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December 1, 2010
Ahead in the Count
So How Good are MVPs Really?
With the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards announced in the last two weeks, we saw a first-time MVP in each league, a first-time American League Cy Young winner and a National League Cy Young winner who had won the American League Cy Young Award seven years prior. Winning consecutive MVP or Cy Young awards is a rarity, though we have seen recent repeats by Albert Pujols and Tim Lincecum. In the last 18 years (1993-2010, which encompasses the last two rounds of expansion), we have seen just six of 36 MVP awards go to the previous year’s winner, and just nine Cy Young Awards to the previous recipient. But the best hitter or best pitcher in the league is usually not a different person every year.
Anybody who wins an MVP or Cy Young was almost definitely both good and lucky. No one is going to argue that it is possible for a bad player to win such an award, but it may be less obvious to some people why award winners are also lucky. First of all, the fact that one year is still a pretty small sample, and that plate appearances or innings pitched must be a finite number for any hitter or pitcher means that there will be some luck in play. However, someone would need to be a tremendous baseball player to outplay everyone else in the league while getting very bad luck himself or even moderately bad luck, because there are plenty of great players who have good luck in any given year.
But just how lucky are the player who played the best and the pitcher who pitched best each year? To move closer to the answer, I looked at all 72 MVPs or Cy Young Award winners during the last 18 years, and examined how well they played in the year before and the year following their award-winning performance. Of course this will not exactly estimate their true talent level, but it is closer to their true talent level than their award-winning performance. I decided to look at WARP, TAv, and PA for hitters, and WARP, ERA, and IP for pitchers, to get a sense of whether players were contributing more, and whether that was because they were playing more or playing better.
Below, I list the MVPs from 1993 through 2010 in each league:
Josh Hamilton and Joey Votto were very valuable players in 2010, each worth about eight wins, but how many people think that those two players are the best in their respective leagues going forward? The only players who have won consecutive MVPs in the current era are Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, and Pujols, and chances are that Pujols would be a better bet going forward than Votto, regardless of which one you would rather have had in 2010. Votto is an amazing player who played above his head in 2010. But how far above his head?
Looking at just 1997-2010 winners (to avoid issues related to the 1994 strike), we see that the average MVP in both leagues was worth 8.1 wins, which was 26 percent higher than the 6.1 wins that they put up the previous season and 19 percent higher than the 6.6 wins that were worth the following year. Their TAvs went from .317 to .342 in their MVP season then back down to .327 the following year, while their PA went from 606 to 670 to 620. Thus, the 26 percent increase in production in MVP seasons is partly a result of a 10 percent increase in PA, and the 19 percent production decline the following year is partly a result of the 9 percent decrease in PA.
It seems safe to say that MVPs are probably worth a little over 6-7 wins in terms of skill level, and since MVPs are not necessarily the most skilled players in the league, we can round up and say that the very best players in the league are probably worth seven wins in true skill level, though seasonal MVPs tend to be worth about eight wins in their award-winning seasons. These players tend to get more than four plate appearances per game in their MVP campaigns, but tend to get less than that the year before and the year after.
Moving onto Cy Young winners, there are certainly more repeat winners, but we still see a distinct spike in production and playing time during their winning seasons.
Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, and Lincecum won consecutive Cy Youngs, but Roy Halladay and Johan Santana both won two non-consecutive awards. Winning the Cy Young is hard, but the best pitchers seem to be able to do it more easily than the best hitters seem to be able to win MVPs.
Again looking at only 1997-2010 (so that we can focus on players who had the potential to participate in 162-game seasons the year before and the year after their awards), the average Cy Young winner across both leagues jumped from 5.0 WARP the year before their award to 7.3 WARP the year of to 5.0 WARP the year after. Their ERAs went from 3.25 to 2.56 to 3.16, while their innings pitched went from 211.3 to 231.0 to 200.5.
Unlike the MVPs who performed better the year after their award than they did the year before their awards, the Cy Young winners had the same overall production on average. In fact, they had ERAs that were lower the year after their award, but they had innings pitched numbers that were lower, too. This is probably due to health consequences of pitching more during their Cy Young seasons, since they failed to pitch as many innings but still pitched better. I believe this indicates that the Cy Young winners’ true skill level was a little higher during their award-winning season than the following season, because we know that the ability to stay on the mound is a skill. This means that 5.0 WARP is lower than their true skill level by a small margin.
This suggests that the skill level of pitchers during their Cy Young season was around six wins (again rounding up from 5-6 wins of skill level for Cy Young winners, because the Cy Young winner might not be the best pitcher), despite the fact that Cy Young winners’ performances are worth 7-8 wins. Again, this shows how much luck can factor into pitching. However, the repeat winners also suggest that the best pitcher is often so much better than the second-best pitcher in the league that he can still win despite not having amazing luck.
Back in June, when I wrote an article explaining the luck that had played into the 1.16 ERA that Ubaldo Jimenez had through his first 13 starts, I received a tweet directed at me that read: “Magic seasons happen. Deal with it.” While the tweet was erased soon after, and the ERA was erased with a 4.14 performance by Jimenez during the 20 starts he had after my article was posted, it should be very clear that magic half-seasons happen. Of course, they are not really magic half-seasons, but they are lucky half-seasons that happen to very talented players. To a lesser extent, luck exists in full seasons as well, meaning that “magic” seasons do happen; the tweeter was right. This small study should be a good clue as to just how magical they are. The answer is that there are about 1-2 wins of luck for MVPs and about 2-3 wins of luck for Cy Young winners that factor into the average winner’s award-winning season.