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Who were 2014's most improved position players?

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Patrick Smith

The Sporting News selected Casey McGehee and Chris Young as the 2014 NL and AL Comeback Players of the year. The award is based on the vote of a panel of 196 players, who are divided by league affiliation. Both players received a plurality of the vote, with McGehee receiving 49 votes and Young 26.

Last year, I introduced a closely related designation that I call the Most Improved Player (MIP). It differs from the Comeback Award in the following ways:

  1. The Comeback Player awards "recognize those players who have re-emerged on the baseball field during a given season." As defined, the comeback award often goes to players returning from injury or, as in the case of McGehee, a player who is returning to the majors. The MIP is not concerned with "reemergence." Rather, it looks only at "improvement"-- that is, identifying the player who most improved his performance in the majors from one season to the next. As such, the MIP requires that players accumulate significant playing time in both 2013 and 2014 to qualify. (250 plate appearances in both seasons for position players, and 100 innings pitched for pitchers.)
  2. Players are separated by position player rather than league. Specifically, we seek the most improved position player and most improved pitcher.
  3. An objective measure, WAR/150, is used to find the winners, rather than a subjective vote.

WAR/150 Explained (and why I use it):

Standard WAR credits players for playing time. To find the most improved player, I want all players with over 250 plate appearances (or 100 innings pitched) in both 2013 and 2014 placed on an equal footing. I do not want to punish players for their injuries or managerial decisions. Instead, I want to just look at the quality of their play in the games that they played.

To neutralize playing time, I scaled each position player's WAR to 150 games played, or 633.33 plate appearances. So, the WAR/150 numbers I report here are the WARs that players would have accumulated if they had played in 150 games. (For pitchers, the WAR/150 numbers represent roughly 150 innings pitched or 633 batters faced.)

The WAR/150 statistic gives an interesting way to look at changing levels of performance from one year to the next. Perhaps its greatest strength is that it boils everything down to an easy-to-understand number. Moreover, it works well for finding the most improved player because, unlike standard WAR, players are not credited of punished for playing time. WAR/150 isolates performance change in all its dimensions - baserunning, hitting, fielding etc. - and, thus, provides one way to quantify improvement.

Most Improved Position Players:

237 position players qualified for this study. 114 (48 percent) improved their performance in 2014.

Below are the 10 most improved position players according to the positive gains in WAR/150:

Most Improved

J.D. Martinez finished second in the American League voting for Comeback Player of the Year. He fairly easily ran away with the designation of Most Improved Position Player. Martinez's seven-plus win improvement is higher than the 6.86 improvement posted by last year's winner, Hanley Ramirez.

Out of 200 position players who qualified for the MIP last season, Melky Cabrera experienced the largest drop-off in WAR/150: 5.56 in 2012 to -1.53 in 2013 (a difference of -7.09). In 2014, Cabrera bounced back and posted the seventh largest gain in WAR/150.

The Pirates did not place any position players in the top ten of most improved players last year. This season, Travis Snider joins the list and is ranked fourth. The highest ranking Pittsburgh player last season was Jose Tabata, who gained 2.89 WAR/150 between 2012 and 2013.

Largest decline

Five players ranked in the top ten most improved last season and were among the 10 players to experience the greatest decline in performance, including last season's top three most improved players.

Here are the ten players who had the greatest loss in WAR/150:

Drop off

Hanley Ramirez dropped from most improved to 232nd.

Cody Rasmus dropped from second to 233rd.

Stephen Drew dropped from third to 236th.

Carlos Gonzalez dropped from fifth to 237th.

Chris Davis dropped from seventh to 235th.

Finally, here is the change in qualified Pirates position players:

Pirates

For the second year in a row, Russell Martin has posted a more than a two-game improvement in WAR/150. Here are his last three seasons.

Martin

Also, Martin finished with the third best WAR/150 among all position players with 250 or more plate appearances in 2014. Troy Tulowitski (8.61) ranked first, with Steve Pearce (8.10) coming in second.

Conclusion

One interesting finding is that half of last season's ten most improved players were among the ten largest drop-offs this season. It certainly isn't surprising that players would experience some loss of performance following a breakout season, but extent of their decline is somewhat unexpected and worth keeping an eye on next season.

Tomorrow I will post the Most Improved Pitcher.

(Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs)