abreu Chi .317 4
McGehee Mia .319 – Cespedes O-Bo .309 –
Yelich Mia .318 – Trout Cal .305 1
Stanton Mia .316 2 Donaldson Oak .299 8
McCutcheon P .303 3 Gomez Clv .289 –
Duda NY .301 22 Ortiz Bos .285 –
Span Was .296 19 Ellsbury NY .280 –
Uttley Phi .294 – Gardner NY .279 –
Freeman Atl .294 23 Cruz Bal .259 7
Carpenter SL .280 – Pujols LA .256 17
Desmond Was .277 – McCann NY .250 –
Walker Pit .276 –
Rendon Was .269 5
LaRoche Was .265 –
Hill Az .258 –
Howard Phi .243 –
Marte Pit .243 –
Rizzo Chi .241 10
One drawback of BW is that you don’t know until the end of the game whether a run or RBI mattered, and it doesn’t count for anything when your team loses the game. In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at RBI in specific game situations. Every time a batter comes up, he knows exactly how much he can contribute to his team. Stay tuned for “Clutch RBI vs. Wasted RBI,” a look at the top RBI men from the past half-century. You’ll be surprised, maybe, at who drove in the most runs when they really didn’t matter.
The Mick is found!
John Crowe and Ken Matinale reported that Mickey Mantle was missing from the list for home run champs last week. Tom Ruane grabbed a flashlight and magnifying glass and quickly picked up a trail of martini olive pits, which, as he suspected, led directly to Mick and Whitey Ford. Mickey was dazed, but otherwise unhurt. He is now recuperating in his rightful place, next to Ken Griffey Jr with 358 BWs.