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

Nov 15, 2013, 5:15 PM EST

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.

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