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November 29, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Breakthrough

by Jim Baker

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Recent events have reminded me of something once told a friend by his psychologist. Since the time of his birth, his parents would do and say incredibly stupid, way-off-the-charts-of-bad-parenting sorts of things--hence his need for counseling. After repeatedly telling the counselor "you're not going to believe what they did this time," the psychologist finally said, "Why are you still acting surprised by their behavior after all these years?" It was, as they say in that trade, a breakthrough moment.

Which brings us to the BBWAA.

We are long past due for our breakthrough moment regarding that esteemed body and the annual crapshoot that is their award voting. In spite of decades of spectacularly misguided results, we continue to act shocked and outraged by what they do. After another miss on a major award in results announced last Tuesday--the American League Most Valuable Player--the time has come to do one of two things:

1. Pretend these votes don't exist.
2. Accept them for the high comedy they provide and celebrate them on that basis alone.

The first choice is problematic because talking about awards is one of the load-bearing piers of baseball fandom. To put it simply: it is fun. So, we'll have to work toward the second choice. So, with that in mind, here is the last post mortem on the American League MVP.

Jeter vs. Morneau
There is a great deal of irony at play here and it is this: for years, Derek Jeter has been the darling of the mainstream media while the stathead community has long questioned his overall value because of his defense, rated below average by all objective measures. Meanwhile, it was the statheads who petitioned the Twins to get Justin Morneau out of the shadows and into the regular lineup. So, in 2006, we have the incongruous spectacle of statheads assailing the choice of their boy Morneau for MVP while offering their long-time nemesis, Jeter, as a viable alternative. To do otherwise, though, would be intellectually dishonest because Jeter was a far better candidate by almost all conceivable stathead metrics.

Morneau vs. Mauer
Having already beaten this dead horse so badly its offspring are suing me, I return once more to wondering how so many people can be convinced that Joe Mauer was not the Twins' most valuable position player. With an open mind toward coming to an understanding of the delusion (not a single voter placed Joe Mauer ahead of Morneau), I am left with this rather twisted tautology. Follow along:

If only contenders' players should be eligible to win the MVP and If only victories count toward making teams contenders, then Nothing else matters than what players do in those victories.

So, with that in mind, let's look at these lines:

Mauer when Twins were victorious: 81 games .404/.493/.586
Morneau when Twins were victorious: 94 games: .371/.421/.661
Mauer when Twins were defeated: 59 games, .266/.328/.393
Morneau when Twins were defeated: 63 games, .235/.296/.382

So there it is: Morneau has a better OPS when the Twins were winning, albeit by just a few points. Mauer wasted his advantage during losses. Also, catchers being what they are, Morneau played in 13 more victories than did Mauer as opposed to just four more losses. The Twins' winning percentage with Morneau was .591 and with Mauer just .540.

Look, I don't approve of this methodology, I'm just hoping the voters looked at something other than Runs Batted In and maybe this was it.

Hafner vs. Thomas
By any objective measurement, Frank Thomas was the fourth- or fifth-best designated hitter in the league. Travis Hafner was the best except that he missed a lot of games so if you want to hand the DH title to David Ortiz, that's fine. We do know that, according to VORP, Thomas was almost four wins south of Hafner. The difference between the two was their situations. Thomas, with a bit of help from Nick Swisher, was the offensive cornerstone of the A's. Hafner had a lot of help from Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez. What is more, Hafner's team was burdened with a bullpen that seemed to be in the employ of foreign agents. That and hard luck sent a team that should have battled the White Sox for third place to a 78-84 record. Meanwhile, the A's were basically a .500 team that outdid itself by 10 games.

If Thomas has been a Gold Glove shortstop with Hafner's VORP of 79.7, then his presence at the top of the MVP counts would have been understandable. He wasn't, though, so the same voters that punished Hafner for being in the midst of a team that underperformed rewarded him for being on one that outdid itself. This is by no means an endorsement of Hafner as an MVP candidate, but how nine voters managed to dismiss him as one of the 10 most-valuable men in the league suggests incompetence.

Voter report card
This is what I did: I took every voter's ballot and assigned points based on their choices' WARP3 and where they were placed on the ballot. For instance, a first-place vote for Justin Morneau would net them 120.4 points (8.6 x 14) while a second-place vote for Morneau would be worth 77.4 points (8.6 x 9). Obviously, a ballot filled with lesser players in high slots would result in a lower score. (If a voter somehow placed their votes in the exact order of WARP3 finish, they would have gotten 640 points.) In this evaluation, down-ballot votes not well-considered can make a big difference - especially since just about everybody had the same one-two. Which is, of course, the problem: even the voters that made a smart choice at the very top undercut themselves and Jeter by tabbing Morneau second.

The Top Three
Larry Millson, Toronto Globe and Mail: 581.4
Evan Grant, Dallas Morning News: 579.9
Jim Ingraham, News Herald: 578.8

In spite of punishing himself with a Morneau pick at the very top, Millson still had the most WARP3-friendly ballot. This was helped by being one of just two voters who left off Frank Thomas. (Thom Loverro of the Washington Times was the other.) Millson's worst inclusion was a hometown nod to Vernon Wells and his 8.0 WARP3, but it was just a 10th-place vote so it didn't hurt him that much. Grant was the sole voter to put Johan Santana in the top spot, a better WARP3 choice than Morneau. Had he not placed Thomas as high as fifth, the prize for most talent-laden ballot would have been his. His 10th-place hometown nod was to Michael Young, the only vote the Texas shortstop received. Young--with a WARP3 of 10.7 that was heavily influenced by s staggering 44 FRAR--has a strong case as the most aggrieved candidate in the league. Ingraham was the only voter who placed Hafner (second) higher than sixth place. That he is one of the two Indians reporters might have influenced that choice. He also had Grady Sizemore in fifth, which may look like a hometown pick but is actually quite defensible, given that he had one of the five-best WARP3s in the league.

The Bottom Three
John Hickey, Seattle Post Intelligencer: 520.1
Danny Knobler, Booth Newspapers: 530.9
Joe Cowley, Chicago Sun-Times: 533.4

Hickey's ballot suffered for a number of reasons. While his one-two was the same as top finisher Millson, he lost 60 points over the course of the next eight picks. Placing Thomas in third cost him a lot of points as did a fifth-place nod to Alex Rodriguez and his 7.4 WARP3. While I understand and appreciate the subversive nature of A-Rod support at this point in his career, he simply wasn't one of the 10 best players in the league in 2006. Hickey also lost points with a hometown eighth for Raul Ibanez (7.7). He is also one of two voters--Joe Roderick of the Contra Costa Times being the other--who somehow managed to leave both Mauer and Hafner off their ballots.

Knobler can be applauded as one of the three voters who placed Mauer third, but his second-place choice of Thomas cost him and his fourth-place choice for Jeter was the second-lowest showing for the Yankee shortstop. He also had Jason Giambi in sixth, which makes no sense in any universe--especially one in which Jeter is fourth. Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle was also undone by an overvaluation of Thomas. She had one of the better ballots submitted--she ranked Morneau lower than anybody--but would have had the best by far if she had switched Thomas with her seventh-place pick of Mauer.

Joe Cowley's ballot has been assailed in other sectors, most notably on the Mike and the Mad Dog show on WFAN in New York where they took him to task for putting Jeter sixth. His argument that the Yankees would have won without Jeter and that he is, therefore, not as valuable as Morneau, falls apart because he also chose Jermaine Dye for second place. Dye is actually not a terrible second-place choice, but if the criterion is winning, then he doesn't work in that context because the White Sox didn't. Besides, Cowley forgot to mention Joe Mauer, a player without whom the Twins wouldn't have won, either. To compound that oversight, he gave a vote to the least-deserving player mentioned on any ballot: A.J. Pierzynski.

What is this vote about? It's certainly not baseball-related, so I'm guessing it's personal. Did Pierzynski save Cowley from a burning building? Did he sell him one of his kidneys at a discount? Not to devote too much time to the obvious, but Pierzynski was not even one of the top five catchers in the league this year. He was certainly not one of the five most valuable men on his own team - a team that finished out of the running, as noted. If Cowley thinks Pierzynski was a better choice than Mauer, or Jorge Posada, or Ivan Rodriguez or Victor Martinez (just to name the catchers), then that is troublesome. If not, and the vote is about something else, then that is troublesome, too.

Of course, we can co-opt that psychologist's advice and stop being shocked by silly behavior. Then none of this is troublesome.

Dave Haller contributed research to this column.

Related Content:  Joe Mauer,  Justin Morneau,  Michael Choice,  The Who

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