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August 23, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

More on Awards

by Joe Sheehan

I've spent some time on the road this week, which is why this is just the second DP since the weekend. I'm going to be bouncing around the East Coast, seeing friends and family, for most of the next few weeks, so the column's schedule may be even more erratic than usual.

As an aside, if Continental Airlines is looking for a new slogan, I'd be happy to volunteer this nugget: "Continental: It's Better Than Walking."

Back to the diamonds... I've probably spent too much time on awards lately, but let me waste a few more electrons on what I believe to be obvious: Barry Bonds is the most valuable player in the National League. That there seem to be more arguments against Bonds than for him drives me crazy, because we're witnessing one of the greatest single-season performances in baseball history, a year on par with Babe Ruth's better work.


          AVG   OBP   SLG   AB  2B  3B  HR   BB SB CS   EqA   RARP
Bonds    .307  .489  .818  374  27   1  54  128 10  2  .412  101.2

Bonds has a chance to break the single-season records for home runs, and walks, the NL single-season mark for slugging average, and has a reasonable shot at the second-best offensive season in history, behind Ruth's 1921. Barry Bonds's 2001 can be reasonably compared with Babe Ruth's best season. That's about the best single-sentence case for an MVP I've ever heard.

Bonds's primary competition for the MVP award comes in the form of a pair of corner outfielders also having good years:


          AVG   OBP   SLG   AB  2B  3B  HR   BB SB CS   EqA   RARP
Gonzalez .344  .436  .718  474  26   6  46   66  1  1  .362   73.5
Sosa     .322  .434  .743  444  30   5  49   90  0  1  .370   76.9

Based on performance--just what they've done when in the batter's box--Bonds is the best player in the league in 2001. He's hit for more power, reached base more, and used many fewer outs than the other two players. His EqA and RARP numbers reflect that superiority: Bonds has been 25-28 runs better than the other two players, or a bit more than two wins. The gap between Bonds and these two guys is comparable to the gap between them and people like Shawn Green and Larry Walker. Sosa doesn't gain any ground on Bonds defensively, while Gonzalez may close some of the gap, but not two wins, or even one.

The case against Bonds, and in favor of the other two, is starting to come down to two points:

  • The players around Gonzalez and Sosa are better than the players around Bonds (building their team-dependent stats, like runs and RBI, and increasing their chance of making the postseason).

  • The players around Gonzalez and Sosa are worse than the players around Bonds (enabling "analysis" like Jayson Stark's column at ESPN.com which uses the players' run and RBI totals as a percentage of the team's run and RBI totals to conclude that Sosa has been the MVP).

The first point, of course, is one we've been fighting for years. Runs and RBI aren't good measures of performance, not when we have OBP and slugging average (not to mention more advanced tools). They depend heavily on the performance of the team around the player, and specifically, on the two players in front of and behind the player in the lineup. So if Craig Counsell plays a lot more than Tony Womack, Luis Gonzalez becomes a better MVP candidate. It's a terrible way to evaluate performance.

The second point takes bad tools--runs and RBI--and adds a layer of complication--long division!--to create something that looks like sophisticated analysis, but is really just fun with numbers, a freak stat. Sosa and Gonzalez have a larger percentage of their squads' team-dependent stats than Bonds does. That's not value, that's accounting. Put together, this tool seems to say that it's important for an MVP to have good enough players immediately surrounding him in the lineup to fluff his runs and RBI totals, but really bad hitters everywhere else, to keep the team runs down.

Even if Bonds led in the stat, it wouldn't matter: his performance doesn't need to be filtered through the play of his teammates, and it's only when the play of those teammates is factored in that the runners-up begin to look comparable to him. Without using team-dependent stats, there's no case for anyone but Bonds.

The other part of this is that the award is almost certainly going to go to the player on whichever of the three teams makes the playoffs. If all three go, the award will go to the one who makes it by the smallest margin, unless that's Bonds, in which case it's a tossup between the two more media-friendly characters. It really doesn't matter all that much what these three players do as much as it matters what Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and Jeff Kent and Fred McGriff do. That statement is 1) accurate and 2) absurd.

It's the Most Valuable Player Award, not the Most-Valuable-Player-From-a-Team-That's-Good-But-Not-Too-Good-And-Provides-Enough-Support-to-Build-Up-One-Guy's-Runs-and-RBI Award. By the best measures of performance we have, Bonds is easily the top MVP candidate in the National League. Denying him the honor, on the heels of the 1998 NL MVP vote, would make it all the more likely our grandchildren will look back and wonder what the hell we were thinking.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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