Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Day in the Win

A confluence of two events compelled to write this post not only on a weekend, but a holiday weekend, guaranteeing it a (not at all) widespread audience. The first was my daily compilation of games in which the pitching win was a misleading stat for the games of Friday, August 30th--it seemed more brutal than usual:

The thumbnail descriptions of the three types of games are included in the table and I'll give further explanation as I discuss each of the games, which is the purpose of this post--to view in detail just how the win gives an incomplete or distorted picture of pitching performance.

I was already primed by tweets that Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) put out on Friday evening:

Nolan Ryan pitched for a Houston Astros team that had won 96 games and made the playoffs in 1986 but backslid to 76 wins in 1987. His 8-16 record would be the focal point for the average baseball fan who would say "Look at that--he lost all those games, HE'S why the Astros were so bad that year!" Kenny rightly points out that his win-loss record in no way came close to reflecting how well he pitched. Max Scherzer is all but guaranteed to win the AL Cy Young with whatever gaudy record he'll finish with (AND the best run support in baseball) while Chris Sale has been the most effective pitcher in the AL and has a 10-12 record to show for it thanks to woeful offense and defense by the Sox, and he's the proud owner of the 11th-worst run support in his starts in baseball. Figure out which is which:

Max Scherzer is going to win a Cy Young with numbers that are indistinguishable from Chris Sale (and the 12-8 Felix Hernandez). And, Sale's numbers are the top row.

The rest of this post will discuss the individual games to show just how capricious and unfair the win is and why every effort needs to continue to #KillTheWin.

Yu Darvish, Rangers
This is a very simple and common story--Darvish was pitching well until he reached the 7th and gave up back-to-back homers to Chris Herrmann and Justin Morneau and ended his game giving up a double to Trevor Plouffe. Neal Cotts was brought in to relieve, gave up a single but was saved as Plouffe was thrown out trying to score. A Quality Start for Darvish and no run support from the Rangers as they lost 3-2. Darvish did everything HE was supposed to do and got a loss for his efforts.

Jordan Zimmerman, Nationals
Almost the same story. Whatever issues the Nationals are having this year, Zimmerman isn't one of them and he had another effective game and was removed in the 8th with the Nationals down 3-1. They managed to score another run but Zimmerman was doomed by the same thing as Darvish, a team that didn't capitalize on a very good effort.

Ervin Santana, Randall Delgado, Jose Fernandez (Royals, Diamondbacks, Marlins)
It's a broken record at this point. To even be part of this category a pitcher had to have a Game Score of 60 or greater, implying that he had done all he could to insure team success--it's not like these pitchers were giving up hits by the gross. Generaly speaking, the Ripoff can be pinned squarely on an offense that doesn't produce, as the Royals, Diamondbacks and Marlins scored 2, 0 and 1 run respectively in these games. Yep, be sure to hang that loss on the pitcher, it's all HIS fault.

CC Sabathia, NY Yankees
Cheap Wins, by definition a win with a Game Score of 49 or less (and remember that only starting pitchers get Game Scores) are a much more diverse species. In Sabathia's case he managed to keep the Orioles down to only 5 earned runs (a nifty 7.94 ERA--THAT'S worth $23 million) in 5.2 innings. He wasn't bad, but he certainly wasn't the reason the Yankees won and kept their feeble Wild Card hopes alive--that would be the two-runs homers by Alfonso Soriano and Ichiro Suzuki

Jorge De La Rosa, Colorado
De La Rosa will get NL Cy Young votes for no other reason that he'll finish with something like a 16-8 record while pitching in Colorado. His game was okay--not many strikeouts, not many walks and he only allowed the Reds to score three runs. The Rockies scored six runs while he was in the game (none of which De La Rosa scored or drove in), so he, like Sabathia was the recipient of an offense that delivered. This is no knock on him--he's been amazingly effective for the past two months, only allowing more than 3 runs in 1 of his last 15 starts--it's only that his pitching, while keeping the Reds at bay, was not the reason Colorado won.

Cheap wins are part of the game and happen every day--it's the vulture wins that drive starting pitchers (and their agents) crazy at contract time. These are basically any win by a reliever, and there were two varieties yesterday.

B.J. Rosenberg, Philadelphia
The Cubs-Phillies game was tied 5-5 when Rosenberg was brought in to work the 8th inning. Other than a two-out double he was effective, striking out both pinch hitter Logan Watkins and Junior Lake. Chances are he would have been replaced no matter what, but it was his luck that Michael Young drove in Roger Bernadina for the game-winning run in the bottom of the 8th. Did Rosenberg do what he was supposed to do--of course, he allowed no runs, but for throwing 16 pitches AND being the pitcher of record since Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg hadn't yet officially removed him he was awarded the win.

Ryan Cook, Oakland
Cook took a different path, entering the game with a 3-1 lead over the Rays. With runners on 1st and 2nd he gave up a single to Evan Longoria to load the bases. Matthew Joyce drove in David DeJesus with a sacrifice fly and James Loney doubled in Ben Zobrist. Cook got through the rest of the inning allowing no runs, and in another kick in the teeth, allowed earned runs to be charged to Jarrod Parker. Cook was lucky enough to have Jed Lowrie drive in Coco Crisp for the winning run in the bottom of the 8th giving Cook that most special of wins, the one that comes with a blown save as well.

15 games, 30 starting pitchers, and of those 30, 9 (30%) received decisions that weren't commensurate with their effort. This chart shows how often that's happened in 2013:
I know, that one hurts a bit, but it's a stacked-bar graph showing how many of three variants of bad wins there are on a given day this year. That's why giving undue (and almost complete) influence on this one stat, one that in 2013 has NOT accurately reflected pitching performance in 33.7% (545 Ripoffs, 184 Cheap Wins and 626 Vulture Wins) of games, OVER ONE-THIRD is ridiculous and has to be reigned in.

Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. While I'll admit that killing the win is not as important as civil rights (this is a joke, feel free to laugh), it's time to have a March on Baseball Lunacy. Step up and help Brian Kenny and others reduce (or even better, eliminate) the emphasis on an outdated stat that if the game was started fresh today wouldn't even be invented. Write your Congressman/woman, sign this petition to get President Obama to kill the win through Executive Order, protest outside of Major League ballparks and raise awareness, but whatever we do, let's all resolve to


Friday, August 30, 2013

Team Speed

While watching the Cubs/Padres games this past Sunday, the Stat Sunday feature was on team speed. There's a very nice page on Baseball-Reference that puts a wide variety of different proxy measures of team speed in one place. All data is through Thursday, August 28th, 2013.

What's the difference between an error and a bobbled ball that becomes just another out? Speed--if Norichika Aoki hits a smash to 3rd and the fielder mishandles the ball chances are very good he'll reach base via an error--at least it seems that way since he's tied for the league lead (with Andrelton Simmons) in reaching on errors with 12. On the other hand, if the batter is Paul Konerko, the third baseman has time to go into the stands and grab a hot dog and beer, sign a couple of autographs, scope out the "talent" and STILL make the play. Here's how teams rank in 2013:

As a Cubs fan I'll freely admit to being surprised that they lead the league in this category, and it's pretty obvious how far this has gotten them this year. Like any other metric, NOTHING can be taken by itself as an explanation of team success--for example, the Rays, a team that prides itself on aggressive base running and team speed, is last by a healthy margin. 


The stolen base as a strategy has been all over the place in baseball history--very prevalent in the Dead Ball Era, dormant from around 1920-1960, revived in the 1960s and really took off in the 1970s and 1980s, had another period of dormancy from around 1990-2007 and appears to currently be enjoying another period of renaissance today. In NONE of these periods was there any correlation between stealing bases and team success--some teams, like the Reds and Royals of the mid-70s were good teams with high stolen base totals, but those teams certainly had other factors in their favor. Likewise, other teams like the Angels and Cardinals of that era also had speed and had no success to show for it.

I find base stealing to be potentially confusing since I see three different dynamics at work:
1. How many times do teams try to steal? It ranges from 53 attempts for the Cardinals to 157 attempts for the Brewers.
2. How successful were they? The Brewers 114 steals have to be counterbalanced against their 43 caught stealing, but it could be worse--the Astros lead the league in caught stealing with 45 and managed that feat in 20 fewer steal attempts.
3. How many opportunities did teams have to steal a base? Just as RBI are very much a function of opportunity in that a runner that isn't on base can't be driven in, a team needs to have base runners in order to have steal attempts. If aggressiveness on the base paths can be determined by:

(Stolen Bases + Caught Stealing)/Stolen Base Opportunities (SBO)
Then the Brewers (they attempt to steal in 9.3% of their opportunities), Astros (8.4%) and Rangers (8.0%) are the most aggressive and the Tigers (2.3%), Cardinals (2.8%) and Mariners (3.1%) are the least. 

One of the most-read posts on this blog was one of my first where I discussed the Tom Tango Run Expectancy Matrix. It just so happened that one of the readers was...Tom Tango, or at least one part of him/her/them. Here's the table (it's the second one on the web page):

This table shows the odds a team will score a run by base and out situation.  Assume a runner on 2nd with 0 outs--this chart suggests a 63.7% chance of scoring. If the runner steals 3rd, yes, the odds of scoring a run improve dramatically, to 85.3%--anytime a team can improve the odds of scoring by over 20% needs to be taken into consideration.

But that's not the only consideration--what if that runner is thrown out? Now the odds of a run scoring in the inning drops to 17.2%. In other words, stealing 3rd increases the odds of scoring by around 20% but getting thrown out reduces the odds by around 45%. The cost of the out is 2.25x greater than the benefit of the stolen base. I'd explain further but I doubt many will care, so I'll just state that the knowledge of these numbers is widespread throughout baseball and why steals of 3rd are far lower than of 2nd.

Advancing to 3rd on a groundout improves the odds of scoring to 67.4%--granted, it's not 85.3%, but it's far better than with no base runner. The 1993-2010 time period was one of enhanced offense, and when hitting is ascendant stealing has a tendency to play a smaller role--I'll be very curious how the diminished offense of the past couple of years has affected these numbers.

What doesn't change is the difficulty of stealing home, although this year hasn't been bad--8 of 21 (38.9%)--historically it's around 25-30%. No matter what, stealing home is HARD--unless human physiology changes in a dramatic fashion a thrown ball will reach home far faster than a human being running from 3rd.


This table shows the number of times a player was thrown out trying to advance on the bases. It does NOT include force outs since there is very little a runner can do when the ball is hit directly at a fielder. Whether this is a measure of team speed as much as team aggressiveness is a valid point --for example, Detroit appears fairly aggressive on the base paths but doesn't try to steal much.

One thing I've noticed as I enter box score data is that it seemed to me that teams were FAR MORE aggressive, almost reckless, on the base paths in years gone by. When I stumbled upon this page earlier this year I realized I could actually check this:

It's always nice when actual data lines up with a thought and it appears my suspicions were correct. This is yet another result of a movement that began with Earl Weaver (and probably earlier) to not give away outs with risky base running. The Tango table shows very clearly that there IS an incremental advantage to taking an extra base but that the increase is far less than the cost of an out. I'm not suggesting that aggressive base running be eliminated, because it's not even a fine line between aggressive and reckless, it's more of an attitude. I'll explain that further in the last section.

This very busy table has a plethora of information and I'll break it down by section:


The first section (BT, XBT%) are Bases Taken and Extra Bases Taken % on items like fly balls, wild pitches, passed balls, etc. This is an excellent measure of team base running aggressiveness in that it becomes a proxy measure of team speed, since slow runners have a more difficult time taking advantage of these situations. The XBT% helps put these numbers in context--a brief look at the Cubs and their very low number of 81 bases taken in these instances is properly placed when it is seen that they don't have as many opportunities. Some of this is definitional--I'm not sure if it's a passed ball or wild pitch UNLESS the runner advances (5 seconds of Wikipedia research suggests this is the case), so a slower team can't take advantage. There's a mix, but look at the teams that are near the top in these categories--the Rays, White Sox, Reds and Red Sox, all known for both their team speed and aggressive base running.

The next three sets of columns are related but tell a very compelling story--the first set are runners on 1st when a single is hit (1stS), with the next two being how often they advance to 2nd (1stS2) and 3rd (1stS3). The extra base taken by going to 3rd occurs much less often than I suspect people realize, around 25-30% of the time. This is perfectly logical as I bet around two-thirds of singles are hit to left field, making it VERY difficult to advance to 3rd unless the left fielder is a complete stiff, the runner is extremely fast (and rash) and the ball is hit in JUST the right place. Here are the spray charts for the left-hand hitter Joey Votto and right-hand hitter Dustin Pedroia (both available from Brooks, which now has PITCHf/x data for pitchers AND hitters):
 I may not have picked the best examples, particularly with Pedroia as he appears to do a decent job of using the entire field (note how the green dots, which are hits aren't just located in left field) but my general point is made--most of those ground balls that make it into the outfield are singles. Any opposite field single or even one to center gives the runner a chance to advance to 3rd, anything a hitter pulls much less so. I'd be very interested to see if data supports this but can't find it--hit location splits data from Baseball-Reference breaks down hits by pulled, up the middle and opposite field, but I have no clue what those distinctions are.

The next set of columns are doubles with a runner is on 1st (1stD) and how often the runner advances to 3rd (1stD3) or scores (1stDH). The percentages increase dramatically since doubles are usually hit where players ain't, giving the base runner a much greater chance of advancing. In addition, the location of the hit becomes less important as now even the left fielder has to make a strong AND accurate throw, and even with these advantages, runners advance from 1st on a double and score only about 40% of the time. 

The last columns are a runner on 2nd when a single is hit (2ndS) and how often they advance to 3rd (2ndS3) or score (2ndSH). Now the number increases to around 60%, and I think part of explanation is that it's easier for players to advance two bases as opposed to three when a runner is on 1st. Whether this is due to changes in strategy or ability is difficult to tell.

Has this incidence of taking the extra base changed over time?

Reach your own conclusions on whether this is "bad" or if players "don't play the game like we used to <spit>!" Without more segmented data I can't state this conclusively, but I believe this demonstrates greater caution on team's parts vs. a diminishing of skills. Today's players are definitely faster than those in the past and there is NO way they aren't just as baseball-smart, given they've been playing baseball almost year-round from the age of 10. To me this chart suggests teams are much more willing to take what is given as opposed to "making something happen." It is true that anything can happen on any play but just as true that the higher the level, the less the opportunity of those mistakes occurring. Caution doesn't have to mean timid or less-skilled.

I'll finish a fairly lengthy post by putting this all together, adding together all the speed items:

This takes the positive elements of speed (reaching on errors, stolen bases, extra bases taken on outs, WP, PB, advancing to 3rd on a single, or scoring from 2nd on a single or 1st on a double) and subtracts the negative (caught stealing, pickoffs and out on bases) for a simple number. To me, I see two types of teams here:
1. Teams that DO have team speed
2. Teams that are very aggressive on the base paths

While these two notions aren't mutually exclusive, they also don't march in lockstep with each other. Team speed and aggressiveness on the base paths are no guarantee of team success, nor is their lack a kiss of death. If offense in baseball is declining, then smart teams will pay more attention to these items and make the fullest use of them--they're all extra bases at heart. Since there is a very direct relationship between total bases and runs scored, the more bases, no matter how they're acquired, the better. We may be in the process of seeing offensive changes in baseball that may make these items, all of which are part of what many call "small ball" become important again. To be honest, they've never gone out of style, and it's not "small ball" as much as the successful execution of strategy, but as the home run specifically and power in general declines, the importance of the ability to advance on bases in other manners will increase.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Clayton Kershaw's Historic Season

Pitching is very difficult to write about as pitcher use has changed so much over time. The number of pitchers used, how many games they started, how long they stayed in the game and numerous other factors have evolved over time, making it tricky to truly make comparisons across eras. It's very difficult to compare Roger Clemens with Walter Johnson because their career numbers are so different (click on any image to see it clearer):

There are extreme differences between these two pitchers, both of whom are on any list of top 10 pitchers of all time (I'll leave aside any extracurricular activity for Clemens):
1. Johnson had almost 100 more games and around 60 more wins
2. Clemens had about 100 fewer losses
3. Johnson threw almost exactly 1,000 more innings than Clemens and had almost five times as many complete games
4. Clemens struck out many more batters both in absolute terms and per nine innings

FanGraphs WAR values for Clemens is 139.9 and Johnson 125.9. Baseball-Reference uses a different set of calculations which has Cy Young at #1 (170.3), Johnson #2 (152.3) and Clemens #3 (139.4). Someday I'll write a post discussing what I THINK are the reasons behind the difference between FanGraphs and B-R WAR values, but that difference becomes less important than the fact that both values have the same three pitchers as the top 3--ignore the number and place greater emphasis on the rank.

Ranking modern pitchers is very difficult when even going back to the 1960s and 1970s when it wasn't unusual for a pitcher to throw 250 innings or more. Therefore, as I compare the season Clayton Kershaw is having, I'm only going to compare him to pitchers from 1990-2013. This first chart shows how he compares with those pitches in his WAR value per batter faced:

This may not even be a real statistic but I use it to normalize WAR performance. In 2000 Pedro Martinez had one of the most dominant pitching seasons ever, totally eclipsed by an "ordinary" 18-6 record. He had an 1.74 ERA right in the middle of a hitter's era and his ERA+ (normalized to compare his ERA to the league's) was a ridiculous 291, the best in this time span by a very healthy margin (Maddux's 1994 strike-shortened year is next at 271). This gives a clue as to how rare this season was--this chart shows any pitcher with at least 20 starts and an ERA+ of 291 or greater:

Pedro Martinez 291 29 2000 28 BOS 29 7 4 18 6 .750 217.0 128 44 42 32 284 1.74 817 .167 .213 .259 .473 18
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/27/2013.

That's a small list. In a hitter's era in the American League, teams batted .167 against him. The only mystery to me is how he lost ANY games.

Look at Kershaw and his "average" 13-8 record. I'm down in print stating that not only should Kershaw win the NL Cy Young, it shouldn't even be close but wouldn't be surprised if somehow Francisco Liriano makes a run with a strong finish. I'm not ready to go the MVP route simply because I think the Cy Young should be enough but I don't reject it out of hand--Kershaw will face around 1,000 batters whereas position players bat around 650-700 times. It will be intriguing since I don't consider the NL MVP race to be cut and dried. No, I'm more surprised that Kershaw has lost ANY games, but here's how he did it:

Games in yellow are either losses (8) or no decision (7)--pay particular attention to the number of runs the Dodgers scored in those games in yellow--he's in the bottom third in baseball in run support. Granted, Kershaw did have a rough streak at the end of May with four games where he gave up...5 or more runs! 28 starts with only 6 games with 5+ runs--that's one way to achieve an 1.72 ERA. This chart shows the pitchers with lower run support than Kershaw--keep in mind the average runs scored by team per game is around 4.2:

If you read my post on Miguel Cabrera's historic season, one metric I used was weighted runs created plus (wRC+), a normalized statistic that shows how much better than the rest of the league a player's season was (or in Cabrera's case, IS), and ERA+ is another normalized stat showing how much more dominant a pitcher was than the league. Kershaw's 207 ERA+ is very special--this chart shows every season in baseball history with an ERA+ of 200 or greater (minimum 20 starts in a year):
Go back to the Dead Ball Era and notice some of those numbers--Christy Mathewson's 1909 ERA of 1.14 led to an ERA+ of 222, meaning the league ERA was around 2.59. To expect significant numbers of ERA+ above 200 is very difficult in a pitcher's era, which also explains the extreme paucity during the mini-Dead Ball 1960s. The same names start popping up in the 1990s and I'll save my comments on Pedro Martinez and the Hall of Fame for a different day. I will guarantee that NO ONE would have expected to see Rich Harden on this list--his problem that year was staying healthy.

If you haven't, read my posts on wins (found here and here)--in brief, wins haven't been an  accurate marker of pitcher success since at least the 1940s when pitchers stopped pitching complete games. Especially as we reach the modern era from around 1990 the 20-game win season becomes very rare and will continue to be so (absent drastic changes in pitcher utilization) because if the typical pitcher gets a decision in only around 65-70% of his 35 starts a year, he'll have to be lucky like Max Scherzer (highest run support in baseball) to go 20-2. Therefore, new metrics and methods of pitcher evaluation need to be incorporated to reflect seasons like Kershaw's that aren't just great, but historically dominant--there are only 37 seasons with an ERA+ of 200 or greater--out of over 10,000 possible seasons. Anytime someone enters the domain of seasons that have occurred only .3% of the time should be noted.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Historic Nature of Miguel Cabrera

It's becoming difficult to find superlatives for the play of Miguel Cabrera, but I discovered a couple last week while listening to the Boers and Bernstein Show on Chicago's 670 The Score last week. Afternoon hosts Dan Bernstein (@dan_bernstein) and Terry Boers were discussing the historic nature of not only this season but of his career and were curious about two things.

Terry first discussed an item in Sports Illustrated (I think) that looked at Cabrera's numbers for this year and asked how often in baseball history players had a .360 average, 40+ home runs and 120+ RBI. Anytime arbitrary cut lines are introduced lists can be odd and intriguing, but in this particular case, we can already guess we're probably going to see some pretty good players:

Larry Walker .366 49 130 1997 30 COL NL 153 664 568 143 208 46 4 78 90 33 8 .452 .720 1.172
Babe Ruth .376 54 137 1920 25 NYY AL 142 616 458 158 172 36 9 150 80 14 14 .532 .847 1.379
Babe Ruth .378 59 171 1921 26 NYY AL 152 693 540 177 204 44 16 145 81 17 13 .512 .846 1.359
Babe Ruth .393 41 131 1923 28 NYY AL 152 697 522 151 205 45 13 170 93 17 21 .545 .764 1.309
Babe Ruth .378 46 121 1924 29 NYY AL 153 681 529 143 200 39 7 142 81 9 13 .513 .739 1.252
Babe Ruth .372 47 153 1926 31 NYY AL 152 652 495 139 184 30 5 144 76 11 9 .516 .737 1.253
Babe Ruth .373 46 163 1931 36 NYY AL 145 663 534 149 199 31 3 128 51 5 4 .495 .700 1.195
Mike Piazza .362 40 124 1997 28 LAD NL 152 633 556 104 201 32 1 69 77 5 1 .431 .638 1.070
Chuck Klein .386 40 170 1930 25 PHI NL 156 721 648 158 250 59 8 54 50 4 .436 .687 1.123
Rogers Hornsby .401 42 152 1922 26 STL NL 154 704 623 141 250 46 14 65 50 17 12 .459 .722 1.181
Todd Helton .372 42 147 2000 26 COL NL 160 697 580 138 216 59 2 103 61 5 3 .463 .698 1.162
Lou Gehrig .373 47 175 1927 24 NYY AL 155 717 584 149 218 52 18 109 84 10 8 .474 .765 1.240
Lou Gehrig .379 41 174 1930 27 NYY AL 154 703 581 143 220 42 17 101 63 12 14 .473 .721 1.194
Lou Gehrig .363 49 165 1934 31 NYY AL 154 690 579 128 210 40 6 109 31 9 5 .465 .706 1.172
Jimmie Foxx .364 58 169 1932 24 PHA AL 154 702 585 151 213 33 9 116 96 3 7 .469 .749 1.218
Norm Cash .361 41 132 1961 26 DET AL 159 673 535 119 193 22 8 124 85 11 5 .487 .662 1.148
Miguel Cabrera .360 42 128 2013 30 DET AL 122 551 470 93 169 25 1 75 80 3 0 .450 .685 1.135
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/26/2013.

This is an easy search with the Baseball-Reference Play Index Feature and this is a very interesting list. 
FULL DISCLOSURE--this table was generated using data through Sunday, but his average dropped to .359 after Monday's game.
There are the old-school Lively Ball (it wasn't) Era hitters like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby and Chuck Klein, Hall of Famers all and deservedly so, but it needs to be understood just how much offense increased in the 1920s and 1930s--this chart shows the batting average leap beginning in 1920 through around 1941 when World War II affected everything from available players to materials to make baseballs:

The National League average batting average was .303 in 1930, a full 50 points above what it will likely be for both leagues in 2013. In 1930 Chuck Klein hit .386 when the league batted .303, or about 27.4% better than the league. Cabrera's .359 compared to the AL's .256 is 40.2% better--Cabrera is hitting over 100 points better than the league. Some day I'll follow up on THAT to see how often it occurs, but I suspect it won't be often.

Since this is a small list I can use advanced metrics from FanGraphs to give a fuller picture. This chart adds two very useful numbers, Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) and Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) for the 17 seasons in the chart above:

wOBA is a Tom Tango creation that moves beyond traditional hitting metrics by  measuring value they deliver instead of just counting them. Scaling it to resemble traditional hitting metrics helps to understand how good a season a player had. Suffice it to say that any season with an wOBA of .400 or higher is excellent, which makes these 17  seasons simply stellar. 

wRC+ is another Tom Tango creation that allows comparisons of offensive production across parks and eras. Any time there is a "+" after a number (usually OPS+ for offensive players, ERA+ for pitchers) it means the number is normalized. If you know and understand this, skip to the next paragraph. All normalization means is how much better the player was compared to the league. For example, Cabrera has an OPS of 1.137 and an OPS+ of 202. You can see the calculation for yourself here, but in essence this states that Cabrera's OPS+ is twice as good as the league's. Here are the pertinent numbers:
If you actually follow the formula and do the math, well, I got an OPS+ of 210 vs. his actual 202, but I chalk that up to me. The League values do NOT include Cabrera's production, so that's not it--let's just leave it aside for now since the important point remains the same--his production is DOUBLE the league's average, and this is historic.

wRC+, with a "+" behind it, is another normalized stat with a league average of 100. Cabrera's wRC+ is 206, again showing that his production is twice the league average. This chart shows every season since 1901 in which a player had a wRC+ of 200 or higher:


These 32 seasons can be grouped:
1. Enhanced offense years from 1994-2004 (Frank Thomas excepted)
2. The absolute best hitters in baseball between 1940-1960 in Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial
3. The Lively Ball hitters already discussed
4. The Dead Ball Era in which Ty Cobb and Ruth (and no one else) were able to transcend the lack of home runs and still generate tremendous offensive production. Not that I care all that much for RBI, but Cobb drove in 102 with only 6 home runs in 1917.

And then there's Cabrera, the first such season since 1957 (I'll discount Thomas's 1994 slightly because it was a strike-shortened year and the others between 1994-2004 have their well-known issues)--the first such season in FIFTY-SIX YEARS.

A season is a season, and by this point it's safe to state that Cabrera's 2013 isn't a fluke, After the discussion of these seasons, Dan Bernstein mentioned that Cabrera has averaged around .320 and 33 home runs in his last 10 seasons--how many stretches in baseball history matched this?

This is very solid company and helps put modern players in their proper historical context. I'll discuss this in far greater depth when we get closer to Hall of Fame balloting but there is a tendency to place greater emphasis on numbers for players we DIDN'T see play vs. those we did. It's a spin on the old "familiarity breeds contempt" notion that we discount and take for granted what we can see, but when the time for evaluation comes for Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Frank Thomas and Manny Ramirez, this level of sustained excellence will have to be taken into consideration. There will be other factors as Mike Piazza already discovered and at some point baseball will have to make some kind of determination on how to handle players from approximately 1990-2007, but that's a different post. In an age where virtually anything is labeled "historic," it is very important to recognize the truly stunning when it is seen.

It used to be rare to hit 40 home runs, and around 1995 it became far more prevalent, but that incidence has shrunk again. How much this is due to reduced PED use vs. other factors won't be known for a long time, but it appears only Cabrera and Chris Davis will cross that threshold in 2013. In this day and age we can't automatically assume Cabrera will be able to continue his offensive production into his late 30s, but it's very important to remember that he's only 30 now--if he puts up 3 more solid-to-spectacular seasons (and not even equal to this year--we're entering an era where .300/30 HR/100 RBI will again be special), he'll have achieved a level of sustained excellence that is extremely rare in baseball history. 

There are good young hitters in baseball today--Paul Goldschmidt for power, Mike Trout for overall offensive production, Yasiel Puig for raw potential, but it might be quite some time before we see the likes of Miguel Cabrera again, someone who puts it all together in one package. I didn't mention WAR all that much in this post because it wasn't my focus, but it helps illustrate his defensive shortcomings--he easily had the worst fielding season of any of the 17 seasons in the chart. I'm sure there's a breakeven point where his defensive shortcomings would overcome his offensive output--here are his FanGraphs WAR values:


Cabrera's hitting has generated around 67 runs, his fielding has cost around 15 runs. So far this season he's made 12 errors, suggesting he'd have to make something around 60 errors or so in order for his fielding to be detrimental. He'll probably end the season with around 15-17 errors and adding another 15-20 runs with his hitting. In other words his hitting outweighs his fielding by around a 4:1 factor or so. Breaking down WAR into its components is very useful for precisely this reason, to see at what point defensive liabilities transcend hitting, but in Cabrera's case, it's not even close.

This last chart is so big that I'll finish writing and then put it in, but take the time to not just look at it but study it for what it shows--the difference between the player with the highest wRC+ and the second-highest by year. For example, Chris Davis's 182 wRC+ is 13.2% below Cabrera's, one of the largest gaps between #1 and #2 in recent years for players not named Barry Bonds. As you look at the names and differences on this list, it should become apparent how amazing Cabrera's season is, because he's accomplishing it in what is NOT a hitter's era like between 1920-1940 and 1995-2007. Pitching is on the rise and Cabrera STILL is having one of the best offensive seasons in baseball history. This is why I use numbers--not just to show something, but to hopefully illustrate how special a given season is, and these numbers aren't cherry-picked to paint a picture. There's a mix of traditional and sabermetric, and the only real question left in my mind is if any MVP voter will have the audacity to NOT use their first place ballot for Cabrera.