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Hot Button: Meaning of MVP

Oct 30, 2013, 10:15 AM EDT

David Ortiz AP AP

Question 4. Statement: In baseball, the MVP award unequivocally should go to the best player.

Strongly agree. Of course. What other option is there? 44.8%

Agree. In close races, I might consider team performance and big moments. 40.7%

Neutral. 2.7%

Disagree. “Most valuable” is different. Factors like clutchiness and team performance must be considered. 9.2%

Definitely disagree. Players on bad teams should not win the MVP except in extreme cases. 2.6%

Broken down:

Agree: 85.5%
Disagree: 11.8%
Neutral: 2.7%

* * *

There doesn’t seem very much to say here — this is an obvious case of selection bias. Brilliant Readers of this site are naturally going to lean toward the idea that the most valuable player and best player are, more or less, synonymous. If not, they would probably not be reading this site. If I gave this question to my fellow members of the BBWAA, I suspect the percentages would look a bit different.

So let me touch upon a different topic, one I was thinking about while watching Joe Buck and Tim McCarver call Game 5 of the World Series. It is fashionable this time of year to bash on Buck and McCarver — a rite of the season — and I plead guilty to doing it now and again (and now and again). The point here is not to cover that ground again.* I fully realize that it’s hard to broadcast baseball to a national audience in part because you are dealing with so many different kinds of baseball fans. You can’t please everyone.

*My friend Ken Rosenthal wrote a nice appreciation of McCarver and there is much in there I agree with. And some I don’t. I guess that was the point.

No the point here is to offer an opinion that might sound strange coming from me. But here is the opinion anyway: There are way, way, way too many baseball statistics during a television broadcast. It really does drive me crazy.

I know that opinion sounds utterly insane from a guy who writes way, way, way too much about baseball through statistics. Heck, there will be a bunch of baseball statistics IN THIS POST where I’m complaining that there being too many statistics on television. What can I say? Things don’t always wrap up in neat packages. I love baseball statistics. And I loathe baseball statistics.

It’s convenient for me to say that I love SMART baseball statistics and loathe STUPID baseball statistics, but I know that I’m giving myself way too much credit. Like Sollozzo says in The Godfather: “I’m not that clever.” Sometimes I loathe smart ones, and love stupid ones. The truth, I think, is that it’s much more basic than that. I love statistics that tell me a story. I love statistics that open up the game somehow — even if just opening up the game to arguments. I love statistics that take my mind to an interesting place, remind me of players I had not thought about, transport me to great moments in the game’s history.

And I loathe — utterly loathe — statistics that do none of those things. Al Michaels — who I think is the best to call football games on television — compares broadcasting sports to the connection between lyrics and music. Funny thing, Marv Albert — who I think is the best to call basketball games on television — says almost exactly the same thing. You don’t want a lyric that stops you, that pulls you from the moment, that breaks from the music. And that’s what almost every statistic on television does to me. It pulls me out of the game. I find myself thinking: “Who Cares?” Or: “What does that even mean?” Or: “That doesn’t sound right.”

Give you an example: During Monday’s game, St. Louis’ Matt Carpenter led off the game. They showed a graphic about Carpenter and talked about it for a few seconds. The graphic showed this:.

Matt Carpenter in first 8 postseason games: .100 average.
Matt Carpenter in last 7 postseason games: .300 average.

The idea was to point out — I guess — that Carpenter was hitting better in his last seven games than his first eight. Like a light turned on or something. But of course it actually meant almost nothing. What is eight games? What is seven? This is the ebb and flow of baseball. not any kind of trend, everybody knows that. And the numbers are so small, they bend to the slightest touch. Carpenter grounded out to first immediately after they showed that graphic, and so that .300 average over seven games instantly and suddenly dropped to .290. He struck out looking his next time up, and it was .281. Before the end of the game, its would reach .265. When the sample is so small the numbers blow in the wind.

It feels to me that the broadcasts are overloaded with such needless minutia. You know, Matt Carpenter is the son of a high school baseball coach. He was a high school teammate of James Loney. He had some pretty serious injuries in college. He was a 13th round pick and was signed for $1,000. He was widely viewed as a non-prospect because of his lack of speed and lack of power. He might have been the best player on the St. Louis Cardinals this year.

Seriously … talk about THAT rather than giving us these dreary, pointless, meaningless, dreadful statistics. Talk about how good Matt Carpenter was this year; I don’t think that casual baseball fans know that he should be a legitimate MVP candidate. Or talk about how the Cardinals, after losing the great Albert Pujols in 2011 (just after the Cardinals won the World Series) they went into their farm system and major league bench and pulled out an eighth-round pick (Allen Craig), a 13-round pick (Carpenter), a 23rd-round pick (Matt Adams) and this year scored 21 MORE runs than the did that year.

But no. Instead it’s breaking down Matt Carpenter’s postseason into meaningless bite-sized portions.

Understand the Carpenter stat thing is not just one thing. It’s typical. The stats keep coming in swarms — how this guy won three or his last five starts, how that guy is one for three against a certain pitcher, how this guy had five RBIs in six games, how someone hit .289 against righties after the All-Star break but only .278 against lefties — until my brain desperately wants to go to the Bahamas for a vacation.

And what bothers me most is that I think this is exactly why some people are anti-baseball stats. Heck, when you’re getting those distracting and often misleading stats jabbed in your face nonstop you should be anti-baseball stats. I think that’s why whenever you hear someone doing a satirical baseball statistic to prove what nerds we all are, they will say something like: “Oh, look, David Ortiz is hitting .293 on Tuesday day games against right-handed pitchers and the dew point is 60 degrees or lower and the defending American Idol winner has a T in his or her name.” That’s the cliche. But truth is that nobody who loves baseball stats cares about ANY of that stuff. That just matches the needless stuff they will say on television.

I love baseball numbers. Obviously. Pick a three digit number, any three digit number. Wait I can’t hear you — I’ll pick the first one that comes to mind. Three hundred fifty seven. Good number? You can do this with any three digit number, but let’s go with 357. Ready?

OK, 357. Joe DiMaggio hit .357 in 1941, the year he hit in 56 consecutive games. People still argue about that streak and what it means. It’s a quirky thing, you know? On the one hand, it’s an extraordinary achievement — no one in Major League history has ever come close to matching it. On the other hand, it’s kind of an odd thing to count, number of consecutive games when you get a hit. Whenever I think of that year, I think of a couple of other numbers: DiMaggio hit .408 during the streak. Ted Williams hit .406 for the entire season. I’ve always through that was cool. DiMaggio won the MVP. I think it should be been Williams.

By the way: How much of that 56-game hitting streak’s awesomeness is because DiMaggio did it? What if one of the other guys who .357 in a season had done it? What if it had been Albert Belle in 1994 or Ken Williams in 1923 or Dixie Walker in 1944? Would we view it the same way? I don’t think we would.

Back to the number: 357. Steve Yeager scored 357 runs in his career. Remember Yeager? If your think of him, you probably think of him throwing — what an arm that guy had. Lou Brock called it the best he had ever seen — better even than Johnny Bench’s. Thinking of Yeager makes me think of some of the great catchers arms I’ve ever seen. Ron Karkovice had a gun — remember him? Kirk Manwaring could really throw. Bob Boone. Jim Sundberg. Off the top of my head, here are the five greatest catcher arms I’ve ever seen:

1. Ivan Rodriguez
2. Johnny Bench
3. Yadi Molina
4. Steve Yeager
5. Benito Santiago when he would throw off his knees.

Yeager would catch fastballs from Don Sutton and Tommy John and Burt Hooton and throw the ball TWICE AS HARD to second base. If I remember right, he once had a throw to second clocked at almost 100 mph. He couldn’t hit, but man could Yeager catch. He never won a Gold Glove though. He was overshadowed by Bench and Bob Boone and Gary Carter.

The number 357. That’s how many games Ken Boyer managed in the big leagues. There were three Boyers who played in the big leagues — Cloyd, Ken and Clete — and Ken was the middle one. Well, there were actually 14 Boyer kids who grew up in Alba, Missouri, a tiny place of about 357 people. All seven of the Boyer boys played baseball — four went professional. Cloyd, the oldest, pitched in 111 Big League games, all of them for Missouri teams — the Cardinals and the Kansas City A’s. Len, the youngest, was a third baseman who made it as high as Class AA. The stars, Clete and Ken, were both Gold Glove winning third basemen. Clete couldn’t really hit much but he was a wonder with the glove, one of the best ever defensively. Ken was a fine hitter until he was about 33 — that was the year he hit .295, led the league in RBIs and won the MVP Award. It was probably his fourth- or fifth-best season.

Ken Boyer was so admired that the Cardinals made him their manager in 1978. He lasted those 357 games and was replaced by Whitey Herzog, who would go on to win a World Series two years later. About a month before the Cardinals won the 1982 World Series, Ken Boyer died of lung cancer.

One more 357: That’s how many innings George Uhle pitched in 1923. They called Uhle “The Bull” and there are those who say that Uhle invented the slider. Uhle was one of those people who said that: “It just came to me all of a sudden,” he is quoted saying in the indispensable “Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers.” “Letting the ball go along my index finger and using my ring finger and pinky to give is just a little bit of a twist. It was a sailing fastball, and that’s how come I named it the slider.”

OK, so what’s the point of all that? There is no point, obviously, but do you think I care about the number 357? Of course not. I care about the stories 357 can inspire if you do a little digging. I care about the players who happen to come up when you think about 357. Who are they? How good were they? What did they contribute to the game? At some point during Game 5, David Ortiz reached base for the ninth consecutive time, tying a World Series record. I will admit that I wasn’t listening too carefully, but I thought I heard Joe Buck twice refer to the record without actually saying who held the record. Maybe he did mention that it was Billy Hatcher’s record, but I didn’t hear him do so. I certainly did not hear him expound on it. Maybe I missed it.

And that gets to the heart of things. The fact that David Ortiz tied the World Series record for consecutive times reaching base means almost nothing to me. I already use up way too many gigabytes in my brain remembering goofy baseball records — there’s no room in there for the “most times reaching base consecutively in a World Series” record. BUT I care that he tied Billy Hatcher. Just seeing that name takes me back to 1990 and one of the most preposterous World Series ever. The 1990 Cincinnati Reds were dreadful the year before. They were dreadful the year after. They did not even seem that good in 1990. Back then we only cared about pitcher wins and nobody on the team won more than 15. Back then we only cared about home runs and nobody on the team hit more than 25.

They were supposed to get smoked by the Oakland A’s in the World Series. The Reds, we believed, were a fluke. The A’s, we believed, were a living dynasty. And it turned out the Reds absolutely destroyed the A’s — largely because Billy Hatcher, for two games, proved impossible to get out.

Game 1. Hatcher walked in the first and second on Eric Davis’ homer. Hatched doubled in a run in the third and came around to score. Hatcher Hatcher doubled again in the fifth and came around to score again. Hatcher singled again in the sixth — that was four straight. The Reds won 7-0.

Then, Game 2, Hatcher doubled in a run in the first and came around to score. He doubled again in the third with the Reds trailing by two runs but was stranded. He singled in the fifth and was picked off. He tripled in the eighth and scored the tying run. And in the ninth, of course, the Athletics waved the white flag and intentionally walked Hatcher. The Reds won Game 2. They swept the series. Hatcher hit .750 (and somehow was not named Series MVP — that went to Jose Rijo, who won Games 1 and 4).

See the record doesn’t matter to me. The statistic doesn’t matter to me. Stop giving me statistics. Stop weighing the game down with numbers. Show me something. Tell me something. Take me somewhere. Big Papi has been absurd this World Series. He reached base nine times in a row. Incredible. Has that ever happened before? Yes. Was it a superstar like Papi who did it? No. It was a little baseball journeyman named Billy Hatcher who played for seven teams in 12 years and, for two glorious games in October, was about as good as a player can be. That’s what October can be. That’s what baseball can be.

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