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JUMPing Off the Cano Bandwagon?

Robinson Cano will need more big moments like Tuesday night's homer to reinvogorate his flagging MVP chances (AP).

When I wrote about Robinson Cano's MVP chances a couple weeks back, I threatened to dust off a system called JUMP (Jaffe's Ugly MVP Predictor) which I developed last year for an ESPN Insider/Baseball Prospectus piece. The idea was to see how often the MVP winner in a given league can be explained by the numbers he puts up and by how well his team does, to predict who will win, if not necessarily who should win. I built the thing by studying all of the winners in the post-strike era, taking advantage of a few tendencies: first, that none of the winners from 1995 onward were pitchers; second, that all of them save for the 2003 verison of Alex Rodriguez came from teams with records above .500, and third, that 22 of the 28 winners came from teams which made the playoffs.

From there I crafted a carefully gerrymandered system which was able to correctly identify the MVP exactly half of the time, and with one exception (Ivan Rodriguez, 1999) was able to narrow the options down to three players — a concession, in a sense, to the fact that subjective elements factor into the equation for most voters; numbers can only explain so much. Instead of focusing on the round-numbered benchmarks typical of a Bill James-type system (30 homers, 100 RBI, etc.), I focused on league rankings in key offensive categories, discarding anything that didn’t have the power to predict a player into that top three.

To a bit of my surprise and disappointment, on-base percentage fell by the wayside in the process — one simply can’t do a better job of predicting voter behavior by taking it into account. The categories ultimately found to have some bearing on prediction were batting average, slugging percentage, home runs, total bases, runs, RBI, intentional walks and stolen bases; points were awarded on a 10-7-5-3-2-1-1-1-1-1 system, thus giving additional bonuses for top five, top three, and league leadership. Additionally, player position and team success carried significant bonuses which had a major impact on winnowing the field of candidates, with middle infielders getting a boost, and designated hitters a penalty. Team success generated points for three levels of accomplishment: a .500 record, a wild card, or a division title. Playing for the Rockies carried an additional penalty, because for all of the gaudy hitting stats produced with the aid of Coors Field, only one Rockies player (Larry Walker, 1997) has won.

Anyway, the JUMP system is even less optimistic about Cano's MVP chances than I was when I wrote about him a couple weeks back. Using the stats and standings through Sunday, he ranked fifth in the league, behind not only Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera (his main competition as noted a couple weeks back) but also Jose Bautista and one mystery guest. All of which is to say that based upon the precedents I'd spotted, Cano's got only something like a 1-in-30 chance of winning the award. From JUMP's standpoint, the main problem with his case is that is that even with Tuesday night's big three-run homer, he's hitting just .255/.283/.353 in September, bad enough to drop him out of the league's top five in key categories such as batting average, home runs and slugging percentage; he was out of the top 10 in RBI before the blast.

The surprising thing about the rankings, along with Cano's sagging showing, is that one Yankee scored higher: Mark Teixeira. While it's been a relatively down year for the Yankee first baseman due to his slow start, Teix leads the league in runs scored (the flip side of Alex Rodriguez's league leadership in OBI%) and ranks fifth in homers. This is not to say that he's actually been more valuable than Cano in any statistically measurable sense; neither BP's WARP nor Fangraphs' WAR nor Baseball-Reference's WAR put him ahead. It's just that the things Teixeira's doing are more typically the ones which can lead to an MVP award. On a similar note, while the system correctly tabbed Albert Pujols as the NL MVP last year, it did so for Teixeira in the AL, as he led the league in homers, total bases and RBI while playing for a division winner — a set of accomplishments that are usually enough to garner the trophy, at least in years when a catcher doesn’t hit .365, as Joe Mauer did. Mauer did place in the top three in the JUMP system, keeping its record of secondary hits intact.

One none-too-surprising thing about taking measurement of the system mid-season is that the rankings are rather volatile. With the Yankees temporarily surrendering first place after Monday night's loss, both Cano and Teixeira dropped out of the top five, with the Rays' Carl Crawford climbing into the top three via a hot September showing which ranked him second in runs, third in steals and ninth in batting average. Bautista remained in fourth, Mauer climbed to fifth and Evan Longoria, with five top 10 category showings but none above sixth, climbed to sixth himself. With last night's Yanks win (and Crawford's two 10th-inning baserunning gaffes), "order" was more or less restored, though the system is too unwieldy to run on a daily basis to double-check that.

Again let me stress that the point of the piece wasn't to argue about who should win the MVP award but to estimate who will win based upon voting precedents and objective data. Even so, I think it's clear that Cano's candidacy needs some big hits and some narrative juice to stay afloat, namely via a strong September showing as the Yankees battle to claim the AL East flag.

Prospectus on Prospects

Also at BP and of interest to Pinstriped Bible readers is Kevin Goldstein's organizational rundown on the Yankee pitching prospects who have taken big steps forward this season:

The minor league season is over, so it's time to step back and measure talent. Every organization fell somewhere on the arc from good farm systems to bad, but one clearly stands out when it comes to organizational pitching talent: the Yankees.

Nine guys clearly distinguished themselves this summer in the minors for the Bombers, and they can be divided into three categories: those coming back from injury, international prospects and traditional draft finds.

...For a team that consistently has built the top of their rotation through free agency, the Yankees suddenly have considerably flexibility in terms of both their own rotation, and with making other improvements via trade. What they'll do with all this mound talent is yet to be determined, but it's the nicest of problems to have.

Some of the players Kevin discusses (Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman, Ivan Nova) are obvious to those who've been paying at least a bit of attention, others will be familiar to those who dug into Stephani Bee's Top 10 Prospects piece (Manny Banuelos and Hector Noesi), and still others are names that only somebody packing a radar gun and a fedora might know. Good stuff.