After decades as a baseball fan, I still can’t figure out what the hell the Most Valuable Player Award is supposed to be. Maybe that’s the charm of the award: every season, it means something a little bit different. In some years, it’s for the player who had the best season. In others, it’s for a player who is the most inspirational. Some years, it’s for a player who flashes a lot of leather. Sometimes, you have to be on a contender, and sometimes you don’t.

First and second place

This year’s voting, it would appear, came down to raw counting stats. As Rany Jazayerli suggested in a BP e-mail exchange on the award, it seems that Runs Batted In was especially important in the minds of voters. The one-two-three finishers in voting were also one-two-three in RBI. Ryan Howard drove in 149 runs to Albert Pujols‘ 137, and Lance Berkman‘s 136.

If voters are going to put all their eggs in one basket, they’re going to need to dig further down into that basket. If that basket is going to be RBI–as it too often is–then attention must be paid to how the players arrived at their RBI figures. For instance, Howard batted with more men on base than anybody else in the National League: 509. That’s over 80 more than Pujols and Berkman, 99 more than fifth-place vote getter Miguel Cabrera, and 132 more than fourth-place finisher Carlos Beltran.

Was Howard especially proficient at getting men home? Not really. He was 15th in the league in the percentage of ROB (Runners on Base) that he drove in. Had Berkman (2nd in percentage of runners driven home) and Pujols (3rd) come to the plate with as many men on base as Howard had, they would have each amassed 154 RBI at their rates of runners driven in. Cabrera, the best in the league at delivering baserunners, would have had 135. Beltran (4th) would have had 143.

In terms of VORP and EqA, Pujols finished higher than Howard (85.4 to 81.5 in VORP, .346 to .337 in EqA), but not so much higher that it would make you want to scream about their placement in the voting. What really separates them, though, is their fielding stats. Playing the same position, Pujols logged an FRAR/FRAA of 25/15 to Howard’s -5/-15. The massive difference between them as fielders helped put a sizeable gap in their WARP1: 11.9 to 8.6.

Third Place

Berkman was a surprising third-place finisher, ending up on 21 ballots in that position. I sometimes think the MVP vote reflects how much a player acts as the sole supporter of an otherwise anemic team. Aside from the RBI situation described above, there must be some of that in play as far as Berkman is concerned. While Beltran and Cabrera had better seasons, they did so on clubs with more individual quality company than Berkman had. Only one other Astro had a VORP over 20, that being second-half hero Luke Scott at 29.9. I think that sometimes voters look at that sort of thing and contemplate the team’s ill fate without the player. I’m going to assume that was working in Berkman’s favor. Of course, to a lesser extent, the same was true of Pujols, and it wasn’t enough to carry him to the top.

Best seasons not getting any vote recognition

Brian McCann, Braves: 54.8 VORP. You can picture a voter rationalizing a down-ballot vote for Paul Lo Duca of the Mets. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. At least McCann can comfort himself with the fact that no other catchers got votes.

Nick Johnson, Nationals. 51.0 VORP. He had an EqA of .325, or 25 points higher than the sixth-place vote getter, teammate Alfonso Soriano. Nevertheless, he did not appear on a single ballot. Johnson’s WARP1 of 8.4 was just a bit below that of winner Howard’s 8.6.

Hanley Ramirez, Marlins. 54.9 VORP. Let’s assume that the two voters who put Aramis Ramirez eighth and ninth thought they were voting for Hanley. At least he got the ROY hardware.

Least worthy seasons getting vote recognition

Nomar Garciaparra, Dodgers. He appeared on a total of nine ballots, and was placed as high as seventh on two of them. Garciaparra missed 40 games, and played a corner position with no measurable defensive contribution. His WARP1 of 3.6 is easily the lowest of any player getting votes, including Trevor Hoffman, a closer.

Carlos Delgado, Mets. Delgado had one of the lowest WARP1s of any vote getter (5.4), and managed to finish 12th in the balloting. Voters will sometimes look at a player coming to a new team and throw him the savior vote. (We all remember the Shannon Stewart voting debacle from 2003.) That’s the only possible explanation for Delgado appearing on as many ballots as he did.

Jose Reyes, Mets. This is not saying he didn’t deserve down-ballot consideration, but among top 10 vote-getters, Reyes was the lowest-rated in terms of WARP, and it wasn’t close. He finished seventh in spite of being left off of 10 ballots. This was mostly on the strength of one third- and one fourth-place vote.

Other choices of note

  • Miguel Cabrera left off a ballot: If I were in charge of a sports desk at a newspaper in a major league city, I would have serious reservations about having a writer on my staff who didn’t think Cabrera was one of the 10 most valuable players in the league in 2006.
  • An eighth-place vote for Carlos Beltran. Again, I don’t see how it’s possible to examine all the evidence and not conclude that Beltran belongs in the top five. As with Cabrera, I have serious reservations about the analytical skills of the voter who made this choice.
  • A seventh-place vote for Chris Carpenter: This is intriguing, because nobody else saw fit to include Carpenter on their ballot, yet one voter had him ahead of three other players. I’m not totally dismissing the choice, just calling attention to its incongruity. Also, Bronson Arroyo got something in this ballot that he didn’t get in the Cy Young process: a vote.
  • Ten eighth-place votes for Chase Utley: I love when stuff like this happens–votes piling up in a single down-ballot spot for one guy. It seems randomly premeditated. If there was an Eighth-Most Valuable Player Award, you’d get a lot less consensus than you do in the regular MVP. As it turned out, Utley finished eighth (he was named on more ballots than Jose Reyes and Alfonso Soriano who finished ahead of him), which sounds about right to me.
  • The showing of Trevor Hoffman: I’m not going to get into the value of a man who throws 63 innings versus those who come to the plate 700 times. I’m also not going to argue that Hoffman wasn’t the most effective reliever in the league in 2006. He was–at least by WXRL. The thing of it is, though, he wasn’t that much better than the next two finishers in WXRL, Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito. So, if you’re a voter who places Hoffman fourth, fifth or sixth, how do you not find room for Wagner or Saito further down on your ballot? If you’re somebody who believes that the best reliever in the league deserves to be fourth in the MVP voting, shouldn’t you also believe the second-best reliever should be ninth or 10th?
  • Nomar Garciaparra on more ballots than Rafael Furcal: Obviously, voters should put more effort into casting their win, place, and show votes than they should with their down-ballot choices. Still, one way to make sure there is a logic at play at the bottom of the ballot is to consider the relative worth of teammates. Then, this question can be asked: “Am I placing these teammates in the correct order?” For the voters that considered the Dodgers, the answer for a handful of them was “no.” Apart from showing up for work a lot more often, Furcal had a better season than Garciaparra by most of our metrics. There is one where he didn’t though, and that might be the root of the valuation of Garciaparra’s 2006 season. Garciaparra had the fifth-best percentage of driving in ROB in the league, just behind four of the top five finishers in the MVP voting.
  • Freddy Sanchez finishing ahead of Jason Bay: Realizing that we’re talking about four votes here out of a possible 320, it seems strange that a voter would look at the Pirates and choose Sanchez’s season over Bay’s. Aside from the batting title thing, Bay had better traditional stats. His advanced metrics were far superior as well.

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