August 20, 2010
Handicapping the AL MVP
Because of an exceptionally tight field and the improbability that any of the votes are in, handicapping the American League MVP race may be almost as much a matter of handicapping the electorate as it is a question of who's deserving. This is invariably the challenge with talking about the awards at any point before they're awarded, before or during the season: Do you want to talk about who I think should win and why, more generally about who should win and why, or who the voters are likely to pick and why?
As is only too well known—and as Andre Dawson's induction into the Hall of Fame provides an easy reminder—the award isn't reliably given to the best player, and the criteria involved in selection provide plenty of wiggle room for people to vote for all sorts of players for all sorts of slippery reasons. Admittedly, there's the instinct to want to be able to say, “Aha, I was right, I foresaw all, my Kreskin-like powers of anticipation reign supreme!” While filling out BP's pre-season predictions, I always give thought to the voters as well as the merits of the players I expect will shine, because the awards aren't simply about player performance, but also wind up being about the interpretations of that performance. But here, that counts for less, and it's time to make an argument on behalf of the best entries in the field. Happily, I'm not one of the voters, nor do I know who the voters are, so I can stick with splitting statistical hairs among the potential candidates and let my arguments live or die as all of you see fit.
Let's begin with crossing a few categories off the list. First off, we can dispense with there being a valid candidate from among the league's relievers, so we don't have to worry about a Willie Hernandez or a Dennis Eckersley sneaking in. Joakim Soria is handily the AL's best reliever, ranking nearly a full win better than the Rays' Rafael Soriano. However, unless the Royals violate the First Law of Thermodynamics and become hotter than the sum of their potential energy with a quarter of the season to go, there's no danger of his suddenly setting any records beyond winding up with the third- or fourth-best relief season in franchise history. That's a very nice thing to achieve, but it's also pointless for the purposes of this discussion. He might draw some down-ballot support, as Soriano should, and if somebody boldly gives Daniel Bard some props for the league's best set-up season, that'll be a grand gesture. Basically, Soria and Bard might have a chance for greater credit if Jayson Stark's initiative to create a specific annual relief pitching award wins wider support within the BBWAA, but on this ballot they're back-end toss-ins.
Then there are the starting pitchers. I'd suggest that, not unlike the likely outcome of the Cy Young race, we're looking at the shortened-season impact of Cliff Lee balanced against the full-season splendor of his fellow ex-Indian, CC Sabathia. Felix Hernandez has produced better full-season value than either of them, but he's not going to win the MVP Award, while Jon Lester seems born to be a dark horse unlikely to get his full due unless something bad happens to several of his more famous rivals before the month is out.
The outcome of Lee vs. Sabathia should make for an especially interesting Cy Young Award. While I'd love to see Hernandez enter the conversation on the basis of his boasting the strongest statistical virtues as far as the performance metrics of both alternatives—Lee's rates, and Sabathia's counting stats—I don't think we'll see Nolan Ryan's Cy-worthy 8-16 '87 season avenged this year. Zack Greinke getting his due last season was progress, but there's still a chunk of this electorate responsible for giving Bartolo Colon a Cy Young Award. While Lee's arrival in Texas is supposed to be the fulcrum around which their bid to win a post-season series against an AL East team revolves, it'll be difficult to see either his performance or Sabathia's, let alone King Felix's, rating well enough to triumph over any but the most fractured of fields among the hitters.
Which we might have on our hands, because the slate of hitters is a broad jumble. I'd advance nine plausible candidates if we were having this conversation just a few weeks ago, but Kevin Youkilis is out for the year, and we have no idea what Justin Morneau will do when he returns. Who are the seven, at least as I see them?
Generally working our way up from the bottom to the top, while Morneau's absence at a time when the Twins are making tracks in the AL Central probably won't do him any favors, it might help the case of his teammate, Joe Mauer, who's having a very good, sub-incredible season. Morneau is likely to have to settle for honorable mentions instead of vying with Mauer for top honors among the Twins, so Mauer might command the “they had to have won somehow, so let's blame the best player on the team” segment of the voting population. He's also last year's MVP, which might incentivize some people to not vote for him, but unless somebody comes away as a clear favorite, the fact that he'll show up on so many ballots could help him.
Crawford is more than a courtesy mention, because of course he's right here among the leaders in WARP3 (or WARP adjusted for league difficulty for 162 games*). On a tough ballot, some people might skip the apples versus oranges argument of best player versus best-ish player on a contender, and reach for the pineapple. He's second in the league in stolen bases and runs scored, and leading the field in Equivalent Baserunning Runs, and if the electorate wants to veer into some sort of argument over how fundamentals and speed and defense are what put the Rays in the postseason, I can see how Crawford's very distinct contributions relative to the half-dozen sluggier alternatives would look good. That said, I think he's got less hope than Mauer—left field is not catcher, and Crawford's strengths really rely on counting stats and health, not pure excellence.
Similarly, Longoria's case has Crawford's virtues as far as durability, quality performance, and across-the-board value. Interestingly enough, they're both plating over 17 percent of their baserunners, which puts them among the league leaders. put that on a contender, and he becomes an easy choice for people who lean toward voting for players on playoff teams. Longoria has almost bulls-eyed his rate stat projections, and he plays an excellent third base. It might strike some as downright dull as narratives go, but total fulfillment of high expectations deserves its day at the ballot box.
Robinson Cano deserves more consideration than he ever seems to get, and his dominance as the top hitter at the position seems secure. The problem is that there's always going to be that question over whether or not he's a second banana shining in the shadow of the bigger stars populating the Yankees' lineup. Add in that, like many Yankees, he's gotten the benefit of facing pitchers allowing among the highest slugging rates in the league, plus the disdain with which his defense seems to be regarded, and I wouldn't be surprised if he has to settle somewhere in the middle of the pack. His virtues as a slugger and as a position-relative dominating contributor on offense don't outshine the people ahead of him on this list.
The Tigers' Miguel Cabrera should be an easy favorite in a number of regards. If you're old-school and hung up on batting average, he's second, while leading the league in RBI. If you're new-school, the fact that he's leading in OBP, SLG, True Average, and almost there in VORP positions him somewhat nicely as far as the pure value proposition. Position-relative, he suffers a little bit because the standards are higher at first base, and he's also not a particularly nimble defender, but Cabrera's case for MVP is about as sound as it gets... except for a few incidentals. The Tigers are already dead, which won't really help him with the drama addicts, and last year's incident with drunkenness didn't help him any then, and probably doesn't help him any now.
To some extent, Longoria's problem as well as Cano's is that another infielder in their own division has put them both in the shade: Boston's Adrian Beltre. Delivering his best season since his huge 2004 with the Dodgers, Beltre makes an easy choice for the single most important player down the stretch because, against a dramatic backdrop of an injury-riddled Red Sox team that's always going to command an outsized amount of attention, he has to keep it up for the Sox to have much hope. Here again, there are going to be some voters who liked voting for Justin Morneau in 2006 who might see enough in Beltre's season to be seduced from either Cabrera or the last major candidate.
Which brings us to Josh Hamilton. Between what is by now a nearly legendary back story of redemption, participation in a pennant race, a past RBI title that helped him achieve a top-10 finish with the voters in 2008, his history, however checkered it might be in the grand scheme of things, will be an asset for him. Add in that he's second in the league in slugging, leading in WARP per 162 games and total bases and VORP, and he's not just a guy leading the league in hits and batting average for the stathead community to rail about.
Put all of that together, and I think it boils down to Hamilton or Cabrera as the likely winners. They have the right sorts of associations with winning teams, the leaderboards of both performance analysts as well as traditionalists, and their nearest competition, Beltre and Longoria, don't play up-the-middle positions, but a different corner. Longoria's almost effortless arrival into greatness might actually work against him. I expect the voting will be fairly tight as long as everyone's performances hold up. Were it my call to make and if I had to make it now, I'd probably wind up being a bit stubborn and running with my pre-season pick and sticking with Longoria, in part because I expect Beltre to lose ground down the stretch, while Hamilton gets hurt or gets rested. However, as much as I like what he's doing and will do, my suspicion is that Longoria won't win. Instead, Hamilton may be just too irresistible as a self-generating story line, and there's no begrudging him an outstanding season no matter what your flavor of numeracy might be.