clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Oakland A's midseason awards: Who was the team's MVP in the 1st half?

A moment later, they engaged in a cage match to decide first-half MVP honors.
A moment later, they engaged in a cage match to decide first-half MVP honors.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland A's have played 91 of their 162 games, which means that they've completed 56 percent of their regular season schedule. However, in baseball we mark the halfway point based on the All-Star break, regardless of when everybody plays their 81st games. Since that break is upon us, let's take a look back at the top performances from the A's so far in 2015.

The following team awards are up for grabs: MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, and Gold Glove. In addition to each winner, I'll give you a top-3 to see who else was in serious consideration.

Team MVP: Stephen Vogt

1. Stephen Vogt
2. Sonny Gray
3. Josh Reddick

I'm going to start with a mildly controversial pick right off the bat. You could easily argue that Sonny has been the MVP so far. He's clearly been the best player, and he's got a huge advantage over Vogt in bWAR (4.4 to 3.2) and fWAR (3.4 to 2.7). However, I'm one of those folks who needs a legendary performance to name a pitcher as the MVP. To me, the MVP is a position-player award unless a pitcher is having an historic season that simply can't be ignored. I was fine with Kershaw winning last year. I think Pedro should have won in 1999, and possibly 2000 as well, though at the time I was certainly happy with Jason Giambi as the pick. Verlander in 2011 was probably the right call. Sonny is great, but he's not quite on their level. That is in no way an insult.

No, to me the MVP should almost always be an everyday player, and among everyday players no one on the A's comes close to Vogt. He leads the team in the following categories: homers (14), RBI (56), walks (41), runs (43), OBP (.374), SLG (.498), OPS+ (142), sac flies (7), and intentional walks (5), and his .287 batting average ranks second among qualified hitters. Put it all together and you get a guy who has power and has the discipline to use it, who intimidates opponents but also knows how to adapt to his situation and do what it takes to push a run across.

He does all of this while starting as the catcher for over half of the team's games, and he receives mildly positive marks from both DRS and UZR on his overall defense there (and his rate of 33 percent of runners caught stealing is a tick above the league average). Catchers can't start every day, though, lest they wear down, but when Vogt isn't behind the plate he's shifted over to start another 15 games at first base to keep his bat in the lineup. And in the 16 games he didn't start, he pinch-hit 10 times, going 1-for-5 with five walks (.600 OBP). There are only six games that he's missed entirely, and his total of 85 games played ranks second on the team behind only Marcus Semien (and tied with Brett Lawrie). He gives you the benefit of having a great offensive catcher, while minimizing the drawback of having to sit him out once or twice per week to rest him.

And what about when it matters most? Vogt leads the team in OPS with runners in scoring position (1.149 in 98 PAs), and he's among the leaders (usually with a 4-digit OPS) in every other major clutch situational stat. Of his 14 homers, three of them came with the A's trailing and either tied the game or put them ahead, and four more broke 0-0 ties. Another one came down two runs, off of Fernando Rodney in the ninth inning.

What's even more amazing about Vogt is the road he took to get here. Entering 2015, he had amassed a total of 1.0 bWAR (or 1.4 fWAR). His 3.2 bWAR this season is more than triple his career total entering the year, and we're only halfway though this campaign. At age 30, he just played in his first All-Star Game on Tuesday, in the middle of his first full MLB season; that's an unusual combination of statements. And as a cherry on top, he's clearly emerged as not only a fan favorite but also a leader on the team, from his "I Believe" chant to his NBA referee shtick to his leading role in the A's ad campaigns.

Add it all up, and Vogt has done the most to help this team win on a day-to-day basis. He's been the bagel on which the A's cream cheese is spread. That gets him the nod as MVP.

Vogt, 1st half: .287/.374/.498, 142 OPS+, 14 HR, 56 RBI, 12.5% BB, 18.8% Ks, 3.2 bWAR, 2.7 fWAR

Cy Young: Sonny Gray

1. Sonny Gray
2. Jesse Chavez
3. Scott Kazmir

It's tough to make a call between Chavez and Kazmir for the No. 2. spot. Kaz is better in bWAR, Chavez is better in fWAR, their FIPs are almost identical, and pitcher W-L records are stupid and you should never look at them -- even Cy voters don't really use them anymore, and you don't want to be less statistically advanced than they are. Kazmir has Chavez beat by a full run in ERA, and for many people that will be an obvious tiebreaker.

For me, the difference is that Kazmir has those two starts in which he left after three innings with minor injuries; the A's lost both games by one run. He has another two starts in which he struggled and failed to make it out of the fifth inning, both A's losses. On the other hand, Chavez has finished at least five innings in each of his 15 starts, and he's close to Kazmir in terms of six- and seven-inning outings even though Kaz has had two extra tries. I also think that some of the ERA difference can be chalked up to some errors that weren't called while Chavez was on the mound, and thus some unearned runs that were ruled as earned. (Uncalled errors may have hurt both pitchers, but I specifically remember a few times it happened prominently to Chavez, costing him runs and shortening his outings.)

But here we are, talking about second place. The obvious winner here is Sonny, and it's not even close. If you added up the contributions of both Kaz and Chavez, you might get as much as value as Sonny has provided; in fact, according to bWAR, you wouldn't (4.4 vs. 2.4 + 1.6). So instead of comparing Sonny to his team, let's take a look at how he ranks in the current AL Cy Young race.

Let's start with the big picture: WAR. Sonny is second among AL pitchers in bWAR, behind only Dallas Keuchel, but the difference is small and Keuchel has made one extra start due to Sonny's recent illness. They are essentially tied, and Sonny is a full win ahead of the next guys on the list (Chris Sale and ... Yovani Gallardo? Huh.) On the fWAR scale, Sonny is tied for third with Keuchel, behind only Sale and Corey Kluber, and just ahead of David Price and Chris Archer. The guys who made the top 10 on both lists: Sonny, Keuchel, Sale, Price, Archer. Anyone else on the bWAR list is having great results backed by relatively shaky peripherals, and everyone else on the fWAR list is showing great process but failing to translate it into run-prevention in real life. These five guys have both the results and the process, and they are the only guys we should be talking about for now. Well, Felix has a lifetime pass to Cy discussions, and Kluber could get a Reigning Winner exemption, plus both of those guys made one top-10 list and just barely missed the other. So, seven guys in the conversation.

Looking a bit deeper, Sonny still leads AL starters in ERA (2.04), and he backs it up with the fourth-best FIP (2.63). He's fifth in innings pitched, despite recently missing two starts while in the hospital -- and just show that his illness was behind him, he threw a shutout in his first start back. He doesn't get as many grounders as Keuchel does, but he's still third in the AL (55.6%). He doesn't get as many strikeouts as Sale or Kluber, but he's still 15th in K-rate (22.4%) and 16th in strikeout-per-walk ratio (3.60). He's finished at least five innings in all 18 starts, and he's completed the 8th in five of his outings -- three of which were scoreless efforts, all of which led to team wins. I could keep going, but you get the picture.

ESPN's Cy Young predictor has Sonny second after Keuchel, and I think that's just about right at the moment. There is plenty of time left for one guy to separate himself, or for someone else to get hot and seize the lead, but Sonny has been as good as anyone in the league so far this year. That earns him the team Cy Young without a moment's hesitation.

Sonny, 1st half: 18 starts, 2.04 ERA, 123⅔ innings, 108 Ks, 30 BB, 5 HR, 89 hits, 4.4 bWAR, 3.4 fWAR

Rookie of the Half: Billy Burns

1. Billy Burns
2. Kendall Graveman
3. Mark Canha

You could make an equally good case for either Burns or Graveman here, as they've been similarly good for similar lengths of time and they represent the apples and oranges that are hitters and pitchers. My tiebreaker was subtle, and I would put it this way: For this award, I put more stock in Burns' slightly superior performance than in (what I consider) Graveman's slightly better chance of continued success.

In other words, I think Graveman will finish with the better season, and possibly turn out to be the better player long-term, but that's not what ROTY is about. Just ask Bob Hamelin, who at age 26 beat a solid and highly touted 22-year-old Manny Ramirez; Angel Berroa, who beat No. 1 prospect and 26-homer man Mark Teixeira; or Chris Coghlan, who rode a .321 average and little else to victory over Andrew McCutchen (top prospect and superior overall performer) and Tommy Hanson (top prospect, sub-3 ERA). If voters had been factoring in future potential in those votes, then perhaps Manny, Tex, and Cutch would have ROTYs on their resumes as well, but that's not how the award works. It's a snapshot in time, back to the one year in which you were a rookie. Who was the best rookie, regardless of what came before or what might come after?

Burns, 1st half: 63 games, .303/.340/.399, 106 OPS+, 17-for-20 SB, 1.5 bWAR, 1.2 fWAR
Graveman, 1st half: 14 starts, 3.38 ERA, 114 ERA+, 82⅔ innings, 51 Ks, 27 BB, 1.3 bWAR, 0.5 fWAR

If you just take those lines, with no other context, then Burns is the easy choice. Both players took time to stick and missed a month of MLB action -- Burns didn't debut until May 2, while Graveman spent all of May rediscovering himself in Triple-A. Burns has the edge in both types of WAR; the results-based bWAR likes his shiny batting average in CF, and the process-based fWAR loves his baserunning (9th in MLB in that component of fWAR) and likes his low K-rate. However, Graveman's stats are still bogged down by his abysmal April:

Graveman, April: 4 starts, 8.27 ERA, 16⅓ innings, 7 Ks, 9 BB, 0.73 GB/FB
-- spent a month in Triple-A, then recalled --
Graveman, since: 10 starts, 2.17 ERA, 66⅓ innings, 44 Ks, 14 BB, 1.08 GB/FB

His K/BB rate has stabilized, he's starting to get the grounders he needs, his hits are back to the "normal" range of around one per inning, and he's pitching into the 7th more often than not instead of getting bounced in the 4th. Meanwhile ...

Burns, May: .327 average, .809 OPS, 132 wRC+
Burns, June: .307 average, .734 OPS, 107 wRC+
Burns, July: .234 average, .584 OPS, 63 wRC+

A betting man would say that Graveman is moving in the right direction and is a better gamble to succeed in the second half, whereas Burns is exhibiting the splits of a guy who started over-his-head hot and is now coming back to Earth. That may be the truth. Or, Burns could make adjustments in the coming weeks, start working deeper counts, start drawing more walks, and turn back into the sparkplug we saw in May. Graveman could be peaking right now and could fall flat in August as the league sees him another time around. In baseball, you never know for sure, especially when you're dealing with players who, by definition, have no MLB track records.

Fortunately, the Rookie of the Half award doesn't care about all of that. It only cares about what happened in this half, and I think it's safe to say that Burns was the better overall performer. The result could be different in October after a full season, and I think it will be, but for now Burns is our man.

Honorable mention to Canha, who has been everything we could have hoped for as a 26-year-old rookie. He's been a league-average hitter with serious power, and he's been passable at two positions (even good at them on some days). If he can stay in the everyday lineup in the second half, he has a chance to be a factor in the year-end race for top A's rookie.

Gold Glove: Eric Sogard

1. Eric Sogard
2. Sam Fuld
3. Josh Phegley

Once again, you could flip a coin to pick between Sogard and Fuld. In fact, Fuld has the better small-sample metrics -- his outfield work trumps Sogard's keystone defense in UZR, and even when adjusting for positional value he still beats out Sogard in the defensive component of fWAR. They're tied for the team lead in Defensive Runs Saved, at plus-5. Errors are dumb in general, but they're utterly useless for comparing an infielder to an outfielder, so we'll skip that stat. Fuld seems to be the winner.

But of course, we're talking about pointlessly small-sample metrics here. Both players have sterling defensive reputations over their careers, and both are clearly still fielding well this year, by both the numbers and the eyeball test. That's what we can take from that first paragraph. Both are also terrible hitters with OPS+ marks in the 60s, so they each share the distinction of being in the lineup solely for their gloves.

The reason I picked Sogard over Fuld is that I think infield defense is more important to this specific A's team than outfield defense, and because it seems like the rest of the infield has been far worse. The way I see it, Sonny, Hahn and Graveman are all extreme groundball pitchers, and that's the majority of the rotation. Dan Otero and Eric O'Flaherty were supposed to be two of the key relievers, and they are each groundball specialists who rely heavily on their infielders. The A's should be getting lots of grounders, right? The numbers do not bear out my hypothesis, as the A's are exactly league average in terms of GB/FB ratio, with more flies than grounders. Man, I should have checked that before I wrote this.

Nevertheless, when I look at the supporting casts I am happier to have had the Elf. He's been flanked by Semien, whose struggles have been well-documented. Lawrie looks good now, but he was extra-spazzy to start the year and racked up a lot of errors and other misplays before settling down. Ike Davis missed a month and we mostly saw rookies playing first base in his place. Meanwhile, Coco was excellent in LF when he played, Reddick has been fine in RF (though not his normal elite self), and Burns has been decent in CF. My point is that Sogard was a lone stabilizing force in an awful infield in the first-half, whereas Fuld was merely the best of a solid group of outfielders. That contrast is why I gave Sogard the edge.

You may notice that I left Ben Zobrist out of that paragraph. He has mostly played two positions this year, and they've coincidentally been the main spots played by both of these guys -- 2B and LF. Somehow, in this strange alternate universe we currently find ourselves in, where the team with the 7th-best run differential has the 26th-best record, and where the team with the 2nd-most starters' innings has the 4th-most blown saves, Ben Zobrist, lifelong defensive ace, has been terrible at both positions. It's the damndest thing. The numbers don't like him, and neither do the eyeballs. He's 34 now, and the party has to end sometime for every player, but usually when the guests leave they don't also burn the house down on their way out. Hopefully Zobrist will come around in the second half, but at his age, with his mileage, and with his recent knee surgery, we can't just assume it'll happen.

Oh, and Phegley, our third-place finisher. He's got a phenomenal throwing arm and has nabbed 38% of basestealers, and he seems like a generally heads-up, attentive, high-IQ player. I don't have a lot to say other than that, but I think he's a notch better than Vogt behind the plate and both are better than average.


What do you think of these picks? Would you go with anyone different?

How do you think the year-end awards will shake out, after the team has played 71 more games? Will the same guys be the winners, or will someone new step up?

Shred it up in the comments!