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The American League's best supporting actor

While the American League MVP race is showing a rerun from 2012, it might be time to look for a new award. Here we examine what an MVP race would look like without each team's best player.

Anibal Sanchez has a strong case to be named Best Supporting Actor in the AL this year.
Anibal Sanchez has a strong case to be named Best Supporting Actor in the AL this year.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend, the biggest names in television are going to get together in Los Angeles and they're going to dress up and give each other awards. That's only relevant to the present discussion because it's award season in baseball and those glamorous actors sparked the idea you're about to read. Emmy voters, you see, don't just pick the best leading actor and actress, they also vote for the best supporting actor and actress too. They compare leading men and women only to other leading men and women and then hand out an additional award to the best of the rest in each gender. Since we seem to be having the exact same MVP debate we had last year and no one seems willing to yield their ground, why don't we invent a new award to debate that might allow for some fresh perspectives?

Let's hand out an award for baseball's best supporting actors and let's hand it out to the best players in each league who aren't the most valuable players on their respective teams. In other words, let's have an MVP debate without the best player from every team. Let's begin today with the American League.

Here's how it works. While I would never argue that WAR is a be all and end all, I'm going to use it to identify each team's best player. The players who lead their teams in fWAR have been dropped from the sample to produce a league devoid of those silly "MVP Candidates." Players who played for multiple teams in 2013 have also been dropped, but none would have competed for top honors anyway. For reference, the best players on each team are as follows (all statistics entering Sunday):

Name Team WAR Name Team WAR
Mike Trout Angels 10.0 Andrelton Simmons Braves 4.2
Jason Castro Astros 4.0 Carlos Gomez Brewers 6.3
Josh Donaldson Athletics 6.9 Matt Carpenter Cardinals 6.2
Colby Rasmus Blue Jays 4.3 Welington Castillo Cubs 2.9
Jason Kipnis Indians 4.2 Paul Goldschmidt Diamondbacks 5.4
Felix Hernandez Mariners 5.8 Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 5.9
Chris Davis Orioles 6.8 Hunter Pence Giants 5.1
Adrian Beltre Rangers 5.1 Jose Fernandez Marlins 4.2
Evan Longoria Rays 6.3 Matt Harvey Mets 6.1
Jacoby Ellsbury Red Sox 5.7 Ian Desmond Nationals 5.1
James Shields Royals 4.0 Everth Cabrera Padres 3.1
Miguel Cabrera Tigers 7.3 Cliff Lee Phillies 3.9
Joe Mauer Twins 5.0 Andrew McCutchen Pirates 7.5
Chris Sale White Sox 4.9 Joey Votto Reds 6.1
Robinson Cano Yankees 5.9 Troy Tulowitzki Rockies 5.4

My own methodology is pretty straightforward, but as a man of science and in the interest of full disclosure I'll lay out the basics. I'm looking for the best player and won't put any stock in context dependent stuff like WPA, RE24, or the team's record. I'll take FanGraphs batting and baserunning runs as pretty accurate measures and will factor in replacement level without much concern. When it comes to fielding and positional value, I tend to be a bit more discriminating.

First, I think saving runs is saving runs whether it's in left field or at shortstop. I know this isn't a popular belief because a +10 CF would likely be worth more if you move him to LF, but it's a player's job to save runs at the position the team asks him to play. The positional adjustment is meant to counteract this, but the logic has always bothered me a bit. This is all by way of saying that I tend to collapse the range of positional adjustments in my own mind a little. Additionally, I'm going to start with UZR, but will cross-reference that with DRS and RZR in order to settle on how much I trust the number. If a player has a great UZR and a bad DRS, I'll knock a few runs off his final total.

For pitchers, I'm going to lean more on fWAR than RA9-WAR and will place a premium on rate stats when the counting numbers are close enough. For example, I'm going to take a pitcher with a 5.5 WAR in 180 innings over a pitcher with a 5.9 WAR in 200. Finally, all stats presented below are the FanGraphs' version unless otherwise noted.

Let's gather some candidates and break it down.

American League Best Supporting Actor 2013

On the position player side, a few candidates emerge if we grab the top ten players in fWAR.

Name Team PA wRC+ Fld BsR WAR
Manny Machado Orioles 671 106 27.3 -1.1 5.9
Shane Victorino Red Sox 501 119 23.5 3.2 5.4
Dustin Pedroia Red Sox 676 111 10.7 0.4 4.8
Ben Zobrist Rays 624 115 5.3 4.3 4.5
Adam Jones Orioles 636 123 -4.4 5.3 4.3
Jose Bautista Blue Jays 528 133 5.2 1.8 4.2
Edwin Encarnacion Blue Jays 616 145 -4.3 1.9 4.1
Yunel Escobar Rays 528 104 10.5 0.9 4.0
Kyle Seager Mariners 636 120 -2.8 1.0 3.9
Jhonny Peralta Tigers 436 125 3.9 -1.6 3.6

Machado leads the pack, but a good amount of his value is derived from his position and defense, which is also largely true for Shane Victorino. Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist have a strong case as well and it seems as if the rest of pack is a good step behind, but I'll also include David Ortiz to the list because his offensive value is high and takes a big hit for not playing the field. Let's see how Machado, Victorino, Pedroia, Zobrist, and Ortiz stack up.

Name Team Batting Base Running Fielding Replacement Positional Fld + Pos RAR WAR
Manny Machado Orioles 4.6 -1.1 27.3 19.3 2.3 29.6 55.3 5.9
Shane Victorino Red Sox 11 3.2 23.5 14.4 -4.5 19.1 49.9 5.4
Dustin Pedroia Red Sox 8.8 0.4 10.7 19.4 2.2 13 44.5 4.8
Ben Zobrist Rays 10.6 4.3 5.3 17.9 0.6 5.9 41.4 4.5
David Ortiz Red Sox 31.9 -3.3 -0.1 15.8 -13.2 -13.3 33.5 3.6

If we start with defense, DRS likes Machado and Pedroia better than UZR, while Victorino and Zobrist grade out pretty evenly. If you zero out Ortiz's positional adjustment, you still need to find a way to drop Machado by about ten runs to make the case that Ortiz has been more valuable. If we look across the remaining four position players and just consider batting, baserunning, and replacement level, the picture looks like this:

Name Team Bat+Bs+Rep
Manny Machado Orioles 22.8
Shane Victorino Red Sox 28.6
Dustin Pedroia Red Sox 28.6
Ben Zobrist Rays 32.8

To make the case for Machado, he needs to be ten runs or more better than Zobrist on defense and more than six runs better than Victorino and Pedroia before any sort of positional adjustment. There's no question he's a superlative fielder and it's not hard to believe he's at least a +15 defender even if he's not a +20-30 player. Zobrist has generally been rated as a strong defender but more traditionally in the +5-10 range. It's not a slam dunk, but based on their history and the ratings they've earned to date, the mean difference is likely more than 10 runs.

In comparing him to Victorino, it's a close call based on this year's numbers, but Victorino's track record is less convincing. That doesn't mean he hasn't been a great defensive player, it just means we should be more skeptical. For Pedroia, he's established himself as a +10-15 defender and is playing at that pace this year.

It's certainly close enough that another player could overtake him in the final two weeks, but Machado's lead among position players appears legitimate at this point in time. Victorino might have a case on an at bat for at bat basis, but he's also seen a huge boost in value from 17 HBP which are, at least somewhat, random.

If we look to the pitchers, it's Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Yu Darvish.

Anibal Sanchez Tigers 165.2 61 61 26.30% 7.40% 5.6 5.5
Yu Darvish Rangers 193.2 65 75 33.10% 8.80% 6.4 4.9
Max Scherzer Tigers 194.1 74 67 28.40% 6.30% 5.3 5.9

Sanchez has been the best pitcher on an inning by inning basis, but the handful of starts he missed due to injury have suppressed his overall value. Scherzer (including his strong start on Sunday which isn't reflected here) leads the way in terms of total value using a FIP-based approached and Darvish is the runs allowed candidate. Given my preference for FIP-based numbers over runs allowed it comes down to a choice between Sanchez and Scherzer.

Given that their spread is less than a full win over 30+ innings, I'm inclined to take Sanchez but there's a very legitimate case for Scherzer. While my personal rooting interest is the Tigers, I've been on record making this type of inning by inning argument before. This leaves us with Anibal Sanchez and Manny Machado for the title.

At this point it's really about personal preference. It's a toss up between them and among the other candidates I've already eliminated, but I'm going to take Sanchez because he's been consistent and Machado has slowed down as the season has worn on (119 wRC+ in the first half, 82 wRC+ in the second half). Value is value, but I'd rather have a player who improves their team's chance to win more often if everything else is basically equal. We're drawing from a pretty even group and the rules of the internet demand that I pick a side.

Mike Trout is the best player in baseball this year but he's not going to win MVP. The same thing happened last year. Take last year's content - Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V - and we've had our MVP debate. Instead, let's move beyond the old awards paradigm and look for new ones to analyze that might allow for more interesting conversations. This year, I'm taking Anibal Sanchez to be the American League's best supporting actor.

Let the debate begin.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Neil Weinberg is a Staff Writer at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.

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