Monday, November 11, 2013

What would happen if baseball writers voted the way they claimed to vote?

This is a comment from a reader of Joe Posnanski's blog, though it could come from any number of sports writers and "traditionalist" fans: 
While a player on a losing team certainly can be MVP, that is a black mark on that player’s record. The point is to win games. While the Angels certainly won more games this year because they had Mike Trout, that value is diminished because the Angels were so bad. A lot of that is beyond Trout’s control, and certainly the play of the rest of the team does not diminish his contribution, it does diminish that contribution’s value. If Trout plays for the Astros is he MVP? If Miguel Cabrera’s performance is slightly below Trout’s, but he helps push the Tigers into the playoffs, isn’t that more valuable?

So, now that you've considered the situation as a hypothetical, I can fill-in the specifics that were probably obvious to everyone who's a baseball fan. Excellent Player and Mediocre Team are Mike Trout and the Angels, while Incredible Player and Good Team are Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers.

Now, I'm copy-and-pasting this not to rehash the same discussion that happens every year, among everyone who writes about baseball. Because that would be really, really tedious. Instead, I want to a somewhat different approach.

The logic expressed in that quote goes something like this: you can't be MVP unless your team made the playoffs. Rather than argue the point, I'm going to accept it. Because, hey, your criteria is your own. You want to constraint the meaning of "value" such that it can only refer to players on playoff teams? Sure.

Here's the thing, though. Whatever definition you use, you have to be totally consistent in its application. Display some integrity. Establish your criteria, and then follow it.

That doesn't sound all that hard, does it? The thing is, in practice, the folks who add this playoff stipulation are rarely consistent. Writes baseball blogger Murray Chass,
When I voted for m.v.p., I didn’t look for any definitions because there aren’t any. Each voter has the freedom to decide for himself what “most valuable” means. To me, it means the player without whom his team couldn’t have done what it did. I always felt that the greater number of outstanding players a team had the less valuable each of those players was.
If I were voting this year, I’d find it hard to ignore Cabrera. He led the league in batting, on-base and slugging percentages, the combination of the two and batting with runners in scoring position. He was second in home runs, total bases and runs batted in, tied for second in runs scored and third in hits and walks. And don’t forget, he led his team to a division title. Would the Tigers have won it without him? No.

Chass' first criteria is that the "team couldn't have done what it did" without that player. It's badly expressed, but I take that to mean "a player without whom the team wouldn't have made the playoffs". That seems more or less confirmed by his subsequent argument in favor of Miguel Cabrera. And, sure, his selection of Cabrera for American League MVP totally fits with that logic. The Tigers won the division by a single game, and Cabrera was inarguably the best player on the team. Good job.

But there's a problem, and it arises when Chass starts talking about the other league's MVP:
In this instance, I think I would be tempted to vote for Goldschmidt, but the only race his team, Arizona, was involved in after June was a race for .500. With McCutchen providing the spark, Pittsburgh was in the division race to the end and maintained its wild-card lead.

Say, what? Inexplicably, right after explaining his criteria, Chass does the exact opposite of what he said he would do. Yowza. (Unless he sincerely meant that he could define "did what they did" in totally arbitrary ways, like "finish around .500". Which I can't believe he actually meant.)

Now, obviously, human beings often don't make sense. They set one standard, then vote according to another. This probably shouldn't be surprising, but it'd be nice if these voters - who are paid to do work like this, even if only indirectly, because a) they get to vote because they're sports writers, and b) they subsequently get to write about this news, which they themselves have made - were consistent in some way, right? And if they were, what would actually happen? Well, let's play pretend.

First, any NL MVP discussion would have to immediately exclude players from non-playoff teams. Legitimate MVP contenders from non-playoff teams, guys like Paul Goldschmidt, Carlos Gomez, or Troy Tulowitzki? Sorry, Chass, they're all out.

Second, and maybe more controversially, you also have to exclude every player who comes from a team that would have won their division/wildcard without that player. Atlanta and LA, for example, both won their divisions by ten or more games - no single player comes close to making an individual contribution that could account for that gap, so Clayton Kershaw and Freddie Freeman (among others) are also out. Kershaw's a favorite for MVP, so that one especially hurts.

Following this logic, then, an AL MVP ballot looks something like this: Cabrera, Donaldson, Scherzer, Sanchez, Longoria, Ellsbury, Victorino, Zobrist, Beltre, Verlander. (The arrangement might vary, but the players should be largely the same.) 

You might notice a few auspicious absences. Dustin Pedroia, like Kershaw, is excluded not because he's not one of the ten best, but because the Sox probably make the playoffs without him. So, not an MVP candidate. Trout, Robinson Cano, Chris Davis, and Felix Hernandez are all disqualified because their teams miss the playoffs with or without him. No one actually wants to see a ballot like that - you're excluding way too many of the league's best player - but that's the price of being consistent, right? Right. Good work, everyone.

The odds that we'll ever see a ballot like that, though? Well, it's not zero. But it's somewhere close to it.

Because here's the thing. The guys like Chass, who say that you should need to be on a playoff team? Mike Trout is probably their second or third choice. Davis is somewhere in their top five, too. And Cano isn't far behind. I don't even have to ask Chass and company if I'm right about this - I know I am. And these guys should be up for consideration, because they deserve it.

TL;DR: No one who espouses that whole valuable=playoffs thing actually adheres to it, because it would produce terrible results. And from that I can only conclude that they don't actually believe it, either.

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