I waste an inordinate amount of time staring down the statistical columns of the Baseball Reference web site, trying to find meaning in the numbers. Sometimes everything makes perfect sense to me and other times I wonder if stats truly reflect the performance and value of the players.
Let me give you an example. I was recently looking at the Royals team history page and discovered something interesting. If you review the column of “Top Players” you’ll see a number of recognizable names of athletes that contributed mightily to the success (or relative success) of each specific season. You’ll find Alex Gordon, Amos Otis, Bret Saberhagen, Carlos Beltran, David Cone, Johnny Damon, Kevin Appier, Zack Greinke, John Mayberry, Dan Quisenberry, Willie Wilson, Joakim Soria, etc. and of course George Brett – a veritable who’s who of Royal’s history. You’ll also see Jose Offerman, Mark Teahen and a couple other mild surprises.
This made me think… What is, or what should be, the definition of the Top or Best player? Baseball Reference defines the Top Player as the individual with the highest WAR (Wins Against Replacement) rating of any player on the team. WAR is a tangible analysis that takes both offense and defense into account, but it doesn’t make any attempt to measure leadership or intangibles, and it seems to favor pitchers slightly in my opinion.
Let me give you an example of the lack of leadership skills and intangibles in the WAR calculation. Remember Mike Sweeney? There is a lot of mixed opinion about Mike, and deservedly so, yet he put up some dynamite offensive numbers for a few years combined with the ability to hold his own at first base, and he was the undeniable leader of the Royals during his time as Captain. Yet this 5 time All Star who hit .333 with 144 RBIs, 71 walks, and a league leading 15 HBPs in 2000, and a 2002 season that saw him hit .340, .563 slugging, and 148 OPS+ was never the “Top Player” for the Royals according to Baseball Reference and his WAR rating. In 2002, that honor went to Paul Byrd.
What do you think of that? Was Paul Byrd a more important piece of the puzzle for the Royals in 2002 than Mike Sweeney and his .340 batting average? (.340 is 2nd only to George Brett’s .390 in 1980, and how would you like to have a .340 hitter on the Royals right now?) In 2002, Paul Byrd was 17-11 with a 3.90 ERA and he led the league with 7 complete games – he was definitely a very valuable pitcher, but I don’t think his performance could be defined as “dominating.” Paul Byrd appeared in 33 games. Mike Sweeney played in 126 (less than a full season due to the beginning signs of his many recurring back issues), had the first straight steal of home by a Royal in over 20 years, was named to his 3rd consecutive All-Star game, led the league in defensive assists by a 1st baseman – and he was the Captain of the team. But this wasn’t good enough to be the Royals “Top Player.”
Obviously, my definition of the best player on the team is going to differ from other fans, and from other experts as well. My subjective definition simply asks, “Who was the player the Royals could least afford to do without?” In 2002, I believe the answer has to be Mike Sweeney.
Before the 2012 season began, who did you think the Royals’ best player would be this season? If you’re like most of the rest of us, you may have thought, or at least hoped, it would be Eric Hosmer. If so, those hopes were dashed weeks ago as we’ve witnessed one of the most dramatic sophomore slumps in recent memory. A few of you may have predicted Alex Gordon, or maybe Joakim Soria prior to his injury. Predictions are based on hopes, and as a Royals fan you certainly know that hopes are often dashed.
If you said Billy Butler, you were pretty much on target. (Although according to WAR rating, Alex Gordon is on top for the second year in a row – I don’t agree in 2012.) However, I am hesitant to name a DH as the best player citing the same reservations many have for naming a pitcher as MVP. And unless a Royals pitcher is completely and utterly dominating (see Steve Busby, Dennis Leonard, David Cone, Zach Greinke, or Bret Saberhagen) I have similar misgivings.
For 2013 we have several potential candidates for best player. I’ll list my nominations below and include the odds that I think I’m right. And, I’ll also acknowledge that there’s no possible way any reader will agree with me 100%.
Mike Moustakas: The improvement Mike has shown from 2011 to 2012 has been nothing short of breathtaking. He is much more comfortable at the plate this year, and in the field he doesn’t even look like the same player. I believe Mike’s personality has many leadership qualities and he’s maturing into a presence that will almost certainly make him the best player on the team at some point in his career. For 2013, I’d say the odds of Mike being the Royals best player, the guy they can least afford to do without, are about 3 to 1.
Eric Hosmer: Although he hasn’t come close to fulfilling our expectations this year, Hosmer’s potential is so tantalizing that I have to put him near the top of the list. I believe Eric is just a tweak or two away from “righting the ship” and getting back on track to becoming the offensive powerhouse we all know he can be. His defense is still solid, but it may take a while for his personality to mature into a true clubhouse big dog. I’ll put Hosmer’s odds of being the best player in 2013 at 5 to 1.
Alcides Escobar: If you told me I could only watch one play from each Royals game, I would pick the inevitable web gem that Esky turns in virtually every night. It is truly a thrill to watch Alcides display his otherworldly defensive skills while protecting the left side of the diamond. I’ll go out on a limb and say that after watching him for less than two seasons he may not be the absolute best defensive shortstop I’ve ever seen, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone better than him. Escober is hitting around .290 at a premium position and I believe the only thing that could potentially limit his ability to be a great club house leader are his English language skills. Alcides is my dark horse candidate for best player in 2013 and he’s my favorite to watch play in 2012. I’ll put his odds at 10-1.
Jeff Francoeur: I believe Jeff is the closest thing the 2012 Royals have to a clubhouse leader and his rocket arm and intangibles are great. Who’s the guy you see chest bumping his team mates every night and cheering them on with one of the most upbeat personalities in the majors? It’s Frenchy. Who else tosses baseballs wrapped in $100 bills and gets into hilarious mock disputes with opposing mascots? Frenchy’s power numbers are way down this year and his average has dipped, so his on-field performance is not trending in the right direction which makes him a risky wager. I also wouldn’t bet on Jeff being “da man” in 2013 due to the fact that he may not even play in a Royals uniform. If he is still wearing Royals blue in 2013, I would put Francoeur’s odds at 15-1.
Wil Myers: At some point in 2012, no matter how hard the Royals brass try to hold him back, he’ll force his way to Kansas City. And he may light it up offensively when he arrives, but his defense still needs work and there’s almost no way anyone can be a true clubhouse leader in his first or second year. Odds 30-1.
Billy Butler: Great DH, one of the best in baseball. But as I explained earlier, I just don’t think a DH can be the best player. If a DH is your best player, then your team is in trouble. Odds 30-1.
Alex Gordon: Gold Glove defensive left fielder who has been a disappointment at the plate this year. He’s a solid contributor and I want him on my team, but he’s not a vocal clubhouse leader and has little chance to be the best player on the team in my rating system. In 2013, I’d rate him at 50-1.
There are a few other players who have a shot at being the best player, but all of them have significant question marks either because they may not recover from injuries (Joakim Soria and Danny Duffy), they haven’t played in the majors long enough for us to get a good sense of their performance (Salvador Perez), or because Dayton Moore hasn’t traded for them yet or signed them as a free agent (Zach Greinke – hint, hint…)
And don’t get me started about relief pitchers. Unless you are Mariano Rivera, Dan Quisenberry, or Joakim Soria in his prime, you can’t even be considered the Top Player on the team. It would be the same as voting the field goal kicker as the top player on an NFL team – it’s not going to happen.
Yuniesky Betancourt: I’ll just skip straight to the odds. 10,000,000,000 to 1. I had to throw him in just for kicks.
The biggest reason we have difficulty selecting the potential top player is because the Royals are so young. Most of the time I believe that’s a good thing and not a bad thing, but it causes them to be inconsistent as they go through the struggles of figuring out how to succeed in the big leagues, and most of them simply have not matured into the true leaders that they will hopefully one day become.
I still believe that we are two solid starting pitchers away from being a contending team and I’m holding on to hope that we find these hurlers somewhere, either in the farm system, through trades or free agency, before the start of the 2013 season. When this happens, we’ll find our team playing in October, and this is the time when true clubhouse leadership emerges and performance on the field has a historical impact on your team and your legacy. When we play in October, that’s when we’ll definitely learn who is the best player on this team.
Tags: AL Central Alcides Escobar Alex Gordon Amos Otis Baseball Billy Butler Bret Saberhagen Carlos Beltran Dan Quisenberry David Cone Dennis Leonard Eric Hosmer George Brett Jeff Francoeur Joakim Soria Johnny Damon Kansas City Kansas City Royals KC KC Royals Kevin Appier Mike Moustakas Mike Sweeney MLB Paul Byrd Royals Salvador Perez Steve Busby Willie Wilson Yuniesky Betancourt Zack Greinke