Plenty of reaction to the MVP votes in, especially Justin Morneau's close win over Derek Jeter.
In a column before the AL vote was announced, ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer analyzed the top candidates through the prism of two Aristotelian categories: intuitionists vs. empiricists. Neyer suggested that intuitionists searched for the meaning of “value” in more philosophical terms, while empiricists preferred to eschew difficult to pin-down notions of value and instead decide who the best player was, based on quantifiable indicators of performance. Neyer argued there was an unusual confluence this year since, according to either worldview, Jeter would seem to make the most sense, as both an intangibles guy, and as the player with the best numbers, at least according to the sabermetric view of things. (For example, according to Win Shares, Jeter’s 33 puts him first in the AL, with Joe Mauer close behind at 31). But, Neyer presciently observed: “This year happens to be a wonderful case where the intuitionists and the empiricists, looking at different evidence and arguing from different original premises, probably will arrive at roughly the same conclusion. Jeter's probably going to win, and Mauer's probably going to finish second or third. But remember, the great majority of MVP voters are intuitionists. So don't be too surprised if Morneau's 130 RBI carry the day.”
Describing MVP voters is one of way of characterizing them. There are less charitable ones. Keith Law, a Baseball Prospectus alum who’s now an ESPN.com writer as well, regarded the outcome of the AL vote as a disgrace:
“The reality of baseball is that a great offensive player at an up-the-middle position is substantially more valuable than a slightly better hitter at a corner position. And when that up-the-middle player is one of the best fielders at his position in baseball, there's absolutely no comparison. Joe Mauer was more valuable than Justin Morneau this past season. If you don't understand that, you don't understand the first thing about baseball.
Mauer had a 54-point edge in OBP over Morneau, which overwhelms the advantage Morneau had in slugging percentage (a 52-point edge). But Mauer won the Gold Glove for his position this past year, and he is arguably the best-fielding catcher in the game when you consider all aspects of catching. Catchers who field and hit the way Mauer does are extremely valuable, just as shortstops who hit like Derek Jeter does and play passable defense are extremely valuable. First basemen who hit like Morneau just shouldn't win MVP awards in years when there are Mauers and Jeters and other candidates to choose from.”
And, he reserved particular contempt for a few of the voters:
“Incidentally, the following voters should be removed from the voting process permanently:
• The guy who put Jeter sixth.
• The guy who put Mauer 10th ... and the five guys who left him off their ballots entirely.
• The three guys who put Frank Thomas second.
• The guy who put A.J. Pierzynski 10th.
And while we're at it, how the heck did Thomas -- the third-best designated hitter in the American League -- end up fourth in the voting? It's just more evidence that the bulk of this year's voters don't understand what is actually valuable in baseball: Players who hit and play good defense up the middle are the most valuable position players in the game.”
Likewise, Tom Verducci of SI thinks the voting was a setback for the voters’ collective good sense:
“Baseball writers sadly are still stuck in the 20th century…They continue to vote by scanning the home run and RBI leaders for somebody from a first-place team. RBIs are terribly overvalued. Both Jeter and [Twins catcher Joe] Mauer, who were standouts at premium positions and far more consistent than Morneau, were robbed by this vote. I can't fathom how someone could have Jeter as low as sixth, that five people would not put Mauer anywhere on their ballot and that somebody thought a DH for a losing team who missed the last month [the Indians' Travis Hafner] should get a second-place vote. Morneau hit .235 as deep into the season as June 8 and was outhomered by Jeter down the stretch despite the myth of his huge second half. Good player, good season, but a lousy vote."
That Morneau was so bad for the first two months seems to have worked in his favor, at least according to some. Mel Antonen, of USA Today and one of the voters, told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times that he put Morneau first because:
“’It wasn't so much about numbers,” said Mel Antonen of USA Today, who voted for Morneau. “It was about all the things Morneau did as far as contributing to a winning team. The correlation between his taking off and the Twins' starting to win was too much to ignore.’
Morneau, who batted .239 in 2005, was hitting .235 on June 8. The Twins were 11½ games out of first place in the A.L. Central with a 26-33 record. The only A.L. teams with worse records were Tampa Bay and Kansas City.
But starting June 9, Morneau batted .364 and the Twins went 70-33 to win the division by a game.”
Jim Souhan, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune also talks about the relationship between Morneau’s turnaround and the Twins’ soaring second half fortunes:
“Five months ago, members of the organization questioned whether he would ever become a competent hitter, and the Twins were baseball's most unwatchable team.
Today, Morneau is the franchise's first MVP in 29 years and the Twins are -- did that really happen? -- the AL Central champs.
No one disputes the timing of either turnaround.
On June 7, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire called Morneau in for a wake-up-and-smell-the-crisis meeting. By the end of the night, the Twins were 25-33, 11 ½ games out of first place.
On June 8, Morneau went 1-for-5 in the last game of a series in Seattle, where Morneau, a native of nearby Vancouver, British Columbia, was known to cavort with his Canadian buddies. He was hitting .235.
"That was a bit of a wake-up call," Morneau said. "There was a lot of stuff going on off the field that didn't need to be. My focus wasn't what it needed to be.
"They opened my eyes. They said, 'You can be this good.' "
On June 9, Morneau took early batting practice with Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra. Morneau ingested a simple thought -- "Stay back" -- and hit eight consecutive balls over the fence.
"I said, 'Let's try to do the same thing over and over,' " Morneau said. "And then the same thing tomorrow. And I did the same thing the next day, and ate the same things, and kept with the same routine."
That night, Morneau went 2-for-4 with two walks and two homers, including the game-winner against Baltimore. He got 12 hits in his next 21 at-bats, including four homers. From June 8 to the end of the season, he led the majors with a .362 average, while hitting 23 homers and driving in 92 runs. The Twins finished 71-33 and caught Detroit.”
I think Neyer’s analytical framework here is, to a degree, misplaced. I have paraphrased Bill James before in connection with MVP voting and I’ll do it again: the issue in analyzing baseball players' performance isn't really between those who think stats matter and those who don't. Everyone uses stats to judge baseball players, including MVP voters. That's how, as BP's Jim Baker notes (more on him below), the top three RBI guys in the NL were 1-2-3 in the MVP voting. And, that's how Morneau won: as the No. 2 RBI guy in the AL, and No. 1 among players whose teams made the postseason. The question is how people use stats to evaluate performance. Antonen, who said stats weren’t so important, perfectly exemplifies the point. How, after all, could it not have been about the numbers, as Antonen claims? How does Antonen know Morneau did so much for his team, after June 8, except by reference to his numbers? If the argument is that the Twins took off when Morneau took off, then what Antonen is really saying is that he looked at Morneau's stats starting in June. After all, what intangibles did a power-hitting, slow-footed first baseman bring to a team that had two other fantastic players (Mauer and Santana) on it, guys who were great all year? Performance from June on is still about the numbers. It’s just a highly selective use of them. As Verducci notes above, and as I’ve pointed out numerous times before, RBIs continue to dominate voters thinking about the award. That’s not a matter of intuitionists vs. empiricists, really. That’s about bad, or lazy empiricists. (Just as, in 2005, the AL Cy Young voting featured the top three winning pitchers in the league finishing 1-2-3 in the balloting, while the guy who was obviously the best AL pitcher in 2005, Johan Santana, got snubbed. This isn’t intuition. This is just not bothering to do more than five minutes of homework).
The award of the NL MVP to Howard was less controversial. BP’s VORP has Pujols as the slightly better offensive player (and he’s a better defender), but Pujols and Howard were 1-2 in the majors in that category (Jeter was a hair behind Howard in third).
Still, as Jim Baker notes, it’s hard to shake the feeling that RBIs (and homeruns) ruled the day. And, as Baker notes, if you’re going to look at RBIs, the least you can do is put those in context a little bit:
“This year's voting, it would appear, came down to raw counting stats. As Rany Jazayerli suggested in a BP e-mail exchange on the award, it seems that Runs Batted In was especially important in the minds of voters. The one-two-three finishers in voting were also one-two-three in RBI. Ryan Howard drove in 149 runs to Albert Pujols 137, and Lance Berkman's 136.
If voters are going to put all their eggs in one basket, they're going to need to dig further down into that basket. If that basket is going to be RBI--as it too often is--then attention must be paid to how the players arrived at their RBI figures. For instance, Howard batted with more men on base than anybody else in the National League: 509. That's over 80 more than Pujols and Berkman, 99 more than fifth-place vote getter Miguel Cabrera, and 132 more than fourth-place finisher Carlos Beltran.
Was Howard especially proficient at getting men home? Not really. He was 15th in the league in the percentage of ROB (Runners on Base) that he drove in. Had Berkman (2nd in percentage of runners driven home) and Pujols (3rd) come to the plate with as many men on base as Howard had, they would have each amassed 154 RBI at their rates of runners driven in. Cabrera, the best in the league at delivering baserunners, would have had 135. Beltran (4th) would have had 143.”
Look, Morneau was terrific this year. But, he probably wasn’t one of the ten best players in the AL, was assuredly not the best player on his own team and won because of his power numbers while playing for a contender.
In this connection, I need to say something about Jeter (some of which will repeat what I’ve said about him before).
As Jeter has gone from being deified as the ultimate intangibles player to being thought of as overrated (judging by the 9% of major leaguers who told SI that earlier this year), he has morphed into an underrated player. Actually, it's more complicated than that. Jeter has now twice in seven years arguably deserved to have won the MVP. But, his intangibles, so much the focus of attention, may actually be hurting his ability to achieve recognition for the things he does so concretely well. Looking back at the 1999 vote, it's almost bizarre, really, that a shortstop who hit .349, drove in a 100 runs and had a .438 on base percentage for a team that won its division by four games would be almost an after thought in the MVP voting. According to win shares, Jeter’s 35 tied for the best in the AL, and yet he finished sixth in a year when Ivan Rodriguez became the third Texas Ranger in four years to win an MVP award he didn’t deserve.
All the things that Jeter is best known for - team captain, author of one of the highest profile defensive plays of all time (the flip), World series MVP, etc. - may have obscured the fact that in 2006 he was, when one accounts for all of his measurable offensive contributions, from his ability to get on base to his near impeccable ability to steal bases, the best offensive player relative to his position in the AL, and by a comfortable margin.
Deadspin deadpanned yesterday that: “It continues to strike us as amazingly unfair that a man like Jeter, a scrappy underdog that doesn't get much recognition, just can't get the respect he deserves. We hope that someday he'll no longer be ignored by the national media and maybe even finally garner some endorsement opportunities. Maybe a perfume, even?”
No, there is really nothing unfair about the hand Derek Jeter has been dealt in life (well, nothing unfair to him, anyway). But, all of these things, and all the hype about the stuff you presumably can’t measure, are getting in the way of seeing how good Jeter, at his best, really is. Seven years ago, what cost Jeter was playing on a team whose inevitable march to the World title meant that no individual player could possibly be said to have mattered that much to the team’s fortunes. Yesterday, what cost Jeter was that people only think about his intangibles, but vote – contrary to Antonen (and Neyer) - on the most obvious tangibles: power stats.
There are worse things in the world than Jeter finishing second in the MVP voting. But, the voters got this one wrong.
Mike and the Dog interviewed the Chicago Sun-Times writer who had Jeter sixth on his ballot. I consider this, by the way, far less egregious than the writer who left Pedro off his ballot altogether in 1999. And Mike and the Dog are wacky and off-base in their own way about a number of points here. But, it's Cowley's insistence that the numbers don't matter when, every time he's backed into a corner, he defends himself by saying "look at the numbers" that amplifies my points above. These guys all rely on numbers. If Cowley thinks Jeter's 14 homeruns are the most relevant fact about him (he mentions them derisively early in the interview) then he's just clueless. No excuse for this kind of ignorance in 2006.