Friday, September 27, 2002

The Rules of the Game

By the time the regular season ends this Sunday, the members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America will have shipped their MVP ballots off to whatever unindicted accounting house remains to tally them. For those unaware of or confused by the BBWAA's criteria for selecting the MVP, allow me to lay out what -- based on previous years’ voting -- seem to be the guiding rules:

Rule #1: Only the best players on playoff teams shall be considered for the MVP. Chipper Jones won the National League MVP in 1999, even though he was perhaps only the third-best player in the league that year. This was because the two players who arguably had better seasons than Jones -- Larry Walker and Mark McGwire -- played for teams that were well out of the race by the time September rolled around. Jones, meanwhile, shone as his Braves won a tightly-contested race for the division title. It’s very simple: carry your team to the playoffs, and you’re the MVP.

Rule #2: The carry-your-team-to-the-playoffs requirement will be set aside for players who give truly outstanding performances on non-playoff teams. Even though the 2001 Giants did not make the playoffs, Barry Bonds was named MVP after smashing most of the records for offensive performance, including the record for most home runs in a season.

Rule #3: Even an outstanding player will not be considered for MVP if his team finishes in last place. This is why Alex Rodriguez was denied the award in 2001, and will probably be denied again, even though he has made everyone reassess everything they thought they knew about the shortstop position.

Rule #4: Forget that Andre Dawson won the MVP in 1987 while playing for the last-place Chicago Cubs. If a guy who didn’t even break .900 OPS in "The Year of the Home Run" could win the MVP, surely Rodriguez would have won it last year, right?

Rule #5: If a pitcher delivers an MVP-worthy performance, ignore it, even though the official voting rules state that pitchers should be considered. Pitchers, you see, have their own award, so forward-thinking members of the BBWAA may feel justified in excluding them.

This explains why Pedro Martinez didn’t get the MVP in 1999, despite winning the pitcher’s Triple Crown (leading the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA) and carrying a seriously flawed Boston Red Sox team to the playoffs.

Rule #6: Forget that Roger Clemens won the MVP in 1986, after leading a talented Red Sox team to the playoffs and nearly winning the pitcher’s Triple Crown. After all, if a pitcher with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts in a low-offense year could win the MVP, surely Pedro Martinez would have won with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts in a banner offensive year.

Bonus points for those who remember that pitcher Lefty Grove was the first winner of the BBWAA’s MVP award in 1931. Now, for the sake of consistency, forget that too. Of course, if you can remember the 1931 season, you're probably old enough to forget that on your own.

Rule #7: Disregard Rule #5 if the pitcher in question is able to hold a three-run lead in the ninth inning of every third game or so. If he can do this, he is magically transformed into a "closer" and is rewarded with his very own statistic, the save. Do not, under any circumstances, keep in mind that saves are just a measure of opportunity, and that some relievers routinely hold one-run leads in the seventh or eighth innings. These relievers have no special stat like saves, and therefore must be worthless. This rule explains Dennis Eckersley in 1992, Willie Hernandez in 1984, and Rollie Fingers in 1981.

Rule #8: Simple logic dictates that under no circumstances should someone be given the MVP if he is not even the best player on his own team. But set logic aside when you don't care for the better player (as when Barry Bonds lost to Jeff Kent in 2000), or when giving the award to the inferior player would make for a feel-good story (as when Ichiro beat out Brett Boone in 2001).

Rule #9: Finally, voters should keep in mind the all-important "I hate that sonofabitch" rule which dictates that players who are cold and aloof to reporters should not get the award no matter how amazing a season they have. This rule explains the numerous slights to Ted Williams (particularly 1941) and the seeming gyp-job that robbed Albert Belle in 1995. The corollary to this rule is that when you're screwing an otherwise worthy candidate, the award should go to a loveable and/or chubby player who smiles a lot and gives great quotes, like Ivan Rodriguez in 1999, Mo Vaughn in 1995, or Terry Pendleton in 1991.

Now let’s see how the rules apply to this year’s MVP races:

National League

If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you know how I feel about Barry Bonds. In my humble opinion, he’s the greatest player in baseball today, the greatest since Ted Williams retired, and except for The Babe and Williams, the greatest player of all time.

Not all the members of the BBWAA agree. Or if they do agree, they apparently have other reasons not to vote for Bonds.

But with Bonds having another phenomenal year, and with the Giants slowly but surely putting the Dodgers away, the writers may have no choice but to go with Rule #1 and give Barry his fifth MVP award (it should be his seventh, but that’s a subject for another rant).

Bonds is doing so well that even if the G-Men choke down the stretch, he should land the MVP according to Rule #2. But I don’t think Bonds is a lock unless the Giants win the division. The writers will blame any choke jobs on him. They'll criticize him for not hitting another 73 home runs, they'll say that he somehow failed to lead his team to victory, and they'll screw him out of the award even though San Francisco would never have sniffed 85 wins without his bat.

In that case, John Smoltz would get some consideration pursuant to Rule #7, Jeff Kent pursuant to Rule #8, and Shawn Green, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, and Sammy Sosa pursuant to Rule #9. Call it a gut feeling, but if the Dodgers pass the giants, it’s Shawn Green’s to lose.

Notably absent from most writers’ ballots, however, will be Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who are perhaps the best Rule #6 Clemens-exception candidates in many a year, with the two of them carrying Arizona to the division title almost all by themselves. One or both of them will win the Cy Young Award this year, and most writers will consider that enough, according to Rule #5. For my part, I’d list them second and third on my ballot if I had one, and no, I don’t know which of them I would put second and which of them third.

American League

Based on things I’ve read, there appear to be only three serious Rule #1 candidates in the American League this year: Alfonso Soriano and Jason Giambi of the Yankees, and the A’s Miguel Tejada. Let’s break ‘em down:

Soriano: Pro: He’s having a breakout season on the league’s marquee team, and by season’s end will have joined the vaunted 40-40 club. (Digression: given that home runs are far more important than stolen bases, wouldn’t you rather have a player be in the 50-20 club, or the 45-30 club? 40-40 only gets play because it sounds cool. It’s really a junk stat. End of digression.)

Soriano is an exciting player whose non-traditional talents -- most notably power for a second baseman -- make him this year’s Ichiro to many voters. Con: Rule #8 issues. Not only is he not the best player on his team, he’s not even the second best player on his team, with Giambi and the MVP-buzzless Bernie Williams both playing better all year. Yeah, a lot of life is based on exceeding expectations rather than actual greatness, and Soriano has certainly exceeded expectations, but if he wins the MVP award this year you have my permission to ignore all future MVP awards the way you would any other beauty contest.

Giambi: Pro: Came to New York and handled the heat where many previous free agent acquisitions have melted. Con: Some writers probably still don’t like that he left Oakland for the greenbacks and may hold it against him as a form of quasi-Rule #9 protest. And though he has had a good year, it hasn’t been quite as good as his previous two. In other words, what the expectations game giveth in the case of Soriano, it taketh away in the case of Giambi. Indeed, both Yankees will be hamstrung by the perception that they aren’t true Rule #1 candidates. The Yankees are supposed to win their division every year; no single player seems to make a big difference. Number of Yankees’ playoff appearances since their mid-90s rise: 8; Number of MVPs in that time: 0. Sorry Jason and Alfonso, it ain’t gonna be you.

Tejada: The fashionable choice, with some high-profile hits in some important games. Sure, the A’s miraculous second-half comeback has more to do with the day-to-day brilliance of Oakland's pitchers. But during that 20-game win streak, all you heard about was Tejada’s late-inning heroics. If the writers pick a Rule #1 candidate this year, it’s going to be Tejada. Tejada has been the Big Story, never mind that he is currently ranked 20th -- 20th! – in OPS in the American League this year. Rule #1 has always allowed a little wriggle room if the winner happens to play for a playoff team, but Tejada is in Eric Hinske and Jacque Jones territory. If you had to think for a minute before you could remember which teams those guys play for, you shouldn’t seriously consider Tejada for the MVP.

With those three pretenders out of the way, we’re left with only one serious choice for MVP, and that’s Rule #2 candidate and the poster boy for abolishing Rule #3, Alex Rodriguez. Sure, he'll only see the playoffs this year if he buys a ticket, but that’s not his fault. A-Rod will hit close to 60 home runs. A-Rod has played the best shortstop in baseball. A-Rod has showed up and played every single game this season even though his teammates have been mailing it in since May, and he is the single biggest reason that the Rangers haven’t been a complete embarrassment in the phenomenally competitive AL West. In short, there is nobody better than A-Rod, and nobody nearly as valuable in the American League.

Gee, it's too bad the pre-2002 collective bargaining agreement was such a disaster; otherwise, justice would demand that A-Rod make more money than anyone else in the game.