Monday, August 15, 2011

Putting the Value in Most Valuable Player

Since we’ve already ventured beyond the frenzy of NFL free-agent signings and the excitement that there even are free-agent signings but we have yet to see any meaningful preseason action, I will spare you any analysis of such things.

            Instead, I will focus on the waning MLB season, putting my two cents in on the annual debate that generally collects the most pennies, the rightful recipient of the MVP award.  With all of this sabermetric mumbo-jumbo getting thrown around in baseball circles (and, yes, I am certainly a culprit), there has been a lot of discussion about the subjective nature of the assignment of postseason awards.  Now that we have super-statistics like wins above replacement (WAR), why should there even be a discussion?

            I am of the opinion that statistics of that sort have subjective valuations included within them as well, so how much better could WAR be than the good old “eye test,” really?  We should be using stats like this to inform the opinions we devise from what we see during the season.  Just as important, I believe, is that we should properly define what it means to be the Most Valuable Player.  There is something particularly meaningful about the use of the word valuable here.  Some awards, like the Heisman Trophy in college football, reward the Most Outstanding Player, which means that if a guy rushes for 2500 yards and 20 touchdowns, he should be strongly considered for the award regardless of the success of his team.  In the case of the most valuable player, however, we need to consider how much that player is worth to his team.  This also means that we should be equally considering both pitchers and position players.  While many people think that this means that we should not consider players from bad teams, I feel that the opposite should be true; the loss of a great player to a middling-to-good team would be much more traumatic than the loss of the same player from a great team. 

            For example, look at Justin Upton’s 6.0 WAR thus far this season (he plays for the Diamondbacks, in case you weren’t aware – and if you’re a Phillies fan, you’ll be aware this week).  If you removed him from their lineup, the resulting loss of 6 wins would put them 4 games out of first place in the National League West and 6 games out of the Wild Card instead of 2 games up.  Contrastingly, if you removed Shane Victorino’s 5.8 (we’ll round it to 6) WAR from the Phillies, they would still lead the National League East by 3 games.  It is of the utmost importance, in my opinion, to consider the (roughly estimated) impact on the team’s end-of-year success of the player in question, and I feel that this thought exercise is a good way to go about it.

            An important upshot of this idea is that we should automatically disqualify any players from teams that have multiple high-value (say, 5+ WAR thus far) players contributing to their success.  Sorry Red Sox (3 players), Phillies (3 players), Yankees (2 players), and Angels (2 players).  Unless we are faced with a transcendent season by a player on a mediocre team, players on teams that would not show any meaningful decrement (read: massive drop in playoff odds) from their absence should also be discounted.  If José Bautista (and his league-leading 7 WAR) had kept up his home run pace from the first half of the season, he would have been my pick in the American League, but alas I decline. 
So who does this leave?  In the American League, it’s slim pickings.  Of players with 5 WAR or better, we’re looking at Ben Zobrist, Ian Kinsler, and Justin Verlander.

Well, that was easy.  Congratulations Justin. (And there was much rejoicing)

     In the National League, we still have Upton, Matt Holliday, and Ryan Braun.  This is where digging a little deeper comes in handy.  With hitting being so down the last couple years, anyone who can post a .300 batting average while netting 30 homers and 100 RBI has to be looked at as a favorite, so that eliminates Holliday’s current 24 HR / 84 RBI pace.  And when you’re left with two candidates with pretty similar credentials, as Upton and Braun have, in my opinion it comes down to the degree of star power that surrounds you.  This comes back to the value that single player provides to his team such that they would suffer greatly if they were to lose him.

I dare a casual baseball fan to name another player on the Diamondbacks.

National League MVP: Justin Upton
American League MVP: Justin Verlander
Pop Culture MVP: Justin Bieber.  Why not.

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