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September 17, 2013

BP Unfiltered

Valuing the "Contender" Component of MVP Voting

by Russell A. Carleton

The Angels will not be making the playoffs this season. The Tigers likely will. And according to Fox Sports national baseball writer Jon Morosi, that settles the AL MVP debate for him.

Quoth Morosi:

It's a commonly held belief, and one that's often parried with a simple reply of, "Why penalize a player for the quality of his teammates?" If there's a certain truism about baseball, it's that you get to bat only once every nine hitters. Blaming Mike Trout for the woes of his teammates makes about as much sense as blaming Miguel Cabrera for Detroit's recent bankruptcy filing. If you want to torture the limits of logic, you could make a case that had Cabrera been a better player, more people would have flocked to Detroit from out of town to see him play and that the tax revenue bump would have saved the city.

But the Vince Lombardi "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" mentality thrives. History is written by the victors. Winning covers all sins. Might makes right.

Mr. Morosi will vote on the AL MVP award, presumably in early October (he wisely points out that we should wait for all 162 games to be played). There’s still time for him to change his mind. And yes, it is his right to define "value" as he sees fit. It's also mine to question whether, in the words of Vin Scully, "That's fertilizer!" His having a ballot does not privilege his opinion; it is his privilege that gives him a ballot.

So before the rest of the season unfolds, I would ask a question on the matter to Mr. Morosi or anyone else who would make the "playoffs only" argument. There are another two weeks to go, and let's assume that the playoff picture doesn't change by the end of the season. What would Mike Trout (or any player on a non-playoff team) need to do to receive a first-place vote over Miguel Cabrera? For example, suppose that Mike Trout somehow raised his batting average to .400? Suppose that Chris Davis hits 60 HR, despite the fact that the Orioles miss out on the postseason? Is there anything that would turn the dial?

If Mr. Morosi would like to say that inspiring one's team to the playoffs is worth something, that's fine. But how much is it worth?

If the answer is that there is nothing at all that a non-playoff participant could do, then you have to make silly statements like "Don Kelly has been more valuable than Mike Trout." After all, Don Kelly's team is going to the playoffs. Would anyone like to hazard that argument?

If not, we're left with naming a price. Now, Mr. Morosi could say that someone would have to hit .500 for a non-contender, but that would suggest that he values the mere fact of being on a playoff team as being worth a lot. Whatever price he named, we could do some quick-and-dirty algebra to figure out what he believes the playoff premium to be worth.

One thing that we do know is that, given the current spread between Cabrera and Trout, Mr. Morosi appears to value the playoff premium as worth at least 2.8 wins, which is what Kendrys Morales has been worth to the Mariners this year (although Morosi may disagree about the difference in performance between the two candidates). If Mr. Morosi believes that Mike Trout needs another half a win of distance to eclipse Cabrera's playoff advantage, then he believes that wearing the uniform of a playoff team is worth as much as Giancarlo Stanton's production in 2013.

Again, as Mr. Morosi points out, there is no singular definition for "valuable," and voters (and non-voters) are welcome to construct their own. But their definitions can still be questioned. In that spirit, the question I would pose is whether this is a sensible valuation of the playoff premium.

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

Related Content:  MVP,  Mike Trout,  Miguel Cabrera

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