There’s a contingency that says it could happen. Rob Neyer on the topic:
I knew, in a sort of off-handed way, that Hanley Ramirez is enjoying yet another brilliant season. But after looking at his actual season, I’ve come to believe that he must be the most underrated player in the major leagues and that probably nobody else is really all that close.
Maybe [Albert Pujols] really is the best player in the National League. He probably is. But there’s a .365-hitting shortstop with power, playing for a contending team. Shouldn’t we at least take a deep breath and think a few thoughts?
I snipped a part that mentions that Hanley Ramirez, Albert Pujols, and Chase Utley are all essentially identical in terms of WAR on FanGraphs. It’s absolutely true, and something I only recently noticed. Despite being a Marlins fan, I sort of casually went along with the rest of us who had crowned Pujols the MVP before the All-Star Break. However, obviously I’ve seen that Hanley’s put up a ridiculous season so far, and it doesn’t surprise me at all to see them so close in terms of WAR. Let’s examine why.
As of today, the WAR leaderboards appear in the following order.
Hanley Ramirez: 6.9 WAR, 45.0 wRAA, 1.2 UZR
Chase Utley: 6.7 WAR, 41.4 wRAA, 6.0 UZR
Albert Pujols: 6.4 WAR, 55.6 wRAA, 0.0 UZR
I think where most people might complain is the whole neutral defense this season from Pujols. In his last three years, Pujols has put up UZR/150’s of 8.5, 16.0, and 4.5, indicating that he is most likely an above average first baseman. Over the last three years, Pujols has a UZR/150 of 7.6, in part due to that perhaps fluky 2007 season. In any case, this season Pujols has measured exactly average, and people are up in arms about this, as they were about Mark Teixeira in the American Leauge MVP discussion (don’t go there, it’s Joe Mauer).
If we take these numbers to be “correct” or accurate for the season (and there’s issues with that, but we need an assumption before we can go on), then we can see that each of the three are more or less even in terms of defense, with Utley being the above average player, while Ramirez and Pujols have been average. Looking at their offense, however, Pujols has a 10-run margin between Ramirez and a 14-run margin between Utley. So why is it that Pujols sits third on the list?
The answer lies in the positional adjustment. Ramirez has received 5.5 additional runs for his playing time as a shortstop, and Utley has received 1.9 runs for being a second baseman. Meanwhile, Pujols has lost 9.8 runs for being a first baseman. Why? Well, it should come intuitively that first baseman are easier to acquire and replace than shortstops or second baseman, as first base is the easiest position to play. Therefore, there is a premium to playing shortstop and a much smaller but still positive premium to play second base, while there is a penalty to playing first base. If you’d like to read more on positional adjustment, check out Tom Tango’s The Book blog, where he worked on this with the help of MGL’s UZR data (the pieces describing this are shown here and here).
The difference between Pujols’ offense and Ramirez’s offense is 10 runs. However, the difference between the positional adjustments, or the difficulty in playing their respective positions, is around 15 runs. As a result, we get that Ramirez is five runs better than Pujols at the moment. Keep in mind that UZR has some measurement error to the tune of +/- 5 runs, so this difference of five runs isn’t so significant that I’d claim that Ramirez has absolutely been better this season. But it is something to think about. Remember folks, a shortstop with great offensive production and league average defense is better than a first baseman with the same production and defense. If Pujols is to pull away from the pack, he would have to put up even greater offensive numbers compared to Hanley and Utley.
H/T to Jon Heynman’s Twitter account.