Michael Schur and I did another PosCast, have a listen if you like, but the point here is that we began by discussing whether Twitter is, in total, a net positive or a net negative. There are many wonderful things about Twitter and the immediacy of it. And there’s a lot of lousy stuff too. I suppose that says more about us as human beings than it does about the Twitter format itself.
In any case, there was a wonderful exchange on Twitter between two good friends — teammate and StatCast guru Mike Petriello and the one and only Bill James.
So what is wOBA missing?
— Bill James Online (@billjamesonline) August 16, 2017
Ah, there is so much there to unpack — Mike bringing up the fascinating point that even though nobody is talking about Kris Bryant this year (he didn’t even make the All-Star Team), he is by wOBA — weighted on-base average — having more or less the same season that he did last year when he was the MVP and the talk of baseball and all the rest of it.
And then Bill, always the challenger, asked the incisive question: So what does this say about wOBA? What is it missing that it cannot get to the heart of WHY Kris Bryant’s season is being yawned over this year when the stats insists he is having as good a season as last year?
Let’s first take a look at the numbers for both seasons.
Batting Average/On Base Percentage/Slugging Percentage:
OK, so when looking at the core numbers, absolutely, Bryant is having an almost identical year to 2016. His power numbers are down slightly but his on-base percentage is up by just as much. Using Bill’s simple runs created formula, Bryant is creating just slightly MORE runs per game this year. So this looks the same.
Home Runs/RBIs/Runs Scored
2016: 39 HRs/102 RBIs/121 runs(runs led league)
2017 (projected for 155 games): 31 HRS/75 RBIs/108 runs
OK, now we are getting somewhere. His home runs are down, his RBIs are WAY down, and even his runs are down (mostly because his home runs are down). Now, we know that runs and RBIs are context-driven numbers; they rely on the success of teammates. The Cubs have not been nearly as good in 2017, so this explains the decline somewhat.
But does it explain everything? wOBA has Bryant being as good as last year, but we know he’s not hitting as many home runs (which have a huge impact on runs and RBIs). So what is Bryant doing BETTER than he did in 2017?
Answer: He’s walking a lot more.
Bryant is hitting doubles at about the same pace as last year. He should have two or three more triples than he had last year. He’s got a few more singles. But, mostly, he’s walking like crazy. He walked 75 times last year. He’s on pace to walk 100 times this year.
Now, we all know walks are valuable. By walking so much more this year, Bryant is making fewer outs … this adds value. As wOBA suggests, it adds as much value as he is losing for his decline in home runs.
But now we are getting to the heart of what wOBA does and what it does not do. It shows — in superb ways, I think — a player’s offensive value. But it does not measure (and does not want to measure) what you might call: Buzz. A year ago, Kris Bryant had numerous memorable hits in what was a dazzling season for his team. This year, Kris Bryant is hitting .223 with runners in scoring position in a Cubs’ season that has felt shockingly lethargic.
Last year, Bryant had an 11-homer June as the Cubs ran away from the world.
This year, Bryant had a 9-RBI June as the Cubs kept teasing and then falling back.
Last year, Bryant was in the highlights night after night, making dazzling defensive plays, crushing monster home runs, lighting up the baseball season. This year, let’s be honest: It just hasn’t felt that way.
Bryant has been fantastic since the beginning of July, but it’s a different kind of fantastic. The home runs are not coming. He’s hitting a lot of singles and continuing to draw walks and it’s great stuff … but it isn’t buzz-creating like it was last year.
Also this year there are OTHER players having insane seasons. Last year, Bryant’s .396 wOBA was good enough for fourth in the league, and it really wasn’t too far behind Joey Votto’s .league-leading 413.
This year, his .397 wOBA is good for NINTH in the league and it’s nowhere near Votto’s .433 or Paul Goldschmidt’s .426 or Bryce Harper’s .425. Giancarlo Stanton is hitting a home run every night. Justin Turner is having a crazy season. Anthony Rendon is insanely great night after night. Bryant might be as good as he was last year (in a different way) but you can think about the line about how a shark has to keep moving to live. And if it doesn’t, as Woody Allen said, you have is a dead shark.
And then, sure, there’s the whole story: The Cubs aren’t the story of baseball like they were a year ago, not even close. In my mind, this shouldn’t affect MVP talk but of course it does, and I suspect it always will.
Look, Kris Bryant is still fantastic, and that’s what wOBA tells us, and that’s super valuable information. But for many reasons that go beyond wOBA, he’s not an MVP candidate — not even a particularly interesting story — at the moment for very viable reasons. He still has six weeks or so to blow the minds of MVP voters, and he’s very capable of doing it. But, wOBA or not, he just hasn’t done it yet.