Wednesday, June 11, 2008

MVP-ness

In the recaps this morning I said "More than anyone else in baseball, [Pujols is] the guy whose team would be the most screwed if they had to play without him for a spell." In the comments, reader mahnu.uterna asked me "In your philosophy, does this status = MVP-ness?" I touched on that a little bit last week and posted a comment of my own this morning, but a lot of people don't remember last week and a lot of people don't read the comments, so I'll answer it again.

The short answer is, um, sotra but not really. I think the whole "whose team would be the most screwed without him" analysis can be a helpful thought experiment, but it has its limitations in picking the MVP. For one thing, as someone -- maybe Yogi Berra, but maybe not -- once said, if you truly looked at things that way, you'd be giving the MVP to the catcher every year because without him you'd have a lot of passed balls.

More seriously speaking, that approach requires us -- if we're being truly honest as opposed to engaging in hyperbole -- to think about what would actually happen if, say, Albert Pujols wasn't there. Isn't it possible that for every MVP candidate, there is some Gehrigsque player behind him just waiting to Pipp him? Sure, no one is likely to step in for St. Louis and rake like Albert Pujols does, but then again, when Pujols came up nobody thought he'd hit as well as Bobby Bonilla. The point is that looking at things through the prism of "whose absence would hurt his team the most" is a tough thing to do if we're really being serious, because we simply can't know the full answer to that question. At least without engaging in an even wider-range analysis. I don't know about you, but to me, analyzing potential minor league replacements or potential trade scenarios when thinking about the MVP is mission creep.

Because of that, I prefer to look at both that amorphous "replaceability" analysis and winning. Yes, the Cards will be screwed if Albert Pujols' injury turns out to be serious, but they could be screwed anyway. What if they lost 70% of the rest of their games because the pitching staff explodes? If Pujols is healthy and keeps raking like he has been, he's still probably the guy whose team would have been the most screwed without him because he's still, relatively speaking, the most important guy on that team. I'd have a hard time giving him the MVP, however, because relative value or not, I feel like the stakes still have to matter. Simply put, I'd prefer the MVP to go to a guy whose team won something or came close most of the time.

It's kind of a messy, hybrid approach to it, but I have a hierarchy in mind when I think about the MVP that sort of goes like this:

1. Identify the top couple of statistical performers from the season. Yes, pitchers count;

2. Separate the ones that are on contenders;

3. Of those, make a quasi qualitative judgment -- a gut call really -- based on who did better late, who was the better all around player, etc. Basically, who, among the top performers on the contenders, just sort of feels like the MVP. The statheads are cringing now. That's OK, though, because they're cute when they're outraged;

4. Qualitative stuff like that can be hard, of course, so if it's really close, get out your spreadsheet and really break down who of the two or three contender candidates was truly better. Some prefer to do this earlier in the process, so that they're only discussing the best players in the league. Maybe that makes more sense. I just don't like to do it that way.
Most of the time, the MVP will show himself via that process. Sometimes he won't, though, either because the best teams are made up of many, many high performers, none of whom stand out among league leaders -- think the 1998 Yankees of 2008 Cubs so far -- or because there is a league leader type who puts up a historic or semi-historic season for a team that didn't do so well. That last group of people gets talked about a lot -- you'll hear it about Josh Hamilton and Lance Berkman this year -- but I want to be clear: I'm not just talking about the RBI leader here. I'm talking about a transcendent or record setting kind of year from someone on a losing team. That simply doesn't happen very often because truly historic seasons tend to help teams win a lot of games. When it does, you'll probably know it.

Two additional rules:

5. Barring odd things like war service, career-threatening injuries, or fighting cancer or something, I give no credit to anything anyone did the year before or the year before that. What I mean is, I don't subscribe to the idea that Player X shouldn't win the MVP because he won it last year or that Player Y should win it because he had a "break out" year, even if he wasn't the best. Basketball is awful about that, but it happens in baseball too. I only care about the season in front of me. And now that I think about, it I'm reluctant to even count the cancer or the war service. There are other honors which cover those things.

6. I don't sweat it as much as most people do. Every fall there are 10 million words written about who should or shouldn't be the MVP. There are years using my system, such as it is, in which I'll get it wrong. Guess what? Four months later Spring Training starts again and it really doesn't matter.
So that's my super duper highly original system. I'm guessing that about 80% of the people who actually vote on the thing approach it that way. We just notice it more when a small handful of guys vote for some crazy person.

13 comments:

mahnu.uterna said...

I didn't realize it until just now, but when you say "MVP-ness" out loud, it sounds like a continuation of the Clemens-Viagra story. Maybe we should have called it "MVP-esque-itude"?

Craig Calcaterra said...

Actually, MVP-ness was what they used to call the peformer of the year award at the adult video awards.

mahnu.uterna said...

And now we know the *real* reason Mrs. Shyster doesn't let you out on the weekends! ;-)

Scott said...

In 2001 Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi were clearly the two best hitters in the league, almost exactly equally productive, and well ahead of everyone else. Becuase Arod did it at short and Giambi did it at first, Arod was pretty clearly the most valuable player. But because the pitchers on his team couldn't get anyone out, he finished sixth in the voting. Texas had the worst ERA in the league, never contended, and therefore Arod was an afterthought. I don't understand that line of thinking. (Ichiro got the MVP. I guess looking back, we should be glad it wasn't Giambi, who finished second.)

Craig Calcaterra said...

Scott -- In 2001, Giambi finished first in OBP and Slugging, and finoished with an OPS more than 100 points higher than Rodriguez, and his team finished nearly 30 games ahead of A-Rod's in the standings.

Does the fact that Rodriguez played shortstop matter? Sure it does. Does it make up for those differences? I'm inclined to say no, and that holds true whether or not ARod was actually more productive than Giambi using sophisticated measures because I think winning is a part of the flavor of the award.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not followin that old anti-A-Rod line about him not being "clutch" or his accomplishments not mattering somehow because he's on a bad team or something. I'm just trying to acknowledge the fact that, historically speaking, the MVP has been associated with players on winning teams, and over the course of that history, we have come to view the award as something of a signpost as to what happened in a given season, regardless of who was more productive, technically speaking.

That said, I agree that choosing Ichiro was a joke, of course.

Justin Zeth said...

+1 for use of the phrase "mission creep".

Scott said...

Craig, I looked at some of those newfangled stats over at Baseball Prospectus. According to them, all things considered, it was a dead heat between Arod and JGi. Arod played more games so that gave him a boost in the BP counting stats. He also had the better haircut.

Osmodious said...

I do not claim to have anything close to 'the answer' on the whole MVP thing, but I've always tried to look at the value equation from a holistic view...it's not just offensive numbers or pure stats.

For example, you mention in #5 that "there are other honors which cover those things" when talking about the extra-curricular influences on player performance. I would point out that there are also other honors which cover things like pure hitting and fielding. Why give a guy an MVP because he was the best hitter in the league? They have the Silver Slugger for that (ditto the Gold Glove and fielding).

The big problem I always have is that the name of the award is "Valuable", that means that that player provided the most value to the whole team, regardless of position, statistics or ink. Now, a couple years back, the Yankees had Aaron Small, making league minimum, pitch a third of a season brilliantly...last year they had Clemens, making more money than Oprah, pitch a mediocre half season. Was he the most valuable player on that team? Probably not, but he provided a hell of a lot of value (results relative to cost).

Of course, value is not all about the money...if we even tried to go down that road it would get impossibly complex (impact players drive ticket sales, which drives concessions, etc. ad infinitum). But neither is value measured merely by statistics...

themarksmith said...

Just curious, why should pitchers be included when they have the Cy Young? Should there be (or are there) an award for best position player overall (including defense and offense like the MVP supposedly is)? I'm not sure, but I'd like to hear the argument.

Osmodious said...

I think a lot of people look at the Cy Young as a starter's award, though a few closers have won it. Really, though, a pitcher CAN be the guy who provides the most value to a team...look at Ron Guidry in '78, Mo Rivera in (pick year)...just two guys without whom their teams would not have made it into the post-season.

People cite the 'every 5 day' rule against pitchers being valuable (meaning, they can't contribute THAT much if they only pitch every fifth day), but that ignores the closers who might show up in 50+ games. Oh, and it also ignores the fact that every fifth game is still 20% of the season...what team wouldn't want to substantially increase their chances of winning an additional 20% of their games (they do a hell of a lot more to achieve far less...i.e. hitting an NL pitcher 8th to gain one run over a season)?

Again, it's the V-word that's the issue here...it isn't 'Best Hitter on a Winning Team', or 'Best OPS+ in the League', it's Most Valuable Player. I thought that Rollins was a great example last year, since he was instrumental in firing that team up, being a leader AND performing on the field (likewise, I thought Jeter deserved it over Mourneau in '06).

themarksmith said...

But isn't the Cy Young for the Most Valuable Pitcher?

As for the every five days rule, it is stupid. Position players hit 4 times then make at most 10 plays a game (depending on who you are-- shortstop, first baseman) but most only 2 or 3. So that's 7 plays a game. Multiply that by 5 and you get 35. A good pitcher will pitch close to that many hitters in his one start. Honestly, I think they are worth the MVP, but doesn't the Cy Young already count for their award?

Tim Kelly said...

Discounting starters in the MVP argument because they only pitch every fifth game is silly.

If you wanted to look at a lower level of detail, how about the 200+ inninings that a good starter throws? If you break that down into plate appearances, a starting pitcher in MLB is directly involved in over 800 PAs in the given year. Even the most durable leadoff hitters fail to hit that mark in a season.

So who has the greater impact, the starter who directly impacts 800 PAs/season or the third baseman who comes up only 650-700 times in the year?

Anonymous said...

Arguing about who is the most valuable player in baseball is certainly fun for a truew baseball fan. Worring about who wins the Most Valuable Player award is similar to thinking that a judged compitition like figure skating is an actual sport. When you think about who won the MVP award, always keep in mind the fact that woddy Paige's opinion is 3% of the vote in the National League.