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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Case for David Ortiz

Lou Piniella and I are in complete agreement.
Not too long ago, when he was still the manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Piniella observed, "In the American League, the DH is a position, like any other."
He was talking about Boston's David Ortiz as an MVP candidate. Piniella went on to say of Ortiz, "He's had a real good year and obviously deserves serious consideration."
I've been surprised at how many people, sportswriters and fans alike, feel that a designated hitter shouldn't be the most valuable player.
The argument is that a DH is only a partial player, so to speak, since he does nothing to help his team on defense. But there are a couple of things wrong with that argument.
First, pitchers have won 23 MVP awards. I guarantee you that David Ortiz, in his 10 games at first base this past season, did more defensively than any of those pitchers did offensively.
Dennis Eckersley won the American League award in 1992, when he pitched only 80 innings. He never had a turn at bat.
Second, the MVP award has gone to players who were defensive liabilities. Frank Thomas, for example, won two years in a row, 1993 and 1994. With 15 errors in 1993, not to mention very limited range, Thomas must have cost the White Sox at least a couple of games. The following year, he committed only 7 errors, but that was partly because he played only 99 games at first base.
Then another immobile first baseman, Mo Vaughn, won the 1995 award. Vaughn wasn't quite as error-prone as Thomas, but he was perhaps even less mobile. I have no doubt that he cost the Red Sox a couple of games or more by failing to get to balls that another first baseman would have turned into outs.
If Ortiz doesn't win the MVP award, it will almost certainly go to Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees. Now, if A-Rod even approximated Brooks Robinson with his glove, the reluctance to honor a DH would be understandable.
The truth is, A-Rod is not a major contributor on defense. He's probably a liability. I know, I know, he's probably going to win a Gold Glove, but that's not a very reliable indicator of how good a fielder really is.
A far better indicator is Zone Rating (ZR). That's a measure, developed by STATS, Inc., of how many batted balls are fielded by a player in his standard defensive zone. A-Rod ranked ninth in that category among American League third baseman, and only ten of them had enough chances to qualify for a rating. So he was next to last in zone rating. He was also dead last in range factor.
What does that mean? Well, it means that quite a few balls went by for base hits to his right or left that would have been gobbled up by a really good third baseman. In fact, quite a few them would have been fielded by a merely average third baseman.
So now let's look at offense.
One important stat makes me wonder whether Rodriguez was even the Yankees' MVP.
That would be the OPS with runners in scoring position. (In case you're not up on some of this new-fangled Sabermetric stuff, OPS is simply on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. It's commonly used as a measure of overall offensive value.)
Rodrigues ranked fourth on his own team in OPS with runners in scoring position, behind Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, and Hideki Matsui.
Rodriguez led the American League with a 1.031 OPS. But, with runners in scoring position, that dropped all the way down to .894. Ortiz had a 1.001 OPS overall, but it climbed to 1.043 with runners in scoring position.
In fact, the more crucial the situation, the better Ortiz became. With the bases empty, his OPS was .993. It went up to 1.006 with runners on, 1.043 with runners in scoring position, and 1.226 with runners in scoring position and two outs.
Another measure of how a player does in clutch situations is his OPS in the late innings of a close game. In those situations, both players were pretty good, but Ortiz had the edge with an OPS of 1.161 to 1.006 for Rodriguez.
Now, I don't think it would be a terrible miscarriage of justice of Rodriguez wins the MVP award. But I do think it would be a pretty bad misjudgment by the people who do the voting.