Please do not read any further without first reading part 1 here.
If you know anything about me or have read absolutely anything I’ve ever written, you know that the content of part 1 was intended to be completely facetious1. The whole purpose behind writing that drivel was to illustrate the folly behind citing narratives and soft factors in determining MVP award winners. My real picks will be made later this week.
We’re all familiar with the AL MVP controversy of the past couple of seasons that never should’ve been a controversy at all. It appeared that part of the problem was modern baseball analysis vs. outdated baseball analysis, but I believe that was just a byproduct of the real problem. Narratives were the real problem. Not legit stories, but fabricated narratives. The advanced stats, primarily Wins Above Replacement, were only attacked because they didn’t support the narratives, and not for any intellectual reasons. I guarantee you that nobody would’ve cared about WAR had it supported what people wanted to hear. People were so excited about what Miguel Cabrera was doing that their emotional attachments resulted in a fabrication of narratives to make up for his severe defensive and baserunning deficiencies. Once the facts came in on Mike Trout, all the Cabrera supporters went in full on attack mode in order to suppress the facts and pump up the narratives. Sadly for the historical accuracy of baseball, they succeeded.
Make no mistake about it, Mike Trout was as far in front of the pack for the MVP award the last couple of seasons as Clayton Kershaw is this season for the Cy Young. However, since the award is decided by voters whose best interests are to push narratives, facts be damned, they’re prone to delude themselves into believing the most narrative friendly player is the best one. The 2012 and 2013 seasons were not isolated incidents. There are an abundance of times during the history of baseball when the voters purposely ignored facts in order to vote for the candidate they wanted to vote for instead of the most deserving. Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Dennis Eckersley, Iván Rodríguez, and Andre Dawson are just some examples off the top of my head. One of these days I’m going to go over the MVP awards over the last 2 or 3 decades to see how often I can objectively prove that the voters got it wrong.
Let’s go over some popular narratives that tend to win less deserving candidates the award.
He played on a winning team!
So what? It’s an individual award. Players don’t pick their teammates. It doesn’t make any sense to credit a player for the teammates that his GM puts on the team. It’s disturbing how many BBWAA members, many of whom are my age or older, don’t understand how little an elite player actually contributes to his team. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a big contribution relative to the average player, but it doesn’t accomplish much by itself. Put Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera on the Houston Astros the last two seasons and they’re still the worst team in baseball. Heck, you could’ve put 2001 Barry Bonds on those Astros teams and they still would’ve been terrible. In other sports, however, it makes a difference. Put Lebron James or Kevin Durant on the 76ers this upcoming season and it might actually make them a competitive team. The Colts became the worst team in football when Peyton Manning got hurt, but got competitive again once they signed a new franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck. Peyton Manning then turned the Denver Broncos into one of the best teams in football. Elite baseball players just don’t make this kind of an impact. It’s just not the way the game works.
It was a big argument against Mike Trout last season was that he wasn’t on a winning team, yet all those voters put him second on their ballots. If being on a winning team is so important, then why was Trout even second? Why was he on the ballot at all? The BBWAA can’t even get its own fallacious reasoning straight.
He led the team to the playoffs!
How exactly does a baseball player “lead” his team to the playoffs? How does that work? This argument is usually used on likeable, exciting players who people want to give more credit to when they run out of facts. It’s nebulous, unprovable crap. When asked to elaborate on that statement they usually say something like…
He makes his teammates better!
Baseball is a succession of individual events. How on earth does a player make his teammates better? He’s all by himself when he’s up at bat. When he’s on the field, he only interacts with players when he throws the ball to them or receives it from them. This is another argument that fares far better in other sports than in baseball. That argument fails spectacularly in baseball.
Now I do know that it’s common for players to give each other tips. I also know that it’s common for veteran players to work with rookies and less experienced players. I don’t doubt that this is helpful, but there’s no way to put a value on such a thing that isn’t completely arbitrary. Anybody who tells you they know how to objectively assess such a thing, which is done far too often, is kidding themselves and lying to you.
Last season, Yadier Molina got two first place votes for the NL MVP award. He wasn’t my first choice, Andrew McCutchen was, but it was a perfectly defensible choice that I didn’t have a problem with at all. One could make the argument on the strength of his defense at the most valuable position on the field, and that WAR was undervaluing him. That’s a perfectly reasonable argument, in my opinion. However, that wasn’t the argument that was made. Those two votes came from St. Louis beat writers who cited Molina’s expert handling of the pitching staff, or something like that. We’ll go more in-depth on those journalists shortly. For now, this is the point I want to make: Even if this observation wasn’t completely subjective, they have nothing to compare it to. How do they know that Molina was so much better in that respect than Russell Martin? Or Buster Posey? If those writers were as close to the other 14 NL teams as they were with the Cardinals, then perhaps their evaluation of Molina’s handling of the pitching staff would carry some weight. Unfortunately for them, that’s not the case.
The bottom line is that citing that an MVP candidate “made his teammates better” is not only completely arbitrary, there’s also no baseline to compare it to. I can gauge how good a players OBP is if I know that the league average OBP this past season was .314. What’s the league average for “made his teammates better”?
He’s a leader!
In light of recent comments, I’ve decided to expand on this topic. I don’t doubt that leadership is helpful. These are human beings that play baseball after all, and not robots. The problem is that there is no way to objectively and accurately evaluate the effects of leadership. No logical, rational, critical thinker can take such a nebulous factor into account without hard evidence as to how that leadership precisely affected the team’s record. Anything short of that is just crap. Anybody citing leadership in an argument of one player over another is putting a completely arbitrary value on it. Once you start putting arbitrary values on soft factors, you can make an argument for anybody over anybody. That was a major point in the garbage I wrote in Part 1 of this column where I was making MVP arguments for two of the worst players in baseball this past season. Such a thing might fly in your favorite sports movie, but this is the real world.
There are lots of sabermetricians out there that say, “If you can’t quantify it, it’s not real.” Personally, I think that’s going a bit far. I would say that if you can’t quantify it or empirically analyze it, then you can’t assess it. Until defensive metric improve, which they will when Statcast comes out, we still have to rely at least partially on empiricism to evaluate defense. Then, of course, there’s scouting, of which I’m a very big believer. In empirical analysis, you must eventually be able to scientifically test the observations that were made. In scouting, that’s accomplished by just seeing how the scouted players develop and succeed.
There’s no scientific way to test leadership. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it. That doesn’t mean we can’t admire it. I love that David Wright is a leader on my Mets. As much as I would love to say that his leadership adds a bunch of wins to the team’s record, I just have no evidence to support such a claim. Even if a sociologist or psychologist devised a methodology to answer this age old question, it would raise another: Should we be considering off field actions in evaluating players? Just something to think about.
He played injured and inspired his teammates!
This topic has been added in light of recent comments. In terms of of how it inspires the teammates, the argument above applies. It’s just narrative nonsense unless you can prove precisely how that magical inspiration added wins to the team’s record. Although it’s admirable to play through an injury, it’s not always the right thing to do. If you’re not helping your team, then you need to sit and get better.
Let’s go back to Miguel Cabrera in 2013. Through August, Cabrera was hitting a Ruthian .358/.449/.681 for a 205 wRC+. At that point, I was leaning towards him for MVP. At the time it was just too much offense for Trout to overcome with his defense and baserunning. However, as we all know, Cabrera suffered a number of injuries that turned the prince into a pauper. In September, he hit .278/.395/.333 for a 105 wRC+. He was basically a league average hitter. Worse still, it also affected his already terrible defense and baserunning. Depending on which scout you asked, Cabrera was a 30 or 35 defender at third base and a 30 runner. After his injury, he probably bottomed out the scouting scale at a 20 each. He was without question, an overall negative for the Tigers in September 2013. People were so blinded by the powerful narratives of Cabrera’s heroism that they didn’t notice that he sucked.
Just so it looks like I’m not picking on Cabrera, I’ll criticize my personal favorite player, David Wright, in order to further my point. Wright has a nasty habit of playing through injuries no matter how ineffective it makes him. He did this all season long in 2014 until he was just too hurt to take the field. As a result of playing through his injuries, he only put up a 100 wRC+. He still provided value by playing excellent defense at 3rd base. However, one has to wonder if he was really that much better than, say, Eric Campbell during his injury. Would the Mets have been better off forcing Wright to recover from his injuries, play Campbell in his stead, and then have a powerful, 100% David Wright for the rest of the season? Even if Wright missed 4 to 6 weeks, would this have resulted in an overall positive for the Mets? We’ll never know, of course, but my point still stands. If a player is too injured to help the team, he needs to sit and get better.
The team wouldn’t have made the playoffs without him!
This is kind of a subset of the first two statements. It was popular during the AL MVP debates of one and two seasons ago. The Tigers only won the division by one game each year. When that’s the case, you can make that statement about any player on the team that’s league average or better. For this argument to be even remotely true, the player in question would need to have a high WAR that’s also comparable to how many games his team won the division by. Even then, the team would have to be unable to replace him with a better than replacement level player. If anybody knows of a season when this happened, I would sincerely be very interested in knowing about it.
He had a great September!
That’s the most popular time point, but any arbitrary endpoints can and have been used. That, of course, is the logical fallacy of cherry picking. If you can pick the right endpoints, you can make any player look good or bad, especially with in a game as crazy random as baseball. Whether a player is consistent or streaky is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the facts say at the end of the season.
Of course, September gets so much credit because of all the narrative value it gets from the playoff races. Listen, September counts just as much as April. All games count the same. You could make the case that had the player with the hot September was just as effective in April, his team wouldn’t have needed his hot September. The players says September is different, and I’m sure they believe that, but it’s like what I’ve said before: It’s subjective, anecdotal evidence that anybody with so much as a semester of psychology can explain away. Player testimony doesn’t prove anything about anything.
In 2004, Vladimir Guerrero won the MVP on the heels of a hot September. He wasn’t even a top 5 player in the AL that year. It was also a popular narrative in 2012, though I’m sure Cabrera would’ve won anyway. As mentioned above, the funny thing is that Cabrera was almost completely ineffective in September last season due to injury. It was then that the narrative changed to what a hero Cabrera was for playing through an injury. The BBWAA is so good at moving the goalposts.
He wasn’t as good as that other guy, but he had more “value”.
The term “value” allows for so much subjectivity that it’s ridiculous. It’s frequently used as a cop-out by voters in order to choose the player they want to vote for instead of the player they should vote for.
I have mixed feelings about value. I believe that the proper definition of value is providing the most production for the least amount of money. Obviously, awarding a prize based on that criteria is unfair to the players who chose to make the big bucks, which they clearly should not be penalized for doing. To be fair, I have read other definitions of value that aren’t unreasonable, which makes sense when dealing with such a subjective term. This takes us too…
It’s not the player of the year award.
I know. It’s the narrative award. That’s what the BBWAA has reduced this award to, because if you don’t treat the MVP objectively like it’s the player of the year, then that’s all it is. Like I mentioned above, the subjectivity of the idea of “value” allows you to make an argument for anybody. What good is such an award? Just stick to the facts and you’ll never go wrong.
My fake picks in part 1 were made to illustrate how narratives and “value” can be thrown around to make ridiculous arguments for anyone to win the MVP. Perhaps you think I went over the top with my ridiculous MVP arguments. I would agree, but I would also add that any bad MVP argument is over the top.
But he hit a lot of RBIs!
Stop it. Just stop it. That outdated reasoning is what led Ryan Howard to win the MVP in 2006 even though he wasn’t even a top 10 player that year. It also led him to come in 2nd place in 2008 when he was barely a league average player. This season, Mike Trout is getting a lot of the MVP love that he should’ve gotten the last two seasons because he led the league in RBIs. And it’s from the 2-hole, too, they say!
Mike Trout got all those RBIs this season from being lucky enough to get hits with runners on base. It’s really nothing more than that. Even if the RBI had utility in evaluating players, which it doesn’t, it goes back to the argument of crediting or debiting a player’s performance based on what his teammates do. That doesn’t make any sense when evaluating the merits of an individual award.
Again, it’s not about old school vs. new school so much as it is about the BBWAA pushing its silly narratives. You know why people put so much stock in the triple crown stats? Because they have so much narrative value. What’s more exciting than seeing a player get a hit, or get a home run, or drive in a run? It’s really just one giant appeal to emotion. You know why some people don’t like sabermetrics? Because it does a good job at debunking false narratives.
Look, I love baseball. I probably get more riled up and emotionally invested watching a game than most people. Just ask my wife. However, those emotions can affect objective analysis. The most exciting stats aren’t necessarily the most useful in evaluating players. Unless a batting average is very high or very low, it’s not useful without being put in the context of on-base percentage or slugging percentage. Home runs aren’t the only kind of extra base hit. The RBI is a context dependent stat that measures a fake skill, which is hitting with RISP.
Going back to the St. Louis beat writers who voted for Molina last season, it looks really bad when they’re the only ones to give first place votes to a player that they cover. It’s another problem with the voting. Too many voters only cover their local team, which leads to favoritism as a result of bias or playing nice with the players they need quotes from. Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic was excoriated over voting for Andrew McCutchen instead of the local Paul Goldschmidt. The New York Times does the right thing by forbidding their writers from voting on any awards, and they’re not the only ones. Only writers who don’t solely cover the local teams should be allowed to vote on awards.
History should be dictated by the facts, not by the BBWAA’s subjective, fallible perceptions. Unfortunately, too often in baseball, the MVP award has done the latter. Whenever somebody says that a player won the MVP in a certain year or won a certain number of MVPs, I never trust that the player truly deserved it. I always go back to double-check, and too often I find that I can objectively prove that the voters made a mistake.
It all comes down to this: If you’re not going to give the MVP to the best overall player, then what’s the point of the award? If you’re not going to award the MVP based on objective, consistent criteria that is completely within the player’s control, then it’s a worthless award. That’s the sad truth of it all. It’s gotten to the point where I get pleasantly surprised when the voters make the right choice when there’s a single, objective right choice to be made. As much as I hate to say it, the BBWAA has spent most of its existence invalidating the MVP award.
I decided to update this post by expanding on the issues of leadership and commenting on the topic of playing through injuries. The terrible arguments raised by a commenter below persuaded me that it was necessary to do so.