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August 30, 2011

The BP Broadside

Judge a Player by His Performance, Not the Company He Keeps

by Steven Goldman

The estimable Craig Calcaterra took John Heyman to task yesterday for conditioning his Most Valuable Player vote on whether a player’s team was in contention. Quoth Heyman:

I am not strictly opposed to a player on a non-contender winning the award, which has happened on occasion (think Alex Rodriguez of the last-place Rangers in 2003) although I admit that's a tougher one for me since the word valuable suggests that the players' achievements did not go for naught and actually helped a team play into October…

…[S]ince the award is for most valuable player, and not most outstanding, the effect a player had on the pennant race should be vital. If someone else wants to interpret most valuable as synonymous to best, they can. And if someone else wants to interpret it as being valuable to a particular team, they can, too. But there is plenty of precedent to suggest it means valuable in the league.

The ultimate goal of any player is to win, so the value of the individual accomplishments that lead to a pennant should be viewed in that context.

So while [Jose] Bautista has been the most outstanding player in the league whether you use WAR or OPS or or any other key stat, it’s a tough case to make for him as MVP in a year when so many stars are ushering their team into the playoffs.

This is pure silliness, though it didn’t upset me nearly as much as it did Craig—what got me was, “In addition to A-Rod, in 1987 the Cubs' Andre Dawson won the award after hitting 49 home runs (equaling the second-highest total in a quarter-century), a rare show of support for a player on an also-ran team, and that may happen when such a player laps the field statistically.” The idea that Dawson lapped anything more important than an ice cream cone that season still chaps me nearly 25 years after the event; Dawson and his minuscule on-base percentage wasn’t one of the 15 most valuable National Leaguers that year, and I will never, ever get bored of saying so. (My vote, had they been giving them out to high school students, would have been for Ozzie Smith.)

But I digress. In our pennant race book, It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, Jay Jaffe wrote a chapter called “The Summer of Loving Carl Yastrzemski,” where he looked at the idea of a singular player carrying a team to the postseason. Yastrzemski certainly did that in the short term in 1967, batting .523/.604/.955 over the final two weeks of the season, but no one maintains that kind of pace over the full season, so the winning effort is inevitably the result of a team effort. As Jay wrote, “The best hitter can bat only once every nine times, the most durable pitcher needs a few days of rest between starts, and even the best fielder (beyond catchers) handles the ball only a handful of times a game, making it extremely unlikely that a team could rely on the same player over and over again for that extra boost.” Jay found that the greater the gap between a team’s best player and its second-best player, the less likely the team was to win, and that was true no matter how good the best player was. The correlation between a team’s best-ranked player in WARP and winning was actually much lower than that of its second-best player and winning. As the song goes, it takes two—at least two.

Thing is, you don’t need to do a major sabermetric study to know that winning in baseball requires a team effort. When Babe Ruth set the record for slugging percentage in 1920, personally out-homering every team in the league, the Yankees finished a close third. When Steve Carlton went 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA in 1972, the Phillies still lost 97 games. The Orioles lost 95 games in 1991 despite Cal Ripken playing every game, hitting .323/.374/.566, and having his best year with the glove (for 10.5 WARP as we figure it). And however illicitly Barry Bonds might have achieved his great seasons from 2000 to 2004, the Giants went to the postseason in only three of those five years. Bonds’ bat could affect many things, but it couldn’t give the team better pitching in 2001, or a deeper lineup in 2004. Of all the things one could blame Bonds for, why blame him for that?

In truth, the voters didn’t blame him; they gave him the MVP every year from 2001 to 2004 (though the Giants went to the postseason in 2000, they chose his teammate Jeff Kent, who was almost as good as he was—there again, it takes two). Of course, even the Giants teams that didn’t win were good and Bonds’ seasons statistically outstanding, so his awards would no doubt fall under Heyman’s generalized “contenders“ rule or “Dawson laps things” exception, but the bigger point is that even in their best years, not even the game’s supermen, Ruth and Bonds, could always haul their teams to a pennant.

“Valuable” is an interesting term in that most of the time its meaning is relative, not absolute. A snorkel is valuable if you’re hanging around the Marianas Trench with Jacques Cousteau, less so if you’re wandering through the desert with Lawrence of Arabia. Fortunately, the universe of baseball is far more limited, and a valuable player in New York would be a valuable player in Los Angeles. Babe Ruth in a St. Louis Browns uniform would have been no less Babe Ruth. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, value is value is value. Had Derek Jeter made it to the majors with the 1996 Kansas City Royals, he would still have 3,000 hits, would still be an all-time great shortstop—he just wouldn’t have any rings. Once he’s on the field, a player creates his own value; the rest is up to the general manager.

I am not necessarily endorsing Jose Bautista for the AL MVP award; there are other, more useful arguments that can be made against him than his team’s place in the standings, particularly a relatively quiet (.254/.412/.483, six home runs through Sunday) second half. However, I would rather see him win it than have this naïve confusion of baseball with a sport that can be rassled down by one determined player—perhaps Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in flannel—continue instead of the game being understood as the team sport that it is. As Calcaterra writes, “I don’t understand what good an award is if it’s premised on completely and utterly divorcing it from the essence of the game itself.”

No player can win as an island, a reality that would seem to do major damage to the psycholotgical component of the "team in contention" argument. None of us on the outside of Baustista's head can compare how he processes pressure compared to Curtis Granderson (or vice-versa), but writers sure like to try, claiming that the player on the contender is under greater stress than the one on an also-ran. I'm not so sure. Who is under greater pressure, the good player on a bad team, knowing that he must live up to being the club's sole drawing card and offensive support, or Curtis Granderson, subject to a different kind of expectations but surrounded by a strong supporting cast that will pick up the club whenever he fails? The truth is probably that the reaction will vary with the individual, and therefore generalizations of any kind are useless. The only thing we can know for sure is that pressure comes in all kinds of flavors, and that of being on a contender is far from the only one.

In the article cited here, Heyman says that wins above replacement is a flawed statistic because the weighting of its components can be arbitrary. The different definitions of WAR or WARP, as opposed to, say, the singular definition of batting average, no doubt makes the statistic harder to rely on for some, though I see (pardon the expression) value in having more than one formula: Unlike batting average, which is a simple mathematical fact, wins above replacement is an estimate, and it’s not a bad thing to have a range of competent estimates. When those estimates reach a consensus, you can be more secure that you’re on the right track.

As such, I propose this to Mr. Heyman: Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference, which figure wins above replacement in slightly different ways, agree that a season of 10.0 or more WARP is a rare and special thing. We list 28 such seasons since 1950, they list 36. Whichever figure you prefer, it’s a tiny fraction of the numerous full seasons that have been recorded by players over the last 60 years. They also agree on the upper limit of a player's wins above replacement. BP ranks Barry Bonds’ 2001 season as the best since 1950 with 12.2 WARP. Baseball-Ref agrees, scoring the season as worth 12.5 wins.

If that’s the most a player can give on the road to the 90 or 95 or 100 wins it takes to compete in and win a division, then it is clear that no one player can make the difference unless he is added to a roster that is already nearly complete. Twelve wins isn’t even near half what a team needs to contend, so doesn’t that admit the possibility that judging a player against his team’s accomplishments is completely unfair?

Heyman indirectly acknowledges this possibility in his own MVP selections: He lists two Yankees, two Tigers, and four Red Sox in the American League, two Brewers, two Braves, two Cardinals, and two Phillies for the National League. He missed the forest for his own trees.

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

Related Content:  Most Valuable Player,  Player,  Best,  Contender

30 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

BigX

They should change the award to Offensive player of the year or something like that. It will end this debate and the pitcher winning MVP debate all in one stroke.

Aug 29, 2011 23:45 PM
rating: 1
 
Patrick M

No, it won't. Even if you call it "Offensive Player of the Year", you still have the debate over whether that means absolute offensive contribution, or contribution relative to position.

But why would it make sense to have the award be based purely on offense? For example, one of Pujols's virtues is that, in most years, he contributes not just with the stick, but also with the leather. And why would we want to cease the "can a pitcher be an MVP argument"?

Aug 30, 2011 02:26 AM
rating: 2
 
Tynan

I think they should simply publicize the Henry Aaron Award more (the hitting equivalent of the Cy Young)

Aug 30, 2011 07:28 AM
rating: 7
 
Sharky

Nice work, Steven. Appreciate your take as well as Craig's. Maybe a different approach will "break through" for some writer-voters.

Aug 30, 2011 03:58 AM
rating: 0
 
rcrary

It seems that according to Heyman's weird logic, a pitcher could win the MVP and not win the Cy Young Award. (He has Kershaw first and Halladay second for the latter, but only Halladay appears anywhere--7th--on the list for the former.)

Aug 30, 2011 06:58 AM
rating: 0
 
Hibernaut

He's done that before, a few years ago he had K-Rod as his MVP but not his Cy Young winner.

Come to think of it, perhaps we should just stop paying attention to anyone who'd give an MVP to a closer but not Joey Bats.

Aug 30, 2011 08:12 AM
rating: 9
 
cdamon

I will point out that playing for a good team actually helps your stats -- using the Jeter example, he probably has at least 200 more PA than he would have playing for with a weaker KC lineup, meaning he probably wouldn't have 3000 hits yet.

Aug 30, 2011 07:32 AM
rating: 10
 
qwik3457bb

I'm guessing you mean career PA, not just 2011.

Aug 30, 2011 08:51 AM
rating: 1
 
qwik3457bb

The disagreement is over the meaning of "valuable". I certainly don't think Dawson should've won in 1987. When Ripken won in 1991, he was 4 WAR better than anyone else. This is not the case with Bautista. If the other MVP candidates from the contenders (Ellsbury, Pedroia, Granderson for fWAR, add in Gonzalez for bWAR, and add Verlander in in both cases) can stay within 1-2 WAR of Bautista, then I wouldn't vote him the MVP.

To me the "most valuable" thing in baseball is winning and making the postseason, or at least staying in contention most of the way. If you have a different opinion, that's fine, but it's an opinion, not a fact.

Aug 30, 2011 08:49 AM
rating: -2
 
ScottyB

If I had a vote, I'd weigh performance at about 80% (and give a hearty boost to up-the-middle players) and context (contention, playoffs) at 20%. I know this is against both orthodoxies, but seems to balance "best" and "valuable".

Aug 30, 2011 09:00 AM
rating: 1
 
RedsManRick

But what is Pedey or Ellsbury doign to contribute to his team's playoff chances that makes their contributions more valuable than Bautista's contributions?

You are basically saying that those two are more valuable because they have better teammates, even though they themselves have not made as large as a contribution to their team's success as Bautista. If that's your belief, that's fine - to each his own. But your position requires agreeing that MVP is not an individual award, but rather an award to the best player who happened to have really good teammates as well.

Aug 30, 2011 09:22 AM
rating: 4
 
qwik3457bb

Well, inasmuch as both of them are roughly 6 WAR, and the Sox are 9 games up on Tampa, I'd say each of them are providing a real cushion against a dogfight for the wild card.

As for Bautista, there's no doubt he's having a tremendous season, but, as Branch Rickey said about Ralph Kiner, "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you." Bautista's value to the Jays (outside of whatever drawing card he may or may not be) is that he's keeping them from fighting with the Orioles for last place.

OK, that's overstated by a lot, but even though Bautista's having a great, great year, according to the way I judge value to the team's effort in the particular season, it's just not that "valuable".

Aug 30, 2011 11:44 AM
rating: -2
 
lmarighi

Just to make sure I understand your argument, if Ellsbury and Bautista had swaped places before the season started, and had the same years that they have had, Bautista would be an MVP candidate, and Ellsbury would not, because of how their teammates had played?

Aug 30, 2011 15:25 PM
rating: 4
 
qwik3457bb

Well, that's one way to put it. The correct way is that Bautista is contributing to a pennant of pennant run, and Ellsbury isn't, and there's nothing more "valuable" in baseball, because the goal isn't to lead the lead in WAR, it's to win the pennant.

Now, if you're asking me, before the season starts, who's more valuable to the average team, based on their performance, then it's Bautista. But if you're asking who's more valuable to the real life pennant race, it's Ellsbury.

Sep 01, 2011 09:33 AM
rating: -1
 
qwik3457bb

Ooff, said that backwards; Ellsbury is contributing to a pennant run, and Bautista isn't.

Sep 01, 2011 09:36 AM
rating: 0
 
nschneider

What do you mean "this is not the case with Batista"? He's 2.5 WAR better than Ellsbury, and four better than Pedroia and Granderson, according to BP's WAR.

Aug 30, 2011 09:00 AM
rating: 0
 
qwik3457bb

fWar has him a slender 0.5 WAR up on Ellsbury, 0.7 up on Pedroia, and 1.2 up on Granderson. bWAR has him 0.7 up on Verlander, 1.4 up on Pedroia, and 1.6 up on Ellsbury.

Aug 30, 2011 11:35 AM
rating: 0
 
RedsManRick

Unfortunately, Heyman's logic still holds, insofar as it is internally consistent. In his world, a thing can not be valuable unless it is part of something that itself is of value. So he likely would see your point about the 12 win max contribution and shrug his shoulders.

From his perspective, 12 wins aren't valuable to a 65 win team because the team itself isn't valuable. If the player's performance doesn't alter the playoff race, he is rejected out of hand. Of course, Heyman does seem to conflate a team not being in the playoff race with a player not affecting it, which is obviously wrong because teams make the playoffs in large part based on their performance against non-playoff teams...

Aug 30, 2011 09:03 AM
rating: 7
 
gtgator

Value is NOT value is NOT value. $10 to a billionaire is nothing. $10 to a poor man is a meal. The word "value" is, by its very nature, a subjective term. It is not absolute and cannot be made absolute just to try and win an argument.

Additionally, one cannot discount alternative possibilities simply because you cannot prove them. The Jeter statement as an example - how do we know he would have been the same player in KC? Would he have been rushed by a team lacking the same level of talent? Would he have had the same quality of coaching? Would he have pressed harder on a lesser team? Would the lack of team success been a detriment (fewer runs = fewer ABs = fewer hits)? Did early playoff appearances provide more chances to hone skills used in later years? All unknowns. As such, no one can state with certainty what would have happened.

Same thinking goes if Bautista and Granderson were switched. Would they have seen the same pitches? Would the pitchers' and/or hitters' approach to more meaningless/meaningful ABs be different. Again, all unknowns. But it is not unreasonable for a person to wonder if those differences could have had an effect.

In the end, this is an individual award for a team sport. There is no "logic" in the world that is better or worse for this illogical proposition. If someone wishes to use WARP to define "value", fine. But if someone wishes to define "value" as contribution to a winning team, that's also fine - because until the BBWAA sets the definition for "value", any one person's opinion as to what it means is no better or worse than anothers' - and certainly no less "logical".

Aug 30, 2011 10:41 AM
rating: 12
 
qwik3457bb

This is exactly what I'm trying to say, especially the last paragraph. Thanks.

Aug 30, 2011 11:46 AM
rating: 1
 
lmarighi

I think you are absolutely right that by the loose definition given by the BBWAA everyone has the right to vote the way they choose, and that there is something slightly odd about naming a best individual for a team sport.
I also agree that we can't say if any one player would have performed differently in a different situation, but I don't really think that's the question. The question is, if you give Bautista and Pedroia their same exact performance, but on a different team, do you still think one is an MVP candidate and the other isn't? If you do, then you care about their teammates performance as well as their own, which is fine, but one shouldn't claim that they don't care about the teammates.

Aug 30, 2011 15:31 PM
rating: 0
 
gtgator

Hypo here - Let's say MLB went to LAD or TOR and stated that we'll take away the net wins Kemp/Bautista added to your total (based on WARP) in return for $10MM (knowing that each WARP is allegedly "worth" app. $4MM). You get all the advantages/disadvantages of the lesser record (lower standing, better draft position, etc.). We'll give those wins to the team above/below you in the standings. *IF* LAD/TOR traded those wins for the $10MM, would it be fair to say they didn't value those wins? And if the player's own team doesn't value the wins he provided, would it make sense to name that same player the MVP of the entire league?

Please note - this is simply *a* way of looking at it. It is not the only way to look at the issue.

Again, I think there are many ways for people to decide how they wish to vote. If people want to come up with other hypos (like switching players on teams), that's fine as well. I just wish articles like these and Calcaterra's didn't come off as "holier than thou" simply because they choose a different path in deciding what "value" a single player has in a team sport.

Aug 31, 2011 06:15 AM
rating: 0
 
goodwine10

If you're looking for anything even halfway intelligent, Heyman articles are not a good place to start.

Aug 30, 2011 12:25 PM
rating: 2
 
emillion

I'm going to have to be pedantic here ....

"When those estimates reach a consensus, you can be more secure that you’re on the right track."

This isn't necessarily true. I ran into a situation recently where everyone agreed on the "correct" answer, but everyone was doing it wrong. Consensus can be dangerous if everyone misses the same fatal flaw. I'm not saying that's the case here, but rather the goal is to be right, not agree.

Aug 30, 2011 14:23 PM
rating: 4
 
acoustic567

Amen. I find what you said unanswerable.

Just to add my 2 cents, I'm always struck by the outraged tone people express with respect to a judgment that is made by "vote," i.e. polling a group of people. When you give people a simple vote to select something like MVP, and don't give them detailed instructions as to how to define what it is they're voting on, why should it be surprising or offensive that each voter approaches the problem in his or her own way? Those voting for MVP are not asked to deliberate or to take anything particular into account. It's totally up to them.

It's different when a committee is formed that is expected to deliberate and perhaps formally solicit outside input. The results of such a process (like the Oscars, or a book prize) can legitimately be challenged if they make a stupid choice. I can't get that worked up about what individual voters do.

Aug 30, 2011 14:24 PM
rating: 1
 
acoustic567

My bad. My reply was to gtgator.

Aug 30, 2011 14:24 PM
rating: 0
 
Kampfer

They should just change the name of the award to Most Marginally Valuable Player (MMVP). This debate is basically an econ 101 -- marginal value V. actual value. In such case, Peddy or Ellsbury should not win because each of their six win has 0 marginal value to Red Sox. Instead, the award should go to Verlander, because obviously the tiger will not contend w/o him. MMVP = an excellent player who happens to have just good enough teammate and equally talented team(s) in his team's division.

Aug 31, 2011 01:14 AM
rating: 3
 
nschneider

Sorry, I'm not totally literate on all of these stats. I'm assuming bWAR and fWAR are wins above replacement as calculated by BP and Fangraphs, respectively. The WAR numbers I gave were from the Batter Value - Standard stats page here, but you've given different numbers for bWAR. Are those not the same thing? Where are you getting those numbers from?

Also, can someone explain to me how these two sites end up getting different numbers for WAR?

Aug 31, 2011 04:55 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Dan Turkenkopf
BP staff

bWAR is generally WAR from Baseball-Reference.com.

WARP is our version here at BP.

There are many reasons why WARP values differ between sites. Each site has their own formulation for the various components that make up the total value stat.

For example, fWAR uses UZR as the defensive component, bWAR uses Total Zone and WARP uses FRAA. Over the course of a season, those numbers can differ quite a bit (the reasons for that require a lot of explanation - read Colin Wyers work for some insight).

Aug 31, 2011 05:47 AM
 
parklotz

For me the key focus in any team sport is winning. Ask most players which they would rather have, a batting title (or pick some other honor)or a world championship and the answer is simple. So if the award is for value, it must lead to winning since winning is the goal. In the words of the immortal Branch Rickey to Ralph Kiner at the end of the 1952 season when Kiner asked for a raise for leading the NL in home-runs "Ralph, we finished last this year and we can finish last without you." As has been pointed out, there is an award for pitching excellence and an award for offensive excellence, the MVP award is for value to one's team in the concept of a team sport where the goal is to win. When the writers award the MVP to players on teams that didn't come close to their goal, they cheapen the award. If it continues, then the vote for MVP will just be another line on a sports page instead of the most important recognition a player can receive.

Aug 31, 2011 05:47 AM
rating: -2
 
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