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September 13, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Casting the Most Unconventional MVP Vote

by Sam Miller

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If you’re one of the 60 writers who get to vote on the MVP award this year, then by all means, take it seriously and vote in good faith for the player you think was most valuable. If you’re one of the hundreds of writers who don’t: Man, I feel for you. This all over again.

...because ultimately Miguel Cabrera just was more significant to his team because Mike Trout couldn’t make up the difference on Miguel Cabrera who was just more valuable than Mike Trout was valuable compared to Miguel Cabrera the most valuable not Mike Trout less valuable than Miguel Cabrera because Mike Trout was Miguel Cabrera and Mike Cabrera Mabrera Mara Ara Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…

So I don’t hold it against you that, as you plan your annual My Ballot column, you’re starting to talk yourself into an idiosyncratic pick for MVP. Doesn’t matter anyway. Expands the conversation a bit. Lets you highlight a player who deserves some attention. Clicks. It’s supposed to be just for fun, anyway. And it’s not like you’re going to write the worst MVP column ever, promise.

So by all means, talk yourself into reconsidering the definition of value. It doesn’t have to be limited to “was best at baseball” or “took team to the playoffs.” Value can mean almost anything! And once you accept that, there are all sorts of candidates who you might plausibly convince somebody was the most valuable player in the league. They weren’t. But you might plausibly convince somebody.

MVP Shin-Soo Choo

First-place votes precedent: Lenny Dykstra, 1993

Why it works: Mostly because people love to give extra meaning to baseball players filling roles. Baseball isn’t like the other team sports; for the most part, everybody is doing the exact same things: hitting/fielding (some are better than others and get to stand in different spots, but it’s the same behavior) or pitching. But that’s boring. So roles get assigned: run producer produces runs, as opposed to… errbody else? LOOGYs specialize in LOOGYing, which is really just another way of saying they can’t get almost anybody out almost ever. The closer closes. The ace aces. The leadoff man? He leads off! So, even though Choo could have produced (basically) the same amount of value batting second, third, fourth, or fifth, there is an aesthetic joy to seeing him with that OBP in that spot.

And it sort of works. He fire-startered the Reds offense. The Reds have a .724 team OPS this year; they had a .726 team OPS last year; yet they’re on pace to score 26 more runs this year. That’s because Choo is hitting at the top of the order, in front of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce. He has already reached base nearly 100 more times than Cincinnati’s leadoff men did last year.

Why it doesn’t: Zack Cozart, who led off last year, has been the Reds’ primary no. 2 hitter, so it’s not like there aren’t still four outs a game coming from the top of the order. If the Reds are producing a few more runs with the same offense, it’s probably more quirk than any special significance of batting order. Also, Joey Votto has about eight RBIs. Explain that, nerd.

Airtight—airtight—argument: It’s not the best player. It’s the most valuable.

MVP Koji Uehara

Precedent: A bunch, but most recently Francisco Rodriguez in 2008.


Why it works: Because counterfactuals about the supposed fragility of major-league clubhouses and major-league players can never be disproven. Allow me to quote a lengthy passage about Rodriguez in 2008 that was written specifically to embarrass me:

For those of us who have been around major league clubhouses for any length of time, it’s always been obvious what a closer means. When the closer starts wobbling, and when he starts blowing leads, the entire team is affected. Managers no longer play for small innings, figuring a 1-run lead is enough. Hitters try to do too much in clutch situations. Teams lose their confidence.

Yes, statistically, the Red Sox would have won the division if Uehara had blown three more saves. Unfortunately, there is no statistic to measure loss of faith, loss of credibility, loss of confidence by both Rodriguez, and by his teammates in Rodriguez, if that had happened. The Angels might have gone into a deep tailspin.

All that silly nonsense is no less true today! Uehara is second among AL pitchers in win probability added; he has allowed one run in the ninth inning this year, for a 0.29 ERA; has been roughly twice as good in high-leverage situations as low-leverage.

Why it doesn’t: As insanely good as Uehara has been, we’re talking about a 10-run difference between him and, say, Jose Veras. Sure, 10 runs in big spots, but still: 10-run difference between him and Jose Veras. Also, and this is coming from the world’s biggest Koji Uehara fan: Every awesome thing that Uehara does has the perverse effect of lessening what he’s doing. I mean, if Koji Uehara can do it, how hard can it really be?

Airtight—airtight—argument: Look, 21 years ago I voted for Steve Bedrosian.

MVP Russell Martin

Precedent: Dave Winfield, 1992

Why it works: What the Royals were trying to do with James Shields, the Pirates actually did with Russell Martin: brought in a mid-tier veteran who carries some sheen of winnerness and authority while, theoretically, in baseball’s folkloric way of explaining things, making those around him better. He actually deserves down-ballot consideration by most total-value metrics, which means you have to speculate wildly by only a very little bit to give him the extra 30 or so runs to make him a front-runner. Nobody has a darned idea what a catcher produces with his defense/leadership/wits, so your wild speculation is as valid as mine.

Why it doesn’t: Yadier Molina exists. Any argument you can make for Martin immediately flies directly toward Molina, like in Breaking Bad when [spoilers spoilers spoilers spoilers spoilers (that episode with the magnet in the truck, remember?) spoilers spoilers].

Airtight—airtight—argument: The catcher is involved in every pitch of the game. Every pitch!

MVP Jose Fernandez
Precedent: Steve Carlton, 1972 (one first-place vote)

Why it works: A team that won 31 percent of its games with any other starter won 64 percent of its games when Fernandez started. When he was on the mound, a 110-loss team became a 100-win team. More importantly, you might even argue—that is to say, you might even argue this, because you are an MVP voter with creativity and ambition—that, without Fernandez, Miami would have given up on baseball forever this year, and that Fernandez gave the city exactly one reason to continue its relationship with the Marlins. He might have saved baseball in Miami. He might not have, but he might have! Come on, writer. Do this. You can totally do this.

Why it doesn’t: Every argument ever marshalled against an MVP candidate otherwise applies: pitcher, last-place team, didn’t play full season, rookie, not technically best player at his position. (For what it’s worth, Carlton “turned” a 120-loss team into a 115-win team the days he started that year.)

Airtight—airtight—argument: It’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Very Good

MVP Yasiel Puig

Precedent: Ted Williams, 1955/Shannon Stewart, 2003

Why it works: It doesn’t matter how few games he played—which, in this case, was entirely out of his hands—so much as the level at which he played them. Extended out over a full season, his numbers would have been the league’s best. And it certainly looks to the average newspaper subscriber like he transformed an entire team. Swap out a few words and the case is written for you:

But from the day (Puig) showed up in (Los Angeles), the (Dodgers) went (62-28), went from (11) games under .500 to a team that blew apart its division, went from a lineup that scored (3.5) runs a game to one that scored 4.4 a game. And it was no coincidence that in that time, Puig led all (NL hitters) in (some offensive stat).

Note: If you really want to get some attention, talk yourself into Don Kelly. The Tigers have won 65 percent of their games (a 105-win pace) in the 99 games he has played; they’re 20-27 when he doesn’t play. YOU CAN TOTALLY DO THIS, WRITER!

Why it doesn’t: People held it against Mike Trout last year that he wasn’t around for the first three weeks, and he actually did lead the league in all the things. Puig is barely going to clear 100 games, and there’s really not much precedent for ignoring that, even if we probably should at least consider ignoring it.

Airtight—airtight—argument: Don’t be a hater.

***

Frankly, none of these goes far enough, besides Don Kelly. Why not vote for Jonny Gomes? The Red Sox improved by 30 wins this year; how hard would it really be to attribute those wins to Gomes? Why not vote for Zack Greinke? The Dodgers are 19-5 when he starts. Why not vote for George Brett? Just because he’s not a player? It took him about 20 minutes to fix Eric Hosmer, for goodness sakes. Just write the column! You don’t actually have to vote for him.

Of course, the easiest way to get hate-retweets is painfully obvious. And there’s a precedent for it. In 1953, Ted Williams came back from Korea and rejoined the Red Sox on Aug. 6. He played 37 games, hit .407/.509/.901, and carried the Red Sox into fourth place. Alex Rodriguez wasn’t exactly fighting communism in Korea. He hasn’t exactly hit .400. But he came back on Aug. 5, and he might carry the Yankees into a totally unexpected postseason appearance. I have faith in you, unconventional-MVP-ballot writer. You may not have value in the conventional sense, but to me you’re the MVP.

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

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