On Notice: MVP Voters

By | November 23, 2006

I had a feeling when I made my “On Notice” list last week that the people who vote for baseball’s postseason awards (the Baseball Writers Association of America, or BBWAA) would soon be joining. These are people who get paid to watch and write about baseball, yet they are often so fundamentally flawed that they can’t pick these awards correctly. That has been displayed again in the past couple days.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think they are always wrong. I don’t think that my opinions are necessarily more valid than anyone else’s just by virtue of being mine. But I DO believe that a solid understanding of the game of baseball would be a powerful arrow if added to the quiver of these baseball writers, and until they obtain that understanding, my opinions will continue to have a bit more fact to back them up.

Last year, we saw this in action when Bartolo Colon won the American League Cy Young Award even though Johan Santana was CLEARLY the best pitcher in the league. Colon led the league in wins, so he won the Cy Young. It was a simple, and as simply incorrect, as that. Of course, by attaching a team statistic (wins) to an individual (pitchers), baseball is just asking for it to be overvalued.

This year, the voters got the Cy Young Awards right, or at least not demonstrably wrong. Due to the mediocrity of the National League, there were two or four or six guy who could have gotten the NL award without too much evidence for or against. It ended up going to Brandon Webb, after I had said:

I think I have to give the edge to [Roy] Oswalt, but I would have absolutely no arguments with someone voting for Webb. Heck, if I were writing this on a different day, I might vote for Webb myself.

In the American League, there was truly only one choice — the same choice the voters missed last year. This year, though, they got it right, with every single voter putting Santana first on the ballot. It sure was nice of Roy Halladay and all the other contenders to take themselves out of the running.

But then we get to the Most Valuable Player Award. The main confusion about the MVP comes in understanding the award itself. The Cy Young is for the player who pitched the best (in theory). The MVP is for, as the name suggests, the most VALUABLE player. So does that mean the best player on the best team? Does it mean the player with the most home runs or RBI? Does it mean the most inspirational player, regardless of whether the team was any good? And the crazy thing is, it has meant all these things at one time or another.

My definition of the MVP is the player who provided the most value to his team. This does not require that the team be great — just that it is quite a bit better than it would have been without him. It DOES require a bit of statistical dominance, as long as you are looking at statistics that accurately measure an individual’s contributions. It requires some comparison to other players at the same position, because the value of a shortstop is intrinsically different from the value of a first baseman. And it requires a bit of non-numerical understanding of some aspects of the game that don’t show up reliably in any stats: defense, baserunning, leadership, etc.

And the voters got both leagues wrong this year. I’ll start with the National League, because I believe a case can be made for Ryan Howard — I just believe that the case for Albert Pujols is much stronger. Let’s start by listing all the areas in which Pujols is clearly ahead of Howard: defense, baserunning, batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. Now let’s go with the areas where Howard is ahead of Pujols: home runs and RBI. So how did Howard get the nod over Pujols? Well, there is a significant subsection of the voters who are so in love with the HR and RBI stats that those alone were enough to earn the award. And then there is the common notion that Howard put the Phillies on his shoulders and almost carried them to the postseason.

I’m not going to spend much time explaining why HR and RBI alone aren’t enough to make you the most valuable player to your team. With regards to homers, let’s make it short by saying that I’d take a 4-for-4 with four run-scoring singles over a 1-for-4 with a solo homer any day. As for RBI, any stat that favors a guy who has better hitters surrounding him in the lineup is not an accurate gauge as an individual statistic. Sometimes the guys with the most HR and RBI are actually the best hitters in the league, but sometimes they’re not.

Now let’s talk about the idea that Howard carried the Phillies to the brink of the playoffs. This argument, when used to promote Howard over Pujols, implies that Pujols did NOT carry his team. Unfortunately, the statistics — which represent real facts — do not support that idea, for two main reasons:

  1. Howard had better hitters around him in the lineup.

    Albert Pujols led the Cardinals in virtually every offensive category (Scott Rolen had more doubles, but that’s about it). Other than Pujols, no one in the Cardinals’ lineup who had over 300 at-bats batted over .300 or had an on-base percentage over .370 or had a slugging percentage over .520 or hit more than 22 homers. There were only three guys in the lineup who had over 500 at-bats, and one of them was Juan Encarnacion, for crying out loud.

    By contrast, Howard had three teammates who hit at least 25 homers, four teammates with an OBP over .370, and one teammate who slugged .527. The Phillies’ lineup was not great, but it was better than the Cardinals.

  2. Howard was not nearly as good as Pujols in clutch situations.

    Howard batted .256 with runners in scoring position; with RISP and two outs, that average dropped to .247. Pujols’ batting averages in those situations were .397 and .435, respectively. Howard had 38 more at-bats with RISP than Pujols, but drove in five fewer runs in those at-bats. Over the course of the season, Pujols came up to bat with 420 teammates on base; he drove in 88 of them (21%). Howard came up with 502 teammates on base and drove in 91 of them (18%). Howard struck out 95 times in 352 plate appearances with runners on (27%); Pujols struck out 16 times in 298 PA with runners on (5%).

    Based on the numbers, if Pujols had had as many opportunities to drive in runs as Howard (see point #1), Pujols would have driven in somewhere between 17 and 26 more runs than he did, which would have put him well ahead of Howard.

So there you have it. Albert Pujols should have been MVP. I think Howard also benefited from the “he’s only in his second year~!” factor, but when you consider the fact that he is actually two months OLDER than Pujols, that shouldn’t have come into play. You can make a case for Howard, but that case can easily be shot down. There is no way he should have won the award.

Tomorrow (or sometime soon), I will explain why Justin Morneau was a lousy choice in the American League.

2 thoughts on “On Notice: MVP Voters

  1. Steven Gardner

    I think you make a strong case for Pujols’ value this year. I think he got hurt because everyone expected the Cardinals to be better than they were. Remember, this award is supposed to be for the regular season, not the post. The Cardinals barely made the playoffs after leading by so much for so long. I don’t remember what the expectations of the Phillies were. Besides the long ball, the other factor Howard had in his favor was that he was a surprise. People are ho-hum about Pujols’ exploits any more, because we expect it of him. All that said. You’re right. Pujols should have won.

    Now, Kirk Gibson was the legitimate MVP over Darryl Strawberry in 1988 despite the fact that his numbers were far worse, because in the regular season no player meant more to his team that Gibson. I bring this example up again and again and again because there are times when the numbers don’t mean as much as things we may not easily quantify, like making it to home from second on a passed ball.

  2. Generic Sara

    Hey! I want to know why Justin Morneau was a lousy choice for AL MVP! If you say that Jeter should have won, I shall heartily disagree with you EVEN MORE! (But I won’t back up my argument, because it mainly consists of “I hate the Yankees and their giant payroll.”)

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