CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

<< Previous Article
An Agent's Take: Appro... (11/14)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Skewed Left: Shane Vic... (10/25)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Skewed Left: My Column... (11/21)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Perfect Game Presents:... (11/14)

November 14, 2013

Skewed Left

Why Deserving MVPs Don't Win

by Zachary Levine


When Mike Trout—okay, fine, if Mike Trout—gets robbed of the American League MVP award tonight for the second straight year, the explanation won’t be so easy. Last year, the excuse for excusing one of the best seasons of all time, not just by a 20-year-old but by anybody, was readymade. He was going up against the Triple Crown—an achievement that, while not all that indicative of overall value, is still so steeped in historical value that it can be blinding.

This year it’s not so simple. The voters won’t have one obvious reason for dismissing the best super-young position player in the history of the game again.

But according to research on more than six decades of MVP voting patterns conducted with the help of some Baseball Prospectus colleagues, they will have several less obvious reasons for dismissing him. Combine the biases exposed by an examination of some of the worst votes in history, and you can basically pre-construct the case against Trout.

Trout was the best player in baseball this year, and since I would pay more to have his season than anyone else’s season, I consider him the most valuable player.

However, he is everything that BBWAA voters have hated in the years when their results have been most misaligned with what the numbers say. He plays the wrong position for the wrong team, doing so with the wrong skill set and yes, it can be shown, at the wrong age.

The following is a look at all the history he’s fighting against that’s arguably more powerful than a triple crown, and some insight into the biases of MVP voters over generations of head-scratching results.

***

It’s hard to define a bad vote, especially so far after the fact when we’ve lost sight of all the lesser elements of value that could be tilting judgment away from statistical performance, whether rightly or wrongly.

I’ve tried to go about this in the most lenient way possible. In coming up with the 25 MVP robberies from the WARP era of 1950-present, I’ve ignored any year when a pitcher won the award, mostly to avoid a mess. And while a comparison of WARP vs. the vote would be a simple way to go, I’ve given my peers in the BBWAA a little longer leash. To count as a bad vote, a different position player not only had to lead all of that league’s position players in WARP, but he also had to do so in Fangraphs’ WAR and Baseball-Reference’s WAR, and he had to beat the named MVP by at least 1.0 win above replacement in all of them.

That brings us to a list of 25—13 in the NL, 12 in the AL—with a nice lull of some pretty good voting in the 1970s and 1980s.

AL best position player vs. actual MVP

NL best position player vs. actual MVP

2012 – Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera

2006 – Albert Pujols vs. Ryan Howard

2002 – Alex Rodriguez vs. Miguel Tejada

1998 – Barry Bonds vs. Sammy Sosa

2001 – Jason Giambi vs. Ichiro Suzuki

1995 – Barry Bonds vs. Barry Larkin

2000 – Alex Rodriguez vs. Jason Giambi

1991 – Barry Bonds vs. Terry Pendleton

1993 – Ken Griffey Jr. vs. Frank Thomas

1974 – Mike Schmidt vs. Steve Garvey

1987 – Wade Boggs vs. George Bell

1971 – Willie Stargell vs. Joe Torre

1985 – Rickey Henderson vs. Don Mattingly

1964 – Willie Mays vs. Ken Boyer

1970 – Carl Yastrzemski vs. Boog Powell

1962 – Willie Mays vs. Maury Wills

1963 – Bob Allison vs. Elston Howard

1960 – Willie Mays vs. Dick Groat

1961 – Mickey Mantle vs. Roger Maris

1955 – Willie Mays vs. Roy Campanella

1958 – Mickey Mantle vs. Jackie Jensen

1953 – Duke Snider vs. Roy Campanella

1955 – Mickey Mantle vs. Yogi Berra

1952 – Jackie Robinson vs. Hank Sauer

1951 – Jackie Robinson vs. Roy Campanella

The biggest victims jump right out immediately given their clustering on the page. Two-time MVP Willie Mays was robbed of four more over a full decade of dominance. The other greatest Giant, Barry Bonds, was robbed of three more that would have given him an unbelievable 10 trophies over his career. Mays’ contemporary over in the AL, Mickey Mantle, was robbed of three, including two that were given to his lesser teammates.

Trout has been compared to at least a couple of those guys, and his career is starting out just like theirs—impressive, yet largely unrecognized in the postseason awards.

***

But what specifically is the cause? Before even seeing the names, we went into this exercise wondering what these robbed players might have in common, and whether there was any characteristic we could isolate that voters tended to either react badly to or ignore in snubbing these players.

We went into it with five hypotheses from myself and the editors:

  • Players robbed of MVP awards were on bad teams
  • They played challenging positions that they weren’t given credit for
  • They walked a lot, and this went unrecognized
  • Their value was piled up in defense and baserunning
  • They were young, and voters don’t like giving the award to young players

These five didn’t all hold true, but there are clearly some patterns in the writers’ voting—and even with only 25 pairs of players, some statistically significant ones.

1. Were players robbed of MVP awards on bad teams?
Actually, they were on very good teams, which appears to be the first blow to the hypotheses. The 25 players who were robbed of MVP awards were on teams that averaged 92 wins. So it’s not just the guys on 2013 Angels-like teams who are getting overlooked in favor of players who played with teammates of the caliber of Cabrera’s.

However, that’s not the whole story. The 25 players who won the award over them were, on average, on great teams. Here’s the first of a few tests of significance (t-tests) for these samples.

Of the 25 players robbed of MVP awards:

Six were on better teams than the MVP’s
Six were on teams with the same record as the MVP’s (mostly teammates)
13 were on worse teams than the MVP’s

Average win total of players robbed: 91.88
Average win total of those 25 MVPs: 97.76
p=.012 – Reasonably significant

Voters will often admit that team accomplishment—often disguised as “playing in high-pressure games”—had something to do with it, but there are hidden biases ahead.

2. Are there positional biases?
Oh, absolutely. It’s no coincidence that Mantle and Mays were Trout’s forerunners in the biggest part of the pasture. Center fielders have come out on the wrong side of these anti-evidence decisions 11 times and have never benefited from one.

Position

C

1B

2B

3B

SS

LF

CF

RF

Robbed

0

3

2

2

2

4

11

1

Undeserving MVPs

5

6

0

4

4

2

0

4

Contrary to the hypothesis, it’s not really true across the spectrum that voters don’t value premium defensive positions. There have been more undeserving winners at shortstop than there have been players robbed at shortstop. Same thing behind the plate, by a huge margin.

Now, there’s a possibility that the voters have been right, that none of the three major value metrics has been putting the right numbers on catchers’ huge defensive value and that all of them have been overrating center field. But there’s obviously a huge disconnect historically between how the statistical community sees center field and how the voters do, and that’s not going to help Trout either.

3. Do walks go unrecognized?
Not surprisingly, yes, and this will hurt Trout once again as the American League walk leader. Voters don’t seem to have much interest in bases on balls, while the value metrics love them.

Of the 25 players robbed of MVP awards:

22 had a higher walk rate than the MVP
Three had a lower walk rate than the MVP

Average walk rate of players robbed: 14.98 percent
Average walk rate of those 25 MVPs: 10.13 percent
p=.00001 – Very significant

4. Is the value loaded up in defense and baserunning?
Ben Lindbergh posed a variation of this question to add to the list, and it’s an interesting one (not just because he’s my boss.)

Just like we didn’t expect voters to value walks or necessarily know how to adjust for position, it can be easy to ignore defense and baserunning in the face of offensive mismatches. This certainly happened in the KO that was Cabrera-Trout I.

Using our BRAA statistic in conjunction with WARP, the robbed players’ batting accounted for approximately 66.9 percent of their value, while the undeserving MVPs’ batting accounted for 69.0 percent of their value. While this isn’t a huge difference, and isn’t something that’s noticeable to the naked eye or that I would consider “loaded up,” it is indeed in the direction we would expect.

5. Is there ageism in MVP voting?
Sam Miller wanted to know this one, and if you’ll allow me to quote his email:

Age age age! My hypothesis last year was that Trout lost entirely because of his age, and that had McCutchen had Trout's year and Harper won the Triple Crown, McCutchen would have won the MVP. I have no idea if this is true, so I'm glad you're going to tell me.

I don’t know about the McCutchen-Harper hypothetical, but it does appear to be true in our most egregious examples that the voters have favored the older player. The robbed players were on average more than a year younger than the undeserving MVPs, which is a big difference with these small deviations around players’ general peaks.

Of the 25 players robbed of MVP awards:

13 were younger than the MVP
Three were the same age as the MVP
Nine were older than the MVP

Average age of players robbed: 27.68
Average age of those 25 MVPs: 29.12
p=.038 – Reasonably significant

Often, there are multiple factors at play, and I must admit that there’s some potential for confounding variables here, so this hasn’t been statistically rigorous. There is a correlation between youth and playing center field, for instance, so those factors can get in the way of each other.

Just like Trout is nine years younger than Cabrera, a 24-year-old Mays should have beaten a 33-year-old Campanella in 1955, but he had to wait his turn for a second MVP. And besides, the Dodgers had overtaken the Giants that year and this was the 1950s, when catchers were hoarding MVPs and outfielders largely need not have applied.

Mays should probably have three times the MVP awards that he actually retired with, and there’s a good chance we’ll say the same about Trout someday. There is no Triple Crown to contend with this year, but history tells us there will be plenty working against him.

Notes:
Team win totals were adjusted to 162-game seasons before 1962 and in strike years
Disclosure: I am a BBWAA member and have voted on one MVP ballot ( 2012 NL).
Thanks to Andrew Koo for research assistance.

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

Related Content:  MVP,  Mike Trout,  Bbwaa,  Most Value Player

42 comments have been left for this article.

<< Previous Article
An Agent's Take: Appro... (11/14)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Skewed Left: Shane Vic... (10/25)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Skewed Left: My Column... (11/21)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Perfect Game Presents:... (11/14)

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
Fantasy Article Free Agent Watch: Week 25
Fantasy Article They Hold No Quarter: Outfielders
The BP Wayback Machine: The Many Moments of ...
Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: Small Moves That Might Ma...
Premium Article What You Need to Know: September 18, 2014
Premium Article Pitching Backward: Big Situation James
Painting the Black: The Plightin' Showalters

MORE FROM NOVEMBER 14, 2013
Premium Article Perfect Game Presents: Before They Were Pros...
An Agent's Take: Approaching the Offseason
Premium Article One Move: National League East
Fantasy Article Fantasy Team Preview: Oakland Athletics
Premium Article Minor League Update: AFL and Winter League R...
Internet Baseball Awards: AL Player of the Y...
Internet Baseball Awards: NL Player of the Y...

MORE BY ZACHARY LEVINE
2013-12-12 - Premium Article Skewed Left: A Cooperstown Party Like it's 1...
2013-12-05 - Premium Article Ask the Industry
2013-11-21 - Premium Article Skewed Left: My Column: The Jokes the Intern...
2013-11-14 - Skewed Left: Why Deserving MVPs Don't Win
2013-10-31 - Premium Article Playoff Prospectus: Boston's Fast Track to S...
2013-10-25 - Premium Article Skewed Left: Shane Victorino and the Hunt fo...
2013-10-24 - Premium Article Playoff Prospectus: What the Media Asked the...
More...

MORE SKEWED LEFT
2013-12-19 - Skewed Left: The Company They Tweet, The Seq...
2013-12-12 - Premium Article Skewed Left: A Cooperstown Party Like it's 1...
2013-11-21 - Premium Article Skewed Left: My Column: The Jokes the Intern...
2013-11-14 - Skewed Left: Why Deserving MVPs Don't Win
2013-10-25 - Premium Article Skewed Left: Shane Victorino and the Hunt fo...
2013-09-26 - Premium Article Skewed Left: The Canadian World Series Droug...
2013-09-19 - Premium Article Skewed Left: Danny Valencia and the Orioles'...
More...

INCOMING ARTICLE LINKS
2013-11-21 - Premium Article Skewed Left: My Column: The Jokes the Intern...
2013-11-15 - BP Unfiltered: Weep, Mob, For the Downballot...