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November 23, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

The NL MVP Rout

by Christina Kahrl

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On Friday, I struck a cautionary note about the nature of progress in voting. It's a great, good, and happy thing, of course, but one vote is just that. It was a lone data point, not a trend, and certainly not evidence of some massive shift in the electorate, either generationally or as a reflection of the broader use and applied knowledge of the better pitching metrics most of you reading this are already aware of. Admittedly, a lot of that was rooted in my natural capacity to nag and counterpunch—I'm often a scrupulous bore when it comes to pointing out silver linings or lone storm clouds. It's a way to make conversation, after all.

Playing a cautionary note is all well and good, but little did I anticipate the need for a cautionary howitzer to blaze away at the suggestion that progress would be linear, let alone universal. Because with Monday's stupefying announcement of Joey Votto's landslide victory in the voting for National League Most Valuable Player, what else is there to say, but that progress happens one vote at a time?

I do not say this to diminish Votto's season, which was superb. Beyond leading the league in OBP and SLG and finishing second in batting average, he posted the highest True Average in the game (.350), and narrowly trailed the two-time defending MVP, Albert Pujols, in VORP, 81.8-78.2. That was a function of playing time, of course, as Pujols notched another 50 plate appearances while finishing behind Votto with a .344 TAv. And those extra PAs helped make sure that Pujols led in homers, and Pujols' teammates contributed to his winning the RBI title by providing him with 30 more at-bats with runners on base than Votto got with the Reds. In terms of the offense they created, it's a fairly narrow argument—Votto was marginally better in his at-bats, Pujols got more of them because he started 12 more games. So, fair enough, it's a debatable argument over the virtues of rates versus counting stats, and narrow enough that reasonable people can agree to disagree.

Of course, that's not all either man brings to the table. Pujols is the best defender at first base of his generation, at a time when the game isn't overstocked with Dick Stuart types. While BIS has Pujols and Votto roughly even in the field in Runs Saved, Pujols comes out ahead in terms of plays made; the system evaluates Pujols' 2010 as much less effective in the field than he was in his MVP seasons. Fair enough, switch over to Colin Wyers' nFRAA, and Pujols' 2010 ranks behind his 2008 and 2009 seasons, but that's in part because those were the two best fielding seasons by any first baseman in the last three years; his 2010 ranks sixth overall, better than every season Votto has had at first. Evaluations from Total Zone generally concur: Pujols was a lot better in the field in '08 and '09, and slightly better in '10.

Taken broadly, offense and defense together, and you wind up with a fairly narrow gap between the two best position players in the league. A total-value counting metric like WARP2 probably overstates the difference in giving Pujols a decisive advantage, 8.9-7.7. It's a fairly narrow choice. There's an honorable argument to make on behalf of Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright, that they deserved consideration as well, since both pitchers outpointed Pujols and Votto in WARP, but there's a large body of opinion that pitchers already have their own award, and we gave that hardware out last week.

So naturally, with a choice between two evenly-matched candidacies, Votto got 31 of 32 first-place votes.

You can ascribe all sorts of rationales to this. Votto's team won the division that Pujols' team was in, and that was an upset outcome. Add in that Votto had his best season, while Pujols had what might have merely been his fifth-best in a 10-season romp that might already make him the best first baseman in big-league history. Via WARP2, Pujols' 2008 and 2009 performances rank among the 25 best seasons ever in NL history. His 2010 doesn't even crack the top 100, rating a mere 166th. Sheesh, what a bum. For completeness' sake, Votto was 387th, but he was a hero on an underdog, not a demi-god flirting with mortality.

Votto was an entirely credible victor over Pujols, just not in this sort of landslide. While it's entirely possible that 31 of 32 electors could all independently come to the same conclusion, and prefer Votto's campaign to Pujols—a position I might well have taken myself with a few days' consideration—the sad conclusion there for many to draw from the wisdom of this particular crowd of 31 is that framing these stories potentially played a too-large role. In the abstract, you would have expected a broader distribution from an electorate judging Pujols strictly in direct comparison to Votto.

Instead, this outcome suggests that Pujols was being penalized for what he had been before and did not then do yet again, and not judged strictly on what he had done just this past year with reference to what everyone else did in this “year of the pitcher.” So he handily won 21 second-place votes beyond the one brave ballot from Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with his name first, and just a little bit ahead of the Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez on points. CarGo won the batting title and led the league in total bases and hits, which is nice. Per WARP, he rated behind Votto and Pujols, and Matt Holliday and Adrian Gonzalez, and Jay Bruce and Jayson Werth and Ryan Braun, not to mention his own teammate, Troy Tulowitzki. Like Preston Wilson or even Dante Bichette before him, Gonzalez's ability to make hard contact at altitude and derive an outsized individual benefit from what Denver does to breaking stuff is all well and good; his strikeout rate drops steeply at home, and he gets extra opportunities to do damage in Coors Field. That's a good thing, and he's a very gifted outfielder, but also who nevertheless hit just .289/.322/.453 in normal offensive environments. He nevertheless got mistaken for one of the three best position players in the league in 2011.

Working down the ballot, it's nice that Adrian Gonzalez wound up fourth and Tulo fifth—squint a bit, and maybe you can see the flip side of the argument about park effects, that the same voters who put a park-inflated CarGo third could make room for simultaneously park-handicapped A-Gonz on their ballots. It's also noteworthy that Halladay's superb campaign got him onto 26 ballots. But then there are still things like Ryan Howard getting second-, third-, and fourth-place votes, when he wasn't even the fourth-best first baseman in his league; if Pujols was getting punished for not being divine, how do a few voters in the very same electorate manage to completely overlook Howard putting up his worst full season?

Perhaps Votto's one-sided win is coincidental, and perhaps it doesn't have anything to do with Pujols' previously set standards of performance. Maybe CarGo's relatively rare set of skills deserves this much due. We can call the final outcome just, certainly, but whatever you call it, one thing the outcome of the NL MVP vote is not is further evidence of progress.

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

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