My Stab at the MVP Debate
MVP discussions are a dime a dozen this time of year, as are hackneyed analyses of who should win and why. I figured it was my turn to put forth some claptrap arguments about who should and who should not be the MVP, and I confess to not knowing who I will nominate as the preferred award winner when I'm done boiling things down. So, here goes:
I see two related but distinct components that make up the MVP - How "valuable" a player is to his team, and how great his stats are. Obviously, these are pretty closely related; a player with horrid stats is not going to be that valuable, and vice-versa. However, I think the two can be considered as separate parts of the whole.
This is an important aspect of the award because, of course, the award is called the "Most Valuable Player" award for a reason. There are two parts to "value" that I think are useful to consider: how much did you help your team win, and how much of your teams run production were you responsible for?
Start with the first consideration. I think there is something to be said for giving bonuses to players whose teams made the playoffs, or at least were in contention. I don't, however, think that any player should be excluded from consideration for this reason alone. I also don't think there should be a bright-line rule that penalizes every player whose team doesn't make it in; the White Sox were in the toughest division in baseball, and stayed in the race until the end, so if Jermaine Dye suffers any penalty at all for this column it should be minimal. David Ortiz, however, should get less benefit of the doubt on this score; the Red Sox haven't been in contention for quite awhile.
Next is the question of how much of your team's production are you responsible for? I'm not going to get into really crazy statistics, because I think the two really valuable ones in this regard are RBI's and Runs. Runs are, after all, what this game is all about. By looking at runs, you also even out (to some degree) differences between "high on base" guys and "power" guys. High on base guys score because they tend to get more hits and draw more walks, and because they tend to be faster. Power guys score runs because they hit homeruns and drive themselves in, and because they tend to hit a high number of doubles, putting themselves in scoring position. I don't care how you do it; if you score runs you're producing value for your team.
One more factor I didn't mention earlier is position on the field. First, I'm a firm believer that the Cy Young award is the pitchers MVP award. If I were lucky enough to have a vote, I would never use it for a pitcher. Designated hitters are closer calls. The big thing for me, though, is that they don't have their own award like the pitchers do, and they are playing every day. Just because I would consider voting for a DH, however, doesn't mean that I put them on an even playing field. A poor-fielding position player would (or should) have that counted against him in MVP voting, just as a good-fielding player should have that be a plus. I count not fielding at all in the same territory as being a poor fielder, and deduct appropriately.
Now to the numbers. A player with 60 homers, 150 RBI's, and a .330 batting average is a shoo-in, and I don't care how valuable he was to his team, by any measure. The stats above would just be so overwhelming as to make the rest of the discussion unnecessary. What about a year like this, however, where there is no such standout in the American League?
Well, for me the question comes down to what percentage of your teams production can you account for? The simplest measure I can think of is to look at the players runs compared to the teams runs, the players RBI's compared to the teams RBI's, and to add one more section, the percent of runs driven in by the player (player RBI's / team R's).
That's my "formula," in a nutshell. Complaints will include the fact that I don't count batting average, on-base percentage, win shares, Value over Replacement, etc. etc. etc.
First, let me say that batting average and on-base percentage are nice stats, but I consider them to be secondary stats. Runs and RBI's will account for them, on average (or so goes my hypothesis). At some point, some level of simplicity has to enter into the argument, and a player who hits just .275 but drives in a high number of his teams runs is, to me, just as valuable as a guy who hits .330 and drives in slightly fewer runs.
As for Win Shares and Value over Replacement player: I. Don't. Care. VoRP is an interesting stat, great for deciding, for instance, whether you want to go after Player A or Player B in the off-season. I don't see it's utility in looking "intra-season" at a players MVP potential. As for win shares: sorry, devotees of Bill James. This is just a silly stat. "Defining" 3 win shares per win? A convoluted, inaccesible formula? This is the absolute worst of the nonsense that can happen when you get a bunch of stat lovers together and throw them in a room. The increased attention to stats in the Bill James/SABR era is great; made up stats like win shares are not.
OK, that said: I consider there to be five legitimate contenders for the AL MVP award. They are, in no particular order, Derek Jeter (NYY), Justin Morneau (MIN), Frank Thomas (OAK), Jermaine Dye (CHW), and David Ortiz (BOS).
Jeter, Morneau, and Thomas are all in the playoffs. Dye narrowly missed. Ortiz is on the worst team in the bunch, and is a DH at that. Two strikes against him. The rest I consider on an even footing. Ortiz will have to blow me away in the comparison categories to have any chance of winning my "vote."
Player - Runs (% of team) - RBI's (% of team) - RBI/team Runs
Jeter - 114 R (12.5%) - 96 RBI (10.8%) - (10.5% team runs driven in)
Morneau - 95 R (12.1%) - 129 RBI (17.5%) - (16.4% team runs driven in)
Thomas - 75 R (10%) - 109 RBI (15.3%) - (14.6% team runs driven in)
Dye - 102 R (11.9%) - 119 RBI (14.4%) - (13.9% team runs driven in)
Ortiz - 112 R (13.9%) - 137 RBI (18%) - (17.1% team runs driven in)
The chart is messy (my apologies), but some really interesting things come out of it. First off, David Ortiz has been an absolute force, easily leading all three of these categories. In fact, only Justin Morneau is anywhere close in either the (% of team RBI's) and (% of team runs driven in) categories. Those two categories aren't really fair for Derek Jeter; he's a top of the order hitter, and he's not a power hitter. But, he hasn't accounted for a significantly higher percent of team runs than Justin Morneau has for the Twins. Additionally, his numbers are inflated because he plays with the New York Yankees, who have by far the most RBI's and most Runs scored in the league. In other words, he's surrounded by great players. This is why Derek Jeter is NOT the MVP.
What about Dye? He has reasonable raw numbers, but comes in fourth in every one of my percentage categories. Dye is NOT the MVP.
Frank Thomas has put together a remarkable year. He's clearly the Comeback Player of the Year. But even on a team that is relatively anonymous offensively, his %'s are lower than Morneau's and Ortiz's. No, he wasn't healthy all year; but that cuts against him a bit. The team didn't need him to be healthy all year to make the playoffs. It's a tougher call, but that's why Frank Thomas is NOT the MVP.
So, it's Justin Morneau or David Ortiz, and really I think it's a wash. The question is whether you place more importance on playing a position and making the playoffs, or at sheer value to the team measured in terms of run production. Looking at the numbers above, Ortiz is clearly superior in terms of raw numbers and %'s. Is he far enough ahead to overcome the demerits?
I say no, for one reason. Looking at the numbers, Morneau and Ortiz are clearly ahead in the (% of team RBI's) and (% of team Runs driven in) categories, far and away ahead of the other 3 MVP competitors. If Morneau were in the Dye/Thomas range for those numbers, it would probably be enough for me to give the award to David Ortiz. But, it's not, and that's why David Ortiz is NOT the MVP.
So, I've convinced myself; if I had a vote, I would indeed give it to Justin Morneau for AL MVP. And now everyone can tell me how "coincidental" it is that I came up with a Twin for the award. Fair enough, but if you make that argument, please tell me how Derek Jeter (who I consider the front-runner based on what I've been reading from sports writers) or your preferred candidate deserves to win.