Sunday, September 5, 2010

Does Matusz have a chance at AL ROY?

In Keith Law's latest chat, someone had a question about Brian Matusz:
Bub (DC)
Matusz started off great, then terrible, now he looks great again. Can he be a legitimate top of the rotation starter as soon as next season?

Klaw (2:18 PM)
I might still vote for him as AL ROY if I had that ballot. I certainly believe in his long-term value far more than I believe in Austin Jackson's, and the AL East is a brutal place to pitch, especially if you don't get to face the division's worst lineup. I'll say he's an ace in 2012 or 2013, with modest improvements next year.
Not a bad compliment at all. And as far as the Rookie of the Year award goes, there's no question that the National League race is more exciting this season than in the American League. But, as always, there are still candidates to be sorted and an award to be handed out. Catcher Carlos Santana of the Indians would have been the clear-cut winner if he had stayed healthy, but he's out for the season and hasn't played since August 2. Tigers centerfielder Austin Jackson seems to be the front-runner at this point, but with the run Matusz went on in August, he's making a push for the award.

Let's take a look at Jackson, Matusz, and some of the other ROY options in the AL.

Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers: .309/.363/.419, 3 HR, 21 SB

Just looking at overall numbers, Jackson is having a phenomenal season for a rookie. He's not hitting for much power, but he's getting on base at a pretty good clip, stealing bases (and only caught five times), and playing slightly above average defense (0.9 UZR) at a difficult position. Those numbers make Jackson worth about 3.4 wins above replacement (WAR) and nearly $13.8 million, according to FanGraphs.

However, exactly how sustainable are Jackson's numbers in the long term? Regardless of whether or not you think the ROY award should have some sort of future element linked to it, it should be noted that Jackson has an unsustainable .422 BABIP, and he also strikes out a lot (27.6 K%) while not really walking a ton (7.1 BB%). Right now, his combination of speed and hitting a lot of ground balls (48.9%) and line drives (25.7%) is working, but when his BABIP goes down, his numbers will drop as well. It's tough to suggest that he's been rather lucky for nearly an entire season, but that does seem to be the case.

With about a month left to go in the season, can Jackson keep it up? Or will his numbers start to drop before then? That may be the difference in whether or not he wins the award. (Though, position players do seem to hold an advantage to winning the award over pitchers since they play everyday.)

Brian Matusz, SP, Orioles: 4.72 ERA, 6.99 K/9, 3.23 BB/9

I've written about Matusz a few times lately, basically pointing out that he had a much-improved August and has been pitching much better. Right now, he's been worth 1.9 WAR and $7.8 million, first among AL rookie starters. He also has more strikeouts (117) and more innings pitched (150.2) than any other AL rookie.

Since I've talked about Matusz enough before, I'll mention something else: FanGraphs WAR tends to factor in defense and be slightly higher for position players, which may account for Jackson's WAR being 3.4 and Matusz's at 1.9. At Baseball-Reference, Jackson and Matusz are closer (2.5 for Jackson, 2.1 for Matusz). That's at least worth noting.

Brennan Boesch, OF, Tigers: .268/.330/.447, 14 HR

The Tigers promoted Boesch in late April, and he started out his major league career on fire. He was still mashing the ball until about early July, when his numbers started to tail off considerably. On July 9, Boesch was hitting .345/.402/.600 -- a rather impressive slash line for a rookie after a few months. But he's cooled off and isn't doing much hitting at all lately. In July, he hit .209/.311/.253, and in August he hit .185/.227/.304. Also, after hitting 11 home runs in May and June, Boesch has hit just two homers since.

It's unlikely that Boesch will turn his hitting numbers around this season; it's also possible that pitchers have found out how to pitch to him. And other than his hitting, Boesch doesn't bring a whole lot to the table -- as of right now, he has a combined UZR of -2.9 in left and right field. For the season, FanGraphs has him at 1.3 WAR, while Baseball-Reference has him at 1.7 WAR.

Danny Valencia, 3B, Twins: .343/.382/.454, 2 HR

Valencia's first game didn't come until June 3, so he's only played in 63 games. But he's been extremely valuable for the Twins -- 2.4 WAR on FanGraphs and 2.6 WAR on Baseball-Reference -- so it's certainly hard to ignore what he's done. Valencia doesn't hit for much power (only two homers), but he does have 16 doubles and a triple. He also doesn't walk much (6.4 BB%) but doesn't strike out a ton either (13.4 K%). He has hit a decent amount of line drives (19.6%) too, but mainly his offensive production is fueled by a .385 BABIP. That's not to suggest he's a bad hitter, but it's not likely that his numbers will still be this high by the end of the season.

And that's where the other valuable part of his game comes in handy: Valencia has been phenomenal defensively at third base. His UZR right now is 5.8, so even if his offensive numbers drop a bit, he'll still maintain plenty of value as long as he keeps producing with the glove.

Wade Davis, SP, Rays: 4.29 ERA, 5.69 K/9, 3.42 BB/9

Davis has put together two positive starts after coming back from the 15-day disabled list with a right shoulder strain. On August 24, he got the win against the Angels after giving up two runs in 5.1 innings, and on August 30, he held the Blue Jays to two runs over 7.2 innings to earn another win. Davis is a case in which his ERA doesn't necessarily indicate his true pitching performance -- he has a 5.10 FIP and a 4.96 xFIP -- so a pitcher like Matusz has had a better season even though Matusz has a higher ERA.

Still, Davis has held his own in his rookie season, though FanGraphs (0.3 WAR) and Baseball-Reference (1.7 WAR) differ on his value.

Reid Brignac, 2B/SS, Rays: .261/.310/.383, 6 HR

Like Ben Zobrist, Brignac can play multiple positions. This season, he's played most of his games at second base and shortstop, but he has also played a couple innings in right field, so he can likely play a few innings at a corner outfield spot and not hurt the Rays. His offensive numbers have cooled off somewhat, but then again, he doesn't receive regular playing time with guys like Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, and Sean Rodriguez all getting some time at the two middle infield positions.

While Brignac is flexible in the field, he's not really as flexible at the plate. He doesn't walk much (5.6 BB%), but he strikes out a huge amount (27.3 K%). He also hits a decent amount of line drives (20.7%), but he actually hits more fly balls (41.0%) than ground balls (38.3%).

Brignac has also been decent in the field, putting together a combined 1.6 UZR at shortstop and second. His fielding helps his value, especially since he doesn't get on base a whole lot.

Mitch Talbot, SP, Indians: 4.40 ERA, 4.95 K/9, 3.97 BB/9

This is basically just a brief mentioning of Talbot, as I don't think he has much of a chance at winning the award. In 147.1 innings pitched, he only has 81 strikeouts. He's done an effective job pitching to contact, getting lots of ground balls (48.3%) and not giving up too many line drives (17.0%). And it's not like he's been terribly lucky or anything either -- his BABIP is right around .300, at .302. FanGraphs (1.2) and Baseball-Reference (0.1) differ on his WAR, though, which is pretty interesting.

Neftali Feliz, RP, Rangers: 3.26 ERA, 34 saves, 9.16 K/9, 2.48 K/9

Feliz, the Rangers' 22-year-old flame-throwing closer, has been steady all season. He earned his first save of the season on April 12, and he hasn't looked back. In 58.0 innings pitched, he has 59 strikeouts and just 16 walks -- fantastic numbers for such a young player on a team most likely headed to the playoffs. He's also only blown three saves all season.

Because he's a reliever and hasn't pitched as many innings as some of the young starters, he probably won't receive a ton of votes. Still, he has a bright future, and the Rangers could even decide to give Feliz a chance to earn a spot in the team's rotation next spring. A solid starter is almost always worth more than an elite closer, so it would make sense to give Feliz a chance to start. Still, even if he ends up as the team's long-term closer, there's no reason why he can't shine in that role for years to come.

John Jaso, C, Rays: .281/.390/.405, 5 HR

Here's something I didn't know: Jaso was one of the Rays' September call-ups in 2008. Then, in 2009, he didn't make it to the majors at all. But he made his first start this season on April 17 and has stuck with the team since -- and he's doing a very good job. Splitting time with Dioner Navarro and Kelly Shoppach, Jaso has been the team's best option behind the plate. He's not afraid to take a walk (14.9%), and he actually walks more than he strikes out (12.0%). He hasn't hit for much power -- 15 doubles, two triples, five homers -- so most of his offensive value comes from drawing those walks and getting on base.

As a rookie, Jaso deserves credit for keeping that OBP high all season. He deserves even more credit for doing that while playing such a demanding position. If Carlos Santana were still healthy, it's not likely many people would have noticed the solid contributions of Jaso, but with Santana injured, Jaso is the AL's best rookie catcher playing right now.


So that about does it. I may have missed a rookie or two, or listed maybe a couple of guys who either have no shot at winning or maybe didn't deserve to be mentioned. If I had to give my top three right now, it would probably look like this:

1. Austin Jackson
2. Brian Matusz
3. Danny Valencia

Because I didn't list every player's WAR, here's a ranking of all nine players above based on their WARs from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference averaged together. (Not that wins above replacement is the final word when it comes to ranking players, but it is still helpful.)

1. Austin Jackson (2.95)
2. Danny Valencia (2.50)
3. John Jaso (2.25)
4. Brian Matusz (2.00)
5. Brennan Boesch (1.50)
6. Neftali Feliz (1.35)
7. Wade Davis (1.00)
8. Reid Brignac (0.75)
9. Mitch Talbot (0.65)

So to answer the question of this post, yes, Matusz does have a chance at the AL Rookie of the Year award. But he's going to have to be fantastic in his last few starts this season, and he may even need guys like Jackson and Valencia to take a step back. Jaso might have a chance as well, but the award may just be Jackson's to lose.

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