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I’ve spent some time on the road this week, which is why this is just the
second DP since the weekend. I’m going to be bouncing around the East Coast,
seeing friends and family, for most of the next few weeks, so the column’s
schedule may be even more erratic than usual.

As an aside, if Continental Airlines is looking for a new slogan, I’d be
happy to volunteer this nugget: "Continental: It’s Better Than
Walking."

Back to the diamonds… I’ve probably spent too much time on awards lately,
but let me waste a few more electrons on what I believe to be obvious:
Barry Bonds is the most valuable player in the National League. That
there seem to be more arguments against Bonds than for him drives me crazy,
because we’re witnessing one of the greatest single-season performances in
baseball history, a year on par with Babe Ruth‘s better work.


          AVG   OBP   SLG   AB  2B  3B  HR   BB SB CS   EqA   RARP
Bonds    .307  .489  .818  374  27   1  54  128 10  2  .412  101.2


Bonds has a chance to break the single-season records for home runs, and
walks, the NL single-season mark for slugging average, and has a reasonable
shot at the second-best offensive season in history, behind Ruth’s 1921.
Barry Bonds’s 2001 can be reasonably compared with Babe Ruth’s best season.
That’s about the best single-sentence case for an MVP I’ve ever heard.

Bonds’s primary competition for the MVP award comes in the form of a pair of
corner outfielders also having good years:


          AVG   OBP   SLG   AB  2B  3B  HR   BB SB CS   EqA   RARP
Gonzalez .344  .436  .718  474  26   6  46   66  1  1  .362   73.5
Sosa     .322  .434  .743  444  30   5  49   90  0  1  .370   76.9


Based on performance–just what they’ve done when in the batter’s box–Bonds
is the best player in the league in 2001. He’s hit for more power, reached
base more, and used many fewer outs than the other two players. His EqA and
RARP numbers reflect that superiority: Bonds has been 25-28 runs better than
the other two players, or a bit more than two wins. The gap between Bonds
and these two guys is comparable to the gap between them and people like
Shawn Green and Larry Walker. Sosa doesn’t gain any ground on
Bonds defensively, while Gonzalez may close some of the gap, but not two
wins, or even one.

The case against Bonds, and in favor of the other two, is starting to come
down to two points:

  • The players around Gonzalez and Sosa are better than the players around
    Bonds (building their team-dependent stats, like runs and RBI, and
    increasing their chance of making the postseason).

  • The players around Gonzalez and Sosa are worse than the players around
    Bonds (enabling "analysis" like Jayson
    Stark’s column at ESPN.com
    which uses the players’ run and RBI totals as
    a percentage of the team’s run and RBI totals to conclude that Sosa has been
    the MVP).

The first point, of course, is one we’ve been fighting for years. Runs and
RBI aren’t good measures of performance, not when we have OBP and slugging
average (not to mention more advanced tools). They depend heavily on the
performance of the team around the player, and specifically, on the two
players in front of and behind the player in the lineup. So if Craig
Counsell
plays a lot more than Tony Womack, Luis Gonzalez becomes
a better MVP candidate. It’s a terrible way to evaluate performance.

The second point takes bad tools–runs and RBI–and adds a layer of
complication–long division!–to create something that looks like
sophisticated analysis, but is really just fun with numbers, a freak stat.
Sosa and Gonzalez have a larger percentage of their squads’ team-dependent
stats than Bonds does. That’s not value, that’s accounting. Put together,
this tool seems to say that it’s important for an MVP to have good enough
players immediately surrounding him in the lineup to fluff his runs and RBI
totals, but really bad hitters everywhere else, to keep the team runs down.

Even if Bonds led in the stat, it wouldn’t matter: his performance doesn’t
need to be filtered through the play of his teammates, and it’s only when
the play of those teammates is factored in that the runners-up begin to look
comparable to him. Without using team-dependent stats, there’s no case for
anyone but Bonds.

The other part of this is that the award is almost certainly going to go to
the player on whichever of the three teams makes the playoffs. If all three
go, the award will go to the one who makes it by the smallest margin, unless
that’s Bonds, in which case it’s a tossup between the two more
media-friendly characters. It really doesn’t matter all that much what these
three players do as much as it matters what Randy Johnson and Curt
Schilling
and Jeff Kent and Fred McGriff do. That
statement is 1) accurate and 2) absurd.

It’s the Most Valuable Player Award, not the
Most-Valuable-Player-From-a-Team-That’s-Good-But-Not-Too-Good-And-Provides-Enough-Support-to-Build-Up-One-Guy’s-Runs-and-RBI
Award. By the best measures of performance we have, Bonds is easily the top MVP candidate in the
National League. Denying him the honor, on the heels of the 1998 NL MVP
vote, would make it all the more likely our grandchildren will look back and
wonder what the hell we were thinking.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.

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