Shane Victorino’s Ridiculous Season

Notice anything interesting about the line graph above? It’s Shane Victorino‘s weighted on-base average (wOBA) from 2006 through 2011. That sharp spike from 2010-11 marks some significant offensive improvement for the switch-hitter. His .405 wOBA ranks tenth among all qualified hitters in Major League Baseball, just behind Joey Votto in ninth place. Along with his outstanding offense, Victorino has played stellar defense (+17.3 UZR/150; small sample size caveat) and been a threat on the bases (3.4 base running runs also ranks tenth in all of MLB). Overall, he has been worth 5.4 Wins Above Replacement per FanGraphs (fWAR), tied with Matt Holliday for seventh-best in baseball.

The big change has been his production from the right side against left-handed pitchers. Victorino has always been better against lefties, but not quite this good. Overall, Victorino has a .382 wOBA against lefties over his career, but this year, it is an eye-popping .517. By comparison, Jose Bautista — a favorite to win the American League Most Valuable Player award — has a .505 wOBA against southpaws.

Needless to say, Victorino is hitting for significantly more power against lefties (.364 ISO in 2011; .211 career), but he is also walking significantly more (14% 2011; 8% career) and striking out slightly less (10% in 2011; 11% career). The improved plate discipline has allowed him to significantly alter the quality of contact he makes when he swings the bat. This year, he is hitting fly balls 59% of the time compared to his career average 44% and down from 41% last year. More fly balls means more home runs, but Shane is even converting much more on that front as well: 17.5% of fly balls have gone beyond the outfield fence this year, way up from his 10% career average and his 10% showing last year. All of this against left-handed pitching. Victorino’s splits against right-handed pitching have barely changed.

At first glance, it appears Victorino is getting lucky. His .325 BABIP is above his career average .303, and breaking it down by batted ball type shows some more disparity:

  • Ground balls: .266 BABIP in 2011; .269 career
  • Fly balls: .159 BABIP in 2011; .106 career
  • Line drives: .854 in 2011; .753 career

While he has had a lot of success on line drives, his line drive rate against lefties (16%) is at a career low and is among the lowest in baseball (20th-lowest, in fact). He has hit only 49 line drives total, so based on his career average, we would expect 37 hits as opposed to 42. We can chalk this up to a combination of randomness and some legitimate skill, as we have seen evidence that Victorino is making much better contact.

The fly balls follow a similar path. He has hit 117 fly balls, so based on his career average BABIP on fly balls, we would expect 12 hits rather than 17 (subtracting out his 10 home runs). And, obviously, there isn’t any difference at all with the ground balls. So, Victorino may have ten extra hits than expected, which would account for about 16 points of batting average over 600 at-bats. Overall, though, it doesn’t explain the improved plate discipline and power against left-handed pitching.

The only part that could be fluky in any meaningful way is the HR/FB rate. If his HR/FB rate against lefties regresses from 17.5% to, say, 12.5% next year, it could make the difference of six home runs given 117 fly balls. If we took away six home runs from Victorino right now and gave him credit for one more double (-22 total bases), his slugging percentage drops from .532 to .465.

Sustaining that HR/FB rate against lefties will be the biggest key for Victorino moving forward. If he can, he officially joins the ranks as one of the best hitters in baseball. If not, he is still a well above-average hitter and still quite useful in the Phillies lineup. That is a key consideration, as Victorino can file for free agency after the 2012 season.

FanGraphs WAR and Positional Scarcity

Buster Olney caused a stir on ye olde Internets when tweeting his skepticism of the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) stat. Many responses were snarky and derisive, few were educational. Dave Cameron took it upon himself to do some teaching with a post at FanGraphs. If you have any confusion as to how WAR works, I cannot recommend enough that you click over and read Cameron’s article immediately. In fact, I’ll link it again -> here.

A passage I found insightful:

[Ben] Zobrist, on the other hand, is an excellent defensive second baseman and a terrific baserunner, and we’ve got him at 11.5 runs better than average between those two aspects of the game. While he doesn’t have Fielder’s power, he is much faster and more athletic, and is able to use those skills to more than close the gap once defense and base running are factored in to the overall package.

By solely focusing on offensive metrics – especially things like HRs and RBIs, which are heavily skewed towards power hitting first baseman – and not looking at the position averages at each position, the sport has had a long history of overvaluing Prince Fielder’s specific player type. The Ryan Howard extension is a perfect example – he’s something pretty close to a league average first baseman, but he’s getting paid like a superstar.

However, teams have begun to learn from their mistakes. Look at the relative salary difference that guys like Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth commanded last winter, compared to a bat-only guy like Adam Dunn. By nearly any measure you want to use, Dunn was the superior hitter (until this year, anyway), but he got nearly $100 million less than Crawford because teams realized there was more to the the game than standing at the plate and swinging for the fences.

FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) has not been proven to be the most accurate depiction of a player’s value. Along with Baseball Reference WAR (rWAR), the two have the most credence as they are backed up by (mostly) objective measurements and a transparent process. As Tango recently pointed out, “everyone has their own WAR”. The challenge is getting everyone to spell it out and be consistent with it.

Olney is not wrong for being skeptical and he should not have been lambasted the way he was minutes after his round of tweets. When we start blindly accepting Sabermetric tenets, the science stagnates. Sabermetrics cannot improve without skeptics who look at stats, ask questions, and seek improvement.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

Throughout the season, you’ll hear about run differential as a measure of a team’s success. While not perfect, run differential has been shown to be a good way to determine the skill of a team. It is, after all, the basis for Pythagorean Expectation and its variants. If you know how many runs a team scores and how many they allow, you have a good basis for predicting their future success.

The Phillies have been doing quite well in that department, as you may expect. Prior to Sunday’s games, the Phillies had the third-largest run differential in baseball and by far the best in the National League, besting the St. Louis Cardinals +129 to +48.

Here’s an overall look at MLB run differentials, followed by just the National League. (Click to enlarge)

The Phillies’ 498 runs scored and 369 runs allowed translates to a 72-41 record. As they were 74-39 prior to yesterday’s game, the two-game difference isn’t much and shows the Phillies are about as good as they’ve looked. With this run differential, the Phillies are a 103-win team over a 162-game season. Even with the loss yesterday, the Phillies are on pace for 105 wins.

This study, by David D. Tung, found that “The root mean square difference between the observed and predicted games won is [4.0] games.” What that means is that the Pythagorean expectation will give you an idea how good a team is plus or minus four games. In other words, the PE says the Phillies are a 103-win team, but could actually be between 99-107 in terms of true talent. Basically, the Phillies are really freaking good.

The Playoff Odds Report at Baseball Prospectus, which uses similar but more intricate methods, puts the Phillies at 100% to make the playoffs, the only team in baseball to have risen to the peak. The next-best team in the NL is the San Francisco Giants at 87.9%. Furthermore, the Phillies’ simulated won-lost record comes out to 101-61, right in line with both our to-date results and the Pythagorean expectation.

It seems a bit hyperbolic, but whether or not they win the World Series, there is a very strong case to be made that the 2011 Phillies are the greatest team in franchise history. Through just 114 games, the Phillies already have the tenth-best run differential (remember, a counting stat) in franchise history and the fifth-best in franchise history in the live ball era. Prorating their run differential over 162 games gives them a +185 differential, which would be the third-best in franchise history behind the 1976 team (+213) and the 1887 team (+199).

Year G W L Ties W-L% Finish R RA Rdiff
1976 162 101 61 0 .623 1st of 6 770 557 213
1887 128 75 48 5 .610 2nd of 8 901 702 199
1894 132 71 57 4 .555 4th of 12 1179 995 184
1977 162 101 61 0 .623 1st of 6 847 668 179
1899 154 94 58 2 .618 3rd of 12 916 743 173
1893 133 72 57 4 .558 4th of 12 1011 841 170
1892 155 87 66 2 .569 4th of 12 860 690 170
1993 162 97 65 0 .599 1st of 7 877 740 137
2010 162 97 65 0 .599 1st of 5 772 640 132
2011 113 74 39 0 .655 1st of 5 498 369 129