The 2011 season has brought a re-examination of the concept of “value” as it applies to individual awards. This can never be a bad thing, since such discussions go to the very heart of what matters in baseball, a large part of which may be hidden from the view of mainstream baseball fans. The sabermetric vanguard has unique insights on what the numbers tell us about value. Baseball writers, by virtue of their clubhouse access and frequent conversations with executives and scouts, have unique insights on the type of value that doesn’t show up in the numbers. Both contribute to our greater understanding of the game.
This year’s awards confront us with two big questions regarding value: Can a player on a losing team be as valuable as a player on a winning team? And should a pitcher be considered for most valuable player? My short answer to both questions: Yes, but the bar is set very high in either scenario.
Here, basically, is how I define value when it comes to individual awards: “The extent to which a player contributes to his team’s overriding goal of winning championships.” This, in my mind, is what separates “value” from “performance.” Performance occurs in a vacuum; it can be measured solely by numbers. Value does not, and cannot. I could back a player for MVP if he played for a last place team if his numbers were overwhelmingly better than anyone else’s, but – going back to my working definition of value – I would also bear in mind the fact his team, for a large chunk of the season, had no hope of winning a championship, which means his contribution, exceptional as it may have been, had a significantly limited effect on the goal.
In other words, just because Jose Bautista and Matt Kemp were the best players in the American and Nationals Leagues this season, respectively, it doesn’t mean they were also the most valuable. I don’t believe we can simply total up everyone’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), from the various sources that calculate it (with different formulas), and anoint the highest finisher as MVP. I love WAR (but not war). I use it to help my understanding of the game. But I also have a hard time trusting someone else’s notion of positional adjustments (weighing a player’s production differently based on which position he plays), not to mention the varying (and sometimes contradictory) measures of defense. And anyway, value is more complicated than one set of numbers can reveal.
Any weighing of value must take into account the atmosphere. Was the player’s team in contention all year long, raising the importance of each game, and thus the value of an individual’s contribution to the effort? Did the player maintain his performance all season, even as teammates were injured and the team itself struggled? Was he the player his own teammates considered to be the single most indispensible member of the team?
As much as the sabermetrics crowd hates it when writers inject the “narrative” into the awards discussion, we’re not making this stuff up. We’re talking to players, executives and scouts about it – in an effort to understand the notion of value. It’s no different than poring over the numbers for the same purpose. It’s merely coming at it from a different direction.
As for pitchers winning the MVP, let me put it this way: A great pitcher might throw 240 innings in a season. A great player might be on the field for 1,400. If a pitcher has a season that is six times better than any hitter in the same league, he has my vote. But Detroit’s Justin Verlander, brilliant as he was, doesn’t come close to that threshold – not in a year with a handful of exceptional offensive performances.
(You might ask: Can a pitcher ever rise to such a ridiculously high threshold? I can think of at least one instance where one did, or at least came close. In 1999, the pinnacle of the so-called steroids era, Boston’s Pedro Martinez produced a season that ranks among the greatest ever by a pitcher. His ERA of 2.07 was nearly 2 ½ times lower than the league ERA of 4.86. His ERA+, adjusted for park and league effects, was 243 – with 100 representing league-average. This means he was basically 143 percent better than an average pitcher that season. He narrowly lost the MVP vote to Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez, whose OPS+, also adjusted for park and league effects, was 125, meaning he was 25 percent better than an average hitter that year. So at least by that measure, Martinez was, in fact, almost six times better than Rodriguez. This year, Verlander has been very good – but he isn’t Pedro-good.)
With that long-winded introduction out of the way – and also taking note of the fact The Post does not allow its writers to vote on actual awards – here is how my theoretical ballot would look:
1.Curtis Granderson (Yankees), 2. Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox), 3. Justin Verlander (Tigers).
I know that WAR says Ellsbury has been better than Granderson this season (and Bautista and Verlander have been better than both). But when you factor out defense – which remains the most difficult concept in baseball to measure accurately – even WAR says their offensive production is essentially equal. Granderson and Ellsbury served similar roles this year, batting at (or near) the top of the order for the Yankees and Red Sox, respectively, while manning the critical position of center field. But Granderson has vastly outproduced Ellsbury in homers, slugging percentage, runs, RBI and walks, and he had a slight edge in OPS+ as of this writing. Plus (narrative alert!), he also did it in a season when many of his Yankees teammates either were injured or underperformed, carrying his team’s offense for long stretches at a time. Ellsbury probably wasn’t the best offensive player in his own lineup this season (Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz have higher OPS+ figures), but Granderson certainly was in his.
Next: NL MVP