The second batter, Eddie Situation, will post very good numbers but not as good as Slugger’s. The difference is that he will excel in key situations. According to his card, his performance will increase with batters on base while Slugger’s performance will get worse with runners on base.
This is a very sophisticated game you play, and Situation’s card also shows that he will perform best in close games, while Slugger’s stats are more likely to be accrued in runaway contests. You know that a home run in a one-run contest is worth more than a home run in a five-run contest, so you’re even more intrigued by Situation’s card. When you run all the numbers, you find that Situation’s contribution to your team’s wins will be higher than Slugger’s.
Which batter will you choose?
Me, I’d choose Situation instead of Slugger. I don’t want to lead my league in counting stats—I want to lead my league in wins. Choosing the guy who hits better with runners in scoring position and in close games will result in more wins for my team. I don’t want the best hitter on my team, I want the most valuable hitter.
See where I’m going with this?
Currently, the consensus seems to be that Bryce Harper is the clear choice for the National League Most Valuable Player Award. After all, he’s batting .333/.463/.648 with 36 home runs, 84 RBI and 104 runs scored (all numbers as of Sept. 14). However, I don’t think we should totally hang our hat on those counting stats. Allow me to offer another way to look at things.
Here are the current (as of Sept. 14, and that’s the last time I’ll say it) NL leaders in wRC (weighted Runs Created, which is a similar scale to Runs Scored and RBI), along with some other key stats:
As you can see, Harper leads the league in wRC, five ahead of Joey Votto and 15 more than Paul Goldschmidt. He also leads in wRAA, which is the same thing as wRC, but it’s expressed in runs above average instead of total runs. You can see Harper moves ahead in wRAA by posting the highest wRC total but in fewer plate appearances. Votto and Anthony Rizzo, who have the exact same number of plate appearances, also have the exact same difference in both wRC and wRAA. I like to look at both stats as a starting point.
Not all hits have the same impact, however. A single with a runner on third and two outs is worth more than a single with no one on base and two outs, for just one example. The best research I’ve seen that captures this phenomenon was posted by Tom Ruane at Retrosheet many years ago. Tom calls it Value Added Batting Runs, but it’s called RE24 at FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. Shorter names fit better on teeny columns.
You calculate each batter’s Value Added Runs—or RE24—by calculating the difference in expected runs from before his plate appearance to after his plate appearance, adding in the number of runs that scored. You can calculate the difference in expected runs by…well, just read the article.
RE24 is a real gem of a stat and vastly underused. It tells you very different things about batters. Let’s look at the RE24 of our top five MVP contenders and compare it to their wRAA.
Harper’s RE24 is about the same as his wRAA (too many acronyms!), but every other batter increases his impact once we add in his performance in each specific situation. How does this happen? Well, here are a couple of factoids (out of many possible factoids) to consider:
- With runners in scoring position, Bryce Harper has batted .294/.476/.559. With no one on, he’s batted .336/.443/.695.
- With runners in scoring position, Anthony Rizzo has batted .305/.425/.602. With no one on, he’s batted .249/.344/.488.
With runners in scoring position, Harper has actually been worse than with no one on, but Rizzo has been much, much better than his no-one-on stats. The nice thing about RE24 is that it takes all the differences in base/out situations (there are 24 of them) and sums them up in a single number.
This is called situational hitting. People tend to ignore it because it’s not very likely Rizzo will repeat this breakout again. But MVP awards aren’t given for repeatable performances. They’re given based on what actually happened. Rizzo’s RISP performance actually happened.
You probably know all of this; maybe you’ve looked up RE24 on baseball websites many times before. But there’s another wrinkle to consider, something I first researched in 2007. That is, the margin of victory in a game.
This is a simple yet powerful idea, too: runs in close contests are more important than runs in blowouts. The object of the game is to win the thing, not to run up a big run total. Thanks to WPA, we can quantify exactly how much events matter to winning in close games vs. those in blowouts. For instance, a batting event in a one-run game was worth 1.38 more than average, while a batting event in a three-run game was worth 0.97 of average. I’m going to call this a Margin Factor (and that’s all the detail I’m giving you here; read the article for more).
So I multiplied each batter’s RE24 in each game by the Margin Factor of the game. Below you can see how our Big Five rank in wRAA, RE24 and this last stat, which I’ll call Game-Adjusted RE24 (GameRE24 for short).
Most of our batters lost ground in the transition from RE24 to GameRE24 because one-run games tend to be low-scoring affairs. However, Paul Goldschmidt actually increased his total impact by factoring in the game situation. (Fun fact: Goldschmidt leads the majors in RE24 in one-run games at 25.4. Kris Bryant is second at 19.1).
In our overall GameRE24 totals, Votto is now in the lead, with Harper, Goldschmidt and Rizzo virtually tied for second. It’s not a runaway race anymore; it’s a dead heat.
Of course, you probably would want to plug these numbers into WAR, where Harper’s (and McCutchen’s) positions would factor in. So, too, would Goldschmidt’s fielding numbers. You probably also should include the fact that Harper has accrued fewer plate appearances. There is much still to play with, but the basic concept is fully formed.
In 1979, Don Baylor won the American League MVP Award, largely thanks to an impressive RBI total of 139. Back then, we didn’t have any advanced stats or breakouts to make sense of those numbers, so we grabbed onto some evidence of situational hitting wherever we found it.
Here’s what we now know. Baylor came to bat with runners in scoring position 258 times in 1979, 22 more times than the major league runner-up (Darrell Porter). His OPS in those situations was .981, which is obviously very good but was still just 15th in the majors. His RBI count was driven more by opportunity than performance.
If we had been able to see his RE24 at the time, we would have seen a total of 37.9, eighth in the AL behind Fred Lynn’s 60.6. In fact, Lynn led the majors in OPS with runners in scoring position at 1.188. Remarkably, his RE24 was much higher than Baylor’s despite coming to bat only 166 times with runners in scoring position.
This debate of “What does valuable mean?” has gone on long enough. Many people have given up on the topic, ceding the floor to simple counting stats because, you know, who really knows? But we do know. Value = Winning. Winning is a function of hitting, hitting in the right situations and in the closest games. If you want to honor the best hitter, vote for the Silver Slugger. But if you really want to honor the Most Valuable Player, take a good look at his Game-Adjusted RE24. That is where value lies.
References & Resources (and Caveats)
- As always, thanks to Retrosheet, FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference for their wonderful work and tools. Particular thanks to Tom Ruane for his research. Tangotiger has been my guide in much of my WPA research over the years.
- I used the 2007 Margin Factors from my original articles. Ideally, I’d update those for the current run environment. Also, the RE24 stats at FanGraphs and Baseball Reference are based on evolving run expectancy tables and won’t be finalized until the season is over. I’m taking it on faith that these RE24 numbers are pretty close to the final deal.
- Tom Ruane, Retrosheet, “The Value Added Approach to Evaluating Performance”
- Dave Studeman, The Hardball Times, “Long Live Baseball Analysis”