Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Chase Utley Is More Valuable Than Ryan Howard

Back in October the Philiadelphia Phillies won the World Series. The team's success was mostly attributed to a trio of infielders: 1B Ryan Howard, 2B Chase Utley and SS Jimmy Rollins.

The mainstream media and many fans consider Howard, the slugging first baseman and former MVP winner, as the best player on the team. Most people would say Rollins (also a former MVP) is the second-best, followed by Utley.

And those people would be hideously incorrect.

wOBA* = weighted On Base Average (Park Adjusted)
In essence a variant of OPS that uses weighted values to determine a player's offensive production. For example, walks and singles are both worth 1 using OPS because they both advance the batter one base. However using wOBA* a single is more valuable than a walk (.77 to .62) because in the event of a single there is a chance that the defense will create a error, thus creating additional bases. Also other baserunners can advance more than one base on a single.

Park-adjusted alters statistics to what they would be in a neutral park. A right-handed hitter who plays games in Petco Park would have better numbers if he played at Fenway Park. For example, 320-foot flyball to left field would be a out in San Diego but a home run in Boston. The same player with the same skillset would produce vastly different numbers playing in those different stadiums, so park-adjusted tries to correct inflation and deflation created by the unique dimensions and quirks of MLB parks.

Number of runs saved over 150 games. Defense is the most subjective and controversial to quantify using statistics. For this post I'm using information provided by Tiger Tales. The defensive stats are Zone Rating, Revised Zone Rating, Probabilistic Model of Range, Fielding Bible, Ultimate Zone Rating and Fan Fielding Survey. All of these are considered valid, although no single metric is considered "the" statistic to measure defense. Generally speaking, +20 is incredible and -20 is horrible. Knowing all this I considered these numbers and what I've personally seen from and read about the players to determine their defense.

Win adjustments made to defensive positions. Since it's more difficult to find talent who can play catcher, shortstop and center field those positions receive the biggest win boosts. Conversely, it's easier to plug in people at first base and DH, so those positions receive the biggest losses.

Playing Time
Expressed as a decimal. If a player plays a full season then it's 1. If a half season then .5 and so on.

WAR = Wins Above Replacement
How many wins a player is worth compared to freely available talent (i.e. decent minor leaguers).

Market Value = WAR x 4.25
How much a player is worth in the free market (in millions).

So why do the numbers hate Howard so much? Because he's a feast-or-famine free swinger. He creates an out two-thirds of the time, with about half of those coming on strikeouts. And while Howard may be the most prolific home run in baseball he doesn't possess all-around power, with only a career-high in doubles of 26. Plus he's a below-average defender (-10 < x < 0) at a position where it's easy to find someone with a decent glove.

Meanwhile, Utley is a stellar defender (5 < x < 15) at a position where good gloves are difficult to find. Also his offensive production is stellar. He has great all-around power and gets on base (i.e. prevents outs). In fact, Utley actually accumulated more total bases than Howard in 2008.

Some would point out something like Howard's obscene RBI totals and argue he's more valuable because he produced the most runs for the team. A stat like RBI isn't an indicator of talent but rather circumstance. Players can't control who's on base, who's pitching, what stadium they play in or a lot of other issues. And of course, Howard needed guys like Rollins and Utley on base to drive in. Placing Howard in a bad offense and environment (Washington) would skew his peripheral numbers but not his true skillset.

The spreadsheet I used can be found here. Player wOBA* can be found at StatCorner. And here's a list of the top fifty players of 2008 that uses different sabermetrics than I did. Guess what, it's not crazy about Ryan Howard either.


Anonymous said...

What's your point? All of Philly worships Utley, and know of his worth, so none of this is surprising. Yet if Utley saw the same shift that Howard sees time and time again, Utley would be knocked somewhat off of his pedestal also.

Sports on a Schtick said...

If you ask Philly fans who is more valuable most would say Howard. Even the team voted him as its MVP in 2008.

Over the last three years Howard has won, been 5th and 2nd in NL MVP voting. Utley during the same time has come in 7th, 8th and 14th.

An infield shift does little to change Howard's value. If Ryan Howard is hitting the ball on the ground chances are he's already lost the at-bat.

Anonymous said...

Utley is by far the Phillies MVP. Howard usually has one or two good months, the plus being that those months are typically in August/September.

Utley should have won the Gold Glove last year. His range is incredible, it has to be to compensate for Howard's lack of one. I feel he is helped by Rollins having a solid glove at short. While Utley has a big range, he can also slide over to protect Howard more since Rollins plays solid defense. When Feliz is playing third, this infield (defensively) is one of the best (if you can somehow forget Howard).

I don't feel the shift would phase Utley. He had an "off" year in 2008. In 2009, I expect his performance to be like what he did in April and May. He will be quick out of the gates (hopefully he is ready by OD) and as long as he doesn't get hurt like he did last year, I would be surprised if he isn't the league MVP. I'm just glad he's signed at a bargain rate. It's hard to justify Howard for 18 million when the guy next to him makes half that and easily is the better all around player.