September 20, 2009 at 1:33 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Economic Analysis, Quotes, Statistical Analysis
Ken Rosenthal wrote a piece called MVP Award Deserves Robust Debate on September 17th. The point of the piece was not to participate in said debate, but to encourage it. His thesis was that Sabermetricians across the internet are jamming the thought of Mauer for AL MVP down everyone’s throat relentlessly and discouraging debate on the issue. Both Rob Neyer and JC Bradbury (and Bradbury followed up Neyer’s response with another of his own) wrote responses to the article, but Joe Posnanski predictably wrote the best response. However, there is one point that I’d like to bring up. I encourage everyone to catch up with the entire debate, but for brevity’s sake, just read the Posnanski piece and Rosenthal piece (if you have time, the Posnanski one quotes extensively from the Rosenthal making the Rosenthal piece slightly unnecessary). Quoting from Posnanski now:
Here is how Ken leads off the piece:
Joe Mauer is American League Most Valuable Player.
How do I know?
The sabermetric community, through web sites, message boards and blogs, tells me so.
I’m inclined to agree with the choice of Mauer, but that’s not why I’m writing. No, I’m writing because of the cyber-shoutdowns of anyone who offers dissent, anyone who dares suggest Derek Jeter, Kevin Youkilis or whoever is a legitimate alternative to Mauer.
Ken goes on like this for a little while. He gets into some reasonable arguments later about why Mauer is not just a slam dunk MVP (missed about a month with injury, has spent 24 games as a DH, etc). But the point of his piece is not Mauer specifically (he tends to agree that Mauer should be MVP) but to fight back against Sabermetric bullying, I guess. Another quote:
Last I checked, it’s a free country. Last I checked, the MVP is a subjective choice. Yes, voters from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America occasionally screw up. But the beauty of the award, as outlined by the instructions given to voters, is “there is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means.” Which, of course, drives sabermetricians nuts.
The award is not for highest VORP. It is not for most win shares, most runs created, most wins above replacement player. It is for something that no one can quite define, and — goodness gracious! — voters sometimes apply different interpretations from year to year.
Well, I have a couple of issues with what Ken is saying here. For one thing, I don’t think the beauty of the MVP award is that there is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. I don’t tend to find much beauty in ambiguity. I don’t think the statement: “I say the color blue is the best of all colors,” is a particularly beautiful statement just because there’s no clear-cut definition involved. But for years and years, that’s what the Baseball Writers (and I’m part of this) have done. Baseball Writers have determined that there’s no clear-cut definition for value, and as such one year it’s about a team’s performance, one year it’s about RBIs, one year it’s about leadership, one year it’s about pitching well in the ninth inning, one year it’s about the sweet music of clutch performance. I don’t buy it. I’m not saying there’s just one way to judge a player’s value — there are countless ways — but I’m saying that the things it takes to win baseball games do not just change at a sportswriter’s whim. And not all definitions of baseball value are valid or intelligent. Having “that look in the eyes” does not make a guy MVP.
And because of this, yes, I think the award IS for the highest VORP, the most win shares, the most runs created, the most wins above replacement level … and also the best OPS+, the best ERA+, the best Eqa, the best WPA, the best Total Average, the best UZR and however else you want to measure value (even most RBIs, most runs, more home runs, best batting average — if you want those limited stats). Because these are honest attempts to quantify value. Use one of them, use several, use your own stats and observations. But don’t tell me that baseball value — like porn and art — is something you know when you see. That has been the problem for years, this idea that we can just invent our own standards and yardsticks and touchstones because … well, who is going to stop us? No. Value is value. Saying an eight is more valuable than an ace in poker doesn’t make it so.*
*Bill James once made this MVP argument using poker as an example. He wrote how just because a player wins with three eights, that doesn’t make any of those eights as good as an Ace. And I remember sending him a devil’s advocate email saying “But in that particular poker hand, where the player wins with the 8s, doesn’t that mean that the 8 IS actually more valuable?” And he wrote back asking the perfect question: “OK, which of the three 8s is most valuable then?”
My issue here is that Joe and Bill, for that matter, try to use a metaphor that doesn’t quite work. Plus they’re slightly on the simplistic side.
I look at baseball and see a business. Everything is economically motivated. Therefore, to me, the most valuable player should be given to the most valuable player. Again, this metaphor is too simplistic to be applicable here, but if you have two eights and your opponent has an ace, you win the hand. Therefore, the ace is of zero value. Of course, in baseball this Ace would be worth money, because people would buy his jerseys, come to the games to see him, etc. But in poker–and this is why the metaphor doesn’t work–the ace is completely worthless against two eights. Because, when it’s all said and done, the guy with the 2 eights wins the hand. Alone, each one of these eights has less value than the Ace. But that’s just it. If you don’t consider the context of the card, you can’t get a true sense of it’s value. An eight with an eight is more valuable than an ace. The presence of that other eight makes it more valuable to the card player. The same is true in baseball.
What is Albert Pujols worth to the Washington Nationals? Well, let’s see. He’s an 8.1 WAR player, clubs pay $4.5 million per WAR, so he must be worth $36.45 million dollars, right? Wrong. Do you know why? Because even with the presence of Albert Pujols, the Nationals are still a sub-65 win team. Adding 8 wins to 50 doesn’t help. What’s the difference in 50 and 58 wins to the Washington Nationals? Nothing. And again, this is an over-simplistic metaphor because of the fact that the presence of Albert Pujols would be worth something to the Nationals, be it ticket sales or jerseys or whatever.
I have a hard time justifying the use of things a player alone can’t control, like ticket sales and team’s results, in something as important as baseball’s MVP award, but that’s what we’re dealing with here, aren’t we? I mean, you defined the award as the most valuable player. And though there are plenty of honest and fairly good attempts to quantify this value–VORP, Win Shares, WAR, etc.–you really don’t have any idea how valuable a player is until you consider the context. No man is on an island. The whole is more valuable than the sum of the parts.
Things like playing for a contender, being a fan favorite, and various other things that the player largely has zero control over, do matter. Perhaps if the award were given to the best player the use of various metrics alone would be enough criteria to come to a conclusion with. Such is simply not the case.
My bigger issue with Ken, though, is his bashing of the Sabermetric community for pushing Joe Mauer. He seems to be making the point that now the Sabermetrics are so engrained in baseball and in the media that people don’t have to shout down the mainstream media, they don’t have to push Mauer with such bullying force, they don’t have to act like the brute squad from The Princess Bride. Thus the: “Last I checked, it’s a free country,” bit. It strikes a fun image of stat-heads holding mainstream media members hostage with slide rulers and mechanical pencils.
Trouble is: It’s nonsense. I don’t buy that Sabermetrics are much more respected inside the game now than ever before. And I don’t buy that statistically inclined bloggers are the new power structure in baseball. The mainstream media is still, you know, mainstream. I don’t know how many television and radio announcers use advanced stats. I don’t know how many columnists and beat writers use advanced stats. I don’t know how many scouts and baseball executives talk about stats. But when I go from game to game on radio or TV or read my favorite newspapers, I don’t find myself bogged down with a lot of numbers, to say the least. I’ve got to believe that Ken’s whole notion that baseball bloggers are so powerful and overbearing that they are stifling free speech and people’s willingness to push for Derek Jeter as MVP over Joe Mauer is pretty comical.
I think the power that comes from the best bloggers who use statistics is that what they write MAKES SENSE. It isn’t loaded down with a lot of the myth-making and moral-judgments that some of my least favorite sportswriting has. To me, Derek Jeter isn’t a great player because he can rise to the occasion, because he has this sixth sense out there, and because he plays brilliant defense that is so subtle it does not show up in the statistics. No, he’s a great player because he gets on base, and he hits for some power, and he steals bases at a high percentage of success, and because he is extremely durable at a tough defensive position, and, if you want to get away from stats, because his teammates seem to like and admire him enough that they credit him for much of their own success. The power of the best baseball bloggers is that they try to pierce through vagueness and wave away myth and get at the heart of things. Sometimes, they do. Sometimes, they don’t. But, to a new generation of sports fans, it makes a lot more sense than saying: “This guy’s just a winner.”
Ken wants honest debate in the MVP award … a worthy cause, but this seems an odd year to be demanding honest debate. You have a catcher — and a darned good catcher — hitting .374. He also leads the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He is the best hitter in the league, and he’s a Gold Glove caliber catcher. What honest debate is there to be had? How can anyone be more valuable? You can poke holes in his case — he missed some playing time at the beginning of the year, he doesn’t play for a great team — but I don’t think that’s honest debate. Nobody is close. Derek Jeter’s numbers are dwarfed — even with the difference in playing time. Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis and Kendry Morales are all good hitters and they are all first basemen — quite a different role than a catcher — and Miguel Cabrera might be better than the three of them.
Baseball’s MVP award is probably the most cherished award in American sports (maybe the Heisman Trophy). People care about it, which is a good thing. It seems plain to many of us that Mauer is not only the MVP, but he’s OBVIOUSLY the MVP. And so we say it as loudly as possible. We don’t want anyone to miss it.
Finally, there’s this:
OK, that’s it, end of analysis. I don’t pretend it’s complete. I don’t pretend to know all the answers. I just want to have a nice, civil discussion about a fascinating MVP race, a discussion that includes number geeks sitting in their basements, overworked hacks in press boxes across America and fans of all ages, colors and philosophies.
Ken, I love ya. I do. You’re the best. Please don’t use the geeks in the basement thing. Please. I sense you’re using it ironically here — but the thing is it’s just hackneyed and stupid and just plain horrific. We baseball writers and broadcasters for years have had a monopoly on presenting the game. Pitching was 90 percent of baseball because we said so. Managers needed to bunt more because we said so. Pitchers needed to go nine innings and pitch through pain because we said so. You judged a hitter on his batting average, a pitcher on his victories, a fielder on the number of errors he made, a player on his ability to perform when the chips are down — all because we said so. You know what? We were pretty stupid.
And some baseball fans — for the love of the game — pulled out their calculators, worked on spreadsheets, and tried to figure out what was really happening in baseball. And they still do. Sometimes they’re on. Sometimes they’re off. But they keep trying to see through the smoke. Some get paid, but most don’t. They don’t do it for money or because it’s their job. They do it because they are endlessly fascinated by baseball. That merits respect. And they’re right an awful lot. I learn new stuff about baseball from them every day.
Joe is absolutely right about the rest of the article. This is my favorite quote of the article:
We baseball writers and broadcasters for years have had a monopoly on presenting the game. Pitching was 90 percent of baseball because we said so. Managers needed to bunt more because we said so. Pitchers needed to go nine innings and pitch through pain because we said so. You judged a hitter on his batting average, a pitcher on his victories, a fielder on the number of errors he made, a player on his ability to perform when the chips are down — all because we said so. You know what? We were pretty stupid.
Yep. Pretty much. And finally, Joe Posnanski adds:
They’re right about Mauer too. He’s the MVP by a million miles. If there’s an honest argument to be made for Derek Jeter over Joe Mauer, I haven’t heard it yet.
Which is 100% right.
The piece was brilliantly written and Posnanski is right about the part he attempts to address. My point deviates from his purpose, but it’s valid nonetheless. Unless you consider context, you can’t know value. And that is one of the most overlooked, yet most important, concepts in sabermetric baseball debates.