Why Mookie Betts is the perfect player, and other fun stats

MLB

Before there was Baseball-Reference.com, there was “The Bill James Handbook,” the annual statistical compilation of the baseball season. The “Handbook” still exists, and it’s still wonderful — 600 pages of stats and essays and delightful nuggets of information.

As always, the bulk of the book is the player register — career numbers for every player who played in the majors in 2018 — but there are sections on managers, team defense, ballpark ratings, the Hall of Fame, leaderboards, pitchers’ repertoires, shifts and much more.

Here are nine fun items from this year’s edition:

The best player not in the Hall of Fame: The book includes a long essay by Bill James that introduces a new method to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness. He includes a list of the 25 worst Hall of Famers and the 25 best players not in the Hall of Fame. Well, not including what James labels “special cases” — such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

The best player not in the Hall of Fame who isn’t a special case? Bill Dahlen, a turn-of-the-century — the 20th century, mind you — shortstop known for his good defense. I’m with James here: that it serves no purpose at this point to honor Dahlen, even if he has been shortchanged. As Bill writes, “I don’t really believe in honoring numbers, and I worry that that is what this would be doing, honoring his numbers.” There are more than enough players from the 1800s and early 1900s already enshrined.

At any rate, the No. 2 player on the list is much more interesting, a player who has received little support even while his longtime teammate was just elected: Lou Whitaker.

More evidence that Jose Ramirez and Mookie Betts are pretty much the perfect players: Baseball Info Solutions measures baserunning production via a combination of advancements on hits and outs and stolen bases into a category called Net Gain. Ramirez ranked first in the majors with a net gain of plus-48 bases above average, while Betts ranked third at plus-37. (For the curious, Lorenzo Cain was second.) Betts’ total is particularly impressive, since Fenway Park limits opportunities to go first-to-third or second-to-home on base hits to left field.

What’s impressive about both players is that neither is a topflight speedster. Via Statcast’s sprint speed leaderboard, Betts didn’t rank among the top 100 fastest players, and Ramirez didn’t crack the top 200. The margins there are relatively small, but it’s a reminder that good baserunning is as much about instinct and effort as raw speed.

The worst baserunners? Yangervis Solarte of the Toronto Blue Jays came in last with a net gain of minus-34, and catcher Wilson Ramos was second-lowest at minus-32.

The best team on the bases, surprisingly, was the New York Yankees, with a net gain of plus-86. Brett Gardner (plus-33) and Aaron Hicks (plus-32) were responsible for much of that, so even though they rely on the home run, the Yankees aren’t a team of plodders. The Blue Jays were last at minus-89 bases.

It’s interesting to compare the two big free agents, as well. Manny Machado comes in at plus-20 bases, and Bryce Harper at minus-4. Maybe Machado doesn’t run out all his grounders, but he had a good year on the bases even though he’s not all that fast, either. Harper’s defensive metrics were also down in 2018 and combined with his baserunning figures indicate he played very cautiously throughout the season to avoid injury risks.

Your most efficient team of 2018: One of my favorite tables in the book is the annual team-efficiency chart, which combines offensive efficiency (actual runs versus expected runs), defensive efficiency (runs allowed versus expected runs allowed) and runs efficiency (the expected number of wins based on actual runs scored and allowed) into an overall efficiency rating.

The Seattle Mariners had an expected win total of 82; instead, they won 89, giving them an efficiency rating of 109. The Red Sox and Twins were next at 107. The Nationals and Dodgers were the least efficient teams at 88. The Nationals “should” have won 94 games, but actually won just 82. The Dodgers should have won 104, but won just 92.

One interesting number, however, belongs to the Astros. The Astros “created” 741 runs but actually scored 797. They hit very well with runners in scoring position — .285/.362/.499, which explains were they were very efficient. We can label that clutch hitting, but that isn’t necessarily predictive for the following season. On the other hand, guys such as Carlos Correa and George Springer could have better years the plate. It will be interesting to see if the Astros return to the powerhouse attack they had in 2017 or are the merely very good offense of 2018.

The top power hitter of 2018: Not including anybody who played for the Rockies, the player with the longest average home run distance (minimum 10 home runs) is a surprise. Because it was not Giancarlo Stanton or Joey Gallo, but Minnesota Twins outfielder Jake Cave, who averaged 421 feet on his 13 home runs.

Cave is an interesting guy for 2019. He was caught in a numbers game with the Yankees, and the Twins acquired him during spring training for minor league pitcher Luis Gil. Cave got a chance to play center field when Byron Buxton was injured, and he hit .265/.313/.473 in 309 plate appearances. He was a little old for a rookie (25) and didn’t hit lefties, and his strikeout-to-walk rate was poor (102 to 18), but if he can clean up the approach and tap into that power, Cave could be a useful player for the Twins in 2019.

Matt Carpenter hates the shift: BIS tracks hits gained and lost to the shift. According to their best estimates, Carpenter gained 10 hits from shifts in 2018 — but lost 33, for a net loss of 23 hits. Carpenter hit .257 (despite this, he should finish high in the MVP voting thanks to 36 home runs, 111 runs and an .897 OPS). Add 23 hits, however, and his average goes up to .298.

Tell Don Mattingly to stop intentionally walking hitters: The intentional walk is basically on life support — analysts have proven that it often causes more harm than good, as it leads to big innings and more runs. (Dave Roberts got burned by a couple intentional walks in the World Series.)

One manager still loves ordering his pitchers to deliver a free pass, as the Miami Marlins‘ Mattingly issued 73 intentional walks, 30 more than any other managers. Maybe that was a reflection of a young (and bad) pitching staff, as Mattingly tried to get the platoon advantage, but only 40 of those IBBs led to good results; 33 were “not good,” and 19 were bombs (meaning multiple runs eventually scored). Mattingly has led the majors in intentional walks three seasons in a row — one sign of how the Marlins’ front office is behind the times in analytics.

The worst defensive position in 2018: Rockies center fielders — mostly Charlie Blackmon — were credited with minus-31 defensive runs saved (edging out Yankees third basemen (mostly Miguel Andujar) and Blue Jays left fielders (Teoscar Hernandez about half the time, but 11 different players started there), both at minus-28 DRS.

There could be some ballpark effects going on with Blackmon, but he did look a step slow out there. It would make sense for the Rockies to move him to an outfield corner (Carlos Gonzalez is a free agent anyway) and move David Dahl to center field, or, better yet, keep Dahl in a corner and find a legit center fielder.

We wrote about ?the Phillies’ defense late in the season, but they were remarkable for this: There were below-average at all nine positions, including minus-27 in left field thanks to Rhys Hoskins, who played left field like a converted first baseman.

Random stat of the year: Cardinals pitcher John Gant was 2-for-31 at the plate — with two home runs.

One awesome Mike Trout stat: Betts led the majors in runs created per 27 outs at home with 11.6. Trout was second at 10.9. But here’s the brilliance of Trout: He led the majors in runs created per 27 outs on the road at 11.5 — way above the 8.9 of J.D. Martinez and 8.8 of Betts.

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