Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Rollins 2007 MVP award is the product of a lot of intangibles. This might be the first MVP award given because a promise was kept: Rollins spring training statement that the Phillies were the team to beat in the N.L. East, which increasingly looked ridiculous when they got off to a 3-10 start, came true down the stretch as the Phillies erased the Mets seven game lead.
But the numbers on Jimmy Rollins are impressive. What really impresses me about J.Roll is how he’s progressively refined his game, season after season, to become a better and better player. It’s that evolution of skill that I’d like to examine here a little today.
Jimmy Rollins broke into the major leagues in 2000, playing 14 games for the Phillies at the close of the season. Rollins play helped to oust Desi Relaford from the Phillies lineup as starting shortstop and J.Roll was on his way.
In 2001, J.Roll played his first season and scored 97 runs, hit 29 doubles, 12 triples, and 14 home runs. J.Roll stole 46 bases in 54 tries. However, his .323 OBP was extremely low for a lead-off hitter and he struck-out 108 times, or 15% of his plate appearances. The next two seasons, J.Roll posted similar numbers:
2002: 82 runs scored, 33 doubles, 10 triples, 11 home runs, 31 steals in 44 tries, .306 OBP, .146 K/PA (strike-outs per plate appearance) …
2003: 85 runs scored, 42 doubles, 6 triples, 8 home runs, 20 steals in 32 tries, .320 OBP, .164 K/PA …
Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
On-Base Percentage (OBP): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)
Slugging Percentage (SLG): Total Bases / At-Bats = Slugging Percentage. Power at the plate.
Runs Created (RC): A stat originally created by Bill James to measure a player’s total contribution to his team’s lineup. Here is the formula: [(H + BB + HBP - CS - GIDP) times ((S * 1.125) + (D * 1.69) + (T * 3.02) + (HR * 3.73) + (.29 * (BB + HBP – IBB)) + (.492 * (SB + SF + SH)) – (.04 * K))] divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH+ SF).
RC/27: Runs Created per 27 outs, essentially what a team of 9 of this player would score in a hypothetical game.
At the close of J.Roll’s 2003 campaign, there were a lot of grumblings that he struck-out too much and was too focused on being a speed guy with power than in being an effective lead-off hitter. Tellingly, the Phillies had dropped J.Roll to the bottom of the order, having him hit sixth, seventh or even eighth and giving the lead-off job to rookie Marlon Byrd.
In the off-season, J.Roll, a West Coast native, worked with former San Diego Padre Tony Gwynn to improve his swing. The aim was to cut-down on strike-outs. Gwynn was a terrific teacher. The Hall of Famer’s career OBP was .388 and his career batting average was a robust .338. Gwynn drew 790 walks in his career, a decent total, but struck-out just 434 times in 10,232 plate appearances. That’s just 4% of the time. In contrast, J.Roll had 331 strike-outs in 2,169 plate appearances entering 2004. Gwynn and J.Roll worked to make contact more often and put the ball into play, not to be more patient at the plate and to draw more walks.
At the start of the 2004 campaign, J.Roll once against started at the bottom on the Phillies batting order, hitting seventh on Opening Day against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He continued to languish at the bottom of the order for the months of April and May before Byrd’s struggles drove him out of the Phillies lineup and handed J.Roll the lead-off job once more. Secure as the Phillies lead-off hitter once again, Rollins hit lead-off for the rest of the 2004 season.
The effect on his numbers was electric: suddenly J.Roll saw his strike-outs drop from .152 K/PA to .100 in 2004 (73 in 725 PA). J.Roll’s runs scored went from 85 to 119. His OBP improved to .348. He hit 14 home runs, 43 doubles, 12 triples and stole 30 of 39 bases. J.Roll finally broke 100+ Runs Created for the first time in his career with 109. His previous high had been 96 in 2001.
In 2005 and 2006 J.Roll once more posted similar numbers. His walk totals never improved during this time period, but his strike-outs never approached his pre-2004 totals:
Look at the corresponding shift in Rollins Runs Created per Game:
Rollins closed off the 2005 season with a 31-game hitting streak wherein he hit .386 (.435 OBP), 17 doubles, 4 triples, 3 home runs, scored 28 runs, and stole 13 of 14 bases. He began the 2006 season half-way to DiMaggio’s magical mark of 56 games. Sadly, he went 0-for-4 in the third game of the season, so the batting streak died at 33 games.
Something in Rollins as the 2006 season wore on. Always a speedy player with some pop in his bat (the comparison to Rickey Henderson was obvious), J.Roll began to hit with more power as time went on. He hit 16 home runs after the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, which was more than he had hit in an entire season before. His slugging percentage was an astonishing .580 in August of 2006. Partly Rollins was feeding off teammate Ryan Howard, well on his way to an MVP season himself, but J.Roll was evolving into a different player.
In the 2007 off-season J.Roll boldly predicted that the Phillies, not the mighty Mets or the complacent Braves, were the team to beat in the N.L. East. Observers brushed off J.Roll’s words and mocked him. How could the Mets, loaded as they were with bats like Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Jose Reyes, lose the division? Plus, the Braves, the team that had dominated the division for over a decade, were poised to come back into the mix. What chance did the Phillies have?
Additionally, J.Roll wasn’t thought off as the best player at his position in the division, let alone being the best player in the league. 2006 Rookie of the year Hanley Ramirez and the Mets Reyes were thought to be #1 and #2 amongst shortstops in the N.L. East. Reyes, who stole 64 bases with a .354 OBP in 2006, was thought of as perhaps the best player in the division and key to the Mets hopes of winning the N.L. East again in 2007.
And J.Roll delivered while Ramirez languished on a losing team and Reyes found himself ensnared in a nightmare in Queens. As the Mets sank, losing 12 of their last 17 games, Reyes hit .187, scored just 11 runs and was caught stealing three of his five attempts. J.Roll, as the Phillies won 13 of those 17 games, hit .309 with 3 home runs, 3 triples, 3 doubles, 12 RBI, 14 runs scored and he was successful in all ten of his stolen base attempts. At the end of the season, J.Roll had set career highs for hits with 212, runs scored with 139, home runs with 30, triples with 20, RBI with 94, Runs Created with 135, Slugging Percentage with .531, and Batting Average with .296. He also equaled his highest stolen base total with 41.
For all of that he was the 2007 National League MVP, winning by 17 points in the closest vote since 1991, when the Braves Terry Pendleton beat out the Pittsburgh Pirates Barry Bonds by 15 points.
It was a terrific season and J.Roll was deserving of the award. With Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, the award has finally been wrestled away from the clutches of Barry Bonds and his chemically-enhanced body. Incidentally, notice that three Phillies are amongst the top eight vote getters in the MVP balloting: Ryan Howard finished fifth in the voting with 112 votes and Chase Utley finished eighth with 89. Aaron Rowand got three votes and thus finished 22nd in the MVP voting.
I’d also like to note that J.Roll did a terrific job in interviews crediting the success of the Phillies as a team and stating that he wants his team to find success more than himself. What a terrific leader.
So what are the chances that a Phillie could win the award once more in 2008? Pretty good actually. Chase Utley was a viable MVP candidate as well when he went down. Like J.Roll he plays terrific defense at a challenging position, and like J.Roll he’s a tough hitter who can run and hit for power: 48 doubles, 22 home runs and 103 RBI despite missing a month with a broken hand. I could easily see Utley winning the award in 2008, giving the Phillies a run reminiscent of when Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss won the A.L. Rookie of the Year award in 1986, 1987 and 1988 respectively for the Oakland A’s. Along with Utley there is also the chance that J.Roll or Ryan Howard could capture the crown again. How many teams are lucky enough to have not one or two, but three viable MVP candidates?
Can I also comment on the institutional bias against pitchers winning the MVP award?
Back in 1952, when the Phillies Robin Roberts went 28-7, there was no Cy Young award, so Roberts had to content himself with being narrowly beaten out for the MVP award by Hank Sauer of the Chicago Cubs. Roberts was spectacular in 1952, throwing a complete game in 30 of his 37 starts and finishing the season with an ERA+ of 141 (Roberts ERA was 2.59, while the league’s ERA was 3.66. 3.66 / 2.59 = 141). And yet Sauer beat him out for the MVP 226 to 211. Roberts, whose run as the best pitcher in baseball went from 1950 to 1955, began to decline in 1956, the year the Cy Young Award was first handed out. Because Roberts, who might have won as many as three or four Cy Youngs between 1950 – 1955, never won a Cy Young he’s never got the recognition he’s deserved from baseball historians. Being the best pitcher in an era known for batting will do that.
But baseball is biased against pitchers winning the MVP. Even when Randy Johnson was winning his five Cy Young Awards, he was barely a factor in the MVP voting, finishing sixth in 1995 with the Seattle Mariners. The last pitcher to win the MVP was Dennis Eckersley in 1992, when he saved 51 games for the Oakland A’s. A pitcher hasn’t won the N.L. MVP since Bob Gibson did it in 1968. There is a sense in baseball that they ought to stick to “their” award.
Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb turned in terrific performances in 2007. Each was a major factor in their teams contending in the N.L. West. Without Peavy, the Padres would have been a .500 team. Without Webb, the D-backs probably would have been a sub-.500 team. And yet Peavy finished seventh and Webb seventeenth in the MVP voting. Chipper Jones and Prince Fielder turned in nice seasons with their teams, but were they really more valuable than Peavy or Webb? I doubt it.
Unfortunately I don’t like how the Phillies off-season is unfolding. Mike Lowell is gone, back to the Boston Red Sox, and the Phillies pitching options have dried up now that Curt Schilling has returned to the Red Sox and the White Sox dealt Jon Garland to the Anaheim Angels. While the Phillies have improved the bullpen, they still need to add another starting pitcher to help Cole Hamels, Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer. I suspect that the Phillies might offer some prospects to the White Sox for Pitcher Jose Contreras, or they might attempt to deal for Third Baseman Joe Crede, but the Phillies need to make a move soon before they find themselves pressured into doing something foolish like offering $50 million to Kyle Lohse or Carlos Silva. A starting pitcher or a third baseman. The Phillies have to land one or the other or both to make this a successful off-season.
Torii Hunter might set the market next week and sign a deal that will determine how much Andruw Jones and Aaron Rowand get to ask for. I think that Hunter will ink a deal with the White Sox and stay in the A.L. Central, while the Texas Rangers will make a run at Jones and Rowand. I guess there is always a chance of the Phillies re-signing Rowand, but that is pretty remote, especially if the Phillies swing a deal for pitching and try to lock up their young stars (Hamels and Howard) to long-term deals.
Monday: Season In Review, Fielding. Until then, enjoy your Turkey.