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Exposing Early Frauds of MLB's 2013 MVP, Cy Young Races

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Exposing Early Frauds of MLB's 2013 MVP, Cy Young Races

How do you spot fool's gold?

First, find the fool—then let him lead you to his "gold."

The same approach applies with regard to players whose hot starts would appear to have them in the early mix for MVP or Cy Young talk.

But if we dig through these players' stats, we can uncover evidence for why their shiny success may not be all it seems on the surface.

Cohort Joe Giglio broke down the early front-runners for the major awards, but here's where we examine players whose candidacy for MVP and Cy Young looks as good as gold—but who might make us look like, well, fools for believing as much.

First, though, a quick note: To keep things in the realm of reality here, for MVP frauds, we're going to stick with players on teams who are playing well (i.e., at or above .500) because everyone knows voters don't like their MVPs to come from losing clubs.

We'll also focus on players who actually may be thought of as MVP or Cy Young candidates to this point. But just because we're looking for reasons why they're not doesn't mean these players aren't still good.

In other words, as good as Yuniesky Betancourt has been (.270 BA, 7 HR, 22 RBI) for the streaking Brewers, well, he's still Yuniesky Betancourt—which means he and players of his ilk are not up for consideration.

 

Most Valuable (to Regression) Players

American League

 

1. Mike Napoli, 1B, Red Sox: .283 BA, 6 HR, 15 2B, 31 RBI, .929 OPS

Napoli is off to a ridiculous start, leading the majors with 31 RBI, and his new club currently has the best record in the whole sport. Those two ingredients typically scream "MVP."

Except, Napoli has a legitimate injury issue that could crop up at any point, he's sporting a gnarly 34.2 percent strikeout rate, and his BABIP of .400 is ninth highest in the majors. All of this is going to be nearly impossible to overcome and/or maintain over the course of an entire season.

Napoli's a good player who gets to hit in a great park for his swing half the time (career 1.030 OPS at Fenway), but he's just not a great one.

 

2. Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles: .337 BA, 9 HR, 29 RBI, 19 R, 1.142 OPS

If Napoli is off to a ridiculous start, then how do we label Davis' April? With his .337 average, 29 RBI and an AL-high nine homers, let's just go with "redonkulous."

Chris Davis has been doing stuff like this practically every day (video courtesy of MLB's official YouTube channel).

Davis actually has made some very real improvements in his approach, as his 14.9 percent walk rate and 24.8 strikeout rate are both career bests. But his 43.7 percent fly-ball rate is nearly a career high, and while he's always been a high-BABIP guy (.338 career), it's hard to keep that at .387 (also a career-high) while hitting that many fly balls.

Also? His home run-to-fly-ball percentage (29.0 percent) is not only above his career norm (20.0 percent) but also sixth highest overall. Basically, Davis is a very dangerous man, but he's playing somewhat above his head in a few key aspects, which will eventually bring him back to earth.

 

3. Jed Lowrie, SS, Athletics: .327 BA, 3 HR, 11 2B, 15 RBI, 18 R, .931 OPS

Triple-slashing .327/.412/.519, Lowrie arguably has been the driving force behind the revamped Oakland Athletics, who are off to a white-hot start and are scoring an MLB-best 5.6 runs per game.

Plus, he plays a premium position on the diamond—albeit not that well—which pumps up his early MVP case.

But it's hard to ignore the fact that this is a 29-year-old who has never played in more than 100 games or managed to top the 400-plate-appearance plateau. And once his .378 BABIP starts falling back down to his .290 career figure, Lowrie will be more solid, less spectacular.

 

National League

 

1. Dexter Fowler, OF, Rockies: .303 BA, 8 HR, 15 RBI, 21 R, 4 SB, 1.016 OPS

Yes, Fowler is leading everyone in wins above replacement (per FanGraphs). Yes, he's the catalyst atop a lineup that also features studs like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez and quality guys like Michael Cuddyer and Wilin Rosario. And yes, he's in that magical age-27 season.

Ummm, have you seen what Dexter Fowler's been up to?

Don't misunderstand: This breakout (.303/.410/.606) looks legit for the most part, and he's even started solving what had been a dramatic home-road split. Thing is, MVPs tend to hit home runs, and, well, Fowler still isn't a home run hitter, regardless of what he's done this year.

Wait, you're screaming at your screen, he's got eight already! True, but his home run-to-fly-ball ratio is an egregiously high 33.3 percent, which is second highest in baseball. It's up there with true sluggers like Justin Upton, Ryan Braun and Bryce Harper—and almost five times his career norm (7.6 percent).

Is a career season coming? Yes. An MVP-caliber one? Probably not.

 

2. Carlos Gomez, OF, Brewers: .372 BA, 5 HR, 19 R, 6 SB, 1.065 OPS

Gomez is similar to Fowler in that he's 27 years old, coming off a mini-breakout 2012 and headed for a career year in 2013. But there are still signs that hardware won't exactly be in his future.

For one, even this speedy outfielder can't hang his hat on a .423 BABIP that's baseball's fourth highest and more than 100 points above what's normal for him.

Even if you buy that he's made himself into a credible hitter and improved what had been a hacktastic approach, a player with a career .252 average isn't suddenly going to hit .350-plus like he's currently doing.

Gomez is dynamic, fun to watch and getting better, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

 

3. Carlos Beltran, OF, Cardinals: .299 BA, 7 HR, 18 RBI, 12 R, .876 OPS

Now here's a player who's been an MVP candidate before. Combined with the fact that Beltran has been the best hitter on the NL Central-leading Cardinals, and that's the kind of thing voters eat up.

Carlos Beltran's seven home runs are more than twice as many as any other Cardinal (video courtesy of MLB's official YouTube channel).

But Beltran just turned 36, has a lengthy injury history and after a boffo first three months last year, he suffered through a significant second-half swoon (.236/.302/.440), which very well may have been related to the first two points from the beginning of this sentence.

The underlying numbers aren't way out of whack here, but betting on Beltran to stay hot and fully healthy all season—which would be required for an MVP run—is a fool's gamble.

 

Charlatan Youngs

American League

There's good luck, better luck and then Matt Moore's luck.

 

1. Matt Moore, LHP, Rays: 5-0 W-L, 1.13 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 10.7 K/9

Those stats are pretty much perfect, right? A breakout candidate heading into the season, Moore looks to be coming into his own.

He is, but it's too good to be true—at least those numbers are. You see, the southpaw currently sports MLB's lowest BABIP (.149) and the highest left-on-base percentage (100 percent). The latter of which means that Moore has allowed only four runs so far, and all four have come via the home run. In other words, literally every other runner who has been on the basepaths hasn't scored.

If that wasn't actually happening here, it would be just about impossible to imagine.

And it's not like he's not allowing baserunners. While the 13 hits in 32 innings is remarkable—although again, chalk some of that up to the balls-in-play luck—Moore is still walking 4.2 per nine, which is slightly above his rate as a rookie.

Moore is a good one and will eventually be a great one—and maybe even a Cy Young one—but there is simply no way he can keep this up in 2013.

 

2. Clay Buchholz, RHP, Red Sox: 6-0 W-L, 1.01 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 9.5 K/9

Buchholz's story is similar to Moore's. The righty's success so far is driven by a low BABIP (.248) and a high LOB percentage (91.4 percent). But he's also more of a ground-baller (50 percent career), which helps.

Of Clay Buchholz's 11 strikeouts in his near no-no during April, six were looking (video courtesy of MLB's official YouTube page).

Things get interesting with Buchholz when you look at his plate discipline numbers on FanGraphs. The 28-year-old is getting fewer swinging strikes than ever (8.1 percent SwStr%), and hitters are making the same amount of contact against him as usual (79.5 Contact%).

But for some reason, batters are swinging much less frequently against him both overall (39.9 percent Swing% vs. 45.2 career) and on pitches thrown in the strike zone (58.3 percent Z-Swing% vs. 64.7 career). Hence the career-high K/9.

The logical deduction? Buchholz is deceiving hitters into keeping the stick on their shoulder more this year (see video), which is supported by his revitalized changeup—as Jack Moore wrote at FanGraphs. Once the league adjusts and the good fortune described above dips, so will Buchholz's performance.

 

National League

 

1. Matt Harvey, RHP, Mets: 4-0 W-L, 1.56 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 10.3 K/9

For as much as we've talked up Harvey already, we probably should offer a few words of caution amid the 24-year-old's fantastic beginning to 2013.

While his .211 BABIP ranks just outside the five lowest, Harvey's 86.1 left-on-base percentage is also just beyond the 10 highest. If you've read this far, you get the point when it comes to such a combination. Oh, and his 5.6 percent HR/FB rate is among the 20 lowest too.

In short? Harvey's good, but he's not quite this good, and a Cy Young in his first full season probably ain't happenin'.

 

2. Jordan Zimmermann, RHP, Nationals: 5-1 W-L, 1.64 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 5.5 K/9

Jordan Zimmermann is really, really good—just watch the video—but until he picks it up in one category, the Cy Young may be out of reach (video courtesy of MLB's official YouTube channel).

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (too late?), Zimmermann's below-the-surface profile looks very much like Harvey's: low BABIP (.188), high LOB percentage (83.3), low HR/FB (5.4).

The other factor in play here, though, which doesn't apply to the other three hurlers we've covered, is that Zimmermann's measly 5.5 K/9 means that he'll have a harder time making up for it when all the balls he allows hitters to put in play start dropping for hits. Plus, when it comes to splitting hairs, it's hard to win the Cy Young Award with such a low strikeout rate.

Still, it's hard not to be impressed by what Zimmermann has done so far, particularly his past two outings in which he completely shut down two supreme offenses in the Braves and Reds (see video): no runs and just three hits and a walk over 17 innings.

 

All statistics come from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

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