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August 18, 2008

Prospectus Today

Picking the AL MVP

by Joe Sheehan

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That wasn’t fun. A family vacation in the Dominican Republic last week—not my choice to leave the country in August, believe me—was extended when a rather grumpy lady named Fay passed through on Friday, shutting down Punta Cana airport. There’s a long story here, but suffice to say that American Airlines gets the gas face for its treatment of hundreds of customers stranded, most of them in a foreign country, by the storm.

I am home now, and eager to get caught up after spending most of the last 16 days on the road. There’s nothing like spending time in a place in which the power regularly goes out to make you appreciate reliable internet access, a satellite package, and the “on” button.

On Sunday afternoon in Oakland, Carlos Quentin roped his MLB-leading 34th home run to help the White Sox to a 13-1 win over the A’s. Because he leads the league in homers, is high on the RBI list, plays for a division leader, and has something of a narrative attached to his name, Quentin is a popular choice for the AL MVP award. In a season in which no AL player has stood above all the rest, but many are having good seasons, Quentin’s case seems as valid as anyone’s. You could say much the same, only better, about Josh Hamilton, who despite a sluggish second half has the kind of stats and story the BBWAA loves.

Let’s run at this from a different angle, though, one that focuses more on performance than anything else. Here are the reasonable candidates for the award, and their stat lines through Sunday:


                 PA   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP  Rk*  WARP1  Rk*
Milton Bradley  399  .317 .442 .584  47.3   4     5.3
Jermaine Dye    488  .300 .355 .572  38.0  15     5.6   9
Josh Hamilton   545  .304 .369 .549  47.2   5     4.9
Ian Kinsler     583  .319 .375 .517  56.1   1     6.4   1
Joe Mauer       465  .321 .414 .451  39.9  13     6.3   2
Carlos Quentin  514  .292 .395 .582  47.0   8     5.5
Alex Rodriguez  450  .313 .402 .598  54.8   2     5.8   6
Grady Sizemore  561  .266 .380 .514  51.5   3     5.5  10
Kevin Youkilis  485  .320 .388 .577  47.1   7     5.8   7
*among position players, for those in top ten in WARP

                         IP    ERA  VORP  Rk*  WARP1  Rk*
Cliff Lee             170.2   2.43  59.4   1    8.6    1
Roy Halladay          191.0   2.64  56.4   2    7.7    2
Francisco Rodriguez    51.1   2.81  13.8  60    5.1
*among pitchers, for those in top ten in WARP

That seems like an exhaustive list, but it doesn’t even include Evan Longoria, who is third in WARP among position players, or Mariano Rivera, third in WARP among everyone, or Justin Morneau, who won the award under similar circumstances two years ago. It’s that kind of year in the AL—lots of the best players are having seasons of similar value, and how valuable they are depends in some part on which system you’re using.

A few things become clear when you run the numbers. First, Ian Kinsler has been the best position player in the American League, thanks in part to a 26-for-28 performance stealing bases. His defense isn’t good—a Rate of 95 in Clay’s system, and worse than that in others—but he’s made up for that with his bat and his legs.

You can also see that Alex Rodriguez isn’t getting enough play in this discussion. Despite a stint on the DL, he is second in VORP and sixth in WARP, and he could well end up leading the league in both categories. If he does, there wouldn’t be much of a case against him as the MVP, at least among position players, although because he’s so far out of the discussion now, and his season isn’t publicly perceived as a great one, he has very little chance of winning. Like Albert Pujols in the NL, Rodriguez’s greatness is taken for granted, leaving the best player in the league reduced to seventh-place finishes in the MVP voting.

What also becomes apparent is that while the AL MVP might well be a pitcher, that pitcher had better not be Francisco Rodriguez. Rodriguez isn’t even the best closer in the league, and as you can tell by the numbers above, he doesn’t even rate as compared to the top starters in the circuit. He’s going to break the saves record, which is more about opportunity—his percentage isn’t anything special, but he has 10 more save opportunities than any other closer—than anything else. You could take any number of pitchers, put them in the role Rodriguez has had, and the Angels’ performance would be exactly the same, and in some cases, better. Rodriguez would be one of the worst MVP choices ever.

If you want to give the award to a pitcher, give it to the best one. Cliff Lee has outpitched the field by a win, he leads AL players in WARP and VORP, and he even comes with a great story. If performance is the metric, Cliff Lee has been the most valuable player in the American League. His lead over the pack—Kinsler, Rodriguez, and Halladay, in that order—is small enough that the next six weeks could change everything, but right now, Lee is the AL MVP.

Of course, starting pitchers on bad teams don’t win the MVP award, so we’re likely to see another season in which the award and the most valuable player are two different animals. The media-attention candidates—Quentin, Hamilton, and Francisco Rodriguez, by and large—don’t compare to the top players in the league, and even guys such as Justin Morneau and Kevin Youkilis are getting more play than Lee and Alex Rodriguez. It’s not entirely clear to me why the AL MVP award is more about narrative than numbers, but we’re nearly a decade into this being the case, and it’s not going to change anytime soon.

Sorry, Cliff Lee—you needed Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez to play better than they did.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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