Friday, August 19, 2011

Old Voting Habits Die Hard

If you consider yourself a vaguely progressive baseball fan - and in spite of our alleged lack of knowledge about the sport and our tenuous grasp of OPS, we'd say we are - then there's a fair bit of satisfaction to be taken from the development of the discussion around the game. It's not to say that the entirety of the baseball world has shifted to a new view of the game, and there are some sticklers who will make the case for intangibles that only they seem able to quantify.

But generally, the old saws have less relevance. The best example of this likely being Felix Hernandez' 2010 Cy Young Award, which he won easily in the BBWAA vote, in spite of months of whingeing and worrying by the Nerditocracy over the reaction to his low pitcher-win totals. When we saw how overwhelming the support of Felix was in the writers' vote, we figured that it augured well for the future of the end-of-season award discussion.

(Actually, there's a contradictory argument that we could make in the case of the Cy Young, which is that the valiant battle of a great pitcher on a bad team has started to be an aspect of the narrative for the winner. Before Felix, Zach Greinke won for the dead last and awful 2009 Kansas City Royals, and Cliff Lee won for the .500-in-the-AL-Central Indians. The last AL Cy winner whose team made the playoffs was C.C. Sabathia in 2007, while the NL went four straight years of awarding non-playoff pitchers before that tall ginger dude with the Phillies won last year. But never mind this for now. Pretend we didn't go here.)

If voters seem to have figured out how to pick the best pitcher in recent years, the path to choosing the Most Valuable Player remains muddied in the axiomatic knowledge of old.

(A quick note on that term, because we use it often: When we say someone is using axiomatic knowledge, we mean that they are basically relying on wisdom which has been carried forth for years, but has not really been examined. So when our financial advisor is saying "It's a good time to buy low", it's because that's the homespun wisdom that was passed to him and to his predecessors for years. And yet, the "buy-low opportunities" are the same. Like the ones that come right before the worldwide debt implosion. But we digress yet again.)

The first and most basic question that writers and pundits seem to ask when talking about the MVP is: "Is his team in contention." They do this because of the notion that if the player were truly valuable or the most deserving of recognition, his team would be in contention. Being good enough to take your team on your shoulders and lug them into the post-season is the single most important determining factor in the selection of the MVP.

It's also rubbish. But what's concerning is how the notion seems to have maintained some currency among people who you would otherwise imagine to be a progressive baseball fan.

A great example of this is the recent "blog entry" (hate that term) by ESPN's Eric Karabell, the host of the Baseball Today podcast. While Eric is a numbers guy by trade (his initial expertise was in fantasy baseball), he quickly falls into this trope when listing out the top 10 choices for the AL and NL MVP races.

In discussing the NL race, this is why Karabell says he knocks back Troy Tulowitzki to third on his ballot:

"Sure, it’s not Troy Tulowitzki’s fault that the Colorado Rockies likely will miss the playoffs, but I can’t vote for him when there are so many other deserving candidates. "

Wait...what exactly? You're saying that he's had a great season, and his numbers bear out his value to his team, and yet others are more deserving because they happen to be playing on a team that is better situated to make the playoffs? With all of the metrics that we have at our disposal - and Karabell snorkels through these numbers daily - you're still saying that the most significant demonstration of individual value is the success of the player's team?

This is particularly loopy when it comes time to look at the AL MVP race. Karabell (and we don't mean to pick on him...he's only the exemplar of the thought process) lists José Bautista fifth on his fictional ballot because:

"...his team is certainly not looking like it will play meaningful October games."

So who jumps ahead of Bautista because of this apparently striking deficiency in his game? Three Red Sox and a Yankee. Players who play in stacked lineups with bats behind them and ahead of them, and who could probably get run over by a truck and still have their team in the race.

But is this not an individual award, and should it not be judged just as the Cy Young has? Why should their middling teams disqualify Bautista or Tulowitzki? Why is an individual award so hung up on the state of the team? Is it Tulo's fault that Jorge De La Rosa got hurt? Or that his team cashed out on the season in July? Is it Bautista's fault that he spent months with Corey Patterson hitting ahead of him and Juan Rivera's remains putrefying behind him?

This is absurd, but the axiom might have been understandable five years ago when we didn't have the immediate access to metrics that attempt to solve the very question of player value. But the bad days are over, and the bright light of reason has allegedly shone through in the form of these metrics, such as Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement. And WAR clearly shows José Bautista at the top of the heap.

Not that WAR (or its predecessor, VORP) are necessarily the final point of analysis. You can probably dig in and find aspects of a player's performance that you'd prefer to emphasize. Still, the entire purpose of that sort of metric is to establish the relative value of players, and to look at it explicitly (as Karabell says he does) and then to make the decision to counterbalance that rational knowledge with some old, chaw-stained notion about what a real MVP should be is the height of incongruous and tortured logic.

There's a lot of writing about baseball. Sometimes, it's okay to let the numbers take precedence over the story you've become accustomed to telling.


William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

So the guy cut his teeth on stats and has a job because of it and now is going to talk about only players on winning teams winning awards? Okay.

Mr. Bautista isn't the clear cut favorite he was a month ago, but he's definitely the start of any conversation.

Tao of Stieb said...

Dropping Bautista to fifth because of the team seems like lunacy. It's a real stretch to do that and bump Adrian Gonzalez ahead of him.


Curt said...

Boo ya Tao! Great article.

Anonymous said...

Bautista still leads in obp, slg, ops, fwar, rwar, hr, isop, and rc. And I don't mean in the AL but in baseball. I'm his ops is 100 pts higher the next guy! Jose is still the clear cut favourite. When are these articles going to be up on sportsnet to help point this hypocracy to a larger audience.

Mike Storeshaw said...

In fairness, if Ellsbury, Pedroia and Gonzalez all got run over by trucks, that playoff spot wouldn't be so certain. 50/50 shot, maybe.

Tom Jackson said...

Coming soon to ESPN, an "investigative report" on Jose Bautista: So what exactly is in that "Booster Juice" that he has an endorsement deal with? Huh? Hmm? Inquiring minds want to know...

... P.S. Vote Adrian Gonzalez for 2011 AL MVP...

...Sarcastic, but not completely beyond the pail no?

rdillon99 said...

Hear, hear.

QJays said...

I think some of the problems with the awards could be alleviated with BBWAA adding awards for top offensive player and top defensive player. These would essentially be comparable to winning the Cy as a pitcher. Then you accept any of the 3 awards winners equally, or any other player, as actually being the "most valuable", which can arguably include factors not considered in being the top in a particular category.

Separately, MVP on a given team should really be about how well the team would have done without the player's contributions compared to with them -- it is nothing short of crazy to award it to a player whose team would have probably made the playoffs without him, especially with all the benefits that come to a player on such a team, such as more PAs against bullpen pitchers, etc.