Baseball is a game of nicknames: Shoeless Joe, The Splendid Splinter, Hammerin' Hank, Joltin' Joe, Big Train, Charlie Hustle, The Sultan of Swat (in case you were wondering where that @SultanofStat Twitter name came from), Stan the Man, The Wizard of Oz, The Big Unit, Mr. October the list goes on and on.
So, I guess it's only fitting that even I, as a baseball writer, was assigned a nickname back in the summer of 2005.
My faithful readers might be well aware of my fondness for good food, and if there's a quirkier delicacy I enjoy yet haven't revealed, it's turkey legs. (And I mean the giant ones, not just your garden-variety, fresh-off-any-ol'-Thanksgiving-bird type.) Whether at renaissance fairs, carnivals or sporting events, there's nothing quite like a delicious, smoked turkey leg. So when friends and colleagues Eric Karabell, Kevin Rounce and I caught a Phillies game during the summer of 2005, I couldn't help myself; I had to order the turkey leg at Bull's BBQ.
Maybe they were impressed -- or, more likely, horrified -- at my ability to put down the whole thing, but after my raving about its greatness, both Eric and Kevin took to calling me "Turkey Leg." Since that day, I've made many a stop back at Bull's, almost in ritualistic fashion, as you can see in the picture to the right. Such stories of repeat visits to Bull's only fueled the fire, and as is often the case with nicknames, mine was shortened over the past five years. (After all, three syllables is way too many.) "Turk" -- yes, same as the "Scrubs" character -- stuck.
So when we were mulling names for my annual awards column, which doles out hardware for some of the more unheralded statistical feats of 2010, the choice was obvious: "Call them The Turks!"
They're unconventional as standard rotisserie is concerned, yet invaluable as evaluators for the format. They are, in two words, The Turks.
The unlucky bunch
BAH!-BIP Award (for the lowest BABIP in baseball): Aaron Hill (.196). I'll preface this one by pointing out that Hill should have had a low BABIP; he had the lowest line-drive rate in baseball (10.6 percent), and hit the fifth-most fly balls (54.2 percent) and 19th-most infield flies (12.9 percent). That said, Hill's BABIP was historically low. Consider this: Only 12 players in the history of baseball previously came to the plate 500-plus times in a season and managed a sub-.200 BABIP, and 11 of those occurred before the sacrifice fly was reinstituted in the baseball rulebook for good, in 1954. Since that year, Curt Blefary of the 1968 Baltimore Orioles is the only player other than Hill to have come to the plate at least 500 times yet failed to crack the .200-BABIP mark; he finished at .198. Hill's BABIP is actually the lowest in more than 100 years.
On the topic of history, for a little BABIP fun, had the stat been introduced at the time, Philadelphia native and Phillies and Athletics shortstop Monte Cross might have earned the nickname "King of BAH!-BIP." He has four of the 13 all-time sub-.200 BABIP seasons (1900, 1901, 1904, 1906).
Grand Canyon Award (for the greatest drop-off in home run/fly ball percentage from 2009): Joe Mauer (down 13.7 percent). One could look at Mauer's 2009 number (20.4) and figure he was extremely lucky, but by the same token, one could regard his 6.7 percent number of this season and figure that he was struck by comparably bad luck. That Target Field played as the least homer-friendly venue in baseball this season probably had a lot to do with it, but who's to say the Twins won't have more of a comfort zone in future years? Look at the New York Mets: They hit 95 home runs in the inaugural year at Citi Field and 128 in Year No. 2. David Wright, to pick one example, hit just five homers at Citi in 2009 but hit 12 there this season. So maybe there's hope yet for Mauer.
A Little Help, Guys, Award (for a pitcher with a shockingly high BABIP against): Francisco Liriano (.340). How a pitcher who averaged 9.44 K's per nine and 3.47 K's per walk and generated ground balls 53.6 percent of the time posted a BABIP this high is inexplicable; weren't the Minnesota Twins boasted as having one of the game's best infield defenses? The numbers support it; they're one of only two teams that ranked in the top six in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) at all four infield positions this season. Their outfield defense, however, was poor, as they ranked 11th-worst in UZR (-11.8), and Liriano's .254 BABIP on fly balls, 116 points higher than the American League average, shows that contributed. Still, Liriano's FIP was 2.66 and his expected FIP 3.06, so he pitched like the true ace he'll be for the team during the postseason. Expect him to be even better in 2011.
The lucky bunch
That Ball Had Eyes Award (for the highest BABIP in baseball): Austin Jackson (.396). To think, there was a legitimate chance that, in addition to the aforementioned Aaron Hill setting a new standard for low BABIPs this season, Jackson might have become only the fifth player since 1954 to manage a BABIP of .400 or greater. Entering the season's final weekend, Jackson's number was north of that number, at least until he went 0-for-11 during the series at Baltimore's Camden Yards. Still, everything about Jackson's 2010 statistics screams, "2011 regression candidate." Check the facts:
• He finished with the fourth-highest batting average (.293) of any player in history who struck out 170 or more times. Of the 52 170-plus-strikeout seasons, 40 batted less than .270 and the group averaged .258.
• He managed a 24.4 percent line-drive rate, third-best in baseball, a number above the range of sustainability, especially for someone so strikeout-prone. Let's be generous and say he hits line drives 20 percent of the time in 2011, the rest are converted to ground and fly balls according to his percentages in those departments, and we assume that, otherwise, everything about his 2011 is identical to 2010 (including luck). In that case, he'd bat .277.
• He batted .254 and whiffed 27.1 percent of the time in September.
Wind-Aided Award (for the most misleading home run/fly ball percentage: Paul Konerko (19.5). Technically, he wasn't the major league's leader in the category -- that'd be Joey Votto (25.0) -- but Konerko is the one who warrants the most concern. Consider that his HR/FB at home was 26.3 percent; his road number (12.9) was much closer to his 16.8 overall number since 2002 (the first year data was available on FanGraphs). Konerko is a free agent this winter. Can you see why there's reason for worry?
At-'Em Award (for the lowest BABIP allowed by a pitcher): Trevor Cahill (.237). I covered the Cahill topic in the final edition of 60 Feet 6 Inches, and at season's conclusion, he had the second-lowest BABIP of any ERA-eligible pitcher since the 1994 strike. That his Oakland Athletics were the other team to finish in the top six in UZR at all four infield positions had a lot to do with it, but if Mark Ellis' $6 million extension isn't picked up and he departs as a free agent, that'll be a hit to the infield defense come 2011. That's the problem with pitch-to-contact ground-ballers like Cahill: Even the slightest change in circumstances could signal disaster.
@#$%& Why Did I Sit Him!!! Award (for the best pitching matchup practically everyone missed out on): Brandon Morrow, for his one-hit, 17-K performance Aug. 8 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Many thanks to Mike Polikoff, who oversees our League Manager product, for investigating the ESPN ownership/start percentages for this category; thanks to Mike, we know that Morrow was started in a mere 19.2 percent of all ESPN leagues on that date. That game was also played on a Sunday. How many owners do you think wished they had those stats in the final day of their tight weekly head-to-head matchups?
Honorable mention goes to Dallas Braden for his May 9 perfect game against those same Rays; he was started in only 36.9 percent of ESPN leagues. Travis Wood was active in 0.5 percent of ESPN leagues for his one-hit shutout of the Philadelphia Phillies on the road on July 10, though it's somewhat more understandable why he was avoided, as it was his third career start, coming off an outing of five runs (three earned) and six hits in 4 2/3 innings at the New York Mets.
On an aside, what the heck was with the Rays' susceptibility to historic pitching performances this season? No-hit twice, and nearly three times?
@#$%& Why Did I Start Him!!! Award (for the worst pitching matchup practically everyone started): Edwin Jackson, for his 10-run disaster of April 27 at Colorado's Coors Field. With the advantage of hindsight, we can say today that, sure, a Coors Field start for a guy like Jackson was a bad idea. But at the time it wasn't so crystal clear, which is why it's no surprise to learn that Jackson was active in 82.7 percent of ESPN leagues on that date. Through his first four starts of 2010, he had a 3.81 ERA and 1.23 WHIP, seemingly thriving in the lighter-hitting National League. A Coors start wasn't quite so scary back then, but the result was 2010's second-worst performance by any starting pitcher going by game score. Jackson's registered a minus-5, topped only by Scott Kazmir's horrific minus-8 on July 10 against the Oakland Athletics (5 IP, 11 H's, 13 ERs, 3 HRs). Kazmir, incidentally, was active in 32.5 percent of ESPN leagues.
Punch-and-Judy Award (to the player with the most frustrating, complete lack of power): Elvis Andrus. He might not hold the distinction of having gone the most consecutive at-bats without a home run -- that "honor" belongs to Reggie Willits (822 homerless at-bats) -- but Andrus easily had the most at-bats this season of any player who failed to go deep (588). In fact, he now has gone 696 straight at-bats without a homer since hitting one against Scott Richmond of the Toronto Blue Jays on Sept. 2, 2009. Andrus' numbers were those of a glorified singles hitter; he finished dead last in baseball in isolated power (.038), fourth in singles (138) and second in ground-ball percentage (61.1 percent). Such players' fantasy value usually winds up closely tied to batting average, stolen-base ability and lineup position -- i.e. runs/RBI impact -- which is why Andrus' .247 batting average and nine stolen bases in 64 second-half games was so troubling. He's 22 years old and widely regarded a future superstar, but if his trends continue in that direction, his career numbers might be more Larry Bowa than Maury Wills. I'm optimistic, but Andrus has some serious work to do, especially reading pitchers, getting better jumps and centering his bat on the ball.
Best stat innovation: PAR (Parm Above Replacement), created by ESPN Stats & Information's Mark Simon. Oh, if only every parm was destined for the top spot on the PAR leaderboard.
Top Quality Starter (the quality-start champion): Felix Hernandez (30). The whole debate about who's the American League Cy Young is a ridiculous one; it's Hernandez, and it really shouldn't be that close. He paced the league in a multitude of categories, including ERA (2.27), batting average allowed (.212) and OPS allowed (.585), and finished second in both strikeouts (232, only one back of Jered Weaver) and WHIP (1.06). In fact, the only other viable candidate for the award who bested Hernandez in any meaningful category besides wins was Jon Lester, whose 9.74 K's-per-nine ratio topped the AL. Hernandez beat them all in practically everything else, and certainly his major league-best 30 quality starts warrants mention, as does his 63.4 average game score, also tops.
Let's put those quality starts into historical perspective: Since 1950, the first year Baseball-Reference.com has such data available, only 29 pitchers have had more than 30 quality starts in a season. Randy Johnson, in 2002, was the only other pitcher to have had that many since the 1994 strike. In fact, only seven qualified (i.e. eligible for the ERA crown) pitchers had a higher quality-start percentage than Hernandez's 88.2: Greg Maddux (1994, 96.0), Dwight Gooden (1985, 94.3), Bob Gibson (1968, 94.1), Rick Reuschel (1985, 92.3), Don Robinson (1988, 89.5), Tom Seaver (1968, 88.6; and 1971, 88.6), Dave McNally (1968, 88.6).
Least Meaningful Rotisserie Category: Wins. My faithful readers won't be surprised to hear me say that, but Hernandez provides a rock-solid case for finally excluding wins from rotisserie scoring. Consider: Hernandez's 13 wins are the fewest by any pitcher with 30-plus quality starts since 1950, and it might be longer than that, as again, that's the earliest season for which data was available.
I propose that the entire rotisserie baseball community adopt a shift away from wins; to do that I suggest going to 6x6 scoring, replacing batting average with both on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and on the pitching side, dropping wins and strikeouts, and adding quality starts, innings pitched and K's per nine. So that'd leave us with this:
Hitting: OBP, SLG, HR, RBI, R, SB
Pitching: QS, SV, IP, ERA, WHIP, K/9
My rationale, specifically on the pitching side: When it comes to pitching, it's all about outs, outs, outs, and preventing runs. Hence the addition of innings pitched -- which is essentially outs (divided by three) -- and quality starts to more accurately reflect starting-pitching success than wins. Why the shift from K's to K's-per-nine, though? Simple: Replacing wins with quality starts only benefits starting pitchers, deflating the value of relievers. Turning K's from a counting to ratio category at least diminishes slightly the quantitative advantage from loading your lineup exclusively with starting pitchers.
Splitsville "Award" (for the player with the most devastating platoon split; the quotes because it's hardly a positive): Adam Lind. His numbers against left-handers were astonishingly bad; his OPS against right- and left-handers was nearly 500 points different (488, to be exact), and since his overall OPS was .712, you know that means he was pretty darned awful against southpaws. He was: He had .117/.159/.182 triple-slash numbers against lefties, and that was in 145 plate appearances. One-hundred forty-five! Heck, I'm more amazed the Toronto Blue Jays were willing to send him to the plate that many times knowing he committed 122 outs against lefties. That Lind managed .275/.327/.502 rates against righties -- in the ballpark of his .294/.347/.521 combined numbers against righties from 2007 to '09 -- at least offers hope, but one can't help but worry he'll be dropped into a straight platoon come 2011, severely limiting his chances of ever coming close to his breakout-2009 numbers again.
Bizarro Award (for the biggest reverse-platoon split): Aaron Hill (278 points of OPS better against righties). If you thought Lind's numbers against lefties were bad, check out Hill's: .125/.226/.225, and he's a righty who had .302/.362/.485 career rates against them entering the season. Toss another fact onto the "Hill's 2010 was an aberration" pile.
Get Out Award (for the most outs committed): Derek Jeter (515). "Outs" is a somewhat skewed category, generally led by players who play every day, bat in the top third of the order and hit for low batting averages, but Jeter warrants mention for what was by far the worst of his 15 full big league seasons. Here's how bad his outs total was: It's the sixth-most outs committed by any player in the past quarter-century. Jeter turns 37 next June, and while he's almost certain to re-sign with the New York Yankees, getting a chance to bounce back with the help of that hitter-friendly ballpark, it's probably safe to assume the waning years of his career have begun. His 16.1 percent line-drive rate was his lowest since FanGraphs had available data on the category in 2002, and it dropped to 14.6 percent after the All-Star break. Jeter also had career worsts in the triple-slash categories versus right-handers (.246/.315/.317), which might be even more ominous.
Offspeed Overlord (for the lowest BAA on offspeed pitches): Jhoulys Chacin (.143). Thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for this handy fact, and you read that right: Chacin beat such big names as Clayton Kershaw (.144), Jon Lester (.148), Justin Verlander (.153), Felix Hernandez (.160) and CC Sabathia (.176) for top honors. He was the major league's leader in the category using his slider (.096) and was second only to Cliff Lee (.121) with his curveball (.129), and if you're looking for any more reasons to expect continued greatness in 2011, how about this: He was actually third-toughest in baseball to hit with two strikes (.130), and second-toughest to hit when ahead in the count (.134).
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality experts league. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.