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Evaluating the 2015 Silver Slugger Awards, by the numbers

With the announcement of the 2015 Silver Slugger Award winners on Thursday, take a look at how close they matched the advanced metrics.

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Bryce Harper was among the three NL Silver Slugger Award winners in the outfield.
Bryce Harper was among the three NL Silver Slugger Award winners in the outfield.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

As the Golden Globes of the MLB off-season awards, the announcement of the Silver Slugger Award winners is typically met with a bit less fanfare than the Gold Glove, Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, and Cy Young Award.

There are a few potential reasons for this, from the relative objectivity of offensive output in 2015, to the way that total offensive voting tends to overlap with the MVP award. Silver is even the least valuable precious metal among all baseball award naming conventions.

Regardless, the 2015 iteration of these awards was announced on Thursday night, with only a few relative surprises in the bunch. The same objectivity that makes these awards relatively debate-free also makes them the most obviously ripe for measurement and comparison. Basically, it can be seen if the awards are actually given to the best offensive players at their positions. Take a look at the winners:

National League

  • Pitcher - Madison Bumgarner
  • Catcher - Buster Posey
  • First Baseman - Paul Goldschmidt
  • Second Baseman - Dee Gordon
  • Third Baseman - Nolan Arenado
  • Shortstop - Brandon Crawford
  • Outfielder - Bryce Harper
  • Outfielder - Andrew McCutchen
  • Outfielder - Carlos Gonzalez

American League

  • Designated Hitter - Kendrys Morales
  • Catcher - Brian McCann
  • First Baseman - Miguel Cabrera
  • Second Baseman - Jose Altuve
  • Third Baseman - Josh Donaldson
  • Shortstop - Xander Bogaerts
  • Outfielder - Mike Trout
  • Outfielder - Nelson Cruz
  • Outfielder - J.D. Martinez

Aside from the unexpected inclusions of Kendrys Morales and Carlos Gonzalez, this looks like a fairly reasonable list of winners. Before comparing the results to the data, what exactly does this award purport to be? From the Louisville Slugger website:

Coaches and managers of Major League teams vote for the players they feel are the best offensive producers at each position in the field in both the American and National Leagues. They base their selections on a combination of offensive statistics including batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, as well as the coaches’ and managers’ general impressions of a player’s overall offensive value.

There are certainly more advanced statistics out there, but the triple slash line at least gives a fairly quick and somewhat accurate idea of total production. However, does this combination of basic sabermetrics and managerial judgement match the conclusions of context-neutral statistics, like OPS+ and wRC+?

All below data come from leader boards on FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

National League

* 400 PA minimum for catchers. ** 70 PA minimum for pitchers.

Pos Player OPS+ (Rank) wRC+ (Rank)
P** Madison Bumgarner 101 (1) 107 (1)
C* Buster Posey 135 (1) 138 (1)
1B Paul Goldschmidt 170 (2) 164 (2)
2B Dee Gordon 114 (1) 113 (1)
3B Nolan Arenado 124 (3) 120 (4)
SS Brandon Crawford 114 (1) 117 (1)
OF Bryce Harper 195 (1) 197 (1)
OF Andrew McCutchen 145 (2) 146 (2)
OF Carlos Gonzalez 116 (8) 114 (12)

On first blush, this list looks pretty good - five of the award winners are the top offensive player in the National League at their given position by both metrics; Andrew McCutchen was also the second-best offense outfielder and among the three awarded.

This leaves three winners who, sabermetrically, might not be the ideal recipients of the award. Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto both had explosive seasons, and OBP-King Votto slightly edged out Goldschmidt in offensive production (172 vs. 164 wRC+, 174 vs. 170 OPS+).

However, given the noted traditionalist criticism of Votto's approach at the plate, it is believable that players and managers would give the edge to Goldschmidt when the margin is that small. Additionally, Goldschmidt did arguably have the better all-around season and hit for the power that grabs headlines. He is certainly a reasonable pick.

Pos Player fWAR (Rank) rWAR (Rank) ISO (rank) wOBA (Rank) All-Stars
1B Paul Goldschmidt 7.4 (t-1) 8.8 (1) .249 (1) .418 (2) 3
3B Nolan Arenado 4.5 (4) 5.8 (2) .287 (1) .371 (t-2) 1
OF Carlos Gonzalez 2.4 (15) 3.1 (14) .269 (2) .364 (6) 2

Nolan Arenado ranks slightly lower among his third base peers but was likely propelled up by a combination of the gaudy Coors Field effect and having a breakout season that surprised onlookers. His 42 home runs and 130 runs batted in likely helped get him the player and manager vote over alternatives Matt Carpenter (139 wRC+), Kris Bryant (136 wRC+), and Yunel Escobar (120 wRC+).

The real surprise of this list is Arenado's teammate, Carlos Gonzalez. Coming back from an injury-shortened 2014, Gonzalez had a great, 40 HR bounce-back season in 2015. However, he ranks as having only the 8th and 12th best offensive season for an NL outfielder by OPS+ and wRC+, respectively.

Out of nowhere, the Diamondbacks' David Peralta actually appears third on both the wRC+ (138) and OPS+ (139) leaderboards for NL outfielders. His travels from independent league baseball to the Majors have been documented in other places, but there is a natural tendency for these awards to skew toward established players.

The Coors-aided power numbers, comeback narrative, and growing reputation as a clubhouse leader may have all positively impacted his vote totals among other on-field personnel. It certainly doesn't mean Gonzalez had a bad season by any stretch, but it probably wasn't among the three best by a National League outfielder.

American League

* 400 PA minimum for catchers.

Pos Player OPS+ (Rank) wRC+ (Rank)
DH Kendrys Morales 128 (4) 131 (4)
C* Brian McCann 108 (3) 105 (3)
1B Miguel Cabrera 170 (1) 165 (1)
2B Jose Altuve 122 (t-1) 120 (4)
3B Josh Donaldson 155 (1) 154 (1)
SS Xander Bogaerts 108 (1) 109 (1)
OF Mike Trout 176 (1) 172 (1)
OF Nelson Cruz 160 (2) 158 (2)
OF J.D. Martinez 140 (4) 137 (4)

In the American League, the winners are similarly acceptable. There are no arguments to be had about Miguel Cabrera, Josh Donaldson, Xander Bogaerts, Mike Trout, and Nelson Cruz.

However, the single most interesting result in this entire exercise is Jose Altuve's large change in rank between OPS+ and wRC+. By OPS+, he had the top offensive season by an American League second baseman in 2015. However, he only ranked fourth under the same criteria when using wRC+. What caused the change?

The top four second basemen in the AL - some order of Altuve, Logan Forsythe, Jason Kipnis, and Ben Zobrist - are all bunched fairly closely together by offensive production. As a statistic, OPS+ still weighs on-base percentage and slugging percentage equally, whereas wRC+ tends to give more credit for on-base ability over power.

Despite his small stature, Jose Altuve actually hit for more power than the other three but got on base at a lower clip. While their total production was all in same range (20-25 percent above league-average), OPS+ gives more credit to Altuve's power than wRC+ does, and he rises in the rankings. He's certainly a defensible choice for this award, and depending on preference might be the correct one.

Pos Player fWAR (Rank) rWAR (Rank) ISO (rank) wOBA (Rank) All-Star
DH Kendrys Morales 2.9 (2) 2.4 (4) .195 (8) .364 (4) 0
C* Brian McCann 2.1 (6) 2.8 (3) .204 (2) .327 (3) 7
2B Jose Altuve 4.3 (2) 4.5 (4) .146 (7) .347 (4) 3
OF J.D. Martinez 5.0 (4) 5.0 (8) .253 (4) .372 (4) 1

J.D. Martinez was merely the fourth-ranked outfielder by both key measures, and while Jose Bautista edged him in most categories (both sabermetric and traditional), the third- and fourth-best options are basically interchangeable.

Stephen Vogt and Russell Martin were roughly tied as the best offensive AL catchers in 2015, with 115 wRC+/114 OPS+, 114 wRC+/115 OPS+ splits, respectively. This is another case where Brian McCann's name recognition, team, and reputation among players likely boosted his odds in this ballot. Additionally, his rate statistics aren't egregiously behind the first two. He is also an understandable selection.

Kendrys Morales is the perplexing pick in this bunch, as he falls 25 percent behind Edwin Encarnacion in OPS+ and 19 percent behind the Blue Jays' slugger in wRC+. He did however come back from a disastrous 2014 season to be one of the most productive designated hitters in the league, won the World Series, and is automatically qualified for all awards as a member of the mid-2010's Royals. The only surprise is that Omar Infante didn't find his way on this list in some capacity.

With a few exceptions, the players and managers voting for the Silver Slugger Awards in 2015 got the selections correct, with respect to sabermetric opinion. It is a bit predictable, but it turns out that the awards that generate the least animosity are also the ones that people pay attention to for the least amount of time.

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Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.