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November 24, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

The AL MVP Vote

by Christina Kahrl

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If Monday's outcome as far as the voting on the National League MVP wasn't a bit of foreshadowing for who might have won out in the American League's Most Valuable Player voting, I don't know what is. The result should not have surprised, with Josh Hamilton winning handily, garnering 22 of 28 first-place votes, plus four second-place tallies. Miguel Cabrera finished with a stronger second-place finish than some skeptics expected, getting five of the remaining first-place votes and winding up first, second, or third on 26 ballots.

Here, as with Joey Votto, is an interesting personal storyline spiced with a post-season trip to come seems to have provided some motive, but the more basic proposition—as with Votto—that Hamilton was entirely deserving shouldn't really be an item of debate. It's easy to be cynical, but in point of fact Hamilton's WARP2 numbers were league-leading—or more properly, at least tied for the league lead. Switch over to WAR on B-Ref, and you wind up with an argument, however—Hamilton ended up ranking in a tie for sixth. That's a major discrepancy, of course, but one you'll find reflected in whether you're strictly concerned with offense, or offense plus defense. Per total run production, the AL's leader was the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista, trailed by Cabrera, with Hamilton rating third. Stick with True Average, and Hamilton is the most valuable batter per at-bat at .346, with Cabrera directly behind at .345, and then Bautista in third among full-season players (behind Kevin Youkilis) at .331.

Stick with more traditional stats, and here again, you'll find the same two names in the conversation: Hamilton and Cabrera were one-two in batting average for the oldest of old school, but also in OBP and SLG. Cabrera ranked third in homers behind Bautista and Paul Konerko's late-career career year, while the two of them ranked in the top four in total bases.

Basically, I think that it's a reasonable suggestion that most of the right people were in the conversation, and where the National League's MVP result produced a strange one-sided result, the AL generated a more reasonable spread. Hamilton won decisively, and perhaps his starring on a so-called “underdog” helped him, but by rate stats, he was as valuable as any batter. You can argue he needs to be taken down a peg for spending more time in a corner than in center, and that's reasonable enough.

The problem, at least for me, is when you get into how everything else shook out, because as I've danced around, the guy who Hamilton tied with in WARP wasn't Cabrera. And as it turned out, he didn't even merit the bronze in the eyes of the electorate. Third place belonged decisively to an infielder from the AL East, which was all to the good, but for the identity of the infielder: the Yankees' Robinson Cano. It takes an awful lot of optimism to assign much value to mere propinquity. Pegging Cano as more valuable than Evan Longoria or Adrian Beltre last season has little to do with outright defensive value—no metric pegs Cano as a major defensive asset, just solidly playable—but perhaps something to do with his being exactly that, the best offensive second baseman in the game, with none of the handicaps that come with employing everyone between him and Chase Utley on the second-base VORP leaderboard. Cano's out-performance of everyone else on that list helped him, of course, but so did the basic question of “which guy's team wound up in the playoffs?” Add in Cano's story: he was the durable quality contributor racking up counting stats. While Derek Jeter got old and Mark Teixeira was cold, somebody kept the Pinstriped Engine chugging, so why not put that on Cano?

The problem is that the MVP ballot is not the Olympic event for second-base self esteem, or the most-valuable Yankee award, it's about performance and value in the American League. Cano was exceptionally good, by any standard. He also wasn't as good as Longoria or Beltre. Or Jose Bautista or Carl Crawford. Instead, because the Rays' OBP-driven offensive machine seemed to defy easy explanation or easily-drawn narratives, Longoria wasn't given his due, even with a trip to the playoffs. Some voters lurched into a Crawford candidacy, but there was less reason. Rather than identify a guy who might have been the best player in the league in Longoria, rather than single him out for his club's presence in the playoffs, the Rays wound up being up being set aside as somewhat incomprehensible. And Beltre? Well, what did his team win, and sucks to be you, I guess.

As far as noticing the existence of pitchers, the American League voters generally had it right, not unlike their National League colleagues. Where the senior circuit electorate understandably noted that Roy Halladay was worthy of consideration and down-ballot recognition, in the AL there weren't really any pitchers who commanded—or deserved the same attention. Sure, we got a half-dozen electors stuffing CC Sabathia onto the back end of their ballot, but that's not really cause for irritation, not even for the fact that he outpointed King Felix—there's a plausible argument for Sabathia's critical importance as an innings-muncher on his team, otherwise maybe it's Boston who gets humiliated by the Rangers in the ALCS. But even here, Sabathia trailed a fellow AL East hurler, as the Rays' Rafael Soriano showed up on a quarter of the 28 ballots, even getting a fourth- and fifth-place vote. I'd chalk some of that up to a general struggle to really come to terms with how the Rays won, and deciding to blame somebody somehow for their contributions—so why not the save-generating dude? Which doesn't really sound very progressive, come to think of it.

But here again, I'm left wondering about progress. There's an understandable case for Hamilton, as there was for Votto. The results were more robustly diverse, as they deserved to be. But the attraction of Hamilton's backstory, the endless suspicion of the Big Apple factor as far as how easily Cano was credited with greater value than Longoria or Beltre in particular, leaves me wondering. Add in how much Cabrera owed to getting both of the first-place votes from Detroit, or that Bautista's lone first-place vote was also the product of one of his market's two electors, and you can wonder about parochialism, both for and against—Hamilton's story has been national for years, after all, and Yankees are unavoidably noticeable, where Cabrera, not so much, and Bautista, much less so. If anything, I find it troubling that Cabrera and Bautista got so little support for their cases outside of their markets, making me wonder if this vote has more in common with the Votto vote than I'd care to admit.

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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