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November 19, 2008
The Tool of Ignorance
On Tuesday afternoon, the Baseball Reporters Association of America announced that Dustin Pedroia had won its American League Most Valuable Player award, the last of the BBRAA's eight awards for the 2008 season.
Before we go any further, let me make this point: "Reporters" and "BBRAA" are not terms of derision, but rather of description. Last winter, when deciding who to admit and not admit to its ranks, the organization drew a line that made it clear that it was an organization of reporters, and that it existed to facilitate access to parks and personnel, to ensure that those people for whom that access is important had an advocacy group.
Now, in practice, it looks a little bit different. You can be a beat reporter and not be allowed to be a member, as the talented staff of MLB.com knows too well. You can also be an editor, or cartoonist, or general columnist, or statistician, or a guy who once wrote about baseball, or one who does so as often as I write about NASCAR, and have a card. The standards for members once they're inside the group seem to involve the ability to grow fingernails, while the standard for new members now involves a number of tests that may continue to evolve, but which have less to do with baseball writing and more to do with baseball quote-gathering.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this; the organization can admit anyone it wants to based on the criteria that it defines. What it cannot do, however, is lay claim to the word "writer." You can be a professional baseball writer while defining your job in a way that doesn't involve passing on the banalities of ballplayers, or running sourceless rumors, or doing soft-focus features that make it easier to get those banalities and rumors. The job of being a baseball writer is not so limited in the year 2008 as to exclude many people for whom access to parks may well enhance their ability to do their job, but who, even if it doesn't, nevertheless should be brought under the organization's umbrella. The informed-outsider position is in some ways superior, and in some ways inferior, to the insider one, but it is no less qualified for its status as "new."
Until all professional baseball writers (where "professional" meets reasonable objective standards) are invited into the club, and until the standard for inclusion is something other than "do you take down quotes," I reserve the right to call the organization what it has aggressively defined itself as: the Baseball Reporters Association of America. I do so not to be snarky or insulting, but to make the point that the group aggressively excludes baseball writers for whom reporting is not a central or even tertiary part of their job description, but who nonetheless meet every other possible standard for inclusion.
The debate about who to include leaks into the awards that the organization hands out, and into the coverage of those awards. See, they end up being more about journalistic concerns than evaluative ones. If the people who will actually get the hardware this year are by and large the right guys, it doesn't take much of an examination of the votes to see that the narrative, the story, is more important to the voting pool than an accurate evaluation of the players. It also doesn't take too much digging to find out just how hidebound some of the voters are. In the same breath in which they deride the analytical approach and the accurate metrics that have come out of it, they will justify their own vote by pointing to a number or three, generally the same numbers that have been proven to be disconnected from performance and value a hundred times over.
Ignorance of new ideas, generally a good way to become obsolete in any field, actually allows you to call yourself a maverick in the world of baseball reporting. I do not understand this, and at this point, I don't even hope to change it. I'm just waiting for evolution to run its course.
Anyway, here's a wrap-up of the eight votes. As Greg Spira pointed out, this was the first time that the eight BBRAA award winners matched the eight Internet Baseball Awards winners. It's not clear to me what, if anything, that means.
Managers of the Year
They landed the right guys, more or less, in weak fields. The Manager of the Year award is ill-defined, and seems largely to be a matter of working down a list. "Did a playoff team come out of nowhere?" "If no, who was the best team in the league?" "If that team is always good, or the answer to that question is unclear, what team was perceived to have overachieved the most?" I've never seen any evidence at all that the managers' processes are evaluated, so a guy who manages a bad team to a less-bad record-I'm thinking of Manny Acta last year here-has no chance even if he manages better than anyone.
Joe Maddon was always going to be the guy in the AL, and rightfully so. While the work of the front office was key in Tampa Bay's turnaround, Maddon did work around a lot of in-season injuries, got good work from his bench and bullpen, and, for whatever it's worth, he showed a thoughtfulness about the game. He also intentionally walked Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded-no one's perfect. The down-ballot results reflected the weak year in the AL, with the answers to questions number three and number two above filling the next two spots. I'm hard-pressed to find exactly what Ron Gardenhire or Mike Scioscia necessarily did this year, and it's probably easier for me to find specific things they did wrong that hindered their teams' progress.
In the NL, it was the manager of the best team, Lou Piniella, who was the default pick. Fredi Gonzalez was this year's Acta, managing a flawed team to fringe contention, but only showing up on half the ballots, and finishing just three points ahead of Joe Torre. Three voters thought Torre was the best manager in the NL this season, which is just aggressively ignorant. Torre had an awful year, riding Juan Pierre in the leadoff spot for 10 crippling weeks, running Russell Martin into the ground, and managing a team expected to win 85 games to 84. The best thing Torre did was change divisions and end up standing there when Manny Ramirez moved to the weaker league, and he even almost screwed that up, taking five days to figure out that maybe Pierre and Andruw Jones shouldn't play any longer. Again, though: good narrative.
Rookies of the Year
The winners, of course, were easy to find. Evan Longoria and Geovany Soto got 59 of 60 first-place votes combined. The guy who listed Joey Votto ahead of Geovany Soto, well, you stay classy. Actually, let's also nod to the guy who had Kosuke Fukudome as the second-best rookie in the league, ahead of Votto, Jair Jurrjens, and 15 other players. Remember, folks, these guys are the professionals.
Then again, all of those players are rookies. Edinson Volquez, as you all know by now, was named on nearly 10 percent of the ballots, getting three second-place votes. It's been mentioned to me, explicitly, that citing a knowledge of baseball or a credibility in voting for awards or the Hall of Fame is not a valid argument for inclusion in the BBWAA. Now I understand why.
This has been picked apart by any number of people online, but here's my question: how hard would it be to see the ballot, catch the mistake, pick up the phone and say, "Hey, toolshed, there's this whole other league, and this guy was pitching in it for years. Re-do your list." If you do that, the entire story is... actually, there is no story. It's three phone calls, some private embarrassment and probably a joke that gets retold in press boxes next spring. By allowing the votes to stand though, the organization made itself look incompetent, and forced the three writers into a public shaming.
I'll tell you right now, I think the vote counters missed it. If you look at the announcement on the BBWAA site, there's no reference to the mistake. I think the organization tallied the votes for Volquez, released the results, and not until they were alerted to the problem did they go into spin mode. They could have solved this privately, and it's my opinion that they didn't do so not because they elected not to-when you think of how easy it would have been, how could you not go that route?-but because they themselves didn't see the error.
It kind of makes the biggest mistake in the AL-that at least half the pool thought Alexei Ramirez was better than Mike Aviles-look quaint. My god, that's a huge error. They're direct comps, and Aviles did essentially everything better than Ramirez did. Aviles had a better argument for edging out Longoria than Ramirez had for beating Aviles. Jacoby Ellsbury was also kind of a joke, since he was terrible for five months. Stolen bases, home runs, RBI... these shiny things just aren't going away, and they'll be cited by the voters at the exact same time that they're talking about how baseball is played by people and can't be reduced to statistics.
Cy Young Awards
You can't get too riled up here. In the AL, Francisco Rodriguez didn't get a single first-place vote, which speaks a little bit to the seasons Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay had, and a little to the electorate properly evaluating his performance. On the other hand, three people didn't think Halladay was one of the top three pitchers in the league, and six couldn't accurately identify Jon Lester as the best pitcher on the Red Sox, as Daisuke Matsuzaka was named on that many ballots, and Lester none. At least two voters had Matsuzaka ahead of Halladay. Wins! Winning percentage! It's 1912!
On the other hand, at least four voters had Brandon Webb ahead of both pitchers, and many had him ahead of at least one of them, and that's just wrong. Wins! Winning percentage! We're all lobotomized! It just doesn't seem possible that this message is still struggling to get through to some people: that wins for pitchers are an accounting tool-not a metric or a statistic that measures performance. There have been, and I am not exaggerating, tens of thousands of pieces written explaining that run prevention, strikeouts, walk and home-run rates, and ground-ball rates are how you evaluate pitching performance. These articles have all repeatedly stressed the notion that the "wins" category fills up based on factors out of the pitchers' control, so much so that using that category at all is going to lead you to the wrong place. And yet...
I thought Webb's victories stood out to me more than anything, and Lincecum didn't have the victories. Twenty victories was a big deal. We had a stretch there where no one was hitting 20.
That's Chris DeLuca of the Chicago Sun-Times, as quoted by John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle, justifying not only his decision to list Webb first, but his leaving Lincecum off of his ballot entirely. DeLuca didn't get the memo that starters get not only fewer wins, but fewer starts and fewer decisions these days, in addition to the two dozen other reasons why using wins as a criterion is galactically stupid.
Most Valuable Player Awards
Well, Albert Pujols won, and if he didn't do so in overwhelming fashion, those of us who were screaming for him to win should be happy enough to shut up about it.
You'd think, but frankly, the distribution of votes in the NL looks like something generated by a 20-sided die. Just more than half of the voting pool identified the best player in the league as the league's MVP. One felt he was just the seventh-most valuable player in the league. That was Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, who published his ballot:
1. Ryan Howard, Phil
There's almost certainly a 15,000-word column in just that ballot alone. I'll leave it at this: that ballot is everything that is wrong with the current state of award voting. It weights everything but the measurable performance of the player over the course of the season, including teammate performance, timing of performance, narrative, and as far as I can tell, actual weight. It tried to parse the word "valuable" so finely that it loses all meaning. And it puts Prince Fielder ahead of Albert Pujols, which may be the single worst individual vote I've ever seen.
The staggering dissonance in the voting leaves you speechless. At least 26 writers honestly believed that Ryan Howard was more valuable than Chase Utley. At least four believed that Brad Lidge was more valuable than Utley. Two believed that in a league with Pujols, Utley, Lincecum, Santana, Hanley Ramirez, and a million other guys, that two months' of excellent hitting by a poor defensive left fielder was worth more than all but one player's work over the course of the season. Four felt that 131 innings of excellent pitching did much the same. Two people thought a pitcher who threw 69
If the credibility of the voting pool comes from being at the park every day and the knowledge gleaned from talking to people, I'm comfortable staying as far away as possible. Being that close to the game is clearly causing a break with reality, and that break with reality is now ingrained forever in these votes. It's an abomination, and if the hardware is going to the right person, it doesn't mean that the thought process displayed here shouldn't be picked apart over and over until it's made right.
Ryan Howard was listed first on 12 ballots, in the top three on 26, and on 31 of 32 total, finishing second in the voting. Chase Utley's highest ranking was fourth, he was named on just nine ballots, and he finished 15th in the voting.
Make better decisions.
That Dustin Pedroia won the AL MVP doesn't bother me that much. He wasn't the most valuable player in the league-that was Cliff Lee-but the field was just so weak that no winner was going to be inspiring. It is disappointing to see Justin Morneau dust Joe Mauer so decisively. I know I'm becoming shrill on this, but it's the "stat guys" who are looking at the complete picture of a baseball player and what he does for his team, and the "non-stat guys" who are swooning at home runs and RBI. Until and unless that changes-and again, that's an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one-we're going to get silly award votes. Joe Mauer is the most valuable Twin by any measure that isn't merely a counting stat developed five generations ago.
Not a single person with a vote believed that Grady Sizemore was among the five most valuable players in the league. Just two believed that Lee was. No one thought Roy Halladay was, while 23 thought that Francisco Rodriguez deserved mention.
One last thing:
Hero to the Rescue PA AVG OBP SLG EqA VORP WARP Points Mark Teixeira w/Angels 234 .358 .449 .632 .359 34.9 4.4 1 Manny Ramirez w/Dodgers 220 .396 .489 .743 .398 49.8 5.3 138
The gap in the first seven columns doesn't add up to the gap in the eighth. That difference may encapsulate the problem, and until that problem is solved, this is a broken system.