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Three thoughts on what ‘valuable’ means (yes, it’s more AL MVP discussion)

Nov 15, 2013, 5:15 PM EDT

miguel cabrera getty Getty Images

So here’s the explanation from Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, who voted Mike Trout 7th on his MVP ballot:

I am a strict constructionist re: “valuable”. If the award were Player of the Year, Trout would get my vote. I’m of the school that in order to have “value” you have to help your team be good, at least to the point of contending. The Angels didn’t truly contend. To fully develop that logic, players from non-contenders should not be listed on the  ballot at all, but the BBWAA insists that we fill out all 10 slots, so I did, even though I did not think there were 10 worthy candidates from contending teams.

OK, three thoughts.

First, I have to say that I respect Bill’s explanation — it’s obvious he thought about his ballot and voted his convictions, and I think that’s the first and most important thing you ask of a voter. I don’t agree with his ballot, of course. I don’t agree with his reasoning. I don’t even think his reasoning is particularly valid since it says clearly on the ballot, “the MVP need not come from a division winner or a other playoff qualifier,” but does not say anything about how you should consider teams on contending teams more valuable.

But Bill is hardly the only person who believes that the MVP should come from a contending team, and he clearly tried to make his ballot reflect that belief not only at the very top but throughout. I respect the consistency of that viewpoint. To be honest, I’m not sure he went far enough. If he was really going to vote this way, he should have voted David Ortiz (8th) and Evan Longoria (10th) ahead of Trout too. They were on playoff teams. Hey, if you’re going to do it, you might as well go all the way.*

*I will say, though, that I can’t quite balance Bill’s uncompromising contender-value philosophy with his decision to vote for Chris Davis OVER Cabrera for MVP. I mean: the Orioles were contenders? Really? You have to stretch pretty far to get there. They were no better than third in the American League East after July 23. They didn’t clinch a .500 record until September 25. They finished ninth in the American League in final record … the Angels finished 10th. So that was a little bit weird.

Second, I find it strange that he says, “If the award were Player of the Year, Trout would get my vote.” That suggests that he really does believe Mike Trout was the best player in the American League this year. I understand that he says he’s a strict constructionist on his definition of value and all that, but I just don’t see how you harmonize those two thoughts: 1. Mike Trout is the best player in the American League; 2. I’m voting him seventh in the MVP voting. Maybe I’m just repeating myself here.

Third, the main thought: I think that I’ve been unfairly blaming too much of this MVP disagreement on the word “valuable.” I have long believed that there was something about the word “valuable” that scrambled people’s minds. I’ve long thought that if the award was simply called “The Best Player Award,” that a lot of this silliness would disappear. But when I read Bill’s quote, for some reason, it hit me all once: That’s probably not true. “Valuable,” the word, has been unfairly maligned and blamed. It’s a perfectly good word. It’s not valuable’s fault.

Bill says he would have voted for Mike Trout had it been called the Player of the Year award. Others have said things like this too. “It’s not Player of the Year,” they say. “It’s most VALUABLE player. There’s a difference.”

OK, let’s pretend we could go back to the beginning and replace “MVP” with “POY.” Would people’s view of the award change? Would there be different winners through the years. I spent too much thought on this and decided: No way. Absolutely nothing would chance. If anything, I think it’s possible people’s view about the award would be even MORE slanted toward narrative and contending teams and so on.

Why? Look at those words. Player of the year. What do you think those words would mean to people if that was the actual name of the award? The word “best” is not in there. If anything that is more vague than Most Valuable Player. I can see the columns in my mind:

“So, you wonder why I voted Miguel Cabrera Player of the Year. Well, it’s right there in the name. It says ‘Player of the YEAR’ That means the player who had the biggest impact on the year. Who is that? Mike Trout? Playing for a team that did not even finish .500? Miguel Cabrera led his team to a division championship. That’s what a Player of the Year does.

“You will hear people say that the award should go to the player with the most value. They will come up with all those “value-based” statistics like VORP and BLURP and MORPY and PAJAMAS. But, notice, the award isn’t called the “Most valuable player” award. That might be Mike Trout. But it says ‘Player of the year.” And this year that’s clearly Miguel Cabrera.”

No, it’s not the word valuable. It comes down to this powerful feeling people have that one player should be able to do much more than one player can do. We like story lines. We like things that add up in our mind. We like to believe that if a player is TRULY great, he somehow will carry his team, any team, to victory — by himself, if necessary. It’s illogical, of course. Baseball is not only a team sport, but a team sport where hitters can only come up once every nine times and pitchers can only pitch once every five days (or for an inning or two here or there). Miguel Cabrera’s team had THREE superb starters (including the first and fourth place Cy Young vote-getters) and a lineup with seven above-average hitters.

But illogical or not, baseball is more fun with the idea that Miguel Cabrera put Detroit on his shoulders and took them to the playoffs while Mike Trout could not do the same in Anaheim. It doesn’t matter if the word is valuable or productive or worthy or crucial. It doesn’t matter if the award is called Most Valuable Player or Player of the Year or American Idol or The Oscar. Miguel Cabrera still would have won.

  1. happytwinsfan - Nov 15, 2013 at 5:24 PM

    joe p, i would really love to read your analysis of the 1940’s mvp debate: williams vs dimaggio. highly parallel to cabera vs trout, player one offensively other wordly, defensive minus, player two excellent but earth bound offensively, excellent but earth bound defensively.

    • erbaodai - Nov 15, 2013 at 7:40 PM

      Williams gets the nod here. Trout and Cabrera were basically neck and neck in hitting, where Williams completely blew DiMaggio out of the water in that department.

    • cohnjusack - Nov 15, 2013 at 8:35 PM

      My favorite stats about 1941:

      During his 56 game hitting streak, DiMaggio hit ..408/.463/.717
      During the entire season, Ted Williams hit .406/.553/.735

  2. NYTolstoy - Nov 15, 2013 at 5:43 PM

    though this is a great article. the thing im wondering is why no one is writing about Andrew McCutchen winning the MVP award over Molina. Is it because they were closer in defensive value? Yet everyone seems to be so caught up on the Meguel Cabrera vs trout argument, no one has written why Yadi lost, just a thought.

    • Detroit Michael - Nov 15, 2013 at 5:59 PM

      It is still so difficult to peg what a catcher’s defensive value is. That makes the facts very fuzzy for any Molina MVP debate.

      • NYTolstoy - Nov 15, 2013 at 8:06 PM

        Is it really that difficult? Just looking at a more broader scope, He controlled every pitch, held base runners. Percentage of passed balls and balls in the dirt which I believe he lead the league again in stopping. How many games played which is border line brutal to your knees. Also percentage on how many base runners caught stealing I believe he was top 3. Then add the total era for pitchers every game he played and see what they stand around the league to other catchers who caught 120+ games a year. Now go on his offensive numbers which were pretty damn good for not just catchers but for any hitter. How with just the basics added up can we not justify a way to say yes his value was high. Even your everyday fan can tell you catcher is the toughest position to play so how can these “pros” not see the same. They are called field generals for a reason.

      • Detroit Michael - Nov 16, 2013 at 9:38 AM

        Yes, it really is that difficult. If you ask analytically-oriented baseball writers how valuable Molina’s offensive contributions are measured in how many wins they generated for his team compared to a replacement level catcher, you would get a fairly clear consensus because we know how to measure offense well. Ask the same question about Molina’s defensive contributions and you would get a wide spread of answers / estimates / guesses. Knowing that catchers are called “field generals” is simply not very relevant to estimating how valuable their defensive contributions are.

      • paperlions - Nov 16, 2013 at 10:45 AM

        Yeah, any person that is analytically oriented will tell you they have no idea how much (if any) Molina’s defense is worth compared to an average catcher. Most will say the “feel” like it is worth something, and most will say that they think catching defense in general is probably under-valued or at least poorly estimated….but you can’t just slap a number on it because you think it is probably worth something. When asked how many runs/wins his defense is worth compared to a replacement catcher, all of them would say that they have no idea….and probably not even guess….unless it was a broad range like 0-30 runs (0-3 wins).

        That is pretty much the point. If you can’t quantify it then you can’t quantify it….what you do not do is make assumptions and assign values based on preconceptions, you just realize that there is error there and that you don’t know its value yet.

      • Detroit Michael - Nov 16, 2013 at 12:02 PM

        That’s right, paperlions. Extending the argument further, because one can’t readily quantify that Molina’s season was better / more valuable than McCutcheon’s season, that’s why the baseball blogosphere doesn’t write about the NL MVP race as much as it does about the AL MVP race. That’s my point.

    • JuniorGriffey'sRecliner - Nov 15, 2013 at 6:48 PM

      Tiebreaker rules say the guy with fewest neck tattoos wins.

  3. slystone111 - Nov 15, 2013 at 6:32 PM

    Strangely, though, it seems to be the opposite with pitchers. For them, putting up good numbers on a bad team often BOOSTS their candidacy. Like it is an extra hurdle they had to overcome.

  4. jc4455 - Nov 15, 2013 at 7:46 PM

    Great stuff Joe, thanks for posting.

  5. alang3131982 - Nov 15, 2013 at 8:42 PM

    How in god’s name is it “obvious he thought about his ballot.” There’s no logic to the thing. If he did indeed spend a considerable amount of time thinking about it, the guy is clearly a moron. How many times did he contradict his criteria? If winning record is important, how is Trout there at all?

    This ballot was clearly lazy, ignorant and stupid. I hope for Bill’s sake he didnt put a lot of thought into it, because if he did, he’s an absolute moron.

  6. Carl Hancock - Nov 15, 2013 at 9:12 PM

    I’m curious as to why the outrage over Trout losing to Cabrera two years in a row… and pretty much no outrage over Yadier Molina not winning in 2013.

    He’s the best defensive catcher in the game. He’s one of the best offensive catchers in the game. Yadier Molina’s mere presence impacts each and every game he starts behind the plate. Does Andrew McCutchen or anyone else in the National League for that matter do that?

    He won a golf glove in 2013. He won the silver slugger in 2013. He was the best player on the team with the best record in the National League and he guided an extremely young and extremely inexperienced pitching staff all the way to the World Series. I’d say all of that adds up to being the MVP.

    But all people want to bitch about is Mike Trout this, Mike Trout that. Cabrera this, Cabrera that.

    Here’s a t-shirt for you: What about Yadi?

    • alang3131982 - Nov 16, 2013 at 10:53 AM

      here’s a t-shirt for you: copy and paste lameness.

      golf glove?

  7. hermie13 - Nov 15, 2013 at 9:33 PM

    Josh Donaldson should have won.

  8. therealtrenches - Nov 15, 2013 at 9:56 PM

    Ballou’s logic is bass-ackwards for one simple reason:

    – no team can make the playoffs without a higher number of above average to excellent players.
    – therefore, no one player on a playoff team can possibly be the “most valuable” to his team, let alone the league.

    One could argue that players who excel on lousy teams are far more valuable to their own teams because their teams need them so badly.

  9. tc4306 - Nov 15, 2013 at 10:01 PM

    You miss the point.
    If it was intended to be “The Best Player Award”
    it would be The Best Player Award.

    It is not.
    It is the Most Valuable Player Award
    The definition of “valuable” is very subjective
    and varies from person to person.
    The published criteria even encourages divergent thinking.

    Why do the stat heads have such a difficult time
    grasping such a simple concept?

    More likely, the do totally grasp it.
    They just want to bleat and pound the rest of the world into submission
    to have it become The Best Player Award.

  10. zimacc88 - Nov 15, 2013 at 10:30 PM

    I’m sure there are better uses for a time machine but I’d like to take one back to the day the guy who invented the term MVP and ask him what he meant by “valuable”. I’d bet anything he’d say ” I meant who is the best player…what else could I possibly mean?”
    This whole argument every time they give out MVP in any sport is so tiresome and ridiculous I don’t even know what to call it.
    Seriously writer/voter…Trout 7th….Davis 1st?!?!?!
    Could you try to be any more self important?

  11. keltictim - Nov 16, 2013 at 7:59 AM

    Using his logic and mine I believe johnny Gomes should have won the MVP since it was his insanity that brought the sox together he was the most valuable player given his salary and what he did for the team. Your honor the offense rests.

  12. dsmaxsucks - Nov 16, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    WPA measures a player’s contribution to chances of winning. Winning being the goal. Davis first in the category, Cabrera second. You may not like the stat, but it aligns nicely with Bill Ballou’s theory. Plus his name is Bill Ballou. He gets slack.

  13. antihypocritz - Nov 16, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    Where can I find the PAJAMAS projections for next season?

  14. moogro - Nov 16, 2013 at 5:24 PM

    Using awards to pile glory onto glory. It’s the power of the Hero Narrative.

  15. delsj - Dec 4, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    Aren’t all awards for union employees based on seniority?

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