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There’s long since been a debate about what the word “value” means when applied to the Most Valuable Player award. Does the winner need to be a hitter? Shouldn’t the most valuable player be on a playoff team? But there’s no standard definition of “Most Valuable”–that is left up to the voter’s discretion, as stated by the BBWAA.
To me, the most valuable player is the best player in the league. Every player provides value–or in some cases take away value (Yuniesky Betancourt)–to their team whether they are on the Yankees or the Pirates. A win is a win, and each win is valuable–just some teams are short on wins and short on value.
But before we can dive into which player from each league actually provided the most value, we need to take a look at which stats should be taken into account, and which ones are just plain out-dated. Let’s dive in.
This is the Death of Statistics, moment of silence.
Just like pitching, the first stats that come to mind when discussing hitting are often the worst. Batting Average. Runs. RBI. All three are next-to-irrelevant when it comes to comparing two players. The problem with the first is that batting average does not paint the whole picture, while the second and third don’t actually illustrate the player’s contributions.
One of the biggest differences between baseball and any other sport is that there’s no clock. Sure, pitchers are supposed to take no more than 15 seconds between pitches, but watching just one Sox-Yankees game can debunk that myth. The point is that the only way to end the game is to record 27 outs. Therefore, the only goal at bat is to not make an out. If you don’t make an out, the game doesn’t end. And if your team never makes an out, your team never stops batting, and you win.
Batting average does not measure the ability to not make an out, it gives no value to walking. Walking after all, never results in an out, so it’s one of the best things you can do at bat. On Base Percentage is, therefore, the quintessential offensive stat. In short, OBP is life.
In the first two parts of this series, I’ve stressed moving away from statistics that are subjective or can’t be explained, but now I’ll add one more bad type: individual stats that largely depend on teammates’ play. This is where stats like RBI and runs turn sour.
RBI stem from the thought that players play differently with runners on base. To be quick, this is not true. Batters generally hit better with runners on base because pitchers are coming out of the stretch, and a pitcher who gives up baserunners is more likely to give up another baserunner than a pitcher who repeatedly gets hitters out. Over the long haul, however, hitters regress to the mean in high pressure situations; they are ultimately the same hitter they are when all is said and done.
Not only do players not change during these situations, but the RBI stat is completely dependent on how many of said situations are presented to the hitter by the player’s teammates. Over a 162-game season, Yuniesky Betancourt will have more RBI than Prince Fielder if every time he comes up to bat with the bases loaded while Prince gets empty bases. Yuni’s .271 OBP may pale in comparison to Prince’s remarkable .415 mark, but he was presented with better opportunities, so he gets more RBI.
The fallacy in runs stems from the same problem. While runs are what wins games (the real goal), the individual stat for runs is completely dependent on teammates. Once the hitter reaches base, everything else is dependent on other players. If they steal bases, the opposing battery combo plays a rather large part in whether they eventually score. Plus, it’s far from fair to penalize players for hitting in front of Edgar Renteria instead of Joey Votto.
One of the best statistics, while still imperfect, has to be WAR. Quite simply, it measures the wins added compared to a replacement-level player, or Wins Above Replacement. The result is a simple number: then number of wins the respective players adds. While the formula for calculating WAR can be complicated, it’s a rather simple process.
Here’s the skinny. For offensive WAR, take the hitter’s wOBA–a weighted on base metric–divide it by the relationship between wOBA and runs and multiply it by the relationship between runs and wins. Then, you take the player’s UZR–already measured in runs saved–and multiply it by the relationship between runs and wins. Next, you take the player’s UBR–a similar measure to UZR, only dealing with runs added through baserunning–and multiply it by the relationship between runs and wins. Lastly, a positional weight is added since corner positions have a better replacement-level player than up-the-middle players.
While there are still faults with the stat (take for example the toughness of quantifying the gravity of a great defensive catcher), WAR is a fairly encompassing stat that is great for comparing players. WAR isn’t a good way to check if a trade is fair, especially if younger players are involved, but when debating between which player had a better season, it’s about as good of a metric as you’ll find.
While weeding through the garden that is the world of statistics, it’s time to turn our attention back to the MVP awards. For the AL, a pitcher was awarded MVP for the first time since 1992, including the first time it was awarded to a starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1986. Personally, I think pitchers are quite viable candidates, but this year the voters did not pick the most valuable player of 2011.
There were three clear candidates for AL MVP: Justin Verlander, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Jose Bautista. There’s the clear-cut Cy Young winner, up-and-coming superstar, and the masher on a non-contender. What ended up actually happening was the voters put a large stock in the play of teammates into an individual award. This isn’t an award for the best player on a good team, it really is more of an award for “Which Player Would You Want To Base Your Team Around Given This Season’s Production.” And with that being said, there’s no way you should factor in the play of teammates for this award.
But even if you did say that your team should raise or lower your standing for this award, there are several flaws in the argument for Verlander. For one, if you say the Blue Jays would be bad without Bautista, I could retort with the fact that the Red Sox and Tigers would still be good without Ellsbury and Verlander. Furthermore, Bautista literally brought the Blue Jays up from a losing team to a .500 team.
Even if you talk about meaningful games being played, Bautista gains an advantage over Verlander. The Tigers ended the season 15 games above the next-best finisher in the woeful AL Central (where no other team managed even a .500 season), while the Blue Jays were only ten games out of the wild card. Ergo Bautista brought his team closer to the playoffs that Verlander separated his team from the next-best team.
Another argument for Verlander is the number of batters he faces in a season (969), which is much more than Ellsbury, who leads the league in plate appearances, or Bautista ever reached the plate (732 and 655). I believe these figures are misleading, though. That’s only accounting for Ellsbury and Bautista’s offensive impact, which is half of their games. The pair had 394 and 333 chances at balls, which puts their total batters faced at 1126 and 988. Oh, and Verlander only pitched in 34 games, not even 21% of Detroit’s games.
Ultimately, this award should come down to which player preformed the best. Of the trio, Ellsbury had by far the highest WAR (9.4) followed by Bautista (8.3) and Verlander (7.0). But while WAR paints a great picture, it doesn’t cover the whole story. As I’ve stated before, On Base Percentage is by far the best offensive measure, and one player is far and away the best: Jose Bautista.
Leading the league in on-base for nearly the entire season, Bautista posted an incredible .447 OBP. Production like that is irreplaceable for any team; he kept his team in the game by not producing an out nearly half the time. Not only that, but he put up incredible power numbers, leading the league in ISO by a good distance–he posted a .306 ISO followed by Curtis Granderson and Mike Stanton at .290 and .275 respectively. He was versatile in the field and smart on the basepaths.
In the end, the case can easily be made for Ellsbury for MVP, but I prefer the .447 to .376 OBP advantage. Bautista is an absolute force at the plate and a nightmare for any pitcher. Last year, many (including myself at times) thought he was a mirage, but this season validated his greatness with a .069 boost in OBP, 2.3 boost in UZR, and finally a 1.5 boost in WAR.
The oddest part to me, thought, of the AL MVP conversation was the swing of support in the last week for Jacoby Ellsbury. On the fourth to last game, Ellsbury launched a go ahead 3-run homer against the Yankees in the 14th inning against Scott Proctor–a pitcher with a 10.80 ERA at the time. That shot nearly won Boston the pennant, and consequently the MVP award. Then, the very next night, he dropped a deep fly ball by Robert Andino, which turned into an inside the park home run, consequently nearly losing him the MVP. But what did him in with the voters was the Red Sox missing out on the playoffs. Had the Red Sox beaten the Rays one more time, he’d have been the runaway favorite. And that’s not what value is.
The National League, on the other hand, didn’t have such a controversial pick. Although I disagree with Ryan Braun over Matt Kemp, there were valid reasons for both side. They put up nearly identical astounding OBPs (.399 and .397 respectively), nearly identical massive power numbers (.265 and .262 ISOs), nearly identical running numbers (3.3 and 2.9 UBRs), and nearly identical poor fielding numbers (-3.8 and -4.6 UZRs).
Similarly to Ellsbury and Bautista, what ultimately did Kemp in was his lack of good teammates. Milwaukee won the Central by 6 games, and the Dodgers finished 6.5 games out of the Wild Card. But what’s even stranger than that, is how close to winning the MVP he was but for 8 hits.
If Matt Kemp had 8 more hits over the whole season–that’s 3 every two months–he would’ve taken home the Triple Crown for the first time in 44 years, including 74 years since Joe Medwick last brought it home for the NL. Belonging to such prestigious company would have undoubtedly launched Kemp to the top of nearly every ballot. But do those 8 hits really mean so much to his season? I’m sure you could pick out 8 error calls, trap plays, and bang-bang plays that should have gone his way with less than an hour of watching film. Eight hits should not an MVP make.
The stats were close, but Kemp played a tougher position, ran better, and put up more home run power. But Ryan Braun knows why he won, and he divulged the main reason in an interview with MLB Network: “There are multiple candidates who I believe were deserving. I think ultimately, the reason I won is because they put a better team around me. Without a doubt, that’s a huge reason that I was lucky enough to win this award.”
So the question comes to you: what is value? Being placed in the right situation, or just producing the most over a long season. You can’t take what teammates do into account for individual stats and individual awards, which has become an unhealthy problem for voters and fans over the past decade. So please, when you look at the back of your next baseball card, give each stat a second thought.
This is the Death of Statistics, moment of silence.
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