Last week we applied the principles of baseball analyst Voros McCracken to this year’s crop of pitchers, which is precisely how he wanted them applied.
Some years back McCracken presented evidence that the vast majority of what happens when a baseball is put into play is just luck. Guy hits the ball, maybe it’s within reach of a fielder, maybe it’s not. If it is, he’s out. If it isn’t, he’s on base and the inning continues.
McCracken discovered that pitchers really can’t control whether non-home runs are hit to a “fieldable” spot. As a result, the best predictors of future pitching success are the stats that have nothing to do with what happens when a ball is in play: specifically, the numbers of walks, strikeouts, and home runs each pitcher records.
These were shown to be highly predictable from season to season, and they almost always pointed toward the game’s best pitchers.
By combining McCracken’s insights with the research of Pete Palmer, we were able to identify the pitchers who had saved their team the most runs independent of the defense.
This week we’re flipping the analysis over, and applying the same analysis to hitters.
We’ve known since the days of Babe Ruth (and at least until Brady Freaking Anderson) that home run hitters tend to hit lots of home runs every year. We’ve known since the days of Mickey Mantle that certain hitters tend to strike out a lot every season. And we’ve known since the days of Bill James (and Joe Morgan) that certain hitters tend to draw more bases on balls than others, year in and year out. In fact, the hitter tends to have more influence on whether he walks than the pitcher does.
So there is no reason Voros McCracken’s analysis shouldn’t be able to identify the best hitters in the game, independent of the defense played against them. And since we’re flipping the analysis from the pitcher to the batter, we’ll also flip the letters of Mr. McCracken’s name, as Bill James did some time ago.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Sorov: (Home Runs TIMES 1.4) PLUS (Unintentional Walks TIMES 0.33) MINUS (Strikeouts TIMES 0.28) EQUALS the number of runs the batter delivered or cost his team independent of the performance of the opposition’s defense.
Before we get to our list of the best pure hitters in the game, I should offer this disclaimer: The stats in use have not been normalized for park effects. So the guys swinging in Coors Field or Camden Yards are going to look better than their counterparts in Pittsburgh, Seattle, or Frisco. I’ve left that element out of the equation because I’m not sure how to account for park factors affecting strikeouts and walks. I know they exist, but I’m skeptical of their accuracy.
Look. A guy may strikeout more often in one ballpark than another because the visibility stinks (a real park effect), or it may be because he becomes more of a free swinger because of how easy it is to hit a home run there (a peripheral effect). I think that distinction matters, so I decided to leave it out of the rankings. A reader may wish to apply adjustments for park factors and come up with his or her own rankings.
An Almost Top Ten List of the Best Pure Hitters, National League . . .
9. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh (produced 25.3 runs more than an average player on plays that didn’t involve the defense)
8. Carlos Beltran, St. Louis (26.6 runs)
5 (tie). Chase Headley, San Diego (27.2 runs)
5 (tie). Aaron Hill, Arizona (27.2 runs)
5 (tie). Buster Posey, San Francisco (27.2 runs)
4. Adam LaRoche, Washington (27.4 runs)
3. Aramis Ramirez, Milwaukee (28.4 runs)
2. Yadier Molina, St. Louis (28.9 runs)
1. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee (37.4 runs)
An Almost Top Ten List of the Best Pure Hitters, American League . . .
9. David Ortiz, Boston (produced 32.1 runs more than an average player on plays that didn’t involve the defense)
8. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles (32.6 runs)
7. Josh Willingham, Minnesota (33.3 runs)
6. Robinson Cano, New York (36.2 runs)
5. Adrian Beltre, Texas (36.7 runs)
4. Jose Bautista, Toronto (39.0 runs)
3. Prince Fielder, Detroit (40.6 runs)
2. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit (50.3 runs)
Raise your hand if you expect Mike Trout to pop up in the next slot.
1. Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto (56.2 runs)
I was surprised, too.
Just for the hell of it, because I know I would want to know, I’ll give you the opposite end of the spectrum. I should point out that these guys are not necessarily the worst players in the game, or on their teams, or even bad players. They are usually in the lineup for reasons other than their bats.
That said, here are the guys whose success at the plate, such as it is, is most dependent on luck:
An Almost Top Ten List of the Most “Impure” Hitters in Baseball . . .
8 (tie). Brent Lillibridge, Chicago (and two other teams before them) (cost his teams 12.1 runs more than an average player on plate appearances that didn’t involve the defense)
8 (tie). Brandon Crawford, San Francisco (-12.1 runs)
7. Alcides Escobar, Kansas City (-12.8 runs)
6. Clint Barnes, Pittsburgh (-12.9 runs)
5. Drew Stubbs, Cincinnati (-13.0 runs)
4. Jordan Schafer, Houston (-13.2 runs)
3. Brett Hayes, Miami (-13.4 runs)
2. Everth Cabrera, San Diego (-14.5 runs)
And I’ll bet just about every baseball fan in the country expects to see his own team’s worst hitter—the guy who makes you cringe whenever he comes up in a big situation—right here:
1. Danny Espinosa, Washington (-15.3 runs)
By Michael Gavaghen