Brace yourself: It's Turk time!
That's right, "The Turks" are back, my series of postseason awards that honor the more unheralded statistical feats of the year. It's an opportunity to talk about facts you might have missed, trends you can exploit next year, and, most importantly, to again publish the ridiculous photo to the right. (Anything for a laugh.)
I'll spare you the explanation as to how "The Turks" began, but if you're interested, you can read all about it in last year's column.
It's silly, yes, but then again, is it any sillier than the annual Most Valuable Player debate? "Pitchers shouldn't win the MVP!" "MVPs only play for playoff teams!" "RBIs should have a significant stake in the MVP!" Have we really gotten to the point where we're going to set arbitrary guidelines for every postseason award?
With "The Turks," anything goes. Some of these awards were handed out last season, and others are new. Some are insightful, others unusual. Some reward tremendous accomplishment, others crushing defeat. But they run the gamut of Major League Baseball in 2011, and they're, simply put, facts that I enjoyed this year.
Let's get started
Outstanding Reference Sites: I'd be amiss if I didn't first honor three of the most valuable reference websites for fantasy owners, sites that makes life for writers -- especially this columnist -- oh-so-much easier. The game wouldn't be nearly where is today if not for the continued excellence of Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs and Baseball Musings. All three are wonderful research tools for fantasy owners, and deserve our many thanks.
Needs a New Best Friend Award (because, as they say, the double play is a pitcher's best friend): Brandon Morrow, who, among pitchers since 1950 -- the first season for which Baseball-Reference.com had double-play data available -- set a new record for fewest double plays in a season, with one. One! (Props to Nick in Boston, who e-mailed a heads up on this stat -- when Morrow had yet to induce a single DP -- on the Sept. 19 Fantasy Focus podcast. That's the one where I coughed at the beginning. Stupid allergies.)
The Toronto Blue Jays' defense was partly to blame. Per FanGraphs, they had the 10th-most errors (110) and 12th-worst team Ultimate Zone Rating (-12.0). But Morrow deserves plenty as well, and two splits as simple as these are worth noting: a.) When he was pitching with no one on base, he limited opposing hitters to .217/.292/.340 rates. When there was at least one man on base, Morrow served up .267/.346/.466 rates. b.) During his first 75 pitches of a game, he limited opponents to .222/.301/.363 rates, but from pitch 76 onward, those rates were .272/.345/.456.
Go ahead and make the case that Morrow, therefore, belongs in the bullpen, except that point "A" somewhat contradicts point "B" as supporting evidence. If Morrow struggles this much pitching out of the stretch -- his career OPS with runners on (.778) is 121 points higher than with the bases empty (.657) -- then the last thing the Blue Jays want is to return him to relief, where most everyone pitches out of the stretch. Here's what's most bizarre about Morrow's performance pitching with men on: His fastball actually averages a higher rate (94.0 mph) and his strikeout rate is higher with the pitch (28.2 percent) than it does with the bases clear (93.5 and 24.4). Opponents are merely hitting it a heck of a lot harder, .282/.373/.530 in plate appearances with men on that ended with a fastball, compared to .209/.320/.338 in 272 PAs with the bases empty.
This looks like a pitcher who needs one thing: Plenty of extra coaching during the winter and spring training to improve his performance out of the stretch. Until we see evidence of improvement, Morrow will remain a one-trick pony: One of the 10 best strikeout artists in the game, and below average at everything else.
Incidentally, care to guess who was the only man to ground into a double play against Morrow this season, in what was his second-to-last outing of the season on Sept. 23? Get this: Desmond Jennings, who has 22 stolen bases in his first 80 career big-league games, following 188 in 509 career minor league contests. Even better: It's the only time in those 80 games that any pitcher has induced Jennings to ground into a twin killing.
"Give the Man a Homer!" Award: Matt Kemp, who had an extraordinary season and by all rights deserves the National League's MVP -- I challenge you to dispute that without using any of the above arguments -- but suffered a bit of statistical heartbreak when he became the fourth player in history to fall short of the 40/40 club by a mere home run. At season's end, Kemp, a third-round pick in the majority of leagues, had finished with 39 home runs and 40 stolen bases. He joins an also-exclusive club of 39/40 players, which includes Bobby Bonds (39/43 in 1973), Vladimir Guerrero (39/40 in 2002) and Alfonso Soriano (39/41 in 2002).
Swiss Cheese Bat Award: Adam Dunn, who batted a miserable .159 in his first season with the Chicago White Sox. Frankly, Dunn owes now-ex-manager Ozzie Guillen a dinner, for benching him frequently enough late in the season so that he fell six plate appearances shy of qualifying for the worst batting average since World War I. So let's criticize Dunn's miserable performance by lowering the bar: Among players with at least 450 PAs in a season, his .159 batting average is the worst all-time. That's not since World War I, that's in the entire history of Major League Baseball. Compare him to Rob Deer, who had one of the worst years in recent memory when he batted .179 with 175 strikeouts in 1991, if you wish, but at least Deer hit 25 home runs that season. Dunn swatted 11 this year and whiffed an astonishing 177 times. In fact, Dunn's 42.7 percent K rate would've set a new single-season record, breaking Mark Reynolds' 2010 mark of 42.3 percent, had Dunn merely trotted to the plate six more times.
As difficult as it is to imagine Dunn declining so quickly at the age of 31, there wasn't a lot in his peripheral numbers to argue a turnaround is coming in 2012. He completely collapsed against fastballs: After managing .304/.399/.638 and .314/.400/.666 rates against them the past two seasons, he slipped to .160/.327/.274 with a 38.7 percent K rate against them in 2011. He was utterly anemic against lefties, batting .064/.235/.074 with 39 K's in 94 at-bats. And he got even worse down the stretch, batting .143/274/.200 with 43 K's in 105 at-bats (41.0 percent) in 32 games after Aug. 1.
He deserves this awful pun: He might well be living up to his name.
Unluckiest Fella Award (for the player whose BABIP most hints his year was an aberration): Evan Longoria, who managed a .239 BABIP in 2011, 97 points beneath his 2010 number (.336) and 62 less than his career number in the category (.301). I always caution fantasy owners not to overstate the value of BABIP; you cannot properly examine it without considering the player's historical tendencies and his batted-ball breakdown. Look at Longoria's performance, however, and he has scarcely changed, outside of a few additional walks and a touch fewer strikeouts. These are the categories most relevant: His well-hit average has remained constant, going from .247 in 2009 to .242 in 2010 to .242 in 2011; his line-drive rate was 19.0 this year, in range of 2010's 20.9; and his ground ball rate has gone from 40.8 to 35.9 to 37.0 percent.
Longoria also finished the season on a high note, batting .261/.373/.562 with 17 home runs and 46 RBIs in 55 games from Aug. 1 onward, all at a time when he was most likely his healthiest yet his BABIP remained a sluggish .237. Perhaps his Tampa Bay Rays adding another bat to their lineup might help restore his owners' faith, but I'm a believer. Longoria still has that .300-30-100 potential in his bat, and while his early-career inconsistency has been frustrating, I'd still rather be his owner when that big year comes, rather than say "Wow, where did that come from?"
Incidentally, in case you're curious, here are the five players who had the greatest differential in 2011 BABIP vs. career BABIP, among those who qualified in 2011:
Jose Cano Award (for the best batting-practice pitcher; remember, Cano was his son Robinson Cano's BP pitcher when the latter won the Home Run Derby): Brian Matusz. Matusz was the worst player on the 2011 Player Rater, and it wasn't close. To put his performance into perspective, let's examine him using his opposing hitters' rates: .372/.430/.693 in 245 PAs. This season, among players with 245-plus PAs, no batter came within 28 batting-average points (Miguel Cabrera .344) or 62 slugging-percentage points (Mike Napoli .631), and only Cabrera (.448) and Jose Bautista (.447) finished with a greater on-base percentage.
No other pitcher in baseball history has faced at least 245 batters and managed triple-slash rates that bad or worse, and among hitters, there have been only 14 such instances of a season that good or better, four of them by Babe Ruth (1920-21, '23-24), two by Rogers Hornsby (1922, '24) and two by Ted Williams (1941, '57).
Everything about Matusz's game hints that he was pitching hurt all year, perhaps related to the intercostal strain that cost him the first two months of the season. Coming off his encouraging 2010, Matusz saw his numbers soared in: Well-hit average (from .204 in 2010 to .266 in 2011), line-drive rate (from 14.1 to 21.3) and isolated power allowed (.140 to .321). More supporting evidence: Matusz's fastball velocity dipped from 89.8 mph to 88.0. It was a season so frustrating that, even in the best-case scenario that he has an outstanding spring training, Matusz still wouldn't be much smarter than a reserve-rounds pick in 2012.
Least Meaningful Rotisserie Category: Wins. I'm cheating, this is the same award handed out last season, and the same winner as in 2010. But the point rings as true today as it did one year ago, and despite the remarkable 24 wins accrued by certain Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, there remains great injustice in the category. There might be no greater example than this:
Naturally, Nova won 16 games, three more than Lincecum (13). But Wins is a fair and just category, right? How do you think Dan Haren feels: He was second in the majors in "Wins Lost," which totals times that a pitcher left the game ahead as the pitcher of record, only to see his bullpen blow that lead and cost him a no-decision. Give him those six wins and he'd have had 21 for the season.
Incidentally, who was the leader in "Cheap Wins," defined as wins in non-quality starts? That's easy: It was John Lackey (8), who won 12 games despite a ghastly 6.41 ERA, 19th-worst all-time among pitchers with at least 160 innings.
As with last winter, I propose that the entire Rotisserie baseball community eliminate the Wins category, instead moving to 6x6 scoring, replacing batting average with both on-base percentage and slugging percentage on the hitting side, and on the pitching side, dropping wins and strikeouts, and adding quality starts, innings pitched and K's per nine. These would be our resulting 12 categories:
Hitting: OBP, SLG, HR, RBI, R, SB
Pitching: QS, SV, IP, ERA, WHIP, K/9
Bow-na-FEE-day Award (for the best guy in baseball named Bonifacio): Emilio Bonifacio. We gave Emilio Bonifacio a lot of grief this season, even using his 14-for-28, 4-steals opening-week performance of 2009, followed by 25 weeks of atrocious statistics, as the example by which hot-starting flukes should be judged; if you're a podcast listener surely you have heard the "Bona fide or Bonifacio" segment? During my July 14 chat, after Bonifacio had gone on another astonishing two-week hot spell, batting .435 (20-for-46) with 11 stolen bases, I was asked that infamous podcast question. My response: "No, he is Bonifacio." (In my defense, that's technically true, he is named Bonifacio.)
From that morning forward, this is what Bonifacio did: Started all 71 Florida Marlins games, managed .305/.364/.403 rates, stole 24 bases, scored 41 runs. Oh, plus, he was third base, shortstop, outfield and waterboy-eligible, vastly improving his fantasy stock. Heck, he finished fifth on our Player Rater among third basemen, sixth among shortstops and 20th among outfielders.
And while I'm still oh-so-tempted to say he's completely "Bonifacio," the argument that the Marlins might bring in a more productive bat to man any of his primary positions, returning him to a utility role, is a far more legitimate one than that he's inept at the plate. Consider this: His walk rate rose to a career-high 9.2 percent, ranking him in the upper half in the majors, he managed 22 infield hits, 15th-most, and he had a 20.0 percent line-drive rate, a combination that finally could keep him consistently respectable in terms of batting average and steals.
Ball Go Boom Award (for the majors' highest home run/fly ball percentage): Mike Stanton (24.9). In no way should this surprise you, as if you were asked to list the five players in baseball with the most raw power, you might name each of the top five in the category: Stanton, Mark Reynolds (23.0), Jose Bautista (23.0), Prince Fielder (22.4) and Ryan Howard (21.9). Still, anytime a player finishes with a number greater than 20 percent in the category -- as Joey Votto did in 2010 (24.7) -- there's the worry of regression. In defense of Stanton, though, here are the past-three-year numbers of the other four, working forward:
Reynolds: 22.9, 19.6 and 23.0
Bautista: 9.9 (only 404 PAs), 21.4 and 23.0
Fielder: 20.1, 18.0 and 22.4
Howard: 20.6, 20.7 and 21.9
These five players have accrued 10 of the 18 instances of a home run/fly ball percentage greater than 20 percent the past three seasons, and while some regression is possible, understand that the difference between, say, a 19 percent and 24 percent rate is only a small handful of home runs. We don't yet know what the impact of the Marlins' new ballpark will be, but we do know that Sun Life Stadium wasn't especially conducive to lofty home-run totals. Plus, there's this in Stanton's defense: He missed 12 games and battled hamstring trouble at times this season, but with a full, healthy year he'd be a legitimate 40-homer hitter.
In fact, I'll be so bold as to say this: If I'm going to pick any player to hit 50-plus in 2012, Stanton would certainly top my list.
September Hero: Javier Vazquez (5 wins in 5 starts, 0.71 ERA, 36 K's in 38 innings): It was a close call between Adrian Beltre, who managed the most home runs (12) and RBIs (29) of any player in the season's final month, but Vazquez's second-half surge certainly made the difference in a lot of fantasy leagues. Just as during his career year of 2009, Vazquez dominated National League competition the second half of the season, during which time he was 8-3 with a 2.15 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 8.97 K's-per-nine ratio in 14 starts, and he was practically untouchable after Sept. 1. What's more, his stuff was every bit as good as during that 2009; his velocity returned to its former levels and he generated a similar rate of swings and misses. In 2009, he averaged 90.9 mph with his fastball and had a 27.8 percent miss rate; in the second half of 2011 those numbers were 91.2 and 25.6.
September Hero, Waiver-Wire Levels: Dee Gordon. For all of the criticism about his complete lack of power -- I'm among those who have questioned it -- Gordon was quite a find during the season's final month, batting .372 with 21 runs scored and 12 stolen bases. None of those were league leaders, even the steals, but consider that the only player who swiped more, Michael Bourn (14), batted more than 100 points lower (.271) and scored six fewer runs. Plus, Gordon is a shortstop, which is a much tougher position to fill in fantasy.
That's probably enough to ensure Gordon will be the Dodgers' Opening Day shortstop in 2012, and his speed alone will put him on the map even in shallow mixed leagues. I'm not expecting a repeat of his .304 batting average, and his 3.0 percent walk rate might limit his steals opportunities enough so that he can't enter the year the favorite in the category, but even if Gordon bats .250 and gets on base at a .275 clip, everyday at-bats would practically guarantee him 50 steals.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.