Strikeouts, Consistency, and the AL MVP

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Five

The AL MVP was handed out yesterday and Jose Altuve was rewarded for his strong season as the Astros 2nd baseman, taking home 27 of the 30 first place votes. In 2nd place, by a margin that was quite frankly surprising, was New York’s Aaron Judge, who took home just one more first place vote than Jose Ramirez of the Indians. Mike Trout, who was probably could have won this award yet again, finished in 4th thanks to a midsummer injury that cut his season 40 games shorter than it should have been.

Just to state it plainly, I don’t think the BBWAA voters got it right. I strongly believe that while both Altuve and Judge were excellent candidates, Judge was the better player in 2017. To oversimplify it, he was just better than Altuve in a number of categories that are more important to helping a team win than batting average and steals. Judge was better at getting on base, he hit for more power, drove more runners in, totaled more bases, scored more runs, walked a hell of a lot more, struck out more, and played a great right field. Many of the advanced numbers gave Judge the edge as well. He led Altuve in fWAR (Fangraphs), wRC (weighted runs created), OPS+ (league and park adjusted OPS) while only trailing in the Astros 2nd baseman in bWAR (Baseball Reference), batting average, and steals.

The problem with the big guy’s MVP candidacy was that several arguments began to pop up around him. Let’s run through two of the more common arguments now.

“Altuve was the most consistent hitter in baseball. Judge had a huge slump and shouldn’t be MVP.”

Let’s just get right to the main issue here. There’s no getting around it, Judge played abysmally for 6 weeks or so post All-Star break. He wasn’t making enough contact and his K rate hit an alarming level, resulting in a record 37 straight game strikeout streak. Altuve, meanwhile was catching fire, crushing everything throughout the month of July to the tune of an eyepopping .485 average with an OPS north of 1.200. He was cruising and at the same time Judge was crashing in spectacular fashion. It made for quite a contrast.

But I don’t really think that tells the whole story, just small part of a much longer one.

The chart below shows the OPS for each player by month. A negative number in the difference column is in favor of Judge and a positive favors Altuve.

OPS

Again, that ghastly .680 OPS stands out among the rest. That’s basically the crux of this entire argument and has been repeated ad nauseam to the point most people are just accepting that there are three constants in life: death, taxes, and Jose Altuve.

And while it’s true that the Astros’ 2nd baseman is basically the baseball equivalent of clockwork, even if you feel that way, it’s not the only definition of consistent. Because Judge was consistently better, especially in the first half of the season, which brings up a few questions.

Why are we ignoring the rest of the months on the calendar, when Judge was obviously better? Are the games in July and August worth more in the win column than the one’s in May and September?

If we’re going to be use a fairly productive July as an argument against Aaron Judge, why aren’t we doing the same with Altuve’s April, August, and September? After all those OPS totals for each month are basically the same.

Why does Altuve get extra credit for never slumping but never really approaching the same highs either? Judge has 4 of the 5 best months on the board and even half of his slump was right in line with what Altuve did for half the season.

It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around this. Judge was clearly better for four months and Altuve was clearly better two. Anyone can see that plain as day. If you want to hold one month against Judge, it’s your right to do so, but it’s just an inconsistent line of thinking.

Finally, nearly every prior MVP has had a slump! It’s really hard to play 150-160 games a year and not go through one. Just going back a couple of years you’ll see Josh Donaldson posting a .720 OPS during June 2015, Mike Trout hitting for a .680 OPS in August 2014, and Miguel Cabrera putting up a .729 OPS in September 2013.

If you want to award Altuve an extra point for being the metronome of the Houston lineup, go ahead and do so, but that’s not a reason to hand out MVP, especially when Judge has the better overall body of work.

“Judge strikes out too much. Altuve put the ball in play more which gave his team a greater chance to win.”

I absolutely can’t stand this argument so we’re going to keep it simple. Let’s take a look at a couple of charts, starting with run expectancy per play from Tom Tango, just so we know where we stand.

Tango

So it’s pretty clear that the historical difference between striking out and grounding out is .06 runs and the margin between that and a flyout is .02. The argument that “strikeouts are bad because nothing good can happen” while true, is misleading. Groudouts are also bad because nothing good almost ever happens and a there’s the possibility of a double play. Popping out is equally terrible. An out is an out is an out and is doesn’t really matter how you make it.

Now let’s look at another chart to see how Altuve and Judge did when they put the ball in play with runners on:

Judge

Altuve is better by a total of 9 runners advanced, despite a strikeout difference of 124. Nine more runners advanced. Over the whole course of the 162 game season. Nine.

One big area where players who strikeout a lot tend to do better than their free-swinging counterparts is taking pitches. Judge led baseball in the total number of pitches seen in 2017, and he held a 680 pitch advantage over his Astros counterpart.  So it makes sense that Judge was also the best in baseball at drawing walks, picking up 127 free passes, 79 more than Altuve. That is a massive, massive difference and it does more than negate Altuve’s advantage in total hits.

In fact, if you add up the number of total bases for each player and then add 1 base for each walk (because after all walks are worth 1 base), Judge comes out ahead by a massive margin of 467 bases to just 381 for Altuve. And if we want to get even simpler about it, Altuve actually made more outs than Judge, despite the Yankee’s right fielder having more plate appearances! Altuve made 416 outs in 662 plate appearances while Judge was just below at 411 outs in 678.

Strikeouts just aren’t that important and they aren’t any worse than making any other type of regular out.


I’ll leave you with this, there’s a case to be made for each player. Judge’s centers around his patience, great right field defense, and a prodigious ability to drive the ball unlike any player we’ve ever seen. Altuve’s case is more intangible. There’s just something about him that makes that Astros so dangerous and that includes his plus defense at a premium position, his great base running skills and ability to produce in the clutch. They both had special seasons. But when it comes down to it, I’ll take the player who does more damage even if he makes less contact. After all, an out is an out is an out.

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