Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Twelve Simple Rules

In the comments to yesterday's post about the Colorado-San Diego game, I opined that this year's slate of NL MVP candidates was "thin." ShysterBall reader Osmodious had this to say in response:
I guess I'd need to think a bit more about what your definition of a 'thin field' of MVP candidates constitutes. Based on the past several years, I think this is actually a tough field to figure...there's J Rollins, Prince Fielder, Holliday, David Wright, etc.

And he makes a good point. "Thin" was a poor choice of words on my part. There are a whole bunch of candidates this year. What I was trying to get at was the fact that there isn't a slam dunk candidate like A-Rod in the NL, which makes things difficult to figure. Most people are guessing that either Holliday or Rollins will win it, though Prince Fielder, David Wright, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and even Jake Peavy have their advocates. How to sort all of it out?

Luckily, five years ago, a real smart fella came up with a system for figuring out how the BBWAA picks MVP winners, thus clearing up these murky waters. That smart fella was me, and in support of the Red Sox' recently announced efforts to increase recycling, we will now revisit that keen and insightful analysis.

Based on previous years’ voting, here's what seem to be the BBWAA's guiding rules:

Rule #1: Only the best players on playoff teams shall be considered for the MVP. Like this year, Alex Rodriguez was the best player in the AL in 2005 for a Yankees team that made the playoffs. It’s very simple: carry your team to the playoffs on the strength of a superior offensive season, 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 2006 Phillies and the 2001 Giants did not make the playoffs, Ryan Howard and Barry Bonds were named MVPs due to standout years at the plate.

Rule #3: If you play for a team that is in the race until the the end of the season but falls just short despite your outstanding year, you can pretty much kiss the MVP award goodbye, because the voters hate chokers.

Rule #4: For purposes of Rule #3, please forget that Jim Rice won the MVP in 1978.

Rule #5: Even an outstanding player who would normally win the award pursuant to Rule #2 will not be considered for MVP if his team finishes way the hell out of the running. This is why Derek Lee didn't win in 2005 and Alex Rodriguez didn't win in 2001 even though both players were likely the best in their respective leagues in those years. Those Cubs finished 21 games out and those Rangers were 43 games back and in dead last place. You certainly can't be considered "valuable" under such circumstances, can you?

Rule #6: For purposes of Rule #5, please forget that Andre Dawson won the MVP in 1987 while playing for the last-place Chicago Cubs. After all, if a guy who didn’t even break a .900 OPS in "The Year of the Home Run" could win the MVP, surely Lee and Rodriguez would have won it in their years, right?

Rule #7: 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 Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez were denied MVPs in multiple years despite winning the pitcher’s Triple Crown and carrying flawed teams to the playoffs.

Rule #8: For purposes of Rule #7, please forget that Lefty Grove was the first winner of the BBWAA’s MVP award in 1931. Also please forget that Roger Clemens won the MVP in 1986, after leading more talented Red Sox teams to the playoffs and not quite winning the pitcher’s Triple Crown despite playing in a lower offensive context than either Martinez or Santana did.

Rule #9: Disregard Rules #7 and #8 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. This rule explains Dennis Eckersley in 1992, Willie Hernandez in 1984, and Rollie Fingers in 1981.

Rule #10: 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. That's simply crazy.

Rule # 11: For purposes of Rule #10, please forget that Justin Morneau wasn't as good as Mauer or Santana last year, that Ichiro wasn't as good as Brett Boone or Edgar Martinez in 2001, or that Barry Bonds was much better than Jeff Kent in 2000.

Rule #12: The wild card rule, in which writers are allowed to insert any crazy-ass irrational bias they feel like to either sink an otherwise worthy MVP candidate or exalt one who is unworthy. While each writer is only allowed one wild card per year, there are three possible grounds for playing it:

  • There's the "I hate that sonofabitch" card, 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 gyp-job that robbed Albert Belle in 1995;

  • There's the "player X, what a story!" card, in which the candidacies of quotable, lovable and/or chubby players who smile a lot like Pudge Rodriguez in 1999, Mo Vaughn in 1995, or Terry Pendleton in 1991 are given greater weight than is otherwise warranted; and

  • There's the "player X's accomplishments are illegitimate" card. This is a somewhat newer card, which had its shakedown cruise in connection with McGwire's Hall of Fame vote and was refined yesterday in the NL Comeback Player of the Year vote, in which Rick Ankiel's absence was notable. As we'll see below, there are reasons other than PEDs to play this card, though PEDs will likely reign supreme as the rule develops.

Now let’s see how these rules apply to this year’s MVP races!

The American League is easy. A-Rod carried the Yankees on his back for most of the year and made the playoffs. He's a Rule #1 candidate, and when you have a Rule #1 candidate, he's going to win most of the time. No one else is seriously part of this conversation.

The National League requires a more exacting application of these rules.

Matt Holliday: By leading the league in batting and RBIs, and by being the best player on a team which made the most dramatic of entrances into the playoffs, he's the closest thing to a Rule #1 candidate in the NL. At this moment, I think Holliday wins it.

Still, he's by no means a lock the way in which A-Rod is over in the AL. His batting and RBI leads were razor thin, and that leads us to a Rule #12 situation: the Coors effect. The chants of "M-V-P!" aside, the writers are likely to give Holliday's numbers a Coors discount, even if they will probably discount for Coors a bit too much (Citizens Bank Park and Chase Field are more hitter friendly this year). Once the magic of Monday night wears off, some writers will look at Holliday and wonder if he was really all that more valuable than Ryan Howard or Chipper Jones for that matter, who basically aped Holliday's season to much less fanfare.

And what about that win on Monday night? While some have mentioned his adventures in left field -- which is one of the reasons the game went into extra innings in the first place -- twenty-four hours later, most people have come to the conclusion that Holliday was out at home in the bottom of the 13th. Added Rule #12 demerits? Maybe. Writers have to take their displeasure out on someone, and it's not like they have any votes to withhold from Tim McClelland.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that, while Holliday is still a #1, he's about as soft a #1 as there's been for many years. That leaves the door open for. . .

Jimmy Rollins: A sexy choice. His presence in the 20-20-20-20, etc. club notwithstanding, he's not a Rule #1 or a Rule #2 candidate. Sure, all of those 20s are fun, but they're basically a fun trick of the light obscuring the fact that the man is twenty-third in OPS this year. He didn't even lead shortstops. At the same time, Rollins would also seem to be a Rule #10 casualty in that Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were far more valuable this year on his own team.

Not that there aren't some Rules in his favor. With the Morneau example looming large in recent memory, Rule #11 helps Jimmy out a lot. Despite Utley and Howard's performances, enough people have said that Rollins was the most valuable that by now no amount of arguing is going to convince them otherwise.

But if Rollins is to win, it will be Rule #12 that puts him over the top. Unlike Holliday, the wild cards are in Rollins favor based on his brash pre-season statements about how the Phillies were "the team to beat." Setting aside the fact that happened months and months ago, many voters will cite that as evidence of Rollins' leadership even if, in reality, they're just thanking him for providing column-fodder. There isn't a lot going on during those days between the end of the season and beginning of the playoffs, and many writers were able to fill the void by recounting Rollins' brag. They'll thank him for it.

David Wright and Prince Fielder: Both would have been #1s if their teams had helped them out even a little bit. Each did everything they could to carry their team on their back, but by not making it over the line -- spectacularly so in Wright's case -- they are sunk by Rule #3. There's no way to check this, but I think that both Fielder and Wright will get fewer votes than they would have received if their teams had each finished ten or twelve games out.

Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols: I lump these guys together because each of them had wonderful seasons by any standard other than that which they had previously set for themselves. While not the most important of wild cards, expectations matter in the Rule #12 calculus, and each of these sluggers' vote totals will be lower than the same numbers from mere mortals would otherwise receive. In Howard's case, Rule #10 will will work against him with extreme prejudice even while Rollins gets a pass on this. Not as brash or twentyriffic as Rollins, voters will look at Howard and Chase Utley's identical .976 OPSs (if they look at OPS) and split their votes based on whether they think going 1-3 with two strikeouts and a homer every night (Howard) is worse than not striking out while on the disabled list for a month (Utley).

Others: Jake Peavy won the pitchers' triple crown and was, by far, the most valuable Padre this year, but he will (and should) get far less love than either Pedro or Johan received in their big years, setting the new gold standard for the application of Rule #7. Neither Chipper Jones' Braves nor Hanley Ramirez's and Miguel Cabrera's Marlins were good enough to be penalized by Rule #3, but nor were they good enough to be serious #2 candidates.

So you see; with the simple application of some simple rules, we're able to divine this year's MVP. Enjoy the certainty you have reached on this subject as the playoffs unfold, and be confident that these rules will last forever and ever.

(For purposes of that last paragraph, please forget that the writers will change the rules again next year).


JDB said...

Great stuff...I think you're right: Holliday over Rollins is how the vote shakes out.

Osmodious said...

Interesting 'rules'...though they seem to be based more on 'precedent' than on a pure analysis of what *should* be the criteria (I guess this is the difference between the views of an analyst and those of a lawyer? :-).

Every season I struggle with the whole MVP thing. I try to come up with some qualitative (or quantitative) analysis of a player's raw value...but it just feels wrong to me, maybe because this is a sport where the vaunted 'intangibles' are both important and impossible to quantify. Since most of us don't get a vote, trying to figure out how the voters usually go is as good a way as any to try to figure out who will win.

But, then again, the beauty of baseball is that we can ignore those precedents and attempt to define our own MVP criteria (to ID the 'should win' rather than the 'will win'). There *are* some statistics that can help here (VORP, WARP and such...and what about great forgotten stats like 'Productive Outs'?), but numbers will only take you so far. Basing it on purely voting is rough, too, for the reasons you outlined in your post...popularity contests rarely allow the cream to rise.

Short story: I was away from the game for a long time, coming back and falling in love again in the late 90's. Being a Yankee fan, I was immediately turned off by all the hype on Derek Jeter...I couldn't stand him right off because of it. But then I started watching every day, and I slowly realized that the hype was all wrong...this guy isn't a superstar, he may be the best pure all around baseball player of his generation (not just skill, talent and work...he's got a baseball BRAIN, constantly weighing every variable available, and he plays 100% every inning of every game).

My point? Perhaps the only people fit to judge who is the most valuable player for their team are those that watch (and analyze) every day.

Of course, that really doesn't help with an overall MVP, because most of us are, according to the above, unqualified to judge those of other teams.

Shyster said...

Osmodious --

It is a sticky wicket, isn't it? I struggle too, and there have probably been as many occasions over the past 20 years where I have been a supporter of a guy who just sort of feels like an MVP as occasions when I have been behind the clear statistical leader.

It's a tough year. To me it's a tossup between Holliday and Prince Fielder. Hard for me to choose between them because I really don't blame Fielder for the Brewers not making it into the playoffs -- if anything he was the only reason they stayed so close for so long. Ultimately I think I would lean towards Fielder due to a very slight Coors discount on Holliday (but nothing like the discount most writers will be inclined to apply). In the end, though, I acknowledge that I am probably biased by having seen Fielder more than Holliday, and by the knowledge that I think Fielder will be the better player going forward for many years. No, it shouldn't have anything to do with it (MVP is for THIS year) but I'm almost incapable of ignoring it.