Tuesday, January 04, 2011

2010 Richie Ashburn Awards

One of my favorite statistical oddities is a player whose on-base percentage is higher than his slugging percentage. I've always had a certain appreciation for players who could get on base consistently without being a dangerous power hitter. This generally requires the player to have a high percentage of his hits be singles, while walking quite a bit. Thinking about this for a moment, don't these seem to be a bit paradoxical? If a high percentage of a batter's hits are singles, the pitcher doesn't have any motivation to walk him. Therefore, the player's ability to walk is a real skill - he must have excellent pitch identification, and also be able to foul off enough tough pitches.

I'm considering all players who had at least 400 plate appearances, rather than the standard 502 qualification - often these types of players aren't as appreciated as they should be by their own manager. Since players of this ilk aren't hitting for power, if they're not a speedster they might not be seen as toolsy enough to get significant playing time. At the same time, I didn't want to set the bar so low that the sample was insignificant.

In order to qualify, a player needs to have a .350 OBP. If a player has an OBP less than .350, and an SLG lower than that, he'd have to be Bill Mazeroski or a young Andruw Jones on defense to not be killing his team. So, sorry Jason Kendall - your .256/.318/.297 may be unique, but it's not qualifying for any award. Same goes to you, Cesar Izturis. I don't know how a player is allowed to bat often enough to put up a .230/.277/.268 line, perhaps you are quite charming? So maybe you deserve a trophy of some kind, but you aren't going to get it here. And we've got our eyes on Elvis Andrus. .265/.342/.301 comes in just under our threshold, but he didn't turn 22 until mid-August, so some improvement is likely.

Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn was the best player of this type, and therefore will be our namesake. He had 10 seasons where he would've received an Ashburn Award (and another year where his OBP was .440 and his SLG was .441). Ashburn retired with a .308/.396/.382 line. Four times he led the league in OBP, and in 1957 and 1958 he led the league in both singles and walks. In his entire career, he hit 29 home runs.

In more recent times, Brett Butler was a great example, winning 6 Ashburn Awards, and in 1991 pulling the Ashburn Double, leading the league in both singles and walks.

In 2010, only two players earn recognition. So, without further adieu, your 2010 Ashburn Award winners!

Jamey Carroll, utilityman, Los Angeles Dodgers: 414 plate appearances, .291/.379/.339.

With a few more plate appearances, Carroll would be receiving his third consecutive Ashburn Award. Alas, the 2009 Cleveland Indians needed to find enough at bats for Luis Valbuena and Jhonny Peralta to make outs at an alarming pace and continue their run as MLB's most disappointing franchise. No matter, as a 36 year old Carroll had the second most plate appearances of his career, while playing all over the field for the Dodgers. He started most of his games at shortstop filling in for the injured Rafael Furcal, but often moved to 2B later in games for his defense in relief of Blake DeWitt. Carroll had only 16 extra base hits all season - 15 doubles and one triple. Yet he still managed to walk in 12% of his plate appearances. This led to an enourmous 40 point difference between his on-base and slugging. Carroll did it by averaging 4.35 pitches per plate appearance, second in the NL behind Jayson Werth with players with 400 PA's.

Poor Carroll. With a little luck, he would've been on the Anaheim Angels in 2002, rather than the Montreal Expos, and gone on to have David Eckstein's career. Instead, he's been a relatively anonymous utility man, save for a perfect Jamey Carroll moment. In Game 2 of the 2007 NLCS with the Rockies, against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Carroll came to the plate in the top of the 11th inning in a 2-2 tie with men on first and second and two outs, against Jose Valverde. Carroll worked a full count and walked, extending the inning and loading the bases. The next batter, Willy Taveras, was then walked on four pitches, scoring Ryan Spilborghs to put the Rockies ahead 3-2. The Rockies would win the game and then sweep the series to become 2007 National League Champions.

While it might not be in the Dodgers's plan to give Carroll 400 plate appearances again in 2011, he'll be ready and able if called upon.

Brett Gardner, CF/LF, New York Yankees: 569 Plate appearances, .277/.383/.379

Many players on the Yankees had down seasons, but Gardner wasn't one of them, finishing 8th in the American League in OBP and 3rd in stolen bases (47). Coming into the season, many (myself included) were skeptical of the Yankees plans to go into the season with a starting LF with a career line of .256/.325/.352. However, Gardner was arguably their second best offensive player, a dynamic leadoff hitter, able to get on base and make pitchers uncomfortable once he got there. Gardner, the major league leader in pitches per plate appearance at 4.61, spent the year out-Johnny Damoning Johnny Damon. He fouled off pitches, played an excellent left field, and was a general pest at the top of the Yankee lineup, making pitchers work a LOT more than they would like to on a guy with only 5 homers (all at the bandbox known as Yankee Stadium - four to the extraordinarily short right field, and one inside the park). At 27, Gardner isn't likely to improve significantly - any power gains are likely to be tempered with a loss of speed as he ages - but the player he is now is pretty good.

The only problem going forward is that the Yankees are continuing with Gardner as their left fielder. With Curtis Granderson in CF, the Yankees are going for an outfield that is excellent at preventing runs - which they were in 2010, as the Yankees boasted the American League's second best defensive efficiency. However, it is very debatable whether they prevent more runs with this set up than they would with Gardner moving to CF and a more traditional power hitting left fielder. Gardner would have been at or near the best hitting centerfielders in baseball in 2010- per at bat, only Andrew McCutcheon, Colby Rasmus and Vernon Wells were more productive, and that only considers outcomes - those extra pitches Gardner made opponents throw may have made him the best of this group. However, among leftfielders his contributions make his production much more middle of the road. In order to make up for the lack of power at this traditional power position, the Yankees will need returns to form by Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Granderson. Either way, Yankee fans will get to enjoy the feisty, pesky Gardner even more this season - he looks to be the opening day leadoff hitter.

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