On today’s FOX broadcast of the Red Sox-Yankees game, Josh Lewin, doing play-by-play along Tim McCarver said of the MVP award: “the question is stats versus value.” This comment was part of a larger discussion prompted by the on-going brouhaha over David Ortiz’ comments last Sunday about the award.
Lewin’s comment perpetuates an on-going and false juxtaposition between those who are regarded as “statheads” and those who are more interested in intangibles. This is a divide that characterizes evaluations of player performance in baseball in general, since the statistical revolution is so much farther advanced in baseball than in other sports. But, it reaches its peak during this time of year, when debates about the MVP begin in earnest. And, part of the reason why this debate is so hard to get a handle on derives from Talmudic like discussions of the meaning of the word “valuable” in Most Valuable Player.
As Bob Ryan aptly noted in the Boston Globe on Thursday, we’d all be better off if the award were just called Most Outstanding player. Ryan lays out the historical background of the discussion:
“Start with the premise that it's (valuable) a nebulous concept to begin with. How much stock are we really supposed to put in the word ``valuable"? Is ``valuable" actually a synonym for ``irreplaceable," and if that's the case, why should a player be penalized if his team has an adequate substitute for him, thus rendering him less ``irreplaceable"? I must tell you I have a real problem when people harp on this word ``valuable," as opposed to, for example, ``outstanding." I'd like to introduce another word: worthy. Most Worthy Player. How does that sound?
The current system carries with it no guidelines, other than the stipulation that, Cy Young Award or no Cy Young Award, pitchers are eligible. Anyone who cannot honestly factor pitchers into the mix is supposed to inform the BBWAA of his or her position, and is supposed to be replaced. That’s a fact. But a system in place before this one was instituted in 1931 did have a guideline. There was something called the League Award available from 1922-29, and, according to the indispensable encyclopedia ``Total Baseball," its committee adopted a set of rules that included a declaration that the trophy was to honor the player ``who is of greatest all-around service to his club and credit to the sport during each season; to recognize and record uncommon skill and ability when exercised by a player in the best interests of his team and to perpetuate his memory."
And there was more. The rules also instructed voters to select a ``winning ballplayer," while reminding them that ``combined offensive and defensive ability is not always indicated by a system of records."
Ryan argues that if these are legitimate criteria for defining value, or as he says, worthiness, Derek Jeter deserves the award and Ryan also notes, correctly, that Jeter also has the statistics to back up his candidacy. (As I mentioned the other day, so does Johan Santana, but Ryan says: “let’s not get into that debate.”)
Ryan gets a couple of points here. First, for cutting through the endless hand-wringing of what “value” means by noting that it’s probably little more than needless confusion to discuss valuable, rather than “worthy.” Second, credit to Ryan for actually using a reference (Total Baseball) in order to build an argument, as opposed to merely popping off with a series of unsubstantiated claims (see, for example, Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips).
As I mentioned earlier in the week, though, despite all the blather about value and the insistence by so many that it means something other than “best” or “most outstanding” – it’s nearly universally true that baseball commentators build their arguments based on some statistic or other. This was a point that Mike Golic made on Wednesday, when he and Mike Greenberg were discussing the relative merits of Pujols and Ryan Howard for NL MVP with Jayson Stark. Golic noted that everyone just uses whatever stat they want to build the case for their guy, and there’s a lot of truth in this. But, as I also mentioned earlier this week, it’s not just any old statistic, but one in particular – RBIs – that most commonly carries the day and at the same time undermines the claims of folks like Lewin that people are really choosing between some esoteric and intuitive notion of “value” on the one hand, and a cold hard look at the numbers on the other.
Perhaps the most notorious such case was Andre Dawson in 1987. Dawson smashed a league-leading 49 dingers and drove in a league high 137 runs that season. But, a couple of points here: while 1987 was not the 1990s in terms of offense, it was, at the time, an outlier season: a record home run year that featured such fluky phenomena as Wade Boggs hitting 24 homers (he never hit more than 12 in any other season), Don Mattingly setting a record for grand slams in a season (six), tying another record by homering in eight straight games – and a rookie, Mark McGwire, setting a record for first year players by hitting 49 homeruns.
Furthermore, Dawson played in what was, at that time, an extreme hitters’ park: not quite Coors field circa 1995, but a huge boon to folks like Keith Moreland, and Dawson, nevertheless. Finally, Dawson’s Cubs finished dead last in the NL East.
All of the foregoing led Bill James, writing his last Baseball Abstract in 1988, to throw up his hands in disgust: James lamented that there were times when you felt that all your hard work was for naught, and the 1987 MVP vote in the NL was such a moment for him. Dawson, James argued, could not have been one of the thirty best players in the league. James also angrily noted the contradictions in criticisms of his own work. He pointed out that he was constantly criticized for relying too heavily on statistics in evaluating ball players. James responded that he did not believe that players should be evaluated based solely on statistics, but that they were. Looking at the 1987 vote, there was no way to conclude that voters relied on anything but statistics – notably RBI totals. James’ point: since people do evaluate ballplayers based on their stats, they should understand what those data tell us, and what they don’t. Intangibles would have been an absurd basis on which to vote for Dawson since – derisivelyly noted – what does “leadership” matter on a last place club?
The current debate perfectly illustrates James’ frustration. Take the Twins’ Justin Morneau: he’s a terrific young player having a great season (and he certainly is one of the thirty best players in his league). But, he’s also probably the third most important player on his own team, after Joe Mauer and Santana. Why is he the most widely discussed Twin in connection with the MVP award? I think it’s pretty obvious: his RBI total – he leads the Twins in that department, with 123 as of tonight.
Many baseball talking heads talk in dismissive terms about the sabermetric revolution and especially, its perceived emphasis on offense and insist that the stat geeks neglect the “little things,” the “intangibles” and pitching But, when push comes to shove many of those same folks (like Morgan) dismiss pitchers and tout guys for one simple reason – their RBI totals. The debate remains, for this reason, both ill-conceived and ill-informed.