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December 1, 2010

Ahead in the Count

So How Good are MVPs Really?

by Matt Swartz

With the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards announced in the last two weeks, we saw a first-time MVP in each league, a first-time American League Cy Young winner and a National League Cy Young winner who had won the American League Cy Young Award seven years prior. Winning consecutive MVP or Cy Young awards is a rarity, though we have seen recent repeats by Albert Pujols and Tim Lincecum. In the last 18 years (1993-2010, which encompasses the last  two rounds of expansion), we have seen just six of 36 MVP awards go to the previous year’s winner, and just nine Cy Young Awards to the previous recipient. But the best hitter or best pitcher in the league is usually not a different person every year.

Anybody who wins an MVP or Cy Young was almost definitely both good and lucky. No one is going to argue that it is possible for a bad player to win such an award, but it may be less obvious to some people why award winners are also lucky. First of all, the fact that one year is still a pretty small sample, and that plate appearances or innings pitched must be a finite number for any hitter or pitcher means that there will be some luck in play. However, someone would need to be a tremendous baseball player to outplay everyone else in the league while getting very bad luck himself or even moderately bad luck, because there are plenty of great players who have good luck in any given year.

But just how lucky are the player who played the best and the pitcher who pitched best each year? To move closer to the answer, I looked at all 72 MVPs or Cy Young Award winners during the last 18 years, and examined how well they played in the year before and the year following their award-winning performance. Of course this will not exactly estimate their true talent level, but it is closer to their true talent level than their award-winning performance. I decided to look at WARP, TAv, and PA for hitters, and WARP, ERA, and IP for pitchers, to get a sense of whether players were contributing more, and whether that was because they were playing more or playing better.

Below, I list the MVPs from 1993 through 2010 in each league:

National League

Year

Name

Prev Yr

WARP3

WARP3

Next Yr WARP3

Prev Yr TAv

TAv

Next Yr TAv

Prev Yr PA

PA

Next Yr PA

1993

Barry Bonds

12.3

12.4

8.6

.384

.373

.346

612

674

474

1994

Jeff Bagwell

6.2

11.7

5.4

.321

.386

.315

609

479

539

1995

Barry Larkin

6.6

6.8

7.7

.283

.312

.325

501

567

627

1996

Ken Caminiti

7.1

10.4

6.6

.307

.341

.317

602

638

576

1997

Larry Walker

1.8

5.1

4.6

.270

.327

.311

304

664

524

1998

Sammy Sosa

0.8

5.9

5.1

.255

.319

.306

694

722

712

1999

Chipper Jones

6.7

5.9

5.2

.316

.341

.311

707

701

686

2000

Jeff Kent

5.5

9.3

7.6

.295

.336

.303

585

695

696

2001

Barry Bonds

8.4

13.0

12.5

.358

.428

.451

607

664

612

2002

Barry Bonds

13.0

12.5

11.0

.428

.451

.403

664

612

550

2003

Barry Bonds

12.5

11.0

10.8

.451

.403

.438

612

550

617

2004

Barry Bonds

11.0

10.8

0.6

.403

.438

.339

550

617

52

2005

Albert Pujols

8.4

8.5

9.5

.339

.339

.351

692

700

634

2006

Ryan Howard

2.0

7.1

5.1

.297

.340

.317

348

704

648

2007

Jimmy Rollins

4.3

7.1

5.7

.278

.297

.284

758

778

625

2008

Albert Pujols

10.2

11.1

12.0

.335

.367

.361

679

641

700

2009

Albert Pujols

11.1

12.0

8.9

.367

.361

.344

641

700

700

2010

Joey Votto

4.6

7.7

 

.331

.350

 

544

648

 

 

Average

7.4

9.4

7.5

.332

.362

.342

595

653

587

American League

Year

Name

Prev Yr

WARP3

WARP3

Next Yr WARP3

Prev Yr TAv

TAv

Next Yr TAv

Prev Yr PA

PA

Next Yr PA

1993

Frank Thomas

8.9

7.1

10.4

.358

.346

.381

711

676

517

1994

Frank Thomas

7.1

10.4

7.8

.346

.381

.349

676

517

647

1995

Mo Vaughn

3.7

4.0

4.5

.305

.314

.320

463

636

752

1996

Juan Gonzalez

2.0

2.1

2.2

.287

.301

.290

374

592

574

1997

Ken Griffey Jr.

7.4

8.7

8.1

.320

.325

.313

704

720

706

1998

Juan Gonzalez

2.2

3.2

3.1

.290

.308

.299

579

669

629

1999

Ivan Rodriguez

8.7

7.4

5.8

.286

.284

.311

617

630

389

2000

Jason Giambi

5.1

7.8

8.8

.320

.359

.366

695

664

671

2001

Ichiro Suzuki

 

6.3

5.0

 

.294

.284

 

738

728

2002

Miguel Tejada

3.6

6.0

3.5

.267

.287

.273

683

715

703

2003

Alex Rodriguez

8.3

7.1

5.9

.315

.314

.300

725

715

698

2004

Vladimir Guerrero

4.0

6.9

6.4

.321

.322

.320

467

680

594

2005

Alex Rodriguez

5.9

8.5

4.7

.300

.340

.305

698

715

674

2006

Justin Morneau

0.5

4.4

3.9

.251

.306

.284

543

661

668

2007

Alex Rodriguez

4.7

9.0

7.1

.305

.345

.322

674

704

594

2008

Dustin Pedroia

4.6

8.4

4.7

.283

.299

.281

581

726

714

2009

Joe Mauer

7.4

9.0

6.1

.311

.346

.312

633

606

584

2010

Josh Hamilton

1.0

8.2

 

.254

.346

 

365

571

 

 

Average

5.0

6.9

5.8

.301

.323

.312

599

663

638

Josh Hamilton and Joey Votto were very valuable players in 2010, each worth about eight wins, but how many people think that those two players are the best in their respective leagues going forward? The only players who have won consecutive MVPs in the current era are Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, and Pujols, and chances are that Pujols would be a better bet going forward than Votto, regardless of which one you would rather have had in 2010. Votto is an amazing player who played above his head in 2010. But how far above his head?

Looking at just 1997-2010 winners (to avoid issues related to the 1994 strike), we see that the average MVP in both leagues was worth 8.1 wins, which was 26 percent higher than the 6.1 wins that they put up the previous season and 19 percent higher than the 6.6 wins that were worth the following year. Their TAvs went from .317 to .342 in their MVP season then back down to .327 the following year, while their PA went from 606 to 670 to 620. Thus, the 26 percent increase in production in MVP seasons is partly a result of a 10 percent increase in PA, and the 19 percent production decline the following year is partly a result of the 9 percent decrease in PA.

It seems safe to say that MVPs are probably worth a little over 6-7 wins in terms of skill level, and since MVPs are not necessarily the most skilled players in the league, we can round up and say that the very best players in the league are probably worth seven wins in true skill level, though seasonal MVPs tend to be worth about eight wins in their award-winning seasons. These players tend to get more than four plate appearances per game in their MVP campaigns, but tend to get less than that the year before and the year after.

Moving onto Cy Young winners, there are certainly more repeat winners, but we still see a distinct spike in production and playing time during their winning seasons.

National League

Year

Name

Prev Yr

WARP3

WARP3

Next Yr WARP3

Prev Yr ERA

ERA

Next Yr ERA

Prev Yr IP

IP

Next Yr IP

1993

Greg Maddux

9.4

6.4

10.5

2.18

2.36

1.56

268.0

267.0

202.0

1994

Greg Maddux

6.4

10.5

10.8

2.36

1.56

1.63

267.0

202.0

209.7

1995

Greg Maddux

10.5

10.8

7.3

1.56

1.63

2.72

202.0

209.7

245.0

1996

John Smoltz

3.6

6.9

4.9

3.18

2.94

3.02

256.0

253.7

167.7

1997

Pedro Martinez

2.2

8.1

5.4

3.70

1.90

2.89

216.7

241.3

233.7

1998

Tom Glavine

4.8

7.0

3.1

2.96

2.47

4.12

240.0

229.3

234.0

1999

Randy Johnson

6.4

6.3

6.5

3.28

2.48

2.64

244.3

271.7

248.7

2000

Randy Johnson

6.3

6.5

7.0

2.48

2.64

2.49

271.7

248.7

249.7

2001

Randy Johnson

6.5

7.0

8.0

2.64

2.49

2.32

248.7

249.7

260.0

2002

Randy Johnson

7.0

8.0

1.2

2.49

2.32

4.26

249.7

260.0

114.0

2003

Eric Gagne

5.5

8.4

4.2

1.97

1.20

2.19

82.3

82.3

82.3

2004

Roger Clemens

4.3

5.7

7.7

3.91

3.28

1.87

211.7

214.3

211.3

2005

Chris Carpenter

1.7

5.2

5.1

3.46

2.83

3.09

182.0

241.7

221.7

2006

Brandon Webb

5.6

7.2

6.3

3.54

3.10

3.01

208.0

229.0

235.0

2007

Jake Peavy

3.4

8.8

6.3

4.09

2.54

2.85

202.3

223.3

173.7

2008

Tim Lincecum

1.6

7.5

6.8

4.00

2.62

2.48

146.3

227.0

225.3

2009

Tim Lincecum

7.5

6.8

4.6

2.62

2.48

3.43

227.0

225.3

212.3

2010

Roy Halladay

7.8

9.0

 

2.79

2.44

 

239.0

250.7

 

 

Average

5.6

7.6

6.2

2.96

2.39

2.74

220.1

229.3

207.4

 

American League

Year

Name

Prev Yr

WARP3

WARP3

Next Yr WARP3

Prev Yr ERA

ERA

Next Yr ERA

Prev Yr IP

IP

Next Yr IP

1993

Jack McDowell

6.1

5.7

3.4

3.18

3.37

3.73

253.7

260.7

256.7

1994

David Cone

5.1

6.2

1.8

3.33

2.94

3.82

254.0

171.7

229.3

1995

Randy Johnson

7.2

8.6

1.3

3.19

2.48

3.67

172.0

214.3

61.3

1996

Pat Hentgen

1.3

6.7

5.4

5.11

3.22

3.68

200.7

265.7

264.0

1997

Roger Clemens

7.0

11.3

7.3

3.63

2.05

2.65

242.7

264.0

234.7

1998

Roger Clemens

11.3

7.3

1.4

2.05

2.65

4.60

264.0

234.7

187.7

1999

Pedro Martinez

5.4

8.4

10.1

2.89

2.07

1.74

233.7

213.3

217.0

2000

Pedro Martinez

8.4

10.1

4.0

2.07

1.74

2.39

213.3

217.0

116.7

2001

Roger Clemens

3.5

5.0

1.9

3.70

3.51

4.35

204.3

220.3

180.0

2002

Barry Zito

3.1

5.8

3.5

3.49

2.75

3.30

214.3

229.3

231.7

2003

Roy Halladay

6.2

6.9

2.0

2.93

3.25

4.20

239.3

266.0

133.0

2004

Johan Santana

5.9

6.5

5.6

2.87

2.77

3.33

231.7

233.7

219.0

2005

Bartolo Colon

0.5

3.3

-0.5

5.01

3.48

5.11

208.3

222.7

56.3

2006

Johan Santana

5.9

6.5

5.6

2.87

2.77

3.33

231.7

233.7

219.0

2007

CC Sabathia

3.8

5.6

7.3

3.22

3.21

2.70

192.7

241.0

253.0

2008

Cliff Lee

-1.2

7.0

5.0

6.29

2.54

3.14

97.3

223.3

231.7

2009

Zack Greinke

5.2

9.9

3.6

3.47

2.16

4.17

202.3

229.3

220.0

2010

Felix Hernandez

6.1

7.9

 

2.49

2.27

 

238.7

249.7

 

 

Average

4.9

7.3

4.1

3.44

2.73

3.50

212.3

232.5

195.5

Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, and Lincecum won consecutive Cy Youngs, but Roy Halladay and Johan Santana both won two non-consecutive awards. Winning the Cy Young is hard, but the best pitchers seem to be able to do it more easily than the best hitters seem to be able to win MVPs.

Again looking at only 1997-2010 (so that we can focus on players who had the potential to participate in 162-game seasons the year before and the year after their awards), the average Cy Young winner across both leagues jumped from 5.0 WARP the year before their award to 7.3 WARP the year of to 5.0 WARP the year after. Their ERAs went from 3.25 to 2.56 to 3.16, while their innings pitched went from 211.3 to 231.0 to 200.5.

Unlike the MVPs who performed better the year after their award than they did the year before their awards, the Cy Young winners had the same overall production on average. In fact, they had ERAs that were lower the year after their award, but they had innings pitched numbers that were lower, too. This is probably due to health consequences of pitching more during their Cy Young seasons, since they failed to pitch as many innings but still pitched better. I believe this indicates that the Cy Young winners’ true skill level was a little higher during their award-winning season than the following season, because we know that the ability to stay on the mound is a skill. This means that 5.0 WARP is lower than their true skill level by a small margin.

This suggests that the skill level of pitchers during their Cy Young season was around six wins (again rounding up from 5-6 wins of skill level for Cy Young winners, because the Cy Young winner might not be the best pitcher), despite the fact that Cy Young winners’ performances are worth 7-8 wins. Again, this shows how much luck can factor into pitching. However, the repeat winners also suggest that the best pitcher is often so much better than the second-best pitcher in the league that he can still win despite not having amazing luck.

Back in June, when I wrote an article explaining the luck that had played into the 1.16 ERA that Ubaldo Jimenez had through his first 13 starts, I received a tweet directed at me that read: “Magic seasons happen. Deal with it.” While the tweet was erased soon after, and the ERA was erased with a 4.14 performance by Jimenez during the 20 starts he had after my article was posted, it should be very clear that magic half-seasons happen. Of course, they are not really magic half-seasons, but they are lucky half-seasons that happen to very talented players. To a lesser extent, luck exists in full seasons as well, meaning that “magic” seasons do happen; the tweeter was right. This small study should be a good clue as to just how magical they are. The answer is that there are about 1-2 wins of luck for MVPs and about 2-3 wins of luck for Cy Young winners that factor into the average winner’s award-winning season. 

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

Related Content:  Luck,  The Who,  Magic Johnson,  Mvps,  Best,  Skill

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