The Case for Brett Nicholas, Texas League Player of the Year
The ballots are in. The counters are at work, tabulating the totals. Hopefully it won’t come down to the definition and value of a hanging chad. (UPDATE: Corpus Christi’s George Springer has won the award)
Yesterday, Alex and I, along with others around the league, were asked to turn in our votes for the Texas League Postseason All-Star team, Player of the Year award winner, Pitcher of the Year selection and Manager of the Year candidate. The awards are expected to be announced today.
The only stipulation in the voting was that you could not vote for players on your team, so, neither Alex nor I could vote for RoughRiders players. The voting included a ballot filled with the following positions: 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, C, 3 OF and 6 pitchers. There were two columns: one for “1st Team” and another for “2nd team.” So that means we could vote for two 1B, two 2B (etc).
While it was time-consuming and thought-provoking, save for a few players, I thought selecting this season’s Texas League All-Stars was not too difficult. While there are a few deserving candidates, it didn’t take long to pen down David Martinez for Pitcher of the Year in the circuit. As for Manager of the Year, that one was rather easy for me as well.
Then we came to Player of the Year.
So, should I vote for Anthony Aliotti?
The Midland first baseman spent around two thirds of the season crushing Texas League pitching to the tune of a .350 average, .452 on-base percentage and .993 OPS–all league highs, and with enough plate appearances to qualify, Aliotti will finish first in all three of these categories. He has really struggled at Triple-A, but that should not matter. This is Texas League Player of the Year.
What about George Springer? He has to be the favorite for all-around Minor League Player of the Year. He is three home runs away for the elite 40 home run / 40 stolen base club, which has happened only four times in major league history (Jose Canseco 1988, Barry Bonds 1996, Alex Rodriguez 1998, Alfonso Soriano 2006–three former Texas Rangers coincidentally enough). It hasn’t happened in the minor leagues, where the season slate is fewer games (140) since 1956 when Len Tucker accomplished the feat. He is first in minor league baseball in home runs (37), tied for fourth in RBI (105), tied for 20th in steals (43) and fourth in OPS among players with 300+ ABs. He is also accomplishing these feats despite zero time above Advanced-A ball before this year.
Neither player spent even close to the entire season in the league. Springer played 73 games, while Aliotti notched 91. Neither player will finish in the top 5 in home runs or RBI, and depending on how the season finishes, Springer could drop out of the top 5 in stolen bases (23), while Aliotti could lose his spot at #5 in doubles (29).
I searched desperately for a candidate that played 100 or more games in the league (an arbitrary number, I know), that could live up to the play of these two fine ballplayers.
How about Matt Fields of Northwest Arkansas? He will likely capture the home run crown; he has 31 and a six home run edge of second place. But Fields is hitting just .227, plays a non-premium defensive position (first base), and leads the league with 175 strikeouts in 124 games.
Xavier Scruggs? The Springfield first baseman is second in home runs (25), just outside the top 5 in RBI (74), fourth in league in OPS (.853) and leads the league in walks (81). While the resume is an impressive one, a .246 average, more than a strikeout per game, and the opportunity to play lowly Northwest Arkansas 32 times really hurt his cause for me (he hit .313 with six of his 25 homers against the last place Naturals).
Then I got to Brett Nicholas. Of course, I couldn’t vote for Nicholas since he is a ‘Rider. The Frisco first baseman is going to finish the season with the most games played and likely have the highest RBI total (he is first today). His .299 average is fourth in the TL, and is first among active Texas League players. He is first in hits, third in slugging (second active), first in total bases, fourth in runs, and, in comparison to other power hitters in the league, does not strike out very often. Of course in many more games than Springer and Aliotti, he has more hits, runs, home runs and RBI than the leading two candidates. If I could have voted for Nicholas, I might have. It would have been a tough call.
Full disclosure here, I voted for Springer.
His dominance while in the Texas League as well his team’s capturing a playoff spot before his departure outweighed, in my opinion, his smaller gross totals in comparison to Scruggs, or Crumbliss, or Fields, and his speed and elite defense pushed him past Aliotti for me.
There are no criteria listed with this award; it is left up to the voter to decide what factors should go into Player of the Year. This is, in my opinion, a rather fruitless effort to argue over the number of games required for consideration, the value of defense and speed, ballpark factors (hitters’ park vs pitchers’ park), competition of the weighted divisional schedule, etc. Ultimately, when there are no rules, the voter must make these decisions themselves, and arguing over the value of each of these factors is often one without much movement. People’s minds are hard to change on topics like this.
What is important is that any voter at least consider these criteria when making their selection; how to balance them is up to the individual.
Assuming you are with me at this point, here are the raw numbers of the three players:
|Nicholas - Frisco||TEX||129||543||479||70||143||24||3||21||89||2||1||42||115||.299||.363||.493||.855||236|
|Aliotti - Midland||OAK||91||409||340||49||119||29||0||12||51||3||2||66||83||.350||.452||.541||.993||184|
|Springer - Corpus Christi||HOU||73||323||273||56||81||20||0||19||55||23||5||42||96||.297||.399||.579||.978||158|
I will run through a few of the perhaps more overlooked factors that might shed some light on the worthiness of Nicholas for the league’s highest honor.
Nicholas is the only one with enough games/at bats
For the record, I also think Springer will win the award. Which is astounding.
Since the inception of the award in 1931, only two position players have ever won the award with less than 100 games played. Kila Kaʻaihue of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals won the award in 2008 when and he launched 26 homers and hit .314 over 91 games, and another Royals prospect, Mike Moustakas, took home the hardware in his 66 game season in 2010 when he left the circuit with an 1.100 OPS with 21 homers and a .347 average. He also plays a decent third base in the majors, so I imagine he was above average man at the hot corner in his time in the Texas League.
Five pitchers have won the award: Tim Leary (1980), Bob Muncrief (1940), Dizzy Trout (1938), Harold (Ash) Hillin (1937), Dizzy Dean (1931). Only Trout didn’t spend his entire award-winning season in the TL. He pitched 37 times in the Texas League and in five games for Double-A Toledo in the American Association. Proportionally speaking, he made 88% of his outings in the Texas League, which would be quite a bit more than 100 games by a position player standard.
Even if Aliotti wins the award it would be pretty remarkable. Granted the two players to break the mold have done so in the last 10 years, when seemingly voters might be a bit more prospect-conscious and mid-season promotions are more common, but history is still very much against it.
Nicholas is not in a great hitting environment
Comparing the three players, Alliotti, Nicholas and Springer, it seems that Nicholas is likely in the toughest spot to produce. Mark Eddy of BaseballAmerica.com looked at park factors at the start of this season, and Dr Pepper Ballpark ranked as the fifth best hitter’s park in the eight team league. Midland was third. Corpus Christi ranked fourth:
|Rates Per Park, 2010-12|
Launching Pad: Springfield, 2.35 HR/G (No. 6)
Graveyard: Arkansas, 1.00 HR/G (No. 106)
Hit Parade: Midland, 19.19 H/G (No. 11)
Pitcher’s Park: Arkansas, 7.67 R/G (No. 4)
(table and statistics from BaseballAmerica.com)
The ‘Riders’ home park is also much harder on left-handed batters, where the power-alley to right-center field is much futher than left-center (383 ft vs. 364 ft) and the WinStar Diamond Deck in left creates a Home Run Porch of sorts in straightaway left field.
Additionally, there is the concept of lineup protection. By all accounts, the Midland RockHounds and Corpus Christi Hooks have created more protection for Springer and Aliotti than the ‘Riders have for Nicholas this season. Here is how the offenses stack up:
Here is a similar table, only taking account team performance while the player in question was on the team’s roster (Aliotti was promoted on July 18, Springer on June 26):
Now of course these players account for part of the production, but that is true across the board. Springer and Aliotti were more production on a daily basis than Nicholas, but not enough to account for the disparities between the offenses on a whole.
Nicholas doesn’t play a premium defensive position
Or does he? That ‘Riders everyday first baseman is not really that–an everyday first baseman. He has logged 12 games at catcher, and likely would have more if the ‘Riders had a bit more flexibility at first base.
Other than rehabbers, only Guilder Rodriguez has logged more than one game at first base outside of Nicholas (18 games), and Rodriguez has been needed to spell off days for other infielders as well. Because of this, Nicholas has not been able to log as much time at catcher as he might have otherwise. More starts at catcher would certainly make his candidacy a little stronger.
Springer plays elite defense in center field. Your eyes will tell you that. The scouts will tell you that, and I am sure, when he makes the majors, the sabermetricians will crunch numbers that tell us the same. It is part of the reason I voted for Springer over Aliotti.
Nicholas’ ability at catcher should not be overlooked. He still considers himself a catcher and, defensively, has been pretty darn good at the position. Here is how he stacks up in a few key categories with the two primary Frisco catchers, Tomas Telis and Zach Zaneski:
|Name||Games||Catcher ERA||Games/PB||SB ATT/gm||CS%|
While this unlikely puts him ahead of Springer, I think it has to put him in front of Aliotti, and at least boost his candidacy. When considering MVP/POTY type awards, many will only focus on the offense of a first baseman, assuming that even an elite defensive first baseman is not adding a ton of value. I think that is an unfair determination in the case of Nicholas.
I would be shocked if Springer or Aliotti doesn’t win the award. In fact, I would be pretty astounded if Springer doesn’t win it, but if he is faulted for his 73 games played, it’s hard to imagine it won’t go to Aliotti.
I don’t even know if Brett Nicholas truly deserves the award, but I have a feeling many voters simply weighed the value of Aliotti’s 18 extra games against the incredible production of George Springer, decided how much that would count against Springer, and then called it a day.
Nicholas likely didn’t get the credit his season deserved. He has without question been the Player of the Year for the Frisco RoughRiders, and maybe even the Player of the Year in the Rangers minor league system, and he deserves at least a thoughtful discussion for Player of the Year in his circuit.
Baseball term of the day: cloud-hunter - a ball batted high in the air
(term from The Dickson Baseball Dictionary)