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November 15, 2013
Weep, Mob, For the Downballot Snub
Good Guy Nick Piecoro yesterday ran a great explanation of his MVP ballot, which included hometown hero Paul Goldschmidt in the second position. That’s quite an honor for Goldschmidt, if not enough of an honor for everybody, and Piecoro is on solid ground with his choices. Nobody else voted for Goldschmidt in the top spot, and the numbers arguably back up that position.
The ballplayer who might deserve a column of explanation—or several—is David Wright, who wasn’t named on a single ballot. He was the 11th best player in baseball, fifth best in the National League, by WARP. Fangraphs WAR didn’t favor him so fondly, but Baseball-Reference rated him ahead of third-place finisher Yadier Molina.
Doesn’t matter, and Wright might not have even noticed, but for all the attention paid to who wins, who gets first-place votes, who gets downballot votes, we mostly ignore who doesn’t get downballot votes. Coupling this question with Zachary Levine’s piece yesterday on the reasons snubs get snubbed at the top of the ballot, let’s see if the same reasons apply for downballot snubs. The past 15 Best Players Who Didn’t Get A Single Vote:
2013: Wright, 11th in WARP. (All WARP leaderboard ranks are MLB-wide.) Wright only matches one of Levine’s snub factors--losing team, though my guess is that team success matters less the lower down most voters’ ballots you go. He’s badly hurt by a factor that Levine didn’t look at: He missed time. Obviously, missed playing time hurts player value, but we’ve already established his value; the missed time becomes irrelevant, except to voters, who probably double-ding players for it.
2012: Austin Jackson, 11th in WARP. Jackson’s a center fielder. Levine found that 11 of the 25 most egregious snubs were center fielders, and none of the 25 most egregious snubs were snubbed for a center fielder. Add in that Jackson’s value comes from a +8 FRAA, and this fits snugly with Levine’s conclusions. Jackson is 13th in baseball in rWAR during his career, and has yet to appear on an MVP ballot.
2011: Mike Napoli, 15th in WARP. Napoli wasn’t too young, good at defense or baserunning, on a bad team, or playing an overlooked position. He walks, but not an obscene amount. Napoli, like Wright, was stung by low playing time. He has also never received an MVP vote. Catcher with the same career OPS+ as Jim Rice.
2010: Alexei Ramirez, 10th in WARP. Ramirez got an overwhelming amount of value from baserunning and defense, a snub predictor in Levine’s piece. Not only was it overwhelming; it was out of character, with a +20 rating at shortstop (he’s +4 in the rest of his seasons combined) and +6 on the bases (next-best season: +1.9).
2009: Shin-Soo Choo, 10th in WARP. Choo’s Indians finished in last place.
2008: Curtis Granderson, 16th in WARP. Granderson’s Tigers finished in last place, and Granderson plays center field.
2007: Corey Hart, 20th in WARP. Huh. Hart’s team wasn’t terrible, he didn’t draw walks, he appeared at center field but only occasionally, he played a full season, he--oh, there it is: +18 defense in right field. It also might have hurt that he was, not young, but new. First full season. Can’t be a leader in a first full season, dummies.
2006: Scott Rolen, eighth in WARP. Our first single-digits snub. Sort of an odd one, too. The only flag is his +12 defense, but that’s what Rolen always did, and he got plenty of votes in his career. He plays a position that is overrepresented, and he was old enough to get votes for his veteran presence alone. Can’t even blame it on a vote-splitting situation, as only one Cardinals’ position player got votes, despite St. Louis winning the division. Let me go look at Zachary’s list again. Nope. Weird.
2005: Rafael Furcal, seventh in WARP. Our new best snub, and he plays a position way overrepresented in voting, and he did it while staying healthy all season for a division winner, not walking all that much, not being young, and … putting up a +21 defensive season. A +21 season that didn’t win a Gold Glove, so by one measure went unnoticed. Hypothesis continues to hold up.
2004: Brad Wilkerson, 11th in WARP. Walked a lot, on a last-place team.
2003: Mike Cameron, 16th in WARP. Played center field, +30 runs via defense and baserunning, drew loads of walks, and often (though not this year) on bad teams. Zachary might have had Cameron in mind when the idea for the piece came to him.
2002: Jacque Jones, 10th in WARP. Only red flag is +25 runs on defense and baserunning. Still a weird one. I mean, yes he was good at fielding and baserunning, but so are a huge number of MVP candidates who get a huge number of votes. No other snub flags for Jones.
2001: Eric Chavez, 17th in WARP. Young: 23. That’s it. That’s the only explanation.
2000: Troy Glaus, sixth in WARP. A new best snub, and this one is both super weird and super predictable. He led the league in home runs. He led the league in home runs. He was a third baseman who slugged over .600, scored 120 runs, even stole enough bags to make him useful in five categories of most beat writers’ fantasy leagues. And not a single vote! But he was only 23; he had more walks than RBIs; he was a suspicious +17 defense, almost completely surrounded by negative ratings the rest of his career; his team barely finished over .500 (though it did finish over .500).
1999: Andruw Jones, second in WARP. Second in WARP! He was just 22 (strike), played center field (strike), and measured out at +39 FRAA (!!!!!) that year. If you were a voter at the time and all you knew was that he was pretty good at defense--say, adding five or 10 runs to the abstract value you can’t yet calculate but intuit--he’d have been about a five-win player, good enough to make ballots but not automatic.
So, we’ve got mostly center fielders getting snubbed, mostly defenders, a few young players and a few players on losing teams. We can add partial playing time to the list, which wouldn’t have been on Levine’s radar because it’s a lot harder to merit first-place votes while missing 50 games than 10th-place votes. Third basemen move from overrepresented at the top of the ballot to underrepresented at the bottom. Walks don’t seem to be a big factor, though it pops up.
I checked this against the 1970s to see if it was different, and the main consideration for voters then was “Are you Darrell Evans?” Evans was the best player not on a ballot in 1975, and he was the best player AND not on a ballot in 1974. Really, he led baseball in WARP and didn’t get a single 10th-place vote.
The most interesting thing is that we’re living in a sorry era for downballot contenders. Starting in 1969--chosen because it’s post-expansion, post mound lowering--the average ballot over an eight-year period had 31 names on it. The average over the past eight seasons is just 26. And I said that was the most interesting thing.
Note: Pitchers were excluded from this. Trying to analyze pitchers in MVP voting would be way too disorienting. Including pitchers in this exercise would be like making a list of the best books ever written while simultaneously acknowledging that we probably live in an infinite multiverse in which every combination of words has been written, infinite times.