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October 2, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

AL MVP

by Joe Sheehan

In one forum or another, I've chimed in on three of the four biggest postseason awards. I haven't had the opportunity to talk about AL MVP yet, so I figured I'd take a look today. While there are still six days left in the AL season, it's fair to say that not much about the MVP race should change between now and Sunday.

One of the reasons I haven't said much is that I've pretty much felt that Alex Rodriguez was the clear choice. This reflects his greatness, as well as my bias towards up-the-middle players in the voting. Despite the collapse of the Rangers around him A-Rod has been a rock, hitting .323/.404/.633 with 51 home runs, and throwing in 18 steals at an 86% success rate to boot. Without anyone in the AL having a Barry Bonds year, that looks like an MVP to me.

A-Rod included, there are four candidates that I feel are worthy of being part of the discussion, plus two other players who appear to be candidates in the mainstream media.

I'll deal with the latter two first. Juan Gonzalez has had an excellent season for the Indians, but his performance as a corner outfielder/DH pales next to that of Rodriguez: .334/.379/.606 is a hell of a season, but his EqA of .331 is a bit behind A-Rod's .344, and that doesn't address the positional difference.

Gonzalez gets a boost in the voters' minds from his RBI total, which is a whopping 140. However, as we're fond of pointing out, RBIs are about opportunity as much as ability, and Gonzalez has had a lot of opportunities: 269 at-bats with runners on base, 155 with runners in scoring position.

There are other problems with Gonzalez's candidacy. One is his playing time. He's going to finish the season with fewer than 140 games played, as nagging injuries have limited his availability. That's a lot of time going to Wil Cordero and Russ Branyan, time that candidates like Rodriguez and Jason Giambi have been in the lineup.

Another problem is that Gonzalez isn't the best player on his team. Jim Thome has had a much better year at the plate, while Roberto Alomar has been about the same offensive contributor (.334 vs .331 EqA, in Gonzalez's favor) while playing second base. In light of all this, Gonzalez can't get my support for AL MVP; he's just an RBI candidate.

On the other hand, Gonzalez is arguably a better MVP candidate than another right fielder, Ichiro Suzuki. Gonzalez blows away Suzuki at the plate--.334 EqA to .309--although Suzuki makes up a lot of that ground with his extra 150 or so PAs, so that the gap in Runs Above Replacement Position is a virtual dead heat. Some of those 150 PAs are due to lineup effects, but a lot of it is due to Ichiro staying in the lineup, where Gonzalez hasn't.

The case for Suzuki rests in large part on his importance to the Mariners' success, as well as his own performance with runners in scoring position--a ridiculous .455/.516/.553--and his defensive value. Well, the first point is easily dismissed: like Gonzalez, Ichiro isn't the best player on his team. That honor goes to Bret Boone.

I'm inclined to give Ichiro the credit for the RISP performance, for two reasons. One, I think he may be the rare player for whom this reflects an actual skill, rather than luck. Ichiro's approach at the plate, which produces a ton of singles in any case, may be best-suited for situations in which a base hit will mean one or two runs. The other reason is that the performance clearly has value, and we're measuring his value, not his potential to replicate the performance going forward.

Ichiro's defense is another story. His reputation is stellar, and by observation, he seems like an excellent fielder. That said, his defensive statistics are nothing special. He's second in Range Factor, but that stat, like RBI, has opportunity problems. Ichiro is sixth in the AL in Zone Rating, and has just eight assists. Want to make the case that guys just are "afraid to run on him?" Well, Raul Mondesi, Tim Salmon, and Jermaine Dye all have double-figure assist totals, and they all have established reputations as good throwers.

Put it all together, and I have a hard time considering Ichiro as a top-of-the-ballot candidate. I'm pretty sure he'll be on my ballot, but he's not the most valuable player in the league.

That leaves my top four, and they're a bear to separate:


                   AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA    EqR   RAP   RARP   VORP
Roberto Alomar    .336  .414  .544  .334  122.3  55.6   73.4   79.3
Bret Boone        .333  .372  .577  .328  125.5  53.9   72.9   84.0
Jason Giambi      .339  .474  .643  .383  151.5  76.1   96.2   98.5
Alex Rodriguez    .323  .404  .633  .344  144.7  75.8   94.1   97.5

(For more on these statistics, check out our daily updates page.)

Let's deal with the first two as a unit. They play the same position for playoff teams, and clearly are at an offensive disadvantage compared to the latter two. As hitters, the two are hard to separate. Alomar's raw numbers are better than Boone's, but Safeco Field is a lousy hitters' park, which is why the advanced metrics developed by Clay Davenport and Keith Woolner show the two to be even.

Defensively, Boone appears to be having the better year. The two are in a virtual dead heat in double plays and range factor, while Boone holds a big advantage in Zone Rating (.857, second in the AL, against Alomar's .789, 11th in the league). Boone has an insignificant edge in innings at second base. Both players are good defenders by reputation.

In a race this close, I'm willing to at least glance at other factors, but I don't think that gets us anywhere. You can argue that without Boone, the Mariners would still be in the playoffs, while without Alomar, the Indians would be in a dogfight with the Twins. You can also argue that Boone replaced A-Rod and gave the Mariners the power they desperately needed behind John Olerud, enabling them to have a monster season. This is one reason I shy away from "intangible" arguments: they're made not to find the truth, but to advocate a position one already holds.

With a need to get this column done, I'll take Boone, based on the apparent defensive edge. It would be hard to find two players having great seasons closer in value, though.

Now we get to the two best players in the league by just about any metric: Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez. Giambi is outhitting A-Rod, while Rodriguez is playing shortstop every day. As with Alomar and Boone, the differences between the two players cancel out when you look at the advanced metrics: Giambi holds a slim lead over A-Rod in RARP and VORP, two excellent measures of offensive value.

Again, in a decision this close, it's worth looking at other factors. Giambi is the apparent leader of a playoff team, a team that is probably the second-best in baseball. Rodriguez's Rangers have been out of the race for months. That's not enough on its own to disqualify A-Rod. I can't emphasize that enough, and I am firmly opposed to the idea that only players on winning teams should be considered for MVP (especially when the proponents of that notion are perfectly capable of ignoring it when convenient). But in choosing between two players who are equally great, it is valid to at least consider factors outside of their control, so long as those factors don't become the rationale for silly decisions.

That leaves me with my own bias towards up-the-middle players, the one that had me thinking "A-Rod Uber Alles" for most of the season. I believe that the stats above do a good job in correcting for the positional differences, but I also believe that having a great up-the-middle player makes putting the rest of a winning team together easier. That said, I think Giambi's performance for an A's team that might win 100 games carries a bit more weight than that factor. Jason Giambi, MVP.

Again.

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

Related Content:  Jason Giambi,  A-rod

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