American League MVP final thoughts

By | November 13, 2005

UPDATE: The votes are in, and A-Rod won.

Well, the AL MVP award will be announced in about 12 hours or so, so here are my final thoughts.

It obviously comes down to Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz. They both had absolutely great years. I will tell you up front that A-Rod is still my pick. Here are some important stats for both of them:

A-Rod .321 48 124 130 .421 .610 1.031
Ortiz .300 47 119 148 .397 .604 1.001

Okay, the first thing we need to look at is the one category that Ortiz beat A-Rod in: RBI. Want to know what I call the RBI? The most overrated stat in baseball, that’s what I call it. I don’t believe in judging a hitter based on what the people around him do. A-Rod and Ortiz both benefited from the fact that the guys in front of them in the lineup got on base a lot. Ortiz did have a higher batting average with runners in scoring position, but look at this: Ortiz had 57 hits with RISP for 94 total bases; A-Rod had 54 hits with RISP for 90 total bases. I will not deny that Ortiz hit better than Rodriguez with runners in scoring position, but I don’t believe that the gap is as big as some people like to think.

In every other statistic, A-Rod beats Ortiz. That includes overrated stats (runs, batting average) as well as very important ones (OBP, SLG, etc.). Simply put, A-Rod is a slightly better offensive player than David Ortiz. (Note: I say batting average is overrated because it only measures one way of getting on base; on-base percentage is a much more effective means of determining a player’s value as far as getting on base goes. Runs are overrated for the same basic reason that RBIs are: a player could get on base every time up, but if the guys behind him don’t drive him in, he will only score when he hits a home run.)

One of the big arguments I hear for Ortiz is that he had more “big” hits than A-Rod. I know what people mean by this — that Papi was on SportsCenter more often after hitting a game-winning home run or something. It is an undeniable fact that Papi performed better in “close and late” situations, batting .346 compared to A-Rod’s .295 in those situations. What I don’t understand is why a run in the ninth inning is any more important than a run in the first. Is there more pressure in the late situations? Absolutely. Was Ortiz a more clutch player this season? Sure thing. But clutch does not mean valuable. A batter will have, at the most, one at-bat per game in those close-and-late situations. Ortiz had 78 close-and-late at-bats this season, which comes down to about one every two games or so. On the other hand, he had 601 total at-bats, or 3.8 per game. That means he came up to bat nearly seven times as often in early-and/or-not-close situations as he did in close-and-late. Simply put, he had a lot more opportunities to prove his value in boring situations than he did under pressure.

A player’s value as a hitter is in how he contributes to the team’s overall offensive effort, especially as it relates to helping the team win games. So while Papi was getting the headlines for his late-inning heroics, he drove in an outstanding 102 runs in the Red Sox 95 wins. A-Rod drove in 100 runs in the Yankees 95 wins. Pretty darn close, don’t you think? So as far as driving in runs goes, A-Rod contributed to his team’s winning effort about as much as Ortiz did to his.

And now, for the elephant that has been sitting over in the corner all this time. We have patiently discussed the offensive side of things, pretending it matters a whole lot. But the fact of the matter is this: David Ortiz would have to blow Alex Rodriguez out of the water statistically to make up for the fact that he is a designated hitter. Ortiz played 10 games in the field; Rodriguez played 162. That means that over the course of the season, Papi was a factor — any sort of factor at all — for about 871 at-bats — 601 of his own, and 270 of the other teams’. (I don’t know if Ortiz actually played the whole game defensively in those 10 games, but we will assume he did.) A-Rod, on the other hand, was a factor in 4,979 at-bats — 605 of his own, and 4,374 of the opponents’. Do you see that? A-Rod was a factor 5.7 times as often as Papi. Of course, the defensive factor is not of the same caliber as offensive, but it adds up. For example, if you took away all of those 102 runs that Papi drove in in Red Sox wins, 19 of those 95 wins would become losses or ties. Take away A-Rod’s 100 RBI in wins, and the Yankees lose or tie 14 of their 95. So in actuality, as far as helping the Red Sox win games with RBI, Ortiz was roughly five games more valuable than Rodriguez. Unfortunately, there are no exact stats to tell us how many wins A-Rod contributed to defensively, but I am supremely confident that over the course of the season, his Gold Glove-caliber defense was certainly worth more than those five games. (If I were Rob Neyer, I would probably have access to some statistic that would answer that for me, but I am neither as intelligent nor as resourceful as he is.)

And let’s not pretend that the DH thing only has an impact defensively. The fact is, of Big Papi’s 601 at-bats, he was completely rested for 558 of them. After an at-bat, Ortiz can go back to the training room and get a massage. He can watch film of his last at-bat and make adjustments. He can take a nap. At the least, he can sit on the bench and relax. He never makes a diving play to end an inning and then leads off for his team. He never runs around the field to be a cutoff man. He never does any of the defensive things that A-Rod does (and does well). After the last time I wrote about these two, a reader asked in the comments, “However, if Papi was given more of an opportunity to play the field, would it be a closer race?” Here is how I responded then:

I doubt it. If Ortiz played the field, two things would be different:

1) People would be discussing the fact that A-Rod is a Gold Golver and Papi is a terrible fielder.
2) Ortiz’s offensive numbers would be quite a bit lower, because he wouldn’t come to bat well-rested every time.

I have made this point in other places, and I don’t want to be called a hypocrite, so I will say it here, too: awards go to players would played the best, not the ones who could have played the best. Would A-Rod have had a better season offensively if he had been a DH the whole season? I have no doubt. But that is not what I am saying here. What I am saying is that despite all the advantages of being a full-time DH, David Ortiz still failed to out-perform Alex Rodriguez in almost every offensive category.

Bottom line: these two run pretty close offensively. Based solely on offense, you could give it to either guy and make a good choice. And because of that, the award MUST go to A-Rod because of the defense.

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